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Mr. Donald Gorrie (Edinburgh, West): I should like to respond to the speech by my fellow countryman, the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith), but also to animadvert on the absence of some of my other countrymen. The Scottish National party made a big issue of the proposals in the Scottish Parliament, where it has no authority over them at all, but SNP Members have declined to appear in the Chamber to participate in today's debate. Some of them may come to vote, but I have seen none in the building.

The three main arguments on the subject, to which I have listened with great interest, boil down to a safety issue, a political continuity issue and the fact that those who know about the subject say that they disagree with the proposals. National security is an additional issue.

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Like the rest of us, the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden can make up his own mind on safety. However, the argument that airplanes flying into Heathrow and Gatwick will be safer if air traffic services are under commercial pressure to make a profit is not an intellectual concept that I can sign up to.

The political continuity argument is important, but the hon. Gentleman did not deal with it. Things change. It is legitimate for a party to change its position in the light of changing circumstances. Ministers' position would be legitimate if they could say, "We promised in the past that we would oppose privatisation or partial privatisation of air traffic control. However, things have changed in the following ways, and we have therefore changed our mind." That would be legitimate, but Ministers have not done it. They have merely adopted this new policy. I think that such ditching of promises contributes to the low turnouts at elections. There is a clear connection between the public being turned off--or scunnered, as we say in Scotland--by politicians who, collectively, do not stay firm on what we have said we would do.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole): Like Scottish student fees.

Mr. Gorrie: We have delivered on Scottish student fees. I would be happy to argue with the hon. Gentleman about that at another time.

With all due respect, neither the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden nor I know all that much about radar and air traffic control. The people who do know about it are all against the Government on this. Surely it is compelling that those who work in the area and have no axe to grind in terms of profit are all on the same side. The House should support them, and not listen to Ministers who seem to be driven by some extraordinary remote control.

Mr. Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central): I wish to make a short speech in favour of the Government's proposal. I declare a personal interest, in that, over the years, I have flown thousands of passengers on holiday--using NATS, of course--and I have a vested interest in keeping them alive.

Any private operation has a concern for safety in terms of commercial viability and being sensitive to customers. There are a number of common objectives across the House, including the guarantee of heavy investment to secure the best air traffic management and safety system in the world. The system must become a benchmark for best practice. Beyond that, we want to extend our operations into European air space and to be a model for other air traffic control systems.

We do not have a standstill situation. It is not good enough for people to say that we have the best system in the world, and that it will remain the best in the world. Britain is the biggest hub for international airlines in the world, and business is growing by 6 per cent. a year. To continue as we are is not a sustainable option. The reality is that the system is becoming more complex and more congested.

Who has the resources in terms of skills and technology--as well as cash--to sort it out? What is the best incentive structure for efficiency and safety? Not every speaker has approached the issues in an upfront way.

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Frankly, in certain airports, NATS needs to deliver safety systems that are not being delivered. In Edinburgh, we want a new NATS to bring in a requirement for night-time approach radar at affordable prices. That service should be deliverable to all significant airports as congestion grows.

Those who think that NATS is great and that everything is all right should know that this is a moving picture, and we need a system that delivers increasing standards and provisions. Those who speak about increasing congestion at Heathrow and Gatwick are right, and that is the very reason why we need a mechanism for more investment and skills.

Mr. Connarty: My ears pricked up when I heard my hon. Friend mention increased services in Edinburgh. Is there any suggestion or evidence that those could not be delivered by the trust model or by a wholly publicly owned company if it were allowed to get the money from the private sector?

Mr. Davies: We need increasing standards and resources from the CAA. We need also to be confident that those complex services are delivered. I am trying to show that the model put forward by the Government satisfies all those criteria. It is not enough to say that we can fund safety, and we need to investigate the matter carefully. I recognise the sincerity and commitment of those who argue for fresh resourcing for the current system, and I respect their position. However, I ask everyone to listen to all sides of the debate.

6.15 pm

There is some consensus in the industry--across the airlines, the pilots and the unions--in terms of a public-private partnership. One would not have thought that from listening to some of the speeches today. Some of the unions--including the pilots--are sympathetic towards public-private partnership. There is a debate about corporate governance, and there is consensus that extra cash should not necessarily be at the whim of individual Governments, who will have priorities such as the NHS.

There is consensus on the need for certainty in investment flows. There is consensus on the opportunity for risk transfer into areas where risk can be managed more effectively, such as information technology systems. There is a view that there is something to be added from the private sector. The horizons for air traffic control should go beyond UK airspace, or any European airspace, and into other airspace. With the current dynamics of the industry, it is not enough simply to think about planes flying over Britain.

I am not of the view that the private sector necessarily does project management better than the public sector. The Croydon tramlink--a public-private partnership--is four months late. However, the point is that the cost of the delay is with the private sector, not the public sector, and there is a lot of pressure to deliver. Nobody is saying that the private sector manages everything well, but there is an issue of risk transfer and of who does what best.

People have focused on the tensions between safety and profit, and between operational standards and costs. Those are relevant, and it is not enough to dismiss them.

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The Select Committee recommended that the CAA should be separate from NATS, and everyone agrees on that. That separation of regulation from operation has been introduced on the railways and is much to be welcomed. Ministers must underline the fact that the CAA's guidance and operation should be transparent so that people know what is happening and that safety is being enforced.

We have debated whether the profit motive is in collision with the idea of investing in safety. If the new NATS has ambitions to take over European airspace and to sell itself as a model of best practice, surely it is in its commercial interest to invest in safety, as safety is its business.

Mr. John Smith: Is there not a more fundamental point? The product of NATS is safety; the very service that NATS provides is safety. There is no safety dimension: NATS could not survive unless it delivered safety.

Mr. Davies: My hon. Friend is right, and that is why there is an incentive to innovate in safety. NATS must sell safety and be the safest system in the world, with new technology to provide better safety and fewer congestion delays. That is its motivation.

One of the amendments refers to a not-for-profit model, and the airlines are keen on that model. If they buy NATS--I am not averse to that--the airlines can make their money by investing in NATS and by reducing delays at airports by 10 per cent, after which they could make an enormous profit by selling tickets to people flying on their planes.

The amount that the airlines would have to invest in the system is not all that great, and they have £24 billion worth of aircraft sitting on the tarmac in Britain. The idea that they would not invest in safety, in information technology and in efficiency does not stand up. Given the fact that they are vertically linked in the air business, it is not easy to put a limit on how much they would bid.

We must also consider the management of technology. I have served on the Public Accounts Committee for the past three years, and week in, week out, we see examples of public sector management of very large IT infrastructure programmes going massively wrong. There are cultural issues and issues about whether we are paying civil servants enough to secure the skills to compete and negotiate on an equal level, but that is another debate. The private sector is in a position to manage the skills and the IT risks.

There are complex issues of cash, IT, management and, ultimately, safety. My view is that the interests of securing our future as the international hub of air transport with the best record of safety and efficiency will be served by the model that the Government have proposed.

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