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HMRC (Scotland)

Volume 584: debated on Tuesday 22 July 2014

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

It is a pleasure and a privilege to have the final Adjournment debate before the House departs for the summer recess. The future of HMRC jobs in Scotland is an issue close to my heart. It is hard to grow up and live in my constituency without developing personal connections with what is known locally simply as the tax office. A number of my friends and family have worked or work at HMRC Cumbernauld, and it is by some distance the largest employer in my constituency, currently employing about 1,400 staff working across the spectrum of tax, benefits, debt management and the like. It is the UK’s largest tax office. Hon. Members have doubtless at one time or another had communication with HMRC Cumbernauld—not, I hasten to add, because of anything untoward, but simply because that is where so many tax communications are sent from and to.

In 57 days, Scotland will make its decision on whether to remain in the United Kingdom with England, Wales and Northern Ireland or whether to leave, and Scots are weighing up a wide array of issues and interests as they come to a judgment on that decision. That is why every survey of Scottish public opinion illuminates the public’s desire for more information and facts on the issues in hand. Some things are, by definition, uncertain about what would happen if Scotland was to leave the United Kingdom—things that will depend on negotiations with the rest of the United Kingdom, which will depend on the future performance of the Scottish economy in particular. But Scotland’s role in HMRC is not one of those things about which there is uncertainty. The arithmetical facts are these.

Across the UK, HMRC employs 70,000 people. More than 9,000 of those posts are in Scotland. In percentage terms, 13% of UK HMRC staff are in Scotland, a significantly above-population-share of the total. More than 3,000 more posts are allocated in Scotland than a population share would provide. That is testimony to the excellent job that Scottish HMRC staff in Cumbernauld, in East Kilbride and elsewhere provide. It is hard to argue otherwise than that this indeed is a Scottish HMRC jobs dividend. Leaving the United Kingdom would bring to an end Scotland’s role in HMRC. That is surely uncontroversial—a fact, not an opinion.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate, but is not his timing just a little bit unfortunate? The Westminster Government are actually closing HMRC offices as he is on his feet. I know he does not like Scottish independence and I know he does not like what the Scottish Government are doing, but can he grudgingly accept the fact that we are having no compulsory redundancies in Scotland, which would mean that HMRC staff would be much better treated in an independent Scotland than they would be by the Westminster Tories?

I will come to a couple of the hon. Gentleman’s points, but on the issue of HMRC jobs, I am sure he will agree that it is an arithmetical fact that Scotland has a significant dividend from UK HMRC jobs. That is because of the professionalism of staff in Scotland, but it is something that must be put on the record.

Let us tease out a little further these arithmetical facts and then, I think, what we might judge an outcome to be for Scotland after leaving the UK and ending our membership of HMRC. We know as a fact that Scotland has significantly more tax-collecting jobs relative to the UK as a whole. Is there any reason to imagine that an independent Scottish state would need those surplus tax-collecting jobs relative to the size of the UK tax-collecting system? It seems to me that it is hard to imagine why that would be the case. The jobs dividend in Scotland regarding HMRC posts does not reflect different Scottish conditions regarding tax collection, but simply historical decisions and the excellent work undertaken by the Scottish tax office staff.

I have also heard it said by those who might accept in a conversation the arithmetical facts around the number of Scottish HMRC jobs—perhaps by the hon. Gentleman and certainly by others—that there will be no compulsory redundancies, and of course new civil service posts will be needed in a separate Scottish state, the implication being that surplus tax-collecting staff would be transferred to those posts. As the hon. Gentleman said, the SNP Government have given a promise that there will be no compulsory public sector redundancies, but is that promise from Alex Salmond worth the paper it is written on? It is easy to promise something, as things stand, when it looks, as things stand further, as though that promise will never be tested, but let us think a little more about the state, the structure of the Scottish economy and the civil service and public sector jobs therein.

Scotland does not have a small public sector. Our public sector is significant— bigger than that of the UK as a whole. I was glancing through the Scottish Government’s most recent statistics, and they clearly show that Scotland has more public sector jobs and significantly more tax-related public sector jobs than the UK as a whole. I welcome that—it is a credit to the staff and their professionalism—but it suggests that the slack to absorb surplus tax-collection posts in a separate Scottish state will be hard to identify. I say that based on the arithmetical facts, but also as a judgment about the relative size of Scotland’s public sector. Indeed, if we add to that the difficulties that Scotland would inevitably face as it transitioned into an entirely distinct and separate state, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies and other independent experts have observed, one has to question, with some substance and credibility, what that would mean for those tax-collecting jobs in Scotland, and particularly in the largest tax office in the UK in Cumbernauld.

It is my judgment, based on those arithmetical facts, that defending existing public sector provision, not increasing the size of the public sector, is likely to be the reality faced by my constituents working for HMRC in Cumbernauld. In the end, the argument about what happens when we have a substantial surplus of tax-collecting jobs is about whether those posts can be absorbed in the wider Scottish public sector. That is a fundamental question in the referendum debate. There are facts, as I have set them out. There are also judgments, and the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) takes a different view, but it is surely incumbent on all of us to give the Scottish people all the facts as they bear on the debate and to let them draw their own conclusions.

The role that HMRC plays is important for my constituency and for Scotland. The next Labour Government are committed to tackling the tax gap. It looks as though in the last financial year the tax gap widened again, despite the Government’s efforts to close it. In my judgment, closing that tax gap will not be achieved without using the professionalism and experience of Scottish HMRC staff.

I am not suggesting that this is the only issue we face in the debate before 18 September—not at all—but for constituents of mine who either work in the tax office or who have friends and family who work there, the issues need to be put on the record and the facts displayed; then a judgment can be made by the people of Scotland.

As my hon. Friend knows, I share a very small part of Cumbernauld with him, and I know he is speaking for the people of the constituency. Does he agree that the problems he has identified, which are very clear, bring into focus the fact that in East Kilbride we have the headquarters of the Department for International Development, and there is no way that that can be sustained by a population reduced to 8.4% of the previous total?

I thank my right hon. Friend for that typically wise intervention. Those are significant issues, and I think that it is incumbent on us all to put the facts on the table as Scotland approaches the decision it must make on 18 September. The role Scotland plays in an integrated United Kingdom, through DFID, HMRC and other public institutions, must be weighed, balanced and measured in that debate. I thank him again for his sagacious intervention.

Finally, I want to ask the Minister a couple of questions. I was delighted by the recent news that up to 170 new permanent posts are to be filled at HMRC Cumbernauld. Can he update the House on where HMRC is in that process? At the same time, around 40 jobs are threatened in the regional post room in HMRC Cumbernauld, and a decision will not be made until the autumn. I hope that he will agree that for the staff working there, that uncertainty is unwelcome. I seek further clarity from him on those questions.

On that note, I thank the House for the opportunity to put on the record some of the arithmetic on the role of Scotland and my constituency in HMRC, and to make a plea for these issues to be discussed in a spirit of constructive debate and starting from the basis of facts.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Gregg McClymont) on securing the debate. He continues to make a firm, clear and eloquent case on what is, understandably, a hugely important issue for him and his constituents: the future of the HMRC office in Cumbernauld.

Before dealing with some of the detailed points the hon. Gentleman raised, I would like to explain some of the context behind the changes occurring in HMRC staffing. As hon. Members will be aware, HMRC is currently reshaping itself in order to become a more modern, flexible and cost-effective organisation that can deliver better and more personalised services for customers, increased tax revenues through greater compliance activity and, crucially, better value for money for the public.

In order to provide the best possible value to the taxpayer, HMRC has had to downsize. In fact, it has been steadily reducing the number of employees since it was formed nine years ago. Over that time it has reduced its staff levels from around 97,000 full-time equivalents in 2005 to around 60,000 now. On top of that reduction, and as part of its increased work on digitisation, HMRC will soon be implementing a new system whereby it will scan incoming post. The rational behind that change is that it will remove the need for sorting and transportation. Instead, correspondence will be moved to where it can be dealt with instantly, ensuring that taxpayers’ queries are dealt with more quickly and effectively.

However, a consequence of that change will be that fewer staff will be needed to handle post, which will have an impact on HMRC’s five regional post rooms, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned. I should point out, however, that with regard to business presence and work force size, the recent changes have not had a disproportionate impact on Scotland. In April 2011, around 13% of HMRC’s work force were based in Scotland, and at the end of last month, following the significant reductions it has achieved across the UK, the proportion of its work force based in Scotland remains around 13%.

As it reduces in size, it makes sense that HMRC will need to bring its people together into larger sites where they can work more flexibly and more easily share the costs of office space and IT. In May 2012, HMRC made the concluding announcement about the estate changes it would be making during the spending review period. That saw, as the hon. Gentleman has said, a number of its offices across the country announced for closure, but at the same time it was also confirmed that there would be 16 strategic locations nationwide until at least 2020. Two of those are in Scotland—Edinburgh, encompassing Bathgate and Livingston, and Glasgow, encompassing Cumbernauld, East Kilbride and Paisley.

The HMRC office in Perth was, of course, closed in the past year under this Government’s stewardship. How many jobs has HMRC lost in Scotland under this Government, how many offices have closed and how many jobs does the Minister foresee going in the course of the next five years?

I reiterate that the changes in Scotland reflect those across the United Kingdom. The proportion of jobs is identical to what it was three years ago. It is the case that HMRC has reduced significantly in size since 2005, and it is anticipated that it will continue to do so across the United Kingdom. We have stated that we anticipate that staff numbers will fall to about 54,000 by the end of this financial year, although, to be fair, HMRC is expanding its staff in particular areas. There is no reason to believe that Scotland will be disproportionately affected by further reductions. That has not been the history of what has happened in the past.

HMRC continues to review its business, work force and estates needs, and is currently in consultation on a proposal to close a further 12 smaller offices during 2015, two of which are in Scotland—namely Glenrothes and Irvine. Those are all smaller offices and HMRC, for the reasons I stated previously, believes that it makes more sense, and will deliver better value to the public, to bring those staff into larger workplaces. I should make it clear, though, that the consultation on those decisions will, of course, include the consideration of equality impacts and will involve HMRC’s employees, their trades unions, Members of this House and other local interests.

It is also worth bearing in mind that, while the number of general business roles has been reducing in size—as HMRC tries to increase compliance-related yield—the number of roles in that specific area is increasing. Hon. Members may be aware that in June, HMRC advertised up to 2,100 vacancies primarily in compliance roles—up to 680 of which will be based at offices in Scotland. Many of those will be at the newly opened compliance centre in Edinburgh, and HMRC’s debt management and banking business aims to create up to 170 jobs in Cumbernauld, as the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East has pointed out. Therefore, as HMRC’s work moves forward, new opportunities are opening up for its work force, including in the Cumbernauld constituency.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the September referendum and the future for HMRC staff should there be a vote for the Union to come to an end. Neither the Scottish Government nor the UK Government know for sure what will happen if the people of Scotland vote to leave the UK. In the event of a majority vote in favour of independence, both the UK and Scottish Governments agree that negotiations would be needed. Both Governments have agreed that negotiations to establish a new Scottish state cannot begin unless—and until—there is a yes vote in the referendum. That does not mean, however, that representatives of the UK would or could facilitate everything that the Scottish Government have said they hope to achieve through independence.

If the people of Scotland were to vote to leave the UK, the negotiations that would follow would be unprecedented, highly complex and incredibly detailed. There are too many unknown factors at this stage to say how negotiations would proceed and how long they would take. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Scottish Government’s White Paper set out what they would like to happen if Scotland became an independent state; it is not a blueprint or a legally enforceable document, and it cannot predict the outcome of the negotiations between the UK and the new Scottish state. In fact, much of what is included in the White Paper depends on the agreement of the UK Government and numerous other public bodies and organisations. In this instance, I therefore cannot get into any detailed discussion of what might happen should such an event occur. However, the hon. Gentleman was quite right to raise, on his constituents’ behalf, concerns about uncertainty for HMRC employees in the event of Scotland leaving the United Kingdom. I am sure that I speak for the vast majority of Members of the House when I say that I hope that those negotiations never come to pass.

To return to specific HMRC matters, HMRC as an organisation has to work within its resources and to fit its future shape. Its plans to deliver an increasingly modern service for its customers, while increasing tax revenues, depend on making changes to its structure and the size of its work force. The changes to date are making an impact and helping it to provide a much better service for the rest of the United Kingdom. In fact, last year it secured nearly £24 billion in additional compliance revenues—a record—and it achieved its best ever customer service levels, and all that was done by about 2,000 fewer staff, who oversaw £235 million of efficiency savings. The staff are doing an excellent job. Although I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman about the job losses in his constituency, which he mentioned, and with the staff themselves, we need to make sure that our services continue to provide the best possible value to the public. We remain committed to a consultative approach to ensure that any changes are managed in the very best way possible.

May I just make one further and final point, Mr Speaker? As the last speaker before the summer recess, I am the last hon. Member to speak from the Dispatch Box or indeed anywhere in the House and to turn to the Table to see the reassuring presence of Sir Robert Rogers. I know that the House has already had an opportunity to pay tribute to him, but I will just put my thoughts on the record. He has brought to his position an enormous amount of authority and a great love for this House. In an environment that can sometimes be a little heated, he has been a consistent embodiment of a sense of fairness, decency and not a little kindliness. In his distinguished career, he must have listened to many thousands of speeches delivered by many hundreds of right hon. and hon. Members. As the deliverer of the last of those speeches—and, I hope, on behalf of the many hundreds who have spoken before me—may I thank him for his outstanding service and wish him a long and happy retirement?

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.