30 November 2000

Peers finally back sale of air traffic control but force three-month delay

By Sarah Schaefer

The government won its battle with the House of Lords yesterday over plans for the part-privatisation of the National Air Traffic Services.

Peers voted 157 to 57 to support a compromise amendment that would delay any sell-off for three months.

The Transport Bill, which also includes other key measures such as legislation to set up the Strategic Rail Authority and congestion charging in cities, will now reach the statute book by the end of week.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, feared that he might lose the Bill in the light of peers' opposition but the Tories backed down because they did not want to force a constitutional showdown over the issue. The Government was previously defeated twice over the controversial plans and faced three substantial backbench rebellions in the Commons. Under the plans, the Government will sell off 51 per cent of Nats to one of three bidders in spring 2001, to enable £1bn to be invested in its antiquated technology.

But the move has met determined opposition from unions representing air traffic controllers and airline pilots, backbench Labour MPs and a coalition of Conservative and Liberal Democrat peers in the Lords, who argue it would undermine safety. Unions also fear the bidders may lay off up to 70 per cent of air traffic engineers by contracting out their work.

Speaking in the Lords, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, a Transport minister, said peers would be allowed a government statement on progress to bring in the Bill next spring.

However, the Liberal Democrats, who are fiercely opposed to the scheme, insisted on pressing on with a Conservative amendment that would have delayed implementation of the sell-off until after the general election, despite a climbdown from an Opposition frontbench spokesman, Lord Brabazon of Tara. Lord Brabazon told peers that "we have achieved what I believe the role of this House is, that is to ask the Government to think again and ensure the details of legislation are properly thought through."

Lord Richard, Labour peer and a former Lords leader, admitted that it was "very difficult" to find anyone on the Labour benches in the Lords who was enthusiastic about the proposal.

But he added: "The issue now is the relationship between this House and the House of Commons.

"Nats is an important issue but it is not one in my submission to this House that would justify a major constitutional clash between the two Houses of Parliament."