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Friday, 18 February, 2000, 12:33 GMT
NATS up in the air

By BBC Scotland's Westminster Correspondent David Porter

''The air is not for sale, er, well not unless the Treasury tell us we've got to!''.

We've all done it, perhaps more times than we would care to remember.

You say something and barely have the words come out of your mouth and you think: ''That could come back to haunt me''...

In politics it's a virtual certainty if you say something you can bet your life someone will throw it back at you sometime in the future.

No-one in this present government knows that better than Andrew Smith. He's now chief secretary to the Treasury, the man whose job it is to know where all the financial skeletons are buried and exactly who needs to spend what.
Andrew Smith
Andrew Smith: Pledge echoing through the years
It's a powerful job at the heart of the government. But back in 1996 in a former life he was the shadow transport secretary.

Attacking Conservative plans to privatise air traffic control he famously told Labour delegates at their annual condference: ''Labour will do everything we can to block this sell off. Our air is not for sale."

The audience loved it and Mr Smith looked more than a little pleased with the soundbite that got him on radio television and in all the papers.

It was too good a quote to miss. It was also a pretty hefty hostage to fortune.

Just one problem. When they got into government, Labour - and the Treasury in particular - suddenly decided that bringing private money and the profit incentive into the National Air Traffic control service may not be such a bad idea after all.

Profit v. safety

It's a sensitive subject. To put it bluntly the air traffic controllers are the people who make sure the planes take off and land safely and don't fall out of the sky.

Any hint that profit is taking precedence over safety, whether well founded or not, is guarenteed to cause a big row.

Now whenever the government experiences concerns over air traffic control, the clip of Mr Smith and his pledge: ''Labour will do everything we can to block this sell off. Our air is not for sale'' appears on the television bulletins.

Whatever else he may do in his political life, he'll always be remembered for that.
Air traffic controllers
Air safety is a touchy subject
The government's plans to sell off more than half of the air traffic control service are, as we've already said, highly controversial, not least among Labour MPs, whose memories go back to John Smith's party conference commitment.

This week the transport select committee added its two penneth, publishing a report it had compiled expressing concerns about the plans.

Normally these reports couch their findings in the most temperate of language. Not this one.

The committee said the government's proposals were ''the worst of all possible worlds'' which would not bring cost savings and could well risk safety.

It was the verbal equivalent of lobbing a grenade into the debate.

History of hostility

The government wants to sell off 46% of NATS, the air traffic control service, to a private company. A further five per cent will go to the employees.

The remainder will stay in government hands and it keeps control of safety regulation. The transport select committee has a history of hostility to this plan and this week's report followed suit.

Everyone agrees that NATS needs substantial investment to cope with passenger numbers which will double in the next 12 years.
Gwyneth Dunwoody
Gwyneth Dunwoody: "I'm a pussycat"
The government says this money should come from private investors, not the Treasury where it would inevitably compete with other areas of spending like health and education.

The unions claim that the priorities of a private company will put profits before safety.

The report's findings are more embarrassing for ministers, because the committee has a majority of Labour MPs on it, so ministers can't say it's just a case of the opposition using it as an excuse to have a pop at the government.

It's also the third time since 1997 that the committee has produced a report on air traffic control. Each time the investigation has been led by the Labour MP for Crewe and Natnwich, Gwyneth Dunwoody.

'Indomitable' character

Mrs Dunwoody is one of those ladies for whom the word indomitable was made for. She is a ferocious critics of the government's plans to sell off part of NATS.

She argues her case very effectively and makes it plain to those who appear before her committee that she doesn't suffer fools gladly or otherwise.

She denies this, saying she's just a ''pussycat'', but cats as we all know have claws and this one has very sharp ones indeed and knows how to use them.
KLM plane landing
Ministers say their plans are on course
Cats also are well renowned for teasing mice they've caught. More than a few ministers and witnesses who've appeared before her during this investigation would be forgiven for feeling a bit like the tormented mouse.

The report was published just days after the government confirmed plans for a 400m upgrading of facilities at the Prestwick air traffic control centre.

The rebuilding programme will create 700 jobs and safeguard the posts of more than 500 control staff who work at Prestwick.

Gus does the rounds

But in part it will be paid for by the plans to sell more half of the service. Despite the report, ministers insist those proposals are STILL on course.

Lord Macdonald, who transferrred from the Scotland Office to become John Prescott's number two at transport, has been doing the rounds to defend the government's Public Private Partnership plans for air traffic controls.
Lord MacDonald
Lord MacDonald: Plans under fire
He says despite the criticism from the select committee the plans will go ahead. But ministers know they are unpopular with a significant number of their own backbenchers and they're aware there could be more trouble in store.

The Cheshire pussycat (aka the MP for Crewe and Nantwich, Gwyneth Dunwoody) will also be watching - and may feel the need lash out again in future!).

Andrew Smith, meanwhile, is saying nothing about financial deals involving the ''air we breath''.

That's a pity, but never mind Andrew, every broadcaster knows where its copy of the 1996 Labour Party conference speech is!

Your words, I have no doubt, will getting an airing again in the future.

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17 Feb 00 | Scotland
Air traffic centre project 'safe'
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