Select Committee on Agriculture Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Mr Bernard Sparkes (D 9)

  I understand that the Agriculture select committee is scheduled to revisit the subject of the Horticulture Research International (HRI) budget deficit, following the announcement of their restructuring plans.

  I would make the following comments to your committee as a person actively involved in production management of protected salad crops over a period of some 33 years.

  I am a member of Council of the Horticultural Development Council (HDC), a member of the HRI Stockbridge House Station Advisory Committee, and until I resigned as a matter of principle on 13 September I was the Chairman of Horticulture Research International Association. (HRIA)

  In late July the industry became aware of the serious financial situation that was "building" at HRI. As soon as this entered the public domain I rang Professor Michael Wilson at HRI to find out what consultation procedure he was going to institute with the HRIA, the HDC and other interested parties such as the NFU, Tomato Growers Association (TGA) and the horticultural industry generally.

  Professor Wilson told me that he was bound by MAFF secrecy rules that precluded him from discussing his plans with any one other than his senior management team and his board of directors. I told him that in view of the scale of the problem and the potential for job losses and possibly facility losses the proposed lack of consultation was totally unacceptable and would turn the clock back over 20 years in grower/scientist relationships. He refused to reconsider his position.

  I then, on 11 August wrote to Nick Brown, Minister of Agriculture, copy attached [not printed].

  I attach a copy of the reply [not printed] from Baroness Hayman dated 6 September, which as you can see did not address my original concerns.

  On 22 August I was at Wellesbourne (HRI) for a TGA meeting and took the opportunity to meet personally with Professor Wilson for some 35 minutes, during which time I impressed upon him the need for full consultation with the industry. He again told me that he was unable/unwilling to do that.

  On Monday 11 September HRI announced their restructuring plans which includes 150 job losses and the closure of Stockbridge House. The industry at large is devastated by this announcement.

  We clearly understand the need for HRI to balance its books and perform to budget, after all that is exactly what our industrial managers have to do every day of the year.

  What we can not accept are:

    (1)  The total lack of consultation with the industry, particularly the HRIA, which is meant to be:

    —  "the preferred, high profile vehicle for HRI to communicate and interact with and learn from the UK industry;" Professor Wilson's words not mine; and

    —  the lack of consultation with the NFU, the HDC who are a major customer of HRI, and the various grower groups representing the sharp end of the industry.

    (2)  The closing of Stockbridge House, probably the best of the remaining development sites:

    —  Professor Wilson told me that Stockbridge almost "wiped its face" financially, and I know that only 10.5 per cent of it's income comes from MAFF, with 3.5 per cent from EU, and a massive 45 per cent from HDC and a further 41 per cent from commercial contracts.

  On the face of it a very credible performance from a well managed site with teams of scientists and development personnel working on more than 20 HDC projects, managed by people highly rated by the industry. These are the team of people the industry can not afford to loose, and despite what HRI are saying about "a seamless" transfer of the personnel and projects to other HRI sites we know this just will not happen.

  You will be aware of the Specific Off Label Approval system (SOLA). The potential interruption at best or at worst loss of this team, based at Stockbridge is unthinkable, particularly with the current European negotiations on pesticides.

  The industry is so concerned at the sheer arrogance of the Board and Chief Executive of HRI in refusing to consult, that John Grogan MP arranged a meeting with Nick Brown on 21 September.

  I was a member of that team and personally came away with the distinct impression that the Minister had been badly briefed by his civil servants on the HRI issue. It was conceded by Mr Burns at the meeting when questioned about consultation by the Minister that "there had not been any with the industry"!!!!

  As a Council member of HDC I am clearly concerned at the ability of HRI in the future to deliver the R&D to the industry.

  Colin Harvey, chairman of HDC invited Professor Wilson to attend the HDC council meeting on Tuesday 17 October. Professor Wilson chose not to attend, I understand on the instruction of his chairman Peter Siddall. Personally I think that sums up the present attitude of the board and senior executive of HRI, they have their own agenda and to hell with every one else.

  It is interesting to note that whilst this situation is developing Prof. Wilson sees fit to be in Canada at a Horticultural research station, as part of an operational review team giving critical assessments. On the basis that HRI will not consult with the industry we must examine the best way forward.

  As you will be aware there is a business plan currently being formulated for Central Science Laboratory (CSL) to take over Stockbridge site and blue-collar workers. The Minister said he would not stand in the way of such a move if the CSL came up with a robust business plan. We must ensure that the civil servants in MAFF do not scupper such initiatives through "sour grapes", I do believe it is possible that that could be attempted!!

  My own view has always been that we should attempt to get HRI to change its mind and keep Stockbridge open and allow industry representatives, many of whom have vast management experience in man management and the management of change, two skills evidently totally lacking at HRI, to help HRI in identifying where the necessary savings can be made with the least impact on HRI's customers—the industry.

  In the event that this course has been rejected by HRI then I believe we now have to consider the best options to safeguard growers' interests in the SOLA project and development projects and if that means in the medium to long term that HRI loose out then so be it, they will have been the architects of their own misfortune.

  I am delighted that your committee is sitting to review HRI's affairs. I hope you give the events of the last three months a vigorous scrutiny.

27 October 2000

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