Tax Advisors strike over fears of privatisation of tax system

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By a Newsnet reporter

Staff at HMRC enquiry offices and call centres took part in a one day strike (31 January) over trials which will see two private companies, Sitel and Teleperformance, handle sensitive information which members of the public are required to give to HMRC. The trials are due to last a year and will take place in Bathgate and Cumbria.

The strike organised by the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) who are not affiliated to the Labour Party, saw a 97% turnout amongst members in Scotland. One PCS rep who spoke to Newsnet Scotland said that this was not simply a case of looking after their own jobs, there were also serious implications for the public. “These companies are in the call centre business and that tends to mean a high turnover of staff who are all getting access to sensitive information. Can the companies guarantee that all the information will remain secure?”

Newsnet Scotland has learnt that it was only recently that HMRC staff were assured that the staff of these companies would be required to sign the Official Secrets Act and this confirmation only came after pressure from HMRC staff and the union.

The rep continued, “Staff at HMRC call centres are already set call handling times. Some calls require the staff member to spend considerable time on the phone helping the caller. However our members are regularly put under pressure by management to cut down on call times. It’s ridiculous, we are supposed to be there to serve the public – that’s what they pay their taxes for! Ultimately though, staff members have the union to protect them if they are being unfairly hassled by management.

The private call centres are motivate by profit rather than public service, their staff are not going to be given the same terms of employment as HMRC staff and the likelihood is that they will be under enormous pressure to cut short calls to keep times down. None of that will lead to a better service to the public.”

The PCS argue that the skills needed to do these jobs are already available within the department and if HMRC wants to trial new ways of working, then HMRC should invest in its own staff, instead of pressing ahead with plans to cut another 10,000 jobs by 2015 – on top of the 30,000 that have gone from the department since 2005. HMRC last week also announced plans to close more advice offices.

Investment by HMRC would mean the government could make a serious attempt at tackling the tens of billions of pounds in tax that goes uncollected every year from a minority of very wealthy individuals and organisations that avoid or evade paying their dues.

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: “Our members in tax offices want to do a good job and provide the best possible advice and help to taxpayers, but there are fewer of them working in fewer offices as a result of misguided and damaging cuts.
“Instead of making even more cuts and throwing public money at private companies, ministers should be investing in their staff and tackling the billions in tax avoided and evaded by the super-rich.”

As 31 January is the day for self assessment tax returns to be completed, HMRC have been forced to allow another two days for people to file their returns online. In a normal year, HMRC would expect around 90,000 calls on 31 January from people with queries about their tax returns.