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The rationale is articulated for having to pay for what is seen as a public, safety service.

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Charging for something as basic and important to life as a weather forecast is still anathema to some and a nuisance to others. However, it is a fact of life in many countries and a consequence of an overarching desire to reduce government expenditure. The current situation for sailors is that basic services necessary for safety at sea are free at the point of use, but that services over and above that are on repayment. These may be forecasts with more detail, longer periods or just delivered to the user for the convenience of the user. The 64,000 dollar question for sailors is what defines those services necessary for safety.


Some of us remember the time when sailors and others could get a variety of forecasts and other information at no cost from the Met Office. There were discussions with a forecaster and recorded telephone forecasts only for the price of a local phone call. However, as the number of sailors increased, this situation became untenable. This was especially so as successive Governments cut down on the numbers of Civil servants and the overall cost of the Public Sector to the taxpayer. The concept that specific groups should not benefit at the expense of the taxpayer became the dominant concept as Government Departmental functions were transferred to Government Agencies in various guises.

Paying for forecasts that are necessary to safety of life and vessels is a bone of contention to many of us. Nevertheless, in the current financial climate it is axiomatic that all public services be, very rightly, closely scrutinised for efficiency, cost effectiveness and cost to the taxpayer. The Met Office now works as a Government Agency under a trading fund and is more like a business than a government department. The basic rules under which it works are simple. Every service provided has to be paid for by the users or by someone on behalf of the users. In this latter case, it is usually by a Government Department or Agency. All costs of its diverse operation have to be funded by the users.

Core and Overhead Functions

Among its non revenue earning activities, the Met Office maintains multipurpose observing networks, develops better forecasting techniques and undertakes some basic research in support of other functions. Underpinning the organisation there are the usual functions of management, personnel management, accounting, equipment purchase, maintenance etc. These "core" activities and other overheads have to be loaded onto the costs of each and every customer activity.

Some function such as maintaining data archives, organising a climate network, running the National Meteorological Library, providing a basic national warning and forecasting service are regarded as the Public Met Service. These items have to be justified, individually to Ministers. Some are paid for through the MOD Vote. These basic services are free, to the end user, the general public. A MOD civil servant has the task of keeping these services under review in the light of changing circumstances.

Who Pays for Charged Services

Specific charged services include such diverse activities as forecasts for moving oil rigs, advising retailers on next week's temperatures to help stock control and positioning in the market place, providing information and informed opinions for legal, insurance and police investigation purposes. All are charged for at commercial rates. The same is true for forecasts aimed at specific sectional interests.

The Met Office is owned by the MOD which is, as it always has been, a major customer for services to the armed forces. However, parliamentary scrutiny of expenditure under the vote system ensures that the MOD does not subsidise services to other users.

A moderately sized customer is the Government, itself, with regard to the question of climate change and the provision of advice to Ministers. This is funded by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in its

various guises. Because computer modelling is a very important tool in this work, there are economies of scale. The same computers used for day to day forecasting can be used for climate modelling. The basic numerical weather prediction model can be modified to answer climate questions.

Some aviation services are funded by the CAA, others by premium rated telephone or fax charges. For mariners, the BBC broadcasts shipping and inshore waters forecasts. These, and forecasts broadcast by HMCG on VHF and on NAVTEX, are all paid for by the MCA to the tune of about £4.5 M pa. These and such individual services as speaking to a forecaster are paid for by the individual user. For such services there is not a monopoly and there are, increasingly, private Met firms who provide similar services using freely available National Met Service (eg UK, US, DWD etc) information but without the Met Office overheads.

Is there an Alternative?

Perhaps all aviation and marine forecasts should be free to the users in order to minimise accidents and, so, reduce calls upon the emergency services, but it would be very difficult to argue a convincing financial case. Just imagine the outcry if the government favoured a specific group of people that many members of the public visualise as the wealthy, leisured classes! Never mind that most of us work very hard, pay all our taxes, enjoy our sailing on a shoestring and do not spend weeks at Cowes drinking pink gins! The "user pays" philosophy still rules under both Labour and Tory Government..

Elsewhere, Météo France has very similar recorded telephone and fax services at premium charge rates. Similar services are provided by a Dutch based firm, Météo Consult. In the US private weather services abound and provide most services to the public and commercial interests. Within the UK there are a

number of private sector Met firms such as WCSMarine Ltd. Clearly, these organisations are in business and need to earn money just as much as, these days, National Met Services such as the Met Office.

One possible alternative would be to licence all pleasure craft in the UK, as is done in other countries. Part of the fee could go to paying for a more readily, freely available weather forecast service. There would be many problems in collecting the money, it would open up the hot potato of compulsory certificates of competence, checking of vessels, MOT style, and so on. The possibility of a small addition to the radio licence is now a non-starter as the fee is discontinued from 2007. .

Any ideas on a postcard, please!

What is free and what does the Sailor have to pay for?

Everything that is defined as part of the GMDSS is, of course, free to the end user. Texts of many of these services are available, free of charge on the Internet - see Essential Weather Sites for Sailors.

These include:-

  • Inshore Waters Forecasts for the UK, Atlantic, Baltic and Mediterranean Coasts.
  • Atlantic, Baltic and Mediterranean Sea Areas forecasts, eg the Shipping Forecast and NAVTEX texts.
  • High Seas Forecasts eg the GMDSS Bulletins for METAREA I. II and III, broadcast by INMARSAT - C, and by Radio Monaco and RFI.

The US has a dedicated VHF channel for marine forecasts, something that is not generally available in Europe, partly for cost reasons and partly because of lack of available VHF channels. However, our three hourly forecastson VHF should be enough for those that know the schedules and take the trouble to use them.

Continuous weather forecasts are available around Italy on VHF Ch 68 in Italian and English. These are very good computer generated voice although the content also seems to be highly automated and is pretty poor. I would not like to see the UK going down that route.

Premium rated services are available by telephone. At a commendably low price and there is also, the useful Talk to a Forecaster service.

What about the GMDSS?

The MCA has a responsibility to provide weather information under the terms of the SOLAS convention. The UK as a contracting nation, has undertaken, in co-operation with other nations, to

  • Warn ships of gales, storms and tropical cyclones.
  • Issue, at least twice daily, weather information suitable for shipping in text and, as far as practicable, graphic form.
  • Arrange, if practicable, for the publication and making available of daily weather charts for the information of departing ships.

The MCA has got to be able to argue with HM Treasury for funds to provide a level of service that is commensurate with these undertakings for all mariners in UK waters.

It is not easy to come to a water tight definition of those needs and a Treasury, strapped for cash, will obviously seek to reduce costs as far as possible. It will seek ways by which the user pays. Counter arguments about the benefit to the national economy of a marine forecast service free at the point of use, benefits to rescue services do not always carry weight with ministers with many other calls on their budgets.

Partly as a result of discussions with the RYA and CYCC, the MCA now funds an excellent weather MSI service. How much scope there will be for further improvements to that service has yet to be seen. It will be an uphill battle.

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