Labour rebellion over air traffic control sell-off

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The Independent Online

Government ministers vowed to press ahead with controversial plans to partially privatise Britain's National Air Traffic Services despite suffering an embarrassing backbench rebellion in the House of Commons last night.

Government ministers vowed to press ahead with controversial plans to partially privatise Britain's National Air Traffic Services despite suffering an embarrassing backbench rebellion in the House of Commons last night.

While there was no question of the Government losing the vote, around 40 Labour MPs hope their protests will fuel the House of Lords' opposition to the measure, which is part of the Transport Bill.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, who was not present for the debate to overturn a Lords defeat over the issue, earlier appealed to his own ranks to support the change, claiming the peers' amendment amounted to a "constitutional threat".

Mr Prescott and Tony Blair are known to have been infuriated by peers' decision to support a Tory amendment which would delay the sell-off until after the next general election.

They are willing to force the legislation on to the statute book by the end of this year by forcing a so-called "constitutional ping-pong" between the Commons and the Lords. This will mean that ministers will continue to bring the measure before peers until they back down, arguing that the will of the elected Commons should be superior.

Nick Raynsford, Minister for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, opened the debate by insisting that safety would remain "paramount" under the new structure. He accused peers of using an "unhelpful delaying tactic" that jeopardised the prospects for the air traffic control centres and the need to recruit more staff. He warned that if the Lords was to get its way, it would set a "dangerous precedent".

He said: "It is even more inappropriate for such amendments to be proposed by a body which has not been subject to the judgement of the electorate. It is for the elected Government to determine the speed at which it can implement its legislation.

"Were this provision to remain on the face of the Bill, we would be straying into very dangerous territory in constitutional terms, and creating a precedent which could be used again and again to damage the good intentions of this Government. I would urge colleagues to remember that when they think how they will be voting at the end of this debate."

But David Winnick, MP for Walsall North, said: "At a time when we are seeing in practice what has happened on the railways as a result of Tory privatisation, does it really make sense now to semi-privatise this public service. Surely this is not the time to do so."

John McDonnell, MP for Hayes and Harlington, said staff at the West Drayton air control centre in his constituency were opposed to the changes.

Leading opponent Martin Salter, the Labour MP for Reading West and a former Heathrow shop steward, said: "After the Hatfield and Paddington rail disasters, opinion seems to be hardening against these ill-thought-out privatisation proposals."

Urging fellow MPs to vote against the Government, he said: "What on earth are Labour MPs doing supporting a Tory proposal that we vehemently opposed before the last general election? In this place we make bad law, bad decisions when we don't listen. Remember the poll tax."

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