Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-113)|
MP, MR MIKE
24 JANUARY 2007
Q100 Peter Viggers: The Committee
has a separate session on tax credits on 14 March, when, unfortunately,
I have to be in Ukraine on parliamentary business, so I must ask
the indulgence of the Committee just to put to you a point on
tax credits. My constituency post and my constituency surgeries
continue to reflect the fact that there is a large number of people
whom the computer simply cannot handle. Cases are being handled
manually, then the manual system cannot handle it either. The
computer clicks over to indicate overpayment, people are pestered,
people are assured that their overpayments are correct and then
get demands for it to come back. What do your statistics show,
Minister, in terms of whether you are improving in terms of customer
service in view of tax credits?
Dawn Primarolo: I should have
anticipated that, and I apologise for not. I am sorry you cannot
be here in March; I would have brought some of the statistics
that show the improving, and continually improving satisfaction
of the tax credit claimants, the efficiency and the turn-round
times and the accuracy increasing, the fact that we managed the
renewal period in a shorter period more efficiently. Yes, there
are historic cases with regard to overpayment, and some current,
which we are working on, but I have to say to you, from the time
when the Committee did its first inquiry the accuracy, quality
and responsiveness of the system has considerably improved, as
has people's attitude to it. As the Minister responsible for dealing
with the post and the PQs and not unknown as the Minister for
tax credits, I have to say to you that there is a steady stabilisation
in that area. I am sorry that you are not able to be here in March,
but if there are specific things that you would like to ask me
in writing, Mr Viggers, I will be more than happy to answer.
Q101 Peter Viggers: All the letters
I write to you are answered by somebody else. It is pointed out
that there are too many cases for you to look at them personally.
Dawn Primarolo: I do not think
that is quite true. Then we might come on to the splitting of
the merger between accountabilities and when I should be answerable
and when somebody in the department should be answerable, which
is what we are beginning to see, but if you are not satisfied,
Mr Viggers, then you can ask me to deal with your letters.
Q102 Peter Viggers: Thank you; I
will. The department has carried out three separate consultations
on its review of the powers, deterrents and safeguards since March
2005. Are you concerned at the time being taken to complete the
Dawn Primarolo: No, I am not,
because I think it is important to get it right and for there
to be confidence in the consultation so that people are satisfied.
Representative Bodies outside the department are very, very concerned
that the powers that the department has are proportionate, effective,
that there are the necessary safeguards and that the penalties
associated with those powers are reflecting the principles that
they want to see, which is where somebody has genuinely made a
mistake, that there is a different response and whether there
should be a penalty at all compared to when perhaps somebody has
made a mistake because they did not pay as much attention as they
should have as opposed to somebody who is deliberately withholding
or falsifying information. All the work and the consultation that
we have done on that shows us that we should proceed with care
and with full consultation, and I have a time-line which I am
satisfied is a reasonable time-line and I hope our consultees
will agree with that.
Q103 Peter Viggers: Can you outline
to us what parliamentary scrutiny there will be of any changes
in the legislation?
Dawn Primarolo: Yes, there will
be draft clauses, and some are already out for consideration as
we move through different parts of that. Where appropriate, it
will be in a Finance Bill. Where it needs another legislative
vehicle because of restrictions on the Finance Bill, it will be
there and it will be scrutinised by Parliament. Nothing will be
changed without it being scrutinised by Parliament.
Q104 Kerry McCarthy: Can I ask about
the impact of the merger on staff morale at HMRC. There have been
a number of strikes over the last year; there is another one that
might be happening at the end of the month. Do you think the merger
is a factor?
Dawn Primarolo: Obviously I am
very disappointed that there is to be a strike on 31 January,
but I am a little perplexed about it, to be honest, because the
union balloted on a number of reasons why a strike should take
place. I realise it was a Civil Service-wide ballot, but in HMRC
all those matters are settled, they are not outstanding. So I
am in this rather peculiar position where normally if you want
to avert a strike, I would say to my managers, "Go back and
see if you can sort out the concerns", but they are not there.
We have got a three-year pay deal; it is the second of the three-year
pay deals. The union has recommended it. We do not contract out.
We have given them an undertaking we will not outsource and contract
out. We have got a fair pay structure which has been agreed with
them as part of the merger. We have no compulsory redundancies,
and we have given an undertaking on that and we review it regularly
with them, and the same on compulsory transfers. What I do understand,
and I think anybody with any sense would, is that a department
in such massive change makes people feel, rightly so, insecure,
and my approach is to try and make as much information available
and to put as much out to consultation, including things like
what the structure of the network will look like post 2008 so
that we can draw as much as possible on everybody's expertise.
I was in an office yesterday and I spent the whole afternoon there
speaking to staff about the processes and what they were doing,
and I spend a lot of time, where I can, going out listening to
what staff say, mergers do that, which was one of the big debates
about merger or not; and when the Committee considered it (I think
it was in 2000) it recommended merger, but I came along as the
Minister and said, "I am not very keen on this because I
am worried about the instabilities that just the sheer presence
of merger causes." So, I think it has got to be managed properly
and we have got to know why our staff feel like this and try and
manage it better. It is about consultations.
Q105 Kerry McCarthy: Do you think
if those factors, which you said were specific factors, on which
the union carried out the ballot have all been checked off and
are not a problem in HMRC it is more as a result of general unhappiness
because of the change or the degree of uncertainty?
Dawn Primarolo: It may well be,
and I think our staff surveys are showing, as the progress through
the merger and the changes occur, that they do feel very uncertain,
and who would not, it is only human. I can only keep pressurising
the management to manage that properly, and that is about keeping
people informed about what the real choices are and keeping the
union informed and part of the whole discussion for the future.
Q106 Kerry McCarthy: To what extent
do you then get involved in the discussions as to how the management
should handle industrial action or the threat of industrial action?
Have you given them any directions as to how to deal with things
at the end of the month?
Dawn Primarolo: The industrial
relations between the department and the union are managed in
that way. It is not really appropriate for me to interfere in
that, although I would be asked for my views sometimes separately.
In terms of what will happen on the 31st, yes, of course I have
asked the department. I want to know what contingency plans are
in place to manage our networks and our services through what
is a very important deadline in the financial year and what we
will need to do to assist taxpayers. Obviously there are discussions
going on now with representative bodies about a whole range of
things. We will do our best, but, in the end, if the staff do
not come in to work, they do not come in to work.
Q107 Jim Cousins: Paymaster, we have
just heard from Paul Gray and his team that they are, for reasons
I perfectly well understand, carrying large numbers of short-term
fixed contract workers and large numbers of workers who have been
identified as surplus or pre-surplus. You have mentioned the LEAN
Programme. In Newcastle, when it was introduced, there was a crazy
incident where workers had taped bits on their desk where they
were supposed to put pieces of fruit (consultants came along and
taped out marks on the desk where they were supposed to put pieces
of fruit), except that because of the carrying of such large numbers
of temporary workers there was hot-desking, and so some people
had big arms and some people had little arms. This is not good
for staff morale, is it?
Dawn Primarolo: I do not know
whether you actually saw that or whether somebody told you that
was done, because that is not the policy of the department. I
have read similar things in the paper myself: you cannot put a
banana on your desk, or whatever. That is totally ridiculous and
that is not done by the department. I naturally pursued it because
I thought it was crazy and they had more important things to do,
and I cannot find where that particularly went on. There has always
been in the department a situation where more than one person
might use a desk. That has always been the case and has been going
on in the department for some time. The office I was in yesterday,
550 people work there through shifts from seven in the morning
until 10 at night and I was randomly allowed to go and ask them,
"Have you been told this preposterous thing?", and they
said, "No." Stories get out about the department and
all I can do is try and find out whether they are true. If they
are true, they do not happen again, but this one, I would say
to you, Mr Cousins, or anyone on the Treasury Select Committee,
if you would like to go and see an office operating LEAN please
do, and we can facilitate it, because it is not what some suggest
Q108 Jim Cousins: On the broader
issues surrounding the HMRC, it is said the targets are challenging.
The issue in front of the Committee is: are they perhaps too challenging?
That is a serious issue, because for the first time VAT receipts
are going down and there may be more problems like that ahead.
We have just heard evidence from Paul Gray and his team that there
is about £100 million a year in savings but then there is
£60 million a year to offset that coming from the Treasury's
modernisation fund and a fixed commitment of £500 million
a year in transformation costs. Does this not indicate that maybe
the targets that are being set in terms of cash reductions are
just too severe?
Dawn Primarolo: No, it does not,
and you are looking at one-off payments to the department to help
restructuring in particular areas compared to an annual saving.
I think if we look at it across the board on the point you are
making about the £60 million and the £100 million
Q109 Jim Cousins: Paul Gray agreed
that £500 million cumulative could be compared to the £300
million from the modernisation fund over the same period of time.
Dawn Primarolo: It could be, yes,
but the question is do we want to restructure the department so
that it gives a better service to taxpayers or do we not? Can
I say on VAT receipts, they are not connected. The specific issue
around MTIC fraud were external factors on the departmentjudgments
in the ECJ on other countries' cases that took away our main defencesand
we had to find other ways of doing that, and we did, in protecting
the revenue. So they are not connected. It is a bad problem, it
is being dealt with, but it was not connected with an issue of
the department not having its eye on the ball, it was to do with
external factors beyond their control.
Q110 Jim Cousins: In the annex to
the Annual Report of Revenue and Customs there are large numbers
of figures over crucial areasI am looking at page 76 and
77like the revenue loss from tobacco, not available, and
so we go on. The same is true of alcohol. This must be extremely
worrying. These are known areas where systematic fraud is going
on and the department cannot produce figures.
Dawn Primarolo: This comes back
to the point in response to one of my questions about targets.
Some of our targets can only be assessed when information is finally
available and there is a time lag, and it is a question of when
it is published in the year. It is not that we will not be able
to give those figures, it was the particular timing. For instance,
both the targets that you identified are to do with smuggling
targets that require us to have information as to statistics from
elsewhere to then measure whether or not our strategy in reducing
the amount of tobacco and alcohol being smuggled and circulating
is actually succeeding.
Q111 Jim Cousins: Do you ever consider
that the targets being set are perhaps too challenging?
Dawn Primarolo: That is the dilemma
for any government, to set a target that is challenging and improves
the service in its efficiency whilst not making them unachievable.
I have had this discussion with the Treasury Select Committee
on previous annual reports when discussing some targets, for instance
with regard to tax credits or child benefit, and the Committee
saying to me, "Why do you not make them higher?" and
I have said, "Because if I make them unattainable, then people
do not even try to work towards the target and improvements."
So that is the crucial decision that ministers, supported by the
advice they get from the department and, for me, from the Treasury,
have to balance, and we will see, when we get the results of our
PSA targets, if they were too challenging and why they missed
Q112 Ms Keeble: I wanted to come
back again on the industrial action, because like, I am sure,
most other Members, I have obviously had letters from the union
to campaign letters. Mine have been from people employed in HMRC
and list out the grievances, but these grievances have obviously
been shared by employees in HMRC and they include reference to
agency work, to redeployment of staff and to job losses, and so
on. I wonder, therefore, if you could say whether you actually
feel that some of the staff in HMRC do actually feel aggrieved
or under pressure, bearing in mind also that they have had challenges
around some of the work that they have had to do. It has been
difficult and demanding work. I am not looking to encroach on
the proper handling of industrial relations between the management
and staff side, but I wondered, given that the morale is essential
for the good performance of the department, if you are satisfied
that the discussions and the management of industrial relations
is going to (a) ensure there is continuity of service during any
action or that the situation is going to be managed, and (b) that
any action is not going to exacerbate issues around staff morale?
I have actually tried to roll two questions into one because the
Chairman asked me to be quick.
Dawn Primarolo: I know, but the
problem is what is real and what is not. If the management of
the department are asked to negotiate and agree certain issues
with the union, and do, and that is then agreed, and then it appears
on a ballot paper that those are the issues so they are not happy,
that obviously does raise a challenge for the department on what
is happening here. If we look at, for instance, the 8,500 reduction
that has already been completed, that has been done by natural
wastage and by early retirement, by people who have chosen to
retire early. If we look at our projections and what we are saying
in terms of saying, "No, compulsory redundancy and revisit
that in September 2007, it seems to me that what is important
and what I have to ask managers, I agree, is the consultation
on workforce change, which is very extensive, and it was discussed
before we embarked on this process as well, including piloting
some of the things like LEAN, whether we have got that right and
whether we are getting enough information through. Of course,
it is awful that there is a strike on the thirty-first and if
staff are feeling aggrieved we have got to find out what it is
about. As I said, I think there are issues around change. Change
is difficult, it is difficult for anybody. It is how it is managed
that is important, and we have got to be on top of that.
Q113 Ms Keeble: What specifically
would you expect to see the senior management do to improve the
Dawn Primarolo: We are in a bit
of a dilemma here, because if we have got a "no redundancy"
and a "no compulsory moves" and we have got the second
of a three-year pay dealso that is six years where it has
been agreedwe have done the merger, we have done the grades,
we are reducing, but it is by natural wastage and early retirement,
we are managing as best we can by making everybody awareMPs,
stakeholders, unions, individual members of staffwhat the
workforce change project means in terms of refocusing how the
department operates, then it has got to be done, and can only
be done, by full consultation and confidence in the process. We
have got to carry on trying to get that across, and we have asked
how we can improve it and we have got to ask our staff how we
can improve it, because clearly it is not quite right.
Chairman: I am afraid we are well over
time, so we are going to have to let you go and move on to the
next session with the Valuation Office. Paymaster General, thank
you very much indeed.