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HMRC Tax Office: Cumbernauld

Volume 669: debated on Tuesday 14 January 2020

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

I am very grateful for the opportunity once again to bring HMRC’s disastrous proposals to close Cumbernauld tax office to the House’s attention. Let me begin by paying tribute to its workforce for their dedicated service and thanking their representatives in the Public and Commercial Services Union, who have worked tirelessly on their behalf to make the case for keeping jobs in Cumbernauld.

If implemented, these proposals will be a huge blow to the workers at HMRC Cumbernauld, many of whom have given decades of service, and many of whom will not be able to transfer to the Glasgow office for a variety of reasons. If implemented, they will also be a disaster for the whole town and community of Cumbernauld. Finally, quite simply, they make no sense from the point of view of taxpayers generally. These are, of course, the workers who ensure the collection of the taxes that are needed to fund our vital public services. Disrupting them, putting some of them out of a job, reducing their capacity and moving them to more expensive inner-city accommodation seems to serve a dubious purpose, to put it mildly.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. A tax office in the centre of East Kilbride is also due to be closed, although it has been a pivotal place for tax collection in Scotland. This whole agenda goes against the Government’s towns initiative. Moving jobs from towns to cities is counter productive, and counteracts what the Prime Minister set out in his agenda.

My hon. Friend has made a powerful point, and I shall say more about it later in my speech. The experience so far of similar changes in other parts of the United Kingdom seems to be that it is harmful to the collection of taxes, rather than helpful to the work that HMRC employees are trying to do.

As some Members may know—my hon. Friend certainly does—the proposal to close the Cumbernauld tax office forms part of a massive programme of reform to the HMRC estate, which has been given the title “Building our future”. Members on both sides of the House—including, obviously, my hon. Friend—may have seen similar offices close in their own constituencies, or may be battling similar proposals.

The scale of the changes and cuts faced by HMRC has been extraordinary. When it was formed in 2005, HMRC had 96,000 full-time equivalent members of staff in 593 offices; less than a decade later, staff numbers had fallen to below 60,000 based in fewer than 190 offices. “Building our future” set out to close 137 of those remaining offices, and to centralise even fewer workers in just 13 large regional hubs with between 1,200 and 6,000 staff. It seems that HMRC will shed many thousand more jobs during this process, with tens of thousands having to move location.

l commend my hon. Friend for the campaigning work that he is doing in his constituency. We often hear the Conservatives talk about going after benefit claimants. Is it not the case that in shedding these HMRC jobs, they are not going after people who should be paying their tax, but focusing on the more vulnerable in society who are just trying to get on with it?

I agree with my hon. Friend. As I have said before and will say again, this is detrimental not only to the workforce and the town of Cumbernauld, but to the work that we require these people to do in collecting the tax that we need to fund our public services.

It is also fair to say that “Building our future” has been the subject of huge controversy since its launch. The National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee, among others, have made very critical comments. In Parliament, my party has devoted Opposition day time to opposing tax office closures. There have been Backbench Business debates, one of which I was able to secure and one that was secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), who chairs the PCS parliamentary group. Numerous other Members on both sides of the House have tabled questions or secured Adjournment debates on specific site closures.

I make absolutely no apology for bringing this issue to the House once again, because the “Building our future” programme was flawed from the start. It remains flawed and, given the seismic changes that have happened between its initial design and now, there are strong reasons to pause, to look at what has happened so far and to consider whether it is really still worth pursuing these plans. Serious issues have been thrown up even where regional hubs have already opened. For example, in Norwich, despite emphasis being placed on proximity to universities for recruitment purposes, recruitment has apparently proved incredibly difficult. Not only are many existing staff choosing not to make the switch to the new hub, but the hoped-for recruitment of new graduates has not materialised, quite simply because they have better options in the private sector. For all these reasons, the Scottish National party manifesto again made the case for, and committed to, reconsidering these closure proposals.

My first call on the Government is simply for them to take responsibility for what is going on. That in itself is long overdue. In contrast to my colleagues, the Government have been rather less keen on bringing this issue to the House for scrutiny and debate. Even when the original list of sites to be closed was decided, no announcement was made to the House. That basically sums up how Ministers appear to see their role. Ministers hide behind HMRC’s status. Too often in these debates and question sessions, the issue is simply palmed off as one for HMRC to get on with. I recognise that Ministers cannot interfere in the day-to-day operation of tax collection, but that is not what this is about. These strategic decisions will have an impact for decades to come.

I recently joined Jamie Hepburn MSP, PCS union reps and the leader of North Lanarkshire Council, Councillor Jim Logue, in writing to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury and the chief executive of HMRC to make the case for retaining the site in Cumbernauld. We ask them to come to Cumbernauld and to meet us and the staff. We got a typically bland response from HMRC, but at least it was a response, because all we got from the Treasury was nothing at all. That sums up the total lack of interest that the Treasury has taken in the whole issue of reform of HMRC’s estate and workforce.

Let us remember that these are not trifling changes. We are talking about turning 190 offices into 13. Along the way, thousands of jobs are being cut, and huge sums of money are being thrown at new buildings, refurbishments, relocation costs and all sorts of other expenses. Morale and job satisfaction among the HMRC workforce remains among the lowest in the civil service. Both the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office have raised serious concerns with the programme, so it is no longer sufficient for Ministers to wash her hands of the issue and just leave HMRC to carry on regardless.

My hon. Friend is setting out clearly the effect on his own constituency, and it is right and proper that he should. Does he agree that, at a time when the tax gap in the UK—the gap between the amount of tax that ought to be collected and the amount that is collected—is £35 billion, it would be appropriate for the Government to weigh up the cost of the savings to HMRC in axing these jobs with the amount of tax that is increasingly going to go uncollected?

I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. At the end of the day, this programme may well end up being absolutely self-defeating for HMRC, and it is the Government’s cost-cutting agenda that has been the driver behind it. They need to take ownership of what is going on.

First and foremost, the Government need to take ownership of the implications of these plans for the dedicated workforce who have built up considerable expertise over many years in Cumbernauld. The stark truth is that jobs will be lost. Written parliamentary answers confirm that the total capacity of the new Glasgow financial district site is considerably smaller than the number of staff at the sites that have been closed to make way for it. In fact, we are talking about a maximum capacity of 3,000 at the new site compared with a full-time equivalent workforce of 4,700 at the sites that are earmarked for closure.

It seems that HMRC is relying on the fact that many workers will be unable to make the transition because of personal circumstances. Remarkably, it has managed to pick a site in a part of Glasgow city centre that is unusually difficult for people in Cumbernauld to get to within HMRC’s one-hour reasonable daily travel limit if they are using public transport. Those workers who do make the move will be out of pocket. It is true that some reasonable daily travel costs will be met initially, but that will not last for ever. It also refers to the cheapest option, which I know from speaking to staff will be totally impossible for some of them. We have to remember that 57% of staff earn less than £20,000 a year. If, as has been estimated, staff will have to spend, on average, an additional £17 each week on travel to work, that will represent 5% of their take-home pay. It is a similar story with childcare costs, because 55% of staff have childcare or other caring responsibilities. Additional travel time will see care costs rise by an average of £40 a week, which is 12% of an employee’s take-home pay. After decades of service, those workers deserve better.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent case, but this is not just about the finances. At a time when we are so concerned about climate change and are looking to decarbonise where we can, the thought of additional travel to a place of work should be a worry to us all.

I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend.

Secondly, the Government must take responsibility for the consequences of the proposed closure on the town of Cumbernauld. It is fair to say that HMRC and the Government have failed to show one iota of interest in the implications for the town and community. Earlier written answers sought to assure us that all the appropriate impact assessments would be carried out, but they proved to be hollow assurances as the economic impact assessment was never commissioned.

Thankfully, after a little encouragement, North Lanarkshire Council worked effectively with PCS to do what the Government should have done and looked at the economic consequences for Cumbernauld. The assessment confirmed what we all could guess: local shops and businesses benefit greatly from the footfall of tax office workers spending money in the town centre adjacent to the tax office building. A conservative estimate suggests an annual loss of almost £1 million at supermarkets, local cafés and food outlets alone. That significant loss of footfall will have a severe impact on the local economy.

However, absolutely none of that has played any role in HMRC’s plans, and it has shown no interest in the impacts. If HMRC will not listen, the Government should. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) mentioned earlier, the Government’s towns strategy, published last November, said that

“for too long, the benefits of this unprecedented growth in many of our world-renowned cities has not been felt as strongly by communities in our towns and rural areas… Successive Governments have often focused on cities as engines of economic growth.”

I largely agree with that, but a focus on rebalancing is exactly why the tax office ended up in Cumbernauld in the first place. During the 1960s and 1970s, there was cross-party consensus not only on dispersing existing civil service jobs from London to other parts of the UK, but on the creation of new positions. It was against that background that Cumbernauld was selected for a new accounts office in 1976, albeit that the opening was later postponed until 1978. The office was expected to have a hugely positive impact on employment in the town, with most of the jobs being new and recruited locally, and that is exactly what happened. Everyone in Cumbernauld knows somebody employed in the tax office. What a tragedy it is that, 40 years on, UK Ministers are standing idly by as HMRC runs roughshod over such policy goals.

In reality, the “Building our future” programme seems to be doing the opposite of the Government’s stated aim of renewing our towns. New offices are being located in prime inner-city locations in places where I have absolutely no doubt that the offices would have been filled by private sector tenants in any event. That is not the case in Cumbernauld where the site owner, Mapeley, is protecting its position in case HMRC fails to renew the lease, but it is not protecting the position by seeking new people for the lease and creating new jobs, but by knocking it down and seeking planning permission to build houses on the site. New housing is needed, but not at the expense of around 1,200 good-quality jobs.

My hon. Friend is being generous with his time. I am incredibly disturbed by a lot of what he is saying, because I seem to remember in 2014 that the presence of all these civil service jobs at HMRC and, as we were discussing last night, at the Department for International Development site in East Kilbride was one of the strengths of the Union. All those jobs were going to be at risk if Scotland voted for independence. Has he noticed that all the warnings about the risks of voting for independence—losing civil service jobs and economic chaos—are starting to come true? Will he tell the House whether we voted for independence?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It would not take too long to google a nice picture of the Better Together campaign outside HMRC in Cumbernauld, where it was warned that all the jobs could be retained only if we remained part of the United Kingdom. If the Government’s apparent new-found enthusiasm for protecting and nurturing towns is genuine, that is one strong reason why the Government should intervene and ensure that HMRC considers whether the closure is compatible with other Government objectives.

Of course, the other huge development since “Building our future” was first drafted is Brexit. The precise impact that Brexit will have on HMRC’s work remains as clear as mud, but it clearly means more work. Trade with the EEA, and even trade between the UK and Northern Ireland, will now have greater implications for HMRC. It has been acknowledged that significant additional staffing will be required, and it should be recognised that that need will not be temporary. It will therefore be useful to know the Government’s current estimate of the number of additional HMRC workers required as a result of Brexit. how many have been recruited and, indeed, how many have been recruited in Scotland. In short, it is clearly nonsense to think that we should simply ignore these realities and allow HMRC to press on as if nothing has happened. It is time to pause and think again.

It is frustrating that the Cumbernauld site was in the running for selection as one of the 13 hubs. To almost all intents and purposes, it meets the—albeit dubious—criteria used in the selection process. Cumbernauld is a large site, with good access by train and motorway to the cities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Stirling, to the graduate populations located there and to the airports at Edinburgh and Glasgow. Of course, it has the added benefit of a pre-existing experienced and dedicated workforce. There is no sensible reason for not using the Cumbernauld site.

We know from written answers that HMRC has the option of extending the lease of the Cumbernauld premises. Surely it makes sense to do that now, even if at first it is for the short to medium term while we revisit the longer-term strategy of HMRC.

Order. An hon. Member cannot just walk in and intervene after the debate has started. I am very sympathetic to Mr Shannon, as he well knows, but we have to try to stick to the rules of the House.

In a joint letter, PCS, Jamie Hepburn MSP, Councillor Logue and I invited the Financial Secretary and senior HMRC staff to meet us in Cumbernauld, and I repeat that invitation this evening. We are all desperate to work together to see HMRC retain its presence in Cumbernauld, benefiting the workforce, the whole town and taxpayers generally.

If the Financial Secretary does not visit for that purpose, he will soon receive a different letter, one asking him to come to discuss with us how the UK Government will help to pick up the pieces for Cumbernauld after the loss of its major employer and how he will properly support staff who are out of a job and out of pocket because of the closure. I would far rather not have to write that letter.

I hope the Financial Secretary will listen and consider for himself whether this seems like a reasonable way forward, or he can agree with our argument that HMRC in Cumbernauld has been working well and should remain open for the years ahead.

I thank the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) for calling this debate, following up on the Backbench Business debate he secured a couple of years ago.

Mr Speaker, I greatly appreciated the unusual range of guttural noises that you displayed a few seconds ago in relation to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I think it is an attractive aspect of your speakership, if I may say so.

In November 2015, as hon. Members on both sides of the House will know, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs announced a location strategy to support its work to create what is understood to be a world-class tax authority. That, in turn, was part of the then Government’s long-term economic plan for prosperity across this country.

Since 2010, successive Governments have made substantial investments to enable HMRC to do more to tackle evasion and avoidance, and to improve compliance, while also becoming more digital and more skilled in order to improve the services it offers to businesses and individuals.

Changes to HMRC and its office estate are an important part of that transformation. As the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East mentioned, before 2010 there was a wide sprawl of offices, varying in size and quality, across the UK. HMRC is seeking to bring the estate towards a more consistent and better integrated network of large, modern regional hubs, and to do so in the interests of its workforce who rightly deserve a modern workplace in which to work and thrive.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way so early. He might come on to this point, but Cumbernauld essentially met all the criteria that HMRC was looking for in selecting its hubs. Why can we not persevere with Cumbernauld? What role do the economic implications for Cumbernauld have in the thinking of HMRC and the Government?

Of course, HMRC was focusing on the needs of its operational business and the wellbeing of its staff. It went through a procedure for the whole series of potential locations, and it concluded that, on a wide range of eight criteria designed to support that, the move was justifiable and, indeed, required. It is fair to say that HMRC looked at the wellbeing of its staff and at the future of its business, which is as it should be.

The Public and Commercial Services Union and employees would be distraught if I did not simply point out that the staff themselves do not agree; the workers at HMRC Cumbernauld do not, for a minute, think that moving them to an inaccessible location in Glasgow city centre is remotely in their interests. I do not see how HMRC can possibly defend that position.

Of course, in any relocation there will be people who disagree with it, and that is to be anticipated. As the hon. Gentleman will know, HMRC has an elaborate and established process—I will come to it—of working with staff and seeking to support them in making the transition to a different working environment. The point I was making was that they can expect a significant improvement in the quality of the space that they are working and thriving in, and this should be beneficial for them and for the Revenue if they are allowed to do that. Of course HMRC will in turn benefit from bringing different skills and specialities together, and form a more connected and more technology-enabled environment.

No, I will not. The hon. Gentleman has absolutely no basis for coming in late to this debate in order to ask a question; I am a great fan of his and I have answered questions of his on many previous occasions, but I regard this as a discourtesy to the House. I am happy to take any further interventions that other Members may make.

I sense that HMRC Cumbernauld workers will be watching this debate and screaming at their television sets. The Minister paints this rosy picture of this office in Glasgow where they will all be able to move around. First, as I said, 1,700 or so workers will not be able to make that transition at all. Secondly, they are all reasonably happy precisely where they are and they are not remotely impressed with what has been offered to them in Glasgow city centre. Why does he not speak directly with PCS and the representatives of the staff, whom he seems to be talking about?

I have no doubt that HMRC, which is operationally responsible for this change and for the management of its business, will have spoken very closely with the relevant unions on this issue, as it has been doing in other areas, too.

If I may, with your permission, Mr Speaker, I will continue to make some progress on my speech. In November 2015, HMRC announced that in the following 10 years it would seek to bring its employees together in 13 regional offices based in locations where it already had a significant presence, such as Glasgow, which is one of the two HMRC regional centres in Scotland. The co-locating of teams across HMRC is designed to lead to increased collaboration and flexibility, making it easier for skills across a lot of teams to be shared and for teams to switch between communications channels and subject areas in order to meet the evolving needs of taxpayers. HMRC recognises that the transition may not be easy and has put considerable support in place to help its workforce through these changes. The hon. Gentleman has mentioned that and I will address that support in due course.

In Glasgow, the regional centre will be situated in the heart of the city at 1 Atlantic Square and is currently in development. It will be home to some 2,600 HMRC staff, who will be moving from six offices around the region in order to fulfil a wide range of tax professional and operational roles, including in compliance and in large business relationships.

Does the Minister recognise, however, that HMRC’s plans to move the hubs to city locations are counterproductive and undermine the Government’s own agenda to try to support development in towns? The specialist expertise is already in the towns, so why are we moving the hubs to cities, against even the Prime Minister’s aims of reinvigorating towns?

The hon. Lady is right to say that the Government take the needs of towns seriously. That is why we have a towns fund, which, in turn, works with a much wider spread of support that we are giving to cities. Of course towns have their uses and functions, and cities have theirs. HMRC is seeking to use the benefits of the city: the capacity to agglomerate services and bring people together, and give them proper communications and technology support. Those are things from which both HMRC and those staff will benefit.

I have taken a lot of interventions and I now have a limited amount of time, so I will make progress. HMRC has already opened three new regional centres in Croydon, Bristol and Belfast, with staff planned to move to the Edinburgh regional centre later this year. Construction is under way at all the remaining new locations, including Cardiff, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham, Birmingham and Stratford.

In addition to the 13 regional centres, HMRC will keep eight transitional sites open across the UK for several years to help retain key skills during the transition period, as well as five specialist sites for work that cannot be done elsewhere. For example, HMRC will retain Telford as a site for some of its specialist digital teams. Through this phased approach, HMRC will seek to minimise disruption to business operations.

The overall programme will deliver savings to the taxpayer of around £300 million up to 2025 and then rising cash savings, estimated to be more than £90 million by 2028. It also avoids additional costs of £75 million a year from 2021, when the current PFI contract with Mapeley, agreed by the last Labour Government, comes to an end.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way as I know he has points that he wants to go on to make. Can he explain to me, and to the House, how the savings he has talked about and the reduction in staff can help mitigate and tackle the £35 billion tax gap that will inevitably grow with fewer staff?

The hon. Lady rightly raises the tax gap. When expressed as an absolute number, £35 billion is a large amount of money. Some £7 billion or £8 billion of that sum is caused by people not filling the forms out correctly, and there are many other components to it. As she will know, at 5.6% the tax gap is not only near to its historic low in this country but low against international comparators. It is key to see it as a percentage in the context of the overall amount of money the Revenue collects. HMRC remains an extremely efficient tax collection agency.

It is important to stress that the strategy that HMRC has adopted is not just about cost savings or bricks and mortar. The new office in Glasgow, as well as the other sites, will allow people to develop more fulfilling careers. There will be a wider variety of jobs and, therefore, of career paths to senior roles, as a wider range of work will be based in single sites. The judgment has been that the current office in Cumbernauld does not provide the kind of space that HMRC wants for its staff; nor does HMRC judge it to be fit, over time, for a tax authority operating in the digital age. Modern buildings such as the Glasgow regional centre will deliver a better working environment and experience for HMRC’s workforce. Such buildings will increase HMRC’s attractiveness as an employer, enabling it to recruit and retain the next generation of skilled professionals.

I have very little time, and I want to talk about the support that HMRC is giving to staff. As I have said, HMRC will do all it can to retain the skills, knowledge and experience of the existing workforce and minimise any redundancies. The vast majority of existing employees are within reasonable daily travel of a regional centre, specialist site or transitional site, and that is part of the overall strategy. In 2015, HMRC estimated that 90% of its workforce would be able to move to one of the regional centres or complete their careers in their current offices. HMRC expects that the figure will be close to that once all moves to regional centres or other locations have been completed.

For those who are currently based in Cumbernauld, the travel time from Cumbernauld to Glasgow city centre is generally between 45 and 55 minutes by car, or 30 minutes by train to Queen Street station. In the locations that it is closing, HMRC has been proactive and has sought to provide a range of support for staff. In Cumbernauld, it has maintained continuous dialogue between staff and senior leaders. Local managers have received extra training to prepare and support them in that process. For some staff, HMRC is funding visits to the locations of new offices, so that they can experience the travel options that are available to them. As well as regular engagement through online forums and in person, HMRC has supported local trade unions to ensure that they can assist members and provide up-to-date information in order to retain people.

Of course, HMRC recognises that individual employees have distinct and different personal circumstances, so it has put in place structured support to help those who can move, as well as those who cannot. One year ahead of any move, every staff member affected has the opportunity to discuss their personal circumstances with their manager, to talk through any particular needs that must be taken into account when making decisions and any help that individuals may need—for instance, help with additional travel costs for up to the first five years. I understand that that is a tried-and-tested process, with tens of thousands of these conversations having been held in HMRC over the last two years. With that in mind, I hope Members agree that what we are proposing is a sane and sensible solution to the problem.

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).