THE BLOG

Leaked HMRC Memo Reveals Anti-Union Plot

13/11/2014 17:16 | Updated 13 January 2015
  • Mark Serwotka General secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union

The revelation that senior HM Revenue and Customs officials have been plotting to undermine and isolate my union that represents 50,000 of their staff is not just shocking, it is sinister evidence of an increasing politicisation of the civil service.

It appears HMRC's top brass no longer believes the representative body for three quarters of its employees should have any role or say in issues that ultimately affect their livelihoods and the state of our economy.

The truth is, we have consistently pointed out that cutting thousands of jobs and closing offices makes no economic or logical sense in the department that collects and administers the taxes that fund all our other public services. And this makes life very uncomfortable for senior civil servants who want to carry on doing just that.

Add to this the fact that, even by the government's own flawed and modest estimates, the tax avoided and evaded each year runs to tens of billions of pounds, and you see more clearly the rank stupidity of a cuts programme and how deeply disturbing this is as a response to our opposition.

What has emerged is a secret memo that reveals HMRC's senior civil service believes its "business interests" are best served by an approach that "reduces the influence of the unions".

Claiming victory over another union that represents just 2,300 senior staff, the memo says the preferred option is to "marginalise PCS" in a similar fashion. One of the measures proposed - a "further reduction" of the time our reps can spend away from work to help members and resolve complaints - has already been implemented, and the paper promises "further proactive measures targeted at key union activists" would be considered.

It says it will only deal with us if we agree to go along with the cuts. Or in mandarin speak, on "an understanding with PCS that their future engagement with HMRC is about working with us to achieve our change agenda".

Shocking in black and white, it puts recent events in HMRC into context. Last month, as a mark of good faith, we suspended an ongoing industrial action campaign over jobs for talks, and we thought we were making some progress.

Then out of the blue officials announced they were unilaterally walking away, citing spuriously the wording of an article in one of our in-house journals. We tried to deal with it sensibly but it was too late. A detailed message from HMRC's chief executive Lin Homer had already appeared on the staff intranet explaining she had thrown in the towel.

Now we understand this was not a response to a few words in a PCS magazine, but the execution of an orchestrated plot at the very top of the organisation.

But these tin-pot generals fighting an imaginary war are wildly out of touch if think they have the ear of their workforce. In the most recent staff survey only 23% agreed they had "confidence in the decisions made by HMRC's senior managers" - 17 points below the civil service average. Only 17% thought changes in the department were "usually for the better".

This was by no means isolated to this year. There is a systemic problem in HMRC that requires a mature and professional strategy of engagement, negotiation and trust-building, not the petty, politicised actions we have seen recently from Lin Homer and her senior team.

The department claims it wants us to be reasonable. By reasonable, it means signing up to cuts that will continue to blight HMRC's ability to collect taxes and chase down the tax dodgers who deprive our public finances of much-needed revenue. How could anyone expect us to do this?

We are always ready to talk, but we will not do it with a gun held to our heads. If senior officials want to properly discuss how to organise resources to ensure they have enough staff in the right places, we will meet them tomorrow.

It ought to be obvious that collecting even a fraction of these missing tax billions would change the debate about public spending overnight. If HMRC's most senior civil servants don't share this vision, they shouldn't be surprised when people question their motives.