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12 Mar 2008 : Column 82WH—continued

The hon. Member for East Londonderry made a couple of points to which I shall respond. He asked about the rental of HMRC offices in Coleraine and the freedom of information request. HMRC cannot release information about the accommodation costs that it pays to Mapeley, the third-party landlord for much of
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HMRC’s estate. The information is protected as commercially in confidence. However, HMRC is able to release figures for financial savings on buildings having been vacated once decisions have been made. Those figures are germane to the process, but it is a process that I, as a Minister, require HMRC to carry forward professionally. It is HMRC’s responsibility to negotiate the best savings out of all the changes that it proposes.

Mr. Gregory Campbell: rose—

Jane Kennedy: I appreciate that that will disappoint the hon. Gentleman, and I happily give way to him.

Mr. Campbell: The Minister will understand the incredulity that many people will express, because we will be able to establish the cost-effectiveness of any decision only after it has taken place and people either have been made redundant or have to undertake the huge journey that many hon. Members have outlined today.

Jane Kennedy: For people outside the process, there is some truth in that point. However, learning from the way in which the process has been carried forward in other regions, I am confident that HMRC operates the process absolutely properly. In fact, it is gaining savings—I shall turn to them in a minute—by changing the way in which staff work, and they are all important modernisations that HMRC is required to take forward. As the process goes forward, I think that the House will be satisfied that the right decisions are being made.

Hon. Members should visit those offices where changes have been implemented and the process has been completed—in the south-east of England, for example, where similar representations were made at the beginning of that process. Having gone through it all, none the less, staff have been able to move and be accommodated within reasonable travelling times. I shall come on to that issue, which several Members have raised. I know Northern Ireland well, and I am very conscious of the pressures that people are under when they travel there. I therefore encourage hon. Members to have confidence, because HMRC has a real and proper agreement with the trade unions about the way in which it carries the process forward, and it works. I have seen it work and I have confidence in it.

The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) made a number of points, and I was very interested to hear his concerns about the impact of changes on the way in which the law enforcement agencies might work. He said that he feared that the review was in danger of sucking jobs to the eastern seaboard, and I can see that that concern is very real for him and for his constituents. However, all I can say to him, as I said earlier about the second review of the smaller offices, which will begin shortly, is that everybody will have an opportunity to contribute to the process and everybody’s views will be listened to before decisions are made. It is not a process whereby decisions have been made in advance, and then we will have a review in which people cannot have confidence. There have been many occasions when proposals have been met with counter-proposals and they have been taken on board.

Mark Durkan: Frankly, I am not reassured by what the Minister has said, because in effect, the Belfast review will be presented as having resulted in certain
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givens that will affect, inform and influence the review of offices outside Belfast. She has told us that, in effect, there are two separate equality impact assessments: one for Belfast, which will reach a conclusion, and a separate one for the other offices. The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland has clearly said that the right thing to do is to have one overall equality impact assessment of the current regional review. Why is that not happening?

Jane Kennedy: The Equality Commission said that it would prefer all areas of Northern Ireland to be reviewed together, but it was mindful of the model that HMRC has used to review urban centres in the rest of the United Kingdom, and the earlier timetabling commitments that HMRC had given to staff. The commission had no objection to HMRC continuing with the model involving two processes, examining first, the urban centres, and secondly, the smaller offices, when taking forward the Belfast urban centre review.

I shall turn to the changes that HMRC is making to the way in which it carries out its business, so that it can respond to customer demands and the requirement—

Dr. Pugh: rose

Jane Kennedy: I shall come to several points that the hon. Gentleman made, if he will allow me, and then I shall be happy to give way.

For some years, there has taken place in HMRC buildings very little work that is directly connected to the local community; some contributions have alluded to that this morning. Further, many customers now choose to telephone HMRC offices or to use the internet to file returns or make claims. Throughout the UK, HMRC estimates that it has up to 40 per cent. too much accommodation, but it is right for HMRC to keep its network of inquiry centres, as is happening. I hope that hon. Members accept that we value the face-to-face contact that we know the public appreciate, and HMRC is maintaining it. However, it is also right for HMRC senior management to examine their back-office operations to ensure that they are run as efficiently and effectively as possible. In some work areas, that is best done by concentrating work in large units, but in others, a more mobile work force is seen as the best solution to customer needs.

There must be an emphasis on improving compliance by focusing resources on the risks that HMRC deals with regarding different taxes and customer groups.

Mr. Donaldson: The Minister knows from her previous role, in Northern Ireland, that for members of the security forces we have very special arrangements to protect their identity. She knows that those special arrangements for HMRC are located at one of its facilities in Northern Ireland. I do not expect her to expand in detail on the way in which she intends to handle that very special part of HMRC’s work in Northern Ireland in the context of the review. However, can she assure me that those special arrangements for police officers, soldiers, prison staff and others whose security must be protected will continue, that the arrangements will be dealt with not in the context of the wider review and then reconfigured, but in a ring-fenced way, and that they will be properly protected and, I hope, maintained?

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Jane Kennedy: The right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point that I shall personally look into as a result of his drawing it to my attention today. If he will allow me, having looked into it, I shall write to him to give him the reassurance that he seeks.

I am happy to confirm that, whatever the outcome of the review for the offices in Northern Ireland, the proposals for the remainder of Northern Ireland, including Newry, which was mentioned earlier, will be subject to a full—that is to say, a public—equality impact assessment. Inquiry centre services will be maintained in their current locations or nearby, and staff will not be required to commute to an office beyond reasonable daily travel. There is an established process for managers and staff to discuss options for their future employment dependent on the outcome of the review. The process is open, transparent and accessible to the trade unions.

David Simpson: When you say that they will not be expected to travel a distance that is unreasonable, could you elaborate—

John Bercow (in the Chair): Order. I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman, but he has on two occasions used “you”. He will know that I play no part in these proceedings at all.

David Simpson: I appreciate that. Thank you for pointing it out, Mr. Bercow. I apologise.

The whole moving of jobs issue that the Government are trying to force on Northern Ireland surely flies in the face of Government policy. I raised it earlier with the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) in relation to trying to encourage people back to work. Surely it flies in the face of what the Government have been trying to do for a number of months.

Jane Kennedy: I know that the hon. Gentleman is making a serious point, but I do not believe that that is the case. Having been an employment Minister in Northern Ireland, I am familiar with the issues, and I do not believe that the changes proposed for the Belfast urban centre and the review respecting the other HMRC offices will have an impact on employment, although I am aware of his genuine concerns for work in Northern Ireland, as well as those mentioned by other hon. Members.

The hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) asked about the processing of VAT registration. I have responded several times to written questions and other questions on that issue, and he will know that the process has improved, so I shall not take up time discussing it now. This debate is not strictly about that subject, although we are talking about HMRC performance in a broader sense.

Several hon. Members are interested in the matter of pressures on individual staff members. Proposals to rationalise work and office space across Belfast, Antrim and Lisburn were put forward for consultation in September last year. Staff, trade unions, Members of Parliament and local authorities have contributed to that consultation, providing information on travel routes, economic interests in the locations, the position of other employers and Departments and individual circumstances that should be taken into account. A report summarising those responses was published in January this year and is
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available. HMRC is considering all the information provided during the consultation in arriving at its recommendations.

Dr. McCrea: Minister, could you tell us how the process in which you are involved—certainly in relation to the offices outside Belfast—sits comfortably with the Assembly’s anti-poverty strategy and the decentralisation of work?

John Bercow (in the Chair): Order. Before the Minister replies, and so that I am not open to the charge of discrimination between one Member and another, I must say to the hon. Gentleman that he too should not use the word “you”. I hope that both hon. Members will take my rebuke in the constructive spirit in which it was intended. I call the Minister.

Jane Kennedy: I say to the House in all sincerity that the changes being made and the improvements that will follow to HMRC’s processes for responding to customers will help in dealing with poverty, particularly now that HMRC plays such an important role in the administration of tax credits. The administration of tax credits has been much criticised in recent years, and the work being done to improve it will bring dividends. If there are concerns about how the plans will sit with the Northern Ireland Assembly, I am happy to visit to see what can be done to ensure that the administration in Northern Ireland follows as closely as possible Government policy elsewhere in Britain. I am happy to take that discussion there to consider what impact the changes might have on Northern Ireland.

I shall briefly outline some of the facts being considered for the Belfast centre. HMRC has nine offices in the Belfast urban centre: seven in the city, one in Antrim and one in Lisburn, accommodating some 1,700 staff in total. HMRC expects to need roughly the same number of staff across the entire urban centre, including those offices, in 2011. Analysis of staff travel times suggests that our Belfast city centre offices are all within walking distance of each other. Any rationalisation of buildings therefore should not pose serious problems in terms of commuting times. In moving to an efficient structure, HMRC is confident that the majority of staff can be relocated nearby with their own or similar work.

Before the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) jumps to his feet—I am immediately conscious of his comments—I say to him that I recall the M1 well, having travelled it many times. Even in a police car, with all the advantages that that brings, it can take inordinately long. I understand the concerns of people working outside the city centre about any extra travel time they may face, particularly those who depend on public transport. Even though the analysis undertaken by HMRC to support its recommendations will be extensive, individual staff members will have the opportunity to discuss their circumstances with managers before any decision is taken on their suitability to relocate. Throughout the programme, senior management in HMRC are committed to being open with staff.

Mr. Gregory Campbell: The Minister has mentioned the test of reasonableness several times in relation to staff relocations. Does she think that it is reasonable for female staff living on the north coast, many of whom
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have caring responsibilities, to have to leave home before 7 am and arrive back after 7 pm in order to work at HMRC offices in Belfast?

Jane Kennedy: Travelling from Londonderry to Belfast is a long journey, but there are many people in south-east England who commute. [Interruption.]The comparison is germane. I am reluctant to say that such a commute is unreasonable, full stop. Some may make that choice for career purposes, and I would not want to suggest that they are making an unreasonable decision. All the issues will be considered, and individual staff members’ personal circumstances will be taken into account by their managers as the review proceeds, but we are in the earliest stages. We have not even begun the review of the offices about which the hon. Gentleman is particularly concerned, but I know that he will continue to make such representations.

Managers are being open with staff, explaining the options available to individuals and exploring how their expectations can be matched with the need to make the operations more efficient and effective. The decisions are not easy, and they can be made only after all the specific facts are known. Once decisions have been announced in the Belfast urban centre, as elsewhere, HMRC will begin relocating staff and releasing surplus accommodation. As I said, I expect the review of clusters and individual locations—the remainder of HMRC locations in Northern Ireland—to begin within the next couple of months. The hon. Gentleman has expressed concerns about the review of individual locations, several of which have been mentioned. I reassure him and other Members that the full equality impact assessment of all the proposals will be undertaken to identify—I have always found this a comprehensive list—any impacts on people’s racial group, age, marital status, number of dependants, sexual orientation, religious beliefs or, in Northern Ireland, political opinion. It is always worth reminding the House of that.

The hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) raised a couple of points to which I should like to respond, because I do not often get the opportunity and I have a minute or two now. He criticised the lean process. I assure him that I am confident that in Northern Ireland, as elsewhere, the lean process will bring benefits. It works. I have met staff who have gone through the process, and I can see the benefits to management in terms of the ability to bring about improved customer experience by speeding up how HMRC responds to its work load. I am confident that the process will bring new opportunities for staff.

The hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire was right to draw attention to the assessment of morale in HMRC. It is a cause of concern to me. I suggest that sometimes delay in such processes undermines morale even further. It is important to staff to have some certainty about where they will be and what they will be doing, and that is what I hope HMRC’s review will bring.

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The hon. Member for East Londonderry asked about redundancies. HMRC cannot guarantee that there will be no compulsory redundancies or compulsory moves of home, but its intention is to avoid both if reasonably possible. HMRC is working with staff and unions to minimise the risk of compulsory redundancy, but it cannot guarantee that that will not happen, nor do I think the House would wish to impose such a limitation on it.

Mark Durkan: The Minister was speaking about the morale implications of delay, and I accept her point. Does she accept that in the context of what she is now billing as two reviews in Northern Ireland, there is a morale hit and frustration about what people see as cynical staging? Doing the Belfast urban review first and guaranteeing that the aggregate number of jobs in the Belfast area will remain roughly the same means that the entire efficiency hit on job numbers—about 500—will affect the rest of Northern Ireland. That sort of delay, or pretend delay, which is effectively cynical staging, hits morale big time.

Jane Kennedy: The hon. Gentleman has his point of view. He may call it cynical staging, but HMRC has taken a pragmatic approach that has worked and has paid dividends elsewhere in the UK as it has carried this programme forward. If hon. Members are concerned about the impact, I encourage them to visit regions that have gone through the process.

Dr. Pugh: There is one point that the Minister has not picked up. I recognise that the exercise should be transparent, as she said, and thorough. The document that I received about my tax office shows how thorough it has been on the personnel side, but it is slightly light on the financial side. When making counter-proposals, one needs to know the financial cost of any moves that are being made. One therefore needs to know the accommodation costs that might be imposed not only for the offices that are being closed, or are scheduled for closure, but for those that are being kept open to draw comparisons. If the unions are to make counter-proposals, they need that sort of data—otherwise, the exercise is not open and transparent.

Jane Kennedy: The hon. Gentleman will know that when decisions are announced, financial assessments are also released. It is worth the House remembering that HMRC has saved the not inconsiderable sum of £27 million as a result of the process. It should be congratulated on that and encouraged to make further progress. This long-term programme will deliver a more responsive and efficient service for taxpayers and HMRC customers. I hope that hon. Members will look back on it and say, “Yes, we can see the benefits of what has happened.”

10.42 am

Sitting suspended.

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