Memorandum submitted by Mr Bernard Sparkes
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
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
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 customersthe
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