Human Rights Civil Servants Are On Strike Today

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PCS delegation on a TUC demonstration against government austerity
PCS delegation on a TUC demonstration against government austerity

CIVIL servants working for the government’s Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) are on strike today over crippling cuts to their service: a quarter of its staff, are being threatened with the sack!

Furthermore, offices in Birmingham, Leeds, Edinburgh and Newcastle are going to be shut down in March. On top of this, the EHRC’s overall budget has been cut by 70% since 2010.

The union PCS is pushing for the Commission to publish its equality impact assessment on the redundancies, as the biggest job losses are among the lowest paid and those who are from ethnic minorities, disabled and older members of staff.

Today is not the first day of strike action, last Wednesday’s strike saw 100% turnouts in Glasgow and London and ten members on the picket line in Birmingham.

Last week, Anthony Lester MP for Herne Hill highlighted concerns about the Commission in the House of Lords, saying during a debate: ‘The problem at present is that the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which has far too broad a mandate, especially in terms of human rights – it lacks needed resources and having priorities determined — is not carrying out the kind of duty in the way that was done by the previous equality bodies.

‘It is not giving effective, strategic law enforcement. Therefore, there is no use relying on the admirable Equality Act 2010 by itself if it is not going to be translated into practical action.’

Meanwhile, there are also savage closure plans in store for the HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) offices, they are responsible for making sure that everyone, including the super rich, pay their taxes.

Both Labour and the Tories have emphasised again and again how they intend to go after the big businesses and bankers and force them to pay their fair share of tax. However, we now find out that the instrument to do just that is being cut to ribbons.

The PCS demands: ‘HMRC must halt the closure plans!’

The union said in a statement: ‘HMRC must immediately halt plans to close 90% of its offices and cut thousands more staff, and consult MPs and the public. The pamphlet by the union and the Tax Justice Network was launched in parliament yesterday (Tuesday) alongside shadow chancellor John McDonnell.

‘It is a follow-up to work done for McDonnell by professor Prem Sikka, published in September and backed by the union. The report entitled “HMRC: building an uncertain future: the cuts don’t work” draws on a major survey of the union’s members in HMRC and government, National Audit Office and public accounts committee reports.

‘It says HMRC is in crisis, with low staff morale and little trust in senior management as the department presses ahead with plans to shut almost all of its 170 UK offices and cut 8,000 more jobs by 2020. These plans, called Building our Future, pose significant risks to the department’s ability to collect and enforce tax, the union says.’

The closures will mean:

• Scotland will have no HMRC office north of Glasgow and Edinburgh

• The east of England will be served by an office in London

• There will be no tax office west of Bristol and none on the south coast

• The ports of Southampton, Portsmouth, Dover, Ipswich and Harwich will be served by offices in Croydon or Stratford, east London

• Major cities such as Sheffield will be left without any HMRC presence.

The report notes:

• The resources available to HMRC today are 40% less in real terms than they were in 2000

• In 2015 the department spent 20% of its budget on implementing change

• HMRC’s workforce has been cut from almost 100,000 in the mid 1990s to 58,000 now, with plans for staffing of 50,000 by 2020.

On HMRC’s ability to collect and enforce tax, the survey found:

• Only 18% thought past reorganisations of the department had had a positive impact

• Only 14% thought the Building our Future plans will have a positive impact

• And less than 10% thought the involvement of the private sector had a positive impact (the survey was carried out prior to the Concentrix scandal coming to the public’s attention).

PCS said: ‘Comments by respondents to the survey reveal concerns about the effect closing offices will have on tax compliance, with staff saying core work involves checking declarations match the reality on the ground, which often means visits and inspections.’

The report says: ‘It is difficult to see how HMRC officers will complete this task when they are based many hours away from the business. Instead, it is likely that HMRC will simply stop visiting many small businesses in many parts of the country. HMRC’s stated rationale for the closures is that taxpayers will switch to using the internet.

‘But the report notes that after 10 years of efforts to increase digital services, most people still deal with HMRC by phone and mail, and the number of phone inquiries has remained relatively constant.’

Meanwhile, as thousands of staff have been cut, the poor performance of HMRC’s telephone service and mail handling has been the subject of severe criticism from government auditors and MPs.

The report – which calls for Building our Future to be halted and for the public and parliament to be consulted, and for an end to privatisation of any further functions, particularly in light of the decision to end the Concentrix contract – was also launched yesterday.

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: ‘HMRC collects the taxes that pay for all the public services we all rely on and the very fabric of our society depends on it being properly resourced and well run. The plan to close almost all of the UK’s 170 offices and cut thousands more jobs puts all this at risk, and the government must put an immediate halt to it and consult the public and parliament about the kind of investment that is needed.’

• PCS is opposing a 500% hike in asylum tribunal fees. PCS said: ‘As a union we are opposing government plans to significantly increase legal application fees for asylum seekers and others needing permission to remain in the UK. Fees are being increased for those applying for a right to remain in the country by almost 500% (from £80 to £490).

‘In addition, for the first time, people will be charged for an appeal against a Home Office decision to deny them asylum, with a new fee of £510 for an appeal hearing following a new charge of £350 for an application.

‘With a high proportion of decisions overturned at appeal, currently more than 30% of appeals are successful, and Home Office staff under increasing pressure with targets and resource restraints, it is grossly unfair to place financial restrictions on the right to appeal asylum decisions.

‘The massive increase will effectively price asylum seekers out of justice; for a family of five it would cost £4,000 to appeal a decision, a vast sum for anyone, let alone those who may be fleeing persecution or war.

‘Such steep increases in costs for asylum and immigration cases will deter many from challenging often incorrect Home Office administrative decisions about their entitlement to enter or remain in the UK, including deportation.

‘The introduction of fees or increased fees elsewhere in the justice system have acted as a deterrent for people seeking justice. For example, the introduction of fees for employment tribunal cases saw many people who had been wronged, discouraged from pursuing valid claims.

‘Instead of taking money from the most vulnerable in society, a fairer and more effective way of dealing with the costs of asylum tribunal hearings would be to put more resources into ensuring that high quality decisions are made in the first place.

‘Such steep increases in costs for asylum and immigration cases will deter many from challenging often incorrect Home Office administrative decisions about their entitlement to enter or remain in the UK, including deportation. These fee increases are particularly concerning in light of the current refugee crisis where millions of people are being displaced, forced to flee their homes, live in appalling conditions and face brutality from state forces and sectarian militias while putting their lives at risk as they seek safety.

‘We are concerned that these astronomical fee increases are another example of the government seeking to wash its hands of its duty to assist these vulnerable people. Rather than increasing fees, a fairer and more effective way of dealing with the costs of asylum tribunal hearings, would be to put more resources into ensuring that errors do not happen in the first place.

‘We view the fee increases as a cynical attempt to reduce the number of appeals at a time when there has been an increased intake of asylum applications. The fact that around 30% of appeals are allowed indicates that there would be a high chance that those who potentially face persecution would be prevented from making appeals and the Home Office would be in danger of breaking its obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention.’