[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the BBC’s relationship with the Met Office.
The Met Office and the BBC are two of the United Kingdom’s most respected and successful public institutions. The first is our national weather forecaster, owned by the public, and the second is our national broadcaster, also owned by the public; they both have a reach and reputation that go far beyond these shores.
The BBC is a global broadcaster, with a justified reputation for quality, accuracy and impartiality. Our Met Office is independently assessed and widely recognised as the best in the world. Both the BBC and the Met Office earn millions of pounds for UK plc; for example, our Met Office provides weather forecasts for most of the world’s civilian airlines, keeping our flights safe and helping them to plan the most efficient routes. The Met Office does more than just forecast weather. It provides expert advice on a host of hazards, including flooding, air quality, space weather and volcanic ash, and is the world’s leading repository of expertise on climate change.
The BBC and the Met Office are also two of the world’s oldest organisations of their kind. The Met Office was set up by the Government in 1854 to establish meteorology as a science and, initially, to provide weather forecasts to protect the safety of ships and their crews at sea. The BBC first broadcast a radio weather bulletin in 1922 using data from the Met Office, a relationship that has prospered to the present day. The weather men and women we see regularly on our TV screens are fully qualified meteorological scientists, often employed not by the BBC, but by the Met Office. They work round the clock using their scientific expertise and broadcasting skills to communicate vital information to the public. Many of them, across the generations, have become household names. Radio 4’s shipping forecast, again provided by the Met Office, is an iconic part of our national life.
It was with some consternation that I heard back in August that the BBC was planning to end its 90-year-plus relationship with the Met Office. I should say at this stage that the Met Office is in my constituency. Indeed, I helped to secure its transfer to Exeter from Bracknell in the early noughties, and we in Exeter are immensely proud to host it. However, my main motivation for seeking this debate is not the potential impact on my constituency. The current contract with the BBC earns the Met Office about £3 million out of a turnover of £220 million a year. The Met Office has said that any impact on income or jobs from the BBC terminating the contract would be minimal. No, my main reason for raising my concerns and seeking this debate is primarily the wider national interest.
The historic relationship between the Met Office and the BBC and of each organisation with the Government has been and, in my view, remains integral to national resilience and emergency planning and even, in times or arenas of conflict, to national security. The Met Office provides information to a whole host of customers and organisations, including commercial businesses, transport bodies, farmers, seafarers, sports organisations, local government, the NHS and the general public. If we think about it, there is almost no aspect of our lives that is not somehow impacted by the weather. Timely, accurate weather information and forecasting is vital in normal times, but during extreme weather events or at times of national emergency it can be a matter of life and death.
That is why the Met Office is embedded in our civil contingency systems. I remember, as a Minister, attending emergency meetings of the civil contingencies secretariat, COBRA, during severe flooding and the foot-and-mouth and bird flu crises, when the in-time input from Met Office staff was absolutely critical in informing the Government’s response. Communicating severe warnings quickly and accurately through our main broadcaster is vital to enable businesses, public bodies and the wider public to plan and respond.
The BBC has said in response to questions from me that it intends to continue to use the Met Office’s severe weather warnings in its broadcasts, and that is extremely welcome. But what the BBC has not done is explain how it will ensure that those warnings are consistent with its general weather forecasting if they are sourced from a different provider.
Britain’s geographical position on the edge of the European continent and facing the Atlantic makes our weather very difficult to predict. Accurately forecasting the exact route of the deep depressions or storms that are responsible for most of the gales and flooding we experience is particularly tricky. The Met Office has an unparalleled reputation in getting these forecasts right. In fact, the World Meteorological Organisation says the Met Office’s forecasts are consistently the most accurate in the world. But if the BBC goes ahead with its plans, the severe weather warnings from the Met Office could still be broadcast by the BBC but might be inconsistent with or even contradict the BBC’s general weather forecasts.
Accurate and consistent messaging is absolutely essential in weather-related emergencies. Ten years ago, America suffered its worst ever death toll in a natural disaster when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. Much of the subsequent blame for the high death toll centred on the inconsistent and contradictory weather warnings, which sowed uncertainty and confusion in the area about the need to evacuate. I know our civil contingencies secretariat is extremely concerned about the BBC’s proposals and the potential for mixed messages.
In response to parliamentary questions I have been assured by Ministers that arrangements will be put in place to address those concerns. The BBC has issued similar assurances to the Met Office, but we have not been provided with an explanation as to how that can be done so I would be grateful if the Minister would do so in his response. I wonder whether the Minister shares my concern that we could be facing a situation in which the public will receive and act on information provided through the BBC that is different from that provided to the Government itself and the emergency services by the Met Office. The long-standing and respected environment editor of The Independent, Mike McCarthy, said of the BBC’s proposal to drop the Met Office:
“It may suit the Corporation’s bottom line, or its image of itself as a trendy broadcaster: but the commercial interests of the BBC are not the same as the interests of the nation, and this decision is a nonsense which needs to be reversed.”
I have a parallel concern about the effectiveness of our armed services. The Met Office, which until recently came under the umbrella of the Ministry of Defence, provides regular weather information to our military at home and abroad. Met Office staff in military uniform are currently embedded within our armed services in Afghanistan and Oman. Those armed services will also have access to the BBC’s global weather forecasting, so there is a danger that the information they receive officially from the Met Office could be inconsistent with that provided by the BBC over the normal media, hampering operational safety and effectiveness.
Then there is the further potential vulnerability, in the event of a more serious conflict, war or massive cyber-attack, of our national broadcaster being dependent on a private or foreign weather forecaster. I should be grateful if the Minister would say whether the Government have made any assessment of the impact of the BBC’s proposal on national resilience and security.
I would also like the Minister to tell us whether there have been any discussions across the Government about value for money if the BBC contracts weather services from abroad or from a private company. At the moment, the public pay through the licence fee for the BBC’s weather services, but the public, or the Government, also receive the income as the Met Office is publicly owned. If the BBC goes down its proposed route, the public will in effect be paying twice: first to the Met Office for its work and again to a foreign-owned or private weather provider via the BBC licence fee.
As the Minister well knows, the BBC is about to embark on its 10-year charter renegotiation and renewal. This is the chance for the BBC to agree its size, its scope and its strategy within the financial envelope provided by the licence fee. Given the financial constraints on the corporation because of the funding levels already announced by the Government, there is widespread consensus that the BBC will have to do less if it is to protect quality. However, in a briefing provided to me in response to my concerns about the BBC decision, the BBC says that it wants
“to enhance our position as the leading destination for weather information with ambitions to be the best provider of weather information in the UK and the world.”
We already have the world’s best provider of weather information. It is called the Met Office. This feels like another example of the BBC trying to do everything and grow its empire, rather than doing what its director-general, Tony Hall, says it should be doing, which is “partnering with others”. On the eve of charter review, the BBC is planning to sign a new 10-year contract with a foreign or private weather provider, pre-empting charter review and shutting the public completely out of the process. Does the Minister not agree that it would be far better for the BBC to consider and decide this as part of charter renewal? That would also give it and the relevant Departments the chance to review and address the concerns that I and the Met Office have been raising.
That leads me, finally, to the process. The decision by the BBC was not consulted on and was announced not in any formal way, but in the form of a leak to The Sunday Times. That is unsatisfactory in itself, but it is completely clear from the correspondence that I have received from Ministers and from the answers to my parliamentary questions that Ministers and Departments were kept in the dark over this. The BBC treated it as a narrow commercial decision, with no regard whatever to the wider national and governmental interests. Could the Minister please confirm that he and other Ministers were not consulted on the announcement before the BBC made it? Could he also tell me what subsequent conversations he has had with colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the MOD, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the civil contingencies office and the other interested Departments and agencies about the potential impact of the BBC’s plans on national resilience and security?
The Met Office website offers a public weather media service that will be made available free at the point of use to all public service broadcasters. That package of information includes weather forecasts, warnings, observations, guidance, scripts and services provided under licence and tailored for the broadcast media, so I am also concerned that the BBC has in effect tendered for services that, at least in part, are available to it free of charge through that service. I recognise that the actual content of any tender is commercially confidential, but I none the less request the Minister to reassure himself that the option to satisfy the BBC requirement through the public weather media service was fully explored before the decision to tender was taken. If it was not, there are serious questions about the process and its ability to deliver value for money. My concern is that the BBC has pursued a narrow commercial tender without fully considering its responsibilities to UK resilience and public safety and value for money. That might explain why it is having such trouble explaining how it is going to address the concerns that it now recognises are real, but if the BBC cannot explain that, it is very important that the Government do.
This episode seems to me to be a classic example of a large organisation—in this case, the BBC—taking a decision without thinking through the wider implications. If it had bothered to consult or even seek others’ views, it might have come to a different conclusion. Now that the wider implications and problems have been pointed out to it, it is frantically trying to reassure us that the potential problems can be resolved, but without explaining how. I hope very much that, in the light of this debate, the BBC will pause this process and see the merit of rolling it forward into charter renewal, so that it can fully explore the potential problems with this plan and consider its weather forecasting contract as part of its overall strategy and reach.
However, the responsibility of Government goes much wider than this. The Government have overall responsibility for national security, emergency planning and managing crises and contingencies. So far, I have not been reassured by what Ministers and their Departments have said on this. I therefore hope that, in his response, the Minister can address those concerns or, failing that, go away and consult his colleagues in BIS, the MOD, the civil contingencies office and elsewhere and provide the detailed reassurances and explanations that I am seeking.
It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time in Westminster Hall, Mr Streeter. I thank the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) for securing the debate. It is directly relevant to my constituency, which is not a million miles away, and to your constituency of South West Devon. We will almost certainly have constituents directly affected by this decision. However, although there is a link between Torbay and south Devon’s economy and the location of the Met Office, my focus, like that of the preceding speech, will be on the overall impact of the decision and what it could mean for our country.
It is safe to say that anyone who represents a coastal community knows the absolute importance of an accurate weather forecast and of that being disseminated to the public more widely. It is not the person who has a large shipping operation who relies on the BBC shipping forecast. It is the person deciding whether to go out in their own small boat the next morning. It is the person going to the beach. It is the person who might take their family to the coast. For each of them, it is critical that they can easily get hold of an accurate weather forecast. I see here my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray), whose area has a large fishing industry. I have the bay, but I do not have Brixham. That is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), but there is certainly a fishing community in Torquay that goes through Torbay, and all rely on being able to have accurate forecasts, with many using the BBC to supply them.
What speaks to me about the importance of the weather is this. We all remember the iconic hanging tracks at Dawlish. Had those winds been true east rather than slightly to the south-east, that storm would have hit Paignton directly, causing a very severe impact. That is why, for me, the relationship between the Met Office and the BBC is crucial.
The BBC has a reputation for gold-standard accuracy in its weather forecasts—perhaps with the exception of Michael Fish not quite seeing the hurricane that was on its way. Therefore, it is vital that it also has the accuracy of the Met Office’s gold standard of weather information and forecasting. The right hon. Member for Exeter was right to talk about potential conflicts between Met Office severe weather warnings, which again are the gold standard for keeping people away from harm, and another provider advising of a slightly different outcome in the weather. It is hard to see how an organisation that has been accurately forecasting Britain’s weather for nearly 170 years will be bested by any other organisation suddenly picking up this contract for the BBC.
It is vital that we look at the need for a resilient source of weather information, as the right hon. Gentleman said, for the military, for our civil authorities and for Government itself. We need to look at everything from energy security to potential issues with our agricultural sector. Many things will depend on knowing the weather and being able to provide what support we can by having had notice well in advance of what the weather conditions are likely to be.
For me, what shows the importance of the weather to Government decisions and planning is that we banned weather forecasts during world war two, because that was seen as such useful information to the enemy that we did not want them to have it. Seventy years later, it is still a vital part of Government planning. It is not just about whether we will get wet when going out for a walk, but about planning services—planning when power stations will need to be brought on to supply, and planning when staff may need to be on standby for everything from snow and ice to flood and wind. Ensuring that we can maintain a resilient and durable Met Office is crucial to the way we run our country.
I accept that the Government do not direct the BBC in its contracting. It is right that the corporation has a level of independence. It would be strange for us to stand in this House one day demanding that it is completely independent of Government and then the next day demand that the Government take various decisions for it. That said, it is concerning that this decision was taken purely on a fairly narrow set of criteria. I, too, would be interested to hear the Minister’s remarks on what consultation was done, given that ultimately the BBC is not a service that anyone can choose to receive. If someone has a television, they have to pay for it under the law, and in fact they are still branded a criminal if they do not pay the licence fee that goes towards it, so I would certainly be interested to hear what consultations were done.
I hope that the BBC will take a close look at the impact of the decision. My concern, as a constituency Member, is for my constituents who will be affected, particularly as such an iconic employer brings quality jobs into Devon that will benefit the community in the long term. I agree with the suggestion from the right hon. Member for Exeter that the BBC should pause this issue during the charter review, in which we debate the whole relationship between the Government and the BBC—between the state and the public broadcaster. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts and comments. As I said, we cannot say one day that the BBC should be independent and the next that it should do whatever we direct it to do.
We need to know that the gold standard of weather forecasting is available; we do not want a standard that blows with the wind. I hope that the BBC will look again at this opportunity to keep its historic link with the Met Office.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. The Scottish National party Government Minister Humza Yousaf once observed that there are two seasons in Glasgow: taps oan and taps aff. To translate for those who are hard of Scots, that means removing one’s upper garments, or keeping one’s upper garments on. Of course, as everybody knows, the colder and wetter it gets in Glasgow, the more clothing people remove. My constituency is the second-wettest in the United Kingdom, just missing out on the top spot to Cardiff.
Although people from Scotland joke and vent their frustrations about the unpredictable weather that we experience throughout the day, accurate weather forecasting is essential to the country. The landscape and natural environment of Scotland are one reason why detailed weather forecasting is so important. Tourists from all over the world come to marvel at Scotland’s natural beauty, climb our mountains, trek in our glens or explore our cities. They need to know the weather in advance to ensure that they dress appropriately and are adequately prepared. Our country’s winter sport industry is worth nearly £30 million to the economy each year, so hotels and ski resorts also need to have detailed weather forecasts so that they can plan accurately.
In addition, Scotland is home to large shipping, fishing and seafaring communities, who need to be fully briefed on what lies out in the seas to ensure their safety. Those are three of many obvious examples of why weather forecasting makes a huge impact on life in Scotland. It is intrinsically linked to the safety of our people and the prosperity of our economy. People rely on the Met Office.
There are, surely, two key questions that need to be addressed when debating the relationship between the Met Office and the BBC, and the divorce that is taking place. What were the reasons for ending the contract with the Met Office? Will the ending of the contract improve the weather forecasting service for the people of these countries? A BBC spokesperson has stated that during the bid process for the weather forecasting contract, the BBC sought to
“make sure we secure both the best possible service and value for money for the licence fee payer.”
That, of course, is always foremost in any BBC manager’s thought process. Although that is to be expected, can both be prioritised simultaneously or has value for money taken precedence?
There has been some misinformation about the cost of the Met Office to the BBC; reports in the press have stated that the Met Office charges the BBC £30 million a year. In fact, that is the total commercial revenue of the Met Office from a wide range of customers for the whole year. Only a small percentage of that comes from services to the BBC, with presenters being paid at market rate. The Met Office is seen as providing the most accurate predictions for UK weather underpinned by significant research capability and strong infrastructure. It is regarded as a world leader in the field, and provides services in the United Kingdom and around the world.
Many have argued that the BBC’s decision to end its contract with the Met Office has been taken purely for commercial reasons. Dr Grant Allen, an atmospheric physicist at the University of Manchester and a leading expert in the field, has said:
“In my opinion, the BBC’s decision was taken on cost and not on predictive skill. We could get less accurate weather forecasts than before through the BBC, and that is sad news.”
Moreover, the timing of the divorce could not be worse. The Met Office has recently invested £97 million in a supercomputer 13 times more powerful than its previous system, which will increase the accuracy of its forecasting. As part of the new forecasting abilities, the Met Office says that it wants to include the probability of certain weather types. A forecast would give the temperature and a 20% chance of rain, for example—again, vital to my constituents, although our assumption is that there is 100% chance of rain every day for the next year. Such probabilities are available on the Met Office website, and many people are used to using them on smartphone apps. We understand, although this has not been confirmed by the BBC, that the BBC does not want that new service, regardless of how useful it would be to licence fee payers.
If the BBC has opted to end its contract with the Met Office simply to reduce costs and replace it with a service that is not as detailed or accurate, that is worrying and clearly goes against the BBC’s public service broadcasting remit. The BBC is responsible for providing services to inform its audience—services that would not always otherwise be provided where commercial interests are at the fore. Detailed, accurate weather forecasts fall into that category, and attempts to dumb down in order to reduce costs would do a disservice to audiences across the United Kingdom.
On a broader level, the UK has a leading position in the world for atmospheric science, which is the result of sustained institutional support for the science. Questions must be asked about how the end of the BBC contract will affect the Met Office and its ability to deliver. Will investment in the Met Office suffer as a result? Will the change have knock-on effects on the Met Office’s numerous roles outwith the BBC? Will it ultimately affect the future of domestic weather forecasting throughout the country?
The two companies widely reported to be in the final bidding for the contract are a Dutch firm called MeteoGroup and the commercial branch of New Zealand’s meteorological service, MetraWeather. Both must now come under scrutiny. Whichever is selected, we must be assured that it will deliver the high-quality, detailed and accurate weather forecasting required for the BBC and audiences. MeteoGroup is already used by the London Evening Standard and provides services at the Sheringham Shoal offshore wind farm. MetraWeather has attempted to make weather forecasting more interactive during TV bulletins in the Netherlands. Those are, however, small-scale endeavours compared with the scope of the task ahead of them if they are to replace the Met Office working for the BBC.
As Professor Ellie Highwood, joint head of the University of Reading department of meteorology, has said:
“Without any details about the BBC’s new arrangements, it is too early to say how this decision will impact the quality of weather forecasts to the general public”.
She does not welcome the developments. It is now the BBC’s responsibility to award the contract to whichever provider will offer the best weather forecasting service to the public. I strongly hope that it is awarded on the basis of quality of service, rather than as a cost-cutting procedure. At the end of this process, I expect the BBC to show full transparency and detail why the contract with the Met Office was ended and why a new contract was awarded to a different supplier.
In conclusion, I find myself agreeing with the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) that the Met Office is part of the family silver. Expelling it from our TV screens seems an unnecessary, destructive step, which has been inadequately explained and unwelcome.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. This is the third time in less than 24 hours that the Minister and I have been opposite one another. Yesterday evening he tried to incite me to intervene, although, as the Speaker rightly pointed out, it was against parliamentary procedure—not exactly fair play.
No, it was not cricket. I was obliged to remain silent, but I intend to make up for that today. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) on securing this important debate and on his impressive opening speech. He speaks with experience and authority, as a local MP and a previous Minister.
He was a Secretary of State.
And as a previous Secretary of State. He knows his subject comprehensively. I am sure that the Minister will extend my right hon. Friend the courtesy of answering all his questions as fully as possible.
As my right hon. Friend said in his introduction, the Met Office is a respected and successful institution. He touched briefly on the origins of what is now known as the Met Office. Those origins reflect many supremely British characteristics: naval power, trade, exploration, science and eccentricity. The Met Office was first founded as the Meteorological Department of the Board of Trade by Robert FitzRoy, who is most famous for being the captain of HMS Beagle, the ship that carried Charles Darwin on his famous voyage. More than 160 years ago, this House roared with laughter when a Member suggested that we might, one day, predict the weather in advance. FitzRoy led an interesting and troubled life, but pressed on in the face of scepticism about weather reporting. Today, his vision of a public forecasting service, funded by the Government for the benefit of all, has endured.
The modern Met Office is respected the world over and has an important place at the heart of the nation’s contingency planning and our culture. Indeed, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson) emphasised its role in the heart of Scotland’s culture. We all like to poke fun at weather forecasters for getting it wrong, but the fact is that the Met Office is critical to our military security and civil planning. Its shipping forecasts make the jobs of those at sea a little safer, as the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) rightly emphasised. Its global research links enhance our understanding of how the weather and climate affect our economy and way of life, and its parliamentary advice makes us all—at least, those of us who make use of it—a little wiser.
I hope the Minister will assure us that the Met Office is not on the Government’s list of public sector targets. In fact, I hope that he and his colleagues will go further and champion its work and the unique role it plays. Perhaps, they might even recognise the value that such public sector institutions play in our society and economy. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter said, this decision is not the end of the Met Office—far from it. It does so much more than providing the BBC with weather forecasts. In fact, its data will still drive those forecasts. The decision raises questions about the strategic relationship between the BBC and the weather provider. The police and the military will continue to rely on the Met Office for advice, while the public may receive different information. My right hon. Friend cited international examples that raise serious questions about this approach. Is the Minister concerned about that and has he discussed it with the BBC?
Many in the Conservative party believe that the BBC needs to be clipped, either because of misplaced ideas that it crowds out competitors or because of perceived bias. I find it difficult to divorce this decision and this debate from the wider context of the charter renewal process and the sustained attack that the BBC is coming under from the Government and their friends. The BBC is under immense pressure at the moment to prove to the Government and the wider public that it is efficient and good value for money. Obviously we are all in favour of value for money, but what matters is how we define value and over what period of time. Even if we accept that there is no risk to the national interest—which I have yet to be convinced of, although I will listen closely to the Minister—I am not persuaded that the cheapest option is always the best.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
As I think I was saying before democracy interrupted me, my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter explained that the BBC’s decision is not the end for the Met Office—far from it: it does much more than weather forecasts. However, the decision raises questions about the strategic relationship of the BBC and the weather forecaster. Has the Minister discussed that with the BBC, and does he have concerns about it?
I am intrigued by the timing of the decision. Is it right to award a 10-year contract when the charter renewal process is about to decide on the entire future of the BBC and its purpose? Should not such important decisions be made after we know the outcome of the process? I understand that the contract does not expire until next year. Is it too late to review the decision and the process? Will there be increased transparency about the criteria for the decision that has been made?
What if, as part of the open consultation the Minister is running with the British public, we decide that the purpose of the BBC is indeed to provide integrated weather warnings at critical times? In its briefings to Members, the BBC has said that the decision to go to open tender was a legal one—something that it had to do. I support open tendering, of course. We need competitive procurement to prevent contracts from being handed out to the same old cronies and to enable new and innovative companies to have access to the £242 billion of public procurement cash available from the public sector, but what discussions have the Government had with the BBC regarding other aspects of the contract, such as social value?
I am sure the Minister is aware that recent European Union law exempts some services from procurement laws, and other laws allow organisations to make allowances in certain circumstances—for instance, where there is a question of social value. The Public Contracts Regulations 2015 came into force in February and expand on exemptions for co-operation between entities in the public sector, which I would have thought was exactly the case here. What is the Minister’s interpretation of that exemption? Has he taken any advice on the rules in this case? If so, can he share it with the House today or deposit it in the Library, or ideally both?
One charge often levelled by Members of this House and others is that we are too strict on ourselves in this country when interpreting and obeying EU laws and can err on the side of extreme caution, so will the Minister bring his considerable resources to bear and see whether this 93-year-old relationship does not have to be sacrificed? We have yet to decide what the BBC is for or what outcomes we want. The BBC is a great British institution. It is public sector, it is successful and it is loved. Of course it needs to evolve with the times and with technology, but it also needs the support and championing of this Government.
I could say exactly the same about the Met Office. My right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter and the hon. Member for Torbay described in detail how successful and appreciated the Met Office is, and it, too, needs to evolve with the times and with technology. The Met Office also deserves the support and championing of this Government. I will listen with interest to the Minister, as always, but it seems strange that these two great British institutions should not be natural allies and partners.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Streeter. I thank the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) for securing this important debate. He and I have a close mutual interest in the weather on the weekend of 7 and 8 November. As he may be aware, I am lucky enough to be president of Didcot Town football club, who for the first time in their history have reached round 1 of the FA cup. I am delighted that their first opponents, because they are bound to win, will be Exeter City on that weekend. I hope he will join me in the lavish corporate box at Didcot Town, having cycled from his Exeter constituency on what I hope will be a fine and sunny day, but who can tell? Maybe the Met Office can.
The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) spoke about her and me appearing together for the third time, but she left out the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson), who is also part of the group. Looking at the three of us, I call to mind the great words of the bard:
“When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?”
I cannot answer the first part of that question, but when I do know I will ask the Met Office to answer the second part.
We are lucky to have the Met Office, but it does not provide the weather for every television channel. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, MeteoServices provides the weather for Channel 4, and it has a distinctive approach. The weatherman for Channel 4, Mr Liam Dutton, achieved notoriety for faultlessly pronouncing the longest place name in Wales, which, as I do not need to remind hon. Members, is Llanfairpwllgwyngyll- gogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch—I have almost certainly mispronounced it, but I may be the first hon. Member to read it into Hansard.
The right hon. Member for Exeter made it clear that he is proud of the Met Office, as we all are of the UK’s national meteorological service. The Met Office is an internationally renowned organisation based in his constituency, and it provides highly skilled jobs and international connections. It is a massive asset for the south-west, which is why I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) here. No doubt you have your own interest as a south-west Member of Parliament, Mr Streeter. Everyone in this House knows how committed the Chancellor is to science and a knowledge-driven economy. The Met Office is a fantastic example of that, which is why we have invested a significant sum in its new supercomputer; I will return to that towards the end of my remarks.
The right hon. Member for Exeter has corresponded with me, tabled parliamentary questions and secured this debate because he is interested in the BBC’s decision not to shortlist the Met Office in its procurement process for weather forecasting services. That procurement process is still under way, but it has come to light that the Met Office is not on the shortlist. The current contract with the Met Office is therefore due to end in autumn 2016. That is a commercial decision for the BBC to take, and it is interesting that when we disagree with decisions made by the BBC—not me personally or as a Minister—we feel free to comment. I live in a world in which people are constantly telling me to keep my hands off the BBC, but I have no intention of interfering with its commercial decisions. It is true, as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central mentioned, that the BBC is undergoing a charter review, and we are obviously considering a range of options for its future, but it is important that we keep in mind its editorial independence and its freedom to make sensible commercial decisions. The BBC has a duty, and has always had a duty, to conduct its business in a way that delivers value for money for licence fee payers.
On the wider question of what kind of weather service the BBC will provide in the future, it is of course crucial that consistent information is available, particularly on severe weather, and that those warnings reach the people most likely to be affected. I reassure the right hon. Member for Exeter that in the next few months all parties concerned will continue to work with the BBC to ensure that Met Office severe weather warnings are clearly and consistently communicated to the public, because the Met Office will continue to provide the official UK forecast, official guidance and warnings as the single authoritative voice during high-impact weather events, such as storms, gales and flooding. We expect the BBC to continue carrying the Met Office’s national severe weather warnings—that applies to all broadcasters, regardless of who provides their day-to-day weather forecasting—and to ensure that those severe weather warnings are consistent with any wider forecast issued at the same time. Indeed, the BBC has made it clear that it will continue to use the Met Office severe weather warnings.
As part of that new approach, the Met Office is developing a new public weather media service, which will be made freely available to all broadcasters and will ensure that Met Office severe weather warnings reach the maximum audience effectively and efficiently. The public weather media service is due to be ready by July 2016, before the current contract expires, so that it can be incorporated into whatever new service the BBC chooses to contract.
The Met Office public weather service is a critical component of the UK’s resilience infrastructure. It provides the public with the information that they need to make decisions and protect themselves and their property from high-impact weather. An important part of the service is public weather advisers—Met Office experts who provide advice and guidance to local emergency planners and responders and who are greatly valued by all who work in that area.
The public will continue to benefit from Met Office expertise through a wide range of other channels, including other national and regional TV, radio and print media outlets and the Met Office’s website, mobile app and social media channels. It is important to clarify that the civil contingencies secretariat, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Met Office are working together on the public weather media service.
I am pleased to hear that the civil contingencies secretariat, BIS and others are working with the Met Office on that. I do not know whether the Minister slightly misunderstood my point about consistency. It is not about the consistency of severe weather warnings, which the BBC has agreed to continue broadcasting from the Met Office; it is about consistency between those and the general weather forecasting that the BBC might purchase from a different provider.
TV viewers and radio listeners could receive different information in general weather forecasts from the information issued by the Met Office, or the information provided by the Met Office to Government. The Minister says that such inconsistency will be addressed. We have heard the BBC give that assurance before, but it has not explained how it will resolve that potential inconsistency.
As I thought I was explaining but will try to make clearer, my understanding was that the public weather service will be freely available to all media outlets. The work that the civil contingencies secretariat, BIS and the Met Office are undertaking now will ensure that when that service goes live in the summer of next year, it will be able to be incorporated into the BBC’s more general weather. In effect, the public weather service is about severe weather warnings—gales, storms and flooding, as I said earlier—and it must be incorporated within the routine weather forecast: for example, whether it will rain tomorrow in East Dunbartonshire, or be cloudy or sunny. I am confident that that work will ensure that those two effectively separate parts of weather forecasting will be consistent and incorporated, not only by the BBC but by other broadcasters.
I will take this opportunity to address some of the other points raised by the right hon. Gentleman. It is not the case that Ministers were informed by the BBC of its decision. The Met Office informed the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills after learning that it was not on the shortlist for procurement, but I do not take any umbrage at the BBC’s not having informed us. As I said, it is a commercial decision for the BBC.
Are we getting value for money? Are we effectively paying twice for the service? It is important to understand that the Met Office was not giving general weather service free of charge to the BBC; the BBC was paying for it. Procurement is under way for the weather service that the BBC will use in future. That is commercially confidential, but I do not see how it can be argued that we are paying twice, given that the BBC is currently paying for a weather service from the Met Office and will pay for a weather service from another provider next year.
I know that there will be concerns, particularly from a constituency perspective, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned. As far as I understand it, the Met Office contract with the BBC is a small fraction of its total turnover, and I am not aware of any knock-on effect in terms of redundancies or job losses.
To clarify, the point about not paying twice is that the British public pay the Met Office to produce a weather service, and now it will pay the BBC to pay somebody else to produce a weather service. The British public might be paying for two different weather forecasts, for the same weather.
Clarity is clearly not my strong point this afternoon. As I said earlier, the BBC’s contract with the Met Office is a commercial contract, paid for out of the licence fee. The BBC will continue to pay for a commercial contract, whether or not we agree with whoever eventually wins that procurement—whether or not we morally agree, as it were, that it is the right company. It may well be a foreign company, although it could well be a British company. That is one thing, but the fact is that we are not paying twice for the service. The licence fee pays for a weather service provided by the BBC that happens to be provided by the Met Office. It is not provided for free. As far as I am aware—again, it is a commercial procurement process—at no point did the Met Office offer to provide that service free to the BBC.
I thank the Minister for the response that he has given so far. On the comment that he just made about the BBC being a small percentage of the overall Met Office contract, will he confirm, to help deal with perceptions in south Devon, that he is satisfied that the Met Office will still be a viable and effective organisation going forward?
My hon. Friend’s question is helpful, because it allows me to segue into the wider part of my speech. I want to talk about the wider work of the Met Office, because it is a more than viable organisation. As I said in my opening remarks, it is a widely respected international organisation with a turnover of around £200 million, and it is highly successful. For example, regardless of whether the BBC continues to use the Met Office, its website is one of the most used websites in the UK Government family. It delivers weather information and critical weather warnings via a huge range of digital channels. The mobile app has been downloaded more than 12 million times, and there are 430 million user sessions every year. Some 900,000 people follow Met Office social media accounts.
The Met Office provides a huge range of services, not just to Government but to business. Its day-to-day forecasts and weather warnings are the most high-profile, but it also works with, for example, the Environment Agency on flood forecasting. It will continue to provide shipping forecasts, mountain weather forecasts and services to the aviation industry. It provides air quality and volcanic ash monitoring, which is not such an esoteric service when we remember what happened with the ash cloud a few years ago. The Met Office’s work touches almost every aspect of our lives, in many ways of which we are unaware. It may interest hon. Members to know that just last week, the Met Office won the most prestigious award at the “top 50 companies for customer services” awards.
The Met Office is not only known for weather forecasting; it is home to the Hadley centre for climate science and services, one of the most famous research institutes in the world. It remains an important part of Margaret Thatcher’s legacy; she was the Prime Minister who opened the centre in 1990, and this year it celebrates its 25th anniversary. As we head towards the crucial negotiations at the United Nations conference on climate change in Paris in November, the UK, thanks to the Met Office’s brilliant work, is in a much stronger position to influence and secure the outcome we need as a result of that expertise and world-leading knowledge.
While I am discussing the international climate change conference in Paris, I should say that it is important to stress the global role played by the Met Office. It is one of only two world area forecast centres delivering forecasts globally, and it is recognised by the World Meteorological Organisation as the national meteorological service with the most accurate prediction model in the world. It is internationally respected for its unified weather and climate model, the accuracy of its weather prediction, its research, and its support for developing countries. It helps to save lives and it delivers improvements, such as helping to establish local meteorological services.
I will give just one example of the Met Office’s work. During Hurricane Patricia, which has recently battered Mexico, the Met Office has been, and it will continue to be, the source that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office uses to provide weather advice to citizens in the affected area. So we as a Government are immensely proud of the Met Office, its international standing and the international recognition it brings, but most importantly we are proud of the difference that it makes to people’s lives every day.
That is why, as I mentioned in my opening remarks, the Chancellor is backing the Met Office through investment in a new high-performance computing facility. Last year, he announced plans to invest £97 million in a new supercomputer, which will cement the UK’s position as a world leader in weather and climate prediction. The supercomputer’s sophisticated forecasts are anticipated to deliver £2 billion worth of socioeconomic benefits to the UK by enabling better advance preparation and contingency plans to protect people’s homes and businesses. I am told that the installation programme is progressing very well; indeed, it is five weeks ahead of schedule. Also, the Met Office recently released its new five-year science strategy, which aims to deliver science with impact, maximising the benefit to society of its weather and climate expertise, and making the most of the UK Government’s investment in its high-performance computing.
It is a credit to the Met Office and to all the highly skilled staff who work there, obviously including those who work in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Exeter, that it is recognised as a world-class institution that all of us are rightly proud of. Having protected the country for more than 150 years, the Met Office is a trusted voice for the British public, businesses and emergency responders when it is needed most.
I am very gratified that the Minister is extolling the virtues of the Met Office; indeed, he almost seems to be making a better case than I did for the BBC continuing its relationship with the Met Office. Before he closes, may I invite him at least to assure hon. Members and I that he will go away from this debate and just talk to his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence, the Cabinet Office group responsible for civil contingencies, and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, to ensure that they are aware—if they are not already aware—of some of their officials’ concerns, so that Ministers can help to encourage the process that he referred to earlier, of addressing and resolving some of these genuine concerns about resilience and national security?
I absolutely give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance; I will ensure that the points he has made in this debate are taken seriously and that we absolutely clarify for him exactly what the public weather media service will provide, although the answer may not completely satisfy him. I will also seek assurances from the civil contingencies secretariat and BIS officials that they are content with the arrangements, as it were, whereby the BBC is in effect contracting with another provider for what I would call its commercial weather service, which provides the day-to-day weather service that we all watch at the end of a news bulletin, whether that is a national or local news bulletin, as opposed to the more important severe weather warning work that the Met Office does.
As the Minister is so successfully clarifying points, may I point out that my question to him was about the legal basis that is necessary for there to be an open tender, given that EU procurement regulations now exempt collaborations between two public sector entities?
I will certainly consider the point that the hon. Lady makes. It may well be that the contract was de minimis anyway in terms of those procurement rules, and it may well be that the savings the BBC thinks it can make by procuring weather services from another supplier mean that even the social aspects were not of the utmost concern to them. Nevertheless, I, or perhaps even the BBC itself, will write to the hon. Lady to address her point.
This has been a very useful debate. Although it has been disappointing in some respects, in that I was unable to pull a rabbit out of the hat and put the Met Office back in play with the BBC, it is right that we respect the BBC’s independence in this area. We cannot always say whether the BBC’s decisions are right or wrong, and it must be a particular frustration for someone working at the BBC or even leading it to be constantly second-guessed. I second-guessed the BBC on the closure of 6 Music and with hindsight I think I have been proved right; that was a service to save. Many people are now second-guessing the BBC on its moving BBC3 from terrestrial television to the internet. Equally, it is perhaps a testament to the standing of both the Met Office and the BBC that a parliamentary debate should be called to consider the BBC’s decision not to procure its weather services from the Met Office.
In a sense, I will conclude in the way that I started, by saying that my final congratulations must go to the Met Office on accurately predicting the weather for all the Rugby World cup matches. Unfortunately, that did not help the northern hemisphere teams, but I look forward to an accurate prediction of the weather for Didcot Town versus Exeter, and I put on the record now my own prediction that Didcot will win 2-0.
Would the right hon. Member for Exeter like to say a few words by way of winding up?
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the BBC’s relationship with the Met Office.