Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300 - 319)



Mrs Ellman

  300. You say you have not got a closed mind, but what else are you contemplating?
  (Ms Keeble) The other one would be to keep to a trading fund. I will go into as much or as little about that as you want. There has already been mention of issues about the payment of staff and that we should just pay the chief executive more money and that would do it. I am not convinced that that would be enough actually, because there are issues about staffing and the skills that need to be got in to do the range of work for OS. I think there are also issues about the fact that the technology is changing very fast. I know that OS does not want to be at the cutting edge of technology because you sometimes have to be a little bit removed from it, but they need to be able to invest reasonably quickly. They need quite a lot of flexibility, and one of the constraints on the Trading Fund can be the return on capital target, which in a sense could actually be a deterrent to investment. That is also one of the reasons why I think we really seriously have to look at the flexibilities of a government-owned plc as opposed to a trading fund account.

  301. Is privatisation ruled out?
  (Ms Keeble) I am very much opposed to OS being privatised.


  302. That was not the question you were asked.
  (Ms Keeble) If you look at the wording of the Quinquennial Review, I think it says that privatisation is not seen as an option at the current stage.

  303. And you are personally against it as well?
  (Ms Keeble) I am personally very much opposed to it. If I could just explain one of the reasons why I think it is so important that OS succeeds and succeeds in the public sector, it is that I think it is very important, with the level of information that you can get in a national database of this type, that it is within the public sector and protected by Crown copyright.

  Chairman: Chris Grayling, do you want to pursue this EU point?

Chris Grayling

  304. I do not see why the EU should be seeking to obtain competency in this area.
  (Ms Keeble) I am not an expert on this part of the EU but I am told that it is looking at this area.

  305. Are we telling them to back off?
  (Ms Keeble) I think it is about basic citizens' rights. I think my officials are more involved in the negotiations than I am.
  (Mr Capell) My understanding is that what the EC want to do is to have a common system of access to environmental information for all residents in all countries of the EC in a common and systematic way. Ordnance Survey are certainly part of the negotiations that are going on and are very firm in their expressions and representations of the constraints that they are under as a trading fund. One has to bear in mind here that Ordnance Survey's mapping, as a level of excellence, is generally better than other European countries, and it is not necessarily the case that the largest scale of mapping that Ordnance Survey produces, which is where the greatest considerations are in this area, is what is going to be needed on the European database.
  (In the absence of the Chairman Mrs Dunwoody was called to the Chair.)

  Mrs Dunwood

  306. Mr Capell, you are taking a number of decisions without any very clear view why.
  (Mr Capell) I do not think so.

  Chris Graylin

  307. What concerns me, hearing what you say, and this is the second example in recent weeks of the EU seeking to expand its competency, is that you, as Minister, are saying you are not really sure what is going. If this is a case where the EU is seeking to expand its competency to an area that I am certainly not aware of it having a competency in the past, and there is no obvious reason why it has happened, it is actually your job, as Minister, to be fighting the fight to make sure that does not happen and saying "back off" to the EU.
  (Ms Keeble) I take your point. I would just say that I have only fairly recently been made aware of this particular difficulty.

  Mrs Dunwood

  308. I think it would be helpful, rather than pursue this at this moment, if you would give us a short note on any suggestion that there should be any EU competency in this field and what definitions there are, and what possibility there can be.
  (Ms Keeble) We will do that.

  Mr Cumming

  309. The Committee has been told by respective witnesses that the benefits of merging OS and the Land Registry would be significant. Yet the Committee has also been told that the Quinquennial Review disregarded this as not feasible. Are you satisfied that the option was adequately considered?
  (Ms Keeble) I think the Quinquennial Review looked at the possibility of merging with a range of organisations. In the case of the Land Registry it would seem there that you would be combining an organisation whose main purpose was to collect the data and to manage it, with one whose main purpose was to actually use it, and I think it would be unwieldy. So, yes, I think it was given proper consideration and I think that the Quinquennial Review was right to rule that out.

  310. In many countries the Land Registry and the large-scale mapping organisation are one. Would it not make sense to consider a similar arrangement in England where the Land Registry is Ordnance Survey's biggest customer?
  (Ms Keeble) I have looked at the different options—I have to say not in huge detail—and I cannot think of one where those two were specifically merged. Was it the Australian one that you were looking at?

  311. I am not quite sure which one it was.
  (Ms Keeble) I think it is the Australian one, and I think that the circumstances in Australia are completely different from here. I think we need to look at what OS has done and what is the best way forward.

  312. What makes us so different from other countries?
  (Ms Keeble) We are different from Australia because they have a not very densely populated country, and we have one of the most highly urbanised countries in the whole of, certainly, Western Europe. If we look at some of the other models, some of them have got some merit. Germany is probably the closest one; they devolve it down to the Lander. If we look at the United States, for example, and its model, some of its data is seven years out of date, which I do not think is where we want to get to. We do have the advantage of having been one of the first countries to get into this, and we are fortunate in having a very, very high standard of national mapping. I think we have to look at how we develop it in the best interests of this country.

  313. I think the Committee are working on the premise that a merger of that nature could possibly avoid the quasi-commercial pricing negotiations that Ordnance Survey is involved in at the present time.
  (Ms Keeble) Our Quinquennial Review turned it down. I think the Land Registry quinquennial review also turned it down. If you have got two organisations that do their job in an efficient manner—certainly in the case of OS in an outstanding manner—I do not see the need then to merge it with another organisation which has got quite a different function.

  314. You are convinced that it is not a matter of dogs in the manger?
  (Ms Keeble) How do you mean?

  315. Just wanting to retain their independence ad infinitum.
  (Ms Keeble) I do not think so because they have got very good partnership arrangements with the private sector. They have got Service Level Agreements with different government departments and they have got a good track record of working very closely with a number of organisations including the Land Registry. There is a difference between working well with somebody and merging with them.

  Mrs Dunwood

  316. Is it not true that the Quinquennial Review raised the question of what they call "wasteful and largely theoretical discussion"?
  (Ms Keeble) Of what, of a merger?

  317. Between the Land Registry and OS.
  (Ms Keeble) In terms of merging?

  318. This was apparently what you yourself said; that in HMLR there was an " . . . issue of wasteful and largely theoretical discussions, which had little commercial rationale behind them, of how much HMLR should pay for the use of OS mapping." In other words, they have very close relationships but they still spend hours arguing about something which ought to be sorted out quite quickly.
  (Ms Keeble) That is a criticism of their discussions about pricing, which I would have thought is fair enough if people think that the discussions about prices go on for too long. If there is a requirement for pricing to be there, if they have to have that arrangement, they are going to have to have it whether or not they are under the same management.

  319. Is a Pan Government Service Level Agreement going to help to achieve greater value for money?
  (Ms Keeble) I would expect so, yes, and I would expect it would also deal with some of the wasteful discussions that you talked about.

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