Public Information (Commercial Use)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:17 pm on 12th November 2007.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Parliamentary Under-Secretary(Department for International Development) (Trade Policy) (also Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform) (Trade and Consumer Affairs) (also Department for International Development), Party Chair, Co-operative Party 10:17 pm, 12th November 2007

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Todd on securing parliamentary time for this important debate. I welcome the opportunity to explore the issues that he has raised. I hope to give him some comfort by saying that there is more work being undertaken and more consideration in Government of those issues, albeit that there is unfinished work before us.

Let me set out a little of the background to the Government's position. We welcomed the Office of Fair Trading's market study into the commercial use of public information, which, as my hon. Friend will recall, was published in December 2006. The study was thorough and identified a range of detailed and complex issues. The recommendations reflected a concern by some users of public sector information about the interaction between Government and markets, specifically the impact that the public sector can have on the way that markets work.

Another issue mentioned in the OFT report was the estimated potential value of public sector information within the economy. The report concentrated on the commercial use of public sector information. As my hon. Friend acknowledged, that is a particularly important area in driving new, improved and innovative products in today's global market. Public sector information holders are often the only source for much of these raw data. Several PSIHs also compete with businesses in turning that raw information into value-added products and services. As my hon. Friend also alluded to, the OFT estimated that the value of public sector information to the UK's economy has the potential to increase from £590 million at the moment to more than £1 billion annually. As he also said, some experts believe that that figure could increase even further.

The main conclusions of the OFT's study were that public sector information holders should make as much unrefined public sector information available as possible for commercial use and reuse; that businesses should have access to public sector information at the earliest point at which it is useful to them; and that where the public sector information holder is the only supplier, access to information should be provided on an equal basis for all businesses and the public sector holder information holder itself. The report also referred to the need to use proportionate cost-related pricing, and the need to account separately for costs and income from unrefined and refined information activities so that public sector information holders can demonstrate that they are providing and pricing information fairly and in a non-discriminatory manner.

The last recommendation from the OFT's work that I shall highlight is the suggestion that the role of the Office of Public Sector Information be widened to monitor public sector information holders better, with improved enforcement and complaints procedures. The Government response welcomed the recommendations of the OFT study, and accepted the majority of them. As my hon. Friend may be aware, we noted in our response that some of the OFT's recommendations required further work by the Government.

My hon. Friend alluded to the subject of trading funds. We believe that further work is required to consider the impact of proposed changes to data definitions and pricing policy, especially the impact on trading funds, in order to ensure that there are no adverse impacts on the ability to collect the information in the future or on the performance of trading funds in the fulfilment of essential public tasks, and to ensure that the proposed benefit is sufficient to justify the fiscal cost. He may be aware that such work is currently being undertaken and I expect that the initial research will be concluded later this year.

As my hon. Friend indicated, the current model has been good for the taxpayer. Thanks to the trading funds' role in fulfilling public tasks, the Government create and own high quality information assets, such as mapping data, geological data, nautical charts and meteorological data, but the taxpayer only pays a fraction of the cost of their collection and dissemination.

Given that the trading fund model is well established, the Government believe that we should take the time to look at the issues in some detail. We must ensure that high-quality data continue to be produced, and public sector tasks fulfilled, at the same time as opportunities for the wider economy are maximised. It would be entirely premature to abandon what has been a high-quality data production model without fully exploring the consequences. As my hon. Friend said, the UK has world-class agencies, including Ordnance Survey, the Met Office, the UK Hydrographic Office and the Land Registry. I shall take this opportunity on behalf of the Government to pay tribute to the professionalism, expertise and talent that is housed in each of those offices. We should be careful to avoid destabilising those excellent agencies.

The Government have set out the principles within which trading funds should operate and how public sector bodies should charge for their services in the recently published document "Managing public money". Individual bodies are free to set their prices within the markets in which they operate, provided that they abide by those broad principles. The research that is under way may inform future policy in this area.