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Ms Osborne: I agree with the hon. Gentleman's comments. Does he agree that the number of safety inspectors should be increased whatever structure is adopted for NATS?

5.45 pm

Mr. Moore: I welcome the hon. Lady's intervention, especially as it gives me the opportunity to remind the House that we support another provision that will ensure the separation as between the CAA and NATS of the overriding responsibility for safety. That is welcome, regardless of whether or not NATS is in the public sector. Whatever the structure--whether it is that proposed by the Liberal Democrats or by other Members--additional inspectors are clearly needed, even if only to give the public the confidence that such matters are being treated seriously. Frankly, the Government's complacency undermines whatever fine words they may occasionally use to show that they believe in safety.

Mr. Dalyell: Is there not a related problem in that most NATS standards are above the minimum standards maintained by the safety regulatory group? Therefore, the SRG will have to extend its monitoring role to a huge range of activity that it does not have to inspect at present. Where will the resources come from?

Mr. Moore: It beggars belief that the Government have not asked those questions. The process is summed up by the suggestion that the Government are waiting for the CAA to ask them for more resources, rather than proactively investigating whether more resources should be provided or whether more inspectors should be recruited. More details are emerging about how the privatisation will take place and how the regime will operate afterwards, but the Government are failing not only to provide good answers but to provide any answers at all.

The public are greatly concerned about transport safety generally. The public, the pilots, the air traffic controllers and many Labour Members, as well as Opposition Members, do not support the measure. There are growing concerns about the ability of NATS to cope with the regulatory regime after privatisation and serious problems

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about the suitability of possible strategic partners. Privatisation raises more questions, not less. We want the process to be stopped, and we shall at least support its delay.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): I have listened carefully to the contributions so far, and some valuable points have been made about the relationship between the CAA and any contractor that provides air traffic control services in this country. However, I want to turn first to the principle involved and then--to the misfortune of those hon. Members who heard my previous speech--return to how we should define the relationship with the private sector in delivering out safety services.

Air safety involves a complex web, comprising the design, manufacture and maintenance of aircraft, flight crew competence, and the operation of airlines and airports, as well as the management of traffic in the air. We allow aircraft to be designed, built, flown and maintained by private businesses. We allow them to be flown on behalf of private operators. We allow them to fly into privately run airports. I do not understand the qualitative argument of those who want to disbar the private sector from any role in the ownership or management of air traffic control. Of course, we do not even make that judgment consistently now--we allow private contractors to develop key systems for NATS.

It could be argued that NATS has not performed the task of managing those projects particularly well. We allow NATS to win contracts competitively, in a private sector environment, for a large proportion of its work. We also allow other contractors to operate air traffic control services in other parts of the United Kingdom, including at East Midlands airport. Although that airport is just outside my constituency, the aircraft fly over my home and many air personnel of various kinds live in my constituency.

In the previous debate in the House, it was suggested that a private sector owner--we must bear it in mind that only 46 per cent. of NATS would be sold in trade terms, the other 5 per cent. being sold to employees of the company--would seek to press operating savings on the service, impacting on safety, and that that would have an inevitable consequence for the safety record of the service. I worked in the private sector for 20 years before coming here. I recall an intervention that I took in the previous debate, implying that the private sector simply drove down costs and maximised shareholder value, and that that was the only interest it had in any business that it ran. No sound private sector business deliberately jeopardises its core activity through cost-cutting.

Mr. Gordon Prentice: I wonder what my hon. Friend would make of the statement by Gerald Corbett from Railtrack:

He also said--I invite my hon. Friend to comment on it:

Mr. Todd: That is a fair point, which I anticipated might be raised. There is clearly a tension. We would be unrealistic if we did not recognise that, but that is why

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we have a regulatory framework. One of the points that we must recognise about Railtrack--I think that there is reasonable consensus on it in the House--is that the regulatory framework for safety in the rail sector was poorly designed. Anyway, it was built for an industry where the safety impetus was of a lower strength than it is in the air sector. Therefore, the comparison, although well made--I take my hon. Friend's point--does not directly apply in this instance.

Mr. Dalyell: I am listening to my hon. Friend's thoughtful speech, as I listened to his speech last time, but what bothers some of us is the ability of the private owner that he talks about to finance investment that may be uneconomic but very important for safety reasons.

Mr. Todd: If that company's core business is the provision of safe services, it will have to factor into the basis on which it funds the company the acquisition of such systems--but let me counter the argument by an alternative line. The public sector is not immune from the discipline of cost-cutting. The equation that appears to be made sometimes is that the private sector is driven by the desire to drive down costs and the public sector has money spilling over to carry out new service development and uneconomic investments.

Those of us who have represented people--I have in the House and did so as a councillor before that; I have done it throughout my adult life, pretty much--are well aware that the public sector has the same, if not more, disciplines and has to find savings, often at the jeopardy of convenience, and, sometimes--dare one say it--at the jeopardy of the safety of the citizen. There is the issue of how the national health service is funded and the difficult choices--I buy into that--that must be made in a public sector organisation about who to help and who to save. We must face that sort of equation within the public sector, too. Drawing that line between the public and private sectors, saying, "Good on one side, bad on the other; it is cost-cutting on one side and affluence on the other" is simplistic. We need to set it aside.

Mr. Moore: May I return to the extract that I referred to from NATS submission to the CAA, based on the regulatory regime that is supposed to apply after privatisation? In that document, it says:

Severe cuts in operating costs and investment are inconsistent with the proper carrying-out of NATS' functions. Surely, in those circumstances, it is not a question of public or private. The public sector is criticising its own Government's regime.

Mr. Todd: I think I am right in saying that that dictum has been set out regardless of the ownership framework of NATS. I stand to be corrected. I will willingly give way if the hon. Gentleman says that it is specifically premised on the basis that the ownership will change, but, as I understand it, that is a dictum regardless of the passage of the Bill. I may be wrong. I see some Ministers nodding, so I am probably correct. I have not heard anyone dissent.

I shall spell out the issue a little further. Direct public sector ownership does not equate to maximum safety provision. Nor, sadly--again, we must recognise it

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as public representatives--does it always equate to maximum accountability. There was a time--I have been in my party for a long time--when we probably had simpler views on the strengths of the public sector and the weaknesses of the private sector. Over years of exposure, I have found it to be more complex than that.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West): Patronising.

Mr. Todd: I will give way to my hon. Friend if he wishes to intervene. I think he wishes to speak later.

Mr. Salter: My hon. Friend will get to hear it all soon enough.

Mr. Todd: I am sure I will.

I return to the core point because I do not want to detain the House for long; many Members wish to speak. The case that I touch on in a little more detail is East Midlands airport. As I have said, it is owned by the private sector. The air traffic control system there is operated by the private sector. It is the largest freight airport in the United Kingdom. It was said in the previous debate that it was a small operation, but those who live near it would deny that.

The fact is that that airport has, out of its own funds, recently invested in a completely new control tower and systems which are the envy of most airports in this country. That was done by private finance. It was not forced on to the airport by a public sector body, nor was it carried out by a public sector contractor.

I see no logical basis for excluding the private sector from NATS ownership. We take no such stance in any other part of the air safety network. We do not even take a consistent position on that within the air traffic control system itself, as I have said.

I recognise the strength of some of the arguments that my colleagues have made; I heard the word, "Patronising". I am not wedded to the view that the proposal is the only possible solution to our air traffic control needs. There is consensus that massive new investment is required in the service and that there is a range of possible solutions, but I have sought to point out that the somewhat dogmatic position that has been adopted--that private sector means dangerous, unaccountable or higher-risk--is simplistic. Therefore, on balance, on the basis of the intellectual argument that I have heard, I will continue to support the Government--but I say "on balance". I understand the points that have been made by my colleagues.

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