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The very suggestion that Met Offices can be offered remotely without a professional customer interface is itself damaging for business. Forecasters insist that, although the Exeter technology is a huge innovation, they can still add to it and meet the needs of customers in local advice, customisation and presentation.
Safety is an issue. In Scotland, that means mountain rescue, keeping roads open in the winter, fishing, offshore oil and gas, the pleasure boat industry and the tourist industry. The idea that Scotland, with its now fully established Scottish Parliament, should have no direct access to the Met Office within Scotland is an insult to the needs of the Scottish economy.
Safety is not the only issue, because commercial interests are also important. The Minister should imagine an offshore oil and gas operator trying to plan the installation of a sub-sea system in the North sea. Such an operator will need a local, specific weather forecast that will enable it to determine the weather window to perform that operation. A crane barge can cost $100,000 a day, and two or three days' error in the weather forecast could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. It would be a pity, in those circumstances, if the Met Office could not continue to provide the service that it has provided in the past.
Forecasters in Aberdeen meet clients daily and can provide updates catered to customer needs within 15 minutes. The Met Office website, which is still effectively marketing the Aberdeen operation, makes a
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real virtue of that on-the-spot service. It is not credible that such a service could be provided from a location as remote as Exeter.
Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): Does my hon. Friend agree with my constituent, Mr. Dave Clark, who relocated to the Aberdeen office when the Glasgow office closed two years ago, that the loss of the facility is likely to result in the total loss to the Met Office of highly trained staff and the detailed local knowledge of Scotland's weather?
Malcolm Bruce: I have met my hon. Friend's constituent and he has made that point to me. Many of the staff will leave the Met Office because they want to stay in that location, and competitors are keen to gobble them up because of their track record. All that is clearly demonstrated in the marketing brief for Aberdeen on the website.
The very suggestion that Scotland should lose its only civilian Met Office operation is deeply damaging. I do not have to tell the Minister that Scotland covers 40 per cent. of the land area of Great Britain and probably more than half the maritime area
Weather can be notoriously severe, even extreme, although today was a beautiful day in Aberdeenshire. Public agencies, especially the road organisations, police, mountain rescue, air traffic, coastguards and others, all rely on weather forecasts that are accurate, flexible and use local knowledge. However good the model, there can be severe variations. The programme is based on readings at 2,500 ft. Conditions might be very different at sea level or above 4,000 ft. I can testify, as can some of my hon. Friends, that Aberdeen airport has notoriously turbulent and highly local wind patterns.
What representations have been made to the Minister by public agency users of the Met Office? What representations have been made by the Scottish Executive? It is ironic that the very technologyit is superbthat gives a resource that can strengthen the branch operation is being used to centralise the service and pull everything to Exeter. Will that not leave the service exposed? There may be two computers, but they could both be disabled. I understand that they share cabling tunnels. Does not safe back-up justify maintaining other centres of excellence, especially when the perceived savings are relatively small and may be completely wrong? What contingencies are or could be in place if Exeter failed? Is there not a danger that public agencies will face a reduced service and possibly greater costs in getting relevant information? What account is being taken of the impact of the closure on such agencies?
My understanding is that the Met Office trading fund has been set up to enable it to compete on fair and equal terms with the private sector. How come competitors see the need for major operations in Aberdeen? Indeed, they are poised to fill the gap if the Met Office leaves.
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In the light of these arguments, I hope that the Minister will consider all the options during the consultation. Will extra options be considered or is the consultation on the four options previously considered? Will the Minister recognise that opinion across Scotland, as demonstrated in this debate, is strongly of the view that we require our own civilian Met Office operation and that Aberdeen should be retained as our centre of excellence? To be frank, if the Minister were to close that operation, which has achieved great things in the past 15 years, it would be an act of vandalism that the Met Office would ultimately regret. It would not solve the financial problems of the Met Office but compound them. It would devalue the Met Office as a truly national British service, rather than something, however superb, based about as far away from Aberdeen as anyone can get and still be on the mainland of Britain.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Don Touhig): I congratulate the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) on obtaining this Adjournment debate and I welcome the opportunity to talk about the work of the Met Office, and the Aberdeen Met Office in particular. I am grateful to him for giving me advance notice of the main issues that he wanted to raise and I will attempt to answer his points. If I fail to answer anything, I will consult Hansard tomorrow and write to him if I need to do so.
I recently launched a consultation exercise on the options for change of the Met Office's structure. I should like to explain the background of those changes, together with the context in which they are being considered. I plan to visit the Met Office in Exeter later this month, and I will take the opportunity while there to discuss the issues involved with the Met Office executives. I have also agreed to meet representatives of the Prospect trade union, and I expect to meet parliamentary colleagues on this matter in the near future.
I have written to the hon. Gentleman and to other hon. Members whose constituencies or constituents may be affected by any change to the Met Office's current structure and organisation. I do, however, need to make it clear at the outset that no decisions have been taken or are assumed. I have initiated a 90-working-days consultation period, the purpose of which is to find the most effective and efficient way for the Met Office to carry out its civil forecasting task. I welcome any representations, and I shall make my decision after considering and evaluating all the representations that I receive.
The Met Office's primary function is vital: to understand the science of the weather and the environment. It does an important job in providing forecasts and information and helps to save lives and protect property. We look to the Met Office, as the national meteorological service, to provide timely, quality weather forecasts, particularly in respect of predicting and broadcasting warnings of severe weather.
The Met Office has continually invested in improving its computer forecasts through the increasing understanding of the science and the utilisation of
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massive supercomputer power. That helps to maintain its reputation for excellence and to ensure that it can deliver the weather services that we require now and in the future.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): As the Minister knows, I am a great admirer of weather forecasting and, indeed, of weather forecasters. On the science, does he accept that while the supercomputers are important, there will always be an element of expertise, which other hon. Members have already mentioned? The great strength of sharing that experience across the country is that the local expertise that brings in the business is effectively on site in those regions to deliver results. Will he accept representations, including from Wales, about the case for maintaining that regional expertise in its current locations?
Mr. Touhig: Of course I will be happy to receive representations. I know that the hon. Gentleman has a particular insight into weather forecasting that is denied to the rest of mortal man, and I congratulate him on that.
Investments in satellites and weather radars have resulted in significant advances in how the atmosphere is observed. Advances have also been made in numerical weather prediction mathematical models. At the same time, technological advances, particularly in telecommunications, continue to enable increasing efficiencies in the production process. While the Met Office continues to put a very high premium on the skill of people, the human role in the forecasting process has changed and continues to change significantly. The forecaster is now more focused on providing a service to customers. By interpreting the likely weather impacts, forecasters help people to make best use of the information available, especially when it comes to the risks of severe weather.
It is important that we build on the Met Office's investment in technology, telecommunications and modelling. That is the reason for reviewing the production process and is the background to identifying the options for the way ahead. The options under consideration range from no change to the current structure and process, to the full centralisation of forecasting and the full automation of all commercial services. They also include the centralisation of production, but with the creation of two or three centres of excellence to deal with specific sectors of the Met Office's customer base and the production and services range.
The Met Office board has expressed a preference for the centralisation of forecasting and the partial automation of forecast production for commercial services. However, I can assure the hon. Gentleman, given the concern that he has raised today, that I shall fully, carefully and impartially consider all the options that are being consulted on in the light of representations that I receive.
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