No difference between working from home and office, says HMRC chief

Jim Harra also defends HMRC over "gross distortions" made by a former secretary of state
Jayne-Anne Gadhia (left), Jim Harra (centre), Angela MacDonald (right). Photo: Parliamentlive.tv

By Tevye Markson

26 Apr 2024

There is no productivity difference between staff working at home and working in the office, HMRC permanent secretary Jim Harra has told MPs.

At a Treasury Committee meeting on Wednesday, Harra was asked by MP Stephen Hammond if pressures on the department’s helpline services, the main topic of the session, could be eased by getting more civil servants to work from offices.

The department’s policy is that civil servants should go into the office for 60% of their working week, or three days for a full-time staff member, the same level that ministers asked departments to enforce in November. Around 57% of staff are achieving this, as of March, with 95% going in at least once last month, according to Harra.

Harra said the department is able to monitor whether helpline advisors are online and how many calls they're dealing with. “There is no difference between the number of calls that a helpline advisor deals with on a day depending on whether they're at home or in the office,” he said. “We get the same level of productivity.”

The HMRC chief said this is also the case for advisors who provide webchat support and staff working on postal services.

“They are as effective at home as they are in the office. So whilst I want to make sure that colleagues comply with the policy, I'm confident that an answer to our problem is not to change the balance between working from home and the office,” Harra said.

He added: “Nevertheless we see value in colleagues being in the office because they learn together and they collaborate. And so, even though an experienced advisor can be as productive at home as they are in the office, we still expect them to come into the office most of the time.”

Harra also confirmed that all systems needed by helpline advisors can be accessed from home. He added: “There's not an absolute right for people to work from home. You have to have adequate facilities at home to do so and you have to demonstrate that you can perform your duties at home.”

'Several gross distortions': Clash over home working and pay

Harra was pressed further on the home-working debate by MP and former environment secretary Thérèse Coffey, leading to a robust exchange.

Coffey first asked how the department assesses its productivity.

Harra explained that HMRC knows how many calls a helpline advisor should be able to handle on an average day, but said the department is “constantly re-evaluating” this “because as we implement our strategy, what should happen is that the simpler calls get dealt with by our online services and the more complex calls go through to our helpline advisors”.

“We do expect our call handling times to grow even though the number of calls will reduce,” he added.

Coffey then asked: “In terms of measuring the people working from home or wherever they work,  you've told us about the quantitative comparison. What's the qualitative difference?”

HMRC second perm sec Angela MacDonald said the main factor determining quality was offficials’ experience levels.

Coffey asked how many of the department’s most experienced people were in the office at least three days a week.

MacDonald said senior staff are subject to the same 60% rule, but that this changes when there are new people who need training. “You could absolutely be expected to be in five days over a long period of time because you're going through new training or as a more experienced person, you are offering training to that new person,” she said. “We do have an overarching organisational rule but that does not mean that we do that in an unthinking way.”

Coffey then asked what proportion of officials were meeting the 60% rule. Harra gave the  57% figure and said that this had been “growing” in the last year.

Coffey explained the reasoning behind her line of questioning. She argued that HMRC staff have had “considerably higher pay rises than the rest of the civil service on the basis of productivity”, while “half of people expected to fill in tax returns” do not think the department’s website is “sufficiently good”.

She added that the department had “signed expensive leases for buildings”, many of which she claimed were empty in lockdown, and she said HMRC is “now actually having to get the rest of the government to bail you out by coming to share your very flash premises”.

Harra accused Coffey of making “several gross distortions”, which he said needed to be corrected “one by one”. As Harra tried to speak, Coffey interrupted, saying she was looking for “the board” to respond to her concerns that “a lot of money that hasn't necessarily been spent wisely in the past”.

Defending HMRC, non-executive director Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia said: “It is always easy to look at some of the problems.”

She said HMRC collects around £800bn worth of tax per year and that more than 80% of customers are “very satisfied” with online services.

Gadhia added that the property strategy has merged “a huge variety of different buildings into individual premises that are now much reduced in number” and said this was “clearly strategically a very sensible thing to do for a whole variety of reasons”.

“The buildings are more efficient, they're greener, overall the cost of the premises I think makes sense,” she said.

Moving onto home working, she said HMRC needs to ensure it can compete with other employers and said the board discusses the subject in every meeting. She said HMRC’s property strategy was based on an expectation that the vast majority of people would only come in to the office for three days a week.

Harra responded to Coffey’s comments on pay. “I am this month having to give nearly a third of my staff, including all the helpline advisors and the staff who work in the post teams, a rise so that they can stay within the national living wage,” he said. “So that is the rate of pay for those colleagues, which is not a position that I want to be in, but just in case people were left with the false impression that we are paying people very high salaries.”

On the property strategy, he said HMRC had made “very significant savings since 2015” through the move from 170 offices down to just over a dozen regional centres, and that the department has also sublet 4,000sq m of property to other government departments and organisations.

He added that the department is “committed to make sure that our use of our estate is efficient”.

Harra said HMRC's headquarters has the lowest occupancy rate – 65% last month – of all its buildings, and that he wants to get that to 80-85%. “We are restacking that building in June and giving up surplus accommodation so that we can do that,” he added.

Returning to home working, he said: “So is my department 100% as efficient as it possibly could be? I don't believe any organisation is. But we know that colleagues answering phone calls at home have the same productivity as colleagues answering in the office. Whilst we are continuing to implement our office working attendance strategy that is not going to make a material difference in the short term to performance of our helplines. And I believe that we have made really big savings and are very efficient in the use of our estate.”

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