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7 pm

Earlier, I mentioned that my background is partly in information technology. We could tell air traffic controllers, not that we are going to wave a magic wand, but that we are going to give them a new system for which they will be trained and appropriately skilled, over, say, a three-year period. If, however, that IT system is entirely from the public sector, will they feel that they had been given the safest system imaginable? Labour Members know the history of IT projects that are entirely in the public sector and are aware that those projects have a lamentable record, partly because of problems with underfunding and under-investment. When we employ people in IT in the public sector, we underpay them by a factor of three or four and then wonder why we often get a poor product.

Mr. Gordon Prentice: Did Siemens do a good job for the UK Passport Agency?

Mr. McWalter: Siemens did a terrible job for the Passport Agency, partly because the commission that it was given was drafted by civil servants who failed to understand the most elementary facts when dealing with the process of commissioning IT projects. There is an important issue that relates directly to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice). If one contracts out an IT system and pulls in a product from Siemens, the Electronic Data Systems Corporation or whoever and says, "Thank you, very kind of you to have done this, now we will operate it," it will go bottom up. As we all know, systems so delivered are virtually useless. When one commissions an IT project, one must not simply draft a spec and get people to deliver it, but must get them to operate it so that when it starts to fall down they are responsible for fixing it.

Trying to have that kind of relationship with the appropriate IT provider pushes one in the direction not of old-fashioned commissioning but of involving IT providers and other appropriate providers in matters on a continuing daily basis. That relationship should not be about giving the private sector the job and taking delivery of a product that we operate ourselves, as that would be unsafe and taking heinous, unnecessary and culpable risks. Instead, we should try to ensure that we learn from

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our mistakes in IT projects in the public sector and have a new management structure that reflects the fact that, for some years to come, the public sector will not have the appropriate IT expertise to commission products or take them and run with them as appropriate.

Some hon. Members have said that there are no arguments in favour of the Government's proposals. However, I have suggested that there are such arguments and that people must think about safety first. Delivering safety involves looking out for the best possible expertise and availing oneself of it at an appropriate cost. If it eventually becomes clear that the relationship between the Government's cost projections, their ambitions and the expertise that they seek to commission involves a mismatch in plans, I will join my colleagues who are going to vote against the measure tonight. However, I will not do that on the basis of the plans that are before us.

Mr. Don Foster: I shall be brief, as I know that other Members wish to speak. The hon. Gentleman has just said that if he is not happy with the funding arrangements for the measure, he is prepared to reconsider how he will vote. May I assure him that the cost reductions of 21 to 35 per cent. in the first five years that I asked him about are the figures in the economic regulation group's recommendations that are currently being talked about.

Mr. McWalter: Tonight's vote is about whether or not to defer the proposals. Issues regularly arise on whether or not projects are effectively funded. I have already said that there is an IT expertise shortfall in much that goes on in such circles. I will be as vigilant as many other hon. Members in ensuring that there is not a shortfall at any stage when those matters are dealt with. I thank the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) for his comments and shall bear them in mind as the project unfolds.

Mr. Dalyell: As our debate ends at 7.29 pm and as so many important points have been made by my colleagues, I feel that, on reflection, it is more important that the Minister for Housing and Planning has time to reply than that the House has a speech from me.

Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown): I am going to be almost as brief as my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) and make one or two quick points.

The Secretary of State has presented the issue as a constitutional one. However, for Labour Members who are deeply unhappy with the PPP proposals, it is not a constitutional issue--indeed, that is a smokescreen. It is an issue of safety and corporate governance, on which the PPP arguments have unravelled day by day, with further powerful darts being slung in tonight. If the Secretary of State wants us to go into the Lobby, not in support of the PPP--which would be difficult--but to support the Government against a motion for deferral, he must give us an assurance on safety. That assurance must not just be about saying that safety is in public control when regulation is in public control, because the operation is equally crucial.

There is no reason to say that if the PPP does not go ahead, there will be terrible consequences, which the

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Secretary of State has laid out. That is unnecessary, and there is still time to go down alternative routes, such as that of a trust. If the Secretary of State will say that he is prepared to do that, we shall by all means vote for what he proposes. However, if he does not do that, we have a real problem on the Labour Benches.

Mr. Raynsford: We have had an interesting debate with contributions from both sides of the House. However, it is noticeable that there has been a surprising dearth of Members on the Conservative Benches, despite the fact that we have been debating Lords amendments that were tabled by their colleagues. There has been a fairly significant attendance on the Liberal Democrat Benches and large attendance on the Government Benches, but the House will note that the Conservative Benches have been largely empty for most of our debate.

The hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), speaking for the official Opposition, started out with a rather curmudgeonly series of personal attacks, and then became prickly when it was suggested that his position might not be that of the absolute arbiter of Conservative party policy on the subject. His reluctance to recognise that he is part of a team led by the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) has become familiar to us. It reminded me of the line from Shakespeare--Richard II, I think:

We welcome the hon. Gentleman's presence, but I hope that he will recognise that he has to prove himself by his performance rather than his stated claim to a particular status.

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of questions. He took the view that the operational split could go ahead without the change of ownership. I disagree with him. Only if we implement the transfer schemes will we be able to take NATS out of the ownership of the CAA. It is essential, therefore, to proceed with the legislation to enable that to happen.

The hon. Gentleman went on to talk about shareholder dilution, and claimed that the power of the Secretary of State to amend clause 48--a Henry VIII clause--would make the safeguards worthless. I have to remind him that the power to amend the Crown shareholding section can be exercised only by affirmative resolution and is thus subject to parliamentary approval and the full parliamentary process. The Government take that seriously, even if the hon. Gentleman does not.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh (Dr. Strang) started by giving a fairly detailed explanation of the circumstances leading up to his written statement to the House on 11 June 1998. He expressed concern throughout his speech about safety issues. It was in that very statement on 11 June 1998, whatever his concern may have been about the background to it, that he said:

he was referring to the PPP proposal--

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He was right in that statement, and that remains the case today.

Mr. Gordon Prentice: In 1997, I was Parliamentary Private Secretary to my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh (Dr. Strang), who was then Minister of Transport. I recall vividly his saying to me, "We should not be doing this." He mentioned it to me a number of times. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to accept that as the truth.

Mr. Raynsford: That may well be the case, but if so, my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh will have to explain why he made it clear on the record in the House that the package would guarantee the highest safety standards, and explain his other comments that I have quoted. If he believed that that was not the case, we would all have to say that he should not have put his name to that statement.

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