Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/512/3448
Data loss – no surprise to HMRC staff
ON 18 October, two discs containing the personal details of 25 million people were lost by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC). While the country at large might have been shocked that such a large amount of important information could have been mislaid so easily, the exhausted and stressed staff of HMRC knew that something like this was inevitable.
A PCS union member in HMRC
Every worker in HMRC shares the public's horror that 7.5 million families' names, addresses and bank details could simply disappear. However, there was also a slight feeling of hope, that perhaps this will be enough to turn attention to the current state of the civil service.
Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling were quick to label this extraordinary event a 'personal failure'. They are correct, but not in quite the way they intend. This was not the fault of a 23 year old admin assistant who was following the orders of his or her superiors. This wasn't even the fault of those superiors.
This was the fault of the government's efficiency agenda that meant the superior couldn't justify the cost of doing his job properly to the department. This is the fault of the efficiency agenda that has an overworked, understaffed department run ragged in the face of job cuts and office closures.
And this efficiency agenda was the responsibility of the previous chancellor, who announced 100,000 job losses in the civil service during his time in office: Gordon Brown. If there is a personal failure here, it is his.
It is sometimes hard to get sympathy from the public towards the civil service. Government propaganda paints us as the 'bowler hat and umbrella brigade'. In reality, the vast majority of PCS members make less than £17,000 a year, and many less than £14,000. And with the government placing a new ceiling on civil service pay deals, practically everyone will only be getting pay rises that are a fraction of the cost of inflation.
25,000 JOBS were to go from HMRC over six years, along with office closures across the country forcing many to travel unreasonable distances to work every day. 25,000 workers represents a quarter of our total staff. Already, we have seen 13,000 jobs disappear since March 2004.
Workers who remain employed seem destined to be put under more and more pressure to do the work of those who have left. New working practices, such as LEAN or pacesetter (management fads designed to turn workers into the equivalent of robots in a car parts factory) were supposed to compensate for the loss of 'resource' by streamlining processes. The results are what we should all have come to expect from the initiatives of highly paid consultants; the quality of work done is decreasing.
Enormous backlogs of post are hidden by shifting large quantities of work around the country every week. Is it any wonder that we are beginning to see this lead to more and more things simply becoming lost?
In order to plug the holes created by the vast numbers of jobs not being staffed, temporary workers are hired. Normally only working for six months, these temps have none of the legal protections against dismissal of full -time workers, and once they have served their time, can easily be replaced. This is the future of the civil service under current ways of thinking; a casualised workforce, none of whom will ever be employed long enough to have to be paid a pension. What kind of service will we be providing the public then?
THE CHANCELLOR used the lost data bombshell to sneak in news of a number of other recent blunders that might have escaped public notice, such as a lost laptop and another set of millions of personal details not delivered by couriers.
In my own area, less than a week before the lost disc scandal came to light, we discovered that staff were being made to carry envelopes full of post from taxpayers, across the city centre on foot, from one office to another. Thankfully, the local union was able to put a stop to this, but the implications are shocking. Would anyone be happy that their confidential financial details, including tax returns, were being moved on foot through a busy high street at lunchtime?
As long as the drive to strip the civil service of staff and expertise continues, incidents like this will become more frequent and get worse. The PCS union has demanded that the government immediately cease all job cuts and office closures in the face of this evidence that the efficiency agenda is crippling public services.
Sufficient training needs to be available to staff and expertise needs to be retained, which means permanent jobs, not casual labour. The union is ready and willing to fight against the government cuts with industrial action, not just in HMRC, but across the civil service.
In The Socialist 29 November 2007:
Environment and socialism
What we think
Socialist Party NHS campaign
Socialist Party news and analysis
International socialist news and analysis
Marxist analysis: history
Workplace news and analysis