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Data business sales creep back onto the agenda

08/06/15

The prospect of Land Registry and Ordnance Survey being sold to the private sector is back on ministers' agendas following a backroom tweak to the machinery of government. Under the change, a government-owned company, wholly owned by HM Treasury, will be formed to oversee the activities of the Shareholder Executive, the agency which runs the government’s remaining portfolio of businesses.

iStock_Whitehall_Linda-StewardMeanwhile, responsibility for the Shareholder Executive will pass from the secretary of state for business, innovation and skills to the chancellor of the exchequer. The change took place just before the in-year budget review announced the sale of the government’s remaining stake in Royal Mail.

According to the prime minister’s announcement of the change, “the Shareholder Executive will retain its current operating model whereby it acts directly for departmental secretaries of state and permanent secretaries in its governance and corporate finance activities”. It stresses that “departments may continue to use Shareholder Executive staff exactly the same way that they use departmental staff and that there will continue to be direct access to ministers and senior officials”.

However, transferring ownership to a discrete commercial body at this stage will remove one procedural complication if and when ministers seek to dispose of companies in the portfolio.

Data candidates

Two prime candidates - subject to much speculation in the past few years - are Land Registry and Ordnance Survey. Both are members of the Public Data Group, comprising agencies whose commercial viability is constrained by the government’s open data commitments. The other two are Companies House, which is due to make all its digital data available for free from this quarter, and the Met Office, which is likewise subject to international commitments to provide data for free.

Ordnance Survey, which has been regularly mooted for privatisation over the past 20 years, completed its own transition from trading fund to government-owned company on 1 April.

Land Registry’s plans to convert to a “service delivery company” were the subject of heavy controversy last year. In the event, the government held back, but went ahead with reforms widely interpreted as preparing the body for privatisation. These include taking on responsibility for the local land charges register and a plan for extending Land Registry’s powers “to enable it to provide information and register services relating to land and other property”.

While the Treasury’s eyes are currently on bigger disposals - not least, selling shares in banks - the Public Data Group will certainly come up for attention in the near future; perhaps as soon as the post-election budget. Certainly Matthew Hancock MP, now Cabinet Office minister with direct responsibility for cutting central government’s payroll, will be no stranger to the issues: as junior minister at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills he introduced the Shareholder Executive’s last annual report.

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