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Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Raynsford: If my hon. Friend will bear with me, I would like to finish my reply to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh (Dr. Strang).

Whatever the merits or failures of individual contractors, ultimately it is the responsibility of the commissioning body to ensure that it gets the brief right and introduces the appropriate technology and systems on time and on budget. We believe that we need to strengthen national air traffic controls with the new arrangement of a public-private partnership to ensure that new technology is commissioned on time and on budget, rather than to repeat the rather unhappy experience that we have had at Swanwick. It is equally important to ensure that the new Prestwick centre goes ahead. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh and others who represent Scottish constituencies are particularly keen to see that happen.

4.30 pm

Mr. Alasdair Morgan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): Before the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh (Dr. Strang) intervened, the Minister was saying that the Lords amendment that we are discussing was unfair to NATS staff. Can he tell us, therefore, why the NATS staff whom I and other hon. Members have met support the amendment?

Mr. Raynsford: Some NATS staff probably do support the amendment, but I was making the point that prolonging the continuing uncertainty about the future of NATS, which would be the effect of the amendment, would not create a climate of confidence in the future. It would certainly not be in the interests of recruiting new staff. NATS and others have made the point forcefully that there is an urgent need to recruit new air traffic controllers. I believe that it is the Government's responsibility to ensure that the people doing that hugely important job can have the confidence to look ahead and know the framework in which they will be expected to operate.

Mr. Dalyell: It is not a question of some NATS staff; it is a question of the considered view over many briefings

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of the Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists and the British Air Line Pilots Association. In particular, why have Ministers been unable to persuade the IPMS on the issue of the willingness of the PPP to maintain public interest services, notably to general aviation users, which are uneconomic but essential for safety reasons?

Mr. Raynsford: I have to tell my hon. Friend, for whom I have a great deal of respect, that it is not the Government's responsibility to ensure the adherence of every particular body to the proposals. It is their responsibility to take a view on this. I cannot answer for the decision of the IPMS, but I can assert firmly that the Government have made it absolutely clear from the outset that the safety of air traffic control systems in this country is the top priority. We have said it again and again and, in order to show our bona fides, we have accepted amendments that we will be debating later this evening which give effect to that by putting it clearly and unambiguously in the Bill.

Safety will be paramount. It will be the No. 1 priority under the new proposal. I can assure all right hon. and hon. Members of that because there has been a certain amount of misinformation on the subject from people who have suggested that safety might be compromised.

Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Raynsford: I shall give way in a moment, but first I should like to make this absolutely clear to the House, because there has been some uncertainty: Safety will be the No. 1 priority. The Government are absolutely committed to the maintenance of the safest possible air traffic control system. We are also committed to ensuring that it is a modern, up-to-date and efficient system which is able to cope with the many pressures that it will face in the years ahead as traffic increases.

Mr. McDonnell: My hon. Friend has stated that part of the motivation for the proposal is to provide security for the staff and to respond to their concerns. Has he visited the air traffic control centre in West Drayton in my constituency in the past two years? I may have missed his visit. Has he consulted the staff? If he has not, why not ballot the staff and ask them for their views on the issue? Their view is very clear. The unions involved have consulted their members and made it clear that they are opposed to the Government's proposals.

Mr. Raynsford: I have not visited the air traffic control centre at West Drayton, but my ministerial colleagues have. We have listened very carefully indeed to the views that have been expressed by all interested parties. However, my hon. Friend will be aware that a range of different parties all have a view on the matter. The Government clearly have to take a balanced view in the light of the evidence and, above all, in the national interest. It is our considered view that the necessary investment to secure an effective future service of air traffic control systems in this country is best served by a public-private partnership which can bring in the benefits of additional private sector investment and private sector

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project management expertise, while at the same time ensuring the most rigorous safety regime which, as I have already made it clear to the House, is the No. 1 priority.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): Given that we are now seeing the results of the Tory privatisation of the railways, does it really make sense at this time to go for the semi-privatisation of a public service? That is what some people call the Government's proposed public- private partnership. I should have thought that the Lords' decision would have encouraged Ministers to reflect and seriously reconsider the proposal.

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend airs understandable and justifiable concerns about safety on the railways, which many of us share. The Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that effective action is taken to deal with the problems, which have been much in evidence. However, the model that we propose for the NATS public-private partnership is very different from the privatisation model adopted for the railways.

These are very important issues. Specifically, under the model that we propose, the private sector will be invited to supply investment and project management skills. They will be hugely important in the procurement of efficient new IT systems to enable the service to operate as we want it to in the future. I have already explained why that is so vital.

However, my hon. Friend will be aware that the Bill ensures that the whole issue of safety remains in the public sector. The Civil Aviation Authority will retain the primary responsibility for safety and will set the safety standards. Safety will remain its No. 1 priority, as the Bill makes clear. That is the difference between the framework that we propose and that adopted for the privatisation of the railways.

I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that the framework proposed in the Bill is different, and that it has been designed to take account of the special needs involved in providing safe and efficient air traffic control systems. The framework will ensure that we can expand the system to meet changing pressures and needs, while at the same time guaranteeing the maintenance of the safest service possible. That has always been our No. 1 priority.

I understand that in another place a precedent was cited for delaying the implementation of transfer provisions. In 1982, during proceedings on the Telecommunications Bill, the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry said that neither the transfer of assets and obligations to the new company nor the issue of shares to the public would take place before the general election that was coming up.

There is, however, a major difference between the British Telecom case and NATS. The former was a flotation in which the Government were selling off their interest in the business in its entirety.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): The British Telecom arrangement would nowadays be called, in modern parlance, a public-private partnership. Only 51 per cent. of shares were sold, with the Government retaining 49 per cent. for a considerable time.

Mr. Raynsford: I am perfectly happy to stand corrected on that point, but it was the intention of the then

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Government to dispose of their entire holding, and British Telecom is now an entirely privatised utility. That is not the Government's intention with regard to NATS. As the hon. Gentleman will know from our lengthy and enjoyable debates in Committee, the Government intend to retain a significant shareholding in NATS at all times. That difference is very important.

In the case of the PPP, the Government are proposing to dispose of a proportion of our interest in NATS, but we will retain a substantial stake to ensure that the public interest remains protected.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): That very substantial interest may amount to only 25 per cent. Will my hon. Friend explain that? Moreover, is not the crucial difference between the privatisation of British Telecom and the Government's proposals with regard to NATS that these proposals were never mentioned in the 1987 Labour manifesto?

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