Lib Dem peers join Tories to block privatisation of air traffic control

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Labour faced a serious challenge to its plans to privatise the UK's air traffic control services last night as Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat peers attempt to vote down the proposal and block the sale of the Government's stake in the system.

Labour faced a serious challenge to its plans to privatise the UK's air traffic control services last night as Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat peers attempt to vote down the proposal and block the sale of the Government's stake in the system.

The Tories imposed a three line whip to try to defeat the Government's plans for a sell- off, contained in its Transport Bill, before the end of the parliamentary session.

The Government could seek to overturn a defeat on the bill in the Commons, but last night's rebellion could scupper the sell-off until after the next general election.

Lord Macdonald, the Transport minister, accused the Liberal Democrats and Tories of "cynicism" and said the opposition parties were jumping on a "bandwagon" since they both accepted the principle of part-privatisation.

Ministers have signalled a willingness to make compromises to stop the Transport Bill, which includes measures on congestion charging and the creation of the Strategic Rail Authority being lost.

Air traffic controllers opposed to plans to drive through the partial sell-off of the National Air Traffic Services urged Labour peers to resist ministerial pressure.

Paul Noon, general secretary of the Institute of Professionals, Managers and Specialists union (IPMS), which represents around 3,300 air traffic controllers, warned that safety and efficiency could be jeopardised by the sale. Mr Noon said: "It is ... irresponsible to embark on an experiment in which the public, the professional and ... members of all parties have no confidence."

But in a joint letter to The Times yesterday, BA chairman Lord Marshall of Knightsbridge, Virgin Atlantic chairman Sir Richard Branson, and British Midland chairman Michael Bishop warned that deferring the sell-off of the PPP (Public Private Partnership) until after the next election could delay investment.

"If safety was at risk, we would be leading the criticism of the PPP proposal; but it is not," they wrote.

"If NATS cannot obtain the investment it needs (both financial and managerial), flight delays will become more frequent and lengthier.

"Last June's computer failures were a wake-up call for fundamental infrastructure investment, and the airlines and travelling public should not be exposed to the impact of a delay in the political process."

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