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Ordnance Survey

Volume 474: debated on Tuesday 1 April 2008

5. What the respective responsibilities of the shareholder and client Ministers for Ordnance Survey are. (197686)

I am the Minister for Ordnance Survey responsible for the shareholder relationship between the Department and the agency, dealing with strategic and day-to-day issues arising in connection with its activities, particularly in terms of financial and Government matters. My ministerial colleague the noble Baroness Andrews leads for the Department on issues relating to the purchase of Ordnance Survey products and services.

It is a great relief that the Minister knows who he is.

Ordnance Survey is the envy of the world as a mapping institution; it is second to none, and it costs the taxpayer nothing. However, there is continuing confusion between its public duty and the private competition that it has to have as a trading fund. The pan-government agreement, which regulates how different Government Departments and agencies use Ordnance Survey, came to an end yesterday. We have no news of what is going to be put in its place, so will the Minister tell us? When will the regulatory framework be updated and amended to bring an end to all this confusion, which is getting in the way of Ordnance Survey’s excellent work?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Ordnance Survey is a true success story for Britain and, given the importance in the 21st century of data collection and dissemination, is something that we can lead the world on. In respect of his important point about the pan-government agreement, that was established, as he is aware, to ensure that the Government have access to mapping data in order to develop and implement policy at a reasonable price. We are looking into that, and I will update the House accordingly.

The Minister is clearly the right man for such a range of responsibilities. He will be aware that Ordnance Survey is the second-largest Government trading fund and that it breaks even on its costs by selling its goods and services to the public and private sectors. There is an argument that such information should be made more freely available, free of charge. Has he read the book which was published alongside the Budget, “Models of Public Sector Information via Trading Funds”—quite a racy read—and which rebuts the claim that a move to free data would damage the work of Ordnance Survey? It should be made freely available to citizens of this country, and that can be done in a way that produces funds rather than absorbs them.

As a fellow accountant, I can imagine that I would find it racy as well.

My hon. Friend raises an important point about the provision of data. He said that Ordnance Survey breaks even as a trading fund. In fact, it provides about £6.2 million in surplus that is then passed back to the public purse via dividends. That is to be encouraged. The business model, with changing market conditions and technology, is being considered and, as Minister with responsibility for Ordnance Survey, I will continue to do so.

I am so sorry to hear that the Minister’s ministerial duties also come at no cost to the taxpayer.

Is the Minister aware that the Atlantis initiative, which is very important in supplying information to support flooding and water management, is also unfunded? For how long, in the present climate, does he believe that that initiative will be sustainable?

I thank the hon. Lady for her consideration of my welfare. I shall look into the point she raises and get back to her. I seem to be doing that on a regular basis with regard to the questions she asks me, but I shall endeavour to ensure that I look into the points she raises and get back to her.

Is the Minister aware that Ordnance Survey is not only one of the oldest but one of the most efficient Government services? Other Departments depend on it, quite apart from local authorities and other institutions in need of accurate information. Will he urgently come up with an agreement that does not—as usual—lend some agency the extraordinary honour of a totally unworkable private finance initiative? This trading fund works, and we ought not to disturb it.

I agree with my hon. Friend on that. As I said before, Ordnance Survey is a true success story, and its provision of data is an example of Britain leading the world. The business model is reviewed on the basis of changing market conditions and technology, and we will continue to do that. The bottom line, however, is to ensure that the success of Ordnance Survey continues.