Revenue & Customs is to close dozens of tax offices resulting in a large number of job losses as part of a plan to cut £100m in costs.
The closure of 137 local offices will be completed by 2027 and they will be replaced with 13 new regional tax centres which will be open in the next five years, according to a statement released on Thursday.
Unions fear that the plan could leave large towns and cities without a tax office and is likely to lead to thousands of HMRC’s 56,000 staff being made redundant.
The timing of the announcement will also anger MPs. It comes during parliamentary recess and was released without an official ministerial statement.
HMRC’s senior officials are under pressure to bring in more money from aggressive tax avoiding schemes and companies, and have faced criticism for a poor customer service record.
The PCS union said 11,000 full-time equivalent staff posts had been cut from Revenue & Customs since 2010 and any further cuts would be “absolutely devastating”.
The union’s general secretary, Mark Serwotka, said: “Closing this many offices would pose a significant threat to the operation of HMRC, its service to the public and the working lives of staff, and the need for parliamentary scrutiny of the plans is undeniable and urgent.”
Plans released on Thursday appear to confirm reports that there will be no tax office in England west of Bristol, with little coverage in East Anglia.
The 13 new regional centres will be in Newcastle upon Tyne, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Nottingham, Birmingham,Cardiff, Belfast, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Bristol, Stratford and Croydon. Four specialist offices will also operate at Telford, Worthing, Dover and at the Scottish Crime Campus in Gartcosh, near Glasgow.
Lin Homer, HMRC’s chief executive, said: “HMRC has too many expensive, isolated and outdated offices. This makes it difficult for us to collaborate, modernise our ways of working, and make the changes we need to transform our service to customers and clamp down further on the minority who try to cheat the system.”
HMRC has 17 call centres among its offices. It has already closed 281 walk-in help centres, removing the option of face-to-face help for 2.5 million people a year and placing further pressure on its telephone services. It was recently forced to hire 3,000 telephone staff after it fell short on customer service targets.
In March last year, the average wait for a call to be answered was two minutes and 44 seconds. By March 2015, this waiting time had risen to 14 minutes, 22 seconds. The public accounts committee has raised concerns that the amount of tax collected in Britain could be hindered by the poor handling of the 60m calls a year to HMRC.
Homer last week apologised for the recent increase in delays and dropped calls. It emerged on Tuesday that HMRC was failing to answer a quarter of the 50m calls it receives every year.
Homer told the Treasury select committee that tax officials had created the largest virtual call centre in the world, resulting in about 76% of calls being answered first time. “We were not serving to the level we would like to ... and we are very apologetic,” she said.
The Institute of Directors said it will support HMRC’s new plans. Stephen Herring, head of taxation at the IoD, said: “The announcement of another HMRC restructure will be met with predictable concern that fewer people answering calls could result in lower revenue.
“But that simply need not be the case. The number of employees should not be seen as a proxy for HMRC’s effectiveness as a tax collector. The United States Internal Revenue Service serves a population five times the size of the UK, but has only 60% more staff,.”
This article was written by Rajeev Syal, for theguardian.com on Thursday 12th November 2015 10.19 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010