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4.17 pm

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): I hope that there will be time to clarify a very important issue of fact. Not long ago, in answer to a question about the pilots' attitude, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister said--I shall be told whether I quote him wrongly--that the British Air Line Pilots Association's view did not necessarily represent that of the airline pilots. I should like the Government to clarify precisely whether or not they believe that BALPA speaks for the pilots.

My own experience is that on the 18 separate occasions that I have gone into the cockpits of either British Airways or British Midland aircraft on the Edinburgh-London run and asked the captains--they are senior captains--whether they support BALPA, the answer has always been yes in relation to such proposals.

I hope that time will be given to considering whether the proposals constitute a danger. I choose my words extremely carefully and after due consideration. Of course the Government do not mean this to happen, but I think that the proposals represent a path to possible manslaughter because, in the pilots' view, they are dangerous. The issue of possible manslaughter must be addressed because my constituents and those of every other hon. Member in the north certainly did not send us to the House to acquiesce in possible manslaughter.

4.19 pm

Mr. Hill: The hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) is verging on tedious repetition on such issues. We heard a diatribe on Monday, and we are hearing it again now. I suppose that he has to do that because he has already issued his press release, but the truth of the matter is that the Deputy Prime Minister is a most frequent attender in the House, not least on issues such as this. The hon. Gentleman is on pretty thin ground in pursuing that particular question. I suppose that he is seeking to avoid the substance of the debate because he does not want the public to be reminded that his party is for the total sell-off of NATS--lock, stock and barrel.

As the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) pointed out, it was my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning who took part I of the Bill--that dealing with NATS--through the Standing Committee stage. This is the

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team that took the whole of the Bill, over a period of 87 hours, through Committee. This is the team that it is most appropriate be present to deal with those matters in the Chamber.

If we are talking about who is and who is not in the Chamber, where, as a number of my colleagues have asked, is the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman)? After all, I thought that he was responsible for the environment, transport and the regions in the shadow Cabinet--not that he would be likely to add much punching power to the debate.

Mr. Jenkin: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hill: No; we have heard quite enough from the hon. Gentleman.

May I persist with the boxing analogy that I drew earlier in the week? The hon. Gentleman will have to be satisfied on this occasion with both bantam and middleweight performers. That flatters him, too. I suggest that we should now get on with the serious business that is before the House.

Queston put and agreed to.

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Orders of the Day

Transport Bill

Lords amendments considered.

Mr. Speaker: I draw the House's attention to the fact that privilege is involved in Lords amendments Nos. 81, 86, 112 to 114, 120, 125, 170 to 183 and 194. If the House agrees to any of those amendments, I shall ensure that the appropriate entry is made in the Journal.

Clause 40

Transfer schemes made by CAA

Lords amendment: No. 27, in page 27, line 5, at end insert--
("( ) No direction to make a transfer scheme shall be given under subsection (1) before the first Session of the next Parliament after that in which this Act is passed.")

4.22 pm

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Nick Raynsford): I beg to move, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 28 and 29 and the Government motions to disagree thereto.

Mr. Raynsford: The purpose of the three amendments is to ensure that no transfer schemes are made or approved before the first Session of the Parliament following that in which the Bill receives Royal Assent. Transfer schemes involve the transfer of assets, rights and liabilities to relevant parties in readiness for the NATS public-private partnership. That cannot be set up until those transfers have been effected. Therefore, the amendments have the effect of delaying the PPP until the next Parliament--until after the next general election.

I am sure that it will come as no surprise to hon. Members that the Government do not think that that delaying tactic is helpful. We do not see the need for any further delay in proceeding with the establishment of the PPP. We made our first announcement of the proposal for a partial sale of NATS on 11 June 1998. That was followed by a public consultation on the proposal in October that year and a statement was made following that consultation.

There are other instances of consultation. There has been a Select Committee inquiry. The sale documentation was made available to the House, and certain parts of it to other interested parties, and was subjected to lengthy debates in Committee. There has therefore been ample time for public scrutiny of both the policy and its detail.

In addition, it has been necessary to introduce legislation to enable the partial sale of NATS to take place. There have been lively debates on the Bill in the House, in Committee and in another place. That in itself has enabled the Government's proposals to be subjected to further detailed scrutiny.

I turn to the main purposes of the PPP. There is an urgent need for investment in NATS and for the injection of new project management skills. Important investment

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decisions need to be made now in respect of major projects. The ability of a strategic partner to make a meaningful contribution to those may be lost if the PPP is delayed.

Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent): Will the Minister confirm that the Government now intend to put the air up for sale?

Mr. Raynsford: If my hon. Friend waited a little while, he would hear a full explanation of the Government's policy, including our absolute commitment to maintaining full safety in all United Kingdom air traffic services. I hope that he will form a proper and considered judgment when he has heard all the arguments.

There have already been delays in introducing new technology at the Swanwick centre, and there is a pressing need for the contribution from the strategic partner both here and at the new Scottish centre at Prestwick. NATS has an excellent reputation and record on safety, but it would benefit from a strengthening of its capabilities in the introduction of new technology. A delay in the introduction of the PPP, which the amendments would cause, could jeopardise the prospects for both centres.

Moreover, further delay and uncertainty will not be helpful to NATS or its staff, who have had to live with uncertainty for far too long. The previous Administration started questioning the future of NATS some years ago. We have tried to put a stop to that uncertainty by making an early announcement on the PPP. To add further delay now would be unfair to NATS staff, and could jeopardise the urgent need to recruit more air traffic controllers.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh): I ask this question because I would genuinely like to know the Government's latest view on the matter. My hon. Friend has rightly reminded us that the new en-route centre at Swanwick is well behind schedule. As he will know better than me, although development of the centre is NATS' responsibility, all the software, hardware and equipment--which we hope will be a quantum advance in air traffic control--are the responsibility of the private sector, including the main private contractor. How does he apportion blame for the delay between the private contractor and National Air Traffic Services? Is it still the Government's view that the centre will come on stream not this winter but next winter, and that, when it does, it will indeed be a quantum advance in air traffic control?

Mr. Raynsford: My right hon. Friend has studied this matter carefully because, if I may remind him, he was the Minister who, on 11 June 1998, made the statement to the House on the Government's decision to proceed with the public-private partnership. At that stage, he acknowledged the fact that there was a need for a partnership both to secure investment to develop services and to mobilise private sector resources.

My right hon. Friend said on 11 June 1998--and I entirely agree with the position that he took at that time--

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As for Swanwick, we are five years behind schedule and have over-expenditure of several hundred million pounds. That is not a cause for congratulation. It is essential that we have in place a proper management structure that can ensure that, in future, procurement of the necessary information and other technology to provide services to guarantee effective and safe air traffic control systems is handled better than it has been.

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