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HMRC Offices (East Midlands)

Volume 463: debated on Wednesday 18 July 2007

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Tony Cunningham.]

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the concerns of my constituents about the proposed closure of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs offices in Burton-on-Trent as part of the review taking place in the east midlands. I understand the need to reassess the use of buildings that accommodate HMRC in the light of changes in working practices and in the operations of the service. However, I do not believe that centralising all work for the Nottingham-Derby area in Nottingham is the right way forward. Nor do I believe that the proposal will produce the most efficient and effective system for delivering the service in the future, or that it will be efficient or effective if long-serving, experienced staff are forced to leave because of the distance that they would be expected to travel to work.

I shall come to the likely effect on staff and on the services that they provide in some detail later, but first I want to question the inclusion of Burton-on-Trent in the review of the Nottingham, Derby and Leicester urban centres. The consultation document states:

“The offices selected for review were determined by examining all offices within a 25 km radius of Castle Meadow Nottingham and Northgate House Derby.”

Burton is 21 km from Derby—almost at the limit of the criterion—but it is 47 km from Nottingham. Since the current proposal is for all the sites in the area to close and move to Nottingham, I believe that it is wrong for the Burton-on-Trent office to be included.

In their response to the consultation, staff stated:

“The original proposal lumped Burton in with Nottingham/Derby, but as the current proposal means the closure of Derby, Burton is far outside the 25 km range of reasonable daily travel and should therefore be considered as a stand-alone office.”

Another reason why I believe that Burton should be treated as a stand-alone office is that the town is actually situated in Staffordshire, which is in the west midlands. The staff in Burton work with employers from throughout the whole of Staffordshire. If Burton closes, will the processing of all Staffordshire employers’ returns take place in Nottingham, rather than in Burton?

I am reassured by the correspondence that I have had with HMRC that the review will take into account the effect on staff. The Burton site is unusual, in that 17 per cent. of the staff have some form of disability. Some of the disabilities are visible, but others such as irritable bowel syndrome, repetitive strain injury, poor eyesight and vertigo may be invisible. People with certain disabilities would not be prevented from travelling to Nottingham, but others would find it impossible. Staff with conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome would be unable to travel using public transport because of the lack of facilities, which would mean that they would have to make themselves redundant by refusing and being unable to relocate.

Those who need to attend medical appointments within work time would find it far more time-consuming and costly if they were to be redeployed in Nottingham. The time currently allowed for appointments that cannot take place outside working hours is up to one half the person’s working day. If Burton staff were to relocate to a different area, the allowed time would not cover the travelling, appointment and treatment time required, and more people would therefore have to take sick leave to attend such appointments. For staff attending medical appointments, there would be the added cost of travel, which would not be refunded because such travel would be outside the normal standard day. Whereas now, an appointment at Queen’s hospital in Burton may involve minimal time and little disruption to the work load of staff, travelling to appointments from Nottingham could reduce the office’s effectiveness.

One member of staff who is registered blind would find it impossible to travel as far as Nottingham and would therefore be forced to give up her job, even though she would have little prospect of finding other work. Another member of staff, who suffers from allergic rhinitis, which causes severe vertigo, said:

“There have been occasions where I’ve had to be taken home because I could not walk or drive due to my vertigo. What am I supposed to do if I’m working miles from home and have a bad attack? I can’t drive with a severe attack and wouldn’t be able to get myself home.”

Those are real concerns of valuable members of staff who are afraid for their future. HMRC in Burton is an excellent example of how an employer should accommodate staff with disabilities. It also offers flexible hours to help employees balance work and family life, which the Government strive to encourage all employers to do. It would be sad if the reorganisation resulted in a move in the opposite direction.

Around half the staff at Burton have children or elderly relatives to care for. Many have chosen to work part-time or during term time because it fits in with family commitments; indeed, 37 per cent. work part-time. In their response to the consultation, the staff said:

“The Government wants to encourage disabled people to work. We are a shining example of that in action. Closing the office and making it so much harder for us all, disabled or not, to even get to work, could see all that lost. The same goes for many of our part-time staff. Most have child-care issues, which is why they are part-time to begin with. The extra travelling time will lead to at best a reduction in the number of hours many will be able to work. The reduced working hours will lead to an increase in benefit claims which is again contrary to Government aims. The Government announced plans to assist single parents back to work. The closure of Crown House is in direct opposition to these aims.”

One member of staff described her situation:

“I have worked for the Revenue for 24 years. I have always chosen to stay in the Burton location as it works with my family/work balance. I am very committed to my work and although I have seen so many changes with the way we have to work over the years, I am still proud to say I work for the Government at the Inland Revenue (now Revenue and Customs).”

This member of staff had worked full-time for 17 years at Crown house and then reduced her working hours to 27 a week when she had her daughter. Working two hours fewer per day enables her to collect her daughter from school each day. She said that any move to Derby—or, if that office closed, which is probable, to Nottingham—would throw her work and home life into chaos. She would have to consider working longer hours for four days and paying for breakfast and after-school clubs.

I accept that many people have to make such arrangements, and that the Government are encouraging the development of wraparound care to enable people to get into work. Many people have to travel some way to work, but my constituents who work at HMRC in Burton have chosen to work close to home, and to work hours that suit the needs of their families. They are loyal and dedicated staff who will find their lives totally disrupted by the closure of the Burton office.

It is not just those with children who will find their lives disrupted. Many staff have the responsibility of caring for elderly relatives. They would find their tasks much more difficult if they had to relocate to Nottingham.

Some employees will find it impossible to afford the extra costs of working further away from home. Although travelling costs would be paid, there are fears that the extra costs would not be fully covered. The payments would be for a limited time only, and would be taxable. They would not cover the possible introduction of congestion charges or increased parking charges. The payment of travel expenses would also have a detrimental effect on those staff who claim tax credits due to low pay or short hours, and there would be no financial compensation for additional child care costs. Those who are able to travel will, of course, add to the problems on our roads, particularly in cities such as Nottingham, by adding to the congestion and pollution.

My hon. Friend spoke movingly about the effects on staff at Burton. Does she agree that similar considerations apply to Mansfield? People will have to move from Mansfield to Nottingham and then deal with the consequences for their families. More importantly, should we not be focusing on customers—people who want tax advice—and is there not a real case to keep local offices open, so that people can have direct access to public services?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Obviously, I am concentrating on Burton-on-Trent because it is the area that I represent, but the same could be said for the other offices that face closure. It is important—I shall come to this issue later—to have experienced staff who can both deal with customers and businesses on site and visit them. People’s experience of the local community is important in that regard.

Any closure of the Burton office would undoubtedly lead to the loss of experienced staff, be they those with disabilities who cannot travel, those with caring responsibilities who are unable to balance work and family life, or those who cannot afford to travel. That loss of experience would result in a poorer service for the taxpayer. Employees describe how, having devoted all their working lives to the organisation, they have gained a breadth of knowledge that is irreplaceable. That knowledge has helped staff to adapt quickly to the changes happening in HMRC. Staff are concerned that the job losses caused by closures will mean that a valuable resource is lost, and that the public will suffer because there will be a vastly inferior service.

Nearly all the staff in Burton have worked there for more than 10 years, and the majority have worked there for more than 20 years. Customers of HMRC—local employers—are also concerned about the loss of experienced and skilled staff that the closure of Crown house in Burton would result in. As I said, the employers’ section for the whole of Staffordshire is in Burton. That specialist and local knowledge is of huge importance to the employers with which HMRC deals, and the loss of expert knowledge cannot be replaced by basic re-training in other locations. The loss of a quality service would directly impact not just on employers, but on their employees.

In their response to the consultation, the staff said:

“The compartmentalisation of work into narrow processes such as the LEAN procedures has a detrimental effect on many of our customers. Post is filtered and quick work is prioritised at the expense of more complex work. In the Staffordshire area much of that more difficult work is regularly sent to us here in the Burton office due to the breadth of experience in handling PAYE and SA work.”

They went on to say that there would be a loss of knowledge if staff were forced to leave because of the closures, and added:

“Those that may be able to travel will be fed into LEAN teams, where, over time the expert knowledge they possess will be diluted by the production line style of work that caused the difficult work to be sent to us to deal with in the first place.”

I am also concerned about the impact that closure would have on the compliance team at Burton, which currently goes out to business in the local area. Its knowledge of local employers will be diluted and its visits will, again, entail more travel costs.

Any closure of the Burton office would result in a worsening service for the public who need to visit the inquiry centre. I understand that there is a commitment to keep an inquiry facility in Burton. However, either it would be more costly to provide the equivalent of current services in such a stand-alone facility, or the hours that it could operate would be severely restricted.

I thank my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for giving way. She has focused on the effect on employees and is now turning to some of the business issues, but does she agree that it is concerning that HMRC has not yet produced any detailed business plan regarding the savings that might be generated from this wholesale reorganisation? It will be prepared only after the consultation has been concluded and a decision has been made, which seems to be the wrong way round.

I agree with my hon. Friend—that is obviously the wrong way round, and other issues also seem to involve putting the cart before the horse. Staff are unsure whether they should accept a move now, or wait to see whether a closure takes place—an issue that I will come to later. There are many concerns about the whole process, such as that raised by my hon. Friend.

There are five staff at the inquiry centre, including the manager, and they are backed up by staff in the main offices. For health and safety reasons, the back-office staff will work in the inquiry centre when needed, doing their own work, not inquiry centre work. That enables the centre to remain open if, for example, someone is on holiday or sick leave, or has a day off. For health and safety reasons, there must always be two members of staff in the inquiry centre when the public are present. Crown house has its own security system that protects those who work in the inquiry centre and serves others in the building who do not work for HMRC. The danger is that if the inquiry service is to be managed with the current five staff, it would have to become part- time and reduce its hours. Alternatively, it would cost more to maintain a separate facility.

It is important that a full inquiry service be maintained in Burton, particularly because the town has a large number of people whose first language is not English. It is unusual for a town the size of Burton to have so many residents who are originally from other countries. We have a large, long-established community that originates from Pakistan. More recently, people have come to the town from Iraq and Afghanistan, and, more recently still, from Poland. Some of them have language difficulties and value face-to-face contact, rather than contact via the telephone. If we do not have a full service, those people will lose out, and as I said, maintaining the current inquiry service would cost more money.

The impact on the local economy of the proposed job losses in Burton is a further concern. Crown house is situated in the town centre, and the HMRC operates from two of the building’s six floors. A job centre operates from two floors, and one floor is commercially rented. Crown house is conveniently located next to local bus services and is adjacent to the two main shopping centres. Staff based in the town spend their money there, and local shops will lose out if jobs are transferred to Nottingham. People will not just go out at lunch time in Nottingham, but will do their general shopping there, which will be a loss to Burton and its local businesses.

I draw the Minister’s attention to the stress that has been placed on staff by the uncertainty that exists over the proposed closures. Although I appreciate that consultation and consideration of the proposals have been extended so that care can be taken to make the right decision, delay brings a longer period of uncertainty for staff. In the meantime, they feel pressured into making decisions about their future without knowing whether their place of employment will close. No alternative departments in Burton, or within reasonable daily travel, could take on surplus staff from HMRC. Staff are being told that if their office is to close, in the worse case scenario there will be compulsory moves, and that if someone refuses to move, they will be dismissed under the conduct and disciplinary procedures. Will the Minister say whether that is correct?

I am pleased to be able to draw the Minister’s attention to my constituents’ concerns. I ask her to look at the position of loyal and experienced staff who have given a lifetime of service to the Revenue. I also ask her to look at the response of the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett), of 5 July concerning the Kettering office, in which she stated:

“One aspect of the impact assessment that is made is the effect of travel”.

She went on to say:

“All staff will have individual meetings with their managers to assess their travel requirements and to make sure that they do not affect their work-life balance.”—[Official Report, 5 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 1089.]

It is important that that happens before a decision to close an office is made. Reference has been made to the financial situation—the other side of the issue. It is no good saying that the offices are going to close and then looking at the staff’s needs, because in that case some staff could not continue to be employed.

I ask the Minister to consider the situation, given that Burton-on-Trent is 47 km from Nottingham—nearly twice the reasonable travel distance, according to the consultation—and to consider whether Burton should be regarded as a stand-alone office. Will she also consider the better use of technology to avoid centralisation and the reduction of accommodation at various locations, rather than the abandonment of whole buildings, or part of them, as in the case of Crown house? It should not be beyond the wit of man and woman to devise a system in which people can continue to work in offices, albeit on reduced floor space, and use technology to do the jobs that they would have to do if they were transferred to Nottingham.

I hope that, when the Minister has considered all the issues, my constituents will be able to continue to work close to home, which will help them to balance their employment with any disabilities or caring responsibilities that they have.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean) on securing this important debate. Some decisions for the London area have been announced already, but in the process of reviewing these HMRC mergers and closures around the country, we were told initially that a decision would be made for the east midlands—along with other areas—in the summer. However, it is now more likely to be after the summer—we think that that means in the autumn. So great doubt still hangs over the work forces in the affected areas.

In Derbyshire—one of the five counties in the east midlands—the proposal is to close every HMRC centre and to move them out of the county. We have heard examples already of some being moved to Nottingham. In Chesterfield, which has two offices, the proposal is to close both and to move them to Sheffield. There are a number of problems with that, which those who work in the two offices in Chesterfield have split into different categories.

One of those concerns travel-to-work distances, of which we have just heard examples from Burton-on- Trent. On a map, the distance from Chesterfield to Sheffield, which both staff and customers would have to travel in order to get to the proposed Sheffield centre, might appear quite short—geographically it is—but in reality it certainly is not. One factor that has to be taken into account is that, of course, a number of people working in Chesterfield live in other parts of north Derbyshire, such as the Peak district. One member of staff that I talked to lives in Matlock in the West Derbyshire constituency. First they have to travel into Chesterfield before being able to make public transport connections to Sheffield, which would have a massive effect on calculating travel-to-work times. The same would apply to many customers of the centres in Chesterfield, many of whom, we should remember, are not business men or accountants dealing with tax issues who, arguably, will have cars and be able to travel, but are pursuing issues such as tax credits and working tax credits. In some cases, they will be unemployed. Such people will not find it easy to access car transport—it is not easy to get to Sheffield anyway—or to pay the costs of public transport. The distance is one factor, and the distance on the map is a very different reality from the actual travelling distance, into which I shall go in more detail later.

Another issue concerning travel to Sheffield, whether by car or bus, is the massive congestion in the daytime, which will be the working hours of the offices. The relatively short land distance to drive is a nightmare journey, and one that I know very well. I was born and lived until I was 18-years-old in the part of Sheffield nearest to Chesterfield, and I still drive in that way every week to visit my mother. Of course, I go in during the day, quite often for media interviews and meetings as well. The road network is congested throughout the day, not just in peak travel times in the morning and at the end of the afternoon. A normal route-finder or map simply does not indicate the reality. Quite often, the key roads into Sheffield from Derbyshire are gridlocked at key times and other times during the day, which makes journeys a nightmare.

That, of course, has a knock-on effect on another Government policy, which, quite correctly, is to reduce the impact on the environment of the way we live and do business. Making those who work in the two Chesterfield offices and all of the customers and clients travel to Chesterfield on a regular basis simply adds more pollution, especially since most of that road transport, whether bus or car, will be sat in traffic jams for the greater part of the journey, churning out pollution as it edges forward, bit by bit, along gridlocked roads in Sheffield—more pollution, rather than less, despite what is meant to be the Government’s overriding objective across every Department.

We heard examples from Burton-on-Trent of part-time workers. A large percentage of workers in one of the Chesterfield offices in particular are female employees working part-time. I have talked to a large number of them individually, through letters and at a public meeting, and an awful lot of them chose to work part-time specifically because they have caring responsibilities, mostly for children, but also for elderly and disabled relatives. Although it is mostly women, there are men in the same situation as well. Certainly, at one of the two offices, the majority of staff are part-time, and across the offices as a whole, part-time workers constitute a large percentage of the staff.

Again, as we have heard from examples in Burton-on- Trent, many feel that they would not be able to maintain their job if they had to work in Sheffield, with all the problems of travel and time, and getting back to pick children up from school and to look after relatives and so forth. Their jobs would be lost, as, of course, would their skills and experience, as we have heard already. Many of those people have worked for many years for HMRC in its two previous incarnations.

I have touched already on the question of business service to the community, which has been mentioned by others as well. That affects partly the service to those coming to deal with tax issues and other personal matters such as working tax credits, which are horrendously complicated and can cause huge heartache for those trying to sort out the fact that they have been overpaid or underpaid and so on. If they have to travel to Sheffield, some simply will not be able to go and others will not bother, and so will lose out even further. Businesses, such as accountants, have said that, whereas at the moment they can often go to a local office and, in a face-to-face meeting, sort out quite easily many of the problems affecting their business clients, if they have to drive on congested roads to Sheffield, the service will be much worse—it might be done more at a distance, by phone or internet. The Government want e-government, but by no stretch of the imagination is that always as effective as face-to-face meetings with those involved. In fact, often, it is less effective. So there would be a loss of service to the community—to both individuals and businesses.

That business factor is important for Derbyshire as a whole, if it loses every centre, and for Chesterfield, which has been through bad economic times in the last 20 years or so. In Chesterfield, we have just, but not quite, got back to the level of employment that we had in 1981, just before Mrs. Thatcher’s Government began the slash and burn policies that wiped out almost the entire industrial base in Chesterfield—engineering and mining. In recent years, many new and small businesses have been attracted into the town, but they require a lot of interaction with tax and revenue departments in order to sort out their business affairs. The loss of all of the centres in Derbyshire and, therefore, Chesterfield would impact on local businesses in the town.

We had a very reassuring meeting some weeks ago with people from the Department who told us that no one currently working for HMRC would be expected, as a result of closures and mergers, to make an unreasonable daily journey. A reasonable daily travel time—RDT—is calculated at 60 minutes. They said that back-office work would be provided if people simply cannot move to the new offices when offices are closed. Such back-office work could be done more in their home location. They promised that a face-to-face interview facility for customers would be retained, that there would be no compulsory redundancies and that they would consider, when making their final judgments in the course of the consultation, issues such as the local economy and regeneration, and whether an area, such as Chesterfield, had suffered very badly from the economic downturn of the last 20 years, was just pulling out of that and needed the help, employment and support provided by those offices.

It seemed to me at the end of the meeting that the Government had made it crystal clear that if all the promises were kept, there was no way in which they could close both offices in Chesterfield, as they had at first proposed, because doing so would not meet any one of the five criteria. If those reassurances are to be acted on, it looks as though we can be quite optimistic about what the Government will announce on Chesterfield later this year.

However, there are question marks over the reasonable daily travel distance. We are told that no one will be expected to have an unreasonable travel-to-work time as a result of closure and mergers, but when we go into the detail and analyse how individual people will be affected, that is not quite so reassuring. The distance from Chesterfield to Sheffield is not very far on a map, but let us say that someone goes by train. There is a very good regular service from Chesterfield to Sheffield, but they will have to walk quite a distance from the station to Concept house, which is the proposed new location in Sheffield, and quite a bit will be uphill. From the flat area where the station is, they will have to go uphill past the town centre to Concept house. If people are older or disabled, that walk will not be easy. I am thinking of both staff and clients travelling from Chesterfield and north Derbyshire.

If someone travels by car, there are serious problems. The Government figures suggest that it takes 23 minutes to go by car from Chesterfield to Concept house in Sheffield. That ignores the fact that a number of the people who work in Chesterfield and a number of the people who use the Chesterfield office as clients come from the whole area of north and central Derbyshire—they come from the Peak district and from north Derbyshire. The issue is not just a 23-minute journey from the centre of Chesterfield to Concept house, but the journey time into Chesterfield first as well. In any event, there is absolutely no way the journey can be done in 23 minutes by car in the daytime. I have driven the route many times in the past 30 years or so, so I know. If someone is travelling to work in the morning or coming home from work at the end of the afternoon, it is impossible to do the journey in 23 minutes.

People who work at the centres in Chesterfield have questioned the Department about how much faith it is placing in the internet route-finders, such as the AA route-finders, that say that the journey takes 23 minutes. The answer seems to be, “An awful lot.” A member of the management of the work force change team for the Chesterfield area said that the AA route-finder was “a really good start” for the team analysis of individual journey times. Well, it is not a really good start; it is totally and utterly misleading about the journey times during the day and especially at peak travel-to-work and travel-home times.

A question that has arisen in the same vein from the London experience is whether, in the case of disputes about whether the travel-to-work times that people pull off the internet are realistic, the Department will pay for a test journey to be made by the individual, so that they can take the suggested public transport route or car route and see whether they can travel it in the given time. Initially, people were told that yes, the Department would pay for test journeys, but when they chased that up, they were given this answer in London:

“There is no departmental policy covering the reimbursement of expenses incurred whilst testing the journey to a proposed new place of work. The decision falls to the local business unit/manager’s discretion.”

It seems, from the negotiations that are already taking place in the London area, where decisions have been announced, that it will be very difficult to get support for a test journey, but if there is reliance on internet route-finders, that will be totally and utterly misleading and it must be abandoned.

As the hon. Lady said, everyone accepts that there is a need to rationalise the estate of HMRC; that is perfectly sensible. Previously, there were two Departments, with two separate lots of offices. Of course money can be saved for the taxpayer and better spent on other things by rationalising what is being provided. In Chesterfield, the staff themselves have said that the situation is very simple. Dents chambers, which is one of the buildings in Chesterfield, could be closed and everyone moved into Markham house, which is the other building. That is under-utilised; there is room to move everyone there from Dents chambers. If that were done, a significant percentage of the savings that are sought in terms of physical office space would be made, without all the disruption to the service to people in Derbyshire, the loss of jobs and the inconvenience to people—without all the negative consequences that we have discussed.

The announcement was to be made this summer, but now we are told that it will be at the end of the summer. I hope that that does not mean at the end of August, when Parliament is in recess and Ministers are not accessible to be questioned by hon. Members from affected constituencies. I hope that it means October, when Ministers are entirely accessible.

The Minister is indicating yes from a sedentary position. I look forward to her comments at the end of the debate. Obviously, hon. Members want to be very involved at the point when the final decision is announced and in the ongoing negotiations, where necessary, on behalf of individual workers in the area affected.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean) on securing the debate and on the way in which she presented her arguments on behalf of Burton. I also welcome my right hon. Friend the Minister to her position, which is well deserved. We look forward to working with her again as we did when she was in her previous jobs.

I understand, as others do, the reasons for the review of office space and work force deployment, but I want to raise three issues. First, the proposal to close the Alfreton office, which is in my constituency but to which people also travel from neighbouring constituencies, cannot meet the criteria set out in the review.

Secondly, I am very concerned that although assurances were given—particularly in a debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), in which she set out all the arguments on the Chesterfield office, and subsequently—that no decisions had yet been taken and that the Minister would consider all the arguments made, in fact what is happening in the offices at the moment, certainly in Alfreton, is pre-empting those decisions. That is creating confusion for staff on what decisions they should be taking at the moment.

Thirdly, I urge my right hon. Friend to ignore completely, unless it has been changed dramatically, the summary of the consultation responses that was drawn up by HMRC staff, because it bears no relationship to the responses that certainly I and staff made. It is not a proper representation of those responses. I will return to that.

As with the Burton office, it is quoted in the review that Horsefair house, which is the Alfreton office, lies well outside the 25-km radius for both the main offices in Derby and Nottingham within the urban review area and should therefore be assessed as a stand-alone office. In addition to the fact that it is well outside those boundaries, the travel distances are calculated on the basis of office-to-office distances by car, and many of the people who work at Alfreton travel a considerable distance into Alfreton before they even get going, so the distances are considerably greater than that. Those distances indicate that Alfreton should also be seen as a stand-alone office.

As has been said, the relocation would not allow staff to take journeys involving reasonable daily travel. It just is not possible for it to be reasonable daily travel if staff from Alfreton have to travel to Nottingham. Because of the nature of transport links in the rural area and from Nottingham, it is not possible to say that they could travel reasonable distances. In the submissions that I sent in—I do not know whether I shall have time to return to them—I cited a number of examples, with travel times, of staff who will simply lose their jobs because they cannot possibly travel to Nottingham, given their responsibilities and the times when they have to travel. It is physically not possible.

There has been discussion about congestion on the journey into Chesterfield for staff travelling by car. I would challenge people to try travelling in and out of Nottingham during rush hours—it is a complete and utter nightmare. Anyone travelling by car will have real problems. For people travelling by public transport, at least there is a train service from Chesterfield to Sheffield. Trains from Alfreton to Nottingham go hourly only. The Alfreton Parkway station is about 1.5 miles out of the centre of the town. It is a very difficult station for people with disabilities, and at the moment the trains are not even running, so going by train certainly creates interesting challenges. For anyone who has to time their travel to fit in with when they, for example, have to drop children off at school and pick them up, it becomes virtually impossible. If they travelled by bus, most staff would have to take more than one.

I urge the Minister to talk to the Minister who dealt with the attempt at the beginning of this Parliament to close the two medical assessment centres in Derbyshire. A lot of work was done on the travel distances involved, which showed that it was very difficult to make the necessary connections in our area. Largely as a result of the work that we did and the submissions that I made on travel connections with help from the public transport unit and individuals, the two medical assessment centres stayed open.

It must also be emphasised that staff with caring responsibilities do not have flexibility as to when they can travel. We cannot, therefore, simply say that it is a certain distance from one place to another; if the trains go only hourly, many staff in the office will almost have to leave work before they get there, and that creates considerable problems.

On individual staff, we are told that one of the criteria is that HMRC is keen to ensure that

“the degree of disruption for its staff is minimised”.

We are also told:

“No jobs will be lost directly as a result of this proposal. It is expected that staff will relocate within the Nottingham/Derby urban centres.”

However, the consultation document says that 47 per cent. of the staff at the Alfreton office work part-time and that 86 per cent. are women, and those are among the highest proportions in any office covered in the Nottingham, Derby, Leicester and Sheffield reviews. In a union survey of staff at the Alfreton office, 84 per cent. indicated that they had caring responsibilities.

I refer the Minister to a recent response by the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett), who has particular responsibility for women’s issues and equality. In response to a question on 5 July, she stated:

“HMRC is committed to ensuring that women and other groups do not suffer when tax offices are closed.”—[Official Report, 5 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 1088.]

Given the incredibly high proportion of women, part-time workers and people with caring responsibilities at the Alfreton office—it is possibly the highest proportion in any of the offices affected by the review—it is just not possible to meet that commitment not to have an effect on women. Nor is it possible to say that nobody will lose their jobs, because these people are just not able to travel.

The equal opportunities implications of the proposals are really serious. If the proposals are applied to Alfreton, they will not meet the new gender duty on public authorities. We are talking about some of the few quality jobs in the Alfreton area that are available to women with caring responsibilities and which allow the flexibility to combine paid work and caring.

I mentioned our concern about decisions being pre-empted. Within the past fortnight, the staff responsible for face-to-face contact, who are meant to be staying so that a contact service is retained, have been told that only those who can make the commitment to covering a full contact service will be wanted. In effect, they are already being told that if they work part-time, they will not be wanted. That pre-empts the decision that will be taken and goes against what has been said about equal opportunities.

As I said, such jobs are not widely available to women in the Alfreton area; indeed, there is a lack of quality jobs generally in the area. HMRC is one of the larger employers in Alfreton. Unemployment in the area is the highest in the Amber Valley borough. The office also serves a number of neighbouring constituencies, which are also classified as deprived areas.

There are therefore serious issues in relation to equal opportunities. At the moment, I am chairing an inquiry for the Select Committee on Trade and Industry on how to implement the women and work commission proposals. We are looking, in particular, at the fact that occupational segregation leads to an equal pay divide, and that relates considerably to the number of decent jobs that are available to women. The proposals therefore have serious equal opportunities implications, and we need to take account of those.

I want to make a couple of additional points. As has been said, the proposal is that all the offices in Derbyshire should close, and the implications of that are similar to those of the proposed closure of both the medical assessment centres in Derbyshire. The proposal has therefore created a lot of local concern about the county’s economy, and there is the issue of whether Government offices are seen to provide a service in our county.

On the service issue, it is proposed to continue the customer inquiry service at a nearby venue. However, the tax office at Horsefair house has received considerable national recognition for the quality of its work and particularly for the outreach work that it has done in the past. At the moment, there is a team of four face-to-face staff, which includes full-time staff members and a part-time member who works only during term time. Of the full-time staff, one has child care responsibilities and another works a nine-day fortnight. They work their hours to fit their responsibilities, but if they are now being told that they can do those jobs only if they are prepared to work a different set of hours, they will lose their jobs. Furthermore, they currently require back-up from processing staff to provide cover, but it is proposed to move the processing staff to Nottingham. The proposals will therefore have a detrimental effect both on staff and the commitments made to them and on the service that is provided.

Given the nature of their jobs, staff in the Alfreton area are very long serving and experienced. It is easier to get other jobs in urban areas, so people do not have the same length of service or level of expertise, and that fact should also be taken into account. I am told that staff turnover at Alfreton is much lower than at larger offices, where HMRC competes with other employers, and that the average length of service at Alfreton is 20 years. There is therefore a range of arguments, which I hope that the Minister will take seriously.

I am also concerned that decisions are being pre-empted. We are told that no jobs will be lost directly as a result of the review, but that is just not true. People at the Alfreton office are being told that volunteers are still being sought to move to the strategic sites. What are staff in such offices meant to do? Are they meant to assume—those who are able to move—that there will be no jobs for them if they do not take that offer up now? That pre-empts what will happen, and staffing levels will potentially be wound down to the point where the office closes and those who cannot move will be left behind. That is causing a lot of concern.

At least one member of staff has already been told that she is pre-surplus because her work in dealing with the estate has been moved to Nottingham. That pre-empts any decision to close the Alfreton office, which we are told has not been taken.

As my hon. Friend might be aware—this might apply to her constituents as well—one of my constituents was told:

“If you wish to await the outcome of the regional reviews, you can do so but be aware that the vacancies that exist in some of our Strategic Sites may be filled”.

Yes, I have heard similar things, but we are told that no jobs will be directly lost as a result of the review. That puts people in considerable uncertainty.

Another constituent, who works in the Nottingham offices, which are meant to carry on, has been told that the type of job that she does will in future be split across six offices, instead of seven. Again, those involved do not know whether they will be offered anything else; they have been told half a story and have been left in considerable confusion.

As I say, decisions seem to have been pre-empted. As I mentioned, management told staff who work face to face a fortnight ago that it wanted only those who can make the commitment to work the necessary hours, and that goes against equal opportunities commitments. There is therefore a great deal of uncertainty, and I am concerned that despite commitments that no decisions have been made, management is operating in such a way as to pre-empt any decisions.

I mentioned my concern about the consultation responses. As a result of criticisms at our meeting with HMRC management and staff, we were told that management would go back and look at the responses, but the consultation summary bears no relationship to the submissions that were made. On Alfreton, for example, the summary says that some staff have concerns about travelling to Nottingham, which would have “an effect” on their work-life balance. Yes, it would have an effect on their work-life balance: the work bit would go, as a number of those people just cannot travel in the way that is suggested, because of the length of the journey and the connections, which they cannot make. The summary is just a distortion of what was said. We said they would not be able to make the change. It would not just affect their work-life balance; their work-life balance is such that their commitments make it impossible.

The consultation document also contains, for some reason, a quotation—we do not know where it comes from—which is quite complimentary; it does not include the comments from people who are very critical about the effect on service. I advise scepticism in studying the consultation responses, unless there have been substantial changes. I intend to write to the Financial Secretary and send her my response again.

I have a couple of examples of the situation of people in the Alfreton office with regard to travel. I have obtained some case studies. One relates to someone who worked there 30 hours a week, enabling her to drop off her daughter at school for 8.40 am and pick her up at 3.30 pm. She does not drive, so if the office closed she would have to get the bus to Nottingham from her home in Swanwick. Incidentally the main fast bus service has just closed. We hope that we shall get a substitute service, or I do not know what my constituent will do. However, when she wrote about her situation, she said, on the assumption that the Red Arrow service would still be functioning, that her travelling time would be three hours a day. She calculated that to get her hours in she would not be returning home until 6.50 pm. She did not know whether she would be able to get a child minder, which she would have to do to cover that time.

Another example concerns a single parent who cannot drop her daughter off at the child minder’s home before 8 o’clock. She cannot drive, so she would have to go by bus or catch the train, which is only hourly. There is only an hourly bus service to Alfreton from where she lives. The trains from Alfreton to Nottingham run hourly. Even if she managed to catch the 9 o’clock train from Alfreton she could not get her hours in, so, again, she would have to stop working. I have also collected examples of people with disabilities; in the case of one who is registered disabled it would not be possible to get to the Nottingham office.

There are serious difficulties about the Alfreton office. I am concerned about the proposal to close all the Derbyshire offices, and about the way in which the management is now operating, which is putting great pressure on staff to take decisions without knowing the full facts about what is to happen, and is also pre-empting decisions. I know that the Financial Secretary has a difficult job, which I do not envy her, but I urge her to take on board the points that I have made.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean) on securing the debate. She spoke powerfully about the impact that the proposed changes will have on her constituents, but she has also provided an opportunity for many other Members of Parliament to raise concerns about how they will affect their constituencies. I am sure that the story that we have heard today will echo not only across the east midlands but across the country, because there is widespread concern about the impact of the proposals to rationalise HMRC offices. In my constituency, office closures are proposed and the staff and the wider community are concerned about the effect that they will have.

I do not think that anyone present in the Chamber objects to the principle of what the Government have said they want to achieve. It is right that the Government should closely examine the work that civil servants do, whether for national or local government, and determine whether they are doing it as efficiently as possible, so that taxpayers can see that public services give value for money. If efficiency savings can be made, that is to be welcomed. However, there is concern about whether the savings that are being discussed will be cost-effective, and whether there will be an effect on front-line services.

We have clearly heard that staff are worried about the viability of their jobs, the difficulties that the changes will present them with in such matters as travel arrangements, and whether the consultation process was fair and representative. The result is concern that pre-emptive action is being taken, ahead of the announcement of any decisions at the beginning of the autumn; that there will be a continuing period of uncertainty; and even that what is happening is salami-slicing—the beginning, rather than the end, of a process that will cast the relevant services into even greater uncertainty. Hon. Members have spoken at length about specific staff worries, and I want to broaden out my concerns about the impact that the changes may have on such matters as the local community, government, and the individuals who use the services.

As to the possible effect on the community, hon. Members have already discussed people’s views about difficulty in getting access to services or their work. People will have further to travel, and the emphasis on the distance between the two offices is not necessarily fair. In both cases, people will be travelling to the offices; there will be journeys to be made to, as well as between, those destinations. That needs to be taken into consideration, along with the difficulties that have been mentioned about the relative pros and cons of trying to make the necessary journeys by public transport—or even by car, where there is significant traffic congestion.

I am concerned about the impact that any job losses will have on job availability in deprived areas. Access to quality jobs is important to the regeneration of any area. Perhaps I may draw a parallel between what has been described today and the situation in my constituency, where the tax office jobs are critical in ensuring not only access to high-quality jobs but footfall in the town. Offices providing high-quality jobs lead to money being spent in towns every day, and the additional revenue has a beneficial impact on the town. If that effect is removed, not only jobs but spending will go from the town centres. I hope that the Government take that into account when they consider possible closures.

We have heard in great detail about the possible effect of closures on access to jobs for women, in particular. Many of the jobs are part-time and, as we have heard, are held by people with responsibilities to families as carers. Any changes will affect whether they consider remaining in their job a viable option, given all their other commitments outside work. Of course, if people must travel further, there will be an environmental impact. My hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) spoke clearly about the knock-on effect. I wonder what cross-departmental thinking is going on about issues such as regeneration and the impact on the environment.

It seems that there is a drive to centralise services while other Departments are talking about decentralising them, and a proposal to reduce women’s access to jobs while other Departments are talking about the need to ensure equality of access to jobs—and not just for women but for disabled people and other groups. Will there be a loss of community intelligence? One of the key assets of many tax offices is their local knowledge. They know the individuals that they will speak to. If people must travel a long way, that important community connection will be lost.

As to the effect on government, the Government think that the changes will bring about efficiency savings and make greater resources available. Will the Financial Secretary elaborate on the contribution that she thinks the changes will make to the Gershon review? What impact will they have on wider plans to decentralise jobs, and on local revenue collection? Of course, there is a detection and deterrence element to the work, and a cost-benefit analysis needs to be done, taking into account the cost of providing the jobs and the benefit that they provide by bringing additional taxation revenue into the Treasury. Does the Financial Secretary expect that evasion may increase and the Treasury’s ability to detect it may decrease as a result of some of the changes?

I also want to ask the Minister about equality. Have the Government made any assessment of the impact that these decisions will have on women’s access to the workplace? What will happen to the people in Burton, where there is a high level of disability employment? Will that change as a result of the proposals? There is undoubtedly massive excess office capacity on many of these sites, and of course there is a need for rationalisation, but I wonder whether the scope for capital savings will be matched by similar revenue savings.

The theme that comes out of the debate is that people’s interaction with the state is increasingly expected to be faceless and done on the internet or by telephone. For many people that is absolutely fine and is the most convenient and straightforward way of doing things, but what happens when the choice is taken away? Some people, when they have a serious problem, are reassured by being able to sit down with an individual who is empowered to take a decision about their case and who they know has a personal interest in it. That is important, and there are concerns that that aspect will be lost, because it will become increasingly difficult to have that interaction under the changes.

Increasing numbers of my constituents come to my surgeries about problems with the Child Support Agency, the tax credit office and other Government agencies. People go to their MP in absolute frustration that they cannot speak to an individual in person to sort out their problem, or even speak consistently to the same individual on the phone. They go to their MP because it is their only opportunity to have a face-to-face interaction with the state on an issue that is affecting their lives, often in a massive way. I currently have the odd case regarding the local tax offices, but not many. I am concerned that we will not see the impact of the changes until further down the line when, suddenly, in addition to the tax credit and Child Support Agency cases that come in, we will see individuals who are having problems with their tax assessment, who would previously have been able to talk through their problems face to face with an individual but have lost that opportunity.

I understand that a face-to-face presence is to be maintained in many offices, but there are concerns that the changes will be the beginning of a process, not the end, and that we will see what we have seen with jobcentre closures: first, staff numbers are reduced, then opening hours are reduced and then, all of a sudden, we see a proposal for closure. We need reassurances from the Minister that that will not be the case in these areas.

I conclude by asking the Minister a few more questions. What work is being done at a cross-departmental level and with local authorities regarding spare office capacity and the need to provide services at a local, community level? Are they considering providing a variety of local services to make the most efficient use of work space and maintain a local presence? What was the decision-making process about where to centralise? Back in May, the Derby Evening Telegraph described a process whereby a circle was drawn around Nottingham and everything within that circle was drawn in. Is that what happened and was any account taken of local transport options? I have already raised my concerns about the salami-slicing approach. Will the Minister estimate the likely overall cost savings? Has there been a cost-benefit analysis of the savings represented by the job cuts balanced against the revenue that will be forgone as a result of the cuts?

Members of staff and the wider public are uneasy about the climate of uncertainty regarding the proposed closures, and the hon. Member for Burton has done her constituency a service in securing the debate. This is an opportunity for the Minister to provide greater certainty, and everyone will be pleased to hear further reassurances that the consultation process will have an impact on the results and on the autumn proposals.

It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mr. Cummings. I think that this is the first time I have spoken in this Chamber with you in the Chair—I am more used to the hon. Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean) being in the Chair. I congratulate her on securing this very useful debate and on the passion and understanding that she showed in setting out her case. She put the perspective of the staff who work in Burton very strongly, and spoke in particular about disabilities and work-life balance, which other hon. Members have mentioned.

We must all acknowledge, as some hon. Members have, that it is incumbent on HMRC to organise its affairs in the most efficient manner possible, and that there is a place for rationalisation where it has additional office capacity. I should like to address more fully a point that the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) made in his intervention, which was not discussed in great detail, about customer services. I am not entirely sure about calling taxpayers “customers”. I know that we all use that term, but I am not sure that they all feel like customers when their tax is taken from them.

This is a big issue in the east midlands. Hon. Members have pointed out that the programme stretches across the country, and there have been previous debates on how it will affect Cornwall and Kettering. However, feelings are strong in the east midlands, with which I include Staffordshire, even though it is in the west midlands. The Derby Evening Telegraph has been very vigorous in defending the existing tax offices through its “Hands Off Our Taxmen” campaign.

The reorganisation is driven partly by a desire to find efficiency savings. There are targets to reduce the number of staff in HMRC, which were driven by Gershon and, subsequently, the Lyons report. We must consider the matter carefully. It is entirely reasonable for Parliament to scrutinise whether the service to the “customer” is being maintained. Last December, the former Paymaster General answered a parliamentary question about the impact of the tax office closure programme on the administration of tax credits and employer end-of-year returns. She began her reply by stating:

“HMRC do not have a tax office closure plan.”

I think that we know different now. She went on:

“The reorganisation aims to improve both efficiency and customer service in all areas of HMRC.”—[Official Report, 19 December 2006; Vol. 454, c. 1744W.]

That is clearly a welcome objective, but we must ask whether it is being achieved.

When I was preparing for this debate, I looked at the evidence given to the Treasury Select Committee on 25 April by a number of experts in the field. Frank Haskew, head of the tax faculty at the Institute of Chartered Accountants, said that he was

“very concerned about HMRC’s cost reduction programme and efficiency savings and that it is too much of a task for HMRC to actually improve services.”

The institute, which deals with tax offices on a day-to-day basis, has surveyed its members and found that 65 per cent. of respondents feel that the HMRC merger has not improved services. It also found—this is particularly relevant to the debate—that 71 per cent. feel that centralisation has gone too far, and that 79 per cent. feel that the lack of HMRC offices and contacts is making their job much harder. That important point was made by the hon. Members for Burton and for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy). People want to be able to speak to somebody directly—to be able to sit down and have a face-to-face meeting. When tax credits were designed, the intention was that there would be an opportunity to have such meetings. When dealing with the state as a whole, there is a desire for such an approach.

The hon. Member for Burton raised some local issues, including the fact that a lot of people in Burton do not speak English as their first language. Having done a little research in this area, I know that four of Burton’s wards are among the 10 per cent. most deprived in the west midlands.

East Staffordshire borough council has recently shown its desire to speak to people by establishing a customer service centre in Burton. In the first three weeks, about 1,500 people visited it. I am grateful to Andrew Griffiths, the excellent Conservative parliamentary spokesman for Burton, for drawing this to my attention. A desire to speak to people clearly exists.

John Whiting of the Chartered Institute of Taxation raised a concern with the Treasury Committee about the loss of experience within HMRC. He said that it was harder for people to get good interaction with someone who could answer their questions. A consistent message is coming back: routine problems such as VAT registration and trying to check whether coding notices have been issued are taking longer to resolve. Previously, such matters would have been dealt with by a quick telephone call or a quick visit. It is a great concern that the quality of service provided by HMRC is not what it should be—indeed, it appears to be declining in many instances.

Tax credits are one of a handful of recent particular stresses on HMRC. I am only going to touch on them now, but I am sure that it will not be the last time that I debate them with the Financial Secretary. We saw the report last week from the National Audit Office, produced along with HMRC’s annual accounts. One of the many concerns raised in it was that the level of fraud and error in 2004-05 was unacceptably high, and there was no evidence to demonstrate a lower estimate for subsequent years. One problem identified by Sir John Bourn of the NAO was the quality of the inquiry work undertaken by HMRC. Does the Financial Secretary think that the removal of local offices will have any impact on the inquiry work undertaken by HMRC to identify fraud and error?

Another subject that we debated at some length during consideration of the Finance Bill, particularly on Report, was VAT issues, particularly delays in VAT registrations and repayments. Again, that is not a new issue, although it may be for the Financial Secretary. There is considerable concern about HMRC delays within this process, and Paul Gray, its chairman, acknowledged the problem in January. There is a recognition of what we hope is a temporary blip in performance. None the less, we are seeing considerable delays in the time that it takes to register a company for VAT and to make a VAT repayment.

I should acknowledge that many of the problems are occurring because of legitimate attempts to tackle missing trader intra-community fraud. I do not want to put any pressure on HMRC to fast-track processes and not go through the necessary checks, but there is a wider issue. Resources appear to be diverted into tackling that fraud, leaving insufficient resources to deal with routine matters.

I return to income tax and the NAO report issued last week. It seems that HMRC may not be pursuing some £880 million of tax due, and that there is about £340 million in overpaid tax. The report states:

“potentially five million taxpayers not paying the right amount of”

—income—

“tax.”

That is clearly a concern.

The Public and Commercial Services Union, which deals with this area, has stated:

“The programme of office closures and job cuts will potentially have a devastating impact on jobs, conditions and the delivery of public services, particularly in areas where service delivery is already impeded by inadequate staffing.”

It also says:

“Morale has reached a new low”.

One of the points made by the trade union is that, given the various staff reductions, HMRC may be

“employing thousands of staff on short-term, temporary contracts and using overtime (at an additional net cost to the Government) in an effort to try to cope with backlogs of work.”

I would be very grateful if the Financial Secretary shed light on whether that is true.

We can see that HMRC will have a very tight budget for the next few years, and that there will be some fairly ambitious attempts at reorganisation. Doing all this at once creates certain strains. We must ask ourselves whether HMRC is coping and whether its customers are suffering. We have also heard important points about the impact on communities and on staff, and it is right that we address all these issues. My concern is that the then Chancellor perhaps sought to have a very tight spending round, and wanted to lead by example. In doing so, has he caused a problem in our tax system that will create problems in raising revenue, and for taxpayers and staff?

It is a pleasure to be debating this subject under your chairmanship, Mr. Cummings. For once, it is not raining, so hopefully the day will continue to go well. I am pleased to have been able to listen to the concerns that were expressed, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean) on securing the debate and, as has been said, on enabling a number of other colleagues to speak on this subject, which is of clear importance to the neighbourhoods that they represent.

I also appreciate the way in which hon. Members have expressed their acceptance of the need for the current review. I know that they will appreciate that, following the merger of the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise, the department has significantly more office accommodation than it needs. The position varies across the regions, but in general HMRC believes that it has about 40 per cent. more office accommodation than it needs to support its operations. It estimates that this spare capacity costs about £100 million a year to maintain. The annual cost of accommodation in the urban centres of Nottingham, Derby and Leicester to the department is about £12 million. I am glad that my hon. Friends have agreed that the board has a responsibility to reduce unnecessary cost.

In a thoughtful and probing speech, the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) raised a number of issues. He is right that the challenges facing HMRC are not easy. I would like to say one or two things on the issue of tax credits, which he mentioned. He also quoted from evidence to the Treasury Committee, and raised concerns that were expressed by representatives of tax advisers or agents. I acknowledge that the agent community may require specific services, as do other members of the public, from HMRC. HMRC is piloting a dedicated agents’ hotline to see whether it meets those needs. However, I am sure that we will discuss this issue again on other occasions.

Similarly, the hon. Gentleman questioned whether we had the balance right, whether HMRC was being asked to do too much and what impact that might have on levels of service. I recognise that some difficulties exist. HMRC is working to recover the position on VAT, and working on the speed with which VAT registrations and returns are processed. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be reassured that we have ring-fenced resources for tax credits. Transformation of the process seeks to address some of the problems, and to improve the level of service as part of the efficiency programme. HMRC aims to deliver an effective and efficient service focused on the needs of its customers—I prefer to call them customers rather than claimants, as we do with some tax credit claimants. Those improvements cannot be achieved by continuing to occupy buildings that are no longer needed, and carrying out work in ways that are no longer efficient.

Very little of HMRC’s current work in its local offices relates to economic activity in the local area in question. Its business is arranged on national business lines, including the use of large contact and processing centres, with the exception of its inquiry centre network—I shall return to that—and locally based compliance and debt management activity. It is important that HMRC uses its larger centres as efficiently as possible, and it has embarked on a transformation programme that will allow it to deliver its business with up to 25 per cent. fewer staff. A number of jobs will go over time, but it is the process by which HMRC achieves those improvements and efficiencies that we are discussing.

Beyond that, HMRC is making significant changes to the way in which it carries out its business to respond to customer demand. Many customers now choose to use the telephone, or the internet to file returns and make claims. It is right for senior management to look at all operations to ensure that they are run as efficiently as possible. In some work areas, that need is best served by concentrating work in larger units where the processes can be streamlined. In other areas, a more mobile work force is seen as the best solution to meet customer needs. Finally, there must be an emphasis on improving compliance by matching resources to the risks that HMRC deals with in particular locations.

I shall now deal with a couple of general points. The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) asked what contribution the closure will make to the Gershon recommendations. HMRC is aiming for ongoing savings of £507 million per annum by 1 April 2008. The hon. Lady suggested that we were salami-slicing services, and asked whether there would be more change in the future. There is nothing more certain than that there will be more changes. HMRC transformation will continue over a number of years, and it is likely that, as customer needs and processes change, decisions will be revisited.

The hon. Lady made a throwaway comment about changes at jobcentres, Jobcentre Plus and so on, and some of the associated traumas. When I was Minister for Work a few years ago, I rejoiced when an unemployment benefit office in my constituency was closed—I had signed on there 20-odd years ago—and put up for sale. It was looking rather sad and dilapidated, and it is now being made ready for redevelopment for a totally different purpose. I asked my agent whether I could pose in front of it for a photograph for a leaflet, because it is excellent that the strength of the economy and the greater number of jobs mean that we can consider with equanimity some of the changes that, at other times in our country’s history, have been much more problematic.

HMRC is ahead of schedule with its general efficiency programme, having reduced the number of posts by some 11,000 through a combination of restricted recruitment and voluntary early retirement. I emphasise that the plan is to reduce its use of office accommodation and to focus on back-office functions, not public inquiry facilities.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Dawn Primarolo), who served for a long time at the Treasury and is an extremely hard act to follow, made it clear that the network of inquiry centres must be maintained. I want to assure my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) that I fully endorse that approach. HMRC will not change that approach in any way.

When an inquiry centre is to close—for example, because a lease cannot be renewed—HMRC has been asked to re-provision the facility as close as possible to the current inquiry centre. Face-to-face contact will be maintained, and in many cases it will be enhanced.

If a back office closes, will the inquiry office be open for as long as it is now, and will increased staffing be necessary to fulfil that?

In line with the assurances that I have given and the steer that was given to HMRC by my predecessor, the face-to-face services that the public receive through those offices should be maintained and, wherever possible, enhanced. I cannot predict too far into the future the specifics of what may happen in a particular office, but I assure my hon. Friend that the current level of services will be maintained.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that, in order to maintain the number of hours that an office is open to the public if a back office closes, it will be necessary to employ more face-to-face staff?

I do not want to pre-empt anything that might come out of the consultation and review, but where those considerations are being made, my hon. Friend is right. I will look to the professionals charged with responsibility for managing the decisions for the details. Her point is sensible, and such considerations will be taken into account. I hope that I have reassured her, without going too far into the details.

The new department has been asked to draw up plans to improve services and to reduce costs over the next five years. The Government will invest significantly in each of those years to improve HMRC services.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) has asked on a number of occasions about the detailed business case. HMRC’s business case is predicated on improving services for customers by re-engineering its processes; strengthening compliance—those who have had concerns about the compliance effort should be reassured—achieving efficiencies that, in part, will release the 25,000 posts that I mentioned; and releasing up to 40 per cent. of excess estate, which is costing more than £100 million. While the impact assessment may reflect the costs of a single building and the likely cost of staff moving, it cannot cover each of the national savings noted above.

Similarly, my hon. Friend the Member for Burton asked about the effect of job cuts and local office closures, and expressed her concerns about compliance yield and local knowledge. That issue was raised in an Adjournment debate last week. There is no question but that local knowledge is important for compliance work, but the local compliance presence does not always need to be quite as local as it is now. Co- locating teams from former Inland Revenue and former Customs and Excise will enable them to work more effectively, and HMRC can continue to protect revenue by greater assessment of risk and the use of intelligence.

As my hon. Friend and others are aware, HMRC has designed a systematic approach of review, consultation and announcements on decisions. It is amazing how time flies, and I am aware that my time is coming to an end. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) that I will take account of all the submissions that have been made, including representations in this debate, before any decisions are made. We are caught between a rock and a hard place. I do not want to make an announcement—I have not had any advice on this—before the end of term, and no announcements will be made until the House resumes, so that hon. Members have an opportunity to comment.

During the remaining seconds, may I say that, as a former trade union official, I compliment the managers charged with taking forward these changes on the care that they are taking to ensure that individual members of staff, whose concerns my hon. Friend rightly raised, are dealt with as fairly as possible?