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

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Introduction – who owns the Met Office?

The Met Office is an Executive Agency of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). The Met Office moved from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) in 2011. As a Trading Fund, it is required to operate on a commercial basis and meet targets agreed by the Met Office Board and approved by the Ministerial owner.

The ultimate responsibility and accountability for the work of the Met Office lies with the Secretary for BEIS. Day-to-day ministerial oversight and the formal business ownership role are delegated to the Minister of State for Universities and Science.

As a Government Agency working under a trading fund the Met Office 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.

A major customer is the Government, itself, particularly for services to defence and national weather warnings. Climate change and the provision of advice to Ministers is an important issue funded largely by DEFRA (Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.)

Because computer modelling is a very important tool in this work, there are economies of scale with the same computers being used for day to day forecasting and climate modelling. The basic numerical weather prediction model can be modified to answer climate questions. Charging for something as basic and important to life as a weather forecast is anathema to some and a nuisance to others. However, it is a fact of life in some 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.

Paying for forecasts that a user may consider to be 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.

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 functions 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 Parliamentary Vote to the BEIS and to other users. These basic services are free, to the end user, the general public and a 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.

Marine and Aviation services

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 has applied under both Labour and Tory Governments.

Elsewhere, Météo France has a very similar, in fact rather more, hard-nosed view of premium charge rated services. In the US private weather services abound and provide most services to the public and commercial interests. Many are funded by advertising. 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 was discontinued in 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 my Internet services pages.

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.

• 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 forecasts on VHF should be enough for those that know the schedules and take the trouble to use them.

Continuous weather forecasts are available around parts of France and all of Italy on VHF.

Is the GMDSS safe?

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. Treasury could argue that services should be reduced to the bare GMDSS minimum. Counter arguments could be made that there is benefit to the national economy from a marine forecast service free at the point of use. These would include demand on health services, loss of productivity due to accidents or detah, benefits to rescue These do not always carry weight with ministers with many other calls on their budgets.

Partly as a result of discussions with the RYA and the (now defunct) 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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