Parliament: Transport - Air traffic plan will go ahead

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The Independent Online
JOHN PRESCOTT is backing the semi-privatisation of the National Air Traffic Control Services (Nats) despite protests by Labour backbenchers. The Deputy Prime Minister is expected to announce a plan to turn Nats into a public sector company with a private sector partner. The Transport minister Helen Liddell was planning to meet backbenchers before the announcement to allay their concerns about the proposals.

A campaign of protests against privatisation is to be launched tomorrow but Mr Prescott is ready to put the plan into effect before the general election, in spite of fears raised by Labour MPs and the unions.

The deal could raise up to pounds 1bn, and the Government will argue that it would mean retaining Nats under public control. "We are looking at a new form of public company. Nats needs technology and that is why we want this investment," said a source. "There is no reason why it couldn't be done before the election, and if I was betting, I'd say it would be sooner rather than later."

Gavin Strang, the former transport minister who was sacked last year by Tony Blair, is leading backbench protests to the plan, and the chairwoman of the Commons Select Committee on Transport, Gwyneth Dunwoody, is also strongly opposed.

One Labour MP has privately warned Mr Prescott that any aircraft accidents will be blamed on the Government after the private-sector partner is brought in to run air traffic control. But Mr Prescott will tell MPs that air safety will be the priority in the new scheme.

The leader of the main union for the air traffic controllers, IMPMS general secretary, Paul Noon, said: "Key investment decisions are being held up by uncertainty. The Government must deal with the cause of the crisis - under-investment. The alternative is a build-up of delays for air travellers that will make the Passport Office queues look like peanuts."

But the Government has said that the complaints by the unions are due to the present system, and private finance would provide the solution.