DTI memo reveals job fears over data plans

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Indy Politics
OIL COMPANIES are alarmed at government proposals to privatise pounds 30bn worth of information about North Sea oil, currently managed by the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh.

The Department of Trade and Industry plans to contract-out the work of the BGS's hydrocarbons unit. The unit stores basic geological and seismic data on North Sea minerals, derived from all the boreholes drilled in the British sector over the past 30 years.

The data store represents a national collection of information about the geology of the United Kingdom which the BGS, as the country's national geological record keeper, is managing. There are concerns that the confidentiality of any data could be compromised by the transfer from the public to the private sector. There are also fears of job losses, unfair competition and increased costs.

An internal DTI memo, obtained by the Independent, shows that the Government is anxious to keep quiet about its plans. But the disclosures in the briefing prepared for Tim Eggar, the Minister for Energy, are likely to increase opposition to the proposals.

The memo reveals that 'four or five' commercial organisations have already been sounded out on their interest in taking on the work and tenders will be invited in the new year. But it notes that two organisations 'have expressed concerns to us about the need to maintain the integrity of commercially confidential information'.

'Appropriate safeguards' are promised. It also says it is 'far from clear' that job losses would follow such a transfer but adds, 'further defensive points needed on employment consequences'.

The jobs of about 60 scientists and administrators could be at risk when the BGS's contract with the Department of Trade and Industry ends next March. But the memo points out that the British Geological Survey will itself be invited to tender for the work. The intention is to try to ensure that the work will remain in Edinburgh, 'so providing potential opportunities for any staff which BGS might have to release'.

Dr Peter Cook, BGS's director, is concerned for the future of national geological collections. 'These are long-term collections and they require a long-term strategy. I would be concerned if the provision of these services by a private sector organisation with other commercial activities jeopardised the currently high level of confidentiality and increase the prospect of a conflict of commercial interest,' he said.