Select Committee on European Scrutiny Fourteenth Report




COM(01) 607

Commission Communication to the Council, the European Parliament, the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions: eEurope 2002: creating an EU framework for the exploitation of public sector information.

Legal base:
Document originated:23 October 2001
Forwarded to the Council:26 October 2001
Deposited in Parliament:4 December 2001
Department:Trade and Industry and the Cabinet Office (HMSO)
Basis of consideration:EM of 10 January 2002
Previous Committee Report:None
To be discussed in Council:No date set
Committee's assessment:Politically important
Committee's decision:Cleared

The Communication

  12.1  Public sector information is a major resource which could be turned into a valuable asset for European citizens, businesses and administrations. The Commission suggests that citizens and businesses could benefit greatly from easier communication with public administrations and from increased participation in the democratic process. This Communication, however, focusses on the economic and commercial benefits to the private sector.

  12.2  Examples of public sector information given in the Communication include company registers, legal and administrative information, information from patent offices, geographical information, including maps and road traffic reports, and the scientific, technical, cultural and medical information which is extensively collected by public research institutions and public archives.

  12.3  Quoting from a report dated May 2000 to the Department of Trade and Industry[36], the Commission says that between 15% and 20% of the total requirement for data in e-commerce trading is based on public sector information. It is clearly an important economic resource with a substantial potential for growth, which the private sector can utilise for the development of value-added products and services.

  12.4  According to a study carried out for the Commission[37] the United States information market, based on public sector information, is estimated to be up to five times the size of the EU market. Key industries have posted growth rates of 10% to 30% in the last six years. The debate there has moved on from issues of access, charging, copyright and resale, to more detailed questions of implementation and common metadata[38]. Access to, and re-use of, Federal Government information is helped by a clear and simple legislative framework. There is no copyright on it and no restriction on re-use. Fees are limited to, at most, marginal costs for reproduction and dissemination.

  12.5  The Commission argues that "the availability of reliable information products covering different Member States is essential for all firms operating in an international environment... [It] is also important for citizens who want to exert their rights under the Treaties". Difficulty in exploiting public sector information has a negative effect on the internal market as a whole.

  12.6  The Communication identifies a number of barriers to the re-use throughout the EU of public sector information by the private sector. They include:

  • barriers that result from differences in rules and practices, such as exclusive deals, refusals to transmit information in digital form or a requirement to consult the information on the spot;

  • pricing, with some public sector bodies using their market power to set a very high price. Dun and Bradstreet found that, in the year 2000, company balance sheets varied from _0.11 in Belgium to _3.29 in the Netherlands. In one Member State, the high price charged by the meteorological service induced a private meteorological service provider to use information from the United States. The Service provider also found it more economical to build its own radar station than to buy the images from the national service;

  • uncertainty about the conditions for re-use. The relevant stipulations are in national laws, in administrative provisions at regional or local level, and in specific rules defined by Ministries for agencies or defined by the agencies themselves. In other cases there are simply no rules, so it is hard to predict how the administration will react to a request to use the information. The Commission argues that there needs to be a minimum of certainty and transparency.

  12.7  Practical difficulties that make exploitation at European level particularly difficult are that it is not always easy to find out what databases exist and to locate the information. There are no generally available directories at European, or even at national, level which provide an overview of the information resources held by the public sector.

  12.8  Actions which the Commission proposes could be taken to overcome these barriers can be summarised as:

(1)  harmonisation of policy across Europe, with a common set of rules that would alleviate some of the uncertainty relating to the re-use of data;

(2)  the exchange of best practice across Europe;

(3)  providing more information about data sources (metadata) and where it can be obtained, supported by standards;

(4)  support for technological projects relating to public sector information; and

(5)  prohibition of exclusive licensing arrangements for the exploitation of public sector information.

  12.9  The Commission identifies two separate issues which need to be addressed. One is the absence of clear and consistent conditions for the commercial re-use of public sector information. The Commission proposes the establishment of a framework Directive as the most effective method of encouraging re-use and the development of value-added products and services. It believes that the removal of barriers would act as a stimulus to the information and publishing industry in Europe, so providing significant economic opportunities and enhancing job creation, as well as bridging the gap between European information industries and their American counterparts.

  12.10  The other issue is that of facilitating access, the importance of which was stressed in the replies the Commission received to its Green Paper[39]. Council Directive 90/313/EEC of 7 June 1990 on the freedom of access to information on the environment is expected to be replaced by a new Directive currently under discussion in the Council and European Parliament[40]. Apart from this proposal, no other move to harmonise access is envisaged by the Commission but it does propose that a Group to Promote Digital Public Data should be set up which would also act as a focal point for discussion of issues relating to the re-use of public sector information and to co-ordinate policy across the Member States.

The Government's view

  12.11  In an Explanatory Memorandum signed by both Ministers, the Minister for eCommerce and Competitiveness (Mr Douglas Alexander) and the Parliamentary Secretary for the Cabinet Office (Mr Christopher Leslie) comment that the Government has already made significant strides in encouraging the re-use of Government information. They say:

"This followed a wide-ranging policy review of government information policy which resulted in the Cross Cutting Review of the Knowledge Economy published by HM Treasury in December 2000 and the earlier White Paper The Future Management of Crown Copyright (CM 4300) in March 1999. Two of the key initiatives which arose from the review process was the implementation of an on-line class licence, known as the Click-Use Licence in April 2001 and the development of an Information Asset Register. Both of these initiatives go some way towards addressing the concerns expressed in the Communication and could indeed provide a template which the other Member States could follow".

  12.12  The Ministers add, however:

"Although the proposals contained in the Communication reflect the approach already adopted in the UK for information originated by central government, there are some notable exceptions. In particular, under the Cross Cutting Review of the Knowledge Economy government trading funds have been granted the right, subject to central regulatory control undertaken by HMSO, to license the material which they originate as this is consistent with the commercial operation of trading funds. If a Directive emerges, government trading funds will be consulted, as well as HM Treasury, on policy and financial implications".


  12.13  We welcome this initiative and ask the Government to press the Commission to give it a higher priority than it has done since its 1999 Green Paper.

  12.14  We now clear the document from scrutiny.

36  Prepared by Electronic Publishing Services for the DTI, entitled Government information and the UK information market.  Back

37  By PIRA International, on commercial exploitation of public sector information, dated October 2000. Back

38  Information about data sources. Back

39  (19826) 5580/99; see HC 34-xvi (1998-99), paragraph 13 (21 April 1999). Back

40  (21458) 10003/00; See HC 152-i (2001-02), paragraph 35.1 (18 July 2001). Back

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