Prescott will insist sale of air traffic control is safe

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The Independent Online

John Prescott is expected to deliver a "blistering" reply today to a Commons select committee of MPs who warned that the semi-privatisation of Britain's air traffic control system would put safety at risk.

The Deputy Prime Minister will reject the Labourdominated committee's main findings and insist he is going ahead with plans to sell 46 per cent of the shares in the National Air Traffic Control system (Nats) to private bidders.

The critics included one British Airways pilot who challenged Mr Prescott over the plans when he invited him on to the flight deck on a return trip from Japan recently. Mr Prescott is understood to have told the pilot that safety in BA was not compromised when it was privatised.

Mr Prescott is expected to give no ground when he responds to the select committee's criticism. "He will deliver a very robust defence of the plans for Nats," said an ally. "It's rare for ministers to criticise select committees but his reply will make it clear he does not think they did a competent job. He's toned down the language but it is blistering."

Mr Prescott will tell the committee it has failed properly to study the options for raising more investment in Nats that he believes will enhance safety.

The Labour chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Transport, Gwyneth Dunwoody, has been one of the most outspoken critics of the plans. Mr Prescott's former Transport minister, Gavin Strang, has led a campaign against privatisation, warning it was driven by the demands of the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, to raise revenue. Mr Strang said the air traffic control system must remain in public ownership for "reasons of safety and national security".

Mr Prescott addressed a Labour backbench transport group meeting last night. He told MPs and peers that with private investment, Nats could bid for the management of European air traffic control under EU plans to merge the number of systems running the skies over Europe.

Under the Government's plan, service provision will be separate from safety regulation. A total of 51 per cent of the company will be transferred to a strategic partner and employees will have up to 5 per cent of the shares.