Brown sell-off sparks fears on air safety

The Chancellor of the Exchequer's grand plan to raise an estimated pounds 12bn from a sale of state assets sparked a row over air-traffic safety yesterday.

While some likened the surprise privatisation package to an auction of "state silver", Labour backbencher Gwyneth Dunwoody compared it to selling "sausage rolls". The chairwoman of the all-party Commons Transport Select Committee told BBC Radio's Today programme: "The reality is that air-traffic control has a very important defence element about it. It is the control of the skies over the United Kingdom.

"It's not something you can sell off like sausage rolls and I think it will not do the Government any harm just to think about it for a moment before they launch forth."

But John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and Regions, replied: "We have made it very clear a public-private partnership would allow Nats [National Air Traffic Control Services] to raise the money they need to get a modern invested Nat control. I am quite satisfied we will guarantee the highest safety standards. We will be sure they get the investment they want. They will realise assets to invest elsewhere in our infrastructure."

Showing his personal delight and gratitude at winning his personal crusade against a previously hidebound Treasury, Mr Prescott added: "I think there are changes in the good old Treasury rules that allow me to get more investment into the public system. This is a radical Chancellor that has given us the resources for public investment - long needed."

Mr Brown told the same programme that he wanted wise spending, not big spending. Referring to the departmental Comprehensive Spending Review, the results of which are to be announced next month, he said: "There are tough decisions ahead. There will be money for the departments but only in return for modernisation... The important thing is we are tackling the real problems of the British economy."

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