Parliament has a role in holding Government to account. Ministers should be able to explain their decisions, so I was interested in the account given by the Minister to a series of questions posed by Paul Blomfield MP in a backbench business debate on 9 May 2016. The issue concerns the closure of the BIS office in Sheffield, where a large proportion of the work is connected with higher education policy. Although announced as a decision, it had emerged that the BIS Board had suspended the decision for two weeks.
Although there was some point scoring in the debate, Blomfield was calm in his introduction and posed four questions to the minister. He introduced them:
Today’s debate came about because our key questions were not answered by the permanent secretary. Now is the Minister’s opportunity, so I want to conclude by asking four questions, to which Members and the hard-working staff of the BIS office in Sheffield have been seeking answers since January. I gave the Department advance sight of the questions last Wednesday to allow for full consideration and comprehensive answers.
Remember, he had sent these in advance. Anna Soubry was answering for BIS, she noted:
I will deal with the points he made, but in the time allowed to me I will not be able to answer them all in the sort of length that I would like.
[The way that the debate works means that these questions and answers were not posed and answered like this – but it helps to show the linkages]
PB: First, in reaching the decision to close the Sheffield office, what assessment has been made of the additional costs of moving the posts to London? That is the core question that we have been asking all along.
AS: He 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. …
PB: Secondly, what assessment of the decision has been made against the Government objectives of moving out of expensive Whitehall accommodation, diversifying the civil service, and not locating head office functions in the capital?
AS: 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.
PB: Thirdly, what assessment has been made of the impression created by the decision to move to London the functions of an office of the Department responsible for the northern powerhouse?
AS: The hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members asked about the northern powerhouse, but I do not need to be told what a great and wonderful city Sheffield is. [Followed by some comments about her childhood near Sheffield and HS2]
PB: Fourthly, aside from the proposals to centralise policy functions in London, what consideration has been given to the other options for achieving the “BIS 2020” objectives?
AS: The final question from the hon. Member for Sheffield Central concerned what other options there are apart from the proposal. Full consultation has taken place with unions and staff, and several alternative proposals have been received. The BIS executive board will take full account of those when reaching its decision on the proposal, and I hope that goes some way to answering his question.
Now, we are all well aware of the ‘rough and tumble’ of politics that allows questions to ministers to go unanswered, but these do seem to be particularly fine exemplars of how Parliament struggles here. As the final decision has not been made, the assessment has not been made as to the costs. You could ask how the final decision could be made without the assessment of costs, but hopefully the NAO will shed some light on that.