Draft Transport Act 2000 (Designation of Transferee) Order 2001

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Mr. Robert Ainsworth: A short order has provoked lengthy debate. I will do my best to answer all the questions that have been raised. As other Ministers have said, if I accidentally omit to answer a question, I will write to hon. Members as soon as possible.

The hon. Member for Poole asked a series of questions about the bids, the expected length of time for the assessments and the statement that will be made at the end of the three-month period. He moved on to the area of employee shares and the operation of a trust. I can confirm that we have received three bids, and that we expect the evaluation to take a matter of weeks. We aim to have the PPP in place by spring. We shall certainly announce the identity of the preferred bidder in the House. The precise manner of that announcement will doubtless be settled by the business managers in the usual way, so I am unable to tell the hon. Gentleman about that.

Mr. Syms: Most hon. Members on both sides of the House would be very disappointed if the announcement were to be made by means of a written answer. The right way to do it, and I hope that the Minister will convey this to the Government's business managers, would be through a statement to the House, so that Members on both sides can ask detailed questions of the Minister.

Mr. Ainsworth: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. Lord Macdonald made a commitment to report after three months, and he is aware of that deadline. The identity of the preferred bidder will be announced in the House.

The hon. Gentleman sought detailed information on the issue of employee shares. I can confirm that there will be no public issue of shares in NATS. We will develop with the strategic partner a trust arrangement to hold the shares on behalf of all eligible staff. All staff will be eligible for the same allocations, so the arrangement will be equitable, with no preferential treatment for senior members of staff. The final decisions on the number of shares to be given free, and whether they will be made available at a discount, have yet to be taken. Those issues will have to be discussed with the strategic partner. They are already being discussed with employees' representatives. I hope that that shows the hon. Gentleman how far we have progressed with discussion of those issues.

Mr. Ainsworth: Some arrangement will have to be made to ensure that employees receive the maximum value, but we are not setting up an arrangement whereby the 5 per cent. allocated for the work force will be diluted or reduced. We shall have to find a way to enable those shares to be of value and to be traded in when employees leave NATS No. 2 without that happening. It has been done with other employee share issues and methods are available, but the principle is that the 5 per cent. will remain available to employees of NATS No. 2.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr said that I stated diplomatically that Parliament took some persuasion on part I of the Transport Act. However, it was enacted and it demanded all the safeguards to be in place. My hon. Friend referred to some of her problems in trying to protect and defend the interests of her constituents, and some of the allegations that had been thrown at her that the new Scottish centre was never in any doubt and that she should have been batting on another wicket. I do not know what was said to her by representatives of the work force about the fact that the new Scottish centre was secure, but I have been involved in the matter, albeit in another capacity, for some time and I know for a fact that plenty of people have said loudly that if the PPP goes ahead, the Scottish centre will not happen or might not happen and so on. People will say almost anything that suits them at the time, but real worries were raised by those who opposed the PPP and feared that if the PPP happened, the new Scottish centre would not--they may be saying something different now, or they may be different people.

It is easy to understand why my hon. Friend demanded categoric assurances that if the PPP went ahead, the major investment proposals within NATS would be absolutely secured as part of the arrangement. She obtained that clear and categoric assurance from our right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister on Third Reading. Today, I can only tell her clearly and in the same terms as our right hon. Friend that that assurance is entrenched within the order before us. The Secretary of State will not be able to dispose of shares in NATS No. 2 unless and until he is satisfied that a proposal is in place to ensure that the Swanwick centre and the Scottish centre at Prestwick go ahead. It is partly a result of my hon. Friend's work that that is as clear as it is.

Let us be honest about the other proposals that my hon. Friend mentioned, which are important. The oceanic system is not covered by the order. It covers major schemes and proposals, including the Swanwick and Prestwick centres, and it entrenches those two centres, but it does not cover proposals of a lesser magnitude. However, we have received bids from three partners and all three bids contain commitments to the oceanic system. There should be no anxiety because whichever bid goes ahead the oceanic centre and development of the oceanic system are included in those bids.

Ms Osborne: In respect of the oceanic contract, it is feared that one bidder has connections with the Irish aviation authority, which is believed to covet the right to operate the oceanic centre. Will my hon. Friend confirm that locating the system in Scotland also forms part of the bidding process?

Mr. Ainsworth: To define major proposals, there had to be some cut-off in the draft order and that cut-off was above the level of the oceanic centre. However, I am told that all three bids propose that the oceanic system be introduced and made available at the Prestwick centre. I hope that that has clarified the matter for my hon. Friend, and I congratulate her on chasing and nailing down this issue on her constituents' behalf. In that respect, there is little room to criticise her.

The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) criticised us for getting Government business through Parliament efficiently and for not turning the Bill into a hybrid Bill. I have spent considerable time with the hon. Gentleman in Standing Committees and I have great respect for him, but I find that criticism rather strange. I was also a little surprised when he asked why on earth the Government had not agreed to Liberal Democrats' and Conservatives' demands that the order be dealt with on the Floor of the House. Such issues are the responsibility not only of the Government party, but of Opposition parties. The order was included on last Monday's Order Paper and it went before the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments—whose membership, I believe, includes a Liberal Democrat—on Tuesday.

Mr. Don Foster: Will the Minister confirm that the provision was in fact included on a different day and under rather different circumstances?

Mr. Ainsworth: I shall clarify the matter in due course and if I am wrong I will apologise to the hon. Gentleman, but I believe that the provision was included on last Monday's Order Paper; it went before the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments on Tuesday, and on Wednesday the Committee of Selection chose the membership of this Committee. On Thursday, there was a business statement, and as I understand it at 6 o'clock—

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North): Ten minutes past.

Mr. Ainsworth: At ten minutes past 6 o'clock, the Liberal Democrats asked why the matter could not be dealt with on the Floor of the House. Opposition parties are obliged to keep their eyes open and take note of what is on the Order Paper. Had a proper request been made in good time, the provision would have been dealt with on the Floor of the House. It is not our fault that no such request was made.

Mr. Foster: I am more than happy to admit that when we approached the Government Chief Whip, we recognised that our request was tardy and entirely understood the resulting difficulty. However, I hope that the Minister agrees that that does not alter the significance of the issues and therefore the value of debating the measure on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Ainsworth: I am grateful for the change of content and tone. The last time the hon. Gentleman spoke, he demanded to be told why the Government had not given in to the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties' demands, but when he is confronted with the facts, his tone changes.

In addition to the hon. Gentleman's remarks concerning the bidding process, he understandably and justifiably raised the issue of safety. Safety is a mandatory requirement in the evaluation criteria. The Transport Act 2000 requires the Secretary of State to act in ways that maintain safety standards. I give the Committee an unequivocal undertaking that he will act in that way when selecting a strategic partner.

The hon. Gentleman asked many questions about the various merits or otherwise of the three bids. There is a competition—that is precisely what it is—to find a strategic partner. Therefore, I cannot say exactly what will emerge at the end of that process. The Government are not going through the process only for the sake of financial considerations, although benefits will flow from the PPP. The factors that will impact on the selection of the strategic partner have been explained to the House and remain in place; they will be used to decide what the strategic partner will be required to do and what categories its bid must fulfil.

The hon. Gentleman raised some issues that are mandatory, such as safety, probity and acceptability on national security grounds. He mentioned audit inquiries into the Airline Corporation of New Zealand, of which the Government are aware. However, as a Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions Minister, I am not in a position during a competition for a strategic partner to comment on the merits or otherwise of the three bids. Indeed, the merits of the three bids are not what we are here to discuss. The hon. Gentleman has invited me down a road that I cannot travel.

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Prepared 12 February 2001