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Mr. John Grogan (Selby): Stockbridge house near the village of Cawood is a horticultural research facility in my constituency. Like everything else in Selby at the moment, it is very wet indeed, and it would be remiss of me not to begin this debate by noting that, last week, the whole site and, indeed, the whole village of Cawood were under imminent threat from flooding. The products of years of research at Stockbridge house were threatened but, fortunately, owing to the heroic efforts of many villagers, led by parish council chairman David Jones, the flood waters were kept at bay. However, many of my constituents further downstream were not so lucky.
For years, I have been accustomed on Thursday morning to seek out as my first read of the day a copy of the Selby Times. Since Horticulture Research International's shock announcement in September that it was closing Stockbridge house from the end of March 2001, my reading habits have changed. At Thursday breakfast time, I now turn first to a paper called the Grower. As chronicled in the Grower, the normally classy world of horticulture has been in turmoil in recent weeks.
I want to do three things in this debate. First, I want to outline the importance of the horticultural sector and the current programme of research. Secondly, I want to discuss and examine the restructuring plan of Horticulture Research International and, finally, I want to suggest a way forward that will preserve the integrity of the restructuring plan--which, after all, Ministers have approved--while giving a new future to Stockbridge house.
Horticultural output has risen steadily over the past few years. The farmgate value of horticultural produce is £2.5 billion and makes up more than 15 per cent. of the UK's total agricultural output. A recent study by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food indicated that, of 11 autonomous sectors studied, horticulture is the most important for value added. The UK horticulture industry is characterised by many small and medium-sized businesses, which is why our research capacity is important. Many horticultural businesses find it hard to get the information that they need to develop their products, protect them from disease and find new markets.
Our debate will focus on the role of Horticulture Research International, a non-departmental public body, and it is worth noting that it is one of only 28 contractors for MAFF's programmes. In 2000-01, 80 per cent. of planned spending on horticultural research and development is expected to go to HRI. HRI's health is crucial to the industry, but it is essential that it has strong competitors to keep it honest. As the recent report of the Select Committee on Agriculture vividly described, HRI is, to put it bluntly, in a bit of a financial mess. Since 1990, MAFF has pledged £125 million of research and development contracts to HRI and invested £60 million in restructuring plans.
The Select Committee discussed the recent failure of the HortiTech business unit that was launched with a fanfare by the current HRI chairman, Mr. Peter Siddall, in 1998. The unit was designed to generate commercial
Stockbridge house, to the astonishment of the industry, was chosen for closure. Of all the development sites run by HRI, Stockbridge house seemed to be in the strongest financial position, as Colin Harvey, chairman of the Horticultural Development Council, observed. Fifty per cent. of HRI's £22 million annual income comes directly from MAFF. However, MAFF funds only 10 per cent. of Stockbridge house's costs, with 47 per cent. coming from the Horticultural Development Council--in effect, the growers who pay the council a levy--and the remaining 43 per cent. from commercial organisations.
Other criticisms of HRI's plans are as follows: first, there was a complete of lack of consultation with the industry. The management tactics employed might have been learned by studying a National Coal Board management manual from the 1980s. As the Tomato Growers Association put it in its press release:
The TGA has no confidence that HRI can maintain or replace the expertise which is threatened by the closure . . . As an example, research on the control of spider mites, which is led by Stockbridge staff, is seen as pivotal to the achievement by growers of their objective of eliminating all pesticide use in UK tomato crops.
It feels badly let down that it was not consulted, but if you read the evidence submitted by HRI's chairman Peter Siddall . . . to the House of Commons Agriculture Select Committee you get the answer.
In his evidence Mr. Siddall aptly made clear that re-shaping HRI meant "more science and less development." And just in case we are accused of taking phrases out of context he also said "It is about focus, focus on science and the higher value end of the spectrum."
There is an element of civil service politics about all this, which reveals the limitations of the model of a non-departmental public body. When I was invited to an extremely useful meeting with the Minister to discuss the matter, sitting on his left was one Mr. Tony Burne, his chief adviser on research. Wearing his other hat, Mr. Burne is on the HRI board. In effect, he was advising the Minister on a restructuring plan costing the taxpayer more than £4 million. As a member of the HRI board, Mr. Burne had already approved that plan and committed himself to it.
I draw three conclusions from that evidence. First, as regards the status of HRI, there is wide consensus on the immediate way forward. As long ago as 1993, the HRI management statement referred to intended primary legislation which will establish HRI as a statutory corporation with functions and powers to carry out its remit and define its relationship clearly with MAFF. Who knows? Given my new found knowledge on the subject, I might be persuaded, if I am successful in the forthcoming ballot, to introduce a private Member's Bill on the subject.
That brings me to my second conclusion. I will want first to see a new chairman of HRI. Mr. Siddall should emulate Kevin Keegan and not seek reappointment to the role when his three-year term is up in January 2001. No one in the industry has been impressed by the aggressive attitude that Mr. Siddall has adopted, most notably at a recent meeting with the National Farmers Union and the HDC, which he needs to win over. Apparently, he banned the chief executive from attending a previous meeting with the HDC.
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The final conclusion is on the future of Stockbridge house and HRI. Earlier, I mentioned the fact that, for HRI's restructuring plan to work, HRI has to keep on-side the seven key research scientists at Stockbridge house and the HDC. None of the key research scientists are prepared to move, because of family reasons. The HDC has expressed concerns about HRI's ability to fulfil the SOLA contract at another site.
Last week, a very constructive meeting was held between representatives of HRI, the National Farmers Union and the HDC. There now seems to be a real and shared commitment to ensuring a viable and effective approach for HRI. Chief executive Professor Michael
Last week, I spoke to Professor Wilson on the telephone. He told me that he would not stand in the way of another body--perhaps the Central Science Laboratory, in York, which is another arm of MAFF and in need of glasshouses--taking over the site, and that it was up to that body to draw up a business plan. Indeed, if Professor Wilson is to contract work for the SOLA programme to some of the current research scientists, they will need continuing facilities at Stockbridge house. It is possible that some or all of the staff based at Stockbridge house could be transferred to CSL, saving some of the redundancy costs. There are also moves among local growers to establish a Stockbridge house trust to fund work on the site. I formally ask Ministers for a meeting within the next month to discuss those ideas.
Last week, I also asked Professor Wilson what he thought of accusations that HRI would implement a scorched earth policy at Stockbridge house so that no one else could take on a viable site. He assured me that the glasshouses would remain untouched, but made no commitment on the tractors and other equipment.
It is also a little unclear to what extent HRI is willing to provide financial and personnel information on Stockbridge house to enable CSL, or anyone else, to prepare a business plan for the site. Perhaps Ministers will consider dispatching the ubiquitous aforementioned Mr. Tony Burne, chief research adviser to MAFF and HRI board member, to encourage all the parties involved to give a fair chance for alternative plans for Stockbridge house to be prepared and to be carefully considered by Ministers, as my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food promised to do in his most recent press release on the subject.