HM Revenue and Customs has shed more light on its plan to drastically scale back the number of offices it occupies in favour of large regional centres, with staff set to be briefed on the changes in November.
A message sent to HMRC staff by the tax authority's chief people officer William Hague this week – and seen by Civil Service World – says the "overwhelming majority" of employees will be moved to the regional offices as smaller units are closed, and sets out plans for a series of more limited "transitional sites" to allow some staff to continue to work locally.
But it again raises the prospect of redundancy for a "small" number of HMRC employees, and says staff will be informed of the future shape of the tax authority's office network in a series of face-to-face meetings throughout November.
HMRC chief Lin Homer looks to "diamond-shaped" future for department
Union warning as HMRC starts talks on fate of 200 staff
Meg Hillier interview: the new public accounts committee chair on HMRC staffing, public service silos – and Jeremy Corbyn
"These changes are one of the biggest building blocks of our transformation, as we simply can't transform the way that we serve the public without fundamentally changing how and where we work," Hague says.
"That's because the way that we're currently organised, across 170 offices, simply doesn't make business or financial sense. It makes it hard for us to collaborate, develop people, or respond to operational priorities – and has created a position where we have isolated pockets of colleagues who have limited career opportunities.
"The only way that we can change this is by rationalising our estate. Our estate contracts are structured in such a way that we need to act now. The alternative would involve us being forced to keep deteriorating buildings that we can do little about."
CSW understands that HMRC is aiming to be based at fewer than 20 sites by the end of the process – although Hague's message stresses that some of the changes will take up to ten years. A spokesperson for the department said it had committed to keeping "a long-term presence in every country and region of the UK".
The chief people officer's message says the tax authority will aim to hold onto its existing staff "where possible", with employees moved "across lines of business where necessary to safeguard jobs".
A "limited" number of transitional sites will be used as a "stepping stone" to the move to regional centres, the chief people officer adds, allowing some HMRC staff to stay with the department for a time without relocating.
"Transitional sites will be an important part of the way we move towards regional centres. These will be existing HMRC offices that will enable people to continue working for us for anything up to ten years – and in a few cases, even 12 years.
"They won't offer the full training and career opportunities of a regional centre, so people who want to develop their careers in HMRC will have to weigh up the short-term benefits of working locally for longer, and the longer-term career benefits of moving to a regional centre."
Hague says, however, that the "majority" of HMRC's smaller sites will close by the end of 2021 as their leases expire – with a some "targeted" job cuts possible as those closures occur.
"We will close some sites earlier than that, as we have done in recent years as we move to regional centres and transitional sites, or offer exit packages, depending on the circumstances affecting the site and individuals.
"We will, of course, support colleagues through these changes – whether it's help with reasonable daily travel, retraining or support finding jobs outside HMRC. For some, it will mean an exit package. We anticipate that any exit schemes will be small in scale and targeted only at those whose location or skills mean that we have no alternative."
In August, CSW reported that HMRC had opened 90-day talks with unions on the future of around 200 administrative staff as part of its wider restructuring process – dubbed "Building our Future". The department has said it will aim to "avoid the need for compulsory redundancies" wherever possible, but the PCS union has voiced concern about the "timescale and process" of that consultation.
Hague's message says HMRC continues to be involved in "constructive, helpful" talks with unions on the relocation programme, and union representatives will meet management in mid-October to discuss the implications of the latest announcement.
Tony Wallace, president of the ARC union – which represents senior HMRC officials – told CSW that the transitional centres would be "useful" in allowing the tax authority to "better manage the process" of scaling back its estate.
"It's helpful that HMRC are involving its departmental trade unions in its move to its new structure," he said. "The big issue is the scale of the change. The scale of the change is such that they need some mechanism in place to make sure that operationally the department continues and that people have got somewhere to carry on working until the new system is up and running."
"Transition won't happen overnight"
The size of HMRC's new regional centres – which the taxman has previously said will hold around 1,500 people – will vary, according to Hague.
"Some of them – notably in the north east – will be bigger than others, while a small number are likely to be slightly smaller than our 1,500 principle," he says.
"Where that is the case, we've focused on making sure that the centre has high-quality tax professional roles.
"The transition won't happen overnight, although the process is likely to begin for some as early as next year. For many, moves will happen between 2017 and 2021, although for others, it will take as long as ten years."
Staff will find out the planned locations of the regional centres and the temporary local sites – as well as the implications for the smaller offices – in a series of face-to-face meetings slated for November.
Senior civil servants will then lead a "department-wide" consultation with staff about the changes, Hague says, in a bid to ensure "local issues and concerns are heard and understood".
But the chief people officer makes clear that HMRC is determined to press ahead with its restructuring plans.
"To avoid any doubt, this won't be a consultation on whether we should continue to reduce our estate. It will be a consultation about how we manage the transition and what it should be like to work in an HMRC location in the future."
A spokesperson for HMRC said the department would maintain a "long-term" presence across Britain.
“HMRC has set out a provisional timetable for announcements in every country and region in the UK over a fortnight in November, explaining how the overwhelming majority of our people will either move to a Regional Centre or one of a network of Transitional Sites, over the next decade.
They added: "The changes to be announced in November are one of the building blocks of transforming HMRC into a smaller, more highly-skilled organisation, that provides better, more modern services and value for money for taxpayers.
"HMRC has made a commitment to keep a long-term presence in every country and region of the UK. We will provide more detail to our workforce in announcements in November."
HMRC's chief executive Lin Homer told MPs earlier this month that the department was set to become more "diamond-shaped" in future, with fewer administrative roles and a greater emphasis on specialist skills. Homer said she would seek to "strengthen the career opportunities" available to some HMRC staff through the bigger "centres of excellence".
But she added: "I would want to be clear that the most basic of our jobs, in common with all big departments, the numbers are reducing."
HMRC's headcount has fallen significantly over the past decade – from 96,000 in 2005 to under 60,000 by 2014. And the number of full-time equivalents working for the tax authority is expected to fall further to 52,000 by April next year.
The latest assessment of HMRC performance – published by the National Audit Office spending watchdog in July – found that the authority had increased its total tax take by 6.3% on 2012-13 levels.