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UK Hydrographic Office

Volume 447: debated on Thursday 15 June 2006

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

On a day when the nation holds its breath and hopes to become a world beater, it is particularly appropriate that we have the opportunity over the next half hour or so to debate an aspect of Britain in which we are already world beaters. I refer to the Hydyrographic Office, which is based in Taunton.

It may be helpful to start by explaining what the Hydrographic Office is, as some people do not know. What it does—I put it in layman’s terms, claiming no scientific expertise myself—is chart the oceans, seas and coastlines of the world. If we imagine an Ordnance Survey-style map with contours showing the relief and lie of the land, that is what the Hydrographic Office produces, but for underwater regions. It is a constantly evolving task, as significant movements constantly occur through sandbanks, pebbles and other underwater changes. A good topical example is the tsunami, which had a dramatic impact on the ocean floor in that part of the world. Some areas need to be mapped because the water is particularly shallow or there may be rocks just under the surface that pose a danger to shipping.

The Hydrographic Office was set up by George III in 1795. Britain was losing too many ships at sea, and the Hydrographic Office was seen as a necessary response. The first chart was produced in 1800 and the office has gone from strength to strength ever since. Anyone who visits the Hydrographic Office—I hope that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the Minister will have that opportunity—will see some fascinating artefacts. For example, the first ever map of New Zealand, drawn by Captain Cook, can be seen there. It was drawn before satellite technology and other devices made it so much easier to produce maps to such a high standard. It is a remarkable historical document, which puts into perspective the long service of the Hydrographic Office—now a world beater.

In using the term “world beater”, I do not exaggerate because few countries aspire to chart the world’s oceans. Most countries with a coastline cover the miles close to their own coasts and particularly concentrate on areas with heavy shipping such as the entrances to ports. However, there are very few countries across the world that aspire to perform the task with excellence—the United States, Russia and France to some extent, and the United Kingdom. Most people in the United States, Russia and France would accept that the United Kingdom has the most eminent and professionally drawn charts. Commercial practices bear that out. Shipping companies throughout the world, many of which have no direct link with the UK, buy the charts for their shipping from the Hydrographic Office based in Taunton.

At the last general election, the Hydrographic Office loomed fairly large as an election issue in Taunton. The James review commissioned by the previous leader of the Conservative party recommended, as one of the proposals adopted and accepted by the leader of the Conservative party at that time, that the Hydrographic Office should be privatised.

There are many compelling reasons why that would not be a wise course of action. I do not intend to dwell on them at length, but there are issues in relation to reciprocal arrangements with other countries, and possible problems with insurance liabilities which are potentially enormous for the Hydrographic Office. The service is so successful and so popular that it makes money, so the case for privatising it on efficiency grounds is less attractive than in other parts of the public sector. Others may wish to contribute their thoughts on the ownership issue, but I shall not dwell on it.

Instead, I shall focus on the possibility that the Hydrographic Office will be moved from Taunton to a proposed new site next to the Met Office in Exeter. I shall suggest three reasons why I hope that the Government and the Ministry of Defence will give much thought to that proposal and reject it. The first relates to jobs and the economy of Taunton. People often ask me who are the big employers in my constituency. We have some fairly large private sector employers—for example, Relyon, a bed making company in Wellington in my constituency, and Swallowfield, a company that makes aerosols, also located in Wellington, both of which employ hundreds of people. If either of those were to close or move, that would be extremely damaging to our local economy.

In Taunton, interestingly, there is no single big private sector employer. There are lots of smaller service-type jobs, but because it is the county town for Somerset, most of the jobs in Taunton reflect that status. The county council is a significant employer. Musgrove Park hospital, which serves most of Somerset and some parts of Devon as well, is a big employer, and the UK Hydrographic Office is a very large and significant employer. It employs around 1,000 people in the town and those jobs are extremely varied.

I visit Taunton frequently. My daughter lives there, is an accountant and works in the area. A member of my family circle works at the Hydrographic Office. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the key characteristics that indicates that Taunton benefits significantly from the presence of the Hydrographic Office is not just the number of jobs, but the range of high skilled jobs that it provides? That lifts the otherwise middling levels of income available from many other employers in the area.

The hon. Gentleman’s intervention is not only extremely helpful, but extremely well informed. I was about to make that point. A large number of the jobs at the Hydrographic Office are highly skilled jobs. It is a problem in an area like Somerset to keep such skills and such levels of pay in our area. We have many jobs. Compared with other parts of the country, we do not have a particular problem with unemployment. We have a bigger problem offering the career levels that mean that educated people with good qualifications do not have to go and live in Bristol or London, but can stay in Taunton and bring up their families there because suitable jobs are available in the locality. There are hundreds of jobs of that type at the Hydrographic Office, which has a beneficial knock-on effect on shopping and other services in Taunton.

As a member of the Defence Committee, I am impressed by the work of the Hydrographic Office. However, if savings could be made by, for example, merging the Hydrographic Office with the Met Office and moving the Hydrographic Office from Taunton, why should my constituents in North Durham pay a premium for keeping employment in Taunton?

That is a good point. I am vigilant in trying to ensure that public spending is as efficient as possible. If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I hope to cover that point later in my speech.

The Hydrographic Office provides not only hundreds of skilled jobs, but a wide variety of jobs. Most hon. Members would accept that those who hold the maintenance and cleaning positions will not want to relocate or to commute a long distance. Furthermore, the Hydrographic Office is based in east Taunton, where it is surrounded by estates such as Halcon, Lambrook and the Lane, which are some of the poorest parts of Somerset. For those jobs to be available within walking distance of those people’s homes is an important stimulus to wealth creation in east Taunton.

It has been suggested that people who live in Taunton will be able to commute because Exeter is only 35 miles down the M5. I accept that a lot of the senior people would choose to commute in those circumstances, but a lot of the junior people would not. A lot of the people in the lower paid jobs at the Hydrographic Office would not think a 70-mile round trip each day either affordable or desirable, so those jobs would be filled by people who live in Exeter rather than by people who live in Taunton. Furthermore, the commuters would eventually retire and be replaced by people who would move not to Taunton, but to Exeter. Over time, those 1,000 jobs would be whittled away until Taunton derives no economic benefit from having previously had the Hydrographic Office.

We are hearing more from the Government about global warming and the need to reduce car use, which is sensible, so it seems perverse that one of the arguments for moving the service is that people will be able to drive considerable distances to get there.

I was happy to co-sponsor the hon. Gentleman’s early-day motion 2328 last week, which is an admirable précis of the case that he is making. Will he say a word or two in the next three or four hours before the House rises on how the news broke? Were employees or the local MP given any early indication of the news, or did the news drop out of the blue sky and into the weekly paper?

The hon. Gentleman has touched a raw nerve. Nobody formally notified me of the process.

I have discussed how 1,000 people in Taunton are employed directly by the Hydrographic Office, which has a knock-on economic effect, but those are not any old 1,000 jobs. If 1,000 jobs were lost across the board, it would have a serious impact on the economy of our area, but its emotional effect on people in Taunton would be less profound than moving the Hydrographic Office, because the Hydrographic Office has been in Taunton for many years.

The Hydrographic Office was partly moved to Taunton during the second world war, and it was moved in its entirety in the 1960s. Some families have worked there for generations, and people have an attachment and affinity to it. They have a great sense of pride in the fact that in Taunton we have not only a national but an international institution—a centre of world renown and excellence. I should like to think—and I believe that most people in Taunton would accept this—that there is a real affinity and link between the town and the service. If one of us went out into a street in London and said, “What’s the Hydrographic Office and what does it do?”, I suspect that the person we chose to ask would not know the answer, but if we asked the same question of anybody in the street in Taunton, they would know because everyone has a very clear sense of connection to it.

When I was first shown round a few years ago, I asked what struck me as an obvious, if possibly slightly rude, question—“Why on earth is the Hydrographic Office based in Taunton?” The person who was showing me round said that one of the reasons why it was put there is that it is roughly equidistant between Plymouth and Portsmouth. I had never thought of it in those terms before. The other reason is that it has very good communication links. It is now on the M5 motorway and on an intercity train line. All those reasons apply just as much today, in fact even more so, as they did when the decision was taken to move the service from London to Taunton for security reasons during the second world war.

The last of my three points is a slightly wider economic one. The Government have decided that it is necessary for there to be a large expansion in the number of houses in the south-west, with about a million extra houses. We hear a lot, in this House and elsewhere, about population growth in the south-east, but the south-west is another region that is growing very quickly, much of it as a result of inward migration from other parts of the United Kingdom. I accept the Government’s argument that it would probably not be desirable to have those 1 million houses scattered in a random fashion across what is predominantly a rural region, and that it makes sense, in terms of building communities and economically, for them to be concentrated in hubs. One of the places that has been identified as a hub for extra housing and development is Taunton, largely because of the excellent communication links and geographical positioning that I mentioned.

As a consequence, Taunton has been assigned more than 20,000 extra houses. Although there is a need for extra house building, many associated issues and problems may arise from that extra development in terms of traffic congestion and extra pressure on amenities such as schools and the hospital, which has a very limited site and might have difficulty expanding to cope with those extra numbers. Furthermore, the character of what is essentially a county town will be changed, some may think for the better, some may think for the worse, by being expanded to that extent. Some people are uncomfortable about it, but by and large they accept that it will happen. However, the quid pro quo for the extra congestion and extra pressure on public services should be that it will mean more jobs, more prosperity, and more opportunities for people living in the town. If we are to get all the downsides of expansion without the upsides, people in Taunton have a right to say, “Wait a second—this isn’t treating us fairly or even-handedly.”

If a private company was taking such a decision to relocate its jobs, I could have strong views about that, but my powers of influence, and those of the Government, would be limited. However, that is not so in this case. The Government are at risk of running two completely contrary policies in two Departments. One Department is earmarking Taunton for extra expansion, extra development and extra jobs, thereby making it an economic centre, while another Department, the Ministry of Defence, runs the risk of taking away precisely the sort of high-value jobs that it is envisaged that the people living in all these extra houses will be doing.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Defence Committee has been conducting an inquiry about the Met Office and I have attended the evidence sittings. Unless I have missed anything that he or my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) have picked up about an immediate plan to move the Hydrographic Office, the only evidence that we have taken so far about that and the only reference to it came from a former chief executive who left the Met Office under a bit of a cloud. Can the hon. Gentleman provide evidence that, for example, the Minister deliberately did not tell the Select Committee when he appeared before us a few weeks ago that an announcement had been made? Clearly, the Minister did not say anything about that when he appeared before us.

I fear that the hon. Gentleman is being, perhaps unintentionally, far more of a conspiracy theorist and more political about the matter than I am trying to be. All I know is that no one informed me, as Member of Parliament for Taunton, that moving the service was being considered.

I am not aware that any such consideration has taken place. At the Select Committee meeting a few weeks ago, only a former chief executive mentioned it. He referred to some plans that were made several years ago when the Met Office moved from Bracknell to Exeter. There were possible plans to move the Hydrographic Office. When the Minister and civil servants gave evidence to the Select Committee, there was no new announcement. The headlines may have been grabbed by a former chief executive who said that he believed that it was a good idea, but he clearly no longer speaks on behalf of the Ministry.

I am grateful for that intervention because no one would be happier than me if the Minister got to his feet in a few moments and said, “No fuss is necessary and you should have no worries. This is a wild goose chase. It’s not going to happen.” We could then all go home and I would be happy. People have asked me, “Is this a done deal? Is the move to Exeter set in stone?” I have said no. However, I understand—and people at the Hydrographic Office have confirmed it—that the option is being considered.

If that is the case, it is important that the Minister and other hon. Members appreciate that, when one is sitting in Westminster or Whitehall, it may not appear to make much difference whether the jobs and the office are based in Taunton or Exeter. After all, they are both a long way west and people here probably go down there only when they are on holiday. On a map of Britain, there is only an inch or two between Taunton and Exeter, so why should it matter that much in Whitehall? The purpose of the debate is to explain that, in Taunton, it matters a great deal, for the economic reasons and the emotional link that I outlined and because of the importance of conducting the town’s expansion coherently and in a way that does not mean conflict between one part of Government and another.

That brings me to the way forward and what I hope can be done. Representatives of the Met Office who are based in Exeter appear keen to make the case for locating the Hydrographic Office next to the Met Office, to which one could use the immortal political phrase, “They would say that, wouldn’t they?” The instinct of most people, in business and the public sector, is to try to expand their domain. Having a bigger set-up in Exeter may feel more prestigious to the people who are based in the Met Office at the moment.

However, I would argue that not only is the effect of such a move on Taunton potentially devastating, but it is not necessary in an era of global communications when people can exchange information by e-mail rapidly. If there is ever any need for people to meet face to face, that opportunity exists because Taunton and Exeter are fairly close to each other. The evidence suggests that it is not necessary to move because an excellent service is being provided at a profit at the moment, drawing on a pool of labour and good will in Taunton that is not available anywhere else in the country.

I accept that most of the buildings where the Hydrographic Office is located are out of date. It has had one new building recently. The buildings are not dysfunctional but they are, in the current political phrase, not entirely fit for purpose. Doubtless the office could perform to an even higher standard if it were located in superior premises. I support that idea. Given that the Hydrographic Office is in not only a prestigious but an economically successful part of the Ministry of Defence, the case for investment in new buildings is compelling.

I am open minded about relocating the Hydrographic Office within Taunton and about it being the centrepiece of another development elsewhere in the town. However, I would prefer it to stay in its current location in the eastern part of Taunton, not least because, according to most indicators, that is the poorest part of the town. Having the service and magnet for job creation in that part of town is a valuable consideration for those who live in Taunton.

There is a need to invest in the service to improve in its physical facilities. There is not, however, a need to throw the baby out with the bathwater by relocating the service in its entirety. It has been in Taunton in its entirety for almost 40 years, and has had some presence there since the second world war. It has consistently performed to the highest standard; there are very few features of government that can be seen to have performed with such routine excellence over the years as the Hydrographic Office. The town has a huge emotional attachment to the office that goes back over the generations, and it has stood by the office, served it and been proud of it for many decades. The nation’s interests, as well as those of Somerset and Taunton, would be well served by giving the town the opportunity to stand by, serve and have people working at the Hydrographic Office in Taunton for many more decades to come.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) on securing this Adjournment debate, and I welcome the opportunity to bring to the House’s attention the splendid work done by the UK Hydrographic Office on behalf of the nation, and for the benefit of seafarers worldwide.

The hon. Gentleman’s speech showed that he has made a great debut in the House. Although he sits on the Liberal Democrat Benches, he is a very old friend, and I know that he has developed a reputation for advocating the interests of his constituents with a powerful voice. I must say to him, however, that although he has made a great entrance into the Chamber, he has not yet learned all the ropes. Last week, when he applied for an Adjournment debate, he should have known that there was a possibility that he would be on his feet while England were playing in the World cup. However, older hands seem to have let him off the hook this afternoon. I thank our friends from Wales who concluded their business early so that the true-blooded Englishmen in the House can conclude their affairs as well as taking on the serious issues of the UK Hydrographic Office. I say to them, “Diolch i Gymru”— “Thank you, Wales”.

Let me begin by agreeing wholeheartedly with the hon. Gentleman that the Hydrographic Office is a huge national asset. I did not expect, when I became Minister for Veterans, that I would find myself responsible for safety of life at sea as well. But, on a personal level, I am immensely proud to have responsibility for what is, by common international consent, the best hydrographic authority in the world, bar none. The hon. Gentleman paid tribute to the other countries that have noted that. Its reputation has been carefully built up over 200 years through the dedication and talent of its people.

The need for a national hydrographic office arose at the end of the 18th century, when the Royal Navy required more reliable charts, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out. He failed to mention, however, that in 1795, Alexander Dalrymple was appointed the first hydrographer of the Navy—[Hon. Members: “A fine man!”] He was indeed. He was tasked with collecting, sorting and cataloguing charts and surveys and with producing the charts needed by the fleet. Since then, the Hydrographic Office has carved out its role as a world authority and the provider of data essential to safe marine navigation.

The Hydrographic Office supplies most of the world’s merchant fleet with charts and publications, and it is the UK’s national hydrographic authority. Its mission is to meet national, defence and civil needs for charts and other hydrographic information in support of safe navigation. The Hydrographic Office also discharges the Government’s responsibility under the UN convention on the safety of life at sea. This includes providing round-the-clock radio navigational warnings as part of an international network. Through all those endeavours, the Hydrographic Office is instrumental in keeping safe the lives of millions of mariners.

Would the Minister say, in his encomium to the Hydrographic Office, that it is indeed fit for purpose? Will he—a young, talented and aspiring Minister—resist the ministerial merger mania that seems to affect other people of his category when they get their hands of the levers of state? Will he lay to rest, at least for the time being, the rumours to which the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) referred?

What a pleasant surprise it is to discover that, and how lucky I am that, my hon. Friend’s daughter works for the UK Hydrographic Office.

My hon. Friend’s daughter’s friend works for the UK Hydrographic Office and has apprised him of the excellent work it does. If my hon. Friend allows me to develop my argument a little further, he might get the answer that he is looking for; then again, he might not.

With about 1,000 staff, including many highly skilled cartographers and geographic information specialists, the Hydrographic Office is one of the largest employers in Somerset, so the point that the hon. Member for Taunton makes about its importance to his constituency is well made; I understand that argument. The Hydrographic Office is an organisation with an international outlook, in keeping with the international nature of the world merchant fleet that it supports, yet it has still been working to raise its profile and become more involved in the local community. Judging by the response to speculation in the local press, that has obviously been very successful. [Interruption.] That story has even found its way to Leicestershire and brought Members to the Chamber from as far away as the north-east to discuss the UKHO’s future.

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.

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 Teacuis—one of the remotest lochs in the UK—using a 1934 paper chart. It is important that paper charts continue to play a significant part in the nation’s seafaring ways.

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 that—unlike in the case of ordnance survey mapping, where there has been a transition to digital mapping—mariners still place a traditional value on maps, and that many still prefer them to digital ones. So my hon. Friend’s 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.

Two issues arise from the Minister’s remarks. How long will the pre-thinking—and, indeed, the post-thinking—take, 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?

Let me do some pre-thinking and answer his question in a little while.

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.

I am grateful for the insight into my hon. Friend’s pre-thinking, which is obviously lacking in other Departments. Will my hon. Friend also await the Defence Committee’s 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 Office’s future.

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. I am awaiting the report with some excitement.

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.

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.

I am grateful for that offer. I also have a meeting with the outgoing chief executive of UKHO tomorrow. His replacement starts in a month’s 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.

The best way to answer that is to undertake to send a copy of Hansard to the Chairman of the Defence Committee.

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 site—as the hon. Gentleman mentioned—and 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 Taunton’s 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.

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 shall have to check the transcript, but I am sure that I said that I needed to see a compelling case for change in respect of the UKHO, and I reiterate that now.

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 UKHO’s location and exact ownership status will be made. What should I tell them? The most important matter is the office’s 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?

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an exact time scale this afternoon, but when the recommendation arrives on my desk I will write to him about it.

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.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes to Four o’clock.