Dispute hits shipping forecasts

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Coastguard leaders may go to court in the next round of a dispute which is disrupting the shipping forecasts broadcast daily on BBC Radios 3 and 4.

The Public Services Tax and Commerce Union is taking advice on the legality of plans by the Coastguard Agency to end special payments to coastguards who have provided readings of weather conditions at coastal stations from Tiree to Malin Head since 1949. Staff at 15 stations have stopped supplying the information in protest.

Under an informal arrangement, the work has been done voluntarily, ostensibly in coastguards' own time, after training, again in their own time, at the Meteorological Office's training college near Reading.

Volunteers receive payments of between pounds 200 and pounds 800 a year from the Met Office for supplying readings of wind direction and speed, visibility, pressure and general weather conditions. The Met Office is happy with the present arrangement.

But the Coastguard Agency, which buys back some of the information for seafarers, has decided it is illogical. It claims the work is part of the coastguards' duty and therefore any Met Office payment should come to the agency.

A spokeswoman said: "We are paying the Meteorological Office back for the information collected by our own staff during their working day which does not make sense."

However, Dutchy Holland, chairman of the coastguards' section of the Public Services Tax and Commerce Union, said that the arrangement had been "established custom and practice" which the Coastguard Agency was seeking to overturn because it was kept short of cash by the Department of Transport.

"We are seeking advice on the legality of these actions with a view to challenging the decision in court. Our belief is that the agreement is between the individual officer and the Met Office. The coastguards are very, very angry over this."

A Met Office spokesman said the protest was unfortunate but did not affect forecasting. It simply meant that the conditions at those stations, which were normally read out at the end of shipping forecast on Radio 4 and the end of the inshore forecasts on Radio 3, were being omitted.