Cumbernauld Tax Office enters #GE2015 battle again ahead of polls opening in 12 hours

Written by Scott Campbell, Cumbernauld Media's Senior Reporter.

Published at 19:00 on 6 May 2015

Politics    SNP    Labour    HMRC    General Election

Fears are being mooted that Cumbernauld tax office might be for the chop. Picture: courtesy of Bill Henry.

THE long term future of Cumbernauld's HMRC site has once again became a fierce political battleground, as voters prepare to go to the polls tomorrow.

Cumbernauld's Tax Office site, in St. Mungo's Road featured heavily at the beginning of the General Election campaign, in January 2015, as news circulated that HMRC were looking to potentially close the site and move its operations to a regionalised centre in Glasgow.

As we reported in March, local SNP opposition politicians hit out at the area's former MP, Gregg McClymont, who they insisted misled voters during the independence referendum campaign, when he claimed that independence would threaten approximately 1,400 jobs at the site.

Bringing the Labour ‘Vote No’ battle bus to Cumbernauld in August 2014, Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East’s Labour MP, Gregg McClymont, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the then Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, Jim Murphy and the former Scottish Labour deputy leader, Anas Sarwar, outside Cumbernauld Tax Office, to issue the proclamation that independence would threaten the future of the site. 

At the time, Mr McClymont claimed: “…if Scotland became independent it would lose more than 90 per cent of its market immediately – which then poses a very obvious question about jobs.”

The publicity stunt was quickly trashed by the Tax Office's Public and Commercial Services union branch, with PCS Cumbernauld Revenue and Customs Office Secretary calling the move “unacceptable”.

Mr Miller said at the time: “It is unacceptable for Gregg McClymont, Jim Murphy and Anas Sarwar to make statements which seek to distort facts and are tantamount to deceiving the public and the employees of the local tax office on job security as a result of a Yes vote in the forthcoming independence referendum.

“They are well aware that it was their party which initiated the process of job cuts, attacks on pensions and pay and the extension of privatisation which directly affects our members in Cumbernauld. The continuation of the UK cuts means that 43 of our members face redundancy and an uncertain future. The planned privatisation of jobs in the Cumbernauld site alongside the 20,000 job cuts budgeted for by HMRC does not envisage a better future for our members or for the public.”

The fight came after a House of Commons debate, secured by former Labour MP, Gregg McClymont, on July 22nd, 2014, during which the discussion focused more on independence that the soon-to-be expired Tax Office building lease.

During the debate, Mr McClymont said: “The future of HMRC jobs in Scotland is an issue close to my heart. It is hard to grow up and live in my constituency without developing personal connections with what is known locally simply as the tax office. A number of my friends and family have worked or work at HMRC Cumbernauld, and it is by some distance the largest employer in my constituency, currently employing about 1,400 staff working across the spectrum of tax, benefits, debt management and the like. It is the UK’s largest tax office. Hon. Members have doubtless at one time or another had communication with HMRC Cumbernauld—not, I hasten to add, because of anything untoward, but simply because that is where so many tax communications are sent from and to.”

The Labour man went on to discuss the question of independence – and what was then the upcoming referendum– adding: “In 57 days, Scotland will make its decision on whether to remain in the United Kingdom with England, Wales and Northern Ireland or whether to leave, and Scots are weighing up a wide array of issues and interests as they come to a judgment on that decision. That is why every survey of Scottish public opinion illuminates the public’s desire for more information and facts on the issues in hand. Some things are, by definition, uncertain about what would happen if Scotland was to leave the United Kingdom—things that will depend on negotiations with the rest of the United Kingdom, which will depend on the future performance of the Scottish economy in particular.”

Cumbernauld and Kilsyth’s SNP MSP, Jamie Hepburn, rubbished McClymont's comments, and said that the Labour stalwart had let the UK coalition government “off the hook” by failing to mention the austerity measures which threatened thousands of public sector jobs, including forty positions in the mailroom of Cumbernauld Tax Office.

At the time, the SNP MSP said: “Having secured a debate on job security at the Tax Office at a time when the Tory cuts are threating 40 local posts I find it remarkable that Mr McClymont chose to focus on anything else in his contribution.  

“As the independence debate goes on, we have become used to various Labour figures teaming up with their Tory pay masters in the No campaign to ridicule the idea of Scotland standing on its own two feet.”

He added: “This was a wasted opportunity. Mr McClymont’s opposition to independence is getting in the way of standing up for local jobs.”

General Election battle. 

Now, as voters prepare to cast their votes in the 2015 General Election, the fight over Cumbernauld Tax Office, and its future, has exploded after the long running issue was reignited by news in March that the site was potentially up for a flitting, with HMRC supposedly looking into proposals which would see the site closed and the jobs moved to a centralised centre in Glasgow. 

To date nothing has been confirmed, though assurances have been sought from the area's four main election candidates on the issue, with hustings being the main vehicle for discussion over the issue.

At a Women for Independence hustings on March 8th, both Gregg McClymont, the Labour candidate for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, as well as his SNP challenger, Stuart McDonald were asked about HMRC's proposals and asked what they would do about the matter if elected.

Gregg McClymont, the former MP for the area cited his previous meetings with HMRC officials, and said that although "nothing was confirmed" he wasn't sympathetic of the proposals. His SNP contender, meanwhile, was more forthcoming.

Stuart McDonald said he would fight "tooth and nail" against the proposals and to ensure that some sort of site was and is retained in Cumbernauld. Closure to the election, however, the rhetoric changed - particularly from Mr McClymont.

At a 38 Degrees hustings in Cumbernauld New Town Hall, on April 21st, the issue of Cumbernauld tax office came up once more, in the form of a question from John Miller, PCS Cumbernauld's Revenue and Customs Office Secretary.

All of the prospective Members of Parliament said that some sort of service had to be retained. The Conservative party contender, Malcolm MacKay suggested that if the jobs were to be saved but only moved to Glasgow then it wouldn’t be too bad, while the area’s former MP, Gregg McClymont agreed with Mr MacKay in principle but added that efforts should be made to try and save the site. Mr McDonald, meanwhile, the SNP challenger reiterated his previous comments to fight for the site’s future. 

Today, however, as the countdown to the polls opening hits hours not days, Cumbernauld Media has been handed the very document which critics say threatens the long-term future of Cumbernauld’s HMRC tax office. 

‘Building our Future’.

The document (pictured right
) has been handed to Cumbernauld Media by a member of staff at the HMRC site in Cumbernauld, who said that employees had real worries about the future of the site, and the long-term security of their jobs. 

Entitled ‘Building our Future: Continuing the Conversation’, the 58-page document is the second document in a three part series, our HMRC source explained.  The document is dated from November 2014, and according to the back cover it was issued by the Corporate Communications department of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.

Inside, the document has six chapters separated into a foreword by Lin Homer, HMRC’s Chief Executive and Permanent Secretary; a chapter titled ‘What’s happened since we last talked to you?’, another section named ‘Building our future digitally’, a fourth chapter entitled ‘Building our future for customers’, and a fourth section named ‘Building our future working environment’, with the sixth and final chapter being an annex detailing “customer stories”. 

Pages 36 and 37 (pictured below) are most interesting. In a section entitled ‘Regional Centres’, HMRC sets out their “current thinking”, outlining how facilities in the North East, North West, East Midlands, West Midlands, South West, South East and East of England could be rationalising into one centre, alongside similar such plans for “campus consolidation” in London, Northern Ireland and Wales.

Pages 36 and 37 discuss the idea of 'Regional Centres'. Picture: Cumbernauld Media.

Outlining HMRC’s preferences for Scotland, the document describes how “Our West of Scotland campus is spread out over the widest area, stretching all the way from East Kilbride in the south to Cumbernauld in the north east, also taking in Glasgow, Paisley and Irvine.” 

It explains how “No existing site is big enough for everyone in a Regional Centre or modern enough for the future,” adding: “Our intention would ultimately be to find a large, modern and green site in or around Glasgow that meets our location principles. Our plans for a Scottish Crime Campus in Gartcosh (seven miles outside Glasgow) are unaffected.” 

The potentially contentious and provocative issue looks set to become one of the first major local issues that Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East’s Member of Parliament will have to deal with after the election tomorrow. However, the issue dates back to 2014, when HMRC began its ‘Building our Future’ stakeholder consultation process to change the way HMRC is run by 2020.

In a speech before the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, on July 17th 2014, Ruth Owen, HMRC’s Director General of Personal Tax discussed the ‘Building our Future’ that was to follow in the months ahead.

“Smaller, cheaper and better” aims.

Ms Owen said: “The challenges that HMRC faces today are the same as almost every other organisation, to achieve better outcomes at lower cost.”

“We have four big priorities,” she explained.

“Firstly, bringing in the money. The UK deficit is £1.2 trillion, and as we’ve seen recently, barely a week goes by when tax and public spending aren’t headline news.

“The government has allowed us to reinvest around £1bn of efficiency savings to tackle evasion, avoidance, criminal attack and debt.

“It’s a huge vote of confidence in us, but it comes with some stretching targets: we are on track to deliver an additional £18 billion in compliance revenues in 2014 to 2015 for the government’s investment of £1 billion.

“Our second priority is improving customer services. Our customer service levels are much improved, but they’re still not yet where we need them to be.

“The way we do things isn’t, for example, always efficient or as straightforward for customers, who sometimes have to battle their way round our organisation to get the help they need.

“People’s tax affairs are far more complex than they were even ten years ago and we need to make them feel easier to get it right first time, and not to have to waste their time on tax.

“And rightly the public expects the same high levels of service from us as it does from banks, retailers and other service organisations.

“Our third priority is making sustainable savings. As one of the biggest civil service departments, we have to play our part in reducing the deficit by delivering efficiencies.

“We’ve achieved impressive results while making major efficiencies and budget reductions. By the end of 2015 to 2016, we’ll have made £1.4 billion in savings over five years.

“Our savings have been driven by our smaller workforce, shrinking estate and our investment in innovative IT, which has allowed us to do more electronically.

“These cost pressures aren’t going to go away. This is why we’re continuing to get smaller, cheaper and better.

“Our final priority is including and involving our people.

“We need to make HMRC a great place to work. In return we need our people to be flexible, and ready to learn new skills and do new things.”

She added: We’re going to bring our IT and infrastructure up-to-date with most of our teams working more closely together in a smaller number of large, modern, regional centres, where our employees will have more opportunities to build their careers.

“We will be investing in our people, with new skills to provide the level of service and rigour we aspire to as a modern tax administration.

“And as we become more efficient, we will continue to reduce in size. It’s a process that’s already well advanced: when HMRC was created in 2005, we had 96,000 full-time equivalent members of staff in 593 offices. We now have fewer than 60,000 FTEs in 190 offices, and by April 2016, we expect to have reduced our workforce further, to 52,000 FTEs.”

Ms Owen’s speech was followed by the release of HMRC’s first ‘Building our Future’ document that same month. Entitled ‘Transforming the way HMRC serves the UK’, the 8-page document is only paper to be published publicly, via the website, though it doesn’t contain as much detail as the second phase manuscript passed to Cumbernauld Media, while the whole process has been declared a sham by some.

Decision already made.

The Public and Commercial Services union informed its members in June 2014 that the ‘Building our Future’ consultation process was to begin shortly thereafter, though the union was critical of the process and claimed that the “senior management in HMRC have already decided how HMRC will look in the future. Their vision is of a department with thousands less staff, less sites, our jobs replaced by digital products and a much more ‘flexible workforce’.”

Rubbishing the proposals at the time, a spokesperson for the PCS union said: “PCS believe that the Building Our Future sessions are nothing more than an attempt by the employer to soften the ground in advance of a series of announcements about further office closures, job cuts, attacks on terms and conditions and further privatisation of HMRC work.

“The aim of the employer is to convince staff that there is no alternative to their reckless plans and there is only one future possible. 

“The PCS Jobs and Staffing Campaign sets out a clear alternative vision for HMRC. Our vision is one of a properly funded, properly staffed department. We want to see staff given the tools to do their job properly and managed with decency and respect. We to see an HMRC focussed on its core purpose as a key provider of public services located in our communities. We want to see an end to the performance management system and to protect our hard won terms and conditions of service.”

Soon after PCS informed its members of upcoming consultation events, a first phase meeting was held in Cumbernauld, with the third and most recent consultation event understood to have taken place in the staff canteen of Cumbernauld tax office on January 28th 2015, with staff invited to one of three sessions on the day.

The consultation event was then followed by the publication of an interview between Civil Service World and HMRC’s Ruth Owen, in February 2015, during which she said: “HMRC is going through some major changes and our plans for how we engage the entire workforce in those changes – which we call ‘Building our Future’ – had only just started when the survey was held. We recognise that we can’t turn around a culture overnight and it will take years for us to reach scores we would be happy with.”

Consultation process challenged.

The consultation process was, however, challenged and even disputed by some. For example, on March 18th 2015, former Wrexham Labour MP, Ian Lucas lodged a written question before parliament, asking government officials “…with whom he [the Chancellor of the Exchequer] consulted prior to making proposals on the future of HM Revenue and Customs offices in Wales as part of the Building our Future programme.”

Former Conservative MP and Financial Secretary, David Gauke replied to Mr Lucas’s question on March 23rd 2015, confirming that: “HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) has been discussing a vision of its future to 2020 and beyond with its workforce, through a consultation process called Building our Future. Through this, HMRC has outlined how it proposes to transform services to its customers and set out what this means for the future size, shape and location of the Department.

“All HMRC staff members in every office have been invited to participate in Building our Future events, and around 80 per cent of staff have attended around 1,300 events across the UK in the two phases held so far.”

He added: “HMRC has set out its early thinking about the principles that will determine its future location strategy, which involves bringing teams closer together in a smaller number of large, modern, adaptable Regional Centres. These centres will be supported by a UK-wide network of smaller specialist and touchdown sites. 

“HMRC will be developing its plans over coming months and will share details of them as they emerge. HMRC will naturally undertake all necessary consultations and impact assessments.”

Our source at Cumbernauld tax office suggested that further meetings were due to take place soon, but expressed worry at talk between colleagues that a decision seemed to have been already made, with the senior executives merely consulting employees as a matter of course.