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HMRC Estate

Volume 619: debated on Tuesday 10 January 2017

(Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer to make a statement on the National Audit Office report, published today, on the Government’s management of the HMRC Estate.

HMRC’s transformation plans will allow it to become a more efficient and effective tax collector fit for the digital age. HMRC’s large estate is ageing and not delivering the best value for money for the taxpayer. The NAO has confirmed that savings of £80 million per year will be made by 2025.

The size of HMRC’s estate has been reducing since 2006, and the NAO report published today shows that HMRC has made some effective changes since 2010, while reducing staff numbers by a quarter and saving the taxpayer over £350 million pounds. However, HMRC wants to keep up the momentum to provide a better service at a reduced cost. As it announced in 2015, that means taking forward big reforms of how the estate works, which will see over 170 small offices consolidated into 13 larger regional offices, an approach which is used across government. This brings with it a whole range of advantages, from efficiently sharing resources and quality digital infrastructure to better support and career opportunities for the staff who can more effectively share expertise. For the public, what this really means is a better, more modern service run by fewer staff costing about £80 million a year less by the time the changes take effect.

The report out today suggests that the costs of bringing about this transformation are likely to be higher than was first forecast. Of course, certain aspects of the programme could not be definitively made at the start. There is a wide range of factors behind that, from rising property costs and changes to the programme, for example to help staff to adjust and to ensure a smooth transition for customers, so the programme costs are of course updated to reflect that. I therefore thank the NAO for its timely report.

The strategy to modernise the service that HMRC provides to taxpayers is the right approach and reflects the way taxpayers now interact with it. It is a plan to say goodbye to the days of the manual processing of tasks that can be done more easily with today’s technology. In short, we remain fully committed to taking forward the changes to the HMRC estate that will help us to bring a better tax service for the people of this country.

In reality, the report is damning of the Government’s plans to close 170 offices. We on the Opposition Benches have warned consistently that the Government’s proposals will have a detrimental impact on HMRC’s ability to provide advice and to tackle tax evasion and tax avoidance.

The NAO report confirms our fears. First, it called the original office closure plan unrealistic. The estimates of the costs of the move increased by 22%, which is £600 million extra. It forecasts a further 5,000 job losses and finds that the costs of redundancy and travel have tripled from £17 million to £54 million. It also says that HMRC cannot demonstrate how its services can be improved and has not even produced a clear programme business case for the planned closures.

As we predicted, this is an emerging disaster. Even the Government now accept that there is a tax gap of at least £36 billion, yet these plans will do nothing but hinder the effort to tackle tax evasion and avoidance. Some 73% of the staff surveyed said that the plans would undermine their ability to provide tax collection services, while 50% said they would actually undermine their ability to clamp down on tax evasion and avoidance. Will the Minister now call a halt to the planned office closures, end the job cuts at HMRC and come back with a realistic plan to resource HMRC fully in its vital tax collection role?

The shadow Chancellor is right that HMRC’s tax collection role is vital. At the heart of many of the changes made since the original estimates and planning for this part of the transformation are measures to better support staff and put more things in place to support their move. It is interesting that he makes no mention of the potential benefit to staff of the move. Of course, some will not be able to make the move, but the vast majority will live within an hour’s journey and will be supported, including through the one-to-one conversations which happen with staff ahead of any move.

The shadow Chancellor’s comments do not accurately represent what the NAO said. It has actually recognised that HMRC’s move to regional centres is central to its strategic aim to increase tax revenue, improve customer service and make cost savings. The move to regional centres has never been just about cost savings or buildings; it is partly about how people work in those buildings. Ultimately, we will have an opportunity to change how we work. In 1982, my first job after leaving school was in an old tax office. Some of those offices are over 100 years old and some have not changed since I was working in one as a school leaver. It is absolutely right that we commit to making sure that staff can work in a modern environment.

All staff will be offered the chance to move, and for those who cannot, there will be one-to-one, bespoke support, and some of them will go to other Departments, so some of the comments we have heard are absolute nonsense. [Interruption.] There is a lot of chuntering from the Opposition Front-Bench team, but they are not listening to the facts and they have not read what the NAO actually said. This is a major programme, and it is right that the overall costs be periodically reviewed, but HMRC is not looking to make any significant changes to its overall strategy. We want its staff to work closer together in regional centres and specialist sites in a modern, flexible and high-quality working space.

Lastly, on tackling tax evasion and the tax gap, no Government have done more than this one. It is absolute nonsense to say that HMRC’s capacity to tackle those two issues is diminished; far from it—the UK’s tax gap is one of the smallest in the world and at its lowest ever level. In the summer Budget, we gave HMRC an extra £800 million to tackle tax evasion, and it has done that extremely well, such that once again we have reached record levels of compliance with regards to money from anti-tax evasion measures. I therefore rebut entirely the shadow Chancellor’s points in that regard.

Will my hon. Friend take it from me that in my experience dealing with constituents and corporations in my constituency who have made inquiries to HMRC, its response times and how it handles cases have improved immensely over the past few years, and that in respect of its seeking to deal with tax evasion and avoidance, there is absolutely no doubt that it has raised its game considerably?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments, and I am glad that he has put on the record his appreciation for staff. He is absolutely right. In the past six months, call waiting times have averaged less than five minutes and customer service has improved to the best levels in years. This is something that HMRC management keep under constant review. It is absolutely right that we seek to provide the best service possible, but we cannot do that in un-modernised offices. For example, we must recognise that investing in the most up-to-date digital infrastructure is unrealistic across an estate of more than 150 offices. We need to bring people together in an environment that is fit for the future both for staff and customers.

The NAO has actually said that

“HMRC’s original plan has proved unrealistic”,


“suitable property will not be available…within the time frame set out”,


“HMRC now estimates it may lose up to 5,000 staff”,

which will require recruitment while it simultaneously carries out redundancies, and that the plans were

“over-optimistic…and carried too high a risk of disruption”.

These are very similar warnings to those expressed in respect of the outturn failings in 2009 of the strategic transfer of the estate to the private sector—STEPS—programme. Given how clear and stark the warnings are, would it not make more sense to pause this, rip it up and start again?

No, that is not right; I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman. The factors driving the programme—the reasons we want to transform HMRC into the most modern and digital tax authority in the world—all still stand. We have always been open about the fact that this is an ambitious transformation, and as with any major programme, a number of which are running at the same time, it is right that it be looked at regularly. Of course HMRC will respond in detail to the NAO report, but the principle driving the plan stands good, for all the reasons I have talked about—it is better for customers, better for staff and better for the taxpayer.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the STEPS programme, but the NAO report noted how much better HMRC had been managing it. There were problems with the programme, which was initiated under the last Labour Government, but the report compliments HMRC on the way it is managing it and got some of the private finance initiative costs under control, and so on. It is right that we constantly re-evaluate programmes of this importance, but I do not agree with the thrust of his question. It is also worth noting that while Scotland accounts for 8% of the UK’s population, 12% of the HMRC workforce will remain there, so Scotland remains a very important part of the HMRC estate.

It is good to hear the Minister make the point that the telephone answering is improving. On the Public Accounts Committee, we have been looking at this on an ongoing basis, and we have probably had more information on it from MPs across the House than on any other issue. We support the programme, but with the digital world moving forward will the Minister set out how we will make sure that the staff on the end of the phone have the right qualifications to support businesses and individuals who need information?

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. Given her membership of the PAC, it is important and nice to have them on the record. Much work has gone into improving customer service levels. At the moment, they are very good and improving and remain a key focus. She made a point about supporting staff with training and so on. That will be much easier in regional centres. For example, at the moment we have a large number of offices, and owing to the nature of the tasks being undertaken and the number of people working in them, it is not possible to provide easy and effective training programmes or to plan career progression in the way it is when a large number of people are concentrated together. As is reflected across both Government and the private sector, we can do a lot more for people when we can concentrate a different range of skills so that people have a chance to plot a career within the same office. That goes to the heart of how we intend to improve the service to customers.

The trouble with all this talk of regional centres is that this is exactly what has happened in every other Department. In constituencies such as mine and across the whole of the south Wales valleys, it feels as if the Government have just said, “No, we’re not interested. Everything’s going to Cardiff. Forget about it.” May I urge the Minister to think again? The Treasury and the whole of Government have a social responsibility, particularly to areas such as Rhondda and the valleys, to ensure they have a local presence.

I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the motivation. As I said, there is a balance to be struck between the service to customers, how we support staff and how we serve the wider taxpayer interest. Yes, across Government there has been a move towards more modern and—in some cases, perhaps—more centralised services. There is a balance to be struck, but there is a robust programme of support in place for staff who cannot move, and to help them extra money has been put into the transitional costs associated with transport, for example. HMRC is working with other Government Departments to make sure that where we can, we take advantage of the high skills people have, to move them to other Departments where their skills can be used.

The Minister noted that there were some compliments in the NAO report on how HMRC has moved to a more realistic plan for this project, and is now managing the existing estate better than before. Will she set out how HMRC will build on this progress to make sure that the skills are enhanced as this complicated project goes forward?

Of course. My hon. Friend is right to say that. As I have said, HMRC will respond in detail to the NAO report, and I will be pleased to discuss that with him. One of the NAO’s recommendations is precisely what he has drawn our attention to—that there should be an iterative process of learning from every part of the move, ensuring for example that experience from the first regional centre to be opened is reviewed and lessons learned from it. This is a long programme of change; it is not an overnight transformation. It is absolutely right to review it at every stage so that we learn as we go along.

You are proposing to close a very modern office in Workington. The NAO report says that the average distance between offices that are being closed and the regional offices is 18 miles, with most within 50 miles. However, Workington has been paired with Liverpool, which are 142 miles apart according to Google maps—a journey of three hours. To me, the situation is completely unacceptable. The workers in Workington cannot transfer down to Liverpool, and I cannot see how they can be reskilled to work in equivalent jobs in Workington. I would love to know your suggestions on that. As I say, this is just unacceptable.

I have no plans to close that office. To my very great life impoverishment, I have to admit that I am not aware of having been to Workington to date, and I certainly would not take it upon myself to presume to close something that I have not even visited.

I think we all recognise that you are busy enough, Mr Speaker, without taking charge of HMRC’s regional transformation programme as well.

The hon. Lady has written to me about this matter, and I have said that I am happy to meet her to discuss it, perhaps allowing more time for discussion. She has cited the average figure that appears in the NAO report, but we of course accept that the move is going to be much less easy for some people, perhaps even impossible. We will support those people. With a view to providing suitable jobs in other Government Departments, the HMRC HR department is working closely with the Department for Work and Pensions. A lot of work is being done to support staff into other jobs, but we accept that not everyone will be able to move. I have written to the hon. Lady once on her specific points about Workington, but I will write to her again about what is happening in her area.

HMRC is planning to have a regional centre in Leeds, but it has not identified a site, and any site proposed will be incredibly expensive, crowding out private sector investment in Leeds. Just a few miles up the road in the Bradford district, a site is readily available, and it would be much cheaper for the taxpayer than it would be in Leeds, and it would help the local economy in the Bradford district as well. I urge the Minister to use this NAO report to pause, look again at these proposals and make sure that a regional centre in Yorkshire is not in Leeds, but in the Bradford district where many people in HMRC already work.

As my hon. Friend knows, I am familiar with all the localities that he mentioned. I know that Bradford was disappointed not to be the site chosen for the regional centre, but it is equally true that with a railway station in Shipley, my hon. Friend’s constituents are merely 10 minutes from Leeds on the train. I hope that it will prove to be a realistic project for his constituents to move to Leeds if they want to. I shall reflect on what my hon. Friend said and will write to him if I can provide further detail. HMRC has provided detailed responses, explaining the criteria used to select locations and thus explaining why Leeds was chosen over Bradford. I know that there has already been a good deal of correspondence on this issue.

The Minister will be aware that some HMRC offices have already closed in Northern Ireland, not only causing consternation to the staff who have had to be redirected to Belfast, but preventing accessibility for local businesses and ordinary people who are trying to deal with their tax affairs. In view of the NAO report, will the Minister please pause any further closures, as they simply cause chaos and upheaval?

I am not sure that I recognise the description of chaos and upheaval, given what I have said about improved average customer service times at the moment. There are good standards now, which does not align with what the hon. Lady said. I recognise that changes of this scale can be extremely difficult for the people affected by them, but I would like to pick up one point about how people interact with HMRC. We live in a different world from the one that obtained when the estates were last looked at on this sort of scale. The vast majority of taxpayers, both individuals and businesses, interact with HMRC digitally or on the phone. We have to adjust to the way the world is now rather than what it was like some decades ago.

I want my constituents to get the best possible service from HMRC, particularly when they have a problem and things go wrong. Given that HMRC has about 58,000 employees, will my hon. Friend at least consider the feasibility of HMRC allocating at least one named employee for every constituency, so that each MP has someone permanently in place to contact within HMRC?

We have had the experience of working through recent challenges in respect of the Concentrix contract and the fallout from it. I have looked personally at how HMRC interacts with Members of Parliament. I have not looked at the specific idea that my hon. Friend mentions, but I shall reflect on what he said. I am looking to ensure that, as colleagues found while resolving issues, the resources allocated to MPs were effective in helping them to get results quickly in some of the most difficult cases. I shall reflect further on my hon. Friend’s points because I want to make sure that HMRC serves colleagues of all parties as effectively as possible.

This modernisation and improvement programme in Northern Ireland has led to the closure of offices in towns that already have high unemployment, to frustration among people who have difficult cases and to a loss of expertise, especially in border areas where criminal evasion of tax is widespread. How does that fit in with the Government’s commitment to spread economic growth, to provide better service to customers and to reduce tax evasion?

It is worth noting on the broader point that employment in our countries is at an all-time high. We would always want to retain expertise within HMRC, but there will always be people leaving any large organisation and people being recruited and trained up simultaneously. I refer the hon. Gentleman to what I said earlier: it will be much easier to support people who want to join the organisation to become highly skilled and professional and to plot a career in HMRC, so that they can have long-term, fulfilling careers in a variety of different areas, under the new modernised structures.

The Minister has said a number of times that there will be a better service for customers in these regional centres, but I note that the NAO report says that HMRC has not demonstrated that. Can she reassure me on how she has reached the conclusion that the service will be better, more efficient and more effective for customers?

I did note that point, but I am not sure that I agree with how the hon. Lady has expressed what I said. Let me provide one example. Many HMRC local offices are in very old buildings. As I said, some are over 100 years old and many are from the 1950s. Then there is the latest digital infrastructure, and many more taxpayers are interacting with HMRC digitally, through more than 7 million personal tax accounts. As anybody knows, it is difficult to bring an old office up to modern standards with the right digital infrastructure. If we want to make sure that staff can make the best use of modern computer systems and put them at the service of customers who increasingly interact digitally, it is much better to do so in newer buildings that have been bought for the purpose and where we have planned that sort of arrangement from the start.

The Minister speaks of saving money and of modern offices. The HMRC offices at the Pyramids business park in my constituency are high-tech and high-end, with highly skilled staff, and there is plenty of further space. It would save the Government £70 million to keep that estate and develop it. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the details and perhaps consider retaining the hub in West Lothian, rather than moving it to a city centre where rents will be more expensive?

I have had a number of conversations with, in particular, some of the hon. Lady’s colleagues who are based in Scotland, and I am, of course, always happy to meet any parliamentary colleague to discuss anything. No change in the plan for that regional centre is envisaged, but some of the challenges relating to West Lothian have been brought to my attention.

Sheffield staff are already commuting considerable distances to their HMRC office because of previous office closures. Does the Minister not agree that HMRC can ill afford to lose 5,000 experienced staff at this time?

Given that HMRC has struggled to find suitable property in the suggested locations, may I ask the Minister to reassess the proposed locations on grounds of cost, ability to retain experienced staff and impact on customer service? Will she reassess them on the basis of evidence, rather than simply deciding which location in each region is easiest for Whitehall civil servants to get to?

I am pretty certain that that was not the rationale for the choice of locations. Very careful discussions took place. I will, of course, read the report and reflect on it, as will we all, and, as I have said, HMRC intends to respond in detail, but a great deal of thought went into choosing the regional centres. I acknowledge that some people will not be able to move because the distances will be too far to travel, and we certainly want to retain experienced staff. Those who will not be able to move will have a number of different levels of experience, but if we can retain their skills and ensure that they are at the service of the taxpayer through other Departments, we will obviously try to do so.

HMRC Porthmadog is earmarked for closure, and in all likelihood the Welsh language unit will be centralised in Cardiff, four hours away. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how these services can best be provided in a region where 71% of the population can speak Welsh and where Welsh is the working language of a county administration?

We have considered that issue, and we intend to work on it with other Departments. As I have said, I am always happy to have a conversation with colleagues—[Interruption]—not in Welsh! I will write to the hon. Lady, because the Welsh language has been raised with me before, and I know that it has been thought about in some detail.

It is not very often that the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) and I find ourselves on the same page, but on this occasion we certainly are, because he made an excellent point in defending Bradford. In closing offices in that city, HMRC would be turning its back on a skilled and diverse workforce, access to leading universities and one of the best MBA programmes in the United Kingdom, all of which would help it to achieve its aim. Will the Minister therefore reconsider and take a more sensible approach?

I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that, as a Bradford girl, I would never do anything to harm Bradford. Equally, however, as a Bradford girl, I make the extremely short commute between Bradford and Leeds many times a year. I do not think we would wish to lose any experienced staff or expertise from the Bradford office, but the commute from Bradford to Leeds is possibly one of the shortest that any transferring HMRC staff would have to make.

Obviously, there will be an economic impact on many towns and cities that will lose their largest employer, but has an equality impact assessment been made in respect of staff, particularly those with disabilities, who have been asked to move 100 miles away?

Does the Minister not believe that the loss of local expertise will apply not only to tax evasion but to non-compliance with the national minimum wage, which, according to statistics, is on the increase in this country?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, we announced more investment in tackling non-compliance with the national minimum wage in the autumn statement. In fact, activity in that regard has been stepped up considerably, as I said when answering a parliamentary question this week. He may wish to refer to Hansard for the statistics. As for his wider point about losing expertise, of course we do not want to do that. We want to do as much as we can to help people to move, because it takes a long time for them to reach their highest level of skill, and we want to retain them when they are at the peak of their professionalism. I will write to him about the equality impact assessment.

Will the Minister think again about the location of the Wales tax centre? Will she consider siting it not in Cardiff but in the Swansea Bay city region, where property prices and other costs are lower, urban deprivation is much lower in European Union terms and skills are abundant because we have two universities? That was the logic of siting the headquarters of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in Swansea. As the biggest urban footprint in Wales, we need all the support we can get, and it is very costly in Cardiff.

The hon. Gentleman has neatly illustrated the challenge involved in deciding on locations as part of such a programme. He has made the case for Swansea, but other Members have made the case for their areas. It is always necessary to assess against a set of objective criteria, because every area will rightly have its advocates in Parliament.

Is the Minister aware that it will be feared throughout the United Kingdom, but particularly in Northern Ireland, that a policy that the Minister has presented as regionalisation will actually become centralisation and that a very small number of offices with a large number of employees will not adequately service the needs of the community?

Of course I am aware of that, but at the heart of HMRC’s wider transformation programme, which will enable it to become the best digital tax authority in the world, is a desire to do more for customers: to collect more tax, to serve people better and to bear down constantly on customer waiting times. Indeed, all HMRC’s programmes—not just the estates transformation programme—are designed to achieve that end.

Does the Minister accept that the closures will have a devastating impact on some communities, that £150 million less will be available to tackle tax avoidance as a result of HMRC’s failure to plan the move properly and that HMRC is even less effective at saving money than at collecting it from slippery global corporations?

I think that, for the most part, what the right hon. Gentleman has said is just a political points-score. The facts simply do not bear it out. Since 2010, HMRC has secured more than £130 billion in additional compliance revenues, and in 2014-15, as I said earlier, the United Kingdom’s tax gap fell to its lowest-ever level of 6.5%.

In Wales, the facts are that the Government are creating one national centre in Cardiff, the most expensive site in the country; that the office in Wrexham is not small, given that it employs 350 people; and that the alternative site proposed by HMRC is in Liverpool, but that has not yet been identified. This is a shambolic policy. It is ill-conceived, and it is being badly implemented. The Minister should listen to my colleagues from Wales—she has heard from many of them today—and reconsider the policy, because it is very bad indeed.

I note the hon. Gentleman’s criticisms but cannot agree with the thrust of his points. HMRC will respond in detail to this report. This is a programme over a period of time and we will learn from each move. I do not recognise the description the hon. Gentleman just gave, but I do understand the point made, especially about some of the larger offices, and I realise that until the site in Liverpool is identified things are a bit more unsettling for his constituents who work in the Wrexham office than they might otherwise be.

Cumbernauld tax office already ticks all the boxes in terms of what HMRC apparently seeks in a regional centre: it is the right size and has experienced staff and an excellent location. So what on earth is the point of closing it, disrupting staff and damaging communities?

I have had a number of conversations specifically about the Cumbernauld site, and I will write to the hon. Gentleman with the detail, but there are a lot of different factors that go into choosing where to centre, some of which I touched on in my response to the urgent question. Inevitably, I cannot touch on them all, but much of this will come out in our response to the NAO report.

I think that the Minister would be outraged if people living in villages, towns and small cities all suddenly stopped paying tax, yet suddenly our civil service is being centralised in a few cities. Please will she reconsider these points? This is totally outrageous for people in north Wales.

I am not entirely sure I recognise the point being made. Most of our taxpayers, whether businesses or individuals, now interact with HMRC on the phone or digitally. The number of people who make personal visits, and expect to be able to make a personal visit to a local office, is dramatically lower than a generation or two ago. It is right that we pursue this modernisation programme, but it is also right, as the NAO has reminded us in this timely report, that we review the programme at every stage to make sure we are getting everything right and we learn from each iteration.

I am sorry, but I have to disagree with the Minister on customer service, having seen my wife wait for half an hour for someone at HMRC to answer the phone over Christmas and given that a previous NAO report has shown that three in 10 people give up before being answered, as the average waiting time is 47 minutes before somebody picks up the phone. As the Minister will know, this was only resolved when HMRC recruited an additional 2,500 members of staff to deal with this crisis at the end of 2015. Is she confident, even though an NAO reports says that for every pound saved by this change £4 will go on telephone bills, that it will not cause a decline in customer service?

The focus on customer service is vital. At the heart of the wider transformation programme, not just the estate transformation programme, is the desire both to make sure HMRC is the most effective tax collector that it can be and to deal with customer service. So that is central to all the questions I ask of HMRC and it asks of itself.

On the specific point, I am sorry to hear the hon. Gentleman’s wife waited for that long. I am concerned about the number of people who wait so long. Although they are a small proportion of the customers who ring HMRC, because of the large numbers who do so, it is still quite a lot of people, and it is an issue I have specifically been discussing with senior HMRC customer service managers, with a view to addressing it further.

Given that the Department for Work and Pensions is also conducting an estate review and is threatening to close eight job centres in Glasgow, what discussions is the Minister having with ministerial colleagues about the cumulative impact of the Government’s shrinking of their estate? What impact is that going to have? How many HMRC employees are going to find themselves without a job and without a local job centre to go to?

The last question is difficult to answer because ultimately individuals will decide what is right for them at the time when the facts of a possible move are known. A great deal of support is being put in place to help them either make the choice about moving or move to other jobs. I have had the chance to speak not just to managers managing this programme, but people affected by it on the frontline, when some of them attended an event in London a few months ago. The HMRC human resources department is working closely with the DWP because there are some opportunities for people to move between Departments. However, on the specifics of the hon. Gentleman’s local office, I am afraid it is not easy to give an answer until more is known about what the actual move would be and the numbers affected.

The vast majority of staff in the HMRC office in Enniskillen in my constituency will be closer to two hours’ journey time from the proposed new location than one hour. Does the Minister not see merit in the NAO report suggesting she should step back from the proposals?

As I have said, it is the nature of responding to an urgent question that one has not had a chance to look at the whole report and reflect on it, but HMRC will of course respond to it. Its chief executive is coming to the Public Accounts Committee fairly imminently and I imagine this is likely to be raised by the Committee. Of course we will look at this report—it is important, and we will look at what it says—but the central reasons that drive these plans still stand: modernising our estate, providing a service to the customer that reflects modern life and making sure the working environment for staff and the career progression open to them are the best they can be.