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Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down I want to ask him a question. He has argued only that the Government should do nothing precipitate at this stage. Has he considered the alternative to what the Government are suggesting because he has not mentioned one word about it? He has argued only that there should be a delay.
Lord Shore of Stepney: My Lords, with such complicated legislation, it is difficult to keep fully abreast with all the amendments before us. I must confess that when a short time ago I went into the Lobby in support of the Liberal Democrat amendment I thought that it was the only practical alternative to the thoroughly repugnant proposals in the Bill.
However, I had overlooked the excellent suggestion that is now before us. I am much in favour of the status quo; I believe that we have a wholly successful NATS which has a marvellous record of efficiency and safety. It also enjoys full public confidence. It might just be improved by the separation of the CAA as a regulatory body; one which examines it rather than being part of it. Apart from that, the status quo is excellent. Here, we have an amendment which suggests that we maintain the status quo for the next two or three years.
I find the proposal most acceptable for an additional reason which I want to mention to the House. Well within the next few months we shall have a new system for regulating air space in Europe. The common European sky proposals have been nurtured by the Commission during the past year, with all their implications for the control of British air space and of access to our airports by other nations. All of that will become plain and the implications within the new framework of a strategic partner for the United Kingdom will at last become obvious. All the bogus
Therefore, I greatly welcome the amendment. I would not wish to align myself further with the thinking of the Conservative Party on the future of NATS but I welcome the excellent opportunity to have a delaying period in which all will become plain.
Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I follow my noble friend Lord Shore because I have been invited to repeat what I said in my intervention. It was, frankly, that I do not trust the Tories and I never have. And I do not trust them on this issue in particular. The Tories entertain a belief that they will win the next election. They had better disabuse their minds of that, particularly in the light of today's opinion poll.
Whatever the position of the Tories may be, I come to much the same conclusion as my noble friend Lord Shore. I believe that the Government can do nothing but benefit from a delay. They will not have an opportunity to carry out their proposals before the next general election. It may be May, September or October, but they have no reasonable chance of carrying out their proposals.
Secondly, I do not believe that the Government have any intention of carrying out their proposals. Whatever may be said by the Minister today, the fact is that the Government go through the motions of passing the Bill, as we expected of them, but they do no more than that.
Thirdly, we should carefully test what the skies of Britain need. It may be the European approach, which my noble friend completely discounts. It may be a system which closely resembles the present NATS--I do not know. However, whatever it is, it is entirely acceptable to the Government because I believe that, whatever my noble friend says here tonight, the Government have no intention whatever of doing anything for £1,300 million over 10 years.
That being the case, why does my noble friend get so up-tight about it? There is no reason for it. I entirely dismiss the Tories from this argument because they have no chance of winning the next election. But why is my noble friend so uptight about it? It is not as though the Government somehow pin their hopes on the economic benefits of the scheme. No sensible person believes that. That being so, why does my noble friend use every opportunity in this debate to colour badly that which the opposition on this side of the House proposes?
My noble friend waxed eloquently about the situation in Canada--he may be right or wrong--but one thing we do know is that NATS has served this country well. Does my noble friend dispute that? The main point raised by my noble friend Lord Shore is that over the past 30 years NATS has served the people of this country well. Why should the Government interfere with that?
In the light of those considerations, I believe that it is better to delay the implementation of these provisions, as my noble friend Lord Brabazon proposes. I should like to see these provisions postponed until after the next election. That will give us a delay of perhaps a few months and allow the views of the Civil Aviation Authority in this matter to prevail over those of NATS, which I regard as less than helpful.
Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, we shall support these amendments should the noble Lord press them to a Division. We do so very much in the same spirit as the noble Lord, Lord Shore, enunciated at the beginning of this brief debate. We are totally against the views of the Conservative Front Bench, whose ultimate aim is the total privatisation of NATS. However, we believe that a pause would be of benefit to the Government in enabling them to think again on the subject. It will ensure that they achieve a structure for NATS which responds not only to the demands for efficiency and so on but those placed upon it by the public. I refer to the safety culture to which the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, spoke.
Another minor but nevertheless significant consideration is that a pause will give NATS, as it is now, additional time to make progress with modernisation of its technological base and the creation of the new centre at Swanwick. That is undoubtedly needed to meet the timetable of 2002, which is already six years late. That timetable may well be disturbed during the process of the part-privatisation. For those reasons, we shall join the Conservatives today if they decide to press the matter to a Division.
Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, said, these amendments are intended to defer the making or approval of any transfer schemes until the Session of Parliament following the one in which the Bill before us receives Royal Assent. As the making of transfer schemes is a prerequisite to the establishment of the NATS PPP, this would inevitably lead to delays in the PPP timetable. I am sure noble Lords appreciate that there needs to be a degree of flexibility in the timing of the proposed sale. The necessary legislation (in the form of Part I of this Bill) must be in place so that ownership of NATS can transfer to the Secretary of State, who can then proceed to effect a partial sale. This in itself has acted as a constraint on the speed with which the NATS PPP can come into effect.
I believe that the restrictions which noble Lords opposite suggest go too far. They would lead to an unreasonable delay in implementing the transfer scheme provisions, and hence the sale, and I do not believe that that would be in the best interests of the various parties involved. We need to resolve the future of NATS once and for all and put an end to the uncertainty which has been hanging over staff and management for years.
My noble friend Lord Shore referred, with unexpected optimism, to the speed with which a single European sky might be achieved. My understanding of the importance of those proposals is that they would lead to better communication in overly congested airspace in Europe so that it could be managed more effectively. The technology suggests that the dozens of national jurisdictions across Europe could be reduced to five or six. As I have said before in your Lordships' House, in that consolidation lies the opportunity for a strong British company to become a world leader in selling safety and efficiency across Europe and the world. We believe that our PPP is entirely compatible with any likely outcome of the European initiatives that are in place.
My noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis again asks about our commitment to NATS. He suggests that perhaps in some way we disparage its safety record. That is not so. I have congratulated NATS on its very good safety record. The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, referred to the problems of Swanwick. She might also have referred to the problems arising from investment in Prestwick. It is clear that project management of the kind of investment that we believe is needed in this industry is not best carried out by the structures which have been in place to date.
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