View from City Road: Past the need for lab privatisation

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The Independent Online
What's the point of privatising the National Physical Laboratory, the National Engineering Laboratory and the Laboratory of the Government Chemist?

Like most of what's left in public ownership after the great clearout of the 1980s, hardly any. Though these are valuable and vital enterprises, the amount raised would be peanuts, a mere drop in the ocean of the Government's deficit.

The Government's science labs are also important national assets of significant collective benefit to British industry as a whole. Yet ministers seems intent on doing it, doggedly and dogmatically pushing ahead with a programme of privatisation that long ago ran out of viable and worthwhile candidates for transfer to the private sector.

The DTI is planning formally to announce the privatisation on Thursday.

Much of the research these laboratories undertake is directly useful in operating key legislation, where impartiality is vital. And one of the labs, the NPL, is responsible for setting the standards for the national measurement system. Do we really want such sensitive functions transferred to the private sector?

Nobody disputes that the labs need to be more flexible and approachable to industry. They could, however, achieve this just as easily in their present form as executive agencies.

Going the full hog to private sector ownership is as unnecessary as it is dangerous. To make the labs saleable at all, ministers are going to have to demand from potential owners cast-iron guarantees of impartiality.

They will also have to offer investors a guaranteed level of public sector contracts.

Much better to drop the plan now, than be forced to at some stage down the parliamentary process. But then this is a government intent on creating banana skins for itself.