Select Committee on Agriculture Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Horticulture Research International (HRI) Staff-side (D 33)

  This memorandum seeks to provide to the Agriculture Select Committee the views of staff on HRI's financial difficulties and restructuring plans. Trade Unions (IPMS, PCS, TGWU) within HRI see it as appropriate to make a submission as their views have not previously been made known to the Committee unlike those of HRI's management and HRI's sponsor department MAFF; and not least because some of the Trade Union Side (TUS) views have been leaked to the trade press.

  In this memorandum we provide a backdrop to the present situation with (i) a statement of the TUS philosophy (ii) our perception of the role of HRI (iii) the history which informs staff opinion and the impact of (iv) external factors and (v) internal factors on HRI's plight.

(i)   TUS philosophy

  The TUS throughout a difficult period for HRI has sought to:

    —  Safeguard the welfare of staff.

    —  Ensure fair and equal treatment for all.

    —  Support management in its endeavours to create an efficient, viable and stable R&D organisation.

(ii)   The role of HRI

  The primary role of HRI is to carry out R&D relevant to horticulture. HRI has a unique combination of people and facilities which enable it to deliver right across the spectrum from basic to applied research through to development. This capability must be maintained in support of the horticulture sector of UK agriculture.

(iii)   History

  The factors listed below, coupled with the regular science—and scientist bashing—in the media, result in extremely low morale and low self-esteem amongst staff.

    —  Since HRI was formed in 1990 a bill to enable HRI staff to be on common contracts of employment has never been given parliamentary time.

    —  HRI has been declaring redundancies virtually year on year since 1978.

    —  HRI has previously closed one of its principal sites (Littlehampton in 1994-95).

    —  HRI has lost over 220 posts in the last four years.

    —  Loss of posts has not necessarily meant loss of job function which results in increased pressure on the staff who remain.

    —  HRI staff have no stability in their work environment and lack job security; factors necessary for effective R&D.

    —  The emphasis on short fixed-term appointments has effectively removed any career structure for young scientists in HRI.

    —  The imposed over-bureaucratisation of science management in HRI is stifling creativity and reducing productivity.

    —  Lack of consultation in decision-making processes.

    —  Continual policy and management changes destroy confidence about the future.

  Turning to the key question of the current restructuring "Why has HRI ended up, yet again, in the financial mire, leading to the closure of Stockbridge House and the loss of 150 posts?"

(iv)   External factors

    —  MAFF funding for horticultural R&D has declined year on year since HRI was formed.

    —  BBSRC core grant funding for basic research has reduced irrespective of the quality of the science because HRI falls outside the BBSRC family of Institutes and yet our work is largely judged against BBSRC criteria.

    —  Lack of sufficient political support for the science base.

(v)   Internal factors

  TUS, whilst accepting that the root causes of HRI's problems are external, believe that poor management decisions have contributed significantly to our current difficulties. We accept that mistakes do occur, but it is essential to HRI's future viability that we learn from them.

  HRI has faced and continues to face declining financial support from its sponsors. A principal management strategy to address these problems was to create HortiTech. HortiTech was charged with both raising income from HRI's current business and creating new business opportunities to generate profit which would provide an income stream to R&D and contribute to the costs of running the organisation. The creation of HortiTech represented a second attempt to develop our commercial business and followed on from an earlier and judged unsuccessful Commercial and Marketing Department. From the outset, HRI staff expressed doubts about the wisdom and operation of the scheme. Against this background, staff have been successful in competing for grant income and in identifying new funding sources.

  The creation of HortiTech rather than generate profit has exacerbated HRI's financial problems. This has been caused by the over-optimistic income projections accepted by both HRI Management and the Board and built into HRI's financial planning and by the very significant costs of HortiTech (which we believe are close to £2 million over the two years that HortiTech has been operating). We have particular concerns over the Board which is non-executive and seemingly non-accountable and yet is ultimately responsible for decisions which affect staff. We would ask where does Board responsibility and culpability lie?

  HRI now intend to try for the third time to invest in Business Development through the appointment of a Business Development manager. TUS accepts that HRI needs to continue to develop its business but the issue is how we choose to do this. We can reasonably ask why a strategy that has already failed twice will work this time?

  With respect to the restructuring that is currently in train we have grave concerns about the decisions that have been made and how they are being implemented. It is now seemingly too late to revisit these decisions which may well be a tragedy for HRI in the longer term.

  In conclusion, HRI has a loyal and committed work-force that wants to see HRI thrive. We believe the core task of HRI is to provide innovative and relevant research for the horticulture industry and that this should be the focus of our activities. We fail to be persuaded that the philosophical and financial diversion of creating commercial business is cost effective. We would wish to see a clear commitment to the core role of HRI as an R&D provider.

  This memorandum is necessarily brief. TUS would be happy to provide additional information to the Committee should it so require.

29 November 2000

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