HM Revenue and Customs permanent secretary Jim Harra has told MPs he does not want to lose staff as part of the department’s office-closure programme that is moving local operations to new regional hubs. He said officials were being actively encouraged not to take redundancy packages.
But Harra said the department could not stop staff from taking exit deals if their regular place of work was closed and the nearest hub was deemed too far away to commute to on a daily basis.
His response came in answer to a question from Angela Eagle at a Treasury select committee hearing on Monday. Eagle asked why redundancies were still being made at the department as a result of the hubs programme – which is closing around 170 HMRC offices and transferring operations to 13 regional hubs and a handful of other specialist centres – when working from home had become normal.
Harra said the department was obliged to offer staff redundancy when their regular place of work was earmarked for closure and they could not be reassigned to an office that was within reasonable traveling distance of their home.
“We have got people who are contractually tied to an office, so if I close their office and don’t give them another office within a reasonable daily travel of where they live, they are entitled to be offered redundancy,” he said.
“However, we have been working hard to discourage colleagues from taking up the offer of redundancy [because] we can offer flexible ways of working which we hope will retain people.
“For the offices that we’re closing in the remainder of this year, we’ve been working hard with colleagues who’ve got that voluntary redundancy offer to encourage them to stay with us. But ultimately they’ve got the right to take the offer, if that’s what they want to do.”
Back in the summer the PCS union said the current wave of office closures put 2,000 HMRC staff in the shadow of redundancy. The department’s 2019-20 annual report notes that 780 staff left under voluntary or compulsory exit schemes during that year as part of the office closures programme.
Service users face more call-answering woes
Harra also accepted that HMRC’s call-handling statistics had suffered earlier this year as a result of transferring staff to coronavirus-response roles.
“Throughout this year we’ve not been able to answer calls as quickly as we would have liked,” he told committee members.
“That has improved since the summer for two key reasons. First of all, we have improved our ability to share our adviser resources and we’ve been able to introduce technology that sends calls out to people at home.
"Secondly, we’ve been able to reduce the amount of resource that we’ve deployed on those Covid-19 support schemes.”
He added: “Nevertheless, we’ve had to impose on the patience of our customers for much of this year and I am sure, given what remains to be done on Covid-19 and Brexit, we will continue to impose on that for the remainder of this year.”
Brexit clearing centres still under construction
At the beginning of the session, committee chair Mel Stride asked Harra for an update on HMRC’s processing sites that are being introduced in southeast England for lorries carrying goods bound for mainland Europe following the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December.
Harra revealed that construction work is still continuing at the sites, with HMRC staff not due to be deployed there until next week at the earliest.
“It’s probably about another week or so until we move operational staff onto the site and start that operational testing,” he said.
“In the meantime, they’ve still got construction work under way.”
Stride said the schedule appeared to be “tight” and asked Harra if he was still confident the new facilities would be ready in time and able to cope.
“We are confident,” Harra replied. “These sites, taken together, give us more than enough capacity to deal with the demand for transit from 1 January, and that’s before you take account of the sites that ports and commercial providers will provide.
“The heavy construction work – like drainage and things like that – is all done. It’s really installation of the sheds and signage that we’re completing at the moment.
“We have got contingent labour lined up to go on those sites, but it’s too early for that. It’s probably another week before we start bringing those people on.”