Labour has accused business secretary Sajid Javid of showing a “lack of empathy” for civil servants who face the prospect of redundancy when the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills shuts its Sheffield office.
Javid’s most senior official — BIS permanent secretary Martin Donnelly — last week announced that the department’s St Paul’s Place site will close by 2018. The move is part of the “BIS 2020” strategy, with the department saying it will reconfigure its estate to create a “combined central HQ and policy centre” in London as well as six regional business centres.
More than 240 staff currently work at the site, which focuses on policy and corporate services for BIS. While relocation will be offered in some cases, the department has not ruled out redundancies.
The planned closure was raised in the Commons on Tuesday by shadow Cabinet Office minister Louise Haigh, with the Labour MP — who represents the Sheffield Heeley constituency — attacking the nature of the announcement.
She asked: “Can the minister confirm that in a briefing to BIS workers whose jobs are at risk in Sheffield on Friday one of the main reasons given for closing the office was, and I quote, “because the phones and computers don’t work properly”?
“Is the minister for innovation seriously saying that the department responsible for sending people to space cannot find a way to communicate properly with an office 150 miles up the road? And will the minister now reflect on the way on this farcical announcement was made and the lack of empathy shown for those workers?”
The business secretary hit back, however, saying that the decision had not been taken “lightly”.
“Of course there are a number of people and their families that are affected and we need to do everything we possibly can to help,” he added.
“But we do have an obligation on behalf of taxpayers to make sure that we spend their money wisely and that means making sure that all government departments are run efficiently and effectively.
“Even after this change my department will have more people, the vast majority of people, outside of London. And that’s the right thing.”
Unions have already criticised the move, with the Public and Commercial Services union warning that further job losses are possible and the FDA — representing senior officials — saying it had not been consulted ahead of Donnelly’s announcement.
Work on the BIS 2020 plan began soon after the general election. Last November’s government-wide Spending Review committed the department to finding £100m of departmental administration savings by the end of the decade.
BIS has said those savings will be achieved through “further reducing the number of Arm’s Length Bodies (ALBs), unlocking efficiencies through increased digitisation and increasing the pace of estates and workforce reform”.
In an interview last year, Donnelly said it had been “very important” for the department to “stay really connected, geographically and sectorally, across the economy” when drawing up BIS 202.
But he said BIS would seek to “remove duplication and rationalise on a smaller number of centres of excellence” in response to the Spending Review, focusing on areas “where we can really get the most bang for our buck”.