HMRC planned only 30% office return before Cabinet Office set 80% target, perm sec reveals

Jim Harra says department currently has capacity for around 30% of the department’s staff to come into offices
The Amy Johnson lounge in HMRC's Croydon regional centre. Photo: Richard Johnstone

By Richard Johnstone

09 Sep 2020

HM Revenue and Customs had planned for less than one-third of employees to return to the office prior to a Cabinet Office instruction to have 80% of staff back in the office by the end of September, Jim Harra has revealed.

Giving evidence to the Public Accounts Committee on Tuesday, the HMRC permanent secretary said that the department would now be “reviewing those plans and going back to the Cabinet Office on the back of that on what we can achieve”.

Last week outgoing cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill and chief operating officer Alex Chisholm wrote to permanent secretaries to say they should get 80% of their staff back to the workplace at least one day a week by the end of the month. ‘We are now strongly encouraging an increased workplace attendance through staff rota systems, with our aim by the end of September to enable 80% of staff to attend their usual workplace each week, for example 20% for five days, 30% for three days and 30% for two days, with the balance attending only occasionally for now,” the letter, seen by the PA news agency, said.

Speaking to the PAC after the letter was received, Harra said that “on our current plans before we received that letter, we will not be having that percentage of our colleagues in the office by the end of September”.

He said that the department currently has capacity for around 30% of the department’s staff to come into offices within the Covid secure workplace guidelines, amounts to around 20,300 officials each day.

Harra also set out to MPs on the committee how the department was determining who attended the office.

“We prioritise who comes in based on if they need to because they can’t work from home, either because they don’t have the facilities or for welfare reasons they need to be in the office, or because of effectiveness. Those are our priorities, we will be looking at the context of those priorities and what progress we can make.”

Asked by committee chair Meg Hillier if HMRC had been tracking any productivity changes in the shift to home working, Harra sad that it is “an atypical period to measure productivity” as many people had to take on additional childcare responsibilities, but he added: “We have been tracking performance, and surveying our colleagues of what they think about their productivity, and most of our colleagues believe that they are able to be productive at home”.

There have been one to one conversations with the staff who feel they are not able to work as effectively, he said, to understand what assistance they need. This gas included distributing 23,000 pieces of technology and office kit to people at home to help them become more productive. “But in some cases we've said for parts of your job, you need to get in the office to be productive,” he added.

Harra was also asked about the impact of the pandemic on HMRC’s office relocation plan. The Building Our Future property scheme is reducing the number of HMRC offices from 170 down to 13 regional centres by 2022, although eight transitional centres will remain in place until at least 2028.

Asked if the impact of the pandemic and the sift to remote working had undermined the plans for the reforms, Harra said: I don't believe it goes. We remain committed to our programme of having large regional centres.”

However, he acknowledged that “it does call into question, some of the policies we've had towards flexible working”.

For example, he said that in the recent voluntary redundancy round as part of the move to regional centres, “we have offered greater flexibility to those who wish to stay on in the organization that we previously would”. This has included agreeing in principle that up to 600 employees can have greater flexibility, right up to permanent home working, as an alternative to them taking redundancy as they are unable to reach the regional centre”.

He added: “We're also doing some work, I think by February, on our longer term strategy for how you combine regional centres with more flexibility – learning the lessons for the last few months but also leveraging the technology investments.”

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