Parliament: Transport: Labour MPs say sale of air traffic control could put passengers at risk

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JOHN PRESCOTT sought to avert an embarrassing backbench rebellion over controversial plans to privatise part of the National Air Traffic Services (Nats) last night, pledging that safety would continue to be an over-riding priority.

However, in a highly unusual move, Labour backbenchers forced a debate on a rebel amendment, signed by 50 MPs, opposing the measure during the Transport Bill's second reading. The amendment warned that private profit could "jeopardise safety standards" in the future, and urged the Government to reconsider.

Gwyneth Dunwoody, chairwoman of the Transport Select Committee, said she was "totally opposed" to the plans for part privatisation, stressing there was a need for "careful" examination of the plans.

Mr Prescott said concerns that the profit motive would undermine safety had "not been proven". He told MPs: "I am happy to assure you that safety will continue to be the over-riding priority. This will not be a rushed `sale without safeguards' of the kind we used to see from the Tory party."

The prospect of a bitter battle ahead with sizeable backbench revolts follow concerted efforts by the Deputy Prime Minister to draw a line under several months of bad publicity for his record on transport.

Mr Prescott insisted the legislation would help provide "a quality integrated transport system for the 21st century. It gives us the means to rebuild our transport industries, to reduce congestion and to improve the environment."

Mr Prescott said the Government was reversing "decades of decline" in public transport and had already "begun to turn the corner" after 30 months in office.

Through a 10-year investment programme to revitalise the transport system, the Government was "for the first time giving transport in this country the long term stability and certainty it needs", Mr Prescott said. He told critics of his policy on Nats that the Government would retain a 49 per cent stake. Change was needed because the existing public sector framework was "inadequate to deal with future growth".

John Redwood, the shadow Transport Secretary, told him: "What we now have ... is a non-Bill from a non-Minister. You have been airbrushed out of the script. It is an embarrassment. It is a Bill that will try to tax people off the road. It is a Bill which will clog up the railways with more regulation and no decisions. It is a Bill that will sell Nats on the cheap."