Examination of witnesses (Questions 120
WEDNESDAY 13 DECEMBER 2000
and DR DAVID
120. We all have that T-shirt and have found
that it does not quite amount to what we thought.
(Baroness Hayman) If I can answer both parts of your
question. If I paint the glasses half empty rather than half full,
it is only because I would prefer to be accused of pessimism and
then found to be wrong than to be accused of over-optimism. I
think it is prudent to be fairly rigorous, that is not to say
that we would have invested £4.5 million of public money
if we did not believe that these plans were worth it. As far as
the future of the organisation, we are between Quinquennial Reviews,
where the responsibility is to look broadly and radically at all
of the possibilities. The last Quinquennial Review concluded that
HRI should stay in the public sector, I believe, for the time
being, at this moment in time. We have another Quinquennial Review
coming up, exactly the same questions that we are being asked
should be asked then. I do not think it would be appropriate to
anticipate that Quinquennial Review now. I think we have to give
the organisation the opportunity to restructure, to get into the
strongest position as possible, to have the science assessed and
then to look at those issues.
121. That is a rather hidebound answer, if I
may say so, to suggest that we operate on a Quinquennial Review
cycle and we must, therefore, be driven by that, when the evidence
before us is of an organisation which certainly, on the face of
it, is developing a direction towards the private sector, which
is clear. I cannot quite see why the public sector should be taking
the level of risk of continuing on-going commitments to a management
belief without their undertaking that risk for themselves as well.
(Baroness Hayman) It could be hidebound, but it could
just be that my assessment of the situation is different from
your assessment of the situation
122. It could be.
(Baroness Hayman) as to the necessity of taking
radical action now. There is still a large proportion of the incomeI
do not have the pie chart hereof HRI that does come from
public sector sources.
(Baroness Hayman) Declining when you put BBSRC and
MAFF together? They have got 85 per cent of MAFF's horticultural
research over a stable period of time.
124. There have been questions raised about
whether that proportion is appropriate as well, that there are
other bodies in this country that can provide horticultural research
of quality, and that HRI, to some extent as an additional prop
to its death by a thousand cuts that it has been going through
for the last few years, has been swallowing that cash too. To
some extent the institution is driving the strategy rather than
clearly applied strategic thinking about what we are wanting out
of horticultural research in this country and how best to deliver
it. That is the picture that we get, that this is all about how
do we keep HRI trundling along until the next Quinquennial Review
and then we will look at it properly rather than looking radically
at the options now when, to be honest, the opportunity presents
(Baroness Hayman) I am not sure that the opportunity
does present itself quite as simply and in quite such a clear-cut
way as you suggest. Equally, I am not sure that it is fair to
characterise the institution as running the strategy. If we believed
that there was an incompatibility between our strategy for horticultural
research and the research strategy broadly and the amount of funding
that was going into HRI, although a proportion of it, as I think
you have acknowledged, goes into competitive funding, it is not
going automatically into HRI, then I think that you would be right
to say now is the time to reassess. When we do look at our aims
for horticultural research and the existence of HRI there is not
such a bad fit that we should immediately go and suggest that
we should make radical changes. We are, of course, in the middle
of a consultation on the whole of the science strategy within
MAFF and, again, I would like to look at the future of individual
institutes in that context rather than be triggered by the financial
problems within one of them into what could be a precipitate restructuring.
(Dr Shannon) Just to comment, I think the Quinquennial
Review will need very serious consideration. There seems to me
a question of whether, if HRI were in the private sector, BBRSC
would continue putting funding in.
125. That may well be the kind of sensible choice
that someone has to make as to whether that is the most quality
oriented way of delivering the research.
(Dr Shannon) It may well be but, if I recall the history,
HRI was, if you like, strongly advocated by the industry in the
early 1990s. The solution was to have the range of science within
the institute from basic science through strategic science to
the industry's own near market funded work. I think in the responses
you have had, whilst there have been some that point to more radical
solutions, many have still made the point about the strength of
having the range of sciences within one organisation. The horticultural
industry also made a very strong case at the time, whether that
case still holds or not, that horticulture was different, it was
a large number of small sectors that needed to have focus in its
research effort. All of those questions will need to be looked
at again. The point of the Quinquennial Review is to carry that
126. But to be really horrible about this, the
60 million quid which has gone down already, another four and
a half million quid which is going into restructuring, would not
half have gone a long way. You cannot spend it now, it has gone,
but it would not half have gone a long way in horticultural research
if it had not been focused on propping up HRI and gradually funding
its decline, which is what appears to have happened. You are continuing
with the process.
(Baroness Hayman) You can always characterise spending
as throwing good money after bad, you can always do that.
127. The brave person has to say "when
do we turn the tap off and say `I am sorry, I think we have just
got to think the strategy through?'" You are basically kicking
that decision a little bit further away.
(Baroness Hayman) One has to try to get the right
balance between being brave and being wise. That is what one is
trying to do.
128. Leaving aside Dr Shannon's intimation that
there are large numbers of failing scientific institutions across
Britain, and if he could give me a list we might call them in
one by one, clearly there is a great deal of work to be done here,
let us move on Stockbridge House, if we may. Has the CSL expressed
any interest in taking it over?
(Baroness Hayman) As I understand it there has been
a discussion at CSL Board. They have looked at a possible business
plan for acquiring the site and have decided against so doing.
I think what they are interested in doing is potentially placing
some glasshouse work there that they sub-contract out at the moment
because they do not have the capacity themselves. There is no
formal expression of interest in taking over the site.
129. So, as things stand at the moment, it is
not a potential customer for the site?
(Baroness Hayman) No.
130. Given that you have to get best value from
it, given that it could end up back in local authority ownership
because of the origins we have talked about, given that Mr Prescott
is anxious to build lots of high density houses on used sites,
and this is clearly a used site, is not the best value just to
put houses on it?
(Baroness Hayman) I do not think I can answer that
question. We will have to find out what the future is.
131. Would you facilitate the formation of a
Stockbridge House Technology Centre? If one were formed, would
it be a candidate for Government funding?
(Baroness Hayman) I am sorry, I sound as if I am not
answering hypothetical questions. I think I would take Mr Todd's
strictures about putting Government funding into things that are
essentially private enterprise exercises, one would have to see
what it looked like and whether there was a case for facilitation
or support. We have had one meeting already with John Grogan MP,
who obviously has interests in looking at solutions that will
help in terms of the future of Stockbridge House. I have agreed
to meet again if that would be helpful to him. I think at this
stage we explore but we cannot commit in any way.
132. Obviously HRI itself does not wish to facilitate
the creation of a potential competitor, and we understand that
and they explained that a short while ago, but there is some pressure
from local growers who would quite like to see the facility continue.
You equally from your point of view, if you are bailing out HRI,
do not wish to see things happen which might lessen the value
of putting into the bail out, as it were?
(Baroness Hayman) No. Nor would we wish, if the analysis
is that there is over-capacity in horticultural research, to underwrite
the creation of extra capacity.
133. So if then there were to be the creation
of a new institution or body of some sort there, they would be
wise not to assume in putting together their business ideas that
there would be any Government support available?
(Baroness Hayman) I think they should not make any
134. We have established that the site is a
(Baroness Hayman) Yes.
135. Who do the facilities belong to?
(Dr Shannon) I think the movable assets belong to
HRI, as I understand it. The actual site belongs to MAFF. I think
that is normal. The laboratory equipment and other facilities
on the site will be on HRI's books as their assets.
136. You are satisfied with the arrangements
HRI has made to transfer work from Stockbridge out to its other
sites? Obviously the SOLA programme is the one that people get
most agitated about. You believe that is assured?
(Baroness Hayman) Yes. That is obviously one of the
questions that was fundamentally explored and whether there was
the capacity. That underpinned the choice of Stockbridge House
as the site to close, whether there was the capacity both in terms
of physical resources and people to undertake the work that was
done there at other sites.
137. Just very briefly on the Minister's comment
on the reason for the choice of the site. Did no alarm bells go
off in your head during those discussions that, given the sensitivity
of the north/south divide in Government research establishments,
the closure of Stockbridge House may not have been a, shall we
say, politically sensitive thing to do compared with closing another
(Baroness Hayman) I do not think this is part of the
north/south divide. I think that the appropriate question to ask
was whether this restructuring package would deliver in the context
of the business plan, and whether this was in those terms the
site which would cause the least damage to HRI and its future
capacity. That was the basis on which we assessed the proposal.
We had to ask whether other sites and other options and combinations
had been appropriately assessed. This came out as the strongest
in those terms, meeting the scientific and the business plan,
and that was how it came out.
138. In paragraph six of our conclusion from
the last time we looked at this area, we recommended a Bill be
laid before Parliament to rectify the legislative problems which
HRI faces. We learn from your own evidence, paragraph 15, where
you say, "The intention of successive governments since 1990
. . ." I can personally own up and say it happened whilst
I was there and it has also happened whilst you were there, and
that nothing has happened. Mr Curry as well. We accept our share
of the blame. You have been there now for three and a half years,
so why has there been no action?
(Baroness Hayman) I think at the beginning of that
period, probably, the reason for no action was the same as yours
and Mr Curry's, that there was a desire to bring in legislation
and to tidy this up and to provide a legislative framework. However,
in terms of competition with other MAFF priorities and other government
priorities this never came top of the legislative table. Can I
now deal with the immediate past and the present time? There are,
if you like, three sets of reasons for looking at legislation.
Two of the most urgent ones, and the ones that have been running
sores, have been the employment of staff and pensions. As I understand
it, the 1999 Employment Relations Act gives an opportunity for
sorting out some of the TUPE issues without primary legislation.
I believe that it is possible that we will be able to bring all
of the pensions of HRI's permanent staff within the Research Council's
pension scheme. There is a meeting scheduled with the Treasury
this month to discuss this. The overall governance issues are
still left to be resolved. I suspect that the hard truth is that
it will be difficult to do that as we get nearer to the Quinquennial
Review, even though that is too far away for Mr Todd's liking.
139. There would have been opportunities, with
a bit of innovation, to have got the legislation in. You have
not exactly been overburdened in this Department with new primary
legislation, have you?
(Baroness Hayman) No, we never are. I think the Chairman