BIS Sheffield closure: MPs in bid to halt department's plans

MPs say they will call on the National Audit Office to probe BIS's figures ahead of key meeting on future of its Sheffield site

By Matt Foster

09 May 2016

MPs could urge the public spending watchdog to take a look at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills' (BIS) plan to close its Sheffield office, as the BIS board prepares to decide on the future of the site.

BIS announced earlier this year that it plans to close its St Paul's Place site by 2018, in favour of centralising its policymaking staff at its London headquarters.

The department's permanent secretary Martin Donnelly has said the plan will help bring policy advice closer to ministers, and, if no staff are replaced, the department estimates that the Sheffield closure could contribute more than £14m towards the £350m five-year savings target it agreed with the Treasury last year.

Martin Donnelly: BIS Sheffield closure could save more than £14m
Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock: government to vacate 75% of sites by 2023

But the move – which potentially places more than 240 jobs at risk – has been criticised by local MPs and trade unions, who have warned it will reduce BIS's ability to help the local economy and is at odds with the government's vow to hand more power away from Whitehall.

Sheffield Central MP Paul Blomfield (pictured), who has been highly critical of the plans, will on Monday lead a cross-party debate in the Commons, calling on the National Audit Office (NAO) to take a detailed look at the figures before a final decision is made.

Speaking ahead of the debate, the Labour MP said he hoped to use it to "get answers from ministers", and urged the department to take heed of local concerns.

"The proposal to move jobs from Sheffield to London makes no financial sense, nor is it the way to draw on talent from across the country," he said.

"If the business department doesn’t withdraw the proposal on Monday, we will call for it to be suspended pending a National Audit Office cost benefit analysis. 

He added: "Figures show it’ll cost £2.5m more a year to move these functions to London, not to mention the impression this gives of the government’s so-called 'Northern Powerhouse'. I hope ministers will respond positively to our calls to step back and look again.”

A spokesperson for the NAO told CSW that the watchdog – which is free to look into any areas of concern highlighted by MPs or the wider public – had yet to receive a request to look into the BIS Sheffield closure. BIS's board is expected to meet in the coming days to make a final decision on the closure, after holding talks with trade unions on possible redundancies.

Speaking last month, Donnelly said the department was "always open to discussing" the "very difficult" issues involved in the closure.

He told the Public Accounts Committee: "I do not forget or underestimate the personal challenge and the problems that this sort of change programme poses. I am committed — as are all of us on the team — to working through those effectively and supportively with people involved."

BIS has already vowed to shrink its estate from 80 sites to just seven or eight in the next few years, while the wider government is seeking a 75% reduction in its estate by 2023.

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