BIS Sheffield staff go on strike over closure plan – as shadow civil service minister urges better local consultation

Written by Matt Foster on 19 May 2016 in News

Exclusive: As BIS Sheffield staff go on strike over the department's plan to move policy jobs to London, shadow cabinet office minister Louise Haigh denies that MPs are ignoring the need for departmental reform – and urges better local consultation. Photo credit: Amerjit Basi​

Shadow Cabinet Office minister Louise Haigh has rejected the suggestion that local MPs opposed to government office closures are taking a "not in my backyard" approach, as she joined more than 100 civil servants striking against plans to axe the Business department's Sheffield site.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) is currently considering the future of more than 240 staff at its St Paul's Place site, after announcing its intention to move all policy roles based in Sheffield to central London.

But the move, which BIS says will help it run a more efficient policy operation and contribute towards its £350m savings plan, has been strongly opposed by unions and local MPs, who have warned about the impact on the regional economy and say the plans jeopardise the government's stated aim of handing more power away from Whitehall.

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BIS's move comes as the government eyes the closure of 75% of its national offices by 2023, with a shift towards shared sites for government departments. Last year, HMRC announced its own politically controversial office closure plan, which will see 137 local offices replaced with with 13 "regional hubs" over the next ten years.

Speaking to Civil Service World ahead of Wednesday's BIS strike, Haigh (pictured), who is Labour's civil service spokesperson and also represents Sheffield Heeley, acknowledged that political opposition to office closures could sometimes be motivated by self-interest.

She said: "I think we saw that in the HMRC debate. Sheffield will lose 500 jobs from that closure, and there were Tory MPs jumping up and down saying 'I completely support the plan, but can we have the HMRC office in my constituency please?'."

But Haigh denied that MPs fighting closure plans were oblivious to the need for departmental reform, instead calling on senior officials currently mulling the closure of offices to do more to consult local MPs and unions before making announcements. 

"If we can all appreciate the cost pressures and understand that the civil service does need reform then that should be part of a consultation" – Shadow Cabinet Office minister Louise Haigh

The BIS Sheffield closure process had, she argued, been handled "spectacularly badly", with senior leaders "turning up at 9am on a Thursday just to announce suddenly that all their jobs were gone".

"The way in which it was handled showed real disrespect for the workforce," she added. 

"They should be sticking to their usual processes of consultation. But having that wider debate with MPs and with communities would help. There doesn't necessarily have to be NIMBYism around it. 

"If we can all appreciate the cost pressures and understand that the civil service does need reform then that should be part of a consultation. But certainly, just rocking up and announcing it – BIS has reaped the consequences of that. We're still hammering them on it months later. That's why I and other MPs will be out with civil servants taking industrial action."

"The proposal to close the BIS office in Sheffield has not been put forward lightly and ensuring staff are fully briefed and consulted remains a huge priority for us" – BIS spokesperson

Haigh was speaking before joining BIS Sheffield staff and fellow Labour MP Paul Blomfield on the picket line on Wednesday.

According to the PCS union, whose members initiated Wednesday's industrial action over the planned closure, all but two of the union's 150 balloted members at St Paul's Place stayed away from work, with around 50 on the picket line. The union said non-members had also shown their support by taking annual leave or working from home.

CSW is currently awaiting detail from the department on precise numbers of staff who downed tools. But a spokesperson for BIS stressed that no final decision had yet been taken on the future of the Sheffield team.

"The proposal to close the BIS office in Sheffield has not been put forward lightly and ensuring staff are fully briefed and consulted remains a huge priority for us," the spokesperson said.

"That's why the permanent secretary, along with BIS officials and board members, have engaged with staff and unions closely as part of the formal consultation and ministers have discussed the proposals with both MPs and in Parliament. The board is now in the process of giving full consideration to responses received." 

"Fire should be trained on the politicians"

BIS permanent secretary Martin Donnelly (pictured) – who has described the Sheffield decision as "one of the most difficult" choices of his career – has faced personal criticism from MPs over the detail the department has provided on its plans.

Two parliamentary select committees have pushed Donnelly to provide a detailed, disaggregated business case setting out potential savings from the closure plan, with committee chairs Meg Hillier and Iain Wright last month saying the perm sec's "refusal to disclose the information we have sought is unhelpful, unjustified and is impeding our ability to fulfil our scrutiny functions".

Asked by CSW whether MPs should be focusing their criticism on ministers rather than civil servants, Haigh agreed that "fire should be trained on the politicians".

But she said Donnelly, business secretary Sajid Javid and BIS minister Anna Soubry all had to share responsibility for what she called the "appalling" handling of the decision.

"When they first responded to my Urgent Question on BIS Sheffield, Anna [Soubry] said that this was all about cost savings. Clearly moving jobs from Sheffield to London isn't going to save a penny. In fact it's going to be a much greater constraint on tight fiscal resources in BIS. So my argument has been that they have come and deliberately misled the House in all of this and they have been dishonest."

"Staff feel strongly not just about their own jobs, but the need to have a regional perspective across the civil service, and crucially in those senior roles making policy" – Louise Haigh

And she pointed out that those taking part in Wednesday's action were "senior civil servants" who rarely resorted to "being out on strike or taking industrial action".

"It is quite an unusual measure to take," Haigh said. "But they feel so strongly not just about their own jobs, but the need to have a regional perspective across the civil service, and crucially in those senior roles making policy."

NAO probe

Blomfield – the Sheffield Central MP (pictured) – meanwhile said he had received an indication from the National Audit Office public spending watchdog that it would look into the department's rationale for the decision, after a "constructive" meeting with NAO chief Amyas Morse.

In a statement, Blomfield said he was "certain this decision to move Sheffield policy jobs to London will receive the scrutiny we have called for".

He added: "As we have said all along, the proposal lacks an evidence base. Locating staff in London costs more and weakens decision-making by excluding voices from around the country. If ministers don’t listen to these concerns, I am confident they will be held to account for their decision.”

Staff will learn of the BIS management's final decision on the Sheffield site next week, and an announcement could come as early as Monday.

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Matt Foster
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Matt Foster is CSW's deputy editor. He tweets as @CSWDepEd

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