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Mr. Salter: I have now spent the best part of two years examining the future of our country's highly acclaimed and widely admired air traffic control service. In that time, I have visited the biggest control centre in the world at Heathrow airport, only a few miles from where I was born and where I once worked. I have spoken to pilots, controllers, managers, union representatives, air safety experts, Government Ministers and airline executives--

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in fact, I have spoken to almost anyone and everyone connected with the industry. Above all, I have spoken to my constituents and the constituents of other hon. Members who live directly under a flight path. Our skies are already overcrowded and the lives of those people may depend on the decisions that we take tonight. I have also spoken with my hon. Friends, to whom, through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, this short contribution is primarily addressed.

Let us look back to just over a year ago. I was in the middle of organising groups of Labour Members who were desperately unhappy with what the Government were and still are proposing to do to air traffic control. The Paddington rail disaster had occurred. The wreckage was still being cleared from the tracks, and my constituents who survived that awful crash were trying to come to terms with the wreckage of their lives. I have lost count of the number of my hon. Friends who spoke to me at the time; the conversations were always the same. They said, "Surely the Government won't go ahead with the privatisation of air traffic control now. Surely they are bound to drop it. There must be a better way." As we all know, they will, they are not and there is, so long as Labour Members who remain unconvinced do something about it and vote with our consciences and not, as we usually do, with our Whips.

I can well understand the argument that is being put about by the Government's business managers that Labour Members should think carefully about supporting amendments proposed by the Conservatives in another place. It has a certain resonance; it appeals to the tribal core. But I would suggest that there is a more powerful argument that my hon. Friends should weigh in the balance: what on earth is any Labour Member doing supporting a Tory proposal that we vehemently opposed at the last election?

While the House of Lords, for as long as it remains unelected, has no political mandate, nor do this Government have a mandate to push through a privatisation that we opposed so publicly and that was the subject of that famous speech at the last Labour party conference before May 1997. Let us remember how we all applauded the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), and those carefully crafted arguments about commercial pressures compromising safety. We still hear those arguments from Government Ministers, but not today.

6.15 pm

Let me take a moment to praise not only the contribution of my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary, but the highly efficient operation that has been mounted by the Government Whips Office. I have absolutely no doubt that the Government will win the vote tonight, but, as we all know, winning the vote and winning the argument are not necessarily the same thing.

The case has not been made for this part-privatisation--not remotely. The Government have three clear objectives: first, to deliver an investment stream that is essential for the modernisation of the operation; secondly, to take National Air Traffic Services out of the public sector borrowing requirement; and thirdly, to invigorate the project management by bringing in private sector expertise so that the service would be in a position to

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compete for a possible single European sky. All those objectives are entirely laudable and supportable, and entirely achievable without resorting to privatisation. That is the tragedy of the situation--we do not have to be here.

A solution is at hand. It is tried and tested and it is the preferred option of the Select Committee. It has the support of everyone in the industry. It is, of course, a not for profit trust based on the Canadian model. Established in 1995, NAV Canada delivers the Government's objectives in spades.

Financially, under current arrangements there is a 7 to 8 per cent. growth rate in air traffic. It is a highly profitable industry. Those running air traffic control in this or any western European country would have to try extremely hard not to make a profit or a surplus. In fact, NATS currently returns to the Treasury a surplus of between £30 million and £40 million annually. In 1998-99--these are the most recent figures I have available--NATS returned a pre-tax profit of £64 million. We need to modernise and we need private sector involvement, but let us not forget that the private sector involvement in Swanwick, which led to the delays and the fiasco, was carried out by none other than the US defence corporation Lockheed Martin, which is on the Government shortlist as a preferred strategic partner.

Let me tell hon. Members that when Lockheed Martin was in the frame for the running of AWE Aldermaston, which is just upwind and upstream from my constituency, I received an e-mail from someone in the United States with the simple words, "God help you." Lockheed Martin was the corporation responsible for Three Mile Island, a famous nuclear disaster. Its defence establishments have been suspended and are under investigation by the federal Government in the United States for breaches of safety procedures. I would suggest that it is not so much a case of biting the hand that feeds you, as of feeding the hand that bites you.

Of course we want air traffic control to be taken out of the public sector borrowing requirement. That is an entirely laudable objective, and, as I have said before, entirely achievable. Why should air traffic control compete for hard-earned public cash with police officers, firefighters, the national health service and schools? No one wants that and there is no need for it. The Post Office investment plans are already outwith the Treasury rule. The borrowing requirements for some of our regional airports have already been exempted from the PSBR. The trust model delivers freedom from the Treasury's financial straitjacket. That point is not in dispute. In fact, NAV Canada was so successful that in its first year it raised from the market in the private sector $3 billion, twice the amount needed, according to Government calculations, to fund the UK's investment requirements for the next 10 years.

NAV Canada has a board of directors who concentrate exclusively on the safety regime of national air traffic control. People with private sector expertise are involved, but they are balanced by representatives from the Government, the airlines and the unions, and some members of the board are independent. NAV Canada delivers gain without pain. Its structure works. I must therefore ask, as the Transport Sub-Committee has asked, why the Government are so against adopting it.

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I am aware that other hon. Members want to participate in the debate, but I want to commend to the House the report from my colleague Lord Brett. He took the time and trouble to examine the Government's very derisory response to the trust option proposed by the Transport Sub-Committee. The report comprehensively demolishes the objections to the trust model. I hope that Ministers will return to it.

As I said earlier, winning the vote does not necessarily mean winning the argument. Good politics is about taking people with us, but there is massive opposition in the Labour party to the proposals. The NATS PPP is not something that will appear on a pledge card, and no one who supports the Government in the Lobby tonight will be proud of proposals that no one will mention in an election manifesto or personal address. A vote will be taken, and many people will want to forget that they ever participated in it.

The opposition in the Labour party is replicated out in the country. The latest poll shows that 76 per cent. of the population is against the proposals--hardly surprising after what happened at Paddington and Hatfield. Only 14 per cent. of people are in favour of the proposals to privatise air traffic control, which makes them more unpopular than fox hunting. We know what passion that issue arouses among Labour Members and out in the country.

There is deep hostility to the proposals among pilots, who do not belong to a Marxist trade union and who are not a group of workers renowned for their militancy. There is implacable opposition from air traffic controllers--the men and women who have given us the safest, most efficient and best service in the world.

We in this House make bad laws and bad decisions when we do not listen. We must remember the 75p pension rise and the poll tax. It is not too late, but the consequences of not listening when it comes to the future of air safety in this country are extremely serious.

Mr. Dalyell: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Salter: My hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not; I have sought no interventions and have taken none. However, my hon. Friend is allowed one heckle, if he so desires.

I make no apologies for drawing parallels with the reduction in safety standards directly caused by the privatisation of the railways. I am genuinely worried that history is about to repeat itself. It is still not too late, and there is still time for the Government to listen.

Ms Osborne: As the House will be aware, I am deeply worried about the future of the new Scottish air traffic control centre, and I want to concentrate mainly on issues related to that. However, I want to repeat concerns raised by several hon. Members earlier, most notably by the hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore), about the cuts in capital proposed by the economic regulatory group. Those proposals are very worrying, and I should be interested to hear the Minister's response to them.

I cannot agree with the comments made by hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd), who talked about a dogmatic response among those--myself included--who have set out other alternatives. Perhaps I

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could buy his argument if people were suggesting that the status quo was the only option, but several alternatives have been laid out. Most notable among them are those set out by Lord Brett, whom I congratulate on his work. As far as I know, therefore, it is not true that any Labour Member is guilty of responding dogmatically.

The Tory proposal on deferral would delay the sale and the PPP for NATS until after the general election, and would have implications for the new Scottish centre. The Tories say that they made their proposal because the PPP was not part of the Labour manifesto at the last election. Like my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning, I find that a bit rich.

The Tory proposal also shows the Opposition's contempt for the future well-being and security of air traffic control, for the urgency with which investment is needed, and for the 700 jobs in my constituency that would be jeopardised if the amendments were accepted. Previous Tory Governments can take the credit for getting NATS into the position it is in today. There has been a chronic lack of investment, and constant delays have cost an astronomical amount of money and caused ever- mounting pressure on the system.

The Tories now want to delay the PPP even longer, although they claim to have no safety concerns arising from privatisation per se. Their only possible motivation, therefore, is to make a pathetic attempt to reap political capital, whatever the cost to jobs and investment.

The Tory party's obvious aim is to delay the PPP, and it would bring in full-scale privatisation if it had half a chance. I note that the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) said earlier that the Tories would now consider adopting a trust framework for NATS. At this late stage, such a change of face is astonishing. They have always opposed and voted against that option in the past, but now they bring in the possibility purely for bandwagon reasons.

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