Following on from November’s announcements, it is clear that workers in HMRC will remain at the sharp end of the government’s attacks on the civil service. As such, the questions of the kind of union we have and who runs it are crucial and deserve consideration.
The announcements in November that HMRC would shut down every single one of its existing offices in order to move into 13 new regional centres and 4 specialist sites were the culmination of a programme that has arguably been ongoing since 2010, if not since 2005.
In that time, the number of staff in the department has more than halved. A swathe of offices have closed. The entire network of walk-in enquiry centres has gone. A number of areas have seen exercises in privatisation, most controversially error and fraud in tax credits and also debt collection, but also post handling – with ‘digitalisation’ seeing one private company get the run of incoming letters and another given responsibility for sending out our replies.
On top of that this last and largest run of closures will see more jobs go, estimated at 1 in 4 in some areas. It will devastate local economies by stripping jobs out of areas previously given investment in order to revitalise them. And of course having everyone concentrated together isn’t about modernisation in an era when we could work from anywhere at all in the country thanks to technological advances – but it does make it easier to sell off whole areas of the department to the private sector at a stroke.
The news that 156 staff are getting compulsory redundancy notices even as 1,000 new jobs are being recruited shows not only how backward the department’s planning is – but also that any suggestion that any reduction in staff will be down to ‘natural wastage’ is a lie. These sackings are just the tip of the iceberg.
It also shouldn’t be missed that this attack was announced a year after the department’s vindictive union busting strategy was leaked. A strategy which saw negotiations abandoned, activists targeted, communications clamped down and a scab union set up in an attempt to break PCS so that the ‘change agenda’ would run that much more smoothly.
The GEC’s record
Left Unity has had a working majority on the Group Executive Committee in HMRC for a long time, but that has only expanded with the collapse of the informal right-wing grouping which appears for the most part to have decamped to the pro-management joke union RCTU. However, far from dragging the Group towards any more left wing or radical agenda, the GEC has instead gotten steadily more moderate and more wary of confrontation with management.
Members saw this back in 2012 when what was then known as the Tax Justice For All campaign ended with the signing of the ‘Enabling Agreement.’ This great victory on job cuts, office closures, privatisation and attendance management was nothing of the sort, of course – hence why the Jobs & Staffing dispute is treading the same ground (albeit with performance management replacing attendance management). But our supposedly left wing GEC held off from re-igniting the dispute for well over a year, despite the despair of reps and members who could see that nothing had really changed.
Even when we did at last get the Jobs & Staffing dispute, the same mistakes reared their heads. Most disastrously, when management tried the old trick of offering ‘talks without preconditions’ in exchange for suspending industrial action, we of course fell for it. That left the door wide open for HMRC to abandon talks and leave the GEC looking like fools as more office closures were announced, and then the union busting document was leaked, revealing what reps on the ground already knew – that this was pre-meditated.
As if things couldn’t get worse, despite a round of members’ meetings where the GEC responded to the union-busting document with fighting talk, we got another year of inaction as officials disappeared behind closed doors in order to beg management to take them back.
This led to the ‘dispute resolution’ members’ meetings, where PCS members were told that great strides were being made in resolving the Jobs & Staffing dispute. We were getting none of our demands met, of course, but agreements already signed would be honoured (which should be par for the course) and HMRC would negotiate with PCS on how the change agenda was implemented (which is what the stated aim of the union-busting strategy was). That this was being touted as progress was a slap in the face to members.
It was almost good fortune, then, that the round of meetings where the GEC told us the dispute was halfway resolved was followed by the announcements that reignited the dispute. As horrific as the implications of the announcements were, we are at least now in a position to oppose them, as the GEC hadn’t yet had the chance to tie us in to another enabling agreement which would commit us to following the change agenda through.
As a collective, the GEC has consistently failed to produce a cohesive strategy of action. It has acquiesced far too often not only to HMRC’s demands but to its plainly obvious trickery and bullying. It has, over half a decade, claimed victory in a dispute which has in fact never ended and is getting more difficult to win. We need something different.
In opposition to the mistakes and bungling of the Left Unity GEC, the Independent Left argue for:
Member control in HMRC – ignoring members has been one of the main reasons that the GEC has failed so often. For two years, they actively defied Conference-mandated policy on performance management so that the discriminatory system is now entirely bedded in. For longer than that, members have been crying out for action on pay, but the GEC is content to sit silently until the next token strike at a national level. We want the Group to take the initiative on campaigning and fighting for members, and to stand in full support of branches who do the same.
Accountability – we currently don’t know what the GEC is talking about on our behalf on far too many issues. Negotiations take place behind closed doors and telling members what is happening, let alone actively consulting us on it, is an afterthought. We will keep members up to date on the progress of all talks and seek their input whenever a decision is needed.
Standing with outsourced workers – full credit is due to Bootle Taxes Branch for making demands on behalf of its outsourced cleaning staff, and in doing so forcing the GEC to publicly announce its support for a cleaners’ campaign. We want in-house and outsourced workers to stand together and will not drag our heels on fighting for any group of workers as the fight may be more difficult than others.
Calling management’s bluff – if HMRC want the union to call off strike action, then they have to offer real concessions for us doing so. Talk is not a concession, and if they were serious about resolving the dispute they would talk right up to the eleventh hour. We will not fall for the same old tricks meant to blunt our campaigns without giving us real concessions.
Effective, disruptive action – if we take strike action, it should be unapologetically aimed at disrupting the businesses. We can protest on our own time, but strikes need to be more. We will develop real strategies to hit peaks, prevent the department from hitting targets and to slow things down on the job – unless HMRC are willing to give us what we want.
We are now on the brink of a change which threatens all of us, will make any future fight so much harder, and leaves us wide open to being pillaged by the private sector. We cannot lose this fight – we need to ensure we’re putting up an effective fight and not repeating the same mistakes.
Elections 2016- Our candidates for HMRC Group: