Minister slated over Sheffield civil servants facing axe

Business Minster Anna Soubry.  Picture: Bruce Rollinson

Business Minster Anna Soubry. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

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A GOVERNMENT minister has been urged to apologise and show “human compassion” to civil servants facing redundancy in Sheffield following an “undignified” Commons performance.

Labour MPs attacked Tory frontbencher Anna Soubry during a stormy urgent question over the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills’ (Bis) decision to close its Sheffield office in St Paul’s Place by 2018, which they argue undermines the Government’s “Northern Powerhouse”.

The move could result in job losses among the 247 staff and was described by Labour as a “hammer blow” to the Yorkshire city and a warning to those working at 12 other Bis regional offices.

Commons Speaker John Bercow at one stage ordered Business Minister Ms Soubry to “be quiet and listen”, adding: “It’s not about you, it’s about the issue.”

MPs were also told £200,000 of taxpayers’ cash had been spent by Bis on developing a business case to “shut down jobs”.

Ms Soubry came under fire from Mr Bercow as shadow business minister Gordon Marsden spoke against the plan to close the Sheffield office.

He questioned if the decision was discussed with Communities Secretary Greg Clark, adding to Ms Soubry: “(Mr Clark) is busily promising devolution to local authorities while your officials are undermining it.”

As Ms Soubry raised objections during Mr Marsden’s speech, the Speaker intervened.

Mr Bercow told Ms Soubry: “This speech will be heard. Order! Minister, you’ve had your say, you will have further says.

“There’s something about a basic dignity, just sit and listen. It’s not about you, it’s about the issue. It’s not about (Mr Marsden) either, it’s about the issue. Be quiet and listen, that’s the end of it.

“It’s not a request, it’s an instruction.”

Ms Soubry later replied: “It’s not about me, it isn’t.

“It’s about the workers, and I’m very proud and I pay tribute to all those civil servants who work in the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills and indeed all our civil servants, which is why we understand on this side of the House how important it is that we have a sustainable civil service and we spend public money wisely.”

Labour’s Conor McGinn (St Helens North) said he was unsure why Ms Soubry was taking criticism of her decision “so personally”, adding workers had not heard a “shred of sympathy or regret” from the minister.

After Mr McGinn finished his critical remarks, Ms Soubry replied: “I’m sorry but that wasn’t a question, it was a speech and it wasn’t accurate and it was rubbish.”

Mr Bercow told Ms Soubry to “stick” to dealing with her responsibilities.

Shadow communities minister Steve Reed later told Ms Soubry: “May I invite you to do what you have so spectacularly failed to do so far this morning and apologise to the people who are at risk of losing their jobs, and just show a little human compassion for people who this morning are fearful for their livelihoods, for themselves and their families?”

Ms Soubry replied: “I’m sure Hansard will record that as I said... nobody enjoys it when people lose their jobs and nobody takes any pleasure in it.

“We will do everything we can to support those people who will have to be made redundant if we reach that stage.”

Labour’s Neil Coyle (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) said: “In my short time in Parliament, this is perhaps the most undignified spectacle at the despatch box.

“But is it not also undignified for the Department for Business to spend £200,000 of taxpayers’ money developing a business case to shut down jobs? And when will that full business case be published?”

Ms Soubry said she would make inquiries on the issue, noting difficult decisions have to be made.

Asking the urgent question, Labour’s Louise Haigh (Sheffield Heeley) said the decision to create a central headquarters and policy centre in London highlighted the Government’s “London-centric focus and contempt for the North of England”.

She told Ms Soubry: “Isn’t it actually economically irresponsible to create more jobs in central London, which is suffering an incredibly over-heated housing crisis?”

Ms Haigh asked Ms Soubry if closures of the Sheffield-based Insolvency Service and Skills Funding Agency could be ruled out.

In her reply, Ms Soubry said: “Well, as somebody who was born and bred only 17 miles from Sheffield I don’t need any lectures from you and, in particular, not from the party opposite given that the last Labour government closed offices in York and Liverpool and axed over 1,500 jobs in Preston and across the Fylde coast as part of a major rationalisation of DWP offices.”

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