Rebels begged to back off air traffic control sell-off

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The Independent Online

The Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, will meet Labour MPs tomorrow to try to head off a backbench revolt over plans to part-privatise Britain's air traffic control system. Leaders of the rebels say the Government could be facing greater opposition on this than on any other issue since it came to power. The plans could jeopardise safety and national security, they say.

The MPs meet tonight to draw up an amendment to the Government's Transport Bill, which will be debated in the Commons next week. They hope Mr Prescott may accept a compromise to stave off the rebellion by up to 80 members.

Mr Prescott has written to all Labour MPs to reassure them that safety will not be undermined by the part-sale of the National Air Traffic Services. MPs say profits are likely to take precedence in a privatised system.

The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions plans to sell 51 per cent of the organisation, and the possibility that it might go to a foreign buyer has led to protests that such a move would put national security at risk.

A former Labour transport minister, Gavin Strang, has been leading backbench opposition to the sell-off. He accused the Government of not adequately addressing "real concerns on national security and passenger safety" raised by the scheme. "It is time the Government listened to the concerns of pilots and the general aviation sector. The dialogue between pilots and air traffic controllers is crucial to air traffic management."

Another rebel, Brian Donohoe, the Labour MP for Cunninghame South, said plans to sell replicas of Britain's air traffic system abroad could also lead to problems. That could, he said, leave the Government liable for accidents abroad although it could not ensure the systems were run safely. The £600m the Government aimed to raise from the sale was "peanuts" in Treasury terms, he said.

"There is no need for this to go ahead. With the windfall the Government has from selling licences for mobile phones, they could easily afford to drop it."

The Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists, which represents 3,500 controllers, also believes the Government has "failed to address legitimate concerns about safety". Last month, the Government dismissed a Commons Select Committee report that called part-privatisation the worst option for air traffic control services.