Thursday, 4 August 2011

An overtime ban at HMRC and the Universal Credit

HM Revenue & Customs came under considerable scrutiny over the weekend. Flak from the Treasury Select Committee forced non-executive chair Mike Clasper to apologise for the department's performance. PCS has also noted that the criticisms had been made by them on many occasions previously and is calling for cuts to be halted.

What hasn't been highlighted from the Select Committee's report, however, is the call for thorough testing of the Real Time Information (RTI) programme, due to be implemented in 2013. According to acting director Stephen Banyard, the quality of data would need to be significantly improved for RTI to be implemented. Then, as CIO Phil Pavitt told Computer Weekly in July, the government would be able to proceed with the roll out of the Universal Credit.

Back in June, discussing industrial action over sick absence in HMRC, I noted that the department had hired more than 1,000 temporary staff and was offering existing staff overtime. Since then, it has extended their contracts and is taking on even more temporary staff. All, according to the HMRC Change Plan (PDF), in order 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." In essence, this is short-term investment to allow for long term cuts.

But, with the Universal Credit at the core, this is not just about shedding jobs but also about attacking benefits. Following on from the scandal of Atos Origin using "work capability assessments" to kick the disabled off welfare, this will see many families considerably worse off even before it is implemented and childcare costs rising. Clearly, this is a move that needs to be opposed.

It already is, to some degree. As I highlighted in June, PCS has had an overtime ban in HMRC since 2009. The department was initially using overtime to mask the effect of job cuts, but it soon became clear that this would also be a great way to accelerate them - and to put claimants under the knife along with public sector workers. Though the fact that HMRC has had to recruit extra staff in order to do this work indicates that the overtime ban is having some success. As does their pushing back the deadline for RTI from 2012 to 2013.

But this shouldn't encourage complacency. Indeed, having learned about all this, I have wondered more than once why PCS isn't doing more to shout it from the rooftops. As the campaign against Atos - from a national week of action to pickets, occupations, and driving away their recruiting fairs - shows, there is an enormous groundswell of anger on this issue as well as the willingness to take direct action over it. The potential to generalise the struggle and connect the action by workers to that by claimants really shouldn't need stating, and could add further weight to both campaigns. But whilst individual PCS branches have taken part in the protests, the national union (despite representing staff at Atos) hasn't said a word.

The task, then, is for activists on the ground to make the connections and generalise the struggle. At the least, we should see leafleting campaigns informing the public that scabs are being paid time-and-a-half to work towards massive cuts in jobs and welfare.

But the solidarity between the two groups is even more vital. PCS members in HMRC continue to hold picket lines against overtime, and claimants should look to join them and offer support, whilst trade unionists should be throwing their full weight behind protests and direct actions called by Disabled People Against Cuts, the Black Triangle Anti-Defamation Campaign, et al.

An injury to one really is an injury to all, and only by reflecting that in our actions can we hope to stop the government in its tracks.