Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Rebecca Harris.)
I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise in the House the threat to 250 jobs of hard-working and highly skilled civil servants employed by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs at the Waterfront offices in Dudley. I am also grateful for the brilliant work done by the local representative of the Public and Commercial Services Union, Tim Crumpton, and to constituents of mine who work at the centre for speaking to me about this matter. I congratulate them on their campaign to save the jobs and to keep the staff working in our community.
These are jobs that neither the staff themselves nor the wider community in Dudley can afford to lose, and that is why I am asking Ministers to look again at this decision. We want them to keep the Brierley Hill offices open and ensure that the highly skilled HMRC staff continue to work for the Government, serving the public. As Members will know, HMRC announced a radical office closure programme in November 2015, reducing the number of offices to just 13, spread across the UK.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He mentions the highly skilled employees. With the introduction of universal credit and the additional work of reviewing every former disability living allowance and current personal independence payment claim, does he agree that to dismiss highly trained staff, who are capable of working between Departments and easing the load, is folly and must be reconsidered?
I completely agree. It is not party political knockabout to say that the introduction of universal credit is clearly not going according to plan. It has obviously hit some wrinkles along the road—that is a charitable way of putting it—and it is an odd decision to get rid of staff when we do not know how difficult it is going to be to properly introduce the new benefit.
The new regional centre for the west midlands will be in Birmingham. That led to the closure of the Walsall office in 2016, while the Worcester office is due to close next year and the Wolverhampton, Coventry and Solihull offices are due to close in 2020 or 2021.
I held a public meeting in Coventry at the end of January. There is a lot of concern because 300 jobs will go from the local tax office and people will either have to travel to Birmingham, or use a phone line, which is not always adequate for their needs. Does my hon. Friend agree that a halt should be called to this?
My hon. Friend is completely right. Everybody knows how hard he fights for jobs in Coventry and that it cannot afford to lose those jobs, just like the Black country cannot afford to lose the ones in Dudley. The city council passed a motion unanimously, probably in no small part due to his campaigning.
It was announced that the Dudley office at the Waterfront and Merry Hill would be taken on by the Department for Work and Pensions, and that staff would transfer to that Department; a small number of staff would have transferred to the Birmingham office. Staff at that office employed by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to work on tax credits were told in 2015 that they would be transferred to the DWP to work on the introduction and implementation of universal credit. As recently as last October, they were told that they would remain at the Waterfront offices to work on the new benefit. Instead, at the end of January it was announced that the Government had changed their mind, that their jobs were at risk and that the office would close. That came as a huge shock to the hard-working, highly skilled and loyal staff. On the same day, DWP announced up to 150 job vacancies at the Waterfront site. Inquiries have been made and they are fixed-term appointments, although local discussions have revealed that they could become permanent. The announcement had little detail and more was promised, we were told, in April 2018.
It was originally envisaged that the Birmingham regional centre would have a capacity of about 3,200 full-time equivalent staff, but when the site of the Birmingham office was announced in October, that figure was reduced to 2,600. No official reason has been given for that, but sources are very clear that it is based on the high costs of premises in Birmingham. The figure of 2,600 did not include the Merry Hill staff, because they were due to go to DWP.
We have discussed the situation in Coventry, where hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham), have been campaigning. The same is true in Wolverhampton, where MPs also want their HMRC office to stay open. It has 300 staff and the local council also supports the campaign. Discussions have opened with Andy Street, the West Midlands Mayor, based on the combined authority agreement, which was signed by the then Chancellor with all of the West Midlands combined authority councils, and which uniquely states that there should be a regional Government hub in Birmingham and sub-regional hubs elsewhere in the region.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate on the closure of the offices in my constituency, which will affect many of his constituents. Does he agree that the success of the surge and rapid response team at the Waterfront demonstrates exactly the kind of modern capabilities that would add so much to delivering universal credit, and that the redeployment should be reconsidered, whether with DWP or with other bodies, to make use of the existing staff and skills at the Waterfront?
The hon. Gentleman is completely right. I will make that point later. These are highly skilled, highly trained staff, who are very experienced in dealing with complex benefits. No better group of people could be employed for the introduction of universal credit. That is the case we are making to Ministers tonight and I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman is here to do so, too. I very much hope that Ministers will listen to and consider the argument over the next few weeks.
That is a really important point, because for staff in Merry Hill the closure will present grave difficulties. A high proportion of them have caring responsibilities which would make the journey to Birmingham impossible; I have spoken to mothers in exactly that position. A number of the staff came from offices that closed in the 1990s, and the journeys would make such a move impossible or impractical for them. The recent closure of the office in Walsall left more than half the staff without jobs, and the closure in Worcester is affecting nine out of 10 staff, who now face voluntary or compulsory redundancy; the majority of those staff have caring responsibilities.
HMRC insists that 90% of staff will have a job in the centres, despite the fact that all the closures so far have resulted in much higher job losses. The loss of these skilled and hard-working staff is very risky and it contradicts recommendations made by Committees of this House, which have called for a halt to the office closure process. Staff in Merry Hill believe that the DWP explanation that it has sufficient staff for universal credit to work properly flies in the face of all the current information we have about this complex new benefit’s introduction, as we heard a moment ago. Staff who work there are highly skilled: they have dealt with tax credits work since those were introduced, and they are helping with the changeover to UC from tax credits already. They were also stunned that the DWP vacancies were not even considered when the announcement was originally made.
Another point that I know will be of interest to the hon. Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood) is that the office is in the middle of a recently announced enterprise zone, DY5, and the roles undertaken by HMRC staff completely fit into the Government’s vision for this enterprise zone. This brings me to my final point, which is about unemployment in Dudley.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. As the chair of the Public and Commercial Services Union parliamentary group, I wonder whether he could confirm that no economic impact assessment and no equality impact assessment has been carried out prior to these closures in Dudley?
As far as I am aware, neither of those assessments has been carried out. That is another point the Minister should be considering this evening.
Unemployment in Dudley is already higher than the national average, and we cannot afford to lose another 250 jobs from the borough. It is important that civil service jobs are spread throughout the country, benefiting communities such as mine, instead of being centralised in London or major regional centres. The UK is already one of the most centralised countries in the world. As a result, investment and growth have been concentrated in the capital and stifled elsewhere. Extraordinarily, despite all the cuts, the proportion of the country’s civil servants located in London actually increased every year between 2010 and 2015. Even with deep cuts elsewhere in the country, there were 5,000 more civil servants in the capital in 2015 than there had been in 2013. Instead of closing offices in Black country communities such as the borough I represent, the Government should be moving civil servants and staff from non-departmental public bodies and quangos out of London, transferring jobs from the capital to the rest of the country, spreading wealth more fairly across the UK and contributing to the regeneration of communities in places such as Dudley. That would improve policy making by getting central, regional and local government working more effectively together, bringing government closer to the people and ensuring that policy makers were better informed about what life is like in places that are often ignored by civil servants and politicians based in London. It would also save the Government money by getting staff out of expensive London property.
As I understand it, HMRC has announced that it will be moving 1,500 jobs out of London, so in the spirit of generosity for which we in the Black country are well known, may I tell the Minister that we would be very happy to provide a home for those 1,500 staff? I very much hope that he will consider moving those jobs out of London and to Dudley and the Black country.
Before I finish, I would like to ask some other specific questions. Staff in the office were told late last year that they would transfer to the DWP on 31 March 2022. Can the Minister confirm that it is still the plan that staff will remain in Dudley, working on tax credits, until that date? That would give time to see whether the DWP at Merry Hill can make some or all the fixed-term jobs permanent and offer them to staff there, and it would give time for staff to seek other work in the area and to be retrained. In addition, other DWP roles in local jobcentres would become available. That would not preclude staff who want to go to Birmingham from doing so, and it would offer other staff who work in Wolverhampton a stepping stone if their office does close, as many of them live in our area.
Will the Minister visit the offices with me and listen directly to the staff involved, or meet them here in London? Will he explain how this proposal reflects wider Government policy, given that Ministers recently designated the area as an enterprise zone? Finally, will he explain what assistance will be provided to staff who cannot transfer elsewhere or who do not get jobs elsewhere, to help them to obtain alternative employment if the proposed closure goes ahead?
The decision to close the Merry Hill office came as a huge shock to staff. Many of them will not be able to transfer and Dudley cannot afford to lose their jobs. It is my job to stand up for local people, which is why I secured this debate to demand that Ministers think again. These are hard-working and highly skilled public servants. They are very worried about their future and we need to secure their jobs. That is why we are here today, and I very much hope that Ministers will listen.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) on securing this debate on an important subject. I thank the PCS trade union in Lancashire for bringing the situation in respect of HMRC staff in Lancashire to my attention. Since October 2017, approximately 200 staff at the Guild Tower in Preston have transferred to work on universal credit for the DWP, and in April this year, the next set of staff is due to transfer over, but for the past four to six weeks, rumours have been rife that the imminent transfer of staff will be the last, and that after that tranche has moved over the DWP will no longer need any staff for universal credit.
Let me explain the bigger picture. The original plan was for 4,000 HMRC staff throughout the country to be transferred to the DWP to work on universal credit. There are 600 HMRC staff in Preston who were not part of those plans. They were needed at the new regional centres in Manchester or Liverpool. By February this year, the 4,000 staff throughout the country had reduced to 2,000, with staff in Liverpool, Merry Hill—to which my hon. Friend referred—St Helens and Dudley told that they would not be transferring. Of the remaining 2,000 staff, between 1,400 and 1,500 are in Preston at the Unicentre and the Guild Tower, which have a combined 20 floors, with the rest in Dundee. So far, 200 staff have transferred, and rumours are that the 100 who will transfer next month may be the last to go. This would equate to the loss of between 1,700 and 1,800 jobs in Preston.
Under HMRC’s “Building our future” plans, all the existing HMRC offices in Preston either will transfer to the DWP or are scheduled to close. Although Preston was among the original 40 sites shortlisted for consideration as a regional centre, under the current plans there will be no HMRC presence there at all after 2022. That could mean thousands of staff facing either the prospect of moving to work at HMRC’s designated regional centres in the north-west, in Manchester and Liverpool, which are unlikely to be within reasonable daily travel distances for staff from Preston, or the prospect of mass redundancies.
Will the Minister please look again at the plans? It is unacceptable that between 1,700 and 1,800 jobs might disappear from Preston. The scale and size of the new regional centres should be reviewed, because huge numbers of jobs in Preston are clearly at risk because of the plans that are dispensing with many staff who the Government know will not transfer to Manchester or Liverpool because of the distances involved.
I shall keep my comments very brief. As the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) has said, these proposals are particular and differ from many of the wider reorganisation proposals for HMRC. Some very specific plans were put in place—the workforce at HMRC in Merry Hill were consulted and told that staff would be transferred from the tax credits team to the Department for Work and Pensions to work on universal credit delivery. That was thought to be the position two months ago, but suddenly, out of the blue, the proposals changed. It came as a shock to HMRC staff based at the Waterfront and to their representatives—both those in the trade union movement and their elected representatives.
The hon. Gentleman set out some very good reasons why the Government should look again at how we can maintain and retain both the staff and the facilities at the Waterfront. The skills provided there are absolutely first class and would be a credit to any part of the civil service that could make use of them. As I mentioned earlier, the surge and rapid response team that has been operating out of the Waterfront—originally from HMRC and the passport service—has shown the adaptability of the teams that are based there. There is no doubt that the tax credit team could similarly transfer and provide a fantastic service, whether it is in conjunction with DWP, other parts of HMRC or Her Majesty’s Treasury.
The Waterfront is a growth area. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the DY5 enterprise zone that many of us worked so hard to secure. On top of that, we have the new tram links connecting to that enterprise zone, which—I almost said coincidentally, but it is almost tragically—is due to open at almost exactly the time when these jobs are scheduled to be taken away from the Waterfront.
I urge my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to look again at both the content of these proposals and the timetable for them, to see whether the Government are doing absolutely everything they can to find the right way to make full use of the fantastic talent that we have at HMRC at the Waterfront, to give employees the certainty that they need, to retain the skills and experience that we need in the civil service, and to set an awful lot of minds at rest in my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Dudley North.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) on securing this important debate. I know that these are matters of particular concern to him, as they are to the hon. Member for Preston (Sir Mark Hendrick) and my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood), who have also made contributions this evening. HMRC’s location strategy was the subject of a Backbench Business debate held in November last year, and I am grateful to have the opportunity to return to this important matter.
As the hon. Member for Dudley North pointed out, in November 2015 HMRC announced its location strategy as a crucial element of its work to create a modern, world-class tax authority—a key part of our long-term economic plan for national prosperity. Since 2010 we have made substantial investments, enabling HMRC to do more to tackle evasion, drive down avoidance and improve compliance.
HMRC is transforming into a leaner, more highly skilled operation, offering modern digital services. It is moving away from outdated systems of manual processing to become more flexible and technologically driven—changing the way it works and using today’s technology and IT to improve the services it delivers for its customers. These investments in technology mean that HMRC can tackle fraud, evasion and avoidance more effectively and that customer services have improved, with far lower wait times on helplines and new ways to get support, such as webchats.
Changes to HMRC’s office estate are an important part of this transformation process, moving it from a large, widely dispersed estate of offices across the UK, varying in size, to a considered network of significant, modern regional hubs. In November 2015, HMRC announced that over the following 10 years it would bring its employees together in 13 regional offices, all in locations where it already has a significant presence, as it does in Birmingham. The co-location of teams across HMRC will lead to increased collaboration and flexibility, allowing it to provide more effective and efficient services to the taxpayer, and it has put support in place to help its workforce through the changes.
In Birmingham, the regional centre will be situated in the heart of the city at 3 Arena Central. It will be home to 3,600 civil servants, with 2,650 HMRC staff moving in from 13 offices around the west midlands region to undertake a wide range of key tax professional and operational delivery roles.
The first of HMRC’s regional centres opened in Croydon in July 2017 and construction is under way at the Birmingham site, along with further sites in Bristol, Cardiff, Belfast and Leeds. All those offices will be modern, environmentally friendly and located in the heart of the community. Most of them will be shared with other Government Departments, and all have been sized for the future needs of HMRC and the taxpayer.
In addition to the 13 regional centres, HMRC will keep seven transitional sites open across the UK for several years, where it will 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. By phasing the moves into its regional centres over a number of years and keeping sites open during the transition, HMRC will ensure that disruption to its business operations is minimised. The Birmingham regional centre will open in late 2020.
The overall programme to move to regional centres will deliver savings to the taxpayer of around £300 million up to 2025 and then annual cash savings of £74 million in 2025-26, rising to more than £90 million by 2028. It will also avoid costs of £75 million a year from 2021, when the current private finance initiative contact with Mapeley comes to an end.
It is important to stress that this is not just about cost savings and bricks and mortar. HMRC’s new office structure will allow people to develop more fulfilling careers. There will be a far wider variety of jobs and different career paths to senior roles, as a wider range of work will be based on single sites. These modern buildings will unquestionably deliver a better working environment and experience for HMRC’s workforce. Crucially, their city centre locations will also increase HMRC’s attractiveness as an employer, enabling it to recruit and retain the next generation of skilled professionals. That is particularly important given that a substantial proportion of its long-serving workforce are approaching retirement age.
HMRC is clear that it wants to do all it can to keep its people’s skills, knowledge and experience, and it has a policy of minimising any redundancies. The vast majority of HMRC employees are within reasonable daily travel of a regional centre, specialist site or transitional site, and that is deliberate: decisions on where to locate the regional centres were based on modelling of where existing staff are based. HMRC estimates that 90% of its workforce will be able to move to one of its regional centres or complete their career in their current office. For those currently based at the Waterfront offices, the travel time from Dudley to Birmingham city centre is between 35 and 55 minutes by car or train.
That said, HMRC recognises that individual employees have distinct personal circumstances, and not everyone will feel able to move to a regional centre, even where they might be reasonably close by. So it has put structured support in place—this is a point that the hon. Member for Dudley North asked about—to help those who can move and those who cannot. One year ahead of any move, everyone affected has the opportunity to discuss their personal circumstances with their manager and talk through any particular needs to be taken into account when decisions are made or any help they need to make the move—for instance, help with additional travel costs for up to the first five years. It is a tried and tested process, with more than 10,000 such conversations held in HMRC over the last two years. There is also a range of support for those unable to make the move to a regional centre. HMRC runs a programme of training, workshops, webinars and coaching, which includes advice on CV writing and identifying transferrable skills. Since starting in the autumn, it has been offered to around 800 employees, and HMRC will continue to provide such support.
Let me turn to some specific questions that the hon. Member for Dudley North posed. An equality assessment was conducted prior to the location’s announcement in 2015, with a high-level summary published to staff at that time. HMRC continues to review those, and the issues in the west midlands are of course considered with the active input of representatives from the Brierley Hill office and the local Public and Commercial Services Union.
The hon. Gentleman also asked me an important question about the date to which staff not being transferred on the universal credit/DWP basis might expect to stay in place. Currently, HMRC expects there to be ongoing tax credits work in Brierley Hill until March 2021. At that point, the tax credits caseload is expected to have fully moved across to universal credit, so the tax credits work currently undertaken in Merry Hill will come to an end. However, HMRC intends gradually to redeploy the skilled and experienced staff there to other work as the tax credits caseload decreases. HMRC will work with those staff to ensure that there is every opportunity to make a successful move into reallocated employment.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether I would be happy to meet him and some of the staff with whom he has been liaising. I would be more than happy to do that. Perhaps doing so in Westminster would be most appropriate, as the hon. Member for Preston and my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South might wish to join him for those discussions—I would certainly be open to that.
Finally, the hon. Member for Dudley North asked about the support provided for those who might not, in the event, be able to make the move from Merry Hill to the new centre in the centre of Birmingham. As I have said, all staff will have a one-to-one discussion with their manager around a year in advance of any office move that affects them, to discuss their personal circumstances, establish whether they are within reasonable daily travel of the new office and discuss what support might be needed to enable them to move. For those who can move, there will be financial support towards the additional cost of their journey time for up to five years. HMRC is supporting those who cannot move by seeking redeployment opportunities for them in other Departments.
Question put and agreed to.