GEC gears up for sell out deal on Jobs & Staffing

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HMRC Chief Executive Lin Homer: look who’s smiling now

The latest bulletin from the PCS HMRC Group Executive Committee confirms that there will be no industrial action over jobs and staffing in the near future – and that a sell out is in the offing.

After talks collapsed in October and a leaked document proved that the department was union busting, PCS has again accepted an offer of talks and expressed hope that it will lead to substantial concessions. This view is either deeply cynical or naive in the extreme.

Decrypting the unnecessarily convoluted language of the bulletin, it becomes clear that the union is running scared. We’re told that Mark Serwotka’s exchange with Lin Homer over union busting was “robust” – although beyond the initial letter members have not been permitted to see the actual correspondence – but everything comes back to the withdrawal of check off. We’re told HMRC are helping PCS to make the transition easier, with the implication that if the union rocks the boat too much we’re scared that they’ll actively hinder us instead.

The talks, too, are clearly a mechanism to keep PCS quiet during the SA peak. HMRC are using crisis management, excessive overtime and the temporary abandonment of almost all other work to handle the calls coming in ahead of the Self Assessment deadline and maintain the pretence that they’re not understaffed. This would give us the perfect opportunity to exercise considerable leverage in pursuit of our demands, but senior officials have a seat at the table and so for the moment they’re sated. Much like guard dogs who’ve been chucked a raw steak to gnaw on by burglars.

The GEC “have concluded that a renewed campaign of industrial action short of strike action, in light of the other challenges we face, is not currently likely to improve the prospects of a negotiated settlement which resolves the concerns at the centre of the dispute.” This appears to be because they’ve largely forgotten how it’s the willingness of the workforce as a collective to take disruptive action which moves the employer to make concessions rather than the ability of negotiators to throw big words into sentences seemingly at random.

It should be of considerable concern to members what the Group Officers are looking to use as “the basis for an agreement which would resolve the dispute.” Rather than a victory or “meaningful gains from which we believe both sides will derive considerable benefit,” what we’re facing is a decisive victory for HMRC.

Worryingly, too, our Group Officers were favourably considering these developments – which go considerably wide of both Conference policy and our Jobs & Staffing demands – before the leak of the union busting document. They therefore cannot simply be blamed on an over-cautious response to an employer on the warpath.

Let’s look at each bullet point in turn:

A new Workforce Change structure which would include a defined and “enhanced” role for PCS at the “strategic” and “implementation” levels; address the “change gap” and include the opportunity for us to influence strategic resourcing and “people impacts”

It’s hard to decipher what this means beyond the buzzwords, but suffice to say that giving PCS an “enhanced” role in decision making (whatever that means) doesn’t suggest any slowdown, let alone reversal, of the austerity programme. Especially given that HMRC clearly envisions PCS’s role as helping them manage detrimental changes rather than resisting them.

Outline agreement to identify the extent to which HMRC could provide enhanced, project-by-project, compulsory redundancy avoidance measures with specific reference to consideration of “more flexible solutions”

Again, jargon heavy, this point amounts to nothing new since there are already a number of commitments for HMRC to avoid compulsory redundancies. It also doesn’t address that at present the cuts are being made with voluntary rather than compulsory redundancies, used to whittle down the offices that the department want to close.

An arrangement to reflect the shared concern that regular overtime is being used in places to mask staff shortages

It’s unclear what this means, since HMRC doesn’t share this concern and excessive use of overtime is in fact integral to its crisis management strategy. This appears to be an insubstantial platitude dressed up to look like a concession.

The extraction of “the best bits” from existing agreements to form a new agreement which builds on the reassurances previously provided on privatisation and the involvement of the private sector

The two points here are that these best bits already exist as agreements and yet haven’t stopped privatisation of post rooms and error and fraud work in Benefits & Credits, and that the reassurances are meaningless. Being told that outsourcing isn’t about replacing jobs is cold comfort when the actual real world effect is that it replaces jobs.

An offer of “continuing engagement” on PMR which includes consideration of the equality impacts and opportunities to “build confidence” in the process

We don’t want to build confidence in the process but to scrap it or at least substantially overhaul it to remove guided distribution. Not to mention that such engagement is what in the past two years has allowed the process to become embedded and placed the Assistant General Secretary responsible for it as the main obstacle to PCS actually following conference policy on PMR.

An invitation for PCS to take a seat on the Building our Future steering committee which would be influential in both the HMRC location strategy and the employee engagement strategy

Whilst the previous points are without substance, this one is actively dangerous. As the leaked union busting document puts it, “HMRC’s approach to open and honest communications, supported by the structure of BoF, is the key delivery vehicle” for “direct dialogue with our people which, over time, reduces the influence of the unions.” What gain is there from having a stake in something specifically designed to sell cuts and sideline the union?

ARC, the senior management’s union who the document considers largely broken in by HMRC union busting tactics, has agreed to full engagement with BoF and the scab union supported by management as a rival to PCS “supports the dialogue that HMRC is attempting to enter into with its employees through the Building our Future events.” It is worrying that the Group Officers see placing us in such illustrious company as any sort of progress.

A plan to implement a “post-austerity” pay and reward strategy

With austerity set to continue into the next parliament no matter who gets in, there’s no indication that we’ll actually be “post-austerity” any time in the near future.

Conspicuously lacking from these supposedly positive developments are the things that would actually constitute a victory on jobs and staffing. That is, an end to job cuts and office closures, a commitment to recruit additional staff to combat the staffing crisis, a commitment to cease outsourcing and bring all work back in-house, reductions in workloads for over-stretched staff, and the scrapping of the new PMR system.

Until we have that, or concessions which even begin to close the gap between the current situation and our demands, then it can’t be honestly said we’re making any progress. Instead, what we have is the employer yet again using the same old trick to appease senior officials with a seat at the table whilst preventing the action necessary to gain any serious concessions for the workforce.

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