THERE is a "very, very good case" for keeping 480 threatened civil service jobs in Darlington, a Cabinet minister said yesterday.

Education Secretary Michael Gove raised hopes for the future of department for education (Dfe) staff at doomed Mowden Hall, in his first comments on the controversy.

The employees are threatened with a transfer to Newcastle - 40 miles away - when the rundown site closes in March next year.

More than 1,100 people have signed The Northern Echo’s petition to keep the jobs in Darlington, after warning that the town will take a £21m annual hit to its economy.

Quizzed in the Commons yesterday, Mr Gove said: "There is a very, very good case for the continuation of Dfe provision at Mowden Hall in Darlington.

"I’m looking forward to working to examine the case for either Darlington, or another location in the North-East, to provide an even better service."

The comments were cautiously welcomed by Darlington MP Jenny Chapman, who put Mr Gove on the spot during education questions.

The Labour MP - who is awaiting a date to deliver the petition to the Education Secretary - said she hoped his remarks were "a good sign".

The Dfe is currently drawing up a shortlist of alternative sites, which is expected to include at least one of two options in Darlington.

They are Northgate House, in the town centre, and Lingfield Point, on the eastern edge of the town - already home to borough council staff and the Student Loans Company.

The Dfe’s criteria for a new site include; ideally an existing government property, good transport connections, good quality facilities and available "within reasonable time scales".

Ms Chapman has warned it will be impossible for many staff to travel to Newcastle, raising the fear that a "highly prized" workforce will be broken up.

The Tees Valley Unlimited (TVU) local enterprise partnership has suggested a transfer out of Darlington will cost the town £21m a year - of which 70 per cent is currently spent in the local economy.

Meanwhile, Ms Chapman also tackled Mr Gove on The Northern Echo's revelation that Dfe officials were encouraged to wear party hats while they discussed which services to cut.

Senior figures, including director of finance and commercial, Simon Judge, put hats on their heads during a directors’ meeting - and were only allowed to remove them when they revealed how they would save money.

The Labour MP said the Christmas party game was "insulting" to the 480 workers at Mowden Hall, who were battling to keep their jobs.

But Mr Gove defended his civil servants, telling MPs they were "committed to working to ensure we have an even better service for less money".