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Tuesday, 28 November, 2000, 11:56 GMT
Ministers take it to the brink
Air traffic controllers
Air controllers have opposed the part-privatisation
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder

Plans to part-privatise the air traffic control system were always going to give the government a migraine.

But the issue is now turning into the longest running battle of the Labour administration.

The proposal has already been stuck in a ping-pong tussle between the Commons and the Lords.

Now ministers have decided to launch what many believe is a last-ditch attempt to save it by postponing the sell-off for three months.

That is far short of the six months demanded by opponents but the government clearly hopes it will be enough to buy off enough Peers to get the measure through before they run out of parliamentary time at the end of this week.

Transport Minister Lord Macdonald
Macdonald is talking tough
Transport minister Lord Macdonald keeps insisting that the government is committed to the privatisation and has made plenty of tough-sounding statements.

Not for sale

But many rebels in both Houses believe, if they continue pushing, they will force him to abandon the whole thing until after the election.

They point to the fact that, not only was the proposal not in the last manifesto, but former shadow transport minister Andrew Smith had previously declared: "our air is not for sale."

They were dismayed when the government then did a U-turn and accepted Tory proposals they had previously vigorously opposed.

There was a widespread belief that, with enough pressure, the government could be persuaded to drop the whole affair.

But ministers have remained absolutely steadfast and are still refusing to budge.

There is still the fallback option of taking the measure out of the Transport Bill to enable the passing of that legislation - which includes key policies to improve roads and the railways.

Safety fears

And many MPs still believe this is what the government will be forced to do. Ministers could then legitimately blame the Lords for threatening to destroy key legislation over a single issue.

But, at the moment, there is no sign that the government is ready to take that step.

Meanwhile, of course, the whole thing is yet another thumbs down for Transport Secretary John Prescott who is having a particularly rough ride at the moment.

What concerns many MPs, voters and the controllers themselves, is that safety will be compromised if Nats is sold-off.

Ministers keep insisting that this would not be the case and that safety would remain in the public sector.

But the critics look at the railway system - also run by John Prescott - and are far from reassured.

Mr Macdonald's hope is that he could use a three month delay to persuade people that safety really will be ensured.

It is something ministers have failed to do over the past couple of years and many think it is unlikely they will succeed now.

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See also:

28 Nov 00 | UK Politics
Ministers defiant over air sell-off
04 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Safety fears raised on air sell-off
17 Feb 00 | UK
Revolution in the air
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