[Mr. Martin Caton in the Chair] — HMRC (Office Closures)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 11th March 2009.

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Photo of Anthony D Wright Anthony D Wright Labour, Great Yarmouth 9:30 am, 11th March 2009

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend on job moves, which will affect the whole of Norfolk; for example, the office in Dereham is also up for closure. I believe that we would all say exactly the same thing: we do not want jobs to be taken from other areas. I shall discuss the deprivation indices in my constituency, but first I want to develop my argument a bit further.

As I said, Great Yarmouth has already lost many offices and jobs to other areas. The last closure, just recently, was of Norfolk mental health care trust's adult unit in Northgate hospital, which was moved to Carlton Court hospital in Lowestoft. There has been a migration of jobs from my constituency to other areas—not a million miles away, but problems are created for the staff and, in the case of Norfolk mental health care trust, for patients and their families.

The debate about the HMRC closures is not new. People in the local branch of the Public and Commercial Services Union have been writing to ask for my support ever since the announcement in 2004 of the consultation. As well as asking questions, I had a debate on the subject in May 2007 to which the present Minister for Local Government, who was then the Minister responsible, responded. I shall quote from that debate later. I have had meetings with three Ministers with responsibility for the matter over that time. The last was with my right hon. Friend the Minister who will respond today. He has been given a poisoned chalice, as it will be on his watch that many people will see the demise of their livelihood.

During the consultation, there were written agreements about jobs. I quote from the response that I got from the Minister for Local Government on 2 May 2007. He stated:

"As part of the staff support process, managers will meet their staff to discuss whether the moves that result from the decisions are reasonable in the light of their circumstances and, if not, HMRC will provide work for them in a location that is within a reasonable daily travel distance or it will consider other arrangements such as alternative hours or home working. Staff will not be made redundant as a result of the announcements; that is entirely in line with the current no-redundancy agreement with the trade unions."—[Hansard, 2 May 2007; Vol. 459, c. 477WH.]

On the face of it, there appears to be a guarantee that employees and unions alike would find acceptable; in practice, however, that is not the case. For example, what is a reasonable daily travel distance? In negotiations last year, the PCS and HMRC concluded an agreement on staffing, working conditions and job security. The process was designed to establish, on an individual basis, the reasonableness of expecting members of staff to move to another office. A journey time of one hour each way—to and from work—was adopted as the limit beyond which it was not reasonable to expect any individual to travel. HMRC accepted that although reasonable daily travel should not exceed one hour each way, individual personal circumstances—for example, disability and caring responsibilities—could mean that less than one hour each way might legitimately be beyond a reasonable daily travel limit.

To achieve consistency and fairness, the process called for every member of staff situated in an office whose closure was proposed to be interviewed by their manager, on a one-to-one basis, to provide an indication of whether they were within or outside the reasonable daily travel limit. The preliminary indication from the one-to-one interview was then to be quality assured by a moderating panel of more senior managers, who would decide on the issue of reasonable daily travel and notify each individual of their decision. Those deemed to be within the reasonable daily travel limit would be instructed to move to another office. However, experience has shown that, far from providing an assurance of fairness, the moderation procedure has consistently delivered perverse outcomes. I shall give examples.

One part-time single mother has two children, both of early school age. She is an administration officer—the second lowest grade—and works during term time only for 20 hours per week. Despite having a planned journey each way of between one and one quarter hours by car or two hours by bus and train, and fixed working times due to child care commitments, that member of staff was told that she is within reasonable daily travel of Norwich. Although part-time workers do not have their travel time calculated pro rata, like their pay and holiday entitlement, they are expected to undertake the same length of journey as their full-time colleagues, in effect making a disproportionately longer day. In that person's case, the proposed travel time is four times longer than at present and would make up one third of her working week, albeit one third that is not paid.

The present child care arrangements further complicate the situation. No child care is available in the village where my constituent lives. To maintain her working pattern, her two girls would have to attend pre-school and after-school child care in the nearest town. That would mean that the girls would have to travel to and from the child care facilities by taxi. The member of staff has estimated that that would cost up to £31 a day, or £124 a week—just under £500 a month out of a take-home wage of £756. The only other option would be to reduce her working hours so that she could continue to take her children to and from school herself. That option, however, would result in her having to work nine hours less a week and suffer a 24 per cent. reduction in her take-home pay. I would call that constructive dismissal.

Another member of staff has long-term care responsibilities for a disabled parent who is housebound and who receives no support from social services. The individual has a back injury and therefore cannot drive very far. Despite the fact that public transport will take 85 minutes each way and obviously have a particularly detrimental effect on the individual's ability to carry out their caring responsibilities, HMRC has not deemed them to be outside the reasonable travel limit.

Another individual who lives in Great Yarmouth transferred to Havenbridge house from Norwich because of elder care responsibilities. Even by HMRC's questionable method of calculating journey times, the travelling time to the new location exceeds one hour each way, but it is still deemed to be reasonable daily travel. HMRC's moderating panel ignored the individual's changed circumstances and simply decided that because they had once done the journey, it was reasonable to expect them to do it again.

Although HMRC is prepared to make a contribution for a period to an individual's additional travel costs once they are compulsorily transferred, the daily travel allowance is regarded as income and taxable. Other colleagues will lose tax credits because of the daily travel allowance, so they will be financially disadvantaged.

Another example is that of a 62-year-old male part-time admin assistant. He did a financial breakdown of the effects of having to relocate to Nelson house in Norwich. His monthly wage of £852 will increase due to the daily travel assistance of £90 a month—the amount is higher, but these figures refer to the actual increase in net pay after the employee has paid tax and national insurance on the gross sum. The increase in total earnings, however, means that the individual loses £75 a month in tax credits, because the daily travel allowance counts toward total income, so it reduces his tax credit entitlement. He will incur further financial detriment, as the increase in gross income will reduce his housing and council tax benefits by £29 a month. This constituent will be £104 worse off every month owing to the relocation of the office to Norwich—and that is before he actually travels.

Annotations

Carl Harding
Posted on 12 Mar 2009 12:29 pm (Report this annotation)

Mr Wright you are quite right to raise this issue, more and more we see the heartbeat being restricted in Great Yarmouth and moving jobs 22 miles up the road only goes to strengthen the fact our town is loosing its will.

With the major devolopments we currently see in our town investment should be on the agenda not closure, yet again we see our hard working MP fighting our corner.