Select Committee on Agriculture Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Chairman, Humber Growers Ltd (D 32)

  The recent plans announced by HRI in response to the need to cut costs have caused a great deal of controversy within the horticultural industry. At first, this was probably a knee-jerk reaction to the plans, exaggerated by the fact that no-one within the industry, and indeed not even the HRI station advisory boards, had been consulted.

  As the dust settles we hopefully take a more objective view, but that still leaves some very real concerns.

  Nobody will deny that HRI needs to make savings—in today's business climate that is understandable. However those savings are to be made, some will consider them unfair or unreasonable and will protest.

  Surely the criteria which should be used in judging the plans are quite simply:

    1.  Can HRI still deliver what it was established to deliver?

    2.  Will the proposals lead to the cost savings required in the most efficient way?

  Taking the latter point first, without being privy to the detail of the plans—(which in itself is of concern—the plans were made public on 11 September 2000, 11 weeks ago. As Chairman of the NFU Protected Edibles Group—the group most affected by the closure of Stockbridge House, and as Chairman of Humber Growers Ltd, one of the biggest HDC levy payers, I would have thought that some more detailed information would have come forward by now)—it is very difficult to comment upon whether or not the cost cuts are being achieved in the most efficient way.

  To deal with the other point, can HRI deliver what it was set up to do? The industry concern is that it cannot.

  In particular, how will it deliver the SOLA programme? I understand that Stockbridge House is the only site currently owned by HRI which has a "Good Laboratory Practice" certificate, essential to carry out this work. Also, the staff who are employed on the SOLA programme have all indicated they are not willing to move to Wellesbourne, an essential part of the HRI plan. Indeed, without these staff, I am sure HDC would move the SOLA work elsewhere.

  The industry needs a fully effective research and development body, and for the Treasury, it must be cost-effective.

  Stockbridge House is the one site owned by HRI which had the glasshouse space to carry out the "muddy-boots" side of HRI's work—without it, the transfer of knowledge to the Industry will be lost. In this case, HDC will not be able to deliver its projects to its levy payers—the industry, so what becomes of HDC? If it has failed its paymasters, then one can assume that in the next quinquennial review, in 2004, it will be voted out. That will be the death of the type of research needed by the industry.

  For our industry, it is essential that HRI and HDC are successful, but decisions made by HRI seem to be more to do with HRI survival, than with industry survival. They were proposing a "scorched earth" policy for Stockbridge House, the only benefit of which would be protection for HRI.

  There are now moves afoot to set up Stockbridge House as the Stockbridge Technology Centre, run and funded by the industry itself. The aim would be to carry on much of the work currently being done at Stockbridge House, and to provide a sound base for development and technology transfer. This should be music to the ears of the Treasury—the industry saying, okay, if you won't back it financially, we will.

  The only real stumbling block to the success of this initiative is the potential reaction of HRI and MAFF. If we all work together we can make it work. If HRI see it as a threat to themselves—which it doesn't have to be and nor should it be—then they could prevent it from working. Equally, MAFF could be obstructive—it cannot work without their goodwill.

  In short, I do not believe HRI can currently deliver what it needs to deliver, but I am convinced its long term success is essential for the future of the industry. If HRI is prepared to work with the industry—and vice versa, and the Stockbridge Technology Centre is set up—everyone pulling together, not in opposite directions, then we would have exactly what we want—an effective, efficient research body, capable of leading the industry forward.

28 November 2000

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