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Mr. Christopher Leslie (Shipley): Many of the hon. Gentleman's comments will strike the general public as scaremongering. Is he aware that air traffic control in the majority of Britain's airports is already in private or independent ownership? Is he really saying that those airports are less safe as a result?

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman makes the same mistake as those who suggest that we should no longer be concerned about airline safety after the privatisation of British Airways. The reality is that there is a difference between safety under a monopoly supplier and under a regime of tough competition. The provision of air traffic control is subject to competition at individual airports, just as there is competition between airlines. However, NATS is not subject to competition.

It is no wonder that so many people oppose the Government's proposals--pilots, air traffic controllers, the chair of the Transport Sub-Committee, and a large number of Labour Members and peers. It is not surprising that the Sub-Committee described the proposal as the worst of all possible options. However, the Government seem to refuse to listen. They are unable to listen to those who know what is at stake; unable to learn from the mistakes of rail privatisation and unable even to remember what they said four years ago.

Everyone in the House remembers the pledge given at the 1996 Labour conference by the current Chief Secretary to the Treasury. He was cheered to the echo for saying:

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The wording of the Government's amendment to our motion is interesting. Labour Members should note that it states that the House should welcome

Hon. Members should note the word "pragmatic".

Liberal Democrats certainly prefer a pragmatic to a dogmatic approach. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word "pragmatic" as

We certainly do not accept that the two PPP proposals are sensible or realistic. However--given the Government's apparent refusal to listen to anyone--they perhaps used in the amendment the 16th century definition of the word "pragmatic". That definition is, "busy, interfering, conceited." It is my contention that pressing ahead in the face of significant opposition based on the failures of similar moves elsewhere is conceited. It is not pragmatic; it is dogmatic.

We hope that Members on both sides of the House will join together to support our motion and to oppose the dogmatic approach to privatisation being adopted by a Labour Government.

8 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

I have frequently proclaimed my affection and respect for the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), but I fear that he has slipped from his normal high standards on this occasion. I found his speech both disappointing and disingenuous. I could think of another word with the prefix "dis" to describe it, but our parliamentary conventions preclude my use of such a word. However, we all know what is going on here--it is the technique of the big slur.

The hon. Gentleman begins by citing the widespread, and perfectly understandable, public dissatisfaction with the privatisation of the railways by the previous Administration--a dissatisfaction that has certainly been heightened by recent tragic events and the continued shortcomings of the railway network--but then seeks to tar the Government's wholly different proposals for the

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public-private partnerships in London Underground and National Air Traffic Services with the same brush. It is an attempt at condemnation by innuendo, or guilt by association. It is typical Liberal Democrat opportunism and, as usual, it will not work.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I do not remember whether the Minister held responsibility for transport issues in the previous Parliament, but does he recall that the Liberal Democrats urged Labour Members to set their faces firmly against the privatisation of Railtrack by making it clear that, if it were to be privatised by the Conservatives, it would be bought back by an incoming Labour Government, with Liberal Democrat support if that was the way that the country had voted? We could have then stopped privatisation in its tracks. I judge from his comments that he still believes that the privatisation of Railtrack was a mistake. Why did the Labour party at that stage not take up our proposal?

Mr. Hill: I am always rather amused by the Liberal Democrats' rewriting of history. I notice that it is always the Liberals who lead on the issues and the rest of the House seems to follow tamely. However, the Labour party came to a clear judgment before the election and we stated in our manifesto that the reacquisition of the privatised railway system was a cost that was simply not worth bearing when set against other demands on the Exchequer from the nation's priorities of health, education and law and order. That is why we are working to improve the privatised railway system that we inherited in ways that I hope, with the indulgence of the House, I shall be able to describe soon.

The motion before the House is unacceptable and ought to be rejected. It ought to be rejected not because, as is usually the case, an opposition motion is an expression of opinion that does not reflect the opinion of the majority of the House, but because this motion is--in its premises--quite simply factually wrong.

The motion describes the Government's proposals for London Underground and NATS as "privatisation". That is just plain wrong. If we were planning to sell off the public's stake in these concerns lock, stock and barrel and pass over ownership and control in their entirety and in perpetuity to the private sector, that would be privatisation. That is what privatisation meant for water, for gas, for electricity, for telecommunications, for coal, for buses and for the railways under the Tories.

Mr. Don Foster: Given that the Minister's definition of privatisation involves selling off the entirety of a service, will he tell us that, having sold off 51 per cent. of NATS, the Government have no intention whatsoever of selling off any of the remaining 49 per cent? Were he to say that, he would be saying something that totally contradicts what he said in Committee during our consideration of the Transport Bill.

Mr. Hill: If the hon. Gentleman gives me a chance, I shall come to that issue in due course. What I said with crystal clarity in Committee--as he knows, that is my style--was that any such decision would have to come back to the House for its democratic decision.

By contrast with the privatisation carried out by the Conservatives, in the case of National Air Traffic Services, the taxpayer will not only retain a major

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shareholding in the public-private partnership. In addition, the Government will appoint "partnership directors" to protect the taxpayers' interest as an investor. Board unanimity will be required on dividends and reinvestment, and a special share will be entrenched in the new company's articles of association to protect the taxpayers' rights in key matters, such as the issue of new shares and dividend policy. Frankly, it is ludicrous to describe those arrangements as a privatisation.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): Will the Minister elucidate a little? Is he saying that selling 51 per cent. does not constitute privatisation and, therefore, that the previous Government's initial sale of 50 per cent. of British Telecom was not an act of privatisation?

Mr. Hill: I am certainly saying that the Government's proposals for NATS do not constitute privatisation. Indeed, if the right hon. Gentleman had not been so keen to make his point, he might have listened to the reasons that I adduced a little more carefully. If he had, he would have found out that the safeguards entrenched in the arrangements for NATS are totally distinct from, and contradict, any arrangements made for BT or any other privatisation under the previous Administration.

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