28 February 2013

Part 2 of An Awakening: the road from Walsall to London

Back to the early 1980’s in Walsall and the impending introduction of what was called and now seems a rather quaint expression, New Technology.

The IR Board decided that before the COP programme was rolled out nationwide there would be a pilot run in the West Midlands area. Offices from Walsall, Wolverhampton, Cannock, Stafford, Oswestry and Dudley were chosen. A peculiar choice but the Board were cute. The offices chosen were not known for any radical bias or even huge union activity plus these were towns were jobs were going down the sewers faster than storm water and so the Board thought they might get an easy ride. They were mistaken!

 There was a massive worry for the civil servants in the IR that the introduction of new technology would cause massive job losses and compulsory redundancies. This was a frightening thought for those who had been around for the while and really believed that they had a job for life, unless they were completely useless of course. So the main thrust of the IRSF was to secure a New Technology Agreement (NTA) with a no compulsory redundancy clause. As time went by it became clear to the union that the NTA was going to be very difficult to obtain and meetings between the higher echelons of the union and the ordinary office secretaries in the 14 pilot districts became frequent. They rolled out all the big names in their attempts to ensure that the office secretaries and chairpersons, plus the local branch committees were onside. Looking back on my youth I suppose I was impressed. Tony Christopher was the General Secretary and he visited every office to chat with the members. Clive Brook was a Deputy GS and usually chaired most of the meetings with us. Liz Symons didn't play such a large roll because she dealt with what were mainly issues in the Collection section of the IR but I met her often enough. There was also the Executive Committee, some of whom became personal friends.

Time began to run short. COP was due to go live on 1st January 1984. Shades of Big Brother ran deep. The date was deeply significant at the time. How easily we forget. Prior to the system going live though there had to be the process whereby all the clerical records were transferred to the online system. This was known as setting up and boy was that period instrumental in persuading people that the union had the right idea about a NTA.

The potential NTA wasn't just about a no redundancy clause but all the other niggling little things that seemed so frightening at the time. There was a big fuss about VDU’s emitting low level radiation and the defects that this could potentially cause to the unborn foetus. So allowing pregnant women to not work on VDU’s was an important element. So were eye tests and financial help for people who only required spectacles for VDU work. Then there were the ergonomics, the furniture, the postures and RSI. All were seen as real potential problems for which agreement needed to be reached with regard to protecting individuals and their health.

At the time that setting up began, the majority of the 14 pilot districts were in deep trouble with regard to work on hand. As I said in my earlier blog, there were massive amounts of repayments to process, plus there had been staff cuts, which had gone by natural wastage. The workload had increased but the staff numbers had decreased. Result? The office that I worked in had always been very proud of constantly reporting no work on hand that was older than 14 days from receipt, found itself in a situation where there were thousands of pieces of post older than 2 months old and no matter how hard you worked, the figures never got any smaller. Although I have never agreed with overtime, it is interesting to note that Mrs Thatcher had instigated a complete overtime ban throughout the civil service and no overtime was allowed.

We were now faced with a setting up period that was to last between 10 and 12 weeks, when virtually no other work would be done in the office. The post would come in and would be piled up to be dealt with in about 6 months time or so we hoped. All the ‘annual cycle’ jobs that had to be done in addition to normal day-to-day work were being left and because of this normal day to day work increased due to the knock on effect of not dealing with the annual stuff. It was a vicious circle!

The setting up began in earnest in September 1983. We started with that year's Tax Returns still unexamined, several months worth of post on hand and the telephones ringing off the hook due to the backlog of work.

Each taxpayer (they're called customers now!) had back then, a real life file and what was known as a concard, short for control card. The concard detailed individuals personal details such as name, address, date of birth, national insurance number, their recent employment history, if tax returns had been issued and if they had been returned, name of spouse and where they were dealt with, details of any other current jobs and on the reverse was a breakdown of around seven years worth of code numbers, pay and tax details and whether or not a person was underpaid, overpaid etc. All of this information on the concard had to be transferred to create an online record. In theory some of the information was already supposed to be there such as name, address, NI number etc, in practice there was nothing for about 80%.

We sat there for the working day of seven and half hours and inputted information staring at a green VDU screen. Now remember that back then few people had keyboard skills in the way they have now. This inputting was a plodding, slow process using just two fingers to type for the great majority. In addition we had training (ha ha) for using the new system, which you will appreciate was vastly different to a manual system and the bloody telephones never stopped ringing and the general public never stopped coming in to see us, wondering why we never answered the telephone or letters, or dealt with repayment claims and so on.

People started developing stress related illnesses. They also started developing dry eyes, headaches, backaches, achy fingers and wrists. Morale already low, now hit rock bottom. The Board of Inland Revenue educated the members of the IRSF in a way the union could never have done with regard to the absolute necessity of an NTA.

The Union leadership had decided that the way to entice the Board to the table with regard to the NTA was to take them to court. I believe the thinking ran along the lines of  the Board had broken our contract of employment by introducing a new way of working without our agreement and that the new way of working was so intrinsically different to the old way that we were entitled to some input as to how changes were to be implemented. That's how I remember it.

With much intensive prompting I was persuaded to become a plaintiff along with seven other sacrificial lambs, against the Board of Inland Revenue. I got some idea of what this might involve from the constant travelling to and from London to meet with solicitors etc to prepare affidavits and then swear them and all the other stuff that becomes part of the deal of taking your employer to court....whoa, taking the Board of Inland Revenue to the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand? That's big stuff! These men (they were all men back then) in dark suits who every now and then put in an appearance in a local office just to see how the other half lived, were my employers and could make life very difficult for me and any future career I thought I might have had. I was young, still pretty much like a dustbin in that I took everything in and believed people when they spoke to me. I didn't lie, so I never thought other people would lie either. I can't believe that I was so naive in that respect and yet so bloody street wise in other ways. I suppose back then I still intrinsically trusted people and certainly I lacked the cynicism that comes with experience.

The papers were prepared, ready to serve but first we had a vote on industrial action to see through and then to ensure that the action actually took place.

A vote was held amongst the members in the 14 pilot districts along the lines of that as there was no NTA, we would refuse to work and operate the new system from its go live date of 1st January 1984. We would continue to work on a clerical basis but refuse to switch those VDU's on. The vote was won by a massive majority despite the fact that individuals had been made aware of precisely what would happen to them if they refused to work the online system. We all approached 1984 with much trepidation but believing that our cause was both reasonable and fair.

Meetings were frantic and convened at a moments notice. I remember Frank Winrow, the local liaison officer, calling me on Boxing Day 1983 to ask me to get into London the next morning and being unable to get any sense out of me because I was drunk. Well I was having a party at home that day! I got there.

I got into work nice and early on 'go live day'. I wasn't alone and on orders from above, the District Inspectors in each of the pilot districts had also had an early wake up call in order that they could switch all the VDU’s in their office on, so that a new year message from the Board of IR would greet every person. I don’t remember exactly what was on the screen that morning but it was something along the lines of ‘be good girls and boys because we’ll get nasty and big brother is watching you’. I turned my VDU off. Everyone else in my office apart from the non-members did the same, as did the vast majority of the PAYE staff in the other pilot districts.

We carried on working clerically and for a while nothing happened. To be honest many found it a pleasure to return to what they knew and had been trained for rather than something that they had received very little training for but were expected to get to grips with immediately. There were furtive telephone calls to see what was happening elsewhere but nothing was happening. Until lunchtime that is. Then I got a call informing me that in one of the Dudley districts the first six staff had been TRD’d and the rest were to follow. TRD means Temporarily Relieved from Duty.

I immediately ran around the office informing everyone of what was happening over on the other side of the Black Country. Some who had friends in that office started making phone calls, others started singing “we shall not be moved”. This surprised me no end. My office was pretty non-combative under normal circumstances. It was also an ‘old’ office in terms of its profile. Some of the women had worked for the Revenue for over 30 years and had never been involved in industrial action before apart from the odd one day strike. Some were within 1 to 3 years of retirement and therefore would suffer financially by embarking on industrial action so close to their retirement. Yet here was something that had motivated them to consider their younger colleagues and their futures. Here they were singing we shall not be moved. I admit that I popped down to the ladies loo and shed a tear.

I popped in to see my boss for an informal chat. I was one of the lucky union reps in that my boss was a decent man who supported the action although of course, at the time he never admitted it and he had his job to do as dictated by the Board. He told me that he would be starting to interview us all in order to TRD us within the hour. He was just awaiting his final orders. He said that although he had been informed that he wasn't supposed to allow it, he wanted me to sit in on all the interviews and he would then suspend me last of all. The orders for the DI’s were to suspend the Office Secretaries and Whitley committee members first, so that they would not be available to offer moral support to their members.

I was glad he did this because it gave me chance to get around everyone and get their last salary slip, so that IRSF HQ would know how much strike pay to make. Looking back I can see how hard this was for some of the maturer people I worked with. Not only were they doing something they had never done before but also they were putting their pensions in danger and having to give their salary slips to some chit of a girl!

The actual TRD interviews went smoothly and that was down to the boss. He had a set script, which he had to stick to but he was human. Each person was asked if they would turn on their VDU and return to working ‘normally’. Each person said no they would not but that they were happy to work clerically until the Board signed an NTA with the union. Each person was then told that because they were refusing to work ‘normally’ they were being temporarily relieved of duties, so would they collect their personal possessions and leave the building. They were warned that this was a formal disciplinary process and further action may be taken against them and could result in them being dismissed from service. In some offices people were escorted from the premises. Finally it was my turn. Following the formal bit the boss asked me to pop in on a regular basis for a cup of coffee. I promised him I would.

It would be nine weeks before I returned to that office to work and in that time I would grow up in so many ways. I would also appear as a plaintiff at the Royal Courts of Justice, be interviewed on TV and make my first political speeches.

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