FERA’s 300 plus staff provide a key capability in areas like plant health, food and environmental safety. The agency also has regulatory and statutory functions and supports commercial customers.
The government believes that securing private investment, and ultimately private ownership, will exploit opportunities to grow non-government business.
But Prospect national secretary Geraldine O’Connell says the main reason DEFRA is seeking a joint venture is less to do with providing better science than with reducing its overall funding to the agency.
O’Connell welcomed the potential growth in commercial activities at Sand Hutton, York as a way of generating further income and safeguarding FERA’s future.
But she raised serious concerns about governance arrangements and a private sector provider’s ability to deliver key statutory functions, scientific research and retain enough staff to respond to a significant outbreak of a notifiable pest or disease.
“Members are rightly concerned that commercial interests will take precedence over government science, particularly if Defra budgets continue to decline,” she said.
Members are also worried about their future pay and conditions of service and pension arrangements. O’Connell said this will be a key feature for Prospect in future negotiations.
Work to assess what external providers are prepared to offer and whether these offers are credible is on-going. A business case will be drawn up for a procurement tender exercise in April 2014.