FORMER deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has accused the Government’s business department of making “Draconian” cuts that are unfairly hitting workers in Sheffield.
The MP for Sheffield Hallam is the latest politician to wade into the row over the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ proposal to axe 247 highly skilled policy jobs at their St Paul’s Place office.
Mr Clegg said the cut-backs are more than the Treasury demanded for their austerity programme and the department’s Northern office has become a casualty of a “Whitehall scrum” that has led to an “eccentric and unjustified decision”.
He said BIS’ budget cuts during coalition were 18 per cent and are forecast to be a “Draconian” 26 per cent by 2020.
He said: “In the Whitehall scrum that takes place, in which the Treasury cracks the whip and demands lots of savings and obliging Departments are told to jump ever higher and to cut ever deeper—I discovered that for myself over the five years I was in government—BIS took the political decision, the wrong decision in my view, to offer up far, far greater cuts than was either justified or necessary compared with other Whitehall Departments. That decision affected not only many of my constituents who work in the BIS office in Sheffield, but many other BIS projects that have been cancelled in this cull.”
The former leader of the Liberal Democrats told the House of Commons that the Sheffield office had been a sacrifice of the “Whitehall race”.
Labour MP Paul Blomfield, who represents Sheffield Central, led the debate last night and is asking for the Government to halt their decision until the National Audit Office has been able to scrutinise the cost analysis behind the move.
Mr Blomfield said so far the department has failed to provide satisfactory financial evidence justifying the proposal.
He said: “We have done the maths from the limited information that we have got. This decision will cost the department £2.5m year on year in its operational costs.”
On May 23 month the board of the BIS department meets to make a final decsion on the future of the Sheffield office.
Louise Haigh, Labour MP for Sheffield Heeley, urged Business Minister Anna Soubry to go into the meeting to “relay the points that have been made” during the debate.
She said: “This decision has been extraordinary: in one fell swoop, BIS Ministers have delivered a thumbs down to the northern powerhouse, a thumbs down to the taxpayer and a thumbs down to their ministerial colleagues who wax lyrical about the benefits of having key staff outside Whitehall.
“Crucial board meetings are scheduled for this month, following the end of the consultation. I urge the Minister to go into them with an open mind and to relay the points that have been made here today.
“First and foremost, I hope she understands that, for people in our city, a decision to close the Sheffield office would be highly symbolic; it would be a signal of the London-centric contempt for the north and for the skill and perspective of northerners—a contempt that has prevailed for far too long.”
The Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise, Ms Soubry, said the Sheffield base is being considered for closure to save money, but also to help the department work more effectively.
She said the department’s policy functions are currently carried out in 14 different locations around the country, and to best serve ministers in Parliament, the headquarters must be in London.
She said: “We are committed to reducing our headcount by 2020. That will involve becoming more flexible and redeploying fewer staff quickly to new priorities. We need simple structures that allow staff to interact through quicker, less cumbersome means and stay close to each other in flexible teams.”
While she cited that overtime costs at the Sheffield office run to £14m, she said there is no calculation of the overal cost benefit of moving the work to London.
She said: “[Paul Blomfield] asked what assessment had been made of the cost of replacing jobs and moving them to London. A full assessment has not yet been made, but, as he will know from the evidence of the permanent secretary, the total over time for the Sheffield office was thought to be some £14 million. As I have said, however, this is not just about costs. As for the assessment of the cost of replacing Sheffield jobs in London, the final decision has not been taken, and until it has been and we know all its ramifications it will not be possible to give that assessment.”
Paul Blomfield MP said: “I am grateful to the Minister for saying that no final decision has yet been taken, and for acknowledging that no cost assessment has been made, which is frankly extraordinary.”
Mr Blomfield’s motion was agreed and calls for the National Audit Office to conduct a cost-benefit assessment of the proposal to close the Sheffield office.