In the twinkling of an eye
After two years at the head of the union, ARC President Tony Wallace says goodbye.
Two years ago I became ARC President, an ambition I have held since becoming a member more than a dozen years ago, and I cannot quite believe that I am already writing my valedictory piece; time really does fly. In fact it amazes me that I am now into my 33rd year working for HMRC and that has got me thinking about what has changed and what has not.
When I joined the then Inland Revenue as a Clerical Assistant at Cumbernauld Accounts Office on 2 August 1983, the world was a very different place. For a start our employer had a few different names. One seemingly irrelevant thing that struck me recently was that one of our younger graduates had no idea whatsoever what carbon paper was. In 1983 carbon paper was ubiquitous but now its only residual existence is in the use of the term c/c on email. The messy paper itself is now consigned to the dustbin of history and physical paper is going the same way. Paper, in one form or another, has been around since the days of the ancient Egyptian and Chinese cultures; the paper technology on which civilisation has been built for thousands of years has started to disappear quite rapidly over the past ten.
In 1983 we had “tea ladies”, and, at the Accounts Office, a pool of 700 people (almost all of whom were women) whose job it was to key in, by hand, the millions of pounds worth of cheques that arrived in the building in sack loads of post every day. The Accounts Office was nothing less than a paper processing factory staffed mainly by women working in what was a predominantly male-led organisation. That gender imbalance at senior levels is certainly one of the things that has changed and changed very much for the better. Now, if only HMRC would do something to sort out the ongoing impact on our pay system that world created we could settle our pay inequality cases an awful lot sooner.
In fact, Cumbernauld was at that time utilising, very effectively, cutting edge computing technology. PCs had not yet arrived in any but a very few offices and the mainframes at the accounts offices were beasts. That movement to personal computers is another huge difference between then and now. I am typing this piece in a Ryanair jet half way across the Irish Sea on my way to Galway to meet with colleagues from our Irish sister union the AHCPS; it really is possible to work anywhere. And it goes on – we are now entering the age of tax digitalisation and personal tax accounts, and even that trusty old stalwart and foundation for most of what I have been doing over the past 30 years – the annual tax return – will soon be going the way of the carbon paper.
Change has been a constant feature over the greater part of my career within HMRC and, as it accelerates, ARC has to continue its own process of changing and adapting to a different world. We can only ever be effective by remaining contemporary and alive to our members’ needs and aspirations. That challenge is not going to get any easier. In the last two years alone HMRC’s plans have moved rapidly from the early BOF events through to the announcement of Regional Centres, with one-to-ones now already underway. Committee will be looking at our national structure to make sure that it aligns with HMRC’s planning; it is essential that our members closest to business locations have the opportunity to become more involved in the planning for their own business area and geographical location. In that way we can make sure that as a union we are better sighted on the granularity of the new structure.
Our job as a union is to make sure that our members are front and centre in the minds of our employer as HMRC moves through to that new structure. If “Building Our Future” is to mean anything beyond a hollow soundbite HMRC cannot be allowed to forget the use of the possessive determiner at the centre of the message “Building Our Future”. I know that I am starting to sound like a broken record but, with some thought and a relatively small investment, there are solutions available for skilled professionals who are in the wrong place at the wrong time to continue doing the excellent job that they currently do for our employer and the state. My plea once again is for HMRC to make that commitment to allow distance working or help who are prepared, or want, to move to do so. The cost of these solutions is small in comparison to the alternative of losing skilled people in both the short and long term. We have been widely and wrongly criticised in the press recently over some of the work we do. How much louder would that criticism become if we no longer have the essential skills and brainpower which we need. This is not about doing people a favour, it is about recognising that skills essential to the smooth running of HMRC’s business cannot be lost without risk.The most disappointing feature has been the yawning gulf between HMRC’s keenness to embrace technology in an ever-accelerating dash into tomorrow, and simultaneously and steadfastly remaining rooted to the past when it comes to pay and rewards for the professionals who are making that change a reality.
As a union we have taken a progressive stance in all of our dealings with our employer over the years. We know that to accomplish an end that works, for both HMRC and the senior leaders and professionals we represent, takes a dedication and commitment to talk early, often and constructively. Things are getting better but sadly there are still far too many occasions where that effort to discuss is not reciprocated and we are still finding that insufficient time has been built into consultation processes to allow us to make the positive contribution on behalf of our members that we can. We know that we will not always agree with our employer on everything and HMRC knows that too but there is plenty of evidence to show that where consultation is done properly there are clear benefits for both parties.
I have to say that the most disappointing feature of recent years has been the yawning gulf between HMRC’s keenness to embrace technology in an ever-accelerating dash into tomorrow while simultaneously and steadfastly remaining rooted to the past when it comes to the pay and rewards that accrue to the professionals and leaders who are making that change a reality. Without a shadow of a doubt, our members are significantly less well off than they were in 2010 and there is, as yet, no sign of that changing. Our members have worked hard to help secure the resources to allow HMRC to deliver, and it is fair to say that the settlements this department has had from Treasury over the last six years have not been as bad as those in many other areas of the civil service. It is our members who have done the heavy lifting to help to bail out our economy but they have received scant reward for doing so. And when it comes to talking about reward, HMRC often speaks about the numbers of people who have been promoted to more senior positions and seen their pay increase accordingly. That is a good thing but the reality is that, though it may be true for colleagues at lower grades, it is certainly not the case in a world where we see ever-diminishing numbers of Grade 6 and SCS posts. On top of all of that we have seen the imposition of a whole series of detrimental changes to many of our terms and conditions over the same period. Is it any wonder that our staff survey results are still amongst the worst in the Civil Service?
The last few years have been difficult ones for trade unionists but we have a long and proud tradition. My father was the President of the now long-gone Scottish Carpet Workers Union in the 1970’s and through that I got to see first-hand what the world looked like at that time. Things were not universally rosy but neither were they as relentlessly bad for working people as is now portrayed, and some significant changes to the rights of people in the workplace were achieved, notably in the field of gender equality. I am not advocating that we go back to the days of industrial strife, that would be madness, but being a trade unionist back then was not that hard; things are much easier when you are in the ascendancy.
On some of my tougher mornings I have speculated that it might be nice to have a bit of industrial clout. But of course that is misleading. Our union is not, and never has been, an industrial union and our membership base is a world apart from the people my dad represented in a very different political climate. The truth is that it is in times like these, when we are under pressure as individuals and as a collective body, that we really need our union and I would not swap my experience and opportunity for his. I would be fooling no one if I were to suggest that the working lives of our members have improved dramatically in recent years, and many of our members are going to be faced with some very difficult decisions over the next few. It will only be through hard work and organisation that we will be in a position to support those members collectively and individually. Difficult it may be, but do it we will.
I want to draw this piece to a close by saying a few words about my Committee colleagues over the past two years. They have worked tirelessly on behalf of our members but inevitably some of what they do is done quietly and that means that they do not always get the credit they deserve. Without their dedication ARC would simply not be able to function. And, while I have had the opportunity to work with a great team of hard-working individuals, there are a few people who do deserve a special mention.ARC is now seen as a go-to organisation for comment on tax affairs. Not only that but we now have many allies who are prepared to call for the resources that HMRC needs in both a public and a private capacity.
Helen Baird-Parker has worked like a Trojan on the diversity and inclusiveness front. She has done an immense amount of work in getting our equal pay cases in front of the Employment Tribunal despite what has appeared to be at times a glacially slow process. Not only has Helen been tenacious in the extreme to see these cases progress she has also saved us a great deal of money by keeping much of the work of informing our claimants in-house.
Iain Campbell has raised our public profile enormously with the professions and we are now seen as a go-to organisation for comment on tax affairs through Iain’s work. Not only that but we now have many allies who are prepared to call for the resources that HMRC needs in both a public and a private capacity. As an example of that, Iain is joining me in Ireland today to meet with our Irish sister union; during which time he has also taken the opportunity to spread our resourcing message to the Irish professionals in Dublin this morning.
We have made a major change in our conference arrangements this year, moving the AGM out of London for the first time. It is a real challenge for us but we absolutely believe that, as a union representing members from across the United Kingdom, it was essential that we do it. It is also worth pointing out that the ExCom meeting in Nottingham on the same day is not a coincidence. That in itself is a measure of the influential position that we are in. I would like to thank Dave Cooper, Loz Hutton and Paula Houghton for their work in making this a reality; it has been very much a learning process and a bit of a leap into the unknown for us all.
Our communications team, led by Julie Blayney, Steve McFarlane and Will Richardson, has done a great job over the last couple of years; our new website is being built and will be going live very soon with a refreshed and relaunched forum.
I also get the pleasure of handing over the reins to a great new Presidential team with yet another first. ARC will have women in the positions of both President and Deputy President. Vicky Johnson and Paula Houghton will make a formidable pairing; both are long serving and experienced officers with a clear sense of direction and firm views on how to keep delivering for our members. They have a great team to work with them and a solid foundation on which to build.
And finally finally, a huge thanks to all of you for your support for me over the past two years; without our members we are as nothing. So that’s it from me as President although I will be remaining on Committee to support our new team, I am really looking forward to that next chapter.
All the best,