The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) has confirmed its plan to shut its Sheffield site in favour of moving all policy jobs to London – prompting a furious reaction from unions, local MPs and staff affected by the closure.
BIS permanent secretary Martin Donnelly travelled to the St Paul's Place site to make the announcement on Thursday morning, as BIS minister Jo Johnson told MPs that the department's board had made a "unanimous" decision to close the site by January 2018.
Donnelly arrived at the Sheffield site just before 11am, and staff were then briefed on the implications of the decision. CSW understands that there are to be no compulsory redundancies before January 2018 and that, following talks with unions, the department has agreed to extend the deadline for voluntary exit schemes to the end of July.
BIS Sheffield staff go on strike over closure plan – as shadow civil service minister urges better local consultation
BIS Sheffield: D-day for staff as board to announce on closure plans
Seeking to justify the decision – which has been controversial with a number of MPs who argue it runs counter to the government's pledge to hand power away from Whitehall – Johnson said BIS needed to bring together its policy teams who were "currently dispersed across 14 offices".
And he said staff affected would "be able to stay in post in their current location" until the closure, pledging support with travel costs to London "for the first three years".
"As we get smaller we need a simpler structure that allows staff to interact easily and to respond rapidly and flexibly" – BIS minister Jo Johnson
In a written statement he added: "Over the course of this parliament our policy function will reduce from around 2000 roles to around 1500 roles, reflecting the size of the department’s pay bill on our operating expenditure.
"As we get smaller we need a simpler structure that allows staff to interact easily and to respond rapidly and flexibly to ministers, parliament and other stakeholders. Being more flexible, agile and re-deployable enables us to respond to the challenging demands of modern government."
“We do not believe there is any money to be saved by closing this office, it could actually end up costing more, and we will continue to campaign to reverse the decision" – PCS chief Mark Serwotka
Donnelly (pictured) meanwhile issued a statement saying the decision had "not been made lightly" and vowed to ensure staff were "fully supported and briefed on what this means for them and their options."
He added: "We have talked and listened to staff and unions. Making a decision which impacts on people’s lives and families is never easy."
But the move has already been attacked by shadow civil service minister and Sheffield Heeley MP Louise Haigh, who said it demonstrated "contempt" for the city.
"The Tories' promised to build a powerhouse but instead they are taking jobs out of our city and moving them to the very last place in need of these jobs - Westminster," she added.
The Public and Commercial Services (PCS) Union – whose BIS Sheffield members formed a picket line outside St Paul's Place today in the latest round of strike action over the closure – meanwhile branded the decision "shameful" and vowed to continue its opposition.
"As a Northern Powerhouse city, ministers should be investing in jobs in Sheffield, not devolving them back to central London," said PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka.
“We do not believe there is any money to be saved by closing this office, it could actually end up costing more, and we will continue to campaign to reverse the decision.”
Nick Clegg, the former deputy prime minister who is the Liberal Democrat MP for Sheffield Hallam, told the BBC that relocating jobs from Sheffield to London was "absolute madness".
"It's a sop"
BIS's pledge to provide travel and relocation assistance was also met with scepticism by one senior policy official CSW spoke to about the closure, who said the department now stood to lose "really good, committed, experienced staff who've got institutional memory".
Speaking from the BIS Sheffield picket line just after the announcement had been confirmed, Amerjit Basi – a grade 7 policy official – questioned how realistic it was to expect staff to travel to the capital.
She added: "It's unaffordable, quite frankly. But also in terms of work-life balance, if someone in Sheffield wanted to try and do their job in London they'd seemingly have to be down there four days a week. Only train costs are being paid for, so you'd have to travel down every day.
"It's a sop without any kind of real intent about enabling good, experienced staff to keep their jobs and keep doing a good job for BIS as well."
"What we're getting on this is just spin, just lines to take" – BIS Sheffield senior policy official Amerjit Basi
And Basi – who said she had reluctantly decided to leave the civil service after 19 years of service when the original proposal was floated in January – argued that management had still failed to convince staff of the case for the closure.
"No matter what, staff aren't going to like a decision like this," she said.
"But if we hear a good argument for why they're going to close BIS Sheffield or another location, we can take in that argument, we can process it and we can reach our own viewpoint on that."
"But what we're getting on this is just spin, just lines to take," Basi added, referring to the positions ministers and officials are told to emphasise during media and parliamentary appearances.
"We're a bunch of people who write lines to take all the time. And we deal with evidence-based cases. We are challenged all the time, when we develop policy with ministers, to make sure we put the evidence base in there to help make informed decisions."
"Smaller, more flexible"
Victoria Taylor, who has led talks on the BIS Sheffield closure for the FDA union, told CSW that she was "disappointed" with the decision, and said unions had floated an alternative proposal to keep multiple policy sites in a bid to ensure the department had the broadest possible range of experience to draw on.
And she was also critical of the way the department had communicated the original proposal to staff in January, as well as the consultation process that followed.
"The trade unions weren't given a heads up so we couldn't be there to support our members," she said. "I think since then the department has been almost scrambling to try and make amends."
Taylor added: "The trade union side has been really keen to engage and negotiate on this and think about what the future of BIS looks like. We wanted to have some really productive conversations around how staff, and our experience as trade unions, can influence that. I think having meaningful consultation is part of that – and there have been elements of this that have seemed insincere."
"The trade unions weren't given a heads up so we couldn't be there to support our members" – Victoria Taylor, FDA union
Pressed on the FDA's next move following the announcement, Taylor said the union would focus on supporting members as they considered their future, and said the civil service "should be very keen to retain their skills and expertise".
With the government having pledged to cut the number of offices occupied by government departments by 75% over the next seven years, the reaction to the BIS Sheffield closure is likely to be closely watched by other departmental leaders.
BIS itself has said it will be based in just seven regional sites – down from 80 locations – by the end of the parliament, as it seeks to implement major efficiency savings agreed with the Treasury at last year's spending review. The department is also cutting headcount by 30-40% and more than halving its 45 partner bodies.
Donnelly (pictured) on Thursday said the Sheffield move "forms part of wider plans to modernise the way BIS works to become a smaller, more flexible department that will deliver £350 million in savings for the taxpayer by 2020".