Union accuses HMRC of possible purdah breach over office closures plan

Written by Richard Johnstone on 5 June 2017 in News
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PCS expresses concern that contracts forming part of the tax department’s controversial regional hub scheme were signed in the pre-election period

One of HMRC's planned hubs is Ruskin Square in Croydon. Phorto credit: Stanhope PLC

The Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union has accused HM Revenue and Customs of a possible breach in civil service purdah rules after contracts for the department’s controversial plan to move staff to regional hubs were signed in the pre-election period.

The union has written to HMRC chief executive Jon Thompson seeking an urgent explanation of why deals with developers for the Building our Future programme appear to have been signed during purdah, which began on 22 April.

Civil service guidance regarding decisions during the purdah period states: “It is customary for ministers to observe discretion in initiating any action of a continuing or long term character. Decisions on matters of policy, and other issues such as large and/or contentious commercial contracts, on which a new government might be expected to want the opportunity to take a different view from the present government, should be postponed until after the election, provided that such postponement would not be detrimental to the national interest or wasteful of public money.”

Under the relocation scheme, HMRC plans to shut around 170 regional offices and replace them with 13 regional hubs, a central London headquarters and four support centres. The plan, which is expected to affect 90% of the current workforce, has been criticised by unions and by the Public Accounts Committee.

PCS said it was told at a workforce planning meeting on Friday by HMRC director of workforce management Ravi Chand that contracts with developers regarding proposed regional centres had been signed during purdah.

Civil service guidance regarding decisions during the purdah period states: “It is customary for ministers to observe discretion in initiating any action of a continuing or long term character. Decisions on matters of policy, and other issues such as large and/or contentious commercial contracts, on which a new government might be expected to want the opportunity to take a different view from the present government, should be postponed until after the election, provided that such postponement would not be detrimental to the national interest or wasteful of public money.”

PCS general secretary general secretary Mark Serwotka said it would be “a serious and very worrying breach of purdah rules” if deals were entered into during this period.

“The rules around purdah are clear, contentious decisions like this should not be taken during an election period. It is troubling that HMRC does not feel that long-established pre-election rules apply in this matter,” he said. “Given the controversial and highly politicised track record of the Building our Future programme, HMRC needs to urgently explain exactly why these very sensitive decisions appear to have been taken during an election period.”

Responding to a request for comment from Civil Service World, a HMRC spokesman said: "HMRC‎ always ensures it follows the civil service guidelines in pre-election purdah periods."

However, Peter Dowd, Labour’s shadow chief secretary to the Treasury said the agreements were “deeply worrying” and appeared to be a direct breach of the rules around purdah.

“Politically contentious and commercially sensitive decisions like this should not be taken during an election period and HMRC needs to explain why it believes this was appropriate,” he added.

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