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Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay: My Lords, I have two points to make. The first is financial. With some

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trepidation, I disagree with the two accomplished lady economists who have spoken from the Conservative Benches in support of the Government. I am particularly nervous about disagreeing with the noble Baroness, Lady Hogg, since we learned our economics at the same time and at the same university. However, I invite both of them to return to basic economics.

Air traffic control is a licence to print money. It is the classic case of a natural monopoly. Volumes rise steadily, year in, year out; the charges are a tiny fraction of the total cost of air travel. The revenue is therefore rock solid. If a not-for-profit trust were established, I have not the slightest doubt that our pension funds and insurance companies would be queuing up to lend money, through long-term bonds secured on those revenues, at very fine interest rates. If, as the noble Lord, Lord Young, put it, the Treasury loosened its grip, and if the Government lost their obsession with privatisation, there would be no problem about funding the investment NATS needs.

Nor is there any need to confuse privatisation with good management; Railtrack surely proves that. Why on earth should a privatised Airtrack, as I suggest we call it, do any better? A not-for-profit trust based on the Canadian model, free of the dead hand of the Treasury, with proper, secure, long term funding, would be well able to recruit the people with the skills that it needs, both at board and project management level. That is the financial point.

My second point, as a relatively new Member of this House, is about the rights of the House and the constitutional implications of pressing this amendment. Last night on the BBC, I heard the Leader of the House of Commons, at her most gracious, telling us that the House of Lords could invite the Government to think again about a Bill, but that if our invitation to reconsider it were declined, it would be quite wrong for us to continue to oppose it, whether or not it was in the election manifesto. I listened very carefully to the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, reading out the so-called manifesto commitment. Possibly John Prescott at his finest may be able to make that sound like a manifesto commitment, but the noble Lord certainly did not. I am relatively new to this House and I have not previously heard the Beckett doctrine, but it seems to me that it would turn this House into very little more than a glorified focus group.

This morning we heard the noble Lord, the Minister of Transport, accuse the opponents of the Bill of complete cynical opportunism--that was just a warm up--and we then heard what a constitutional outrage it would be if we were to pass this amendment from what he called,

    "this deeply unrepresentative institution, with 70 per cent of the Lords against us".

Noble Lords opposite might bear in mind that the votes cast for the three main political parties at the previous general election are more fairly reflected in the party strengths in this House than they are in the House of Commons. But if Ministers think that this House is deeply unrepresentative, they have no one to blame but themselves. We on these Benches accept no

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lectures on our rights or composition from a Government moving on to stage two reform with all the speed of a snail stuck in the long grass.

We on these Benches invite the Government to think again--and again, and again, if they have to--about this idiotic privatisation. We shall be happy to repeat the invitation as often as is necessary.

9.30 p.m.

Lord Peston: My Lords, I am loath to rise but I am concerned about the constitutional question. The House as it voted a week or so ago was doing its job correctly in asking the Government to think again. It voted in that way. I believe that the arguments are well balanced and I do not regard anyone arguing either way as being unreasonable or unethical, or betraying anything on this matter. When my noble friend Lord Stoddart was a member of the Nationalised Industries Select Committee and I was its expert adviser we were committed on issues of nationalisation. I can be persuaded as easily by his arguments as I can by the arguments the other way.

However, I am concerned about one issue. I believe that your Lordships' House, in asking the Government to think again, is doing the right thing and is not being a rubber stamp. I regard it as ridiculous, if I may use a strong word, to talk about the issue as though it were the kind of last-ditch issue on which we must ask the Government to think again and again and again.

We asked the Government to think again and the House of Commons duly said, "No". What reasonable person would then say, "We would like you to think yet again and if necessary again and again"? I am totally devoted to this House and believe that it should not be a rubber-stamp House. However, once it has voted and returned the matter to the other place, and the other place has sent it back to us, then, unless the matter is of such depth as to threaten the whole future of the nation, I believe that we ought to accept the view of the other place.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, much as I regret the attempt by noble Lords opposite to insist on their amendments, we have had a robust debate on the issues raised. I am grateful for the many and varied contributions. We have ensured that these important matters have once again been fully aired. I listened most carefully. Following such a debate, noble Lords cannot fail to be aware of the importance of the proposition before us.

I am sure that it will come as no surprise to your Lordships that the Government continue strongly to believe that the House should not insist on the amendments. As regards the substance of the Bill, I have already set out in detail the effect which delaying the PPP might have on a number of the parties involved and I want to repeat the arguments. However, let this House be in no doubt that the effect of the amendments would be harmful to NATS, to the airlines, to the passengers and to the country as a

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whole. We should not forget in particular the needs of the NATS staff, who for a long time have lived in a state of uncertainty about the future. I do not believe that it will do any good to prolong the uncertainty. Noble Lords should be aware that further delays to infrastructure investment, which NATS needs so badly, will cause considerable difficulties, especially as regards the delivery of the vital two-centre strategy.

I return to the constitutional issue. As I said earlier, this House prides itself on being a Chamber which strives to refine and improve the quality of the legislation put before us. However, I do not believe that its remit extends to the introduction of provisions which specifically seek to delay the implementation of government policy, particularly when, as I have demonstrated, full consideration has been given to our proposals. Our adversarial political system produces good democracy, a parliamentary democracy which is still the envy of the world. It does so because we set limits beyond which opposition is not pressed.

We have very full debates and listen to each other; we modify our legislation in the light of what is said, and what emerges is better legislation. But, ultimately, the democratically elected majority in another place should not be prevented from carrying through its policies, whichever government are in power. I hope that noble Lords opposite will, even at this late stage, consider the ramifications of insisting on these amendments. I urge noble Lords not to insist on the amendments.

Lord Brabazon of Tara: My Lords, I am grateful--I believe--to all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. I cannot possibly deal with every point made by each noble Lord. I particularly enjoyed the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger. We have not heard much from the noble Baroness recently and it is always a pleasure to listen to her contributions.

Much has been said, not least by the Minister, about the constitutional aspect. From what I have heard, in particular the contributions of my noble friends Lady Hogg and Lady O'Cathain, I am convinced that as far as concerns the constitutional issue we are on safe ground. There is no question that if this amendment is agreed the Bill, or even Part I, will be lost, as some noble Lords suggest. All the amendment does is to ask the Government to postpone the implementation of the transfer until after the next general election when, if they are returned to power, they have a mandate for it.

It has been said that the House of Commons has spoken. It has spoken twice, with the second largest rebellion on the Labour Benches this Parliament. The Select Committee of the House of Commons which considered this matter said that in its view the current proposal for a PPP for NATS was the worst of all possible options for the future structure of the company. I listen to that as well as the response of the Minister.

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The Minister said that NATS staff did not wish the uncertainty to be prolonged. All the information that I have received from the union which represents NATS staff is that they are wholly opposed to these measures. Therefore, I am not sure that the Minister is correct in saying that the staff want the uncertainty stopped.

We have had a good debate on the issue and the time has now come to take the opinion of the House.

9.38 p.m.

On Question, Whether Amendment No. 27B, as an amendment to the Motion that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 27 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 27A, to leave out "not" be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 132; Not-Contents, 125.

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