Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280-295)


24 MAY 2006

  Q280  Mr Hamilton: I am beginning to feel like Jim Hacker because I am not following the logic. The issue being put forward is about a Civil Service application. It is an issue we have already discussed. 12% of commercial activity is not enough and we need to expand that position into the private sector which means we have to look at a different scenario. It is not a Civil Service requirement for this. It is an issue if we look at the private sector and the Civil Service to try and develop a strategy which is right. I was there three weeks ago when evidence was given. The evidence that was given by yourself was excellent. There were 70 to 80 staff sitting behind you and they were watching what was going on with disbelief. Some of the things that have happened in the Met Office over the last year must be affecting staff morale. To sit there and say that if you put a person at a higher pecking order that will have an effect—that is what I think you were saying—on other members of staff and their pecking order, if you take 12% of the commercial activity and increase that to 15, 20 or 25% in the private sector you are getting a different type of beast. I am sure it is not a civil servant who will do that.

  Mr Andrews: You may well be right but if we are advertising posts they have to be advertised on a fair and open basis to which anyone can respond. I come back to my point that the sort of person out there who we want to attract to apply—I will say something about the recent competition in a moment—would be looking at this from the point of view of the status of the organisation they are leading and the salary and remuneration on offer. In response to our recent competition, we have a number of very high quality people but we were looking frankly for a very special individual, someone who would combine this world class business record in terms of changing it to a success in the commercial sector and someone who would be credible in the scientific field, where the excellence of the Met Office is absolutely the key point. We had some very credible candidates who came in for this competition but none, in the judgment of the panel, had the right all round calibre to be the right person to lead the Met Office. Because of the challenge, because of the issues, we had to be absolutely clear that we had the right person to take the Office forward into the future.

  Chairman: We are very lucky, I would suggest, that Mr Hutchinson is around to do this job because he has proved himself to be most effective in the role of chief executive but, if I may put it like this, I do not think you are convincing the Committee.

  Q281  Mr Jones: It is clear what you are up to. If this person is this god or Jesus Christ that you are trying to select in terms of this new chief executive—

  Mr Watson: He makes the weather; he does not need to predict it.

  Q282  Mr Jones: Perhaps there will be some new commercial opportunities for you then. If he is this great person that you are looking for, why on earth not give him or her the status that they deserve? Is it not a fact that what this is really about is internal MoD or Civil Service politics whereby, if he or she is at a lower grade, it means that you in the MoD have some control over that person in the hierarchy of the MoD, rather than, if this person deserves that grade, they should get it?

  Mr Andrews: I absolutely refute that.

  Q283  Mr Jones: I would be surprised if you did not.

  Mr Andrews: This individual will be an accounting officer in his or her own right, personally financially accountable to Parliament. This is someone who will take this organisation forward. We will be very lucky to find anyone who is in the public service today—

  Q284  Mr Havard: I think you are missing the point. The point that we see is, okay, you attract somebody. You attract them at this new level that you describe in terms of its internal grading. They then have to do a job. When they come to try and do that part of their job that relates to the Ministry of Defence they have handcuffs on because they do not have the appropriate grade to do the job. That is the point that my colleague is trying to make. Unless you have that relative status internally within the MoD and the Civil Service grading structure, what he says is right. This person does not have sufficient internal status to have sufficient clout to do what they want to do because someone else can direct them.

  Mr Andrews: With the greatest respect, this is not an issue about direction. The chief executive of the Met Office is accountable through his chairman under the current structure—we are in the process of recruiting the chairman at the moment—for the execution of the minister's intentions. Therefore, the grade in internal terms is, if I may say so, not the issue. The issue is the nature of the job, the accountabilities, the governance and what attracts someone out there who is going to come in and do the job we want them to do.

  Q285  Chairman: I do not want to drive this nail into the ground. I think we will move on.

  Mr Watson: I should perhaps have done my homework on Civil Service grades when I realised I would be addressing three former trades union officials, certainly of the calibre of the three we have round the table today. We are extremely grateful as a department and as a ministerial team that we have had Mark Hutchinson stepping up to the plate at the Met Office.

  Chairman: We would all share that view. You do not have to express a comment on that, Mr Hutchinson.

  Q286  Linda Gilroy: There is another group of people that we should pay tribute to. I came across them for the first time when I visited the Met Office in Exeter three weeks ago. We had the opportunity to see some of the activities that go on under the umbrella of the Met Office there, one of them being the Mobile Met Unit which I understand is a sponsored reserve unit of the RAF. It has 74 military personnel, of whom 59 are operational. How does the MoD work with the Met Office to determine its requirements for the Mobile Met Unit?

  Mr Watson: Met data is crucial to our support in military operations. The future defence environment capability is an important initiative that is going to give our operational commanders the best available environmental information they can have.

  Mr Andrews: The Mobile Met Units are there because operational commanders need on the spot Met support and advice from people who are deployed. As you rightly say, there are numbers of these individuals in operational theatres in Iraq and Afghanistan today and they do an outstanding job. The requirement for them is very much generated on the operational side of the house and they are tasked as part of the reserves. The internal mechanisms within the Met Office I will pass over to Mr Hutchinson but can I also associate myself formally with what has been said about how lucky we are to have him doing this job. One of the concerns we had in selecting a successor was that we had to get someone in whom we had confidence to pick up what he has done and carry it forward and develop it.

  Mr Hutchinson: In terms of the Mobile Met Units, they are wholly operationally controlled by the Armed Forces. There is no separate chain of operational command that comes out of the Met Office to the Mobile Met staff in theatre. As RAF reservists, they are tasked directly by the commanding officer of the unit that they are attached to and who they support.

  Q287  Linda Gilroy: At the height of Operation TELIC, there were six teams, 23 staff, deployed and then coming back. What sort of welfare support is there for their families and for them when they return? How does that work?

  Mr Hutchinson: They are RAF reservists and the welfare support services that are available to all reservists are of course available to them. It is a cause of some consideration within the Met Office as to whether or not the Met Office could put in place more effective pastoral care and welfare support for the families of deployed staff. That is an issue where there is not much that we do over and above what the Armed Forces do for them as members of the reserves. I think that is a relevant observation and it is something that we are looking at.

  Q288  Linda Gilroy: Also as to whether you can work with the RAF in making sure that the families who are put under stress in particular circumstances?

  Mr Hutchinson: We do that as part of the normal working relationship but that is something that the Met Office could do to register support for its staff deployed overseas, and not just leave the Armed Forces network to pick up.

  Q289  Linda Gilroy: Are there ways in which membership of the Mobile Met Unit impacts on promotion and career prospects, either by way of advantage or disadvantage?

  Mr Hutchinson: I am not aware of any particular impact that simply being a member of the Mobile Met Unit confers on promotion prospects. The nature of the work, which is tours abroad and returns to defence airfields, tends to determine a certain sort of career profile, I suspect. I am characterising here and perhaps the stereotype does not fit all of it but it is a job that a lot of young people do as they are starting out in the Met Office. They do an awful lot of tours. As you acquire a family, you become a bit more established in doing certain other jobs and perhaps there is less of an incentive to become part of the Mobile Met Unit but there are mixed age groups within the current Mobile Met Unit.

  Q290  Mr Havard: As I understand it, because of their deployment in Afghanistan, a relationship with the Afghanistan meteorological office and trying to develop it, people have come over and done training. Are we going to see more of that? Is there going to be some sort of formal relationship? It seems to me a good idea but is that done on some sort of pro bono basis? What alleviation does the Met Office get for effectively helping and playing its part in defence diplomacy activity by carrying out additional work such as that?

  Mr Hutchinson: It is not tied to the role of the Mobile Met Unit per se. They are very good ambassadors for the Met Office going abroad and therefore, in many cases, when you are trying to reconstruct the Met service of a country whose Met service itself has degraded through natural hazards, war or whatever the reason might be, the Met Office does get invited to help play a role in restoring that capability. That can take the form of training. It can take the form of us taking on the responsibility for a short period of time and generating weather forecasts for that particular patch of the globe. In terms of the financial aspects—is it pro bono? Is it a commercial business opportunity?—it is a mixture. We tend to try and recover costs any way that we can, where the country involved is capable of meeting those costs. Sometimes we charge marginal costs or provide it relatively free of charge simply because the circumstances determine that the defence and diplomacy requirements are stronger than commercial priorities, but that is a case by case decision.

  Q291  Chairman: When we visited Exeter we were very impressed by the work that the Mobile Met Unit does. I have one more question but there are things that we will write to you about, about the future of military Met requirements, the trial at RAF Wittering and the research function at Hadley. I hope you can answer those questions when they are put to you. [8]My question arises out of Mr Andrews telling us that the chief executive is personally accountable to Parliament. We have just now heard this with Mr Hutchinson answering questions about the Mobile Met Unit. We welcome that. Clearly, Minister, your welcome for this inquiry is much appreciated. There is what I hope is a minor issue which I would like to raise with you though. When we wrote to the chief executive of the Met Office about this inquiry, the answer we received was that we should correspond with the Ministry of Defence. That strikes us as being symptomatic of an unnecessarily unfortunate relationship between the Ministry of Defence and the select committee and possibly the relationship between the Ministry of Defence and the Met Office. It fits not frightfully well with the chief executive's personal accountability to Parliament. When Mr Andrews said that, we would have welcomed that but I wonder whether you could reconsider, first, the relations between the Ministry of Defence and the Met Office in terms of this question that I am asking and, second, discussions which we as a select committee would like to have with agencies into which we do inquiries in the future.

  Mr Watson: I have indicated that when I see the report, if this is a recommendation, I will take it on board very seriously. I would want to understand exactly what that means in terms of the relationship more fully before I commit to you now but, when I read the report, if this argument is put, I will take it very seriously.

  Mr Andrews: If I can clarify what I said, the chief executive of the Met Office is an accounting officer in his own right so he is financially accountable as the accounting officer to Parliament. As far as accountability for the policy and performance of the Met Office is concerned, he is accountable through his owner, who is accountable to Parliament, in this case the Minister. Therefore, that is why, when you were proposing this review, you were asked to conduct it through the department. The issue though is very much one for the Secretary of State's office and therefore, if there is a proposal, it should be directed through that channel.

  Chairman: This is the beginning of an issue which we will certainly pursue.

  Q292  Mr Havard: Throughout the discussion there has been discussion of various reviews that are going on and preparatory work for comprehensive spending review activity. During that you talked about something I did not quite understand, the quinquennial review. Is that a formal process? If there is something we need to know about the quinquennial review and its timing, perhaps you could give us some further information about that. 9

  Mr Andrews: Every five years every trading fund is subjected to the formal process of what is called a quinquennial review, whereby people stand back and say, "On the basis of the experience of the last five years, is there anything . . . ?"

  Q293  Mr Havard: That is specifically for trading funds?

  Mr Andrews: Yes.

  Q294  Mr Havard: Are they all done independently and brought together collectively? I do not want to prolong the agony but if you could give us some description of that process perhaps we could come back with more intelligent questions about it.

  Mr Andrews: I believe it is a public process. It is all agencies across government. It is not unique to the department. It is a Treasury requirement.

  Q295  Chairman: Is it included in your annual accounts reference to that?

  Mr Andrews: Apparently we do not do them any more. The quinquennial review that I was talking about was something which took place in 2002/3. That was the origin of the restructuring of the funding arrangements that came out of that. That was also the basis upon which the decision was taken that the trading fund was the appropriate structure for the Met Office. That was done for all agencies and trading funds in the past. It is now much broader than that but I can let you have a note on it. [9]

  Chairman: That would be very helpful, thank you. If there are no further questions, may I thank all three of you very much indeed for coming to give evidence in a most useful session. We are most grateful.

8   See Ev 60 Back

9   See Ev 59 Back

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