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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 05 October 2016

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Supporting Farming and Food Production, Employment Services (Devolution), Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, HM Revenue and Customs (Bathgate), Correction


Contents


HM Revenue and Customs (Bathgate)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

The final item of business today is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-01279, in the name of Neil Findlay, on retaining tax jobs in Bathgate. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes calls for the HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) to pause its programme of office closures and end the plan to relocate tax credit services from the Pyramids Business Park in Bathgate in West Lothian to a new site in Edinburgh; understands that an assessment of the socio-economic impact would mean that relocated workers, most of whom earn under £21,000 per annum, would be £1,300 worse off per year from additional travel costs and will have to undertake a minimum of four hours extra travelling time per week; considers that this would also have a detrimental impact on the 40% of workers with caring responsibilities and the 20% who are disabled, and have a knock-on negative environmental impact; believes that this will also impact on the wider West Lothian economy with a potential £8.5 million lost, threatening local businesses that are dependent on HMRC staff and their spending power; is aware of calls for HMRC to consider alternative proposals, and further notes calls by West Lothian Council, the PCS trade union and local businesses to ensure the retention of these jobs in West Lothian.

17:35  

Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

I thank the members who have supported my motion. I wish to declare an interest as I am the current chair of the Public and Commercial Services Union parliamentary group, and PCS is the trade union that represents HM Revenue and Customs staff.

The motion—as is the nature of motions for members’ business debates—reflects local issues in my region, but I want today’s short debate to be about issues that are much wider than that. The United Kingdom Government’s policy of tax office closures will impact and already is impacting on communities and workers across the UK. Jobs will go in Aberdeen, Cumbernauld, Dundee, East Kilbride, Glasgow, Inverness, Irvine and Glenrothes, but also in Bradford, Middlesbrough, Colchester, Brighton, Derby, Newry, Taunton, Wrexham, Wolverhampton and a host of places in between. Some redundancies have already occurred. I express my solidarity with those communities and the workers affected, as their struggle is our struggle.

On 12 November 2015, HMRC published its plans in the document “Building our future: transforming the way HMRC serves the UK”. The title of the publication was a complete misnomer. The plan seeks to close over 160 tax offices across the UK leaving just 13 regional hubs specialising in four areas of work. We cannot “build the future” by taking a wrecking ball to one of our most important and key public services: the administration and collection of taxes. Those are the very taxes that pay for our national health service, for our education system, for our emergency services and all the rest of the services that civilise our society.

In my region, there are planned closures at Barbara Ritchie house in Livingston, at the Pyramids in Bathgate, and in Edinburgh at Elgin house, Grayfield house and Meldrum house. Around 2,000 jobs are to be centralised to an unidentified location in Edinburgh, which will have a devastating impact on the areas affected and, in particular, on West Lothian.

As far back as 1985, unemployment in West Lothian was sky high—sitting at up to 26 per cent in some areas—after the closure of British Leyland and the Polkemmet pit. The development of silicon glen and production facilities such as NEC Semiconductor, Burr-Brown, Seagate and others provided jobs and hope for many. Just a stone’s throw from the giant British Leyland site, Motorola came in with 3,000 people producing mobile phones—my brother was one of them—but it closed in 2001. The tax credit centre took over the building, but now those jobs are under threat, too, and some people might be facing their third redundancy from jobs in the same location.

The issues that I raise in relation to West Lothian can no doubt be applied to many of the other places that will be affected by the HMRC plan. It will be at huge cost to the local economy as around 1,000 jobs will be taken out of West Lothian and centralised. It has been estimated that each worker spends £1,000 a year in the local economy in shops, petrol stations and snack bars, and over £5 million will be taken out of the economy cumulatively.

The staff affected will be expected to travel much further—up to an hour and a half each way—yet that is deemed reasonable by HMRC. Forty per cent of those staff members have caring responsibilities for children, elderly relatives or family members with a disability. For many of them, moving to a big city location is not an option. Any closure would cost them their job and we must be clear about that.

A number of staff members have disabilities themselves or have raised issues relating to a disability, which would make travelling to Edinburgh extremely difficult for them. It is no wonder that they are worried about the future when ScotRail is such a shambles.

The cost of travel is another concern. Travelling by train between Bathgate and Edinburgh costs £9.10 per day; it is a bit less for travelling from Livingston. For workers who currently work in the Bathgate location and live in North Lanarkshire, Fife, Falkirk and Glasgow, the costs of travelling by public transport to Edinburgh will be much higher, although it might cost slightly less by car. Those costs will fall on workers whose average earnings are £21,000 a year, with some earning significantly less than that. The additional travel costs would be a very significant hit on their pay, and that would be imposed on a group of staff who have been subjected to pay cuts, pension cuts and a general all-out attack on their terms and conditions.

PCS branches up and down the country have been working with local authorities, local businesses and trades councils to campaign against the HMRC closures. They are demanding that local equality impact assessments are carried out, but I think that we should go further because we also need social, economic and environmental impact assessments of the closure plans. I believe that such assessments would expose the closures policy as unworkable, damaging and a costly mess.

Government jobs should not be centralised: they should be decentralised to provide jobs and opportunities and spread the economic gain across the country. Scotland is gaining many more tax and benefit powers, so we need skilled staff with knowledge of systems and processes, who hold local information and can administer those taxes and benefits. At a time of events such as the Panama papers, tax avoidance on an industrial scale and changes to benefits, this cull by HMRC could not be more badly timed.

If we roll all those issues into one, we have one almighty dog’s breakfast and it is the UK Tory Government that is taking us into that. I hope that all parliamentarians, no matter their party allegiance, see this closures policy for what it is: a policy that is bad for workers, bad for communities and bad for the economy. The UK Government should scrap these ridiculous plans now.

17:41  

Maree Todd (Highlands and Islands) (SNP)

I am grateful to Neil Findlay for raising this issue in Parliament. He, along with many other local elected representatives, is clearly concerned about the effect that the job cuts will have on the HMRC workers employed in Bathgate, and on Bathgate as a community. I share his concern, but unfortunately the motion barely scratches the surface of the issue.

The Bathgate office is, as Neil Findlay said, just one of the 17 HMRC offices across Scotland that are set to close, thanks to the so-called consolidation of that network of offices. HMRC is set to cut over 2,000 of its staff here in Scotland, who are from those 17 offices that are situated in communities all over Scotland and which currently provide vital skilled jobs to areas that depend on them.

It is a move that will be deeply damaging to communities from Dundee to Cumbernauld and from Bathgate to Inverness, in my constituency. It is local communities up and down Scotland that are set to lose out on jobs that their local economies rely on. It is a decision that Scotland had no say over, a decision made hundreds of miles away in London and one that will have a serious impact on the lives of those families and communities who will be affected here in Scotland.

To make matters worse, the decision is just the latest in a string of broken vows from the independence referendum; vows made hand-in-hand by the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and Labour. Those same communities that were told just two years ago that the only way to protect HMRC jobs in Scotland was to vote against independence are now facing up to the reality of losing over 2,000 of those jobs. A tweet from Scottish Labour’s anti-independence campaign read:

“1400 jobs at HMRC in Cumbernauld are dependent on us staying in the UK.”

Well, we stayed in the UK, so why is it that HMRC offices in Cumbernauld are set to close by 2020?

Of course, it is not just the community in Cumbernauld who have been deceived by Labour campaigners: the Inverness office is set to be one of the first offices to close under the cuts.

Neil Findlay

Surely workers out there deserve more than a rerunning of the independence campaign. We need positive action from people across the Parliament to try to retain people’s jobs. It might soothe the member’s conscience to say that, but let us get on with trying to protect jobs. Let us not start rerunning old debates.

Maree Todd

I ask Mr Findlay to have a think about his conscience and his role in the false promises that were made to the people of Scotland during the independence referendum debate.

The Inverness office, with 50 jobs at stake, is set to close by 2018 to the detriment of the local economy and the families who now face uncertain futures due to the job losses. This is not the first promise made to Scotland that has been broken and I fear that it will not be the last.

We in this Parliament are led to understand that the 2,000 job losses are absolutely necessary, as providing jobs in Scotland is simply too expensive. That is why HMRC has decided to open a tax supercentre that will provide 2,800 new jobs to people in Croydon. HMRC can provide extra jobs in the south-east of England, but Scotland has to accept job losses. That reflects a wider attitude towards Scotland from powers in London. Boris Johnson, who is now a UK Government minister, said:

“my argument to the Treasury is that a pound spent in Croydon is far more of value to the country from a straight utilitarian calculus than a pound spent in Strathclyde.”

I ask the Conservative members in the chamber to reflect on that.

I hope that members of all parties will join me in calling on HMRC and the UK Government to protect Scottish jobs and stop the consolidation of tax offices, which will damage communities all over Scotland.

17:46  

Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

I commend Neil Findlay for bringing this debate to the Parliament.

I, too, would like to put on the record the legitimate concerns that exist over the proposed changes. I have met representatives of the Pyramids business park along with West Lothian Council and MPs and MSPs from across the parties, and I agreed to support the joint appeal to HMRC that has called on it to look at all the concerns and reconsider its proposals. In addition to that joint letter, I have twice written directly to Jon Thompson, the chief executive of HMRC, and I will follow that up with a further letter to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Jane Ellison MP, who is the minister responsible.

HMRC says that its plans are part of a wider Government strategy to develop hubs in key locations that maximise flexibility and customer services. Like all public sector organisations, it is under pressure to reduce the cost to the taxpayer of providing services.

I say to Maree Todd that I was disappointed by the tone of her contribution to the debate. MSPs from across the parties, including both cabinet secretaries who are here this evening, have been working together on the issue. Scotland is home to 12 per cent of the HMRC workforce and the UK Government has given a commitment that those jobs will remain in Scotland.

However, as HMRC proposes the changes, it is crucial that it fully addresses the concerns of the workers who are currently based in West Lothian, who will be affected, and that it ensures that any changes offer the best possible deal for the taxpayer once all factors have been taken into account. As Neil Findlay said, research that has been undertaken by the business park owners and West Lothian Council shows that 85 per cent of the staff earn less than £21,000 per annum, so the key issue of employees’ additional travel costs from West Lothian to Edinburgh or Glasgow must be considered.

In addition, 40 per cent of the employees have caring responsibilities, which could be compromised by the extra commuting time, and 20 per cent of the workforce have a disability. The latter statistic should be welcomed and is testament to the positive working conditions that HMRC has provided to date.

Neil Findlay

I saw today that the Scottish leader of the member’s party was the warm-up act for the Prime Minister. Now that the leader of the Scottish Tory party seems to have the Prime Minister’s ear, will the member urge her to tell Mrs May to scrap the plans?

Miles Briggs

As I said at the beginning of my speech, I have already written to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Jane Ellison, who will be taking the decision, and I specifically raised those issues. I have been assured that one-to-one meetings between staff and managers will take place at least a year in advance of any move and that caring responsibilities, travel times and costs and other personal circumstances will be discussed, as well as a special daily travel allowance being made available if the decision goes forward.

Those additional costs, whether through train fares or additional mileage, will clearly be significant, so I would hope that HMRC could begin assessing them now so that we can have the facts in front of us. MSPs from across the chamber will be very much aware that proposed reforms to services in the past have been taken forward in the name of delivering better value for money for the taxpayer when, in fact, the taxpayer has had to spend more on such services. I hope that HMRC understands and outlines the costs ahead of any relocation.

As I have mentioned, I will ask the Financial Secretary to the Treasury to urge HMRC to undertake the work so that we have the additional costs and they can be tested and factored into the overall decision, not least as the Pyramids site will continue to offer very competitive rental and business rates charges, especially when compared with any of Edinburgh’s city centre locations.

I again welcome today’s debate. It has allowed MSPs from across the chamber to voice genuine concerns. I urge HMRC to engage fully with West Lothian Council, and the local workforce and its representatives to demonstrate how its proposals will provide value for money to the taxpayer and will not disadvantage local employees to the extent that they cannot work for HMRC in the future.

17:51  

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

Let me also start by congratulating Neil Findlay on securing the debate and bringing the concerns of workers who are employed at the HMRC office in Bathgate and in many other locations to the chamber. I am sure that other members will comprehensively cover the challenges that are being faced by staff in Bathgate and I do not want to add to that. I will focus on the context in which we find ourselves.

It is right to look back at what HMRC did when it announced its so-called consolidation plans in November 2015. As we have heard, that means the closure of 17 offices across Scotland to be replaced by two supercentres in Edinburgh and Glasgow. The decision does not solely affect Bathgate; centres in Aberdeen, Dundee, Cumbernauld, East Kilbride, Glasgow, and Inverness will also close, and I understand that Irvine and Glenrothes are already in the process of closing. It is equally right to acknowledge the closures across the UK.

The current level of employment across the sites in Scotland is about 8,300, but it is expected to be 6,300 when the programme of consolidation is completed by 2021. Consolidation is clearly the new name for cuts. I fail to understand how a cut of 2,000 staff can be justified and I will explore that in a minute.

The impact on individuals because of increased travel time or, worse, the loss of their jobs has been outlined by other members, as has the impact on the local economy. However, I want to return to the question of the job losses. The Scottish Parliament has significant new devolved powers and nowhere more so than in taxation. Responsibility for some of those new taxes was passed over two years ago, with stamp duty, and more were passed on last year with the Scottish rate of income tax. The Scottish Government has found it challenging and I do not blame it for that; that is taxation.

We have been good at spending the money that we have been given, but it is a whole other ball game when we are responsible for the other side of the equation—raising taxes. To lose capacity and expertise at such a delicate time seems ridiculous and not thought through.

Last year, the Scottish Government decided not to vary the Scottish rate of income tax, but the volume of work in making sure that the systems worked effectively was not in any way diminished. Indeed, considerable effort was made to ensure that the process was as smooth as possible as we transitioned. The Parliament might decide in future to vary the Scottish rate of income tax. If it does so, delivery of that might well be challenging and will require expertise and capacity. Equally, ensuring compliance with tax collection is an issue for HMRC as a whole. Closing offices on the proposed scale might pose a threat to the operation of HMRC and, indeed, last year, the UK Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee said that HMRC’s customer service was so bad that it could be affecting tax collection. We should not add to that pressure by reducing staff numbers.

When the issue was first raised, the First Minister said that she would seek urgent talks with the UK Government. I would be grateful if the minister could tell us whether such talks took place and, if so, what the result was.

Finally, I say as gently as I can to Maree Todd that there are many occasions on which to debate the constitutional future of the UK in Scotland—some might argue that having a £15 billion black hole in our public finances each year would lead to many more job losses—but staff in HMRC will be utterly bemused by our choosing in this evening’s debate to scrap with one another instead of focusing on their interests. The Parliament should unite in their interests.

17:55  

Linda Fabiani (East Kilbride) (SNP)

I would like to make a small contribution to the debate, because when I read Neil Findlay’s motion and listened to him speak about the situation in Bathgate, it struck me that the situation there is very similar to the one that is faced in East Kilbride.

Centre 1—or Queensway house, to give it its technical name—is the main centre for HMRC in East Kilbride, and it has always been known as a centre of expertise in the town. If the plans go ahead, 2,500 jobs will be moved out of East Kilbride. As well as being a huge imposition on the workers—Neil Findlay mentioned all the problems with travel costs, travel time and caring responsibilities—that will have a big impact on the local economy.

Given that we are talking about the removal from a town of 2,500 jobs, which will have a huge impact, it really bothers me that the UK Government has not carried out an economic impact assessment. Neil Findlay is quite right—a socioeconomic impact study should be carried out. Moreover, I have learned from my colleagues in the Westminster Parliament that there has been no real parliamentary scrutiny of the proposals, and that gives me great concern. When I looked back at the answers to the written questions that I asked the Scottish Government on the issue, I discovered that there was not even any proper formal discussion with the Scottish Government when the proposals were announced.

Centre 1 is the main HMRC office in East Kilbride, but there is also the Plaza tower and the site at Hawbank Road, which is being run down as we speak. There is great expertise in Centre 1, which has been built up over the years. As PCS says, tax experts will tell us that a local tax office is essential in ensuring that taxpayers comply with their obligations. That expertise should be kept. For the life of me, I cannot understand why it is necessary to uproot highly experienced workers from places such as East Kilbride and Bathgate and move them elsewhere.

One of the issues with Queensway house is that, although it is being said that it will be 2026 before all the jobs will be moved, the lease comes up for renewal some time before then, because Gordon Brown sold off the premises to an offshore company. Could the minister please find out for us when the lease for Queensway house is up, because we are finding it extremely difficult to get that information?

I would like to finish by mentioning PCS’s stay in East Kilbride campaign. Despite being the recognised trade union for most of the staff, PCS was not consulted on the plans to remove staff from East Kilbride, and I suspect that that was also the case in Bathgate and other locations. The stay in East Kilbride campaign has called for the proposed closure at least to be paused—it would of course like it to be stopped—and for the proposals to be the subject of full parliamentary scrutiny and public consultation.

I thank Neil Findlay for allowing us to talk about the issue. Of course tax jobs should be retained in Bathgate, and of course tax jobs should stay in East Kilbride.

17:59  

Gordon Lindhurst (Lothian) (Con)

I thank Neil Findlay for bringing the debate to Parliament, and my colleague, Miles Briggs, for all his efforts in the matter.

Clearly, this is an important issue in Lothian, which has arisen following the announcement by HMRC last November that it intends to streamline its services. The intention, of course, is to meet modern trends, such as customers’ expectation to be able to engage at the touch of a button, and it is in the climate of an increasing need to do more with less, to enable Scotland and the UK to live within our means.

As has been pointed out, the plans are not just for Scotland, but for the wider UK, and will lead to consolidation of 170 offices into 13 offices. The new offices are to be sited primarily in cities, on the premise that they offer the infrastructure that is required of regional centres and the technical expertise from working alongside colleges and universities in bigger cities.

The requirement to streamline and update is often an unenviable one, with difficult decisions having to be made, whether by public governmental bodies, private businesses or institutions. In particular, the impact on the people in locations that are set to close, as well as on the local economies of the areas that host the facilities, should be fully considered and any negative effects mitigated as much as possible.

On the planned resiting in Edinburgh, some people might think that workers in Bathgate and Livingston would not face unreasonable changes to their daily travel plans compared with some relocations across larger regions of the UK, but let us be careful about such assumptions because there are many other implications that are of concern.

Research that was undertaken by PCS and West Lothian Council has been mentioned. In economic terms, the changes would result in workers having to spend an extra £1,300 getting to and from work. That is a substantial amount of money for the 85 per cent of the staff who earn less than £21,000 a year.

The changes to work-life balance should also be taken on board. Others have mentioned the estimated 40 per cent of employees who have caring responsibilities. In addition, Neil Findlay’s estimate that the changes would mean an additional one to one and a half hours of travel time in each direction is fairly conservative, because depending on where one is coming from and where one is going to in Edinburgh, it could easily be two hours travel time in each direction.

I am pleased that HMRC has committed to one-to-one management engagement with employees on issues, including the physical and financial consequences of moving to Edinburgh. I hope that that represents a firm commitment to providing sufficient help to those who need it.

Beyond all that, another consideration that should be looked at is the impact on the local economy. The research that I mentioned estimates an annual spend loss in the local area of about £1 million, and a £7.5 million loss of local income. In those circumstances, a lack of replacement employment could hamper businesses that have relied on being closely located to hundreds of potential customers.

I urge HMRC to rethink the proposal carefully, and to consider how the proposed move would affect employees and the local economy, whether there would be real savings to be gained and whether it would be the right decision to take, in this case.

18:03  

Elaine Smith (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I congratulate Neil Findlay for raising the issue. One of the most disturbing things about HMRC’s plans to move jobs from Bathgate to Edinburgh, as well as the other job moves, is the lack of engagement with staff and, in particular, with PCS over the proposals. Linda Fabiani also made that point in relation to East Kilbride.

Even if there are, as has been called for by the union, no compulsory redundancies, the proposals would lead to loss to the local economy. The move would have a major effect on workers; travel-to-work times and costs would be greatly increased and it would have a detrimental effect on family life, including in respect of childcare and other caring responsibilities. As members have pointed out, many of the staff are low-paid workers who could ill afford the extra costs, which basically translate into a pay cut, and other workers with disabilities could lose their jobs, because it might not be feasible for them to commute.

Constituents in my area—Central Scotland—who work in West Lothian will be affected by the move if it goes ahead. Others have been directly affected by changes in Central Scotland—for example, the constituency example that was given by Linda Fabiani of workers at Centre 1 in East Kilbride who were made aware that their jobs were, over the next 10 years, going to be lost to Glasgow and Edinburgh. However, there is considerable concern that the timeline for closing down East Kilbride’s biggest employer is likely to come sooner than expected.

As Neil Findlay said, the potential knock-on economic effects of such centres being lost is considerable. It also entails significant psychological stress for people. The knowledge that one’s own job is going is bad enough, but knowing that good jobs are disappearing in one’s area breeds a sense of insecurity—not to mention the knock-on effects on things such as school places and losses of small businesses.

We must do more to save jobs in those towns and promote such areas as sites of industry and innovation. We all know that the central belt has an ever-growing number of people who are having to commute to work from one side to the other. However, it seems that maybe that fact is being used somehow to justify draining jobs away from places such as Bathgate, Cumbernauld and East Kilbride to Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Many people across Scotland are concerned that their towns are being gradually run down, so fighting to keep important jobs such as those in Bathgate that we are discussing tonight is a key step towards trying to prevent that happening.

Year on year, the average commute for Scottish workers is increasing, as are the costs of that commute. That is time spent away from families; it reduces leisure time and it increases stress, particularly when public transport including our privatised railways—as mentioned by Neil Findlay—does not seem to be working for commuters as it should.

The option of driving is unattractive even for people who have cars because of the congestion on our main motorway connecting Glasgow and Edinburgh and it is bad, anyway, for the environment.

I very much support the efforts of PCS to raise the issue, and I hope that we can further raise awareness of the movement of jobs around Scotland. It is not just about the jobs that leave Scotland altogether. In many cases, as I have said, the effects on small towns can be disastrous.

The Bathgate and Edinburgh sites should both continue, just as the East Kilbride and Glasgow sites should both continue, as should all the other smaller sites. That would be part of a sustainable strategy for urban regeneration rather than concentrating prosperity in distinct city pockets.

We are told that there is no alternative to the austerity agenda, but there is a failure to close a tax gap that loses the UK economy about £120 billion a year. At the same time, jobs and pay are being cut, benefits are being slashed and public services are being closed. We know that small businesses are struggling to survive on our high streets and that they will be affected by the closures of local tax offices, while the multinationals seem to get away with paying little or no tax.

Paying tax is a good thing for society; those who collect it should be valued because it pays for our public services. Delivering a fair tax system not only means closing the tax gap and making those who are most able to pay their fair share of taxes pay them; it means more staff in HMRC, not less. Closing local offices will do nothing for tax justice, so once again I congratulate Neil Findlay for bringing the issue to the chamber.

18:08  

Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green)

I, too, thank Neil Findlay for giving us the opportunity to debate an important issue. I realise that the proposals potentially impact on people across Scotland, but in the minutes that I have I will focus on the impact on my constituents in Lothian. I thank PCS, West Lothian Council, the employees who have contacted me, and all those who are working hard to ensure that the jobs remain in Bathgate.

If staff have to move to Edinburgh, there will be many negative impacts, including increased travel costs. An average of £1,300 a year in travel costs out of a salary of £21,000 a year is, in effect, a cut of 8 per cent. That is not the kind of cut that we can possibly support to a salary that is not exactly huge in the first instance.

Tax collection is incredibly important work, as colleagues have stated. If we are not collecting tax efficiently, public services will be hit even more than they are currently being hit. I was looking earlier at the travel implications. Members may be interested to know that earlier this year, the road between the west of Edinburgh at Maybury Road to Princes Street was considered to be the most congested road in the UK outside London. Apparently, people who make that journey regularly spend 43 hours a year in gridlock. It is not a journey that anyone would choose to undertake lightly.

It is important to understand that there is a community of people in Bathgate who live and work together, and whose children are at school together. They use the local shops and businesses, many of which will be impacted on massively if colleagues are not in regular, meaningful, properly paid and well-recognised employment.

It is essential that we get away from the idea that we have to centralise business in Edinburgh and Glasgow. In my opinion, far too many people have to travel from where they live to come into this city to work. One has only to try to get about on the roads in Edinburgh in the morning to see the effect of that.

I have had the privilege of living here for 50 years, but gridlock is increasingly becoming an issue. We already have several air-pollution hot spots that are breaking European Union limits, so it is time that we addressed that issue. Asking people to travel from West Lothian into the city centre simply makes no sense whatsoever. The word “consolidation” is really a euphemism for unnecessary centralisation, and it disguises cuts.

I was pleased to sign, along with colleagues, the statement urging HMRC and the UK Government to look again at the proposals. I have a feeling that the proposals have been designed by someone who just does not understand the impact and the losses that they will create.

The stress that the issue is putting on people at present is immense. I am pleased to support calls to pause the procurement process now, and I also support calls for proper public and parliamentary scrutiny. The fact that there is cross-party support for that agenda means that we should carry on working together to do all that we can. I will be interested to hear what the minister has to say regarding on-going discussions with HMRC and the UK Government.

We have to look at the business case for the move, which seems to be flawed—that is one way to look at it. It is costing the taxpayer a fortune, and I am very concerned that if we lose those skilled expert employees, we will face even greater cuts than we are experiencing at present.

18:12  

The Minister for Business, Innovation and Energy (Paul Wheelhouse)

I thank Neil Findlay for lodging the motion. We have had a high-quality debate, and the issue is a strong example of cross-party consensus in the chamber, which is very welcome.

I appreciate and acknowledge that members have raised genuine and heartfelt concerns about HMRC’s decision and the impact of the building our future transformation programme, as it is dubbed. Yesterday I met Angela Constance and PCS representatives from the Bathgate site, and I know that my colleague Fiona Hyslop has been very active on the case. I take on board the points that Linda Fabiani, Elaine Smith and other members have made about previous campaigns, and I welcome Miles Briggs’s bipartisan action in writing to the relevant UK minister and to HMRC on the issue. It is clear that there is consensus in the chamber.

The 10-year HMRC programme as it currently stands will result in the creation of two regional centres in Glasgow and Edinburgh, as members have described, and the gradual closure of many smaller HMRC offices throughout Scotland and—as Neil Findlay said—across the rest of the UK.

Neil Findlay

The minister said that he met PCS members yesterday. Has he met senior officials from PCS Scotland recently to discuss the issue? If so, what was the outcome?

Paul Wheelhouse

I have not as yet. I have merely met, at Angela Constance’s request, local representatives from Bathgate, which is an area in which Neil Findlay also has an interest. I will see whether I can engage with UK ministers, but I will refer in my speech to how other ministers in the Government have tried to engage on the issue, which may help Mr Findlay.

With the impending closure of HMRC offices in West Lothian, concerns have been raised again about the impact of office closures on our communities; on jobs; on the local economy; on the businesses of West Lothian and further afield in Scotland; and—most important—on the lives of those workers who are having to relocate.

The impact on individuals came across strongly in my meeting with PCS yesterday. We have heard from a number of members today that 40 per cent of employees at Bathgate alone have caring responsibilities, and it is clearly not tenable to suggest that changes of such a magnitude will have no impact on people’s work-life patterns and their ability to care for those for whom they have responsibility. That is a very important point.

This debate demonstrates that the Parliament cares about people. It is appropriate that, as a Parliament, we take notice of and respond to such issues when they arise. As I said, I am grateful to Neil Findlay for bringing the issue to the attention of the Scottish Parliament, and I am grateful to all those who have taken part in the debate and those who have written to me as they were not able to take part.

I will come back to members’ specific points more thoroughly, but I will pick up a few at the moment. Neil Findlay made a powerful contribution on the issues. He made the point that some individuals are potentially facing redundancy for the third time, which is not insignificant for people’s mental health. The stress of that on those individuals would be enormous. We are concerned about the direct impact on the local economy of £1 million, in terms of spending power in local shops, but that clearly has a multiplier effect through the wider economy. As Alison Johnstone, Linda Fabiani and others said, the proposals affect the communities in places such as Bathgate where people are working together. There is potentially a contagious effect throughout the community as a result of several large groups of people being affected simultaneously.

A number of members raised the point about the cost of travel to Edinburgh. Other sites that are being closed are even further afield than Bathgate. That is an enormous issue. Even if compensation was given, that might be taxed, so it would not necessarily have the full effect. We heard yesterday from PCS that, even if an allowance is given to staff to cover the cost of transport from Bathgate to Edinburgh, that might be subject to income tax, so staff might not get full compensation for the costs that they face. Miles Briggs referred to the fact that 85 per cent of staff have an annual salary of under £21,000, so that is a not inconsiderable factor.

I will come back to other members later, but I want to make some progress. As we have acknowledged together in the debate, the decision by the UK Government will affect many in local communities, not least staff who are employed in the offices, many of whom have for many years provided a valuable and valued accessible service. That tacit knowledge will potentially be lost if people are forced to give up their jobs, perhaps not through compulsory redundancies but because it is simply not feasible for them to transfer to Edinburgh or Glasgow, as Elaine Smith said. That is clearly a concern.

We have set out the clear vision of the Scottish Government to drive sustainable economic growth and support investment, and that is one of the priorities of our programme for government. We want to support jobs and grow Scotland’s future. We of course understand that HMRC is a Whitehall department and that decision making on these matters is reserved to the UK Government. However, it is clear that the programme will close most HMRC offices and make substantial staffing reductions across the UK as a whole. I fully understand that this must be a worrying time for the 8,000 HMRC employees who are based in Scotland and for the communities where those services are based. It is crucial that we continue to have an open and robust dialogue with Whitehall on the issue and we will continue to challenge and propose workable alternatives to help safeguard jobs and local services and to alleviate the likely economic impact of the programme in Scotland.

Indeed, the First Minister has publicly stated her concerns that the office closures appear to put significant numbers of jobs in Scotland at risk. To address the point that Jackie Baillie made—

Neil Findlay

Will the minister give way on that point?

Paul Wheelhouse

If I may, I will expand on that, because I want to address the point that Jackie Baillie made. When HMRC announced the next stage of its building our future transformation programme, the First Minister personally spoke to the second permanent secretary at HMRC to relay her grave concerns over job losses. Chris Stephens, the Scottish National Party member of Parliament for Glasgow South West led a House of Commons debate on 28 April on the HMRC programme. The debate concluded that plans should have been subject to parliamentary scrutiny, as a number of members from across the parties said. They called on the UK Government to ensure that the building our future programme is suspended until a comprehensive consultation and review is undertaken.

I will bring in Mr Findlay in a minute.

Keith Brown, the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work, wrote to David Gauke MP, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, on 5 July this year to relay the Scottish Government’s concerns over the HMRC office closures and to request a meeting to discuss the plan in detail. I regret to say that, as far as I am aware at this point, we have not had a reply to that letter from Mr Brown.

Since the initial announcement, we have remained in constant contact with HMRC to remain on top of the situation and to help to ensure that our concerns regarding the impact of the programme in Scotland continue to be heard. The wider economic implications of the withdrawal of HMRC from Bathgate have been raised by a number of members, not least Mr Findlay. Our policy in Scotland is to enhance sustainable economic growth, as I said, and to support investment in our future.

I will underline some of the targeted support that the Government currently provides to West Lothian. Scottish Enterprise supports an investment in West Lothian’s growth companies and helps companies in West Lothian to maximise global opportunities. I take on board the point about the Pyramids business park. If there is work that we can look at specifically to help support alternative employment there, I will look sympathetically on how we do that. Our work complements the work of the business gateway in West Lothian and the wider work of the local authority in supporting local economic development. We support the delivery of the West Lothian economic growth plan, with £12 million in additional resources, alongside existing budgets, which represents an overall package of financial support of £26 million.

As I stated, in response to a request from Angela Constance, who is the local member, I met PCS yesterday. I heard its concerns first-hand and I have agreed to continue the dialogue with it, which will be important. I am happy to involve other members in that dialogue, if that would be helpful.

Neil Findlay rose—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

You cannot really take an intervention at this stage, minister; you are over time. However, I think that you dealt with the issue.

Paul Wheelhouse

I apologise to Neil Findlay and I will happily discuss the issue with him after the meeting.

My colleagues meet trade unions regularly and Scottish Government officials hold regular meetings on national employment relations issues through the strategic forum. We will keep in close contact with the unions and those affected, and we will continue to work with the UK Government and lobby it to take an alternative path. I very much welcome the cross-party support for that.

I acknowledge and share members’ concerns about the decision’s potential negative impacts on communities across Scotland. In my ministerial role, I have the opportunity to meet regularly with representatives from our communities and our trade unions, which I will continue to do. I want there to remain no room for doubt: we remain fully committed to working with all interested parties, including trade unions, at local, national and UK levels, to mitigate the impact of the office closures and job losses in Scotland.

HMRC is a valued member of the partnership action for continuing employment team that we deploy in reaction to job losses around Scotland, and I hope that it will work with us and demonstrate good practice on how it tackles job losses at the local level. I am sure that we can have good dialogue with it on that.

I thank all members who have taken part in this important debate. They should be assured that we will continue to work on the issue and I look forward to hearing from members in due course.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Thank you. It was a very important subject, so I let members run slightly over time. That concludes the debate.

Meeting closed at 18:21.