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The BBC's Norman Smith
"An almighty headache for the government"
 real 56k

Baroness O' Cathlain
"I have always been pro-privatisation"
 real 56k

Lord Macdonald, Transport Minister
"I would hope that people would see the sense of letting this go through now"
 real 56k

Tuesday, 28 November, 2000, 12:11 GMT
Air sell-off plans 'under threat'
Gatwick Airport
Peers believe privatisation would compromise safety
Labour MPs have threatened to wreck the government's Transport Bill unless ministers abandon plans to part-privatise the air traffic control system.

Rebel backbenchers have pledged to back an amendment to the Transport Bill put forward by the House of Lords on Monday calling for the sell off to be delayed until after the next general election.

If the government fails to overturn the amendment and get the legislation through the Commons this week, the whole Bill could fall.

The prime minister's official spokesman has re-affirmed the government's commitment to the part-privatisation, even though it "recognised the Bill was unpopular in some quarters".

The Lords is entitled to amend legislation, he added, but the Commons, as the elected chamber, should ultimately have its way.

"We hope when the Lords look at it again they will accept that," he added.

The Bill is a key part of the government's transport programme and includes proposals to establish the Strategic Rail Authority and introduce congestion charging in cities.

Labour MPs will be voting to try to stop the Commons reversing this (Lords) amendment

Gavin Strang

Ministers announced plans to delay the part-privatisation of the National Air Control System (NATS) by three months after peers passed their amendment.

But Labour MPs have said the compromise does not go far enough.

They said they will back the House of Lords amendment to delay the sell off until after the general election when they consider the Bill on Tuesday.

'Not significant'

Gavin Strang, leader of the Labour rebels in the Commons and a former Labour transport minister, said the concession was not significant.

He added: "Labour MPs will be voting to try to stop the Commons reversing this (Lords) amendment."

The Bill is due to return to the Lords later this week.

The Lords' amendment must be defeated in the Commons if the Bill is to stand any chance of becoming law this week.

If the amendment is supported the likelihood is the whole Bill will fall causing a major headache for transport ministers.

Lord Macdonald is committed to pushing through the privatisation
MPs are opposed to the plans to sell off 51% of NATS to one of three bidders in the spring of 2001.

Ministers say the sell off is necessary if much needed investment is to be made in the system.

The plans have been criticised by unions representing air traffic controllers and airline pilots, backbench Labour MPs and a coalition of Conservative and Liberal Democrat peers in the Lords.

They argue that part-privatisation could compromise passenger safety.

Election manifesto

Opponents of the scheme have also pointed out that the plan was not in Labour's 1997 general election manifesto, and has therefore not been backed by the voters.

Dr Strang, who is convenor of the Keep Our Skies Safe group of Labour MPs, welcomed the Lords' amendment calling for the sell-off to be delayed until after the general election.

"By voting to put privatisation off until after the general election when the British people would have the opportunity to express their views on the issue, the Lords were voting for the country and the British people."

But Transport Minister Lord Macdonald remained defiant that the government would drive the sell-off through parliament before then.

"We believe that what the air traffic services need in this country is a massive injection of investment, and we are looking at over 1bn going in over the next decade," he said.

It is time for the government to climb off their high horse

Bernard Jenkin
"And we shouldn't disrupt it with what one of the Tories last night in denouncing her frontbench said was just political shenanigans."

Cross-party consensus

Speaking after Monday's House of Lords vote, shadow transport secretary Bernard Jenkin said: "It is time for the government to climb off their high horse and listen to the cross-party consensus for a better solution."

Liberal Democrats spokesman Don Foster added: "If the government now wants to put our air up for sale, they should put it to a vote at the next general election."

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See also:

28 Nov 00 | UK Politics
Prescott's problems
28 Nov 00 | Talking Politics
Ministers take it to the brink
27 Nov 00 | UK Politics
Ministers braced for air sell-off defeat
16 Nov 00 | UK Politics
Rebels defeated over air sell-off
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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