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Last Updated: Friday, 12 January 2007, 11:55 GMT
Government looks at data shake-up
One of the laws in the Statute Law Database
The Statute Law Database lists 14th century concerns
The way the government makes its vast amounts of data available to the public could be about to change.

It has decided to make access to a database of UK laws completely free for the public to access and re-use.

It marks a "sea-change" in the way government information becomes available to the public, a senior civil servant has told the BBC News website.

It is a victory for campaigners who think public sector information should be free for the public to use.

Level playing-field

The focus of this issue has revolved around The Statute Law Database, a huge undertaking designed to catalogue all existing legislation in the UK.

It has been ten years in the making and has eaten up public funds along the way. Because of this, the government was keen initially to make some money back on it.

The decision to make it completely free is a landmark one, said Jim Wretham, head of Information Policy at the Office of Public Sector Information.

"It is a tremendously important resource. It marks a sea-change in the general thinking about the way government information becomes available," he said.

Nick Holmes, author of legal blog Binary Law and one of the main campaigners, is delighted by the change of heart.

"The problem is that government departments are selling the data that has been gathered by our taxes. This represents a conflict of interest and it is not a level playing field if the government both holds the data and is able to exploit it commercially," said Mr Holmes.

Ripe for improvement

Although much of government information is free to look at on the web, the issue gets more complicated when it comes to reproducing it.

Reproducing public sector information is crucial to websites such as TheyWorkForYou, which uses the data in Hansard to inform people about their MPs voting and attendance records.

Ordnance Survey map
Ordnance Survey charges to reproduce its maps

While re-using the information in Hansard is a relatively simple process - you need only apply for a free licence - other data, such as Ordnance Survey maps, carry hefty fees for re-usage.

"In the case of Ordnance Survey the government is dependent on the income it generates to cover the cost of making the maps," said Mr Wretham.

But, he admits, the way government information is used in the public domain is due for a shake-up.

"The Office of Fair Trading recently published a report on the commercial use of public information and certain aspects of our licensing activities were questioned," he said.

"The time is ripe for improvement," he added.

The government has until the end of March to respond to the findings of the Office of Fair Trading.

Bearing Arms

It could mean that fees are removed completely and would be a huge victory for campaigners and websites keen to exploit the vast resources of government databases.

It is likely that people wishing to take advantage of public information will still be required to apply for licences.

"The reason we require licensing is to ensure that government information is not misrepresented or used to mislead the public," said Mr Wretham

The Statute Law Database, an obscure if fascinating resource, is perhaps an unlikely candidate to have kick-started such a revolution but it will make fascinating reading for anyone interested in the UK's legal history.

Containing Acts of Parliament dating back to the 13th century, it includes such gems as the 1313 statute forbidding the bearing of armour and the 1661 March Dykes Act, an example of early planning law.

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