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The BBC's John Pienaar
"Air traffic control...will now be sold by the Spring"
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House of Lords Liberal Democrat Leader, Lord Rogers
"We are very disappointed"
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Wednesday, 29 November, 2000, 18:02 GMT
Peers capitulate on air sell-off
Airplane over the Lords
A plane flies over the Lords as peers debate the sell-off
The government has won its battle to push its privatisation plans for the National Air Traffic Service (Nats) through the House of Lords.

Feeble and divided, the Tories have chickened out. So much for safety in the skies

Lord Rogers
Conservative peers withdrew support for their motion to delay the sell-off until after the next election after receiving assurances from the government that they could review the plans next year.

Liberal Democrat peers pushed on with their opposition but when the vote came, the government won the day.

The result infuriated the Lib Dem leader in the Lords, Lord Rogers, who said: "Feeble and divided, the Tories have chickened out. So much for safety in the skies."

But his Tory counterpart, Lord Strathclyde, said the Lords had "done its duty". He argued that the government had mounted a significant climbdown.

"This is a significant obligation on the government to think more deeply about its unpopular proposals and report back to parliament in the run-up to a general election campaign."

Third time lucky for ministers

It was the third time that the controversial proposals had been facing defeat in the Lords, which had voted to put them off twice before.

Lord Macdonald guided the bill through the Lords
Wednesday's vote followed a series of Labour rebellion in the Commons over the issue, the most recent of which took place on Tuesday.

But a commitment from Transport Minister Lord Macdonald that the government would allow peers a progress statement next spring was enough for Tories in the Lords to allow the measure through on Wednesday.

With this year's parliamentary session rapidly drawing to a close, ministers had faced the possibility of losing the whole Transport Bill or using the Parliament Act to force the sell-off through if peers had again chosen to defy the Commons.

'Safety a priority'

Opening the debate in the Lords, Lord Macdonald said the government "remained convinced" that a "public-private partnership" (PPP) was the right solution for Nats.

And he moved again to calm fears over the safety of a privately run air traffic control service, saying "safety is the first priority".

But for the Tories, Lord Brabazon said the Nats sale should be delayed until after the next election.

He protested that not only did Labour fail to include the policy in its last manifesto, but at that time frontbench spokespersons also made it clear that the party was against such a move.

He subsequently withdrew the Tories' amendment to delay the sale, however.

Commenting on the vote, Tory transport spokesman Bernard Jenkin said the government had been forced to make "staggering" concessions.

He said: "A full report and debate will mean this issue remains a running sore right up to the election."

Other measures included in the Transport Bill are far-reaching reforms of the rail network, with the establishment of a Strategic Rail Authority, as well as powers over congestion charging.

Some Labour MPs had been vocal in their criticisms of the Bill, warning it may lead to problems similar to those experienced by Railtrack after the rail network was privatised.

Once the Bill completes all its parliamentary stages the government will sell off 51% of Nats to one of three bidders in the spring of 2001. Of the 51%, 4% will be reserved for Nats employees.

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See also:

29 Nov 00 | UK Politics
MPs back air sell-off plans
29 Nov 00 | UK Politics
Ministers 'undermine democracy'
28 Nov 00 | UK Politics
Air sell-off plans 'under threat'
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
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