HC Deb 10 May 2000 vol 349 cc257-64WH 1.30 pm
Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute)

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the proposed closure of the manned meteorological station on the Island of Tiree in my constituency.

I shall begin by setting the scene, with a brief description of the island and its situation, and by welcoming the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie). He represents a Scottish constituency, albeit one in the central belt. He may not have visited Tiree, but I am sure that he has some idea of its location. If he has not visited Tiree, I extend a warm invitation to him to do so. He will know from the forecast on the radio that Tiree has the largest number of hours of sunshine in the United Kingdom. There is also a tremendous wind that blows all the time. I also welcome other hon. Members who have come for the debate, particularly the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Ms Jones). That may seem to be an unlikely place, in this context, but I know that she takes an interest in the island and has visited it recently.

Tiree is a jewel of an island, situated off the west coast of Scotland, a four-hour trip from Oban by Caledonian MacBrayne ferry. There is nothing beyond it, except America. The island is 11 miles long and six miles wide at its widest part, and its Gaelic name, Tir Iodh, means the land of corn. It was once known as "the granary of the islands", in the days when there was a great export trade between the islands. Its main exports now are quality sheep and cattle, or they were, before the dreadful downturn in the agriculture industry. In 1831, the population was 4,450; it is now less than 800 and falling.

I am aware of the Met Office's long and honourable history. Formed as a small department within the Board of Trade in 1854, it was taken under the wing of the Air Ministry after the first world war. Later, it moved to the Ministry of Defence, becoming, first, an executive agency and, in 1996, a trading fund.

Our debate is about the closure of the meteorological office on Tiree. The Met Office's headquarters is in Bracknell, in Berkshire. It employs over 2,000 people and five of those are employed at the office on Tiree. The Tiree station started work in 1926, and has produced valuable weather reports ever since. Five jobs does not represent much in the great scheme of things. Nevertheless, to a small community, it is the equivalent of 50 or more jobs elsewhere. The Minister will argue that the station on Tiree is not closing altogether; it is to be automated and will continue to produce weather reports. He will also argue that the five involved will not lose their jobs and that they will be relocated. Well, that would be good. However, would they prefer to live on Tiree or to be relocated to Bracknell? I suspect that that is a rhetorical question.

Tiree, which has a small and falling population and a fragile economy, will lose five jobs. Five families will be affected, and five children will be withdrawn from an excellent school, which may suffer the loss of a teacher's job.

In a written question, I asked the Secretary of State for Defence about the assessment he has made of the social and economic impact on remote and island communities of the automation of meteorological stations. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence replied: This is a matter for the Chief Executive of the Meteorological Office. The Minister asked the chief executive to write to me, which he kindly did. In that letter, which is published in the written answer, he said: The Met Office is looking to improve efficiency and reduce costs in the delivery of weather services…We recognise that the withdrawal of the Met Office observers from Tiree, should this be the outcome, could have an adverse impact on the local community, and this I would very much regret.—[Official Report, 18 April 2000; Vol. 348, c. 432W.] It was very nice of him to say that, but what will he do? He did not say. What will the Minister do? He cannot shuffle off his responsibility. We are discussing not simply the automation of a weather station but the way in which the Government care for their people and what they can do to help to sustain a fragile community.

The Minister will no doubt argue that we must move with the times—new technology is the name of the game, and we are told to be cost effective and to make money. People, it seems, do not matter. I am afraid, however, that the brave new world of information technology was somewhat dented by the recent crashes in the stock market computer system and by the love letters that were sent to the House of Commons.

Can the Minister say, with hand on heart, that the quality of weather information that is gathered by an automated station is as good as, or superior to, that which is gathered by a trained expert? For example, a machine can presumably report on the height of clouds above it, but can it look around, as the human eye can, and see whether storm clouds are gathering on the horizon? I am not a technical expert, and the Minister may be able to answer my question.

The Minister will argue that the collection of weather data will still be undertaken because the Met Office will train airport staff to help regular and air ambulance flights that go to and from Tiree airport. However, I question the quality of the data that may be gathered. The main issue is primarily the loss of jobs.

Mr. Alasdair Morgan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale)

The hon. Lady shares my concerns about this matter. Is she aware that after the closure of the Shetland weather station, on at least two occasions aircraft flying to Sumburgh had to divert at the last minute because the automatic system failed to give adequate warning of changes in the weather?

Mrs. Michie

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving a good example of the worries that are felt about automation. In a moment, I shall discuss the example of Kirkwall.

The Minister will no doubt maintain that sustainable development of the islands is a matter for the Scottish Parliament and for Highlands and Islands Enterprise. The Ministry of Defence will not help if it undermines local efforts. Too often, decisions are made in Westminster without any regard to the consequences. After all, five jobs on a remote island such as Tiree must look like peanuts compared to the numbers involved in the developments between Rover and BMW, about which the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry made a statement in the House yesterday. He said: Our priority now is to do everything we can to help those who will be affected, to provide training and to attract new jobs to the area. That is the role of Government—to manage change and to equip people for change, not to leave them the innocent victims of change.—[Official Report, 9 May 2000; Vol. 349, c. 645.] Today's debate highlights the fact that Tiree is to be the innocent victim of change, unless the Minister can come up with a similar answer to that given by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. That would be very welcome. The almost callous way in which these things are done is hard to take. Did the Minister or the chief executive think to inform anyone about what was to happen? Did they consult the local council in Argyll and Bute, the local community council, or the Member of Parliament?

Other stations in Scotland under threat include Kirkwall in Orkney—where concerns have been raised about the partly automated station, and about the quality of forecasting since forecasters were withdrawn—and Aviemore, the only staffed inland weather station involved with the mountain rescue service. The decision to close that station would be a rash one.

However, today's debate is about Tiree. What help or support can the Minister give? I understand that the Bracknell headquarters is to move into a modern building in another area, at a cost of millions of pounds. I suggest that a contribution could be made to the Tiree economy with, for example, financial support for the new livestock mart which has to be built to meet European Union standards. If it is not built, agriculture will suffer and more jobs will be lost.

Finally, will the Minister, in conjunction with the chief executive, examine the possibility of decentralisation by moving IT-based activities that are not geographically specific to Tiree? Why does everything have to be done at Bracknell? I hope that I have given the Minister some idea of my great concern. I thank him for listening and look forward to his reply.

1.42 pm
Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) and to the Minister for allowing me to intervene briefly in support of the hon. Lady's case and to enter a plea of common sense.

I am something of a weather groupie. One reason for that is that I spent most of my boyhood summer holidays on the west coast of Scotland. I am more familiar with Coll than with Tiree, but I understand the importance of any job in a rural community. That is also true in my own rural constituency, where we enjoy the Met Office C130 plane, affectionately known as "Snoopy Snack", flying in and out of Boscombe Down as part of the weather operations.

The Met Office has an annual revenue of nearly £155 million, and its largest customer is the Ministry of Defence, which contributes £55 million a year. The Civil Aviation Authority pays the Met Office £27 million a year, and other commercial customers contribute a further £21 million a year. Tiree represents a drop in the ocean. The Met Office employs 2,300 people, including 460 weather forecasters, 168 observers, 317 researchers, 825 people in computing and technical areas, 163 people in sales, marketing and other commercial areas, and nearly 250 in finance and support service posts.

The Met Office's mainframe super-computer has a peak processing power of 150 G-flops—that is, 150,000 million calculations a second—and is the fastest supercomputer in Europe. A knowledge of the cost of everything and the value of nothing is one way of summing up the Met Office's approach. It grieves me to say that, because I am a huge fan of the Met Office and admire it greatly.

On relocation in the south, on 17 April 2000, at column 667 of Hansard, the hon. Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) asked for a statement on the future of the Met Office and said, as a Labour Member of Parliament, that she hoped that its future location would not be in the Reading area, because the economy of the entire country needed to be considered as well as the congestion in the south-east. In the same column the Minister said that the aim of the Met Office is to enable individuals, society and enterprises everywhere to make the most of the weather and the natural environment.—[Official Report, 17 April 2000; Vol. 348, c. 677.] Why, therefore, is the Met Office picking on five people in Tiree?

1.46 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) on securing this debate, which has allowed us to discuss an issue of great local interest and concern. I was raised in the Outer Hebrides, so I have some familiarity with the topography of the region, although it is not nearly so sunny in Stornaway as it is in Tiree, as I am sure that the hon. Lady is well aware.

I am conscious of the sensitivity of this issue, as is the chief executive of the Met Office, and I shall try to reply as fully as possible in the time available to me to the points raised by hon. Members. In addition, the chief executive would like to extend an invitation to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute, and any other hon. Member with concerns, to visit the Met Office's headquarters at Bracknell for a full briefing on this subject and to view the organisation's admittedly centralised operations at first hand.

I shall start by putting the issue of automation into context. The Met Office, in common with the meteorological services of many other countries, has steadily increased the contribution made by automated systems to its observing networks over the past 10 years. Since the early 1990s, automatic weather observing stations have been installed at a number of locations. They have been systematically developed since inception to provide increased capability and robustness.

Although the automatic weather system was originally conceived as an aid to the observer, it has always been capable of operating totally independently, and that is already the case in many locations. However, the equipment currently deployed does not have the functionality required to allow full automation of the manned sites that comprise the basic observing network. It is the Met Office's intention to retain some manned sites, such as Lerwick, for that reason.

The automated measurement of some weather elements has, therefore, been accepted practice for many years and has enabled the Met Office to run its observational network at a much reduced cost to the taxpayer without compromising the quality of its services. As the hon. Lady will be aware, the Met Office is a Government trading fund and, as such, all its services must be paid for by customers, either directly, as in the case of commerce and industry, or indirectly through a wide variety of Government Departments.

The Met Office's customers wish to see increasing value for money. In addition, developments in forecasting require data to be available more frequently and from denser networks—for example, in the Scottish highlands—to provide improved services. Increased automation of the observational network is key to meeting those needs.

Development work has now been carried out to enable the automated measurement of additional observational elements such as radiation, sunshine and precipitation-related weather conditions, and trials are shortly to commence to assess the feasibility of extending the automation process into areas where, up to now, manual observations have been seen as necessary for the Met Office's operations. The trial, which is being conducted between May and December 2000, is the first stage of a two-year project planned to develop the observing infrastructure and to roll out automation to a number of sites, subject to a successful outcome. The initial roll-out is planned to commence with Aviemore in November 2000 and is due to be completed by December 2001, affecting approximately 11 sites throughout the United Kingdom. The automation of the manned offices in Tiree and Kirkwall is tentatively scheduled for summer 2001 and the office at Stornoway is due to be automated by the end of that year.

I stress that the manned observing offices in Scotland are being treated no differently from those in the rest of the United Kingdom. A similar proportion of stations in England are likely to be automated, given a satisfactory outcome of the trial. Moreover, the Met Office plans to retain a presence at several defence locations in Scotland. Lerwick will continue all its current activities, as well as taking on a programme of ozone measurement. That will include high altitude balloon ascents that contribute to the international monitoring of ozone depletion in the upper atmosphere and the global climate observing system.

Hon. Members have asked whether automated observations are an acceptable replacement for manual observations. As one would expect, there are advantages and disadvantages to the information from the automated equipment, when compared with information produced by an observer making visual estimates. Despite differences in the nature of automatic and manual data, the Met Office is confident that the trial will demonstrate that automatic systems can provide the data that is needed, and will not jeopardise the quality of its services. In fact, increased investment in future observational systems such as remote cameras, coupled with increased research and development, will help to make local forecasting more accurate.

I am, of course, aware that increased automation will have an impact on Met Office staff who work at the affected sites, including Tiree. I understand that the people involved already know that they will be withdrawn from their respective sites, subject to an acceptable outcome to the trial. The priority will be to find all affected staff suitable posts elsewhere in the Met Office. That will include retraining, where appropriate. Informal consultation is under way with the trade union, the Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists, and formal consultation is expected to take place within the next few months, once the course of the trial has become clear.

I am also conscious of the potential impact of the withdrawal of Met Office observers, should that be the outcome, on local communities. The services that are delivered by Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd. at Tiree, Kirkwall and Stornoway airports, which are essential to local aircraft operators, are likely to be particularly affected. I stress that responsibility for the provision of the aerodrome meteorological reports that are necessary for airport operations rests with HIAL, not the Met Office. Nevertheless, the Met Office entered into discussions with HIAL at the earliest opportunity to consider how HIAL could continue to provide the reports.

In the absence of Met Office observers, those discussions, which remain at an early stage, are concentrating from the outset on ensuring that HIAL staff are suitably prepared, in terms of both training and equipment, to enable them to maintain manned observing stations at Tiree, Kirkwall and Stornoway airports, should that be necessary. That will ensure the maintenance of the crucial manual elements that are required at aerodromes for observing present weather, cloud height and visibility.

I am sure that hon. Members are aware that several worries have recently been expressed, not least by the hon. and learned Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace), about the quality of forecasts produced by the Met Office for those engaged in aviation in the northern isles. Those comments have been noted with great concern by the Met Office, especially with regard to the quality of weather forecasts for Kirkwall that are provided to civil aviation, following the move of forecasting services from Kirkwall to Aberdeen some four years ago. It is true that, initially, the quality of forecasting services dropped, which was a matter of great concern. Consequently, in 1998, responsibility for Kirkwall forecasts was transferred to the weather centres at Sella Ness and Glasgow, the latter of which provided out-of-hours support. Since that transfer, the quality of aviation forecasts for Kirkwall has improved significantly, and now exceeds that which was achieved when they were produced at Kirkwall.

Notwithstanding those improvements in the quality of service, I am pleased to note that the Met Office is discussing the forecast quality issues at Kirkwall that the hon. and learned Member for Orkney and Shetland raised directly with the airline concerned. As a result of initial discussions, a new reporting system for monitoring and assuring aviation forecast quality for the northern isles is, as we speak, commencing a trial period. The aim is to ensure that the quality of the forecasts that are delivered to aircraft operators in the northern isles continues to meet the requirements of those operating in an area that can be subject to rapidly changing meteorological conditions.

Concerns have also been raised about the impact that the withdrawal of Met Office observers from Aviemore would have on safety in the surrounding mountains. There are a significant number of weather-related incidents in the Scottish mountains. For that reason, the Met Office is keen to ensure that its public safety role is enhanced, rather than diminished. It is working with other interested parties to ensure that weather information is more widely available and more comprehensive. The automation of observations at Aviemore will include the introduction of high-quality closed-circuit television, which will complement its installation at three other sites in the Scottish mountains and provide much improved coverage. Forecasters will be able to use the resulting pictures, together with other observed information, to enhance the quality of forecasts for the area.

The Met Office is also talking to the Scottish Executive and other bodies in Scotland in an effort to improve the weather services that it provides in the Scottish mountains. The talks are taking place with a view to introducing the improved services to walkers and climbers, skiers and the public at large, as well as the rescue services, before next winter.

Mrs. Michie

Even if I accept that automation will improve matters greatly, does the Ministry of Defence or the Met Office at Bracknell accept any responsibility for the impact that the withdrawal of five jobs will have on the community in Tiree?

Dr. Moonie

If I may, I shall finish the point that I was making. The introduction of automation at Aviemore should be seen not as a reduction in Met Office services or a lessening of its commitment to the Scottish mountains, but as part of what it hopes will be a major expansion.

These decisions are never taken lightly, and we recognise the importance of an admittedly small number of jobs in an area that does not have many. The Met Office must try to get the best value for money. It is constrained by the rules that govern a training fund, and by the wishes of its customers. Ultimately, its service must be dictated by those considerations. Of course, other agencies are involved, and I hope that they will be able to work with us, particularly through the Scottish Parliament, to provide alternatives. I fully accept the principle behind what the hon. Lady says. Given the increasing availability of automatic computer links, telecommunications networks and so on, it ought to be possible to decentralise many of the activities that currently take place centrally. I am sorry to say that, at present, that theoretical position is rarely matched by the will of agencies, public or private. Although there are teleworking initiatives in the highlands, which I welcome, I suspect that the process will be slow. I shall do what I can to help, but I must accept that I can do little to influence matters directly.

I deeply regret the loss of jobs—assuming that the trial is successful—in the hon. Lady's constituency, and I shall be happy to deal with any point that she wishes to raise. I would certainly welcome the opportunity to visit Tiree. I have never been there, largely because I am a terrible sailor. My youth was punctuated by remarkably intense bouts of seasickness. Of course, one can travel by air, and the boats are much better than the Loch Seaforth of the 1950s and early 1960s. I should be happy to meet the hon. Lady and discuss her concerns, and I thank her for raising this subject.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Two o'clock.