Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Why industrial action at the tax office matters

Next Tuesday and Wednesday, members of PCS who work for HMRC are taking industrial action. This is part of a separate campaign to the one that may see PCS and other union members out on strike on June 30th, however it is of course an important in its own right. It also ties into a much under-publicised struggle within that same department over government cuts.

The action itself is over HMRC's new sickness absence procedures. The policy was rushed through in February without union agreement, prompting PCS to call a ballot - in which members voted for both strike action and action short of a strike. This did force HMRC to the negotiating table, however talks haven't progressed to much satisfaction and so yesterday "the Revenue & Customs GEC has voted unanimously to serve notice on HMRC for industrial action."

Entirely irrelevant to the post, yes, but when I stumbled across this pic whilst researching the post, I couldn't not use it...
The industrial action will begin at 4pm on Tuesday 7th June - as required by law to maintain the strike mandate. This will take the form of a one-hour walkout. The next day, nobody will start work before 10am except those on certain contracts who will do a half-hour walkout at 9.30am. There will then be another hour walkout which, alongside hour lunch breaks, will see nobody working between 11.30 and 13.30. Alongside this, there will also be a work-to-rule, those who have to travel as part of their job will refuse to use their personal vehicles, and there will be an overtime ban. It is this last point which links into a wider struggle in the department.

This new action renews an existing overtime ban called in 2009, called in protest at the department using overtime to mask the effect of job cuts. As PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka said at the time, "HMRC's growing reliance on overtime to mask 19,000 job cuts is unsustainable and unacceptable. Services to the public are suffering as the department seeks to cut a total of 25,000 jobs by 2011."

Of course, we're now in 2011 and with a new government at the helm that job loss figure has gone up. But at the same time, the department is offering its staff (well, the scabs not adhering to the ban) overtime, and has also hired more than 1,000 temporary staff. So why is this?

The answer can be found in HMRC's Change Plan (PDF);
[HMRC aims to] stabilise the new National Insurance and Pay As You Earn (PAYE) Service (NPS) and continue to reform the PAYE system by collecting tax and earnings information from employers more frequently to support the Government’s welfare reform agenda.
This "stabilisation" is necessary because it was revealed in the 2009 accounts (PDF) that the change in IT systems had revealed "five million open cases" which "are generated by an increasing number of coding discrepancies caused by changing customer work patterns."

In other words, there is an enormous backlog of work which led to the recent exposure of errors in 6 million tax records. The public embarrassment of 1.4 million people being asked for payment of an average of £1,500 each and a brand spanking new tax system which doesn't work as it should mean HMRC needs to make short-term investment to clean up the mess. Then, of course, it can "deliver the commitments made in the Spending Review" and cut jobs in the long term.

But the "commitments" don't just entail Revenue staff losing their jobs. In order to "support the Government's welfare reform agenda," HMRC is using this short-term investment - temporary jobs and overtime - to push towards a "real time" PAYE system. This doesn't just (allegedly) "mak[e] it easier to ensure individuals pay the right tax after a change of job," it also allows the government to introduce its flagship attack on the welfare state - the Universal Credit. That is, it will see all working age benefits and tax credits absorbed into one single payment.

But it's not just a matter of streamlining. One particular cut highlighted by the charity Gingerbread (PDF) is to childcare costs;
[I]t would put an even more severe cap on aspirations for those moving towards full-time employment. Having to foot all the extra cost of childcare once the limit was reached would in many cases mean that longer hours would leave families significantly worse off, in some cases falling back into poverty. Typically this would start happening when people worked more than between 22 and 28 hours a week, depending on hourly childcare costs. We have not modeled here the impact on families with significantly higher childcare costs, for example those with three or more children or those with a disabled child (where the cost of appropriate childcare is much higher), but the impact would clearly be more severe.
Contrary to which, the PCS union - which represents staff in HMRC - argues for sustained, long-term investment in the department as an alternative to cuts in the public sector. It has also recently released a pamphlet highlighting its "alternative vision" of welfare. In contrast to the government's attacks on the most vulnerable, they argue that "it is the mark of a civilised society that we support people when they are in need, whether they are ill, disabled or unemployed."

Responsibility for the present attacks lies clearly at the feet of the government. But it is worth remembering where those who work for them, workers forced to sell their labour for a wage just as those in the private sector, stand in this struggle. Those who will be taking industrial action next week - not to mention on June 30th - stand on the side of the working class. They are part of the fight to defend everything we've won from the current onslaught.

But if you know somebody who is working overtime for HM Revenue & Customs, you need to know that they are a scab. They are not just betraying industrial action. They are not just helping their bosses reach the point where they can sack people much faster. They are also a vital cog in the drive to attack the most vulnerable in society in the interests of the ruling class.

And they're doing that at time-and-a-half. On your money.