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By any standards, therefore, the UKHO has been a huge success, and I am determined that my Department build on that. However, for my Department to do so, the organisation needs to face new challenges, including stronger international competition and the growing market for digital, rather than paper, products. Given those challenges, we are
thinking carefully about the future of the UKHO, and whether its status as a trading fund continues to be the best way of building a positive and successful future. It is right that we should think about such issues, especially at a time when the Government are carrying out the comprehensive spending review.
Mr. Fraser Kemp (Houghton and Washington, East) (Lab): I understand the emphasis on moving toward digital, but does my hon. Friend agree that paper charts and knowing how to read them remain essential, and that we should not go the whole way towards electronic methods, because there are dangers in doing so? I speak as someone who, during the parliamentary recess, navigated Loch Teacuisone of the remotest lochs in the UKusing a 1934 paper chart. It is important that paper charts continue to play a significant part in the nations seafaring ways.
Mr. Watson: As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, my hon. Friend has a reputation for being a salty sea dog; he is a great seafarer and mariner and I pay tribute to his skills. When I tested the argument for moving to digital technology with the chief executive of the UK Hydrographic Office, he told me thatunlike in the case of ordnance survey mapping, where there has been a transition to digital mappingmariners still place a traditional value on maps, and that many still prefer them to digital ones. So my hon. Friends point is a good one well made.
As I was saying, it is right that we think about these issues, especially at a time when the Government are carrying out the comprehensive spending review. For that reason, my Department is considering the future of all its trading funds as part of a wider examination of defence support functions, in order to maximise the resources that we can make available to the front line. The consideration that we are giving to the future of the UKHO is thus not only our duty to the organisation and its staff, but is part of a wider obligation to the taxpayer that I hope all hon. Members recognise.
In view of the points made by the hon. Member for Taunton, it might help if I disentangle some of the facts from the speculation. To begin with, in effect, we are carrying out some pre-thinking [Interruption.] Bear with me. We are carrying out such thinking to determine whether it is worth instituting a formal review and, if so, what ground it should cover. As I have said, the basic issue is whether trading fund status is the best status to enable the UKHO to succeed as a provider of key Government services and as a successful commercial concern.
Mr. Jeremy Browne: Two issues arise from the Ministers remarks. How long will the pre-thinkingand, indeed, the post-thinkingtake, and is he saying that what is at issue is the structure and that the location is not in question and will remain in Taunton regardless of the conclusions of the pre-thinking process?
The outcome of that work has not yet been presented to me, although I expect to see it in the next few weeks. When I do, I will weigh the arguments presented and decide for myself what steps to take next.
Mr. Kevan Jones: I am grateful for the insight into my hon. Friends pre-thinking, which is obviously lacking in other Departments. Will my hon. Friend also await the Defence Committees report on the Met Office, which might want to comment on the issue? I would not want him to make decisions before the result of our deliberations over the past few months on this issue and the Met Offices future.
David Taylor: My hon. Friend has introduced a fascinating new concept, but can he reassure us that pre-thinking and post-thinking are not substitute words for instinct and emotion? This decision has to be taken on rational grounds, and I am sure that with my hon. Friend at the helm and others charting the course, we will be able to find safe haven at the end of the day.
Mr. Watson: I can assure my hon. Friend that my pre-thinking will be rational. I will of course write to the hon. Member for Taunton to let him know my conclusion. He mentioned being kept informed and I will ensure that that happens at all stages. If he needs to come and speak to me or officials about it, I make him the offer to do so, because I would like him to be involved in the process.
Mr. Browne: I am grateful for that offer. I also have a meeting with the outgoing chief executive of UKHO tomorrow. His replacement starts in a months time and I intend to keep in close touch with him as well. Through the Minister, may I make an offer to all the members of the Defence Committee to come down to Taunton, before they start making recommendations, and spend an induction day at UKHO so that they can see the expertise and the standards of service? Members of the Committee might also be able to speak to some of the people in Taunton who do not work at UKHO to gain an understanding of the affection for and affinity with the service that the town has.
Let me also take this opportunity to give a categorical assurance that no secret decisions are involved. There is no hidden agenda and I am clear that trading fund status has brought many benefits to UKHO, to the Ministry of Defence and to the taxpayer more widely. I would therefore need to be convinced by evidence and facts that there was a case to tinker with what historically has been a successful structure. Against that, however, I can see a potential argument that a status closer to the private sector might give greater assurance of commercial success in an increasingly competitive international marketplace. It is right therefore that we examine that idea a little
further. That is what we are now doing. A compelling case for change would have to be made, and so far I have not seen the evidence to make that case.
The hon. Gentleman also raised the separate question of the possible relocation of the Hydrographic Office. The Hydrographic Office has indeed identified that its current premises are ageing and coming to the end of their useful life. It is, therefore, examining options for the future. In order to ensure the best overall outcome, it is rightly looking at a range of options, including both redevelopment of its current siteas the hon. Gentleman mentionedand relocation. The work will take a few months to complete. Again, no conclusions have been reached. The final decision will be taken by me, as the ministerial owner, but I hope that the hon. Member for Taunton will contribute to the consultation process. As the House would expect, my decision will be based on what will provide the most effective and efficient solution, and deliver best value for money to the taxpayer.
The hon. Member for Taunton highlighted the possibility of co-locating UKHO with the Met Office in Exeter. That is one of the possibilities being looked at, since it is obviously logical to explore relocation to an existing MOD site in the same broad geographic area. I take his point about motorway journeys, and I understand Tauntons geography, but colleagues would rightly be surprised if we were not considering the possibility as part of our overall examination of the current facilities. As I made clear to the Defence Committee, I shall reach a decision based on the evidence and the business case when they are complete and presented to me.
Mr. Jones: Will my hon. Friend the Minister confirm that neither he nor his officials have ever mentioned the co-location possibility in evidence to the Defence Committee? Does he agree that the only person who thought it a good idea was a previous chief executive, who gave evidence when neither my hon. Friend nor his officials were present?
I assure the hon. Member for Taunton that I will not be blind to his views or those of his constituents on the matter, and that I shall weigh very carefully the points that he has put to me so fully and forthrightly this afternoon. I give him an undertaking that I shall listen equally closely to any further representations that he or other hon. Members wish to make nearer the time of a decision.
Let me also clarify that the issue of possible relocation to Exeter is one matter, but that an organisational merger with the Met Office is quite another. Again, the Defence Committee has heard evidence in favour of that reorganisation from some quarters, and has urged that it be considered. As I confirmed to the Committee, we are looking at that option as part of our high-level consideration of the future of both the UKHO and the Met Office, but I repeat that no compelling case has been made to me in
that respect either. Any decision in that regard will be based on the evidence provided by officials.
In conclusion, I hope that my remarks this evening have clarified matters, and given the hon. Member for Taunton the assurances that he sought. For the longer term, we must await the outcome of the work that I have described, but I remain open to any further representations on the matter that he would like to make.
I am grateful to the Minister for his helpful response to the debate, but I seek one further clarification. He said that the pre-thinking phase would last only a few weeks, but my constituents might ask about the date by which a firm decision about the UKHOs location and exact ownership status will be made. What should I tell them? The most important
matter is the offices location: will a firm decision be made in a month, two months, next year or the year after that, or will the process drag on for a very long time?
We all share the same goals for the Hydrographic Office: continued vibrancy, continued vitality and, above all, continued success. By working together, I know that we can secure a prosperous future for the office for the next 200 years, as well as for the staff who will be working there.