[P]AUL STAINTON: In a week’s time getting face-to-face advice about your tax won’t be an option. HMRC’s enquiry centres in Cambridge, Huntingdon, Peterborough and across the country are closing down. It’s a move the Public and Commercial Services Union is protesting today in a series of strikes. Mike Black is the secretary of the union’s Cambridge branch. Mike, morning.
MIKE BLACK: Good morning.
PAUL STAINTON: Just remind us what these enquiry centres were about.
MIKE BLACK: Thousands and thousands of people in Cambridgeshire have come through our enquiry centres asking for advice for their tax, to try and make sure that they pay the right tax at the right time, that they don’t incur penalties, and that they get the repayments to which they are entitled.
PAUL STAINTON: Can’t you do all that online though, or on the phone?
MIKE BLACK: Well no, and it’s strange that the Government makes a defence that it’s all about digital, when they’re actually, the public service cuts of this government are actually wrecking Government digital services as well.
PAUL STAINTON: The Government would say they’re making the necessary cutbacks in difficult times to make the budget balance.
MIKE BLACK: Well I don’t accept that at all. I don’t accept the necessity of that, and if (missing word) they why did they bail out all the greedy Tory bankers in the first place if they couldn’t have afforded it? We’re talking about an important public service here, and every tax enquiry service in the country, including those at Cambridge and Huntingdon, they want to close by 30th June. That’s a major withdrawal of services to the public.
PAUL STAINTON: Yes but a lot of people do do their taxes and finances online these days, don’t they? Surely this is a bit of low-hanging fruit, isn’t it?
MIKE BLACK: Well a lot of the people who most need tax advice will be pensioners, and they’re not all that tech-savvy, because your tax affairs often become more complex when you retire, simply because you’ve got more sources of income to juggle.
PAUL STAINTON: It can be quite difficult. I tried ringing HMRC on a number of occasions, and it’s quite difficult to get through. Are they spending more money on putting more staff on the phones then, if they’re closing all these centres?
MIKE BLACK: Well my colleagues in the big tax telephone centres are also striking through this week, precisely because they’re facing the same sort of cuts programme that we are. And I think I’d like to talk about compliance as well, because what’s so short-sighted about HMRC’s policy is they are cutting people who work in compliance. That’s getting more tax in, people who bring in many, many times their salaries, helping to make sure that the wealthy and unscrupulous pay their fair share of taxation, rather than just the rest of us being lumbered.
PAUL STAINTON: What does it mean for somebody who’s got a tax problem, that perhaps has been to one of these centres in the past? What should they do now?
MIKE BLACK: Well I think write to their MP protesting against the closures. But we are looking at a real gap in the service to the public now, and a lot of people will first find out that things are wrong when they start getting penalty notices.
PAUL STAINTON: Yes. And then they’re trying to get through online, or trying to get through on the telephone basically, is what you’re saying. Yes?
MIKE BLACK: Yes. We’ve got telephone. We’ve got some digital. But of course tax affairs are often a lot more complicated than just paying your credit card off. And this is where some face-to-face help is really needed. The Government talks about what it’s going to put in place, but the truth is this is about cost-cutting, and that in a department which brings in the money. So they talk about the deficit, but when you’re cutting compliance staff, and we’ve had compliance staff are getting made redundant in Cambridge (unclear) which is almost entirely compliance workers is going very shortly. You have to feel it’s hypocrisy. They’ve taken on-board the thought that they ought to do something about the massive levels of tax avoidance and tax evasion, and pay lip-service to it, but they’re cutting the staff that could make it happen.
PAUL STAINTON: Mike, thank you for that this morning. .. HMRC say:
It’s transforming to ensure that we continue to deliver the best possible service to our customers In common with all customer service organisations we have to match staffing to the growth in online and digital services. We remain committed to avoiding redundancies wherever possible. We’re also determined to improve our service delivery. Assessing the performance of staff through a fair and reasonable performance appraisal system is also a key part of this.
PAUL STAINTON: If you’ve got a tax problem today, you won’t be able to get it sorted out face-to-face. And come 30th June, you’ll have to go on-line or ring them up.