On 19 December, Change Director Mark de Brunner published an update about the so-called “building capacity” trial on the intranet. At the 9 month mark in the trial, it further underlines how the trial is serving the government’s privatisation agenda to the detriment of HMRC staff.
Throughout the tenure of SITEL and Teleperformance at sites in Bathgate and Lilyhall, the department has been at pains to insist that privatisation is not the aim. The trial is about “better understand[ing] the implications of increasing our capacity by using a delivery partner,” not “losing or replacing any HMRC jobs, any transfer of staff from HMRC to an external organisation, nor any off-shoring of activities,” according to an FAQ last updated in July.
In the absolute strictest sense, this is true. But the department is aiming to considerably reduce the full time equivalent (FTE) headcount, by over 8000 in PT Ops alone. At the same time they are using temporary staff to fill short term needs. This trial is about how we use private contractors to bring in those temporary staff.
Brunner’s update underlines this point. “One of the challenges we set the suppliers was to be able to flex resource by increasing staffing numbers to cover peaks and then reducing numbers as demand reduced.” Privatisation and casualisation in one swoop.
Brunner also moves to pre-emptively counter any PCS objections about private sector productivity. “[T]he inexperience of each intake may have contributed to higher call handling times and lower quality scores,” but “as staff have consolidated their knowledge, we have seen gradual improvements to the point where the supplier performance scores are now closer to what we achieve in HMRC.”
This is to be expected. Those employed on private contracts receive the same basic training as those employed directly by HMRC and are doing the same basic job. They are all workers, and potential union members, so there is no reason to presume an automatic difference because of which sector employs them.
The difference is that those employed by the private sector have worse conditions. Lower pay, less breaks, stricter rules, forced overtime for no higher pay, and so on. As such even if they are not a better deal for the employer in their own right, they help drastically undercut permanent staff. After all, what leverage do we have to resist cuts to pay and conditions, or push for improvements, if a low paid, badly treated, transient workforce can be used in our stead when we take action?
That is the reality that the “building capacity” trials hint at. The private sector is not more efficient than the public sector, and certainly not as a rule of thumb. But by outsourcing they can casualise the workforce, funnel taxpayer money towards private profit and undermine the pay and conditions of permanent, unionised staff.
Given that this is the true objective of the trial, and indeed all privatisation, any evaluation by the department will necessarily be a sham. All the assurances given, as outlined above, are on terms that are easy to present as positive and which mask the real aims of the exercise.
We can only hope that the Group Executive Committee is aware of this and that they have more up their sleeves than simply going along for the ride – as September’s Enabling Agreement seems to commit them to do.