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Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): When the Minister says that no decisions have been made, is that a result of his ministerial intervention, as opposed to what the Met Office board has previously said? Will he take the final decision after the consultation period?

Mr. Touhig: The hon. Gentleman might think that, but I could not possibly comment. I say in answer to a
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point made by the hon. Member for Gordon that the way in which the announcement was handled, given its nature, was not one of our most brilliant successes, and I am truly conscious of the impact that the situation has had on morale. The decision will rest with me, once I have taken account of all the representations that I receive. If anyone comes up with an option that is not one of the four, obviously I will want to consider it. Governments can get things wrong—not often, but sometimes.

I assure the hon. Member for Gordon that proposals for future forecasting have no financial relationship to the costs of the recent Met Office relocation to Exeter. The relocation was budgeted and paid for. The Met Office needs to identify efficiencies continuously so that it can ensure its future as a trading fund.

The hon. Gentleman was concerned about why the costs and revenues of individual centres such as Aberdeen could not be identified. The answer is that the production of weather forecasts is an integrated activity that involves several agencies in the Met Office. Civil centres are one part of the process and do not operate as self-standing profit-and-loss units.

The situation at military aviation stations is different from that at civil centres. Military pilots require direct, immediate and face-to-face briefings on the likely impact that the weather will have on the safety and effectiveness of operational sorties, so intensive consultancy occurs between the military and the Met Office.

Malcolm Bruce: Does the Minister accept that for people in the environment of the North sea, whether they are involved in fishing, maritime activities or offshore helicopter activities, the same factors apply? Their inability to call up information that the military can access is anomalous. Surely a national Met Office should provide such information to the civilian sector.

Mr. Touhig: Other people made that point during a discussion that I had earlier today and I shall take it on board as part of the consultation process.

As yet, I have received no representations on the proposals from public bodies or the Scottish Executive. In respect of the operations centre that is based at Exeter, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that all the necessary business and operational resilience, and plans for continuity, are in place.

The hon. Gentleman asked why the shipping forecast was transferred to the Aberdeen office in 2004. The decision was based on bringing together marine forecasting in a single unit. There has since been no step change in the shipping forecast, so I am not clear what improvement in accuracy is being claimed since the transfer. The proposal to consider further centralisation as one of the options builds on the process of rationalisation and improvement.

The costs of implementing any of the options are included in the consultation document, including, for example, the small number of redundancies that could
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result from centralisation, which the Met Office would of course have to fund. I require the Met Office, like any other trading fund, to maximise the profit that it makes from its commercial work with the private sector. The aim is to return shareholder value to the taxpayer.

The hon. Gentleman has raised other issues separately with me. He has expressed concern that the removal of forecasting capability from Aberdeen would diminish the quality of weather predictions. I hope that he will understand if I do not comment about that now, but I will take account of what he says as part of the consultation. Consultation with Met Office customers will, however, form a key part of the overall consultation process. I shall take fully into account any issues that they raise before I reach a final decision. I understand fully hon. Members' representations on the impact of further possible change on Met Office staff and their families. I appreciate that that is unsettling and am conscious that uncertainty is the most difficult thing for them to handle.

Miss Begg : Some of my constituents relocated from Glasgow to Aberdeen and have settled down there with their families. I re-emphasise that the uncertainty is resulting in low morale. Perhaps I can also make it clear that they are not going to move from Aberdeen again. Their expertise is likely to be lost to the Met Office and they will work somewhere else.

Mr. Touhig: I understand my hon. Friend's concern. However, when the Met Office relocated from Bracknell to Exeter, about 1,000 people relocated. There are difficulties and pressures, but we have to face those if we are to take the option that the Met Office board prefers.

I emphasise that the consultation will be open, full and impartial. I look forward to meeting the hon. Member for Gordon and others who wish to make representations. As I said, the consultation will be inclusive, involving the full range of Met Office stakeholders. It is then up to me to reach a decision on the way ahead after careful consideration of all the options. It is my ambition and desire that the consultation is as wide, open and transparent as I can possibly make it.

I pay tribute to the work of the current chief executive, Dr. David Rogers, who is leaving on 15 July. His decision to resign follows his recent marriage and his wish to pursue a career path that allows him and his wife to spend more time together. I can confirm that his decision to leave is entirely personal and is not related to the options and proposals that we are discussing.

I have started the 90-day consultation. I am inviting everyone and his uncle to take part so that we have their views. That is the best way to proceed. At the end of the day, I will have to consider the options and come forward with a proposal. Again, when I do that, I am sure that I will be answerable to the House for my actions.

Question put and agreed to.

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