HM Revenue & Customs Change Programme (Agenda Item 6)
Report of the Strategic Director (Services).
Keith Simpson MP was in attendance for this item, together with Lee Sutton (Branch Secretary, PCS Union) and Lina Curtis (PCS representative from HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) Dereham office).
The Economic Projects Officer presented the report and explained the background to HMRC’s Change Programme, on which the Council was being consulted. HMRC was undertaking a radical review of its estates and operations throughout the country following the merger of HM Revenues and Customs and Excise. The report outlined the proposals covering the offices in East Dereham, Great Yarmouth and Norwich. The Council’s views were sought on the proposed withdrawal of ‘back office’ staff and closure of the Revenue buildings at 24 Church Street, Dereham, although a small ‘presence office’ in Dereham was proposed to be retained.
The consultation deadline for responses was 25 July 2008. The Overview and Scrutiny Commission had referred the matter to this Panel with authority to formulate a response on its behalf to meet the deadline.
Following receipt of the consultation letter from HMRC, an initial meeting had taken place on 30 June 2008 between local representatives from HMRC and Breckland Council to discuss the implications of the proposed changes on local residents generally and from the view of HMRC staff currently based in Dereham, details of which were set out in the report.
Referring to the record of the 30 June meeting, the Chairman noted that Dereham HMRC officials had expressed concern about data used from the local database and asked for clarification on this point.
Lina Curtis explained that it appeared that central office of HMRC derived its statistics from their NOMIS website which could be inaccurate and skew figures because it covered a much wider area than Dereham. She felt that the Council’s response should therefore fully reflect the potential local impact of any changes.
The Economic Projects Officer went on to explain that a second meeting had taken place on 15 July, with representatives from HMRC (central) (Paul Smyth from the Workforce Change Department and Les Smith, Regional Lead in the East for the programme) and Mr M. Kiddle-Morris, Mr R. Goreham, the Chief Executive and the Economic Projects Officer. (HMRC had declined to attend an open meeting.)
The meeting had highlighted the difficulties there would be in challenging the proposals. HMRC was in the midst of a review which was to last until 2011, when they estimated that they would require approximately 25% fewer staff and a third less accommodation to deliver their business. They therefore needed to find more efficient ways of working and remove duplication. Additionally, they were focused on getting value for money for tax payers. They were reacting to a central government request to realise targets across the board and therefore had to find reductions and make recommendations to the Minister.
When challenged, HRMC (central) officers had been unable to make any predictions about whether there would be any compulsory redundancies in Dereham as the formal processes had not yet commenced.
It was pointed out that in the period 2006-07 Dereham had had 10,600 walk-in enquiries. HMRC responded by confirming that they would retain a face-to-face presence in Dereham but with only 4-5 members of staff and not necessarily in the current building since that would be unviable.
When asked what they considered a viable presence in order to retain an office in Dereham, HMRC said there would need to be at least 100 staff. The current proposal was to withdraw 30 staff from Dereham and re-locate them to Norwich (or Kings Lynn).
Members commented that HMRC’s view that staff could reach Kings Lynn or Norwich within 45 minutes was false. There was also a carbon footprint point to be considered whenever extra travel was involved, especially in rural areas.
Keith Simpson MP explained that he had become involved because the PCS union had met with members of HMRC in early July to explain their case. He had sent a letter on 14 July to Jane Kennedy, Minister at the Inland Revenue, specifically questioning various aspects of their case. Whilst conscious that HMRC needed to search for best value for money and reflect the impact of changes in technology, they needed to study core information, not just averages which were too vague.
He had specifically raised the following points:
- In regard to economic viability, he questioned whether HMRC had fully considered the impact of transferring from Dereham to Norwich.
- In spite of modern technology, many people still preferred face-to-face discussions, with the reassurance of confidentiality and of special-case handling where necessary.
- Had HMRC taken into account the impact on Dereham itself – on the community more generally and also in terms of the considerable projected growth patterns for the area over the coming years?
Mr Simpson pointed out that although Parliament was now in recess, he would nevertheless be pressing for a response by mid-August.
Mr Goreham made the following points:
- He was delighted that Keith Simpson MP had attended the meeting and was supporting the campaign, as his interest and representation in this matter would hopefully make a difference to the outcome.
- Many people, he felt, became frustrated when dealing with customer contact centres at the main Inland Revenue offices and a core reason for challenging HMRC’s proposals for Dereham was that people wanted the facility of face-to-face inquiries, reassurance; help and attention.
- He pointed out that the 10,600 walk-in visitors in 2006/07, when taken as a pro-rata of the population, was extremely high compared to that cited for Norwich.
- Additionally, when taking into account traffic, free parking and accessibility for disabled staff, there were strong arguments for moving one of the Norwich offices out to Dereham.
- Whilst accepting HMRC’s remit to streamline and improve efficiency etc, he argued the need to keep in mind that the majority of the rural population would probably prefer to travel to Dereham rather than Norwich.
- He sought assurances from HMRC that everything possible would be done to avoid redundancies or re-location of long-serving local staff.
Lina Curtis stressed that one of the key reasons for keeping the Revenue building in Dereham was that it offered young people the opportunity for quality local jobs. Otherwise they would need to fund travel costs to Norwich or King’s Lynn. A withdrawal of the Revenue office would be a big loss for Dereham.
Mr Sutton made two points:
- HMRC stated that 100 staff were required to make an office “a viable unit” but this was contradicted by the fact that the proposals for Norwich and King’s Lynn offices were less than this number.
- There was evidence that understaffing resulted in staff travelling in to work at presence offices from other areas, so it could be that staff might have to travel from Norwich or King’s Lynn to work in Dereham.
Members agreed the view that it was questionable whether a move to the city would be sustainable and that the Council was looking to reduce rural journeys and help local economies. The point was also made that the Council was working towards the regional expansion of small market towns and therefore local services were increasingly important.
HMRC’s claim about getting “value for money for tax payers” was felt by a Member to be “short-sighted, unimaginative and not environmentally friendly”. Rather than reducing their presence in Dereham, HMRC should be looking to expand it.
Many of the current staff were Dereham-based and therefore able to use public transport to/from work. The Chairman asked if HMRC would reimburse mileage costs as part of any relocation package for Dereham staff and it appeared that they would do so, but only for a limited time.
A local Member pointed out that the Dereham office had never suffered a lack of interest in jobs: any vacancies always generated a lot of local interest.
Mr Goreham suggested that there were alternatives if HMRC needed to reduce the number of buildings in the area and that a solution could probably be found which would allow HMRC to run a full office in Dereham whilst taking out one of the Norwich offices instead.
He added that the proposed regional growth over the next 10-15 years needed to be taken into account and questioned whether HMRC had requested this information from Norfolk County Council and whether projected growth figures could be included in the Council’s response.
The Economic Projects Officer advised that he would be formulating the Council’s response later that day. It would be based on the points at 3.1.8 of the report and he would ensure that as much local demographic information as possible was included, together with any relevant forecasts.
A Member drew attention to the fact that NCC was actively considering introducing a flexi-bus or dial-a-ride scheme this autumn. This would mean that many local villages would have bus services and easier access into Dereham.
The Chairman concluded the discussion by saying said that the Council’s reply would draw upon points made at this meeting and that the reply would be copied to panel members before it was issued. As the response deadline was imminent, he asked Members to ensure that any comments were sent back as soon as possible.
RESOLVED that the report be noted; and the Council’s response be agreed along the lines as suggested and copied to all Members of the Panel for comment prior to issue.
Mr Simpson invited Members to email him with any further comments they might have.