HC Deb 04 March 1981 vol 1000 cc261-2
4. Mr. Freud

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he has plans for the privatisation of the Ordnance Survey; and if he will make a statement.

19. Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he is now in a position to make a statement about the future of the Ordnance Survey.

The Minister for Local Government and Environmental Services (Mr. Tom King)

I hope in the next few weeks to be able to make a statement on the recommendations of the Ordnance Survey review committee and on an immediate operating remit for the Ordnance Survey. I also have in hand an examination of the possibilities for giving the Ordnance Survey a more independent status. This last study will take rather longer to complete.

Mr. Freud

May we have an assurance that the Minister will not jettison 200 years of expertise for the sake of party political dogma, without a full debate in the House? Secondly, will he accept that the pressures on private businesses are too great for them to ensure the excellence of cartography maintained by the Ordnance Survey, an excellence that private business cannot emulate?

Mr. King

I have the highest respect for the quality of the work of the Ordnance Survey, and I believe that that respect is widely shared throughout the House. Nevertheless, I wonder whether hon. Members are aware that the Ordnance Survey will this year make a deficit of about £21 million. This is an expensive facility, and it would be irresponsible for any Government not to see how that facility, which the whole House prizes, might be organised in such a way that the call on the public Exchequer might be modified.

Mr. Bennett

In view of the considerable interest in Ordnance Survey matters in the House, will the Minister give a guarantee that he will make an oral statement about his proposals? Secondly, will he bear particularly in mind the recommendation of the Serpell committee that there should be major investment in the Ordnance Survey to ensure that its mapping techniques could be brought up to date, with particular regard to microprocessors and the like?

Mr. King

The first matter is not one for me, but for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. Clearly, however, we shall wish to keep the House well informed on our proposals. As I have said, we hope shortly to make a statement to the House, in whatever form is thought approporiate, about the review, and later to make a statement about a possible alternative status.

I take the hon. Gentleman's point about the development of technology. The work in digital mapping referred to in the Serpell report which the hon. Gentleman has probably studied, as I have, could be an important development which I hope it will be possible to encourage and develop. There is also the possibility of expanding British technology overseas.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Is the deficit to which my right hon. Friend referred carried on the Defence Vote, or on the Vote of his Department?

Mr. King

I believe that it is carried on the Department, but I think that it comes under the Treasury as well.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell

Will the right hon. Gentleman give an undertaking that before reaching a final decision he will have the fullest possible consultation with all the trade unions and staff representatives at the Ordnance Survey, and also with representatives of organisations which use Ordnance Survey maps extensively?

Mr. King

We have already informed the unions, whose concern about the matter we understand, that we are considering these matters. At an appropriate stage there will, of course, be further discussions with them. We shall certainly be consulting more widely, and also with the private sector, which is obviously concerned. As many hon. Members know, there is concern in the private sector about what, in certain aspects of the more popular maps, it feels is subsidised competition with which it has to compete.

Mr. Hill

My right hon. Friend will know that the whole of the Ordnance Survey is based in my constituency and that I have already presented a petition of about 2,000 signatures to his right hon. Friend—for whose acknowledgment I am grateful. Is it possible for the Member of Parliament most concerned in this problem also to be consulted? If this undertaking is to be privatised in any way, does my hon. Friend agree that full consultation should take place not only with the unions, but with the Member of Parliament, on the welfare of constituents who rely on pay packets from the Ordnance Survey? Is he aware that those people are very cooperative, but that, nevertheless, indecision breeds fear?

Mr. King

I assure my hon. Friend that we shall be very willing and anxious to hear any representations that he wishes to make on this matter.

Mr. Kaufman

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Ordnance Survey is regarded throughout the world as a prize national asset of this country and that if he and his right hon. Friend tamper with that national asset for reasons of party dogmatism they will be committing an act of vandalism that will not easily be forgivable.

Mr. King

The right hon. Gentleman refers to this as though he were talking about some aspect of the national heritage—[HON. MEMBERS:"It is."]—as though it were in some sense like the Crown jewels or some inanimate object. This is a dynamic and important facility. It is involved in high technology in the development of new production processes for maps. It is not one that can be fossilised, put on the shelf and admired from a distance. It is one that must be properly organised. It is also an expensive facility. We recognise our responsibilities in this matter. We recognise the quality of the performance of the Ordnance Survey. We also recognise the importance of ensuring that that quality is achieved at a cost that the nation can afford.

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