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Local Weather Forecasts

Volume 464: debated on Thursday 12 May 1949

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

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

10.10 p.m.

It may seem rather impertinent, after the historic Debate which we have had today, to talk about the weather, but it is quite true that we spend a great deal of our time talking about the weather, and I therefore feel that it is rather useful to initiate this Debate. We are very proud of the vagaries of our British weather, and tonight I propose to try to suggest a way in which we might "debunk" the weather and give the people of our country an opportunity of knowing whether it is likely to rain or whether there will be fog, or to find out in some way the things which they really want to know.

I do this not only in the interests of the farmer, but of those of the father who wants to know whether it is going to he fine in order to take out his wife and children for a picnic. I am not referring to the experts—the R.A.F. men, the men flying aeroplanes or even the sailors at sea, for these people have opportunities of obtaining the very best meteorological information. I am referring to the ordinary man, who does not trust the information he gets. Anything he hears he regards with the utmost suspicion, and the reason for that is because the forecasts which he has the opportunity of reading in the newspapers or of listening to through the B.B.C. cover far too wide a range of territory and attempt to make forecasts for far too long a period ahead to make them as accurate as they might be. It is not the fault of the meteorologists; it is the fault of the way it is put over.

There is another point which I should mention, and it is that the forecast is made over a very large area and it is not possible to take into account the particular features of any local places, so that, though, in general, the forecasts may be accurate, it so happens that, in a particular area, when a man is going to take his wife and family to the sea, there may be rain, a thunderstorm or something else very unpleasant develop which he had not expected.

In order to get an accurate forecast for the ordinary man in the street, it would be necessary to have a large number of meteorological stations up and down the country, because I believe it is correct—and I have taken the trouble to check what I am saying with meteorologists—that both for a small area and for a limited period of time, meteorologists can give a very accurate forecast indeed. It so happens that there are meteorological stations all over the country, and there are on every aerodrome "Met." officers and their staffs. It would obviously be ridiculous and impracticable to allow the public to ring up the nearest aerodrome and ask what the weather was likely to be. There is a great shortage of "Met." officers, and I do not think that the Post Office either would look upon it as quite practicable from their point of view. It might cause the aerodrome lines to be completely jammed.

I do suggest, however, one way in which that information might be used. We might allot to each aerodrome in the country a certain number of telephone exchanges which are situated round about them. The next aerodrome would take other telephone exchanges so that the two groups would be adjacent, and each would have allocated to it a certain number of telephone exchanges. I suggest that, at the beginning of the telephone directory, there should be a code and a key, which might run from A to Z, and in which each letter would be linked with 10 numbers, so that we would get 260 alternatives.

I think it might work like this. Every four hours, or when he wanted to, or when it might be necessary, the "Met." officer in an aerodrome would take off his telephone receiver and give his own local exchange—that is to say, the exchange which normal outside subscribers would ring up if they wished to speak to the aerodrome—certain code letters and numbers. For instance, if he wanted to convey the information that the weather would be fine until six o'clock; that after that there would be a risk of showers until eight, and a certainty of rain before 10, then that might come over, for example, as A5, B3, P4. After the "Met." officer had done that, he would have finished his work.

Then, I suggest, it might be the duty of that local exchange to tell the other exchanges in the vicinity which were being served by that particular aerodrome what the code figures and numbers were. It would be the duty of each local exchange in that area to see that the telephone operators knew what those code figures and numbers were. They would not have to know whether it was going to be fine or wet, but would simply know what were the letters and numbers. At that moment, anybody living in the area could take off their telephone receiver and ask for the weather, whereupon they would he given the code signs. The person inquiring would look up the signs at the beginning of his telephone book and translate them for himself.

There arc two main difficulties in this scheme. The first is the obvious one. I do not wish to make any reflection on the two Departments concerned but it is obviously extremely difficult for two Government Departments to work together in a matter of this kind where matters of divided finance are concerned. That is the first thing to overcome. But I think that, with a little good will and co-operation, that difficulty could be got over. Only last week-end, as a matter of fact, I was told by a former Assistant Postmaster-General that when "TIM" was first introduced, there was an enormous amount of opposition to it. People could not believe that anybody could want it, and it was generally regarded as a lunatic idea in the same way as some people may regard what I am saying now. But it worked surprisingly well, and produced an enormous amount of money for the Post Office. My suggestion would produce money every time anybody rang up to know what the weather was going to be, because they would have to pay 2d. for the call, which would be an extremely useful thing.

If the demand were high, and if it did put a strain on the Post Office, then, I suggest, it would show the real need for such a service. Obviously, at the beginning, people are not going to use it or trust it very much. I have lived under conditions where I had an accur- ate "Met." service, and I know how good and useful it can be. I also know that, in time, the people of this country would rely upon such a service to an enormous extent. On the other hand, if it were not used much there would not be much strain on the Post Office. I already know that there would be very little strain on the "Met." service. One would have to make the thing public. The local papers, I am sure, would cooperate in publicising the scheme. It could be tried out in a limited area, and could be advertised on the front page of the telephone book.

I want the Government to consider introducing this scheme for the area covered by one telephone directory. Lincoln and Peterborough are both fine cities, which I know well, and the area is suitable for the scheme I am talking about. If the Government would try the scheme out in one of the telephone directories, I think there would be almost no expense and, with good will and cooperation, we could at least see whether the scheme would work. Odd as it may sound, I think it would work. When I first thought of the scheme, I was very shy and thought it must be nonsense, and it was not until I talked it over with various "Met." people that I realised there might he something in it.

There is a second difficulty, and that is the difficulty of devising codes. It is a real difficulty. There are 260 alternatives and we should have to try to use them in the best possible way. I believe human ingenuity could over-come that difficulty We could either have 260 absolutely alternative statements or we could have some devoted to time, some to rain, some to the weather and some to adjectives or qualifying words of some sort. I do not for a moment want to be dogmatic about it; the main object of putting forward this scheme is to draw attention to the possibility of obtaining this information and to find whether the Government cannot see that the public get this information, which I believe can be provided. If some other method can be produced which is perhaps far more efficient without costing the taxpayer any money, so much the better.

There are some districts, of course, which would not benefit from the scheme. Parts of Wales and parts of Scotland obviously would not benefit and in those cases there would not be the advertisements on the outside of the books, for people in those districts would not be able to use the service. My political philosophy is, however, that it is not a good reason to refuse to provide some people with something good because of the fact that everybody cannot be provided with something good. I do not believe that is a real or proper reason.

I have one final point to make which is of a slightly different character. There is a certain amount of information about meteorology which the people can obtain. The Post Office Guide is one example, and His Majesty's Stationery Office recently published a little pamphlet, but there are few people who have Post Office Guides, sad as that may sound, and even fewer who have the various attractive little brochures provided by the Stationery Office. This sort of information would be better provided in the first pages of the telephone directory. I suggest that even if this scheme is, in other ways, nonsense, that part of it at least might be considered.

I shall listen with great interest to the answer of the Under-Secretary of State for Air. I do not think the Government can afford to miss an opportunity of giving the public something. There are few opportunities nowadays to give people something, and even the Chancellor of the Exchequer could not look gravely at this, because it would cost nothing. All it needs is a little cooperation and a little good will to make it work, and I believe the public would have a service which would be extremely useful.

10.25 p.m.

I welcome the interest of the hon. and gallant Member for Horncastle (Commander Maitland) in meteorology, an interest which is shared by many people at the Air Ministry, because anyone interested in flying must automatically be interested in meteorology. I entirely agree with his major premise; the weather forecast would be much more accurate if it covered a small area and a short period of time. It is exceedingly difficult to forecast for a day for a wide area. Let us take an example. The B.B.C. in its morning forecast may speak of the South-East of England. That is an area stretching from Salisbury to Margate. Let us say that rain is forecast. Rain usually travels at about 25 miles an hour, so it may be raining at breakfast time at Salisbury, but it is not until late afternoon that the rain reaches Margate. It is clear, therefore, that the citizens of Margate would be far better served if there were a forecast for a smaller area and a shorter period of time; that is, if there were more forecasts for many smaller areas and at more frequent intervals. So the major premise and the most important point of the hon. and gallant Gentleman's speech I entirely accept.

The hon. and gallant Gentleman expressly said he was not referring to the expert user of weather forecasts, but to the man in the street. I shall deal shortly with the service we provide for the expert, and show why it is relevant. The professional user of weather forecasts is well served. It is part of my duty to be ex officio chairman of the Meteorological Committee on which are represented the Meteorological Office and the learned scientific societies, such as the Royal Society, and the professional users—the Air Ministry, the Ministry of Civil Aviation, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, the Ministry of Transport, and so on. The Meteorological Office and the Post Office already work closely together. It is not nearly as difficult for them to do so as the hon. and gallant Gentleman suggested. They work well together, and set a good example of co-operation.

The private professional user of weather forecasts, such as the farmers, can get detailed weather forecasts by telephoning one or another of the 15 meteorological offices scattered throughout the country. They can learn their telephone numbers from the Post Office Guide, as the hon. and gallant Gentleman said. The service for providing this information is available at those offices in ordinary working hours. At the Meteorological Office in London the information is available 24 hours a day seven days a week. The man in the street is not so well served. It is true that he has the telephone service which I have just mentioned, but he may not know about it.

I am coming to that point. The man in the street may not know about this service. Moreover, he is at a disadvantage that, if he is far away from the nearest meteorological office, he has to pay the cost of a trunk call. The Postmaster-General—and he regrets it—is in this position, that he is very reluctant to advertise the fact that this service is available, because the telephone system is already bearing extremely heavy burdens. He regrets, therefore, that he cannot give the details of this service in the telephone directories. I am sorry about it, but there it is.

How many pages would be required to set out this detailed information?

That is not the point. It is not the number of pages that this information would take. It is a question of the increase in the number of telephone calls. There is a very grave shortage of all equipment, and of men and women to operate, maintain and instal the equipment.

Is not this an example of "de Freitism" on the one hand and defeatism on the other?

No, it is not that. As is well known, we have a very long way to go to make up for the war period when work on the telephone services could not be undertaken.

There is one other field which I mention in passing. The man in the street has the radio broadcasts and the newspaper forecasts. We have already seen how difficult it is to provide satisfactory forecasts because of the large area covered and the long period of time. The problem is how we can help the country vicar's wife to know whether to have the sale of work in the vicarage garden or in the church hall? How can we help the hon. and gallant Member's constituent who is going for a picnic to Skegness and wants to know whether he is going to be braced by something other than the air there. That is the problem.

I welcome the hon. and gallant Member's assistance in trying to solve this problem. I only wish that we could adopt the scheme he suggests. May I say that we are constantly seeking ways to improve the service. For instance, we are working with the B.B.C. upon a scheme for televising meteorological charts and forecasts. It is clear, however, that the telephone is our best bet. That is why I welcome constructive suggestions such as the suggestions made tonight. But we must remember that not only are we short of meteorologists and therefore are reluctant to impose any more duties, however small, upon them, but the General Post Office—and this is the overriding difficulty—is still short of equipment.

In spite of that, all suggestions put to us, and I hope there will be many, will be examined. Plans will be prepared and we can try out the most promising of them when the General Post Office gives us the green light. It would be wrong of me to guess at the result of any investigations and tests which we may have. But I would say that at first sight it appears to me, and I think the hon. and gallant Member will admit it, too, that the code system seems a little complicated as it stands. I think that in the long run, and the hon. and gallant Member may agree with me, that we may be served best by a system of dialling "WEA" for "Weather," and getting on to a talking machine, in the same way as is done when one dials "TIM" for the talking clock.

I am grateful to the hon. and gallant Member for raising this matter. Too often the House and the country hears about meteorology and meteorologists only when they are being criticised. I have seen something of the great work which they are doing all the time. For instance, today, this very afternoon, here in London an agreement was signed by 11 countries for carrying on a scheme started in 1946 for having internationally run weather ships spread over the Atlantic. Meteorology is news only when it does not work or appears not to work. That is why I welcome this Debate today. I forecast that although these 11 countries met today and the continuation of the scheme for weather ships was agreed, not more than two national newspapers will mention a word of it, because it is not news. Not more than two national newspapers will mention a scheme in which international meteorologists get together to help not only the farmer, the fisherman, and those travelling by sea or air, but the ordinary man who wants to know when he leaves home in the morning whether he ought to take his umbrella or not.

Before the hon. Gentleman sits down would he tell us what is the cost?

I forget the actual figure but it is given in the back pages of the Air Estimate for this year One of the appendices sums up the cost of the meteorological services.

Question put and agreed to

Adjourned at Twenty-five Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.