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Mr. Wright: Absolutely, and the closure might effect the ability of some to do so. Does my hon. Friend consider that during the consultation process the officials did not take into account the difficulties that people would face in having to move offices? The vast majority of the people affected are fairly low paid and have life balances to consider. Furthermore, we will lose staff with an average of 25 years experience. I do not think that officials took into account the life balances and difficulties that will be faced by many families.
Mr. Hoyle: My hon. Friend makes a very strong case about life balances. The Treasury claims to take those into account and to be a good employer. We have many fine words, but not much substance behind them. The Government and my right hon. Friend the Minister can provide that substance and take into account the points raised today. It is not his faultthe closures were decided before he took up his positionwhich is why I plead with him: he can be the man to save face for the Government by putting right this wrong. The mistake was made before he took up his position; I do not blame him, but I do charge him with sorting out the mess. What I am talking about is 77 loyal staff, 54 of whom work full time and 23 part time.
On 29 February, it was announced that Lingmell house would close following the HMRC north-west urban centre review. The local compliance corporation tax operation team undertook the process of identifying 15 centralised sites for its operations. It seems funny that the office was always told that it would remain open, which gave everyone else an advantage. If an office is not earmarked for closure, it cannot lobby. What will it lobby for? That is the problem. We were down to stay open. Those who were down for closure suddenly lobbied and used their political influence. Such was the strength of their lobbying that the offices that were not down for closure are now closed; it is an embarrassment. I know the Minister must be embarrassed by that. Those award-winning offices that were recognised for providing the best service were never meant to close. Suddenly, they are closing. Staff from other offices have channelled their efforts into taking all the best jobs and transfers that are available, and we are left in limbo. Do we really think that that is acceptable? Of course, we do not, and, quite rightly, there is embarrassment.
After that event, in November 2008, five of the 15 sites have been identified. Yet the remaining sites are still being determined. I wrote to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury to outline why Lingmell house would be an ideal location for one of those sites. Even then, I said that other work could be brought in to save the site, which is an area that I should like the Government to explore in more detail. Of course, we get the usual, Sorry, we are not interested. My arguments highlight not only why Lingmell house should not have been earmarked for closure in the first place but just what an asset the building could be for a centralised site for the future.
Let us look at the offices location. The office is within five minutes of junction 8 of the M61 motorway, which provides access to the M65 and M6. It is a five-minute walk from the train station and an even shorter distance from the bus terminal. It is well placed to serve offices within Manchester and other cities such Preston and Blackburn and it is also within an hours drive of Leeds. Therefore, it is absolutely central to the north region let alone the north-west. Logistically, one could not find anywhere better. A person can drive into and out of Chorley, or they can get on a train. Yet we want to put more people into Manchester at a time when the Government are saying that they want a congestion charge because the city is so crowded. Why do we want to put more offices in there? Come on, let us go outside the cities and look for regional offices. It is that easy connection between the train and the bus to Chorley that would stop the number of cars coming in from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick). This issue affects not just the constituents in Chorley but those of my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow). We have seats all around Chorley that benefit because people all live locally, and that is the advantage of this proposal.
Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on the tremendous work that he has done in this field. A possible solution that has been suggested to me by staff working in the Lancaster tax office is to find new work, such as dealing with tax credits, because there are problems even with Preston. All the Lancashire MPs should meet the Minister to consider whether work can be spread around the region, which could save jobs, rather than forcing people to travel into Preston.
Mr. Pope: My hon. Friend is being characteristically generous to the Government by suggesting that alternative employment is being offered in Manchester. Some of the alternative employment is in Bootle, which is almost impossible to get to from his constituency in Chorley, and from mine in Accrington.
There is also the standard of accommodation. Our purpose-built office could not be better. It was constructed in the 1990s purely for the tax office. It is one of the newest HMRC offices in the north-west. In fact, a penalty must be paid by HMRC should it vacate the office before the end of its fixed-term contract. I will return to this matter a little later because it is important to get the message across.
Preston and Blackburn are the closest offices to Chorley that will remain open. Offices in Burnley, Accrington, Southport, St. Annes, Blackpool, Lancaster and Barrow will close. Those offices were staffed primarily by clerical grade staff. The creation of a corporation tax base in Chorley could accommodate the large number of surplus staff within the north-west. I hope that the Minister is taking this on, because, logistically, the office is central for everyone.
Staff at the office feel that they were deprived of a fair and formal consultation period. Therefore, giving consideration to such a proposal would begin to redress their grievance. I must emphasise the deep frustration of staff at the site who feel that redeployment to other sites around the region is simply not practical. Indeed in response to my parliamentary question on 17 March, the Minister stated that staff at Chorley may be transferred to offices in Bootle, Manchester and Salford. How can any of us get to Bootle? None of those centres is as conveniently located as Chorley. If someone lives in Chorley, it is extremely difficultif not impossibleto travel to Bootle unless they have a car. Moreover, HMRC is rightly proud of offering flexible working hours and part-time employment. I find it extremely hard to understand how such flexibility can be achieved if someone lives in Chorley and has to work in Bootle. In fact, it cannot be achieved. That is why we want to see substance and not just fine words. It takes 45 minutes to travel to Bootle in a car. To get there on a train from Preston, Chorley or any of our areas is virtually impossible.
I met staff at HMRC in Chorley and they were rightly concerned about the closure and their own future. In particular, they were worried about the lack information available. At this difficult time, people find it impossible to make plans if they do not know whether they will be transferred, or whether their office will stay open. Come on, let us rethink the plans.
The Public and Commercial Services Union has also expressed its concern about the closure programme, saying the ability of the Department to collect revenues and provide tax advice to the public and local businesses would be completely undermined. The Minister may say that we can have a little part-time office, but that is not acceptable.
Access to tax advice to communities across the UK will be damaged by the proposals, hitting businesses and the public in rural towns. Chorley is home to the Tenon Group, which is one of the biggest accountancy firms in the country and is listed on the stock market. We have hundreds upon hundreds of accountants and businesses that operate out of Chorley. Chorley is the 34th richest constituency in the country in terms of disposable income and is home to the 54th richest constituent in the country, and his business is based in Chorley. Therefore, closing the office would be complete madness. I say to the Minister, please reconsider the plans.
HMRC business units can operate more effectively by co-locating teams in a smaller number of locations.
That is fine. Let us look at some other locations, which the Minister did in the first place. He thought that that was right at the beginning, so how can it be wrong at the end? Is he telling me that his officials are completely bonkers? Is he saying that they made the wrong decision in saying that Chorley should remain open? I believe that the officials are not bonkers. They are absolutely right because they knew that it was the right office to remain open. The only people who did not agree with that were friends in higher places with greater influence. The officials got it right and they are not bonkers, but I am concerned about political interference.
Given that the Chorley office is the least costly office to runit costs only £203,739.32 per annumsurely it makes more sense to keep it open. It is less expensive to
keep open than the offices in St. Helens and Blackburn. That is the reason why it should not close. There is so much more that we can say. I know that the Minister will want to come back with some positive news. I do not believe that he will let my hon. Friends down once again. Once you have been shafted, you do not want to be shafted twice. Please, do the right thing. I cannot stress enough that something smells unhealthy here. Your top officials and your team went out to look at every office
Officials who took the right decision and did the right planning said, Chorley, Accrington and other offices are in the right place, providing the right business with high quality. Those officials got it right, so what has changed? If the office costs less to run and has the best staff, what could have changed anybodys mind? It is logical not to close the award-winning, purpose-built office that officials say should remain open.
We come back to what I said earlier: something about this is very questionable. What influence and undue influence was exerted to close Chorley and Hyndburn, and to allow Blackburn and St. Helens to remain open? How much will the Minister have to spend on those offices to make them fit for purpose? They were not fit for purpose, and they are still not. I say to him: please go away, take another look at the matter and come back to us. We will not go away. We will quite rightly pursue the Treasury for the truth, openness and transparency that we deserve. We expect to see all the letters, notes and e-mails that have been sent over the closures. It is only right that we should.
I would take the better option, which would keep everybody happy and put some of the spare capacity worktax credits and other thingsinto the offices. Finally, we should start with Chorley and look at the other offices after.
The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Stephen Timms): I welcome the opportunity to debate this matter with my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) and others. They take a keen interest in the question of the future of office locations, but my hon. Friend made quite a serious charge, in a characteristically robust way, and I hope to persuade him that it is wholly mistaken.
My hon. Friend knows that we are requiring Her Majestys Revenue and Customs to increase its effectiveness at the same time as making substantial efficiency cost savings. Those savings broadly equate to a reduction in staff of about 25,000 between 2004 and 2011. When HMRC was created in April 2005, the two former revenue departments had around 105,000 staff and two separate office networks in nearly 600 office buildings throughout the UK. There is an obvious imperative for rationalising the office network. HMRC estimates that as a result of new ways of working together and the
expected reduction in staff, it will be able to release up to 40 per cent. of its office space by 2011-12. That is driving the process. Of course, it means that some difficult decisions have to be made.
Given the shortage of time, I will go straight to the question of Chorley. Chorley was reviewed as part of the Preston-Blackpool area, taking account of planning for all the offices in the north-westwe heard about one or two of them in the debate. The decision to consolidate work is based on HMRCs strategic business requirements in the area, which arise from the drive to improve customer services and efficiency, and to vacate surplus accommodation.
I accept that such decisions are often finely balanced, but HMRC has suffered enormously from the uncertainty over the matter for quite a long period. As my hon. Friend said, the decision was announced almost exactly a year ago. The very worst thing that we could do now, especially in the interests of the staff who have been affected, would be to say, Well look again at the decisions. We will not be doing so, and we need to proceed with the decisions that have been made.
Mr. Hoyle: The Minister says that everything is set in stone, but the Government have reviewed Wigan and it will stay open another year, so his time scale is slipping. He also ought to take account of the uncertainty of closing the office in Preston because of redevelopment. Other offices are needed. Surely we should keep the purpose-built office in Chorley because the Preston office is going to be demolished, although it is not his fault that it is being developed.
Mr. Timms: That was not known when the announcement about which offices would close was madethe expectation is that Chorley will close towards the later part of 2010. None the less, it would be damaging for the organisation and the staff who have been affected by the uncertainty for me to give any suggestion that the decisions will be revisited.
The Preston-Blackpool area has 14 offices and 3,300 staff. HMRC expects its staff requirement by 2011 to be about the same as now. Unlike a lot of other areas, we are not expecting a drop in overall staff numbers in the Preston-Blackpool area, which is good news for those who work there for HMRC.
Initially, as has been said, the proposal envisaged retaining Accrington, Southport and Cop Laneone of the seven buildings in Prestonbut vacating the office in Blackburn. However, more detailed feasibility work during and after the consultation period suggested that a number of changes would produce a better overall result for the business. The main change was that local compliance decided that, rather than moving away from Blackburn, it made more sense to build up the team thereit already had some 80 staff in Blackburnand pull out of the other locations where it
had fewer staff. There were 30 staff in local compliance in Accrington and 35 in Chorleythere are currently 29 in Chorleyso it made better business sense for local compliance to bring people together in Blackburn, where it had a larger presence.
Mr. Pope: The number of staff in Accrington is 112 and the total in Chorley 77. Will the Minister consider the economic impact of taking that number of white collar jobs out of towns such as Chorley and Accrington in the middle of a recession? Will he at least consider a moratorium until we are coming out of the recession?
There were changes to proposals for offices in or around urban centres across the whole north-west. For example, Bolton is to be retained because customer operations and local compliance both decided that it was the best available fit with their strategic plans. The driver for the decisions announced a year ago was that the local compliance operation had a much larger group of staff in Blackburn than in the other two locations. In Chorley, the staff total is currently 66, the second largest group being customer operations. However, for optimum efficiency in customer operations, groups of at least 100 are necessary, so Chorley was always going to reduce in size even on the basis of the original proposal.
My hon. Friend made his disagreement with HMRCs decision to vacate Chorley clear, perfectly properly, and others expressed disagreement with other decisions. However, we need to move to new business operating models, most of which depend on bringing larger teams together in a smaller number of locations and introducing new ways of working. That has driven the decisions. HMRC has to use its resources to good effect, but that does not mean that it simply has to look at the running costs for particular buildings and choose the cheapest. Rather, it means looking at what buildings will work best for its business overall.
We are not proposing any reduction in HMRC jobs in the area compared with the current arrangements. The question is how those people can be provided with accommodation to do the most effective job possible. At the end of the programme
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