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The polar regions encompass some of the most rapidly warming regions on the planet. The resulting increase in melt has caused dramatic impacts on local environments and their ecology. It is predicted that the Arctic will become ice-free during the summer within a very short time span and boats may be able to sail around it, as my hon. Friend said. It is vital that we enhance our
understanding of the consequences of that, both on the polar regions themselves and the rest of the globe. The work of British scientists is extremely important in this endeavour. The Natural Environment Research Council and particularly its British Antarctic Survey provide world-leading scientific understanding of the polar regions. We should surely aim to ensure that the UK continues to command such a position.
Climatic changes in the polar regions are also causing shifting social and economic pressures on their management and governance. Turning to AntarcticaI am dealing with the regions the opposite way round to my hon. Friendincreasing summer temperatures and decreases in sea ice cover have facilitated greater access to the continent, notably by fishermen and tourists. The effective management of these activities, in line with the principles of the Antarctic treaty system, is one of the major challenges for the future preservation and conservation of Antarctica.
My hon. Friend mentioned tourism. The number of tourists visiting Antarctica has more than trebled in the past decade. Those lucky enough to make the trip often return determined to play their part in the future protection of the continent and their more immediate environment. However, as she rightly said, with an increasing number of people keen to visit the continent, it is vital that the continuing growth in tourism activities is carefully planned and monitored. The UK is encouraging the Antarctic treaty parties to agree a future vision for the development of Antarctic tourism. As part of that, we aim to ensure that all tourism activities in Antarctica are conducted safely and with minimal impact on the environment.
The sinking of the merchant ship Explorer last year was a salutary reminder that Antarctica remains a distant and inhospitable place. Although we cannot pre-empt the formal investigation, it is clear that the reasonable proximity of other tourist vessels played a large part in ensuring there was no loss of life during that incident. The UK already requires British cruise ships to demonstrate that they are not operating in isolation while in Antarctic waters and continues to encourage other Antarctic treaty parties to do likewise. We are also actively engaged in the work of the International Maritime Organisation to amend the existing guidelines for ships operating in Arctic ice-covered waters in order that they are equally relevant for both the Arctic and Antarctic.
Accurate hydrographic charts are also vital to the mitigation of shipping incidents in Antarctica. More than 95 per cent. of Antarctic cruise vessels operate in the waters of the British Antarctic Territory. Yet less than 10 per cent. of these waters are charted to modern standards. HMS Endurance, the Royal Navys ice patrol ship, plays a crucial role in gathering the relevant hydrographic data to support the production of charts by the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office. Back in January 2007, HMS Endurance was also involved in supporting the evacuation of passengers from another cruise ship that grounded in Antarctica. Having HMS Endurance working in Antarctica each summer not only reinforces the British presence in Antarctica, but also directly contributes to the safety of British nationals visiting the continent. We should be justly proud of this unique British ship and its crew.
My hon. Friend rightly mentioned fisheries. Fisheries management in Antarctica is also covered by the Antarctic treaty system, specifically through the convention on
the conservation of Antarctic marine living resources, which aims to provide comprehensive protection and conservation of the Antarctic marine environment, while allowing for sustainable harvesting of Southern ocean fish stocks. As an overseas territory of the United Kingdom, the South Georgia Government implements the convention requirements around South Georgia as a minimum, although there are also tougher restrictions in some aspects of the fishery. South Georgias ensuring such a high standard of sustainable management has achieved Marine Stewardship Council accreditation for South Georgia toothfish.
Climatic impacts on the Southern ocean are, however, likely to influence its fish stock levels. In addition, longer summer seasons are providing greater access to the fishing grounds. Illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing activities remain prevalent in the Southern ocean and present the greatest threat to sustainable management. We must be robust in ensuring that all our international partners continue to strive towards the greatest levels of sustainable ecosystem management in Antarctica. I give my hon. Friend the assurance that we will continue to keep this under close review.
Turning to the Arctic, the environmental impacts from climatic changes there are even starker than in the Antarctic, as my hon. Friend said. Reduced sea ice is opening up vast areas of ocean for the first time. Increased hydrocarbon interest and shipping access has followed, all of which are having a profound effect on the Arctic environment and its peoples.
The UK has major economic, political and social interests in the Arctic. However, unlike the Antarctic, there is no Arctic treaty. The issues of importance to the UK are largely covered by a raft of bilateral and multilateral agreements and a suite of international treaties. Most significantly, the United Nations convention on the law of the sea provides the framework for the management of the Arctic seabed. The UK also engages actively with the Arctic Council as a state observer. We regard that as an important forum for dialogue with the Arctic rim states on issues of mutual importance.
The rapid changes in the Arctic also present a constant range of challenges. We are therefore conducting a further review of the UKs longer-term strategic interests in Arctic matters and how the UK should best engage with Arctic states on issues of mutual interest, through a joint FCO-Ministry of Defence project that will report later this year.
My hon. Friend delighted us with her stories and confirmed that many of the species that we hold dear are in dangereven if we do not know all the different types of penguins. My trip to the Falkland Islands helped me somewhat with identifying penguins. She is right to ask what will happen if we do not protect these beautiful, precious species. We have recognised that the polar bear is threatened in the wild and, although we have no remit to intervene in the affairs of other sovereign states, as I am sure my hon. Friend knows, we are committed to co-operating with the international community to address the threats to its conservation. One way we do that is through membership of agreements, such as the convention on biological diversity and the convention on international trade in endangered species. We will continue to work with all other states to try to ensure the preservation of these precious species.
My hon. Friend talked at length about the narwhal, and we were all educated about its having been thought to be a unicorn. We share her concerns about the preservation of the species. I will investigate the level of assessed endangerment under international agreements, which will inform our action. I will come back to her about the matter, which was new to me.
I would like to end by reaffirming the UK's continuing commitment to maintaining its leading role in the polar regions. I thank my hon. Friend for initiating this important debate, and I hope that the issues that she raised will be taken up more widely and by many more parliamentarians. It is something that we should be very concerned about.
Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow. I do not know whether you recall the last time I served under your chairmanship in an Adjournment debate, but it was about VAT on the Isle of Mull. I am pleased to say that the then Paymaster General, the right hon. Member for Bristol, South (Dawn Primarolo), and Her Majestys Revenue and Customs were very helpful after the debate, and the problem was solved. I hope that that is a good omen, and that under your chairmanship there will be a good result today.
I applied for this debate after reading the HMRC consultation paper Review of Cluster and Individual Locations in Scotland. Of the 29 offices included in the review, the proposals recommend the closure of 19. My constituency suffers particularly badly from the review, with all three offices proposed for closure. They are in Dunoon, Rothesay and Oban.
The proposals outlined in the consultation document are fundamentally flawed for many reasons, which I shall discuss in turn. The first is the loss of jobs in fragile communities. Secondly, I believe that the proposals will make HMRC less efficient, rather than more efficient. Thirdly, taxpayers will find it more difficult to get help with filling in their forms.
I shall speak first about jobs. The proposals involve a reduction in the number of jobs in the offices outside urban centres in Scotland from 1,900 to 1,350a loss of 550 jobs in small towns throughout Scotland. That is at a time when HMRC is not the only Department cutting back on jobs in small towns throughout the country. The Department for Work and Pensions is also transferring jobs from jobcentres in small towns to large centralised offices.
In my constituency, the three HMRC offices marked for closure employ 23 people, but that does not tell us the whole story because those offices have already seen significant job losses in recent years. The Rothesay office, which has seven staff, employed 16 just five years ago, and the Dunoon office, which employs 14 staff, has seen similar losses, so my constituency has already seen substantial job losses without consultation. The centralisation of those jobs reverses years of successive Government policy to disperse jobs from big cities to other parts of the country. Now, the policy seems to have gone into reverse, and jobs are being moved from small towns to giant offices in cities.
Those job losses might not sound large if they were in a large town or city, but the communities that I am talking about are small with fragile economies, particularly Rothesay, which is on a small island. The jobs that are being lost are relatively well paid compared with most jobs in those small remote towns. People who are made redundant will struggle to find jobs locally that require the same skills set, and the job opportunities will be lost to the community for ever. As well as the direct loss of jobs, there will be a loss of purchasing power with a knock-on effect for other local businesses. It is important to remember that the work force are overwhelmingly female and women are more likely than men to have caring responsibilities. They will therefore find it difficult to commute the long distance to the nearest remaining office in Glasgow or to relocate.
The consultation paper considers the feasibility of staff commuting daily to the nearest remaining office, but it accepts that the nearest remaining office is too far away to be within reasonable travelling distance. Staff will have to choose between moving house or redundancy. It is important to stress that people who live in remote communities pay their taxes in the same way as people who live in cities. The local communities in these areas should be able to benefit just as much as those in cities from a share of public sector jobs.
I would like to draw attention to the Wick office, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso). He wanted to make an intervention today, but he is hoping to catch the Speakers eye in the Chamber. He asked me to stress that the area around Wick is within the travel-to-work distance of Dounreay, where there will be substantial job losses during the coming years and that the loss of jobs in Wick is therefore very serious.
The second matter that I want to mention relates to my doubts that the proposed changes will make HMRC any more efficient. The thrust of the proposals is that HMRC can do its job just as well with a lot fewer staff. I would like to draw hon. Members attention to what the Treasury Committee found when it investigated HMRC as part of its 7th report of the current Session. Paragraph 119 of the report states:
We are concerned that the current VAT gap, the direct tax and National Insurance underpayments, and the deterioration in the Self-Assessment filing performance may be linked to the headcount reduction under the efficiency programme.
will ensure that any further efficiency savings are not made at the cost of further deterioration in HMRCs performance.
There have been considerable problems with delays in VAT registration for small businesses. We have repeatedly been assured that the headcount reductions and efficiency programme as a whole would not cause a decline in the quality of HMRCs services. We ask the Government to explain why there has been a deterioration of service in relation to VAT registrations and what measures it will take to bring HMRC back on course.
Another saving that it is claimed HMRC can make is in relation to property costs. Why is HMRC proposing to get rid of property in small towns rather than in cities? It is obvious that property costs in small towns are significantly lower than in cities. I do not see how it is a saving to move people from a low-cost office in a small town to a high-cost office in a city.
Computers and electronic communications mean that processing work can be done just as easily in a remote location as in a large city office. The ferry operator Caledonian MacBrayne is a successful example of a company that has modernised its procedures while still keeping jobs in remote communities. Rather than centralising its booking system in one call centre, CalMac set up a dispersed call centre so that when a customer dials the number to make a booking their call is directed to one of many ports. The staff are therefore available to answer the phone in the same way as they would in a
call centre, yet they are still located in various ports and can deal with local face-to-face inquiries, as well as with inquiries made over the phone. I ask HMRC to consider having a model such as that.
Another type of job being moved is that of compliance officers. I find it difficult to understand how compliance will be improved by centralising compliance officers in big city offices. Moving compliance officers out of local communities will mean a loss of local knowledge and losing that valuable local knowledge will surely make the job more difficult. The Oban office consists of a detection officer and a local compliance officer. Will the Minister explain how those jobs will still be done effectively from Glasgow?
I understand that if someones tax affairs are being investigated, they can insist on the interview being held near to where they live or work. That will mean increased travelling times for compliance officers and extra costs for HMRC as it will have to pay officers for driving their car or sitting on a train or a ferry, whereas at the moment the compliance office lives and works locally.
I am also concerned about the job of dealing with local inquiries. HMRC still proposes to keep inquiry offices at Dunoon and Rothesay, but we have already seen cuts in the opening times of the Rothesay office. The opening times have just been reduced from 8.30 am until 5 pm to 10 am until 4 pm, which obviously makes it more difficult for people working during the day to visit the inquiry office.
I have some questions about the how the new inquiry offices will operate. How many staff will be employed in each office? At the moment in the Rothesay office, one member of staff deals with nearly all the inquiries, but if they are off sick or on holiday, other staff are on hand to deal with inquiries. In addition, experienced back-office staff are on hand to assist the front-line officer with complicated inquiries. If only one member of staff is employed in the new inquiry office, what will happen when he or she is on holiday or off sick? If another officer has to travel from Glasgow to cover for holidays or sickness, surely that adds to costs, rather than making the system more efficient. Will there be health and safety implications if only one person is employed in an office? Will people still be able to turn up at any time during the working day or will they have to make an appointment? In addition, will a freephone number be available for telephone inquiries or will the taxpayer be expected to pay the cost of the call to receive advice? At the moment, people can receive free advice by turning up in person.
Until recently, the staff in Rothesay and Dunoon made regular visits to remote communities and held tax surgeries there. That was a valuable service. As the tax systemparticularly in relation to tax creditsis becoming more complicated, HMRC should be reinstating such a valuable service, rather than moving staff yet further away.
I have talked about costs, but what about carbon emissions? Has HMRC done an environmental impact assessment of the extra carbon emissions that will be created by staff commuting further to work in cities or by travelling from their city office to carry out compliance work elsewhere?
I have outlined where I think the HMRC proposals are wrong. Valuable jobs will be lost in fragile communities
and a worse service will be provided to the public, yet I am not convinced the proposals will make HMRC any more efficient.
This is the start of the consultation stage. I hope that the Government and HMRC will listen to the comments that I and other local people will be making and that they will reflect on the matter during the consultation period and withdraw the proposals to close these offices.
The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Jane Kennedy): It is a pleasure to join you this afternoon, Mr. Bercow, to debate this issue. I am sure there will be further debates on the matter as we move through the consultation periodprobably after the recess as there are no announcements made during that time. There will be an opportunity for hon. Members to make representations.
I compliment the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) on securing todays debate. He has made a forceful case on behalf of his constituency and the people whom he represents. Hon. Members interest in the reorganisation of HMRC in Scotland has already been brought to my attention through letters, questions in the House and debates such as this, in addition to contributions to the consultation process that HMRC has developed. I am grateful for all the representations that I have received. I have also had the benefit of meeting hon. Members on several occasions regarding their concerns and those of their constituents.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute will be aware that as a result of pressures that Ministers have placed on HMRC in addition to those arising from the Gershon report and other reforms, HMRC is being required to increase its effectiveness while at the same time making efficiencies. Following the merger of Customs and Excise and the Inland Revenue in 2005, HMRC has, patently, too much office space and too many buildings for its business needs. HMRC estimates that along with the expected reduction in staff of about 25,000 between 2004 and 2011, it will be able to release up to 40 per cent. of its office space by 2011 or 2012.
As a Minister, I have gone through various Departments in which modernisation, improvements and reform have taken place that have required the disposal of office space and, in some cases, magistrates courts, and it is remarkable how otherwise insignificant and unnoticed buildings suddenly become the beating heart of the community in which they are located. I am not making light of the representations that I receive about the importance of what are, I acknowledge, good-quality, white-collar jobs that are rare and precious in many of those communities. However, it is clearly not a good use of taxpayers money to keep paying for 40 per cent. more office space than HMRC can use. HMRC has already saved more than £35 million a year on accommodation costsmoney that will assist it to improve customer service and provide better value for money for the public purse.
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