This week, my union, the Public and Commercial Service union (PCS), issued a press release claiming that 3,500 jobs would be lost in local offices around the country. What they say is true, for a given value of true. What they have omitted to say is that these cuts are part of an already announced programme to axe 25,000 jobs, i.e. more than one in four of our staffing numbers as in 2005.
In an organisation that is seeking to achieve serious effiency gains over that period (5% each year), job losses are inevitable, and increased computerisation will allow technology to replace people in terms of data entry, filing and other humdrum, but currently essential tasks.
However, the Department are engaged in a simultaneous programme of 'estate rationalisation', i.e. closing smaller offices in favour of bringing larger concentrations of staff together in more space-effective configurations. The amount of space needed to house an individual officer has been pared back, a process known as 'restacking', allowing more staff to be housed in the same space.
This allows the release of now surplus office accommodation, thus reducing the running costs of the Department. The downside is that, in all likelihood, the HM Revenue & Customs presence near you soon won't be. For example, offices in Sudbury, Bury St Edmunds, Colchester, Clacton and Witham have all been designated for closure, with the work moving to Ipswich and Southend.
The process of retreat and amalgamation has been an ongoing story throughout my career. If Flanders and Swann were still alive today, instead of singing about the Beeching cuts, they would have been singing about the loss of offices such as Bryanston, Southwark and St Giles. Offices that covered geographically tiny area were prevalent just twenty years ago - the City of London had thirty-two offices dealing with its affairs, imaginatively called City I, City II, etc. However, the relationship between the offices and the individuals and companies that they dealt with was somehow more personal.
With 'progress' comes, unfortunately, the loss of that connection between government and community, and the rise of an apparently faceless bureaucracy. That appears to be the price to be paid for a leaner, meaner government. I just hope that it proves to be worth it.