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Hull Official Receiver’s Office

Volume 580: debated on Tuesday 13 May 2014

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Claire Perry.)

I am pleased to speak about the proposed closure of the official receiver’s office in Hull, and I thank the Minister for meeting me and other Hull MPs to discuss this issue on 6 May—I note that she has had busy day in the Chamber today. The proposal is to close the Hull office and relocate more than 40 staff to Leeds. The claim is that that will produce a saving of about £289,000 over five years, which rather pales by comparison with the bill of £353,000 for tea and biscuits in the Minister’s Department in 2012.

I accept that nationally the work of the Insolvency Service has declined considerably across the country over the last few years, and we are seeing fewer cases coming forward overall. However, the argument is not about reducing the number of staff employed in the service, but about concentrating work in certain locations, and that is where I want to focus my contribution this evening.

The decision to close the office in Hull undermines the efforts of all those who are working to create a more prosperous city. Hull needs an additional 7,000 jobs to get to the national level of employment, and while we have had welcome news about Siemens coming to the city—something won by local effort—we have been hit hard by the recession and three years of flatlining.

We know that the closure will take around £1 million out of the local economy, at a time when Hull has hardly any Government jobs. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is supposed to be committed to economic regeneration of the regions, but how does this policy help with that aim? The Government are also supposed to have a policy of distributing Government and civil service jobs around the country. What consideration was given to the relative number of civil service jobs in Hull and Leeds when making this decision?

Hull has exceptionally few Government jobs: 10 Departments, including the Minister’s own Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, have no staff in Hull. Departments that do have staff in Hull, like the Ministry of Justice, tend to have front-line delivery staff. As I said, the plan is to move the Insolvency Service jobs to Leeds, where there are already more than 9,000 civil service jobs and where office rents are far more expensive. I have observed a similar pattern repeated across the country: the insolvency office in Stoke, where rents are very cheap, is being closed and moved to Manchester where rents are higher. Previous Governments have had a clear policy of distributing Government jobs around the country—do this Government still have that policy?

I heard the Deputy Prime Minister this morning waxing lyrical on the Floor of the House saying:

“I am always open, as are the Government, to proposals on moving further parts of the public sector from Whitehall and London to other parts of the country. Sheffield”—

where his constituency is—

“has benefited enormously from that, with the Department for Work and Pensions and the business bank being established there.”

It seems to me that we have a Government who are certainly not looking at spreading Government jobs fairly across the regions and are in fact now taking them away from East Yorkshire.

It appears that civil servants based in London have decided that it is a good idea to close offices in Hull. I imagine them in their offices in Whitehall with a map of the UK, and, almost as happened in the second world war, moving around people they think can be distributed around the country, with no thought for the effect on communities.

The business case says that this closure programme is being driven by the Cabinet Office’s Government property unit, which aims to reduce the number of properties in the central civil estate. It seems that there is a desire to centralise jobs in a few places, with little consideration given to the wider economic consequences or even to the fact that in some cities rents will be much higher than in other parts of the country. What similar cost savings have been made by the Minister’s Department in London? The plans being put forward for Hull are about saving £289,000 over five years, which is a drop in the ocean compared with the cost of renting or occupying office space in central London. How many posts have been moved out of London since 2010, and at what saving to the taxpayer? How much office space has been freed up at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in London and, in particular, in the head office on Victoria street?

Another of my concerns is about the consequences for the economy of the closure of the Insolvency Service for the Humber region. Through the establishment of the local enterprise partnership, the Humber is seeking to forge a path as a separate economic region with a distinct identity. The Insolvency Service has developed specialist knowledge of the region which, if these plans go ahead, will be subsumed by the wider Yorkshire region based in Leeds. Hull staff have more than 600 years of collective insolvency experience. Last year, that saved the economy more than £2.5 million, as they disqualified 20 directors. There is a particular value to having local knowledge about what is going on in an area. As we know, unfortunately many people the Insolvency Service deals with are repeat offenders. Of 17 local official receiver offices, Hull is joint fifth in terms of the number of disqualification reports—that is quite high.

An example of the good work that has been done is the fact that local knowledge in the Hull office stopped German bankruptcy tourism in the Hull county court. The limited liability partnership provided false addresses to German residents but that has been wound up thanks to the local knowledge and work of the Hull office. Without local knowledge of the places referred to, it is unlikely that that fraud would have been stopped, so will the Minister give me her view of the assessment undertaken by the Insolvency Service of moving direct regional centres to larger autonomous units in terms of the detection of fraud?

Following our meeting on 6 May, the Minister promised that she would provide the business case to me and to other Hull MPs. However, the information contained in the business case that I have been given is limited solely to the Hull, Leeds and Sheffield offices. It does not give a comparison between Hull and other offices of a similar size that have not been closed.

The savings identified are mainly saved office costs offset by £125,000 in train fares for three years for staff who relocate to Leeds. That is good news for First TransPennine Express, the local train operator, and it may be that it can use that money to provide some much needed investment on the Hull-Leeds line instead of sending trains south. There is, however, much that is missing from the costing in the limited business plan. The first thing is redundancy costs.

The staff in the Hull office are exceptionally experienced: collectively, they have more than 600 years of experience. Having spent their lives working in Hull, however, many do not want to travel to Leeds and all have been offered redundancy payments. From union sources, I understand that redundancy costs could be as high as £1 million. Where is that allocated in the business plan? The saving of £289,000 over five years is relatively small, yet redundancies could cost £1 million. I appreciate that that is provided for by a different budget directly funded by the Treasury, but it all boils down to taxpayers' money, and the Government should be acting in a more joined-up way when looking at the closure costs of this office.

On training new staff, it is accepted by the Insolvency Service that the staff in the Hull office are required to meet the necessary case load not just of work from Hull but other areas of the country. The business case blithely presumes that all Hull staff will move to Leeds. As I said, I think there are questions about the numbers of staff who will choose to take redundancy. It takes three years to train a level 3 examiner before qualifying, but the costs of recruiting and training staff do not seem to be included in the business plan.

Bizarrely, in the very brief consideration given in the business case for moving the Leeds office, which as I said has 9,000 civil servants, to Hull, which has very few civil servants based in the city, the presumption that 30 staff would not move across is included, along with associated costs of recruiting, training and the short-term loss of capacity. Will the Minister explain why she has presumed that Leeds staff will not move to Hull, but all Hull staff will move to Leeds?

A further concern is about the way the consultation with the trade unions has been conducted. The Minister has consistently maintained that the Insolvency Service has been attempting to work with the Hull office to find a way of keeping the office open. In answer to a recent parliamentary question, the Minister wrote:

“The trade unions were made aware on 25 February 2014 that the future of the Hull office was being considered, and were invited to provide any views they wished.”—[Official Report, 6 May 2014; Vol. 580, c. 93W.]

This was not, however, the impression given to the trade union, Prospect. Prospect told me

“that the Service would be running exit schemes and then closing offices. There was never discussion on whether an office closure was justifiable as we had not been provided with the financial justification and despite requests by the Trade Unions, the Service would not release the business cases for the closures.”

Consultation with the trade unions only commenced when the decision to close the Hull office was made on the basis of a statutory 90-day consultation. Will the Minister outline exactly when the trade unions were involved, and what opportunities they were given to inform the closure plans? The Hull office was told on 25 February that the future of the office was under review and that the review would take six months. In the meantime, it looked at ways of reducing its costs, including preliminary discussions on new premises that would reduce the rent by approximately £90,000 per annum. Obviously, office rent is one of the key issues in this whole business. Two weeks later, however, the service informed the Hull office that it would be closed, and showed no willingness to work with the office in seeking alternatives to closure. It is clear from the business case that no consideration was given to cost reductions within the current structures, as identified by the team working in Hull.

The savings from the closure of the Hull office appear to me to be uncertain, but the £1 million cost per year to Hull’s local economy would be all too certain. We know that, owing to decisions made in Whitehall by the coalition Government, Hull city council suffered one of the heaviest funding cuts in the United Kingdom—despite being the UK’s 10th most deprived area—and there are worries about not just Hull’s insolvency office but its land registry office, whose future is currently under review.

The coalition frequently claims to support the idea of “rebalancing the economy”, north and south. As I said earlier, one way of doing that would be moving Government Departments and agency civil servants’ jobs to places such as Hull rather than taking them away. This debate may be about saving only 40-odd jobs in Hull, but every job matters in a town where so many people chase each job vacancy and so many jobs are low paid and low skilled.

I think that, provided that the service is needed and can be run efficiently, we should fight to save every job in Hull that is under threat, and there is a strong case for keeping the official receiver’s office open. That would be consistent with what the Government say their policy is—but too often what they say and what they do are different things, especially when it comes to the treatment of northern cities such as Hull. It seems to me that devolved jobs are going the same way as Lord Heseltine’s devolved funding, and that, yet again, Hull is not getting a fair deal from this Government.

I trust that we will not detain you for too much longer, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I thank the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) for securing the debate. I recognise the interest that she has shown in the relocation of the Insolvency Service’s office in Hull. As she said, we met last week to discuss the issue, along with other Hull Members, and I entirely understand why she is concerned about the potential impact on her constituents and is representing their views this evening.

Let me put the position in context. The Insolvency Service is an executive agency of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. It has about 1,800 employees, who operate from locations throughout the country. They deal with a wide range of insolvency matters, such as administering bankruptcies and liquidations —which includes realising assets and distributing them to creditors—dealing with corporate malpractice and misconduct by investigating companies and individuals abusing the system, and managing payments to employees who are made redundant. The administering of insolvencies is funded by fees charged against the assets of insolvents. It is obviously very important to the creditors involved for the costs to be kept as low as possible, while still providing for an effective and fair service.

As the hon. Lady acknowledged, the past five years have seen a sharp drop in the number of insolvencies handled by official receivers’ offices, from about 80,000 cases in 2009 to nearer 25,000 today. That is largely because of a sharp fall in the number of debtor petition bankruptcy cases following the winding back of high levels of lending. To date, it has led to a reduction of about a third in the staff of the Insolvency Service, which has been achieved through a programme of voluntary exits.

As for the question of where offices need to be, for the purposes of official receiver work in particular, the Insolvency Service needs to be able to interview insolvents within a reasonable distance of their homes. We would therefore usually choose city or town centre locations close to transport hubs. The Insolvency Service reviewed its network of local offices in the context of customer demand and the reduced number of employees, and estimated that the estate was about a third too large. It therefore embarked on a programme of estate rationalisation, which also accords with the Government’s wider agenda of minimising the costs of their own estate.

The hon. Lady asked about the estate in London and the south-east. In the past two years the Insolvency Service has been looking at its estate across the country, and in London it has relocated to cheaper buildings in surplus Government estate in both London and Croydon. It decided to close its Watford and St Albans offices as well. It has therefore made such decisions across the UK, including in London and the south-east; it has not targeted other areas.

Individual offices need to be of sufficient size to be sustainable both as a management unit and to provide development opportunities for staff, as well as to be able to offer the necessary flexibility as workloads change. The skills needed for the different areas of work in the Insolvency Service are often similar, so in the last few years several hundred staff transferred from working on bankruptcies to investigation work as the number of cases dropped. This type of work is especially located in the larger metropolitan areas.

As a result of the review, five relocations and five closures took place in 2013-14 and a further 10 closures will take place over the coming financial year. The Insolvency Service has worked closely with the trade unions throughout this process. All employees in the affected offices have been offered the opportunity to relocate to another office or take voluntary exit terms. The Insolvency Service offers excess fares to staff for a three-year period after a move. It also discusses flexible working arrangements to try and find ways to make a move possible for employees.

The Insolvency Service is proud of its customer service, recently coming second out of 53 Government Departments and agencies, with customer satisfaction levels of 96%, which is extremely high. Around 250 face-to-face interviews arise from cases in the Hull office. That is not a large number in the context of the total number of bankruptcy interviews across the country, but in order to maintain high levels of customer service, interview facilities will be set up in other Government buildings in Hull, at minimal cost and with flexible arrangements, to be available for meetings. Replacing an office with an interview facility makes no difference from the point of view of customer experience.

Turning to the specific concerns with respect to the Insolvency Service in Hull, there are 43 permanent employees in the Hull office and the prime purpose of the office is to carry out the duties of the official receiver. Case numbers in the area served by the Hull office have seen an even greater decline than the fall in caseload nationally, with a drop in workload of 79% since 2009, which is a huge drop. Staffing levels in Hull, however, have only fallen by 43%, so there is a mismatch there.

The office was kept busy over the last two years by taking cases in from other offices. The Insolvency Service prefers each official receiver’s office to deal with the cases that arise within its area. As the hon. Lady said, that local knowledge is important. Also, with the general declining workload there is less surplus work to be transferred between offices. As a result, the Hull office is increasingly difficult to sustain from an operational perspective.

The hon. Lady mentioned the number of company director disqualifications achieved in Hull. The total number of disqualifications in 2013-14 was 27, and that was a great result by the staff in Hull and reflects very well upon their commitment and expertise. To put the figure in context, there were 1,273 company director disqualifications in 2013-14. There is significant value in disqualifications, but the disqualification work carried out by Hull will not be lost, but will be transferred to other locations, including Leeds, so disqualifications will continue.

On 27 March the Insolvency Service announced that its office in Hull would close, with its work and employees being relocated to Leeds in November 2014. This decision will both help the service reduce the number of offices and also improve long-term resilience in the face of reduced case numbers. Consolidating in Leeds allows the Insolvency Service to use its work force more flexibly, and in the longer term to offer a wider range of career opportunities to staff.

I am listening carefully to the Minister’s remarks, but the coalition Government said that they wanted to rebalance the economy and ensure that all the regions benefited. Taking away the limited number of Government jobs in Hull, an area that is blighted by terrible unemployment, flies in the face of what the Deputy Prime Minister said just this morning in the House.

We recognise that rebalancing the economy geographically is important, and I will come on to some of the work that the Government are doing in that area. We are not talking here about taking work out of the north of England and centralising it in London: we are talking about ensuring that the estate of the Insolvency Service is sensibly spread across the country and that the offices are where the work is. That is an important part of having an effective and efficient operation.

I appreciate that the decision to close the office is not what Hull employees want and I know that the Insolvency Service board did not take the decision lightly. I am aware that the board fully considered the option of moving to cheaper Government property in Hull, as well as closing its Leeds office and moving those operations to Hull. The business case put forward did not just include accommodation costs: it also looked at other benefits, such as efficiency savings stemming from combining teams, the ability to be flexible in how the Insolvency Service deploys its employees and the greater potential for personal development provided by moving between different roles in a larger office.

The business case calculated that a move from Leeds to Hull would have a net present cost of £535,000 over five years, against a net present value saving of £289,000 for a move from Hull to Leeds. Costs would have been higher for a move from Leeds to Hull because the lease on the Leeds building runs until 2018, whereas the Hull lease only runs until 2016. That is a significant difference.

I am interested to hear about the leases, and we discussed that issue when we met last week. Have there been any discussions or consideration—it was not in the business plan that I saw—of whether the office space in Leeds could be sub-let? Rent is much more expensive in Leeds than it is in Hull.

At the meeting last week we also pointed out that it is not physically possible to fit all the employees from the Leeds office into the Hull office, so we would need to find a new office in Hull and bear all the costs of refurbishing that. That option was looked at in detail, but it simply was not a financially viable alternative.

The business case took into account that not all the staff would wish to move from Hull to Leeds, although the hon. Lady said that it did not. The estimate was that about half would move and half would take voluntary redundancy. The costs associated with that were built into the business case for both scenarios. The Insolvency Service board considered that the business case for moving from Hull to Leeds was persuasive. Those employees who wish to relocate will have a job in the Leeds office, and the Insolvency Service will pay excess fares for three years. The Insolvency Service has been having one-to-one meetings with its employees as well as keeping closely in touch with their representatives about the implications of the relocation and the impact on individuals. For those who do not want to move office, the option of voluntary redundancy is available, but that is clearly the last resort for most people.

The hon. Lady also raised concerns about employment in the Hull area. I reiterate the Government’s commitment to supporting the Hull area. This issue was raised in Deputy Prime Minister’s questions earlier, and it is a real commitment on the part of the Government. The Humber local enterprise partnership predicts that the city deal for Hull and Humber will deliver more than 4,000 jobs in offshore wind-related industries; at least 1,100 unemployed young people supported into work; 3,400 construction jobs; an expected £460 million of private sector development on the Humber; engagement with more than 3,000 businesses; and the provision of extensive support to 500 businesses, creating approximately 400 jobs. Significant effort and work are therefore going into the area, and the Government are committed to ensuring that we invest in other regions of the UK, and that we are not focused centrally on London and the south-east.

In conclusion, I appreciate that this is a very difficult time for the Insolvency Service and its employees. I hope that the hon. Lady is reassured that the Insolvency Service is aware of the issues that she has raised, that her questions have been considered and that the service is supporting affected employees during the transition period.

The Insolvency Service wants to maintain and improve its already high levels of service delivery. It is making its services more efficient to improve returns to creditors. I appreciate that this is a challenging time for staff, but I congratulate them on maintaining high levels of performance throughout a very difficult programme of change. I hope that I have reassured the hon. Lady that the proposal has been well thought through, that the alternatives have been considered, and that staff and trade unions have been involved and consulted throughout.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.