Stewart Jackson on HMRC restructuring

hmrc17:09 Thursday 12th November 2015
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

CHRIS MANN: Over 400 jobs are to go at the tax offices in Cambridge and Peterborough, as part of a restructuring for HMRC. The tax authority is planning to close 137 offices across the UK and replace them with 13 regional centres. In a moment we’ll get reaction from the union which represents HMRC workers in this region (see note), but first of all let’s bring in the Conservative MP for Peterborough, Stewart Jackson. Hello to you Stewart.
CHRIS MANN: Another jobs blow. Your reaction to this, which of course coming from your own government.
STEWART JACKSON: Well naturally I’m very sympathetic and sorry for the staff who are going to lose their jobs, or at least lose the location of their jobs. I know that some will take voluntary redundancy, and some will choose to commute to London. But it is a blow, particularly before Christmas, and not good for the city, because these are very good high quality white collar jobs, and I’m very disappointed. And I do think that we need to work together, the regeneration agency, the Jobcentre, the City Council and local MPs, to work with Ministers to make sure that the number of compulsory redundancies is an absolute minimum.
CHRIS MANN: It’s going to happen over four years, a big shake-up of the tax system. Does it need that?
STEWART JACKSON: Well I do think it needs a bigger focus on customer-fronted services. The complaints I consistently get are about the lack of responsiveness and customer care from HMRC. It has improved over the years, but it needs to do better, particularly for businesses and individual taxpayers. I think there’s still a problem. Having said that, I want to see the detail, because I’m not entirely convinced that if you’re running a business in Peterborough, that you really ought to be dealing with a regional centre in east London. And I want to see the details. But in the first instance, my job is to try and make sure that this process is handled sensitively and that there are jobs for people that want to continue to work for HMRC.
CHRIS MANN: Yes because the Government spoke about empowering people in the regions, and moving power away from the centre. And yet the tax is at the centre of all of our society isn’t it, and this is being moved to East Stratford of all places. That would be the centre for the whole Eastern Region. Seems odd.
STEWART JACKSON: It does seem odd, and I want to see the fine print of that. I think there are some very positive things though, if you can get anything out of this that’s positive. But Peterborough is commutable, and it’s possible, when we get the new trains that are being built in County Durham now, the new rolling stock, you’ll be able to get to central London in about 45 minutes. We are improving our housing stock and our schools in Peterborough. It’s a good place for people to live and commute, and also to live and work in the city. So we’re not where we were even five years ago. In my own constituency now we’ve got unemployment at only 2.3%, which was unheard of, and is the best for about eight years. I understand that won’t be much consolation to people who’ve got this bad news today, but I think we are in a better position for the jobs market, particularly younger people, and I think we need to try and work together as I say with the Jobcentre, to get some bespoke help for those people that might need to go into different work. Because they are highly skilled. They are very good workers. And in fact the letter that Lin Homer the Chief Executive sent to me today makes it very clear that the changes are no reflection on the diligence and hard work of the HMRC staff in Peterborough.
CHRIS MANN: Well I’m sure if you surveyed our listeners about their experiences with the tax offices, you might not blame the staff of course, it might be the organisation, but people are very dissatisfied with it. It does need sorting out.
STEWART JACKSON: It does need sorting out, and they’re talking about creating a new tax authority, using digital platforms, training new people, getting younger people in to HMRC. And it’s part of a long term ten year modernisation programme. And as I say that’s no consolation to people that have worked for a long time.
CHRIS MANN: I don’t know about you, but I’ve been on the dance with the phone numbers. You ring one number and you’re given another number and a third number and all the rest of it, and you find yourself back where you started. It is ludicrous.
STEWART JACKSON: Well as you know Chris I’m on the Public Accounts Committee, and Lin Homer regularly appears before us. And I can assure you that we do give her a bit of a flea in her ear about people waiting on the phone, calls not being returned, correspondence being late. And I think they have improved, but they’ve got a lot more to do. And if modernisation means delivering a better customer service, than I’m all for it. In the meantime of course people are going to be shaken out of jobs, and that’s going to be very disappointing, and a big worry for them,
CHRIS MANN: And yet another example of Government where folk realistically in this part of the world, in Cambridge, in Peterborough, Ely and elsewhere, will have no-one they can go and see physically. They’ll have to get on a train and go to East Stratford, bizarrely.
STEWART JACKSON: Well that is something that is a very important and pertinent point, and I do think that as local Members of Parliament, we will need to be saying to HMRC that you should have some physical presence, some peripatetic or branch office presence. Because the one thing that does drive people absolutely bananas is being kept on the phone, not being treated as a person rather than as just a number, and I think there has to be some middle ground between efficiency and modernisation and centralisation in a regional office, and actually having the common touch. And I think that’s our challenge, to make sure that does happen in the future.
CHRIS MANN: And is it another example that the Government, or London, doesn’t really understand the Eastern Region? Because they’re still going to keep offices all over the country, but not in the whole of the Eastern Region. How could they misunderstand us that way, when they’re talking about giving devolution to the East? Well it doesn’t seem like it.
STEWART JACKSON: Well Cambridge and Peterborough are major regional cities, and I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a disappointment that I was not invited to make a pitch on behalf of Peterborough to be one of those regional cities. I think we need the jobs. We need those skills. And it would have been something that we could have all worked together in the city. But you know, like the Green Investment Bank, like the Enterprise Zone, we did pitch, we came close, but we didn’t do it. It may be that the situation can be reviewed in four of five years time. In the first instance though, we’ve got to be thinking about people, human beings, individuals who are facing the uncertainty of not having a job. That’s our top priority in the next year or so.
CHRIS MANN: Stewart Jackson, Conservative MP for Peterborough. Thank you for joining us.

Note: The promised interview with a union representative was not broadcast.