HL Deb 17 March 1993 vol 543 cc1444-5

2.45 p.m.

Viscount Hanworth asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether it is their intention to privatise the data bank of geological and seismic data held by the British Geological Survey and if so whether they consider that a privatised organisation will maintain the intrinsic value and international reputation of data produced and run by dedicated individuals.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, the Government have no plans to privatise the data bank of geological and seismic data which they maintain in their core centre in Edinburgh. The management of the Department of Trade and Industry's core store is currently carried out by the British Geological Survey on behalf of that department and this work is to be the subject of market testing. Whatever the outcome of the market test, the core store will remain the property of the department.

Viscount Hanworth

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Will the Government take into account the fact that the database has been there for 150 years and that it will probably be required for a long time to come? Is a possibly small saving justified by putting some of this facility out to tender when the result can hardly be as efficient or as respected as the present system?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, it is government policy to open up to competition many areas of government which hitherto have been the reserve either of civil servants or non-government bodies such as BGS. The objective is to achieve better value for money. I do not believe that the Government consider any sums of money that arise from the taxpayer, however small, to be insignificant.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, can the noble Viscount enlarge on market testing? Is it simply a question of putting out to competitive tender the services that are rendered to BGS, the core, as he says, remaining in public ownership? If so, can the Minister explain how the civil servants running the core business will put their tender together? How will the Government tender for running it themselves? Presumably, they are part of the competition. Will the noble Viscount also give the House an absolute assurance that if there is a tender system and if a private organisation is awarded the contract, access to the core of information will be as carefully controlled as it has been in the past?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, as regards the first part of the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, the British Geological Survey already carries out substantial business on behalf of industries and companies which are not part of government. So it has had experience of being in the commercial world. I can assure the noble Lord that the database of cores, which are under the ownership of the DTI, will remain in that category and will be safeguarded by the DTI. The same rules will apply; namely, that all data obtained from those cores and other samples are held to be secret for five years and thereafter thrown open so that other companies may use them and they can he used for general research.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, will the noble Viscount bear in mind that, should the Government change their mind and decide to privatise part or the whole of the services to which the Question relates, their own tenure of office is likely to be somewhat dodgy over the next few years and there is the likelihood, on the access of a more enlightened government, that anything which they privatise will be de-privatised?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, the latter comments of the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, require very little comment from me.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, will the Government bear in mind that the Ordnance Survey, the geological survey, and the Geological Museum (which is the museum of the survey but now closely associated with the Natural History Museum) should be treated as a unit and not just thrown about administratively?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, I advise the noble Earl that we are not throwing anything about. We hold those institutions in high regard and will do everything to safeguard the scholastic values to which they hold.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, said, is my noble friend aware that there are many on this side of the House (and, for all I know, in other parts of the House) who do not care who actually runs the geological survey or any other survey? What matters is that data continue to go into the survey in the same way as now. Is he further aware that we are therefore very relieved by the announcement that he has just made that that position will not change?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his comments.