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The Conservative Party has been less than frank with the House. The real reason why the Conservatives want to delay is to work out what they are going to say about the privatisation of NATS. That is what they want, but they dare not say it, because it is unpopular with the electorate. The noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, has argued that we should delay a few months. What is the likelihood of persuading the air traffic controllers that that is a good idea?
I do not believe that the Government can win on the issue, but I support the rest of the Bill, because I believe in the principles adumbrated in it. However, the Government will not win on NATS unless my noble friend the Minister argues a little more forcefully than he has done tonight. He was unable to tell us the outcome of the discussions between Ministers and the air traffic controllers. He told us that there have been discussions--I am glad about that--but what was the result? The Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists--the union represented by my noble friend Lord Brett--had a long discussion on the issue and came out against the semi-privatisation of NATS.
However, I am not prepared to lose the rest of the Bill, as the Government have suggested may happen, not only in the House of Commons, but more publicly elsewhere. The Government have a job between now and the election to convince not only the electors, but the air traffic controllers that their plan is right. I do not think that they can do it.
The issues are very important, for the reasons that have already been given in the debate. Time is of the essence and the Government do not have a lot of it on their side. However, I do not want the air traffic controllers to say that the issue should not be proceeded with because the Government do not have time on their side. They should face up to the problem with the Minister fairly and squarely. That they have not so done yet is not their fault, but largely the fault of the Government.
I do not believe that the Liberal Democrats should support the Conservatives tonight. That is what they are going to do. They have no policy. They say that they believe in National Air Traffic Services, so they should support the Bill, albeit reluctantly. I believe it is important that all parties should speak frankly tonight as to where they stand on this issue. I do not believe that the Tories have done that.
It is with a heavy heart that I shall go into the Government Lobby. It is not very important whether I go with a heavy heart or a light heart, but I shall support the Government, not because they have won my support on the issue of NATS but because I believe that the "venue" has changed. The House of Commons has spoken. I take that very seriously indeed. I hope that my noble friend will not be reluctant to speak to the air traffic controllers and put forward his point of view. However, I hope that he will go with his ears open and that he will listen carefully to those who have the day-to-day job of flying and looking after the aeroplanes. That is the burden that rests on my noble friend tonight.
Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, this amendment seeks to delay a wretched piece of proposed legislation which few want. As we heard, 62 per cent of public opinion is opposed to it, as are the airline pilots and the air traffic controllers. Pace the Minister, as has been pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, and others, if there is a constitutional outrage, it is that the Government have no electoral mandate for it. Indeed, quite the reverse is true; they have done a complete U-turn on NATS.
Part-privatisation is neither one thing nor the other. As a corporate beast it is unrecognisable and is most likely to be a mere staging post on the way to complete privatisation. The government scheme for NATS is the most expensive option. On Report I challenged the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, to ask the National Audit Office to make a prior assessment of it, both as regards value for money and safety, as it is doing with London Underground. He evaded that question.
Again, we have been endlessly and repeatedly assured that safety would be, if not paramount, then at least the top priority. The public were given such reassurances after the fatal Southall and Ladbroke Grove rail disasters by Ministers, the privatised Railtrack and the railway operating companies. Then Hatfield happened. Ministers have failed utterly to answer the question of how safety can be maintained alongside severe cost-cutting.
The country is bewildered by the Government's blind intransigence on the future of NATS. That bewilderment was elegantly encapsulated in the Steve Bell cartoon of 17th November in the Guardian. It graphically depicted the Prime Minister, scooped up in the claws of a giant eagle, anxiously telephoning his chief press officer on his mobile, saying:
The proposals should be deferred until the Government include them in their election manifesto next time or, preferably, when they have had second thoughts and have come up with a better and more credible option along NavCanada lines.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, when this matter was last debated and voted upon, I voted against the Government. I voted for this amendment and I intend to do so this evening as well. Indeed, if I needed any convincing to do so, my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis provided the very arguments which I needed to re-establish my faith in my own decision when the issue was last discussed.
I well remember hearing my noble friend the Leader of the House when she was challenged by the Opposition that this House would be a rubber stamp. She refused to accept that, saying that it was not intended to be a rubber stamp; it was intended to be a significant House which would bring the Government to account. Indeed, she asked how it could be a rubber stamp with people such as the noble Lords, Lord Stoddart and Lord Bruce, in the House. Tonight I shall prove that my noble friend was absolutely right, and that while we have people such as myself, Lord Bruce and others--many others, I hope--this House will not be a rubber stamp; it will give proper advice to the House of Commons.
At this point it is strange to ask Labour Members of this House to do the exact opposite of what we were told we should do before the election. Some of us have brains. We shall not simply be told one minute that something is wrong and the next minute that it is right and that we must have a completely different mindset. It may be that others are prepared to do that but I am afraid that I am not and particularly at this time, because we have seen the shambles that Railtrack is in as a result of privatisation. I do not want the same shambles to follow as regards air traffic control.
It has been said that the airlines are in favour of this measure. Of course they are; it will suit them. But what about the pilots? They are the people who must fly the planes and have confidence in the air control system. They are dead against this piece of legislation and we should listen to them.
Therefore, with great regret, I must tell my noble friends that I shall be voting for this amendment this evening. My noble friends are laughing. But I can remember a Labour Party which was in favour of public ownership because it was necessary for matters which affected the whole of the population; because it was necessary for the safety of people; and because, as in this case, public ownership was a strategic necessity. So it is no good my noble friends laughing at me. I have been in the Labour Party for 54 years. I joined it because I believed that public ownership had a place in our economy, particularly where public safety was involved and where a great service was involved.
My noble friends can laugh if they want to. But I repeat that it is with great regret that I shall go into the Lobby against the Government. I hope that the delay will persuade them that they should bring forward different proposals for the retention of NATS in public ownership.
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