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11 Mar 2009 : Column 78WH—continued

Mr. Wright: I can develop an argument about the procedure that was missing from the consultation. During the post office closures, for instance, criteria were laid down saying that a post office in an area with deprivation could not even be considered for closure unless there was another one within a mile and, if that was so, it was
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taken out of the equation all together. However, no account has been taken of different socioeconomic circumstances in the areas I am talking about. If the Department says that those have been taken into account, it has been given the wrong information or it has had the wool pulled over its eyes by the officers who have taken the process forward. Other hon. Members’ constituencies have suffered in the same way and are losing jobs.

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He paints a bleak picture, but I fear that it may be even worse, because in Great Yarmouth, like Southend, jobs are moving away from constituencies with serious deprivation and unemployment levels that are higher than regional and national levels. The Government, through the Lyons review, are saying no to relocating other Government offices within those areas, but at the same time the Department for Communities and Local Government is pumping in regeneration money. That is incoherent and inconsistent and it is bad for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and mine.

Mr. Wright: That is a point, but as I just mentioned the millions of pounds that have been put into my constituency have created further employment opportunities. I find it perverse that, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, we are supporting regeneration in our communities—mainly seaside ones, by and large—and a huge amount of investment is going in, yet because of the peripherality and transport links the Department seems to say that it is more convenient to move away into city centres, forgetting the difficulties that it will face. I suppose I am thankful that there are no forced redundancies and job losses in this area, although there are thousands of job losses across the civil service. Obviously, there is a degree of concern about that.

As I said earlier, the proposal that I am talking about is constructive dismissal in a different format. If I was a trade union official in a factory and was faced with this argument and told, “We are moving, this is fair,” I would say, “It is constructive dismissal.” We are not making people redundant and I applaud the Government for not enforcing redundancies, but they are forcing people in these circumstances into deciding that they cannot continue in their employment for whatever reason.

After my meeting with Paul Grey he gave me the assurances that I mentioned. But recently the new chief executive wrote to PCS on a question about impact assessments, saying,

It is clear that that comment on the socioeconomic impact did not feature at all in the decision-making process, otherwise there would be clear indications of the unemployment levels that we have in Great Yarmouth, which are the highest in the eastern region, albeit much lower than in the past two decades.

The tragedy is that answers and solutions that the Department could have used to make significant savings across the board have not been taken into account. The PCS Norwich taxes branch issued a document called
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“Change we can believe in”. What a title! It is a change that I could believe in. It advances clearly and concisely in dozens of pages the argument about how the Department could save millions of pounds in respect of office space, among other things. The PCS was disappointed that it did not even get a response saying, “Sorry, we disagree with your argument, which is wrong because of A, B, C and D.” When I challenged the Department, saying that office space in Great Yarmouth is substantially lower in cost than that in Norwich, I was told that such information is commercially confidential. That is a constant argument. We can never get to the bottom of what the difference in cost is. So how can we come to a conclusion about the savings that the Department will make?

There is another disturbing point. I have kept details of nearly every single letter and debate and of arguments advanced by many hon. Members in questions. Every time the answer comes back:

this is in reply to a question asked by the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb)—

So it does not know what the saving will be, and so we go on. How can an alternative be prepared when the savings are not known? It is like saying, “We know that there will be savings, but we don’t know how much.” Yet there has been a clear indication of where the savings would come from in respect of the three offices at Dereham, Great Yarmouth and Norwich. To my knowledge and from the information that I have received nobody has said, “Those figures are wrong.” I can only assume that the savings, which are in excess of a third of a million pounds a year, and running on, must be true or even on the low side, and that is not taking into account the extra costs for travel. I understand that there is no figure in HMRC’s budgets for redundancy payments. So where somebody cannot take their job up and we make them redundant how do we pay them? Is there a costing for that? I do not believe that there is any evidence that there has been a true reflection of costs and savings across the range.

Gwyn Prosser: On savings, my hon. Friend will be aware that the location of some offices is dictated by their geography and they cannot relocate, but even in those cases there are moves being made to privatise certain elements. For instance, in Priory court in Dover, which is a highly sensitive high-security centre, the Department wants to get rid of the highly regarded security systems and put in private companies. Is my hon. Friend aware, and does he agree, that not only will that undermine the security of such places, but there is no proved saving at the end of a difficult process? Does he not think that the Department should think again about these matters?

Mr. Wright: Absolutely. Using the argument about the recession and what my hon. Friend has said, the latest closure programme covering all the offices that I have mentioned should be ceased forthwith and the Department should have another rethink. Let us get the answers to this problem and find out what the savings will be, compared with the alternative advanced by the
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unions. The union in this case is open to negotiations and clearly accepts that we need to modernise and save the taxpayer’s money. I think everyone would agree, and I cannot understand why we are going into the matter blindfolded, not knowing what the savings will be. When questions are asked about differences in rent, one is told that the information is commercially sensitive, and no answer is forthcoming. Unless someone gives me the figures, I say clearly and categorically, without the evidence before me, that Yarmouth office space is far cheaper than Norwich office space.

I had a meeting with the owner of the building. HMRC rents five floors, but for the past two years only three floors have been used. The rent could have been negotiated down—considerable sums are involved—because only 60 per cent. of the floor space was being used and 40 per cent. was being wasted. I know that there are contractual obligations and so on, but I also know that the owner wants to negotiate with Mapeley because they could put someone else into the accommodation. There are issues, but the evidence in the report has been put into the consultation process, to which there has been no response, and there is no dispute about the figures and so on, so will my right hon. Friend reconsider the whole programme of closures, not just at Havenbridge house, but throughout the country?

There are deficits in the consultation process, and I am sure that savings will be made, but at what cost? I do not want that cost to force some of my constituents, who may be on the lowest pay and have severe difficulties with their life-work balance, to have no option but to leave the profession that they have worked in for 25 years because they cannot travel to Norwich. I urge my right hon. Friend to reconsider the issue seriously for that reason, and because this is a difficult time with the recession. I am not saying that there is ever a right time, but now is not the time for uncertainty.

10.2 am

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): I will keep my comments brief, because many hon. Members feel as I do. There are many similarities between Great Yarmouth and Southend in the stories and problems related by the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright). My personal interaction with HMRC started in 2006, shortly after my election in 2005, when the executive summary of a technical office accommodation review said:

However, buried in the document, reference was made to 344 jobs, which I was told were nothing to worry about because they would go through natural wastage. How offensive it is to discuss people’s livelihoods as being naturally wasted. That is insulting to anyone.

In 2004, 2,491 people were employed by HMRC in Rochford and Southend, East, but the 2011 figure is projected to be only 1,500, a loss of about 1,000 jobs. It is now clear that one of the two major office blocks in Southend—Alexander house and Portcullis house—will close entirely. The Mapeley saga could not be made up. If it was in Private Eye one would think it satirical that the Inland Revenue was offshoring its property arrangements. That is shabby and duplicitous, and if anyone else did it, no doubt the Treasury would examine the arrangement to see whether it was tax avoidance or something more serious.

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In Southend, unemployment is higher than the regional and national average, as it is in Great Yarmouth. There is enormous inconsistency, with some Departments not recognising the value of local jobs in pockets of deprivation in the east and south-east of England, but recognising it in the need for regeneration. All credit to the Department for Communities and Local Government for recognising that Southend, Great Yarmouth and other seaside towns with pockets of deprivation need regeneration. Some money comes forward in one hand, but is taken away by the other hand through all the administrative costs associated with the changes.

The Lyons review needs further consideration, because for our constituents the situation is even worse than the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth said, not only because of the jobs that are going, but because when there are future big infrastructure projects in towns consideration will be given to areas with deprivation over a longer period. Opposite Portcullis house in Southend are some tower blocks where the occupants are in the bottom 10 per cent. of deprivation in the whole United Kingdom. For many of them, work is hard to find and they have difficult family situations. They are exactly the sort of people whom we should be helping. The Government are trying to get young, single mothers back into work, as we will if we are in government, and jobs in HMRC, which are predominantly part-time, are critical, yet the heart of them has been ripped out.

Constructive dismissal has been mentioned, because people will have a journey of one and a half hours. The hon. Member for Great Yarmouth is right in saying that they are being treated shabbily by being expected to travel long distances. In Southend, in addition to part-time work, there is also monthly periodic work with VAT returns, and dealing with peak flows and so on. Over 20 or 30 years, many people have changed their personal arrangements to fit in with HMRC, which is now jettisoning them because those arrangements are no longer convenient for it.

The relationship and merger between Customs and Excise and the Inland Revenue is not working well. It is certainly not working well in Southend. The cultural clash, with misunderstandings and constant change, is difficult. Only last weekend, I sat down with someone who told me that she used to enjoy her job and used to be able to do a good job, but with the changes, and with IT infrastructure and files in a different place, she is completely demotivated and cannot do her job as well as she did it in the old-fashioned way. The merger is not working.

I had a meeting with the acting chairman of HMRC, who was then Paul Gray, but the relationship locally between management and Members of Parliament is appalling, certainly in Southend. That is a criticism not of individuals, but of the structure. Southend has a relatively small but important IT operation, an anti-fraud operation, a VAT processing operation and some slightly more traditional operations. Because of the reporting lines, many different people are in charge of different departments, but no one in HMRC in Southend is in overall charge, so it is impossible for me, as a Member of Parliament, to have a relationship with a local employer of 2,500 people.

I encourage the Minister to appoint one senior individual in HMRC’s hubs in constituencies to represent it in the local community. I am not the only person who wants
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such a relationship; the chief executive of Southend borough council, the leader of the council and other civic and community groups want HMRC to integrate with the community. There is much to be done, and it is clear from hon. Members’ comments that there are many problems.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Martin Caton (in the Chair): Order. Five more hon. Members have indicated that they would like to contribute to the debate, and we must start the winding-up speeches at 10.30, so I appeal for brevity from Members.

10.8 am

Ms Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): I am grateful for this opportunity to speak on behalf of my constituents, who are directly affected by the closures. As hon. Members are aware, the intention is to close more than 200 offices nationally, and 25,000 jobs will be lost by 2011. It is clear from the number of hon. Members in the Chamber today that many people throughout the country are worried about the proposals.

I shall be brief, but I want to put on record my concern about the relationship between MPs and their local tax offices. In the west of Scotland, some MPs have had difficulty visiting tax offices during the past few months to speak to management and the work force about the difficult processes that are going ahead. That is not what we expect in the public sector, and I hope that the Minister will take the matter up because it has made a difficult process worse for those involved.

In Scotland, 19 tax offices are under threat, and their closure was announced on 4 December. The tax office that probably most affects my constituents is at Greenock. The Greenock customs house is an historic building and there is great concern locally about the fact that so historic a building, a working customs house, with its own museum and history, is being closed. It is in an area of high unemployment and high deprivation, so there are serious questions about how much money will be saved as a result of the closure. The belief is that the amounts will be quite small. Will the Minister respond, perhaps after today’s debate, about the amount of money that will be saved by closing the tax office at Greenock?

As I said, the tax office is in an area of high unemployment. Both Inverclyde and Ayrshire, which will be directly affected if the closure goes ahead, are areas of historically high unemployment—areas that traditionally had huge levels of employment in manufacturing and industry, which have closed over the past 13 years. Of course, over the 18 years of Conservative government there were massive job losses and the area has not recovered. At a time of recession, when things are already difficult, job losses of the type that we are discussing are far from helpful.

Women workers are particularly affected by the closures. Greenock is in a geographically remote area where the transport links are not good and public transport links in particular are very poor. The women who are affected are well educated and most of them come from the local area, so they have worked for that employer for many years—decades, in many instances. The reality is that
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they simply will not be in a position to travel to the alternatives that might be available to them, because of child care and other caring responsibilities. From a public policy point of view, that does not seem consistent with the Government’s other policies.

The other issue that has been raised is tax avoidance. The TUC estimates that £12 billion is lost each year through what is called tax planning, and indeed tax avoidance, by the largest 700 corporations in Britain. I understand that it is equivalent to one tenth of all households paying over their entire annual income to plug that tax gap. Anything that causes us to lose experienced staff and moves us a step away from ensuring that we see proper payment of tax must be regretted.

I know that my colleagues have many points to make on behalf of their constituents, but I want to raise a few issues that have been raised with me by constituents who are directly affected—in particular, the lack of assistance from HMRC in obtaining alternative employment with other Departments. Those people are being treated as voluntarily moving their employment, whereas in fact they are being forced into a new job. If a job with similar terms and conditions and similar pay is not available, what will happen to them? The reality is that they will have to take a lower salary or an alternative job. Will the Minister spell out the plans for members of staff who are left stranded with no alternative employment at the end of the exercise?

We need to consider what is happening in other areas. For example, Cumbernauld, one of the tax offices to which it is suggested that my constituents move, is training staff to learn new skills. We are losing staff who have a wealth of experience gained over many years, but we are taking on and training people who do not have those skills. The issues that I have raised are of great concern and I ask the Minister to reconsider the policy.

10.14 am

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) on securing an incredibly important debate. I shall speak for only a few minutes and restrict my comments to my great concern about the imminent proposed closure of the tax offices in Kendal in my constituency, although many of my constituents work in the tax offices in Barrow and Lancaster, both of which have also been put down for closure.

It has been a privilege to work alongside the many people who work in the tax offices in Kendal and to see at first hand their dedication to their role. Over the years, I have seen the number of staff working at the tax offices in Kendal go down from almost 100 to about 40 at present. Because of the proposed closures of Barrow and Lancaster as well, the powers that be have agreed that there is no possibility of a reasonable travel-to-work distance to an alternative tax office at Carlisle or Preston, for example. Although there is still, thankfully, the promise of no compulsory redundancies—we shall hold the Government to that—that means closure of an office by atrophy over time, which is appalling and demoralising for all the people there during that time.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Does my hon. Friend not agree that in such a situation, which is comparable to ours in Alnwick in Northumberland,
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where the work will be relocated to a business park more than 30 miles away, the Government ought to have a programme of decentralising other work, because they are pulling the heart out of many small towns—the main source of office employment? As Governments have sometimes done in the past, the Government could have a programme to take work from central locations into small towns.

Tim Farron: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government appear to be sucking public sector jobs into areas that already have plenty of them and taking them away from smaller areas that desperately need them. Those jobs will be lost to our area—that is the bottom line—and in an area such as South Lakeland, where average house prices are about 13 times average annual wages, the possibility of decent well-paid work is essential. The proposal is a huge blow to South Lakeland and Kendal. I ask the Minister to please rethink, for the reasons that I have given and for two other reasons.

There are two other reasons why the decisions generally and those specifically affecting my constituency are foolish. The first relates to the economic situation. As has been mentioned, the plans were drawn up before the recession. Now that John Maynard Keynes, a great Liberal, is fashionable again, I remind hon. Members of one of the many wise things that he said:

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