I Read It On The Intranet Pt 3: Privatisation

Today, the last working weekday before PCS members in PT Ops take industrial action over privatisation, Nick Lodge (Change Director, Personal Tax) issued a message to HMRC staff on the intranet, ‘What you need to know about our Contact Centre building capacity trial’.

Although I’m not in a position to dispute anything Nick Lodge says, and have no reason to believe any of it is untrue, I do feel it would benefit from a little context. Much of this has been said on this site before but, given today’s message, bears repeating.

(Quotes from Nick Lodge’s message are in italics)

The most important point to make is that this project is not about outsourcing or replacing a single existing HMRC job. It’s about reaching an informed understanding of how we can best and most cost-effectively handle peaks in calls and testing one approach, using third-party private sector suppliers. I know some have argued it’s the first step on the road to wider outsourcing or privatisation. But this is not the plan. That is not why we are running this trial. And there is no plan for privatisation or outsourcing along those lines. But let me be straight on outsourcing. I cannot give you guarantees about what might or might not happen in the longer term.

There’s a reason Nick can’t give guarantees: the Government’s own Open Public Services white paper (.pdf) makes it clear that they want to sell off pretty much all they can get away with. HMRC might not plan to increase outsourcing but the Government definitely does.

Nick was in charge of HMRC’s Debt Management and Banking (DMB, known to the public as Tax Collectors) when privatisation was introduced through the use of Debt Collection Agencies (DCAs). As HMRC’s staff numbers fall DCAs are given ever more work. It is reasonable to assume the same would happen in contact centres.

It should be noted that at least one of the trial companies is advertising the positions as permanent.

In fact, the trial is only one of a whole series of measures we’re putting in place to help us better deal with the very sharp peaks of demand we face within our contact centres. These measures are on a much bigger scale than this limited trial and will, I hope, reassure you about our commitment to continued investment both in our offices and the people who work there.

How can HMRC be investing when we’re faced with 19% cuts?

This includes greater investment in the skills of our existing people so they can deal with more than one type of business call (through call blending), our hope to bring forward a very substantial investment in telephony equipment, and our plans to make a major investment in Interactive Voice Recognition technology.

Over the last few years we have seen knowledge and experience thrown on to the sacrificial altar of Pacesetter as standard procedures replace personal decision making. By removing the need to know what we’re doing HMRC has made our jobs easier to privatise. Is there any reason to believe ‘call blending’ won’t be based around similarly restrictive, deskilling, privatisation friendly processes?

These aren’t the actions of an organisation that is planning wider outsourcing. They are the actions of an organisation that is investing in a better service for its customers.

Actually, although it might not be the intention, they are exactly the actions of an organisation that is planning wider outsourcing.

In fact, not going through with the Building Capacity trial is a bigger risk. The National Audit Office recommended that we investigate this issue and the data from the two sites will tell us how benchmarking and additional capacity might improve our service – and we have no preconceptions about what those results might be.

While it’s true that the National Audit Office recommended trialling privatisation (HM Revenue & Customs: Management of Tax Debt, 20/11/2008) is there a going to be a simultaneous trial of using HMRC employees to handle the same calls? Without a control group the trial would be of little worth.

As I’ve said before, we would always prefer to put the Department, and its people, in a position where important decisions are based on data and evidence rather than guesswork and supposition. We need the solid data and firm evidence this work will give us and I firmly believe this is a chance for us to show how good we are. Damaging the service we provide at an important time for our customers will not help us to do that and could backfire externally. (My emphasis).

That is clearly an attempt to dissuade members from taking industrial action. PCS members are trying to protect the service we provide, not damage it. Privatisation cuts costs by hitting staff’s wages, terms and conditions and cutting corners.

None of this is a slight on Nick Lodge. He’s an HMRC colleague with a job to do, a job which is necessarily influenced by Government policy.

Members should make sure they read BB/015: Reality of Privatisation which gives some facts about the companies used for the trials, facts which aren’t in Nick Lodge’s message.

Do you fancy working for £3,300 per year less so the public purse can pay company directors and shareholders to see their bonuses and dividends rise? Could you afford to feed your family with a £3,300 pay cut? If we allow this trial to go ahead, and if it’s deemed to be a success, there’s a good chance that’s where you’ll find yourself.

Support the action on Monday. Support the action at the end of the month. Fight privatisation for your sake, for your families sake and for the taxpayer’s sake.

About: Dave Plummer

Public sector worker, PCS rep, Branch Organiser with PCS R&C Euston Tower Branch, and general branch communications person. Known to strum a guitar on occasion. Member of PCS Left Unity and the Green Party.

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