UK Sells Off Fera, Privatizes Public Science

The UK Government is celebrating April Fools' Day by selling off another big piece of our national family silver, and the joke is very much on us.

By Eve Mitchell

Our government is increasingly outsourcing its operations.  The latest is a private deal to run Fera. It's foolish by any standard but it's no April Fools' joke.
Our government is increasingly outsourcing its operations. The latest is a private deal to run Fera. It’s foolish by any standard but its’ no April Fools’ joke.

The UK Government is celebrating April Fool’s Day by selling off another big piece of our national family silver, and the joke is very much on us.

Like the water supply and Royal Mail before it, today the Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera) joins the ranks of organisations previously run for the public good upon which for-profit companies have now got their mitts. Objections from MPs went unheeded. Pleas from unions about previous bad experiences with joint ventures were ignored. Warnings from academics that “there are some things Government cannot sensibly abrogate its responsibility for” were brushed aside.

So in steps Capita, “the UK’s leading provider of business process outsourcing and integrated professional support service solutions”, which now holds a 75 percent stake in the new joint venture running Fera. It is unclear how Capita’s management will enhance Fera’s deserved international reputation. Founded in 1984, by 2010 Capita had rocketed into control of some £3.3 billion (€4.5/US$4.8 billion) in UK Government spending, among its many other interests. An ongoing Cabinet Office investigation into accusations that Capita used government contracts to drive small suppliers out of business didn’t slow down the Fera takeover.

This is a really important shift. Fera supports and develops a sustainable food chain and a healthy natural environment, and it protects the global community from biological and chemical risks. This means investigating causes, cures and standards in wide-ranging areas like ash dieback, bovine TB, food quality and safety, diagnostics and a host of other services. It is entirely possible that none of these vital jobs may ever be profitable, so what happens to this work when financial considerations are able to elbow them off the agenda?

The deal is covered with fingerprints that we recognise. Former Department for Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) Minister Owen Paterson first tabled it in May 2014. Paterson notoriously attacked the environment movement as a “green blob” and recently set up the pro-fracking, pro-GM think tank UK2020. Last year he justified selling Fera saying, “This will give Fera the opportunity to access new markets and grow its non-government business.” The pro-GM Defra Under-Secretary Lord Rupert Charles Ponsonby de Mauley called the sell-off “a real opportunity for Fera to grow its non-government revenue“.

The reason that Fera hasn’t been able to “grow non-governmental revenue” is because it is (or was) a public body, answerable to Defra and, via Defra, to the electorate. It is now answerable to the market via Capita. Yesterday Fera scientists were public servants. Today they are Capita employees (and Capita can’t say how many will keep their jobs).

It doesn’t feel like progress.

It also doesn’t take too much imagination to see how the new pressure to make money can squeeze out work that the political backers of the Capita takeover are less than fond of anyway. Capita’s Market Director for Science (the marketing of science is a blog in itself) told a Parliamentary hearing on Fera’s future that it has already shed its regulatory roles (like running the GM Inspectorate) to Defra. Defra’s budget has been slashed by £500 million since 2010, with another £300 million to go by 2016, and affordability was the excuse for the privatisation in the first place. How Defra will be able to reabsorb Fera’s regulating jobs is unclear.

When asked about the continuation of unprofitable science, the Market Director said that a “long-term service agreement” protects “a whole range of services that Fera currently provides to the government”. He couldn’t say what these are, but I’m not clear that answers the question anyway, and his referring to Defra as a “customer” does not instill confidence.

Confirming that it is entirely possible Defra may not even have a place on the Board of the new joint venture, Lord de Mauley told the hearing that Defra “felt that was the appropriate structure”. De Mauley struggled to answer many other questions, like what performance indicators are in the contract or how the new joint venture would respond to an emergency, asking to write to the Committee later with answers. As the number of items in that letter mounted, one MP quipped, “It will be a very long letter.”

The truth is, MPs should have asked these questions long ago and stopped the deal. Lessons should have been learned from the Forensic Science Service privatisation fiasco. Analysis of that deal shows that it cost more than three times government estimates, to the tune of some £255 million (€351/US$375 million), actually forcing the police to “in-source” the outsourced work to save money.

Now only time will tell if the work Fera does will go the same way.