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Dr. Strang: The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that, if privatisation goes ahead, it will not have an adverse effect on the pension entitlement of past or present employees. It is intended to provide helpful assurances to National Air Traffic Services employees and to put into law the assurances that Ministers have given in Committee and in both Houses. I recall the debates in Committee to which the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) has referred.

The Government say that the amendment is not necessary, and give assurances that staff pensions will be protected. In Committee, I tabled an amendment with that objective, and I was pleased that the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), was able to give me verbal assurances that pensions would be protected. Of course we welcome Ministers' assurances, but, however well meant, they do not have the same strength as protection in a Bill. There is a clear difference between an obligation in law and a statement made by a Minister. We know that Ministers and, indeed, Governments come and go.

I remind the House that there is a schedule to the Greater London Authority Act 1999 dedicated to protecting the pension rights of tube workers who are transferred to private infrastructure companies under the Government's plans for the underground. The Government saw the merit of including pensions protection in that Act. It is clearly right that NATS staff should have similar protection.

My hon. Friend the Minister has suggested that the amendment might be flawed and might not achieve all its objectives. We debated the matter in Committee way back in February and the Government have had a lot of time since then to work on their own amendment. If the Lords amendment is flawed, the onus is surely on the Government to table an alternative to achieve the objectives. The way forward should be to retain the Lords amendment. That would give the Government the option to amend it with a better amendment in the other place.

Mr. Don Foster: Time is relatively short, so I shall be fairly brief.

I begin by paying tribute to the Government for introducing one set of measures that has done great service to many people. The whole House will recall that, in the early days of privatisation, employees often suddenly found themselves doing exactly the same job but for lower wages, under worse conditions of service and

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with worse pension arrangements. Although we had the benefit of the introduction of the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981, which ensured that at least employees' pay or salary and conditions of employment were protected, they still did not have protection in respect of pensions.

As the Minister rightly said, the Labour party addressed the matter when it came into government, introducing a number of proposals, particularly through the Cabinet Office, that go a long way to improving the situation. However, I remind the Minister that, on the whole, the documents make recommendations and do not in all cases have statutory effect. Nevertheless, I pay tribute to the Government for the improvements that have been made.

Whatever our views on the nature of the new National Air Traffic Services, we are all agreed that there should be separation of NATS from the Civil Aviation Authority. Whatever form NATS was to take, significant implications for pension arrangements were inevitable--changes would have had to be made. I suspect that many hon. Members who have studied the issue in some detail will be aware of the complexity of the new arrangements, and, indeed, the significant cost that will be incurred as a result of them.

The Minister has described in some detail his view of the necessity or otherwise of the amendment, which was moved by Lord Brett and supported by a majority of peers. He has argued in some detail that some aspects of the amendment may be technically flawed. It is interesting that, for each of the five clauses to which he referred, he indicated that there may be technical difficulties. At no point did he say that categorically; he merely implied that there may be difficulties, so there is clearly some doubt.

Much more important, it was revealing that the Minister kept saying that, following the meeting to which he referred, the Government would be prepared to consider tabling their own amendment to address the concerns that have been expressed. He chose many different words to say that. On one occasion, he said that he would be convinced if there was real evidence; on another occasion, he required real evidence of the adverse circumstances that may apply; and on yet another occasion, he said that real risk must be demonstrated.

I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that the definition of "if necessary" is significant. Regardless of whether in his view it is necessary to include such a provision in the Bill, the vast majority of those who will be affected certainly think that such a provision is necessary.

In view of the Minister's comments, I hope that he will be prepared to continue those discussions to which he referred and that, in conjunction with Ministers in another place and representatives of those who are affected by the measure, it will be possible to devise an amendment that will enable the issue to be included in the Bill. There is no genuine argument against that. The Minister argues that it is not necessary and the protection already exists; no harm will therefore be done by putting it on the face of the Bill.

The Minister and I spent many hours in Committee. On many occasions he said that it was not necessary to include safety in the Bill, yet he now accepts that it would be a good idea. As soon as we have divided, if necessary, we shall consider a series of amendments that will enable us to ascertain whether we accept amendment No. 1 and

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the others in that group. All are about putting safety on the face of the Bill. The Minister has been prepared to listen on one occasion--I hope that he is prepared to do so again.

Ms Osborne: I am somewhat comforted by the Minister's comments. However, he knows that the public-private partnership has not found favour with the NATS work force, who are worried about various aspects of the proposal and would have preferred a trust model.

Terms and conditions, especially pensions, under a strategic partner are by no means the least of employees' concerns. I understand from the Minister that discussions are continuing in order to reach a conclusion that can fully satisfy them. That is the crux of the matter: will the result deal fully with their concerns?

Given the controversial nature of the change to NATS' structure, as well as the years of constant speculation to which the work force have been subjected, does my hon. Friend agree that everything possible should be done to give them the reassurance that they seek on pensions? If including such a provision in the Bill makes no difference, why not do it, if only to provide that much needed reassurance? If there are problems with this amendment, why do the Government not table another, which would provide that reassurance to the NATS work force?

What is good enough for the workers on the tube is good enough for my constituents. Will my hon. Friend guarantee on the record that no member of NATS staff will be worse off in terms of accrued benefits than at present, and that employees' prospects will be roughly comparable? If I do not support the amendment on the basis that further progress can be made, will my hon. Friend assure me that there will be a further opportunity to assess the position on the Floor of the House, if agreement cannot be reached when the matter is reconsidered in another place?

Mr. Dalyell: I do not believe that there is an opportunity for the Government to table an amendment. In those circumstances, would it not be better to accept this amendment? There is genuine anxiety about the matter.

Our deliberations on the amendment end at 8.29 pm, and it is important that the Minister answers the points that have been made. I shall therefore simply ask a factual question: have the CAA and NATS made representations?

Mr. Raynsford: The debate has been short but useful. It has focused on one key issue: whether there is merit in placing on the face on the Bill some reassurance to cover the anxieties that have been voiced. Let me put the matter simply, in the manner that I used in Committee. The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) will recall that we did not believe it would be helpful to incorporate an otiose provision in the Bill. If there is no need to do something, including detailed provisions in a Bill appears unnecessary. However, having said that, genuine anxieties have been expressed.

I have referred to meetings of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor with the representatives from another place who were instrumental in tabling the amendments that we are considering tonight. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister made it clear to them and to me--I did

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not take part in the discussions--that he was perfectly willing to respond positively and constructively if clear evidence of a problem could be produced. [Interruption.] I shall deal with the anxieties of the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) shortly because they are slightly different, although he may not realise it.

8.15 pm

So far, no evidence has been presented to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister to suggest that existing pensioners, deferred pensioners or existing NATS employees would be adversely affected by the new arrangements after the establishment of the PPP. I hope that that reassures my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Ms Osborne). I reiterate that there is no evidence that any existing pensioner, deferred pensioner or existing NATS employee will suffer any financial disadvantage through the proposals. If there is clear evidence that individuals might be adversely affected, we have emphasised that we shall be happy to respond positively to deal with the problem. So far, no such evidence has been produced.

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