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Mr. Raynsford: First, as my hon. Friend will have noted, the Bill sets the level of Government shareholding initially at 49 per cent. The Bill allows for that to be reduced if it is felt appropriate to do so, through dilution, to a figure no lower than 25 per cent. The purpose of that was made very clear in Committee and right hon. and hon. Members who were there will understand the reason. We have frequently made the point that air traffic control systems in Europe will change dramatically in the years ahead. We will inevitably see a consolidation. We will see a reduction from the large number of current air traffic control centres to probably only a handful.

We want to ensure that NATS is in a strong position so that it can play a leading role in the process of consolidation. There may well be, as part of that process, a case for some further disposal of shares to enlarge the number of interested parties. However, the Government have been clear that they will always retain a minimum of 25 per cent. of shares, which is the sufficient shareholding to ensure that they are capable of blocking any activities that could threaten the whole basis of the operation. That is the framework, and that is why the figures of 49 per cent. and 25 per cent. appear in the Bill.

My hon. Friend's second point was about the manifesto. He will be aware that the Prime Minister made a clear commitment in our manifesto. He said:


That is a pretty clear indication that we were ready to consider public-private partnerships in relation to transport services.

Mr. Jenkin: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Raynsford: No, the hon. Gentleman had better listen to this, because he will not necessarily like it.

Let us compare that commitment with the Conservative proposals. The previous Government proposed the total privatisation of air traffic control services without having made any such proposal in their election manifesto. It is sheer cant for the Conservative party to claim that there

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is anything wrong with bringing forward a proposal without its having previously been in the election manifesto. That was how they behaved when they were in Government.

Mr. Jenkin: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Raynsford: Of course I will--if the hon. Gentleman wants to come back on that point, he is welcome to.

Mr. Jenkin: The Labour party manifesto can be accused of being a little misleading, while ours was perfectly clear. The Labour manifesto says, under "Shipping and Aviation":


I do not think that anyone reading that will have got the impression that the sale of National Air Traffic Services was on the agenda. The hon. Gentleman should at least admit that this was a little thin.

Mr. Raynsford: I have quoted directly from the Prime Minister's words in the Labour party manifesto. He made it perfectly clear that public-private partnerships to give us the infrastructure and transport system we need would be pursued at every turn. That, in my view, is a clear commitment to consider such options. We considered them but had not reached conclusions at the time of the manifesto. However, when we were in government we concluded that an appropriate public-private partnership was the right way forward. That was introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh in a statement to the House in June 1998, and we stick by that commitment.

Mr. Llew Smith: Will the Minister now quote directly from the Labour party conference, when our spokesperson gave a commitment that we would not be selling off the air?

Mr. Raynsford: I recall very well the Labour party conference endorsing our public-private partnership recently. That is a clear commitment by our party conference, and the Government are acting in line with it.

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield): Just for information, what did the phrase "the air is not for sale" mean?

Mr. Raynsford: I am not sure what it means. It is one of those phrases that people use glibly and repeat. However, there is an absolute commitment on the part of the Government to ensure that there will be a safe system for air traffic control. The public sector will continue to oversee the safety issue through the Civil Aviation Authority, which will remain in public ownership; and the public-private sector partnership will be there for the purpose that I have outlined--to bring in the necessary finance and new management expertise.

This is a genuine partnership, by strong contrast with the Conservative party's view that total privatisation is the preferred option. We reject that option. We have a way

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forward that guarantees the improved service that is so vital for the future and unquestionably guarantees public scrutiny and control of the safety issue, which is equally vital for the future.

4.45 pm

Mr. Dalyell: If there is to be monitoring, the self-regulation group will require a huge increase in human resources to regulate all NATS activities. As I understand it, 17 inspectors are employed for air traffic control and 10 for engineering. NATS employs 1,800 controllers and 1,300 engineers. How is regulation to be effected in terms of human resources?

Mr. Raynsford: We have made it clear on many occasions, and I am happy to give a further commitment now, that the Government will ensure that resources are available to maintain the safe system that we are committed to achieving. We will not allow human resource levels to fall below those that we regard as appropriate to meet the objectives.

Mr. Michael Moore (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale): I asked the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), what plans there were to alter the number of safety inspectors after privatisation. He replied:


How can that give the public confidence?

Mr. Raynsford: I think that the public would want the confidence of knowing that the Government are committed to ensuring that manpower resources will be sufficient to maintain appropriate standards. If the CAA were to come to Government seeking additional resources, its application would be examined extremely carefully and sympathetically. However, the hon. Gentleman is referring to something quite different--that is, the current basis for staffing expectations. That does not relate to concerns about the adequacy of the staff to do the job. I have given the answer, and I hold by it.

Perhaps not sufficient attention has been given to the suggestion made by the other place that it would be appropriate for it to pass amendments that would prevent the Government from implementing certain provisions in the Bill until the next Parliament. It is my view and that of the Government that it would be entirely inappropriate for such amendments to appear in the Bill. It is even more inappropriate for such amendments to be proposed by a body which has not been subject to the judgment of the electorate. It is for the elected Government to determine the speed at which they can implement their legislation. Were the proposals of the other place to remain in the Bill--I hope that all my right hon. and hon. Friends will consider this carefully--we would be straying into dangerous constitutional territory, and creating a precedent that could be used again and again to damage the Government's good intentions. I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to remember that when they consider how they will be voting at the end of the debate.

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There are some in another place who have argued that we do not have a mandate from the people to pursue our proposals for NATS. That is rich, coming from a Chamber which has never been tested by the electorate. We look to that Chamber to act as a revising body, not as a body that dictates when Government legislation can or cannot be implemented.

I move on to the public interest. Under the Bill's provisions, the public will be protected through a range of measures, including the licensing regime, the strategic partnership agreement, the special share and the powers of direction. As all the necessary public protections are in place, no additional benefits for the public interest will be gained by delay. However, there will be considerable detriment. The PPP was included as a commitment in the White Paper on integrated transport, which was published in 1998. The focus of the White Paper was on transport safety and improvement of current regulatory systems. Implementing the PPP will make a positive contribution to safety by effecting a complete separation between safety regulation and service provision. I see no sense in delaying the split, which has overwhelming support from all those who have looked seriously at the issue, including the Select Committee.

The Bill contains several provisions that are important in their own right, including those that subject NATS to economic regulation irrespective of when the PPP is completed. The amendments would delay the PPP and the introduction of an improved incentive-based system of economic regulation, which is intended to benefit users.

I hope that I have explained why the Government are unable to accept the amendments.


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