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Monday, 27 November, 2000, 09:57 GMT
Ministers braced for air sell-off defeat
Gatwick Airport
Peers believe privatisation would compromise safety
The government is bracing itself for defeat in the House of Lords over plans to privatise the national air traffic control system.

Peers are expected to block proposals for a 51% sell-off of the National Air Traffic system (Nats) in a final showdown when the Transport Bill returns to the Lords on Monday.

In the end we cannot insist [that the Bill is passed]

Lord Macdonald
If peers vote the measure down again, ministers would then face a race against time to push the legislation through parliament before prorogation - the close of the current session - later this week.

Transport Minister Lord Macdonald described the prospect of another Lords defeat as a "constitutional outrage" and accused the Conservative Party of "cynical opportunism" in opposing the Bill.

Delaying investment

Tory and Liberal Democrat peers are expected to unite to defeat the Nats measure.

If it fails to clear the Lords, the government is expected to re-present it to the Commons before the end of the week in an effort to force it on to the statute book.

The prime minister's official spokesman re-affirmed the government's commitment to the controversial proposals.

"It is an important Bill. We want to get it through," he said.

But Lord Macdonald admitted there was a very real prospect the government would run out of time.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "In the end we cannot insist [that the Bill is passed] because we have 70% of the Lords against it."

However he added that if the Bill failed: "It would also delay the kind of investment in the air traffic control system that is badly needed."

He said the Tories actually favoured full privatisation of Nats and were only opposing the Bill as an act of "cynical opportunism".

Tories reject 'cynicism' charge

Shadow transport minister Bernard Jenkin rejected the charge of 'cynicism', telling the same programme: "We would have gone ahead with a full privatisation of air traffic control if we could guarantee a British company under British control controlling British-regulated airspace."

It is downright irresponsible to embark on an experiment in which the public, the professionals and so many members of all parties have no confidence

The air traffic controllers' union
"But he [Lord Macdonald] is making a whole lot of assurances he can't keep."

The way the legislation was drafted would mean the government stake in the new venture could drop from 49% to just 25%, he said.

The European Union was also reviewing the legality of the "golden share" system on which ministers would rely to ensure control of the Nats.

The sell-off proposal was not in Labour's election manifesto and the party should put them to the country at the next poll before forcing them through, he added.

Safety fears

Lord Macdonald said a letter from airline owners, published in Monday's Times newspaper, should allay safety fears over the sell-off.

"If parliamentarians will not accept the assurances of government on this point we ask them to accept the word of those in whose interests the air traffic control system is run," he said.

BA chairman Lord Marshall of Knightsbridge, Virgin Atlantic chairman Sir Richard Branson, and British Midland chairman Michael Bishop also expressed concern that deferral of the Bill until after the next general election would delay much-needed investment.

The Nats sell-off has already provoked one Lords rebellion with peers calling on the government to think again and delay proceeding with a sale until after the next election.

And last week a Commons rebellion saw 37 Labour backbenchers vote against the government on the Bill.

Ministers have since pledged to protect workers' pension rights in a bid to reassure rebel Labour peers.

Mounting pressure

But air traffic controllers have urged peers not to give in to mounting government pressure on the Bill.

Paul Noon, general secretary of the IPMS union representing approximately 3,300 air traffic controllers, warned that safety could be jeopardised by the sale.

"It is downright irresponsible to embark on an experiment in which the public, the professionals and so many members of all parties have no confidence," he said.

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See also:

27 Oct 00 | UK Politics
Prescott defiant on air control sell-off
04 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Safety fears raised on air sell-off
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