HM Revenue and Customs will embark on a redundancy scheme that unions say could affect 2,000 people tomorrow, as part of its office closure programme.
From tomorrow, staff based at some of HMRC’s offices that are set to close between September and next March months will be able to apply for redundancy.
The department is closing 90% of its local offices and replacing them with larger, regional hubs.
Staff working at those offices will transfer either to one of the new regional hubs or to a “transitional site”.
The scheme, which was described by one MP in the House of Commons yesterday as "massive", will be open to HMRC employees who are “outside reasonable daily travel” of their intended site, a spokesperson for the tax agency told CSW.
This will be the second wave of redundancies to happen as part of the hubs plan. It was set to open in April or May, but was pushed back because of the coronavirus outbreak.
The first tranche of people who opted to take redundancy earlier this year were originally set to leave at the end of June, but were asked to stay on until the end of September to support HMRC’s efforts to tackle the coronavirus crisis.
PCS said last year that the department had lost 17,000 years’ worth of staff experience through redundancy and departures because of the hubs programme.
The trade union has pushed back against the latest plans, saying redundancies were not needed as the “overwhelming majority” can do their jobs remotely.
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: “We’ve been assured by the minister that redundancies will only go ahead if they are ‘necessary and unavoidable’. The redundancies announced in HMRC are the very opposite of that and come at a time of massive uncertainty and economic upheaval for many.”
The department is currently reviewing whether it will offer long-term options for people to work flexible or even to work from home permanently.
However, staff may not know if they will be allowed to work flexibly until the end of November. The department said staff wanting the option to work from home would not be forced to take redundancy before the review was completed.
Serwotka said it was “incredible” that HMRC was announcing job losses before the review had been completed.
“If the department is serious about learning the lessons of Covid-19, HMRC should work with PCS to ensure the department retains these key workers' vital skills and should make the necessary changes to its locations plans to protect the service in the future,” he said.
During a debate on the government’s response to Covid-19 yesterday, SNP MP Chris Stephens said the pandemic had demonstrated the benefits of home working, “particularly in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, with staff having gone the extra mile to support business through the schemes”.
Around 90% of HMRC staff have been working from home throughout the pandemic, according to figures released last month.
The remaining 10% needed to be in their normal workplace “owing to operational requirements”, financial secretary to the Treasury Jesse Norman said at the time.
In light of the recent working arrangements, Stephens said the redundancies appeared to undermine the prime minister’s insistence that he wants to “get people back into work”.
“The prime minister will be aware that HMRC has now launched a massive redundancy scheme, which could affect 2,000 staff,” he said.
“What message does he believe he sends when he says that people should get back to work but government departments want to put people out of work?”
Boris Johnson said: “On HMRC and the sad redundancies... I will certainly look at that, though I think that, obviously, it is also important to cut the cost of government.”
He added that as coronavirus lockdown measures are eased, people “have to work from home if they can” but it is “up to employers and employees to decide whether they need to get back to their workplaces to do their jobs”.
An HMRC spokesperson said: “We remain committed to building and moving into our regional centres and specialist sites, providing safe, high quality and modern workspaces for our staff.
“We know that some colleagues would much rather remain working for HMRC but may feel like they have no other option than to take voluntary redundancy. We are reviewing whether there are some longer term opportunities to work more flexibly in future, including in some cases the opportunity to work from home on a permanent basis, and help as many colleagues as possible to stay with us if they can.”
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