Sarah Champion: Sheffield jobs axe reveals real Tory attitude towards North

THE decision to close the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills office in Sheffield feels like the latest example of Tory scorn for the North.
The Sheffield skyline. The Government is accused of betraying the South Yorkshire city.The Sheffield skyline. The Government is accused of betraying the South Yorkshire city.
The Sheffield skyline. The Government is accused of betraying the South Yorkshire city.

Yet again, we are faced with major job losses in the North as a direct result of the actions of a Government seemingly unable to look beyond the confines of London and the South.

We have 247 staff now facing redundancy, having been informed that their jobs would be moving to London.

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The Government have described this as a transfer, yet they offer no guarantee that those affected will be allowed to transfer if they so wish, only that they “may be able to”.

For those facing such uncertain futures, that is small comfort.

In her letter to me, Baroness Neville-Rolfe (a junior business Minister) acknowledged that the Department is “very likely to take the opportunity to make some of the significant headcount reductions” the budget requires.

The Department has said that staff will receive comprehensive support, but we do not yet know what the support will involve.

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We do know that it will most likely not include any financial support for either travel or relocation costs.

In effect, the Government’s commitment to staff amounts to a promise that they might be able to keep their job but, if they do, it will be at their own expense, and very likely a significant expense.

The Government’s statements are contradictory. They continue to talk of a transfer. I found Baroness Neville-Rolfe’s words to me to be very telling.

She said she would “take the opportunity” to cut jobs.

Do the Government really see a huge job loss in the North as an opportunity?

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The irony that the Department responsible for the delivery of the Northern Powerhouse 
should choose to divert jobs from one of the great Northern cities to London is inescapable and sends entirely the wrong message.

Repeated reviews, most recently the Lyons review in 2004 and the Smith review in 2010, have recommended that the Government should decentralise the Civil Service, as my Labour colleagues have been saying, both to provide better value for money and to enhance career progression outside of London.

Yet the proportion of civil servants based in London has increased from 16 per cent in 2010 to 18 per cebt in 2015. The proposed reduction in BIS staff equates to almost five per cent of the total civil servants in the city of Sheffield. This is on top of the previously announced closure of Sheffield’s HMRC building, with the loss of 500 jobs.

The St Paul’s building is currently shared by BIS and the Department for Education, with a number of other departments basing small numbers of staff in the premises.

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The closure of the BIS office represents a loss of approximately a third of the current workforce. That will inevitably affect the feasibility of the remaining departmental offices, risking yet more job losses.

The Government are choosing increasingly to withdraw from the North while simultaneously offering platitudes of support for the Northern economy.

Each time a decision such as this one is announced, the Government resort to the same old tune. They talk of efficiency savings and the need to provide better value for money, but let us be clear about what is proposed: the Government are moving jobs from the North to London, one of the most expensive cities in the world.

To justify the decision on their own terms, it would be reasonable to expect that a detailed business case had been conducted and all possibilities fully explored before we reached this point.

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This decision shows a complete lack of common-sense, along with everything else. The Government have still not released a detailed study – it beggars belief that the jobs of 247 dedicated staff should be threatened when no business case whatever has been made. I echo the call made by others for the Government to publish the evidence that underpinned 
this decision without further delay.

The North has borne the brunt of the Government’s ideologically driven agenda, as it did the last time the Tories were in power. Time and again, we see the Government taking actions that hit the North disproportionately hard.

Most recently, they announced a £300m transitional fund to help local authorities that are struggling to implement Tory cuts.

It speaks volumes that the five least deprived local authority areas will collectively receive £5.3m, while the five most deprived will receive nothing. Each of the five areas most in need are in the north.

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Sheffield City Council’s 
central Government funding has fallen by almost 50 per cent since 2010. From the ever-deeper cuts to local authority budgets to the abject failure to support the steel industry, the Government has shown disdain for the North.

A long line of examples show up the empty rhetoric of the Northern Powerhouse.

The Government is delegating cuts to the North and calling it devolution.

* Sarah Champion is the Labour MP for Rotherham who spoke in a Parliamentary debate on the proposed closure of the Department of Business regional office. This is an edited version.