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Wednesday, November 17, 1999 Published at 14:59 GMT

UK Politics

Safety concerns over transport reforms

The Paddington crash has increased calls for action on the railways

The transport bill unveiled in the Queen's Speech has brought together disparate measures to improve rail safety, increase bus usage and introduce a public-private partnership for air traffic control.

The Queen's Speech
An abnormally large piece of legislation, critics will claim the government is lumping the various changes together to mute a Labour rebellion to its proposals for National Air Traffic Services.

Following the Paddington rail disaster, safety concerns returned to the fore and the number of Labour MPs openly against the air proposals surged to 130.

Unions too argue the plan would sacrifice safety in the skies in favour of profits - the same charge levelled at Railtrack on the railways.

Paul Noon, general secretary of the controllers' union, the Institute of Professionals, Managers and Specialists, said after the Queen's Speech: "We are still totally opposed to the sell-off plan.

"The government is doing this for financial reasons, when the overriding consideration should be safety."

[ image: Unions are opposed to the sell-off plan]
Unions are opposed to the sell-off plan
The government wants to sell off 46% of shares in NATS and offer a further 5% to employers, leaving only 49% in public ownership.

The part-sale of NATS, which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Civil Aviation Authority, could net £1bn - money which may well be made available to Transport Secretary John Prescott for public transport improvements.

The background note issued alongside the Queen's Speech only mentions a bill to allow for the "setting up of a public-private partnership (PPP) to deliver air traffic services in the UK".

It adds: "Safety is paramount and responsibility for it would remain in the public sector."
The BBC's Simon Montague reports: "The pressure for profits could threaten safety"

Last week, CAA chairman Sir Malcolm Field said the part-privatisation scheme was "pragmatic and imaginative" and was no different from the privatisations of British Airways and airport operator BAA.

Both unions and MPs have highlighted the problems currently facing controllers over the long delay to the opening of a £350m new control centre at Swanwick in Hampshire.

Queen addresses safety fears

The delay, due to computer problems, has put extra pressure on the main south-east England control centre at West Drayton in west London.

The Liberal Democrats have said they would oppose the partial privatisation as the party's leader Charles Kennedy described it as "deeply worrying".

Public transport and the environment had been neglected for too long, Mr Kennedy said.

He said: "I fear the proposals in this morning's Queen's Speech do not go far enough in redressing that."

The Queen also spoke of safety fears in her address to Parliament.

"Following the recent tragedy at Paddington my government will ensure that rail safety is a top priority," she said.

Safety functions may well be transferred from Railtrack, the government again said.

But the core prospect held out for the railways is the establishment of the Strategic Rail Authority.

For motorists, the key change introduced is the prospect of local authorities having the power to introduce charges for driving in city centres and parking at work.

Also in the bill will be a package of measures to regulate local buses properly and provide improved services.

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