Legal head Nick Benson needs to tread a fine line between the Met Office’s status as a public body and a commercial enterprise. Tom Phillips reports
Like death and taxes, the weather is unavoidable. And as last month’s mass snowfall proved, there is nothing like a bit of bad weather to capture the British public’s imagination.
For Met Office head of legal Nick Benson, the wind, rain, sunshine and snow take on a particular significance. The Met Office was created to give forecasts to the Royal Navy and comes under the auspices of the Ministry of Defence, carrying with it the trappings of civil service eccentricity. “Socks and sandals aren’t out of place here,” says Benson, who considers himself “very fortunate” to work at the organisation’s Exeter HQ.
Staffed by some of the finest meteorologists in the world, while the Met Office reminds the public to remember their umbrellas via TV weather reports, it also advises the Government on climate change forecasts that run 30 years into the future.
Now the world and the weather is changing and the 159-year-old service is braving the colder climes of the commercial markets.
“The legal team’s role is to service a gifted but schizophrenic organisation,” Benson says. “Gifted because it’s full of very talented people – including academics who wouldn’t be out of place at any university in the world – and schizophrenic because it has to fulfil a number of roles, both public and commercial. This makes for an eclectic mix of legal work.”
The Met Office has been a ‘trading fund’ since 1996, enabling it to operate commercially while providing a public service – an unusual space also inhabited by Ordinance Survey, Companies House and the Land Registry.
Along with media customers such as the BBC and ITV, the Met Office provides services to an array of less obvious clients. These range from energy companies wanting to predict how much power will be used to heat homes, to healthcare providers that need to plan for weather that might affect some patients. Even big supermarkets enlist the Met Office’s help as a means of stealing a march on whether to stock ice-cream or soup.
The commercial arm offers the Met Office many opportunities, but it still makes up only a small part of the organisation’s workload, despite being given the green light to sell its services more than a decade ago.
“From a commercial point of view we’re a young organisation,” explains Benson. “People who work here may feel they’re providing a public service and that’s quite different from providing a commercial service with contractual service levels. It’s funny that the weather is seen as a relaxed parochial thing, discussed over a cup of tea. But the public wants its weather forecasts in a greater variety of detail and formats. The public takes it for granted that forecasts will get more accurate and more local and we have to keep up with that. It won’t be long before drivers have route-based forecasting on their satnavs.”
Benson and his team work on a variety of jobs, including contracts for service agreements (the organisation’s status means it cannot offer legally binding contracts to government clients), collaborations with universities and endless Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.
Being a public organisation, the Met Office has a duty to respond to FOI requests, which means one member of Benson’s team works on them full time, fielding questions that range from interested gardeners wanting to know if a frost will threaten the runner beans to people who simply do not believe the official forecast. It is all part of the wonderful world of the Met Office, says Benson, whose day-to-day business is at once both a parochial national fixation and a global macro issue affecting everyone.
The Met Office and its trading fund status are often under review by one part of government or another.
“We’ve been asked regularly, almost without a break, to justify our status,” Benson laments. “In Europe it’s the fashion that publicly-funded bodies should only undertake public work. If the public has paid once then the argument is that anyone should be able to use the results to make money.
We’re doing our best to show that the trading fund model can work effectively and fairly for all.”
Back on home soil, the recent snow has seen more work for Benson, including a complaint from a local authority that claims the office failed to provide an accurate forecast. “This is something we have to be acutely aware of,” Benson says. “If there’s a fatality in a car accident it doesn’t take long for a relative to question why the authority didn’t grit the roads. We can’t tell people when to grit the roads – we can only give them a forecast as best we can.”
To defend itself against such charges the organisation relies on clauses that appreciate the variable nature of weather forecasts. The more the Met Office provides the extended services the more it will have to review such terms to ensure they carry weight in the icy and unforgiving conditions of the commercial world.
Name: Nick Benson
Position: Head of legal
Organisation: Met Office
Sector: Public and commercial
Business: Weather and climate services
Reporting to: Chief finance officer Nick Jobling
Total number of employees: 1,875
Total legal staff: Nine
Main external law firms: Berwin Leighton Paisner, Bevan Brittan, Michelmores
Total external legal spend: £150,000
Nick Benson’s CV
1975-81: King’s School Worcester
1982-85: BA, Oxford Polytechnic
1987-88: Law Finals Course, College Of Law, Guildford
1988-90: Clerk, Veale Wasbrough, Bristol
1990-93: Solicitor, Veale Wasbrough
1994-96: Solicitor, Simpson Curtis
1997-98: Solicitor, Michelmores
1998-2006: Partner, Michelmores
2007-present: Head of legal, Met Office