HM Revenue and Customs staff working on crucial Brexit work including developing new customs arrangements for the UK could be among those in line for redundancy as the tax agency closes 170 offices and replaces them with 13 regional centres.
The Public and Commercial Services trade union has sounded the alarm over the future of customs work to get Britain ready for EU exit after learning that there may not be room at London’s regional centre for IT staff currently working on England’s south coast.
It said HMRC was planning to keep its office in Southend – which was earmarked for closure and accommodates around 1,000 staff – partially open until 2023, two years longer than was originally intended, for “Brexit-facing work”.
But the Stratford regional centre, which is supposed to accommodate staff relocating from London and the south east from late 2020, will have less capacity than was originally announced. PCS said it was likely to be fully occupied by 2023, when the IT staff doing Brexit work were likely to see their jobs moved to the north, and could face redundancies.
HMRC initially said it was looking for a regional centre in London with space for 5,000 staff, but has since announced that the Stratford office will only have capacity for 3,800 people.
The union said the uncertainty was causing “a huge amount of unhappiness” among staff in the Southend office, Alexander House, and warned about retention of younger staff with key IT skills who no longer see a viable career path at HMRC.
Employees in the Southend office are working on the Customs Declarations Service, which is due to replace the Customs Handling of Import and Export Freight system and will need to be fully operational by the time Britain leaves the EU in 2019. There are also staff working on architectural design, IT delivery groups including messaging and data engineering, freight at Dover, and the customs solution for the Northern Ireland border.
Stuart Holttum, PCS branch secretary, said: “HMRC has tried to spin this as good news because they hold out the possibility of staying in Alexander House for a period longer than the current plans, but at the end of it the work will move away and the people won’t have a job to go to.”
He added that HMRC’s decision to lease a smaller space in Stratford affected other staff in the area as well, as “there is no certainty that there is actually enough space” for them. Other regional centres are also reducing their originally planned capacity, he added.
Holttum added: “The union is not only concerned about the impact on our people but on the Southend area with over 1,000 jobs going and also – whatever our view on Brexit is – this must have an impact on making it a success if the IT systems that underpin it have their development jeopardised by the HMRC decision to throw the IT specialists on the scrap heap while development is still ongoing.”
HMRC confirmed that the Stratford regional centre would be smaller than was anticipated in 2015, and told Civil Service World that the future of the Southend office would be confirmed within the next few months.
The department said it was not planning any staff exits, as the relocations will take place over several years. Around 500 people leave the tax agency for a new job or retirement each year anyway. It is planned that one in seven HMRC staff will continue to be based in the capital, where a mix of professions will be based and long-term career opportunities ensured, the department said.
A spokesperson added: “HMRC is transforming into a smaller, more highly-skilled organisation offering modern, digital services. In November 2015, HMRC announced a 10-year transformation programme to create a tax authority fit for the future, by creating 13 new modern regional centres serving every nation and region in the UK.
“HMRC will continue to support both its people in relocating to the regional centres and in trying to find alternative solutions for those that can’t. HMRC wants to keep as many of its staff as possible and expects that 90% of its current workforce will either work in a regional centre or see out their career in an HMRC office.”