Horticulture deal an abuse of public funds, say scientists


Horticulture deal an abuse of public funds, say scientists

Horticulture scientists have accused the government of giving away millions of pounds of public assets and poisoning the roots of horticulture research in the UK.

Horticulture scientists condemned plans announced by Margaret Beckett, DEFRA Secretary of State, for the future of Horticulture Research International as "a badly thought-out shambles, damaging for staff and disastrous for the horticulture industry."

Prospect, the professionals’ union representing more than 200 scientists at HRI, says Beckett intends to:

  • give away the research laboratories and infrastructure at HRI’s Wellesbourne HQ free to the University of Warwick
  • spice the transfer with £35.5m of guaranteed contracts for the next eight years
  • throw in the institute’s research site at Kirton, Lincolnshire, as a bonus
  • make about 180 staff redundant at Wellesbourne and Kirton
  • close down the research centre at Efford, near Bournemouth, within three months.

Nigel Titchen, president of Prospect’s science, engineering and technology group, said: "If they are willing to pay this money to privatise HRI, why will they not put that money into supporting HRI as a public sector body?

"The quality of science carried out by HRI is renowned worldwide and backed by growers and the horticulture industry across the UK.

"There is no demand for this privatisation. It is a shabby abuse of the government’s responsibility for science research and the horticulture industry and we shall refer it to the National Audit Office as a waste of public funds at the earliest opportunity."

Titchen called the minister’s announcement "half-baked." DEFRA’s package is still incomplete, he pointed out. Plans for the future of HRI’s East Malling, Kent site have not been finalised and negotiations with Warwick on the Wellesbourne deal are ongoing.

At Efford, Prospect and management are fighting to put together a rescue package which has been backed by local authorities, nurseries and MPs. "This premature closure would conveniently rid new HRI of an unwanted competitor for research contracts," said Titchen.

DEFRA’s statement is also silent on a key pensions issue, known to be a problem since the Government Actuary’s Department ruled that the university’s pension scheme is not ‘broadly comparable’ with the research council’s scheme. This is important, as under government guidelines no staff can be transferred until comparable pension arrangements are put in place for staff who are moved into the private sector.