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20 Jun 2007 : Column 495WH—continued

There is pressure to move to a call-centre approach. Indeed, that is under way. However, I have received feedback from people who often find that the person whom they get through to on the phone—the calls are answered quite quickly—does not necessarily have the information at hand to be able to offer advice. Even worse, they could be given incorrect advice, which could lead to further work and greater inefficiency. There are therefore problems with the call-centre approach. We must consider, too, issues of accessibility and distance if people need to see someone at an inquiry centre and are successful in getting an appointment. If the closure programme left us with one office, for example, people would have to travel large distances. From Launceston, it is 35 miles to St. Austell—a journey of about 50 minutes—and about 26 miles or so to one of the offices in Plymouth, which is in Devon, on the other side of the
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Tamar river. It is 47 miles to Truro; 52 or 53 miles to Redruth; and nearly 70 miles to Penzance. We are talking about significant distances and inconvenience for people who require face-to-face meetings.

I have spoken about the impact on local businesses and customers of HMRC in Cornwall, but we should explore the impact on the objectives of the Minister and her colleagues. I certainly accept in principle that it is absolutely right for any responsible Government to examine the number of civil servants employed in central and local government, to analyse just what they are doing and to determine whether efficiency savings could be made, thereby bringing down the wage bill and freeing up more resources for front-line services. I am sure that we would all support that approach where it is taken effectively.

People working in HMRC, however, are the very people who raise money for all the services that we want. Those who work in compliance, in particular, return 10 or 12 times their salary through the work that they do, the fraud that they uncover and the anomalies with which they deal. It is important to make the point that those people do not cost money but generate it. If jobs are concentrated in larger urban areas, that will have an effect on the Cornish economy. Moving those jobs is also a bad use of resources, because it is cheaper to accommodate offices in market towns where there is less competition for office space.

If, for example, we ask people who are employed in Cornwall to drive in and out of Plymouth every day when they are offered alternative employment, that would add to the traffic pressure on such cities, and would not offer the sustainable approach that would be provided if people worked in the other population centres around Cornwall. I will draw my remarks to a close soon because my hon. Friends may wish to contribute, and I want to leave the Minister enough time to respond. I understand that pressure has been put on rural west Wales, which is a similar area where closures would have an impact on the economy. The Under-Secretary of State for Wales met the Minister to discuss the effect of proposals in that area and I hope that, whatever measures she is contemplating, when she considers the effects of a closure programme on west Wales, she will consider, too, the effects on Cornwall.

Closing offices in areas such as Launceston would damage the local economy, as jobs and money would be taken out and it would undermine the best efforts of objective 1 and convergence programmes to support and strengthen the Cornish economy. The closures would reduce and worsen the service provided to customers and those people who interact with HMRC daily, and could cost money as a result of the loss both of skilled jobs and of people who uncover problems in tax returns and anomalies. Closures would be damaging for all those reasons and, when the Minister considers what proposals to adopt when the reconfiguration of HMRC takes place, I urge her to examine the Cornish case closely and to do whatever she can to ensure that the effects that I have described do not come to pass.

4.11 pm

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): I am pleased to follow the excellent contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Rogerson). He made an excellent case, and I congratulate him on securing
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this important debate. The issue has led to concerns not just among staff, but among customers of the service in Cornwall and elsewhere.

At the last Treasury questions, I asked the Financial Secretary about this subject and he reassured me that the full review of Cornwall offices would not commence until next year and therefore we must wait and see what happens to reviews in other places. The Government are therefore at least claiming to be listening to the responses that they have received and are adjusting their proposals accordingly. Before that review takes place, it would be helpful if the Department and the Paymaster General reflected on the concerns that have been expressed by my hon. Friends across Cornwall. The staff and trade unions are very anxious about the socio-economic impact of the proposals on the poorest region of the UK—Cornwall—so it would be reassuring if the Paymaster General acknowledged that that factor will weigh heavily in the assessment of the proposals.

There would also be a wider impact on the Treasury itself, and I hope that the Paymaster General will reflect on that. The problem is not unique to Cornwall, although there are unique reasons why it would have a significant effect on Cornwall, where staff reductions and office closures would have an impact on recoverable tax. When considering the nature and structure of businesses and tax paying in Cornwall, we must recognise that there are large numbers—in fact the highest proportion in the country—of self-employed people, and of small and micro-businesses. In such an economic environment, the existence of local tax offices is an issue of particular sensitivity and importance. Given the climate, I hope that the Department will reflect on the impact of closures on the Treasury itself and on its ability to recover tax from the local community.

I have met staff at the Penzance office in my constituency, and they expressed anxiety because the office has been subject to almost perpetual review in the past 10 years. It would be helpful if the burden could be lifted from tax offices after the full review commences next year and if they could be given reassurance about their future. Those members of staff perform excellent work at a very high level and are often recruited to assist in other parts of the country, which may not be reflected in the review that is about to commence. However, consideration should be given to that fact, and those officers should be given not just a clean bill of health, but the support to continue in the future with the proper backing that they richly deserve.

4.15 pm

The Paymaster General (Dawn Primarolo): I congratulate the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Rogerson) on initiating the debate, although, if I may delicately say so, he is a little premature. He may stand up in this Chamber and make statements that local offices collect local tax and give the ratio, but that does not necessarily make those statements accurate. On the whole, there is no correlation between what local offices do and their location, although it is sometimes the case.

The hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) has also pursued this matter, as has the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy). They have rightly been assiduous in raising the issue with me,
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but they need go no further in seeking reassurance that the Government listen when they consult than speak to their hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey). They will then find out what happened in the reviews undertaken in his area. All hon. Members should be interested, regardless of the location of their constituency, in the proposals and the future formation of the merged Revenue and Customs. May I tell the hon. Members for North Cornwall and for St. Ives that the notion that officers in Cornwall have somehow lived under a cloud of insecurity for the past 10 years simply does not stand up to scrutiny, and I shall give two examples to show why. The hon. Member for North Cornwall referred to contact centres, and he will be well aware that one has recently relocated to St Austell and that that guarantees more than 200 jobs. I do not recollect that he was unhappy about that type of job and I do not accept his description of the expertise of our staff in contact centres. I say gently to him that taxpayers increasingly want to contact the Department outside normal working hours, when it is convenient for them to do so, by phone or via the internet. If we are to continue to be a responsive Department that uses its resources efficiently, as the hon. Gentleman rightly identified, it is vital that such a service is provided in an efficient and effective way. The continued collection of tax at the correct level is, of course, part of that process.

The figures on HMRC’s presence in Cornwall show that there has been an increase since 1998 from 417 staff to a headcount now of 781. By any stretch of the imagination, that cannot have led to staff living in insecurity and fearing for their jobs. In fact, jobs have been transferred to the area. The hon. Gentleman is right to point out Cornwall’s importance as an objective 1 area. Let me explain to him how I intend to proceed and how the reviews are progressing, because, to be honest, that will answer many of his questions. I shall address the key commitments in the review programme and the issues facing the Department. Although there are slight variations across the country owing to mergers and changes within the Department, its accommodation is some 40 per cent. over capacity, which means that we are paying for accommodation that we are not using, which does not make sense.

The Department has key commitments on the way in which it works with and supports taxpayers. I shall outline the basics, because they are the ones that the hon. Gentleman touched on, but there are many more. Of course, the economic impact and the likely effect on the local labour market are part of that. There is an absolute commitment to ensure that inquiry contact centres, which are the only part of tax offices providing the type of support and advice that he rightly identified, will be maintained. Staff will not be moved compulsorily from an office before a review has taken place, so there is no need for anybody to feel insecure. No review is going on. We have not started one yet.

Mr. Rogerson: I thank the Paymaster General for the comments that she has put on the record. However, it is difficult for me to take on board her comment that there is no need for people to feel insecure. Clearly, one of the major factors that led to my involvement in this matter and to my visit to the Launceston office, with her permission, for which I thank her, was the fact that some people are highly insecure about the future of
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that office and of their jobs. That is what led to my involvement and to this debate.

Dawn Primarolo: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for saying so, but is it not one of his responsibilities as the local MP to ensure that people do not fear what has not happened? Should he not reassure them, rather than take up and elevate rumours about something that does not exist?

I should like to point out to the hon. Gentleman and to his hon. Friends the Members for Falmouth and Camborne and for St. Ives that there have been no announcements or decisions to close any office in Cornwall. It seems to me that in serving his constituents well, the hon. Gentleman needs to ensure that he gets that message across very strongly. No decisions have been taken, but there will be a review of office space in the county later this year and in 2008, after which there will be a consultation. As a result of that consultation, staff, stakeholders, local authorities, Members of Parliament, taxpayers and their representatives will be asked for their views. The simple fact is that if we are over capacity, we need to know what to do with the office space.

We have a good track record of consulting on our proposals and listening to the public, and I have every intention of ensuring that consultation on the proposals, which will not begin until the autumn, is transparent and reflects the views of the local community, staff and the unions. Their points will be taken on board during the consultation.

Julia Goldsworthy: I would like to follow up the issue of excess office space, as other Departments and local government are looking at it, too. Will the Paymaster General reassure me that there will be cross-departmental conversations to ensure that services are protected and that the Government as a whole use their space efficiently?

Dawn Primarolo: I understand that the Cabinet Office has responsibility for ensuring that that is the case. The hon. Lady is quite right, and her party supports, for instance, the relocation of staff from London and the south-east wherever possible, as well as the efficient use of departmental expertise and of available office space.

There is always the possibility, of course, which has been raised in consultation, of sharing office space, if not between Departments, between Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and local authorities, for instance. We all want to ensure that we maintain the best possible service at the most efficient rate and that, as the hon. Member for North Cornwall quite rightly pointed out, more money is spent on front-line services and perhaps on
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other Departments—I know that people in Cornwall would have a view on which Departments. That is important.

I have asked departmental managers to look at our offices, cluster by cluster, and they have made reasonable proposals. We will put those proposals out to consultation and ask people for their views, rather than act on them immediately. That is not because I do not trust the departmental managers, but because people have their own views on the economic impact of the proposals and about what is happening in particular markets. Of course, the point that the hon. Gentleman made about transport is much more pertinent to some areas than to others. I cannot make a rule that would cover all offices, because clearly it is easier to travel between some offices than between others. However, his point about the difficulties that might arise was well put.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned objective 1 status. In case he thinks that I have forgotten about that, Cornwall is not the only area, but all those things need to be considered. When the results of the consultation are in, I shall publish the response rate and the comments made, as I have done with reviews undertaken thus far, and they will be open to everyone and be circulated to all staff and stakeholders. If the hon. Members submit written submissions, they will be given that information. There will be briefings for the local MPs as well. On that basis, I shall decide with managers whether to vary the proposals.

Andrew George: The Paymaster General is being very helpful, but would she kindly advise me on the criteria that will be used to assess the responses and whether, as I asked earlier, the impact of staff reductions on recoverable tax and socio-economic impacts will be factored into the assessment?

Dawn Primarolo: Yes, socio-economic points will be factored in. However, I should point out gently to the hon. Gentleman—and I will not say of which reviews this been a feature—office staff do not always speak with one voice about their preferred options for the future. There is a belief that there is a united view; there is no such view. Some staff said, “Yes, we would quite like to go and work in that office instead of this one.” Such information will be available in the report on the consultation, although we will not identify the individuals concerned.

The Department will consider its future structure, where particular services are needed and how best to deliver those services efficiently. Hon. Members might find that surprising, but I thought that it was fairer and more transparent to take each cluster, tell them what suggestions have been made, if any, then ask people what they thought of them. In addition, in each office, local managers will conduct meetings and consultations. The staff will have many ways in which to contribute.

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Fryer Report

4.30 pm

Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): I am very pleased to have this short debate on Professor Fryer’s report “Learning for a Change in Healthcare”, because it is an extremely important report that points the way towards investing further in our NHS staff and continuing the improvements that the Government have made in the health service.

There is no doubt that the health service has improved greatly under this Government. More money is being spent than ever before, people are being treated more quickly, and we have invested huge amounts in building new hospitals and improving existing ones. In my area, for instance, we have, to name just a few things, a new accident and emergency department, a new endoscopy suite and a new cardiac catheter suite, which I visited recently. Investing in plant is very important, especially as some of our hospitals were built before the NHS was founded. Such investment is important for staff and for patients but, as everyone knows, the key to revitalising the NHS is really its staff. How the staff are trained, their opportunities for in-service training and how they can acquire new skills as services change are vital issues as we go forward. If we are serious about that, it must include all staff—those on the lowest pay grades as well as those on the highest.

If I have one criticism of Governments, and it has been true under many Ministers, it is this: when we talk about health service staff, we often talk about doctors and nurses, but we do not talk enough about all the other staff. As I know my hon. Friend the Minister accepts, the health service works on a web of interdependence. Surgeons cannot work in an operating theatre without porters, cleaners and the technicians who deliver the oxygen. A sister cannot run a ward properly without good support staff and good cleaners. I could go on and on making those connections.

Professor Fryer’s report flags up clearly the fact that staff on the lower pay grades have far fewer opportunities for learning than they should do and that attempts to address that have been bedevilled by short-termism and a lack of consistent funding. That is a cause for concern. In fact, much of the report tells us what we already knew or at least suspected: staff on the lower pay grades often need help to improve their literacy, numeracy and information and communications technology skills. The Government’s own labour force survey showed that 40 per cent. of the staff in the NHS are qualified at level 2 or below. In fact, 25 per cent. of them have qualifications below level 2 or no qualifications at all. The same pattern appears in social care: 40 per cent. of staff are qualified at level 2 or below. That has major implications for us as we try to reconfigure services and move services out into the community.

Many people would say, “Well, what does it matter?” It matters for a number of reasons. Many of the staff are the people who come into direct contact with patients every day—they are the face of the health service for many people. At a time of change, it is important that everyone understands the changes, can contribute to them and can benefit from them. Only in that way can we benefit patients, and we cannot afford not to make the best use of the experience and dedication of many of the staff in the NHS.

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As Professor Fryer makes clear in his report, however, there is a big learning divide. When he compiled his report, he discovered that 57 per cent. of managers and professionals had had some work-related learning in the previous 13 weeks, but when he went to those in semi-routine jobs, he found that it was down to 32 per cent.—I think that I have got that figure right—and when he went to those in routine jobs, he found that it was only 12 per cent. Clearly, that situation is unsatisfactory. To remedy it will require a great deal of planning and consideration of how we can ensure consistent funding.

Education and learning in the NHS often suffers from not being a priority for managers. The Minister and I were in this Chamber earlier in the year talking about the NHS and higher education, but there is the same problem throughout in respect of learning. When budgets are under pressure, it is often the first thing to be squeezed, but we cannot build a 21st-century health service in that way.

I suspect that we are wasting a great deal of talent, because one of the things that the Select Committee on Education and Skills discovered when we examined further education and adult learning, and talked to such people as trade union representatives and learning providers, was the huge amount that many people can achieve when they are given the opportunity to do so. However, we must put in place the process that will allow that to happen.

I give the Government full credit for having tried to do that, because in the three years from 2002-03, they allocated £180 million to fund learning for staff on the lower pay grades. It was pump-priming money. The problem is that there is very little evidence that that pump-priming has led to real change in the system, because once strategic health authorities take over, learning goes down the priority list again.

Professor Fryer discovered that many health organisations did not even collect data on learning. He said:

I agree. Decisions cannot be taken without information, yet when I asked the Department of Health what it was doing to improve data collection, I received what I am sorry to say to the Minister was a standard Department answer:

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