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Meteorological Office: Relocation

Volume 623: debated on Tuesday 20 March 2001

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3 p.m.

What is their estimate of the cost savings to be made by relocating the Meteorological Office to Exeter.

My Lords, the Meteorological Office's existing accommodation in Bracknell is not suitable for a modern, IT-based organisation. It therefore places weather forecasting services at unacceptable risk and is increasingly costly to maintain. A new site with purpose-built accommodation is the best way of meeting the Met Office's long-term needs and those of its customers.

Compared to a move in the Bracknell area, the Met Office expects additional annual operating cost savings of up to £5 million as a result of relocating to Exeter. The Met Office expects to use this cost saving both to reduce costs to its customers—especially those in the public sector—and to provide essential investment for the future.

My Lords, is not the truth that this decision will rip the heart out of a world-class body of climate expertise and threaten the chance of a proposed European meteorological office being created near Reading? Will not the Government even at this stage institute a serious review of the decision, looking at the long-term future of meteorological research in this country rather than short-term cash savings?

My Lords, the Met Office is of the view that by moving to Exeter it will still maintain its links with various bodies. In choosing Exeter, all the relevant factors were considered, including the potential benefits of being located at Shinfield Park in close proximity to some of the centres of relevant scientific expertise as well as the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts. Both the financial and non-financial arguments are substantially in favour of Exeter.

My Lords, do the Government agree that the Met Office plays a central role in policy and research both military and civilian and therefore should be as centrally located as other headquarter branches of the MoD? Will the Government reconsider their decision?

My Lords, I agree that the Met Office plays a central role in operations policy and in UK, European and global research into military and civil aspects of climate prediction. The Met Office believes that the emphasis should be on collaboration and strengthening ties with European partners. There are many organisations across Europe with which the Met Office wishes to maintain and develop close working relationships. It is therefore by no means essential that the Met Office should be in close proximity with the European centre in order to derive maximum benefit for the UK. With modern technology, communications should not be a problem.

My Lords, will the close historical relationship between the Met Office and the RAF be affected by this change?

My Lords, relationships of that nature should not be affected by the change. As I said to my noble friend Lord Hunt, with the improved IT facilities, communications are better. According to the information which the Met Office has given, I see no reason why that relationship should in any way be damaged.

My Lords, will all those who are experts in weather forecasting move to Exeter or will the Met Office lose much of the expertise that has been built up over many years?

My Lords, many facilities and established organisations in the meteorological field will remain where they are at present. The Bracknell facility will move to Exeter. The Met Office feels strongly that the element that moves to Exeter will maintain a close relationship with the bodies that do not move and, indeed, with other establishments in the Reading area.

My Lords, which department of state will benefit from the £5 million saving of which the noble Lord spoke? Will the Ministry of Defence get it or will the Treasury get it as usual?

My Lords, the future of the Met Office is based very much on changes, not only the geographical changes that are likely to take place but also in terms of improved information technology and improved facilities generally. As regards the £5 million annual savings, the intention is that the bulk of it will be used to reduce costs to the Met Office's customers and to fund research and development.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that those of us who regularly commute from the West Country do not regard Exeter as the other side of the earth and that what is important is the quality of services coming from a modern facility and the charges made for those services? While the decision was taken by the meteorological board and not the Government, will my noble friend confirm that he is content that the services in the future from the new facility will probably be even better than at present?

My Lords, I can only repeat the information that is given to me by the Met Office on this issue. I agree with my noble friend that Exeter is not a million miles away; in fact, it is a couple of hours' journey. But most of the Met Office's argument is based on the availability of communications between it and those bodies which will provide this facility in years to come.

My Lords, immediately after the Third Reading of the International Criminal Court Bill my noble friend Lord Whitty will, with the leave of the House, repeat a Statement on the foot and mouth outbreak and the rural economy.