HMRC’s major office closures programme risks undermining the tax agency’s work with Border Force because staff relocated to 13 new regional centres will take too long to come to the aid of border officials who need support, the biggest civil service union has warned.
PCS, which represents staff in HM Revenue and Customs, told the MPs scrutinising the taxation (cross-border trade) bill in Parliament yesterday that border guards have limited powers and often call in HMRC staff to assist with issues such as smuggling.
But it said that plans to move HMRC civil servants from around 170 offices to 13 hubs and five specialist sites will leave “the majority of the ports and airports very large distances indeed from the nearest HMRC office”, just as demand for assistance is likely to increase due to Brexit.
The union repeated its call for the programme to be paused until government has a clearer idea of what it will need from HMRC post-Brexit, and also called for additional resources and staff at the tax agency.
The taxation (cross-border trade) bill aims to put in place customs and trading provisions for when the UK leaves the EU.
Alan Runswick, a member of PCS’s HMRC group executive committee, told MPs on the bill committee that both HMRC and Border Force had suffered staffing cuts in the past decade, and that huge areas of the coastline don’t have any civil service protection.
“The other major concern for us is Border Force is the first line of defence, but their powers are limited and for many things they then have to contact HM Revenue and Customs staff who they call in to take the next step,” he said.
The Police and Criminal Evidence Act imposes time limits on officials making an intervention at the border, he added. “Just as Brexit is happening, the department is planning to shrink back from its current estate into just 13 regional centres and five specialist sites, leaving the majority of the ports and airports very large distances indeed from the nearest HMRC office.
“The time that it would take to travel… to assist Border Force in dealing with smuggling and interventions and that kind of thing is clearly going to be a major issue for delivery of working between HMRC and Border Force.”
The programme leaves large areas of the UK with no HMRC office. Following its implementation, for example, there will be no HMRC office north of Glasgow and Edinburgh, and no office on the south coast or in the south west other than in Bristol, Runswick said.
He also said it was “complete madness” that HMRC was making “experienced staff redundant” as part of the office closures plan, despite chief executive Jon Thompson’s estimate last year that the tax agency could need up to 5,000 extra staff to deal with Brexit.
Responding to the comments, an HMRC spokesperson said: “HMRC is committed to maximising tax revenue, increasing compliance and reducing the tax gap while delivering best value to the taxpayer.
“Regional centres underpin HMRC’s wider transformation plans. Co-locating teams in large offices will allow HMRC to manage its workforce more flexibly making it easier to share resources and work collaboratively to tackle fraud and evasion, irrespective of where it occurs. We will continue to work effectively with our law enforcement partners to tackle fraud.”