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HMRC Closures — [Philip Davies in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 2:20 pm on 2nd November 2017.

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Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Trade Unions and Workers' Rights) 2:20 pm, 2nd November 2017

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The next question is rather obvious: “Where are all these staff going to go?” Some will be deployed at the new hard border, which those on the Government Benches seem to believe will have virtually no impact on our economy. At least, I can only assume that they believe it will have zero impact; that can be the only reason for yesterday’s refusal to publish 58 impact assessments that they commissioned. Some will be based in HMRC offices, but what offices? Where in the country will these new recruits be based? Over the last two decades the number of HMRC offices has gone from 700 to, under the Government’s plans, just 13.

Where exactly are the HMRC staff tasked with border duties in the north of Scotland going to work? They cannot work at the Lerwick office, because it is closed. They cannot work at the Ullapool office, because it is closed. They cannot work at the Wick office, because it is to close. They cannot work at the Peterhead office, because—guess what?—it is closed. The only offices left in Scotland will be in Glasgow and Edinburgh. We will have legions of new HMRC staff, tasked with policing the customs border that it appears to be the Government’s wish to create, with nowhere to carry out their office role, in an area of work that is guaranteed to involve more paperwork, more deskwork and more IT skills. I mention those offices in particular because each of those towns is a port, importing and exporting on a daily basis—the very places where, one would assume, HMRC staff are needed most. The lack of joined-up thinking on the issue would be laughable were the consequences felt across the country not so serious.

We also found out in July this year that only 399 staff are employed by HMRC in enforcing the national minimum wage, less than one full-time staff member for each constituency represented in this House. I simply do not believe, and neither do HMRC staff members, that the number of exploitative and criminal employers is so low as to allow for that low level of staffing. Indeed, the Government confirmed to me in a written answer in June that it would not, and had no plans to, fill the 83 current vacancies in the HMRC minimum wage compliance unit.

In the last financial year, HMRC closed 2,600 cases of non-compliance with the national minimum wage. That such a small staff team managed to bring so many criminals to book is incredible, and a tribute to their tenacity and hard work. However, I simply do not believe that that is even the tip of the iceberg. There are many thousands of other criminals out there, exploiting low-paid staff and pocketing profits for themselves. These individuals must be rooted out and dealt with, but what hope do 399 staff have of policing the full gamut of employer exploitation when 2.67 million businesses are registered for VAT or pay-as-you-earn? How can an office in Edinburgh properly and sustainably investigate employer criminality in Islay or Caithness? HMRC’s cuts agenda is putting the poorest and most vulnerable employees at risk of exploitation by crooks and gangsters the length and breadth of these islands.

The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire talked about the closures in the round. I mentioned earlier that the proposal for the Welsh language unit in Wales means there will be a relationship with the Department for Work and Pensions, but what is that relationship? It is time for the Government to produce a map of office closures for all Government Departments, because we will find ourselves in the farcical situation of an HMRC employee having to take redundancy because they cannot travel hundreds of miles to the new regional centre, only to find that the Job Centre has been removed from their town as well and they will have to travel further to sign on, never mind go to work at HMRC. I hope that the Government will produce a map of office closures across the United Kingdom.

I will touch on the roll-out of universal credit and HMRC’s role in how this is paid to claimants. Universal credit fundamentally depends on the ability of HMRC to provide real-time information to DWP about an individual’s earnings from work. The entitlement to UC for the following month is calculated from that, based on the Government’s own formula. It is therefore vital that the information provided by HMRC is 100% correct and accurate. Any errors in the processing or transfer across to DWP of the employee’s salary information could be catastrophic for someone relying on universal credit to top up their low salary.

We all know the carnage being wrought by the roll-out of universal credit; but I fear that the cuts to HMRC’s capacity could result in further devastating implications for people receiving in-work benefits. If things go wrong with the flow of real-time information to DWP, if errors are not identified before universal credit payments are calculated or if the data is provided to DWP late, the consequences for the worker pile up, with fewer staff and fewer offices within HMRC to correct these errors and ensure that the correct payments are made.

Improvements in digital services are welcome, but not at the expense of the capacity for human intervention and expertise to fix problems and resolve issues. I fear that the Government have not properly recognised these new, massive interactions between DWP and HMRC in its “Building our Future” programme, and that the price to all of us, particularly those who need help the most through universal credit, will only become apparent when people’s finances and lives are devastated through no fault of their own. The landscape has changed immensely since the “Building our Future” programme started. Customs barriers could be erected in a little over 18 months. Thousands of new HMRC employees will be recruited, after years in which we were told that job losses were the inevitable result of progress. I hope that the complexities of universal credit, with all the potential for human disaster that they entail, are now becoming apparent to those on the Government Benches.

There are growing demands for tax justice from across the political spectrum. It is surely time for HMRC and the Treasury to hold their hands up and admit that they got this one wrong. It is time to admit that the world has shifted on its axis since “Building our Future” commenced and that the burden on HMRC staff, both current and future, represented by the programme is unsustainable, unjust, and cannot be a rational way to run a taxation system. It is time for HMRC to go back to the drawing board and begin planning the next generation of accommodation for HMRC staff and services, serving communities and the people in them, rather than the bureaucratic nonsense that my constituents and others have to endure.

He plans to close HMRC offices will be extremely damaging to HMRC’s operations. They fail to understand or take into account the diversity of the needs of the Scottish or, indeed the UK, economy and have the potential to seriously compromise the ability to collect tax, enforce compliance and close the tax gap. They also create massive uncertainty about jobs and locations across Scotland and the UK. With Brexit looming on the horizon, the Government must now urgently review their plans for the future of HMRC and ensure that it is fit for purpose.