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12 Jul 2005 : Column 808


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Northern Ireland

That the draft Traffic Management (Northern Ireland) Order 2005, which was laid before this House on 16th June, be approved.—[Mr. Dhanda.]

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Health Care and Associated Professions

That the draft Dentists Act 1984 (Amendment) Order 2005, which was laid before this House on 26th May, be approved.—[Mr. Dhanda.]

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Fees and Charges

That the draft Consular Fees Act 1980 (Fees) Order 2005, which was laid before this House on 16th June, be approved.—[Mr. Dhanda.]

Question agreed to.


Prestwick Beach

10.14 pm

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): I wish to present a petition signed by more than 3,000 of my constituents living in the vicinity of Prestwick beach.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.
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Met Office (Aberdeen)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Dhanda.]

10.15 pm

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): I believe myself fortunate to secure this debate on the proposed closure of the Met Office in Aberdeen in my constituency, just a week before the House rises for the summer. The proposal has caused widespread dismay and consternation, as the Aberdeen office is the only civilian weather forecasting operation in Scotland. I express my appreciation for the cross-party support that the campaign to have the decision reversed has gathered.

I note with satisfaction that the Minister has made it clear that the final decision is his. I am glad that I and others will have the chance to press the case with him tonight, although the campaign will not end with this debate.

My first concern has to do with the way that the decision has been handled. Staff learned through an internal e-mail that the option to close all six branches had been chosen by the Met Office board. Internal consultation was then initiated on the basis of a done deal. Not surprisingly, that caused anger and resentment, and the information was then leaked into the public domain rather than announced in an orderly fashion by the Met Office management.

At present, there are six Met Office branches apart from the headquarters in Exeter. The one in Aberdeen is the only one in Scotland, and the others are in Belfast, Cardiff, Manchester, Birmingham and London. Of course, there have been management changes in the Met Office. The decision by Dr. David Rogers to leave following his marriage clearly created a hiatus. I understand that he finishes at the end of this week, and that he may have attended his last board meeting today. It is perhaps worth putting it on record that he stated in his farewell message:

an odd word, I think—

The Minister will understand that that has a hollow ring with people in Aberdeen. After all, this time last year Dr. Rogers said:

What has happened in the past 12 months to produce that complete about-turn? Only last September, a strategic decision was taken to transfer the shipping forecast and gale warnings from Exeter to Aberdeen. In that short time—less than a year—staff at Aberdeen have achieved a 35 per cent. increase in accuracy, for
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which the team recently received a performance bonus, yet management now want to transfer the service back to Exeter.

I do not know whether the Minister will want to comment, but I can tell him that there is a suspicion that the change of policy was driven by the cost overruns in the move to Exeter. When his predecessor, Ivor Caplin, accepted the new headquarters at the end of 2003, he described it as

yet in a recent reply to me the Minister confirmed that there was a cost overrun of £7.9 million. It is estimated that the option recommended by the board—closure of all the branches—will save £3,652,000 over five years and £20,691,000 over 10 years.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): Has the hon. Gentleman made a similar calculation to the one I made? The savings suggested by the Met Office may not actually happen, because there is no guarantee that, if Met Office functions were centralised in Exeter, the business currently done by the Aberdeen Met Office will follow. It could go to a commercial company.

Malcolm Bruce: The hon. Lady anticipates one of my points.

I stress that the difference between the option that the board recommends and option 3—I am not saying that option 3 is the definitive one, but it would retain Aberdeen, London and Manchester as centres of excellence—is a reduced saving of £917,000 over five years and £5.324 million over 10 years, an overall projected saving of £15.367 million. Can the Minister tell us whether it is reasonable to destroy morale and disperse expertise for a projected saving—I take the hon. Lady's point—of about £500,000 a year? That does not seem to make sense, and more to the point—exactly the hon. Lady's point—will that saving really be achieved?

The Minister told me in a written answer:

Why not? That is a trading fund and if the Government do not know what those branches cost and how much revenue is generated, how are they competent to make any decision that closing them would be a saving rather than a cost?

I have already been told that there is a presumption of a revenue loss of only £20,000. Even that implies that more information is available than has been made public. There is evidence that the revenue loss could be far greater and could be even more than the project savings, so the net result of the decision could be to increase the deficit or the loss-making potential of the Met Office—certainly not to boost it. The Minister should take that into account. Over the last couple of weeks, we have already heard that a £1 million contract for Shell has been lost. Other contracts are being bid for, but, against the background that I have described, it is hard for the Met Office to win them, although it is determined to try to do so.

The situation is odd, because there are three private weather forecasters with substantial staffs operating in Aberdeen and they will certainly take a predatory
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approach to Met Office customers. Indeed, they have already done so—Shell has been won across. Can the Minister give us even the internal estimate of the cost savings from closing Aberdeen and where the main savings will be made? I have spoken to nobody who believes that those savings will be realised or that they can be made without damaging business.

A management document admits:

That is exactly the role in which Aberdeen has excelled in recent years.

It is also interesting that the Ministry of Defence insists on retaining Met Office operations on its bases in Scotland. If a remote computer can do the job—according to the Met Office's operation in Exeter—why does the MOD need a local operation? Or is its insistence in fact confirmation that local operations really add value and qualitative information?

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