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Thursday, 17 February, 2000, 12:44 GMT
Prescott's latest privatisation row

John Prescott: Under pressure

By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has faced a series of attacks over his much-vaunted transport policies - but the report into the planned sell-off of air traffic control must be the most serious yet.

The Labour dominated committee has concluded that the planned part-privatisation would be the worst option for the future of the service.

But, most significantly, the MPs also warned that such a move could threaten safety.

That is a deeply serious allegation and - with the Paddington and Southall rail crashes still fresh in people's minds - no minister will want to take risks with public safety.

So Mr Prescott will now come under intense pressure to abandon the proposal and come up with an alternative.

The committee accepts that doing nothing is not an option and has suggested the creation of an independent trust instead.

Mr Prescott will find it hugely difficult to brush off this report as it confirms exactly the fears being expressed by the British Airlines Pilots Association and even former Labour transport minister Gavin Strang.

Safety fears

But the deputy prime minister will be reluctant to execute yet another U-turn.

He was recently forced to abandon plans to include Railtrack in the planned part sell-off of London underground.

It was claimed that the move was a result of fears about Railtrack's safety record after the Paddington disaster.

But it was also suggested it was motivated by Tony Blair's desperate desire to stop Ken Livingstone winning the Labour nomination for London mayor.

Mr Livingstone has been implacably opposed to the government's policies for the modernisation of the tube and claimed a victory when Mr Prescott backed down.

It is also now reported that Mr Prescott is about to execute another U turn over threats to strip Railtrack of its safety functions.

He promised to create an independent safety watchdog in the wake of the Paddington accident but is now said to be about to change his mind.

The report into the crash is believed to recommend that the safety function should be left with Railtrack.

Lost patience

The Tories have already accused Mr Prescott of trying to turn Railtrack into the scapegoat for the disaster and the report will add to those criticisms.

The air traffic control report is just the latest in a long line of attacks on Mr Prescott's handling of his transport brief.

Matters came to a head recently when his deputy, Lord Gus Macdonald effectively took over the portfolio.

It was claimed at the time that the prime minister had finally run out of patience with Mr Prescott after a series of PR and policy blunders.

It is ironic that a Labour government, and John Prescott in particular, has been caught up in rows over privatisation - a Tory policy they once vehemently opposed.

But moves on the Post Office, National Savings, the Tote and British Nuclear Fuels have all faced serious criticisms.

But Mr Prescott has probably suffered the most and the latest report will only add to his woes.

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See also:
16 Feb 00 |  UK Politics
Selling off the skies
17 Feb 00 |  UK Politics
Air traffic sale plans under attack

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