Met men 'made inaccurate claims'

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The Independent Online
CHRIS BLACKHURST

Westminster Correspondent

Weather forecasters have been boosting their pay levels by exaggerating their own performance, according to a report published today.

A study from the National Audit Office, the public finance watchdog, is severely critical of the Meteorological Office, accusing the government agency of overstating its achievements and not meeting key targets. The hard-hitting report comes after a behind-the-scenes row, with forecasters furious at the stance taken by the NAO.

The year-long scrutiny found that targets for efficiency and quality of service to corporate customers were based on one set of criteria, then measured according to another. This, said the NAO, gave "a misleading view of performance".

Last year, the agency earned around pounds 59m from providing forecasts to business. But many of the indicators used to assess customer satisfaction were not tough enough or were of questionable value, said the NAO. In carrying out sample surveys of customers, the Met Office tended to pick those likely to be sympathetic while its biggest single commercial user, the Civil Aviation Authority, was ignored.

Forecasters claimed 75 per cent of efficiency goals for corporate customers had been met, but the NAO said the true figure was 40 per cent. For quality of service, the agency had a target of 80 per cent. In their annual report, officials maintained that was exceeded by 2 per cent. But instead of having achieved 82 per cent satisfaction, the real figure was 74 per cent.

Under the more rigorous standards suggested by the NAO, the forecasts for airports and the 24-hour temperature predictions supplied to British Gas, one of its biggest corporate users, would both have failed to hit the mark. Even by the Met Office's own, less onerous, standards, frost warnings supplied to local councils to enable them to prepare road-gritting operations failed to achieve the target "accuracy rate". While the traditional target of 84 per cent accuracy for the 5.55pm forecast on Radio 4 had been met, the NAO said it was too limited a measure and other yardsticks should be developed.

Since 1990, the Met Office, based in Bracknell, Berkshire, with a staff of 2,300 and annual running costs of pounds 153m, has been run as an executive agency within the Ministry of Defence. All staff, including chief executive Professor Julian Hunt, who last year received pounds 73,000, are on performance- related pay.

An MoD spokesman, said: "The Met Office is an international leader in its field, but clearly there is room for improvement."

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