HL Deb 25 May 1995 vol 564 cc1039-40

Lord Clinton-Davis asked Her Majesty's Government:

What are their plans for the privatisation of the National Air Traffic Services.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Viscount Goschen)

My Lords, the Secretary of State for Transport announced in November 1994 that the Government continue to favour privatisation of the National Air Traffic Services in principle but that further work was needed on a number of important issues before any final decision could be made on whether or not to proceed with privatisation. We are currently considering the further work that has been done and will make an announcement soon.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, is it not clear that the Government have made a complete U-turn on this matter? Is it not clear also that, following consultation, their proposals have found little or no favour with air carriers, pilots, air traffic controllers and anyone else who has an interest in the matter? Is it not also bizarre that the Government should even have entertained the idea when no other country in the world, including the United States which has rejected the concept of privatisation of the service, follows that course?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I do not see how the noble Lord could have gleaned any of that from my full Answer. The party opposite continues to refuse to acknowledge the benefits of privatisation, which we have seen in a number of organisations which have developed efficiencies, introduced new management techniques and found new sources of investment. Privatisation is a very useful tool.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, as one who fully shares the view of my noble friend about privatisation, may I ask him whether in this particular case there are any real advantages to be obtained from it?

Viscount Goschen

Yes, my Lords. Privatisation of an organisation such as NATS can bring efficiencies, reductions in charges and a more efficient service to airlines and hence to the users of airlines, the passengers.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, is the noble Viscount indicating that there will certainly be reductions in charges if the privatisation is carried through?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I am indicating that the possibility arises.

Lord Clark of Kempston

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that in 1979 British taxpayers were losing £50 million per week in the nationalised industries whereas now, under privatisation, the Exchequer receives £50 million per week? Is that not proof positive that privatisation works?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I could not agree more with my noble friend.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, does not the Minister agree that there is a faint danger that the Government may be entrapped by a sort of Clause 4 in reverse?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Lord's concern. As ever, the Government will be able to make their position absolutely clear.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there are arguments for privatisation in terms of efficiency, greater profits and investment, but air traffic control depends on safety? Can we have an absolute assurance that nothing will ever be done that will weaken the safety record of air traffic control in this country?

Viscount Goschen

Yes, my Lords, I can give that firm assurance.

Lord Craig of Radley

My Lords, can the Minister reassure the House that if NATS were to be privatised the essential training needs of the Armed Forces and the allocation of airspace in and around the UK would continue to be met?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, our proposals fully take into account the needs of the Ministry of Defence.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the enthusiasm that he portrayed for this proposal seemed a little restrained this morning? He asked me how I gleaned my information. Is he aware that the White Paper on competitiveness (which I think should be more appropriately called Forging Behind) contains no reference to the privatisation of NATS, in contrast with the 1994 White Paper which was full of it? That seems— does it not?—to be sufficient evidence of the Government's intentions.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I set out the Government's position very fully in my original Answer.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, can my noble friend explain why considerations of safety in air traffic control seem somehow to inhibit the consideration of privatisation of that service when in the case of airlines, where safety is just as important, that does not seem to be a factor?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, that is an extremely important point. With the privatisation of British Airways and the British Airports Authority, which are entirely safety critical, we have seen two businesses which have an excellent safety record combined with a very good financial performance.

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