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The Ordnance Survey: Future Structure

Volume 414: debated on Monday 3 November 1980

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My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether any proposals are under consideration for the transfer of the Ordnance Survey to the private sector.

My Lords, the Ordnance Survey Review Committee, which was set up under the previous Government, was specifically required to report on the basis that the Ordnance Survey would remain a Government department. Thus, the Committee's report, valuable though it is in other respects, lacks any review of other structural possibilities. My right honourable friend is considering the future of the Survey against the full range of possible structures inside and outside the Civil Service, with a view particularly to a more enterprising role and independent status. Some preliminary studies are in hand to this end and if my right honourable friend decides to make a more detailed examination there will, of course, be wide consultations on any resulting proposals for a change of structure.

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for that reply. Is it appreciated that the Serpell Committee, which reported on the Ordnance Survey, contained in its recommendations no reference to any proposal for hiving off? Do the Government accept the view of that committee that the national archives built up by the Ordnance Survey over a long period of years and at considerable cost is an essential and vital part of (in their words) "a national heritage which must be preserved"? Further, will not any hiving off of any part of the Ordnance Survey to the private sector mean that what will be hived off will be the most lucrative sections of Ordnance Survey and that this could leave the rest of its essential work in some danger?

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, is going too fast. At the moment, there is no firm proposal whatsoever for privatisation. As I said earlier, the Government are aware that this report was purely on terms which do not include privatisation. Therefore, there will be lots of consultation before going any further. The Government are well aware of the importance and value of the Ordnance Survey.

My Lords, will the noble Earl give an assurance that this fine organisation, which has achieved so much and which is a strong example to the rest of the community in many ways, will not be interfered with in any way and will not be destroyed?

My Lords, the Government fully endorse what the noble Lord has said about the Ordnance Survey. They have no wish whatever to harm it. However, I cannot give an assurance about whether or not it may later be considered for transfer to the private sector.

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that the essence of conservatism is that you do not change anything unless it is absolutely necessary to do so, and that there seems to be no evidence about the necessity for a change in the status of the Ordnance Survey?

My Lords, I think that my noble friend is speaking of conservatism with a small "c" and not a capital "c".

My Lords, would the noble Earl agree that there is considerable staff discontent and apprehension in relation to the inquiry which is now afoot inside the department, that the future of the national grid system and issues like that are in doubt and that it may be that there will be some privatisation? Could the Minister say why otherwise these inquiries are taking place inside the department?

My Lords, I do not think that there need be any fears in relation to the grid system either staying where it is or being moved to the private sector. So far as staff implications are concerned, should there be any progress on this, there will be full consultation with the trade union representatives on any proposals affecting their interests.

My Lords, is the noble Earl able to give an assurance that, if there are to be any proposals for change, these will be brought before Parliament before implementation?

My Lords, while I cannot give any absolute assurance to the noble Lord, yes, it is our intention that should there be changes contemplated every opportunity will be given to debate the matter particularly in your Lordships' House.