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22 Oct 2002 : Column 63WH—continued

22 Oct 2002 : Column 64WH

Stromness Lighthouse Depot

1.30 pm

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): Mr. Griffiths, I hope that you will indulge me for a minute or two while I reminisce about my student days. As I prepared for this debate, I cast my mind back to the halcyon days at Aberdeen university when, as LLB undergraduates, we spent our time drinking coffee, putting the world to rights and occasionally speculating why we felt it was necessary or appropriate to study law. There were various reasons why we did so: some of my colleagues wanted to spend their days working in a family firm, while others felt it would be good to go into commercial practice and make a lot of money. Still others had their sights set for the stars and wanted to be High Court judges, sheriffs principal or something along those lines. I do not remember anyone saying that they were spending all that time studying delict contract, commercial contract, revenue law or criminal law so that they could become commissioners of the northern lighthouses. Likewise, I do not recall any of the many people who have carved out careers in local government in the fair cities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness or even Argyll and Bute—where I was born and brought up—saying that their aim was to become a member of the northern lighthouse board.

In 2002, it is curious and anachronistic that we should constitute the general lighthouse authorities as we do. As I observed the manner in which the consultation on the proposed closure of the Stromness lighthouse depot took place, the words "curious" and "anachronistic" sprang to mind. In passing, I observe that there may be a case for examining the way in which we constitute those authorities, to bring them into the 19th or maybe even the 20th century, which would give them a springboard to join the rest of us in the 21st. I am not a supporter of change for change's sake, but the current set-up allows general lighthouse authorities to inhabit their own little dusty corner of the monolith of bureaucracy without the bright light of public accountability shining in on them. My personal feeling is that the jury is out on the constitution of general lighthouse authorities. I judge them on my own terms, and I hope that they and the Minister judge me in the same terms. I am not overly impressed by the way in which they have dealt with the concerns of my constituents or with their ability to engage with local communities over the closure of the Stromness base.

I have dealt with the lighthouse board on one other matter since I was elected—the withdrawal of attendants from several lighthouses. Having made local inquiries and taken advice from professional seafarers, I felt that the move was reasonable and justifiable and I decided not to go to the barricades to oppose it.

The consultation process for the proposed closure of the Stromness depot started on 28 August—at least, that is when it became a formal consultation process. A letter was sent to employees of the board and, on 30 August, a copy was sent to me with a covering letter similar to that sent to the employees. In the letter, the board advances three reasons for the closure, which seem to comprise the lighthouse board's case. There is no subsequent amplification of why it considers it necessary to close the depot.

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We were first told that the Department for Transport had indicated that three general lighthouse authorities could justify the need for only one support facility each. We were told:

The Minister has had sight of that letter—I have supplied him with copies. The letter also says:

I shall deal briefly with those points in turn, and then with the Department for Transport. Let us consider the money spent on Oban. That is undeniable, and I do not begrudge the Oban depot a penny. It sounds like it has been well spent. However, my constituents who were employed by NLB raised their concerns at the time. NLB management told them that the spending should not be considered a threat to the Stromness depot. Now that the management have turned round and cited the spending as justification for the closure, hon. Members can see why that leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

As for money that was to be spent on health and safety improvements and internal maintenance, I understand from subsequent correspondence that the board intends to retain ownership of the base, to retain a small staff—two technicians—and possibly to lease the pier or other facilities. I assume that at least some money would have to be spent in any event, so I am not sure why that is an argument for the site's closure. However, we are left in the dark because the NLB will not put information in the public domain.

I pursued the first point in the letter—the Department for Transport's role—with the chief executive of the NLB. By 20 September, the position appeared to have changed because he told me:

There might be a way in which a person who is cleverer than I could reconcile the two statements as mutually compatible, but I cannot understand how that can be the case. [Interruption.] The Minister says that that person is he, but I shall be interested to find out. Perhaps he sets himself up for a fall, but that is his choice.

Can the Minister tell me the stage at which the Department for Transport gave such an indication to the northern lighthouse board, and why it was given? That is an important question. What did the indication consist of, and what was the basis on which the assessment was reached? There is a clear implication in the first letter that it was done at the insistence of the Department for Transport, but that was later refuted.

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I asked the northern lighthouse board the same question when the process began, although it has not yet properly answered me. It is not satisfactory that the chief executive of the board said in July that the plan had been considered by the board for some time when, in fact, on 20 March, he wrote to me, saying:

The only answer that I have been able to get out of him came in a letter at the end of last week, when he wrote:

That did not answer my question. I knew that that was the first date on which board members had formally considered withdrawal, but I wanted to know when they had started planning it. If that was before they wrote to me in March, why did they tell me that they had no plans to make redundancies at the depot?

I apologise if I am labouring the issue, but I hope that hon. Members understand that we in the northern isles are not currently inclined to take on trust much that the board tells us.

The Minister will be aware that he has many powers. Section 194 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 gives him the power to ask the board for

as he requires. On 16 September, I first sought the disclosure of information on the performance of the Stromness depot and on the board's reasons for wanting to close it. The chief executive has so far failed to provide that information and he has not even been able to give an indication of whether he intends to. When I ask a public body for information, I am generally naive enough to expect it to be provided. Since June last year, I have become accustomed to sometimes being told that there are good reasons why information will not be made available, but I have never become accustomed to being ignored in the way that I have been in this case. As Mr. Spock of the Starship Enterprise might have said, "It's public accountability, Jim, but not as we know it."

Will the Minister use the powers that Parliament has given him to bring the necessary information into the public domain? Is he content with the manner in which the board has conducted the consultation? Would he be content for officials in his Department—I give it credit for consulting often and comprehensively on a number of issues—to conduct a consultation in the same way? Would he be content for them to treat the Stromness community and local employees in the same way? Is it fair for the NLB to leave my constituents and their employees to second-guess the reasons for closure and to make the case for retention?

I have further concerns about the board's conduct. The local council in Orkney requested information so that it could compile an economic impact assessment. The chief executive told it:

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It sounds like the board is saying that it will answer questions only if they are the ones that it wants asked. That does not sound like an especially accountable or transparent way of doing business.

The other point that concerns me and many other people in Orkney is the length of the consultation. The chief executive consistently refers to a three-month consultation period. I may be a bit old-fashioned about these things, but I would never consider a consultation that starts on 30 August and concludes on 15 November to be three months long; at most, it will last for 11 weeks. I recently asked the chief executive to extend the consultation period because so many questions remained outstanding. He told me that he would not accede to the request because—this is the supreme irony—it would increase uncertainty among the employees of NLB Stromness. His concern is touching, if belated. A wee bit of uncertainty would be much appreciated by those employees, because they see the decision as a certainty. They see it as a done deal, cut and dried. They think that the board has decided to close the depot and the consultation is simply academic. I hope that that is not the case, but very little that I have seen of how the board has conducted itself would make me conclude otherwise.

Anyone who looks at a map can see the usefulness of a depot in Stromness. If the northern lighthouse board is to service lighthouses and buoys all the way down the east coast, in the northern isles, up to Shetland and down to the Isle of Man, it should maintain a facility there. This is not a question of some great contest between Oban and Stromness, as there is a good case for keeping both open. I want to know why the NLB think that it is necessary to close even one of them.

There is the possibility of bringing in extra commercial work that is compatible with the NLB functions in Stromness. Has that been explored? The NLB has what amounts to a commercial manager, but I understand that he has not brought in much work, although it is early days. If the board has been looking seriously at how to find extra work for such a facility, it should surely have considered the European marine energy test centre that is being established near Stromness, but I understand that there has been no consultation with any of the people involved. The base at Stromness has a high quality work force, who have many good ideas for improving the efficiency and operation of the depot. Have they ever been consulted? I do not know whether they have been now, but when I spoke to them on Friday morning, they had not.

Many people have noted, as I did, that although the basis for any change is supposed to be cost savings, no figures have ever been put in the public domain. We can see many ways in which it might end up costing more, but until we hear the board's case, we cannot judge that.

There is a feeling in the wider community that people in Orkney have been loyal to the NLB for many years. We are a seafaring and island community that appreciates the need for maritime safety. We know the

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pain caused to people when they lose a member of their family or friend at sea, especially as bodies are often not recovered. That is why we value the work of the NLB and others. The relationship is long and strong, but if the NLB has decided that it is to end that and turn its back on Orkney, we are at least entitled to an explanation as to why.

1.47 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing this debate. As always, he spoke powerfully on behalf of his constituents. He started by talking rather endearingly about his student days, which he said were spent drinking coffee and putting the world to rights. That may not have qualified him to become a member of the northern lighthouse board, but it certainly qualified him to become a Liberal Democrat MP. I appreciate his concerns, and I will attempt to answer at least some of his points. If I do not manage to answer them all, I will do so outside the scope of the sitting.

I should also like to say that I was delighted to visit the hon. Gentleman's constituency. He had invited me in a previous debate, and I managed to visit the Shetland isles this summer with my son. It was a very pleasant experience, and I was delighted to enjoy the hospitality of the hon. Gentleman and many others.

The hon. Gentleman's concerns result from the decision by the commissioners of the NLB in August to conduct a consultation exercise on the possible closure of the board's facility in Stromness in Orkney. I should make it clear that the depot's future is primarily for the NLB commissioners to decide. My Department will need to be consulted about the financial implications for the board, as it is accountable for the general lighthouse fund. The hon. Gentleman asked about the consultation process. We expect any consultation to be full and fair; it should provide those consulted with the maximum amount of information so that they can take part properly in that consultation. We also expect that the views expressed, including those of the hon. Gentleman and his constituents, will be fully considered. I do not know whether he has already done so, but I suggest that he seek a meeting with the chief executive. I understand that the chief executive may have written to him inviting him to a meeting and if that is so, I suggest that it take place.

Mr. Carmichael : My first letter to the chief executive stated that I was keen to meet him. I thought that it would be useful if he could provide me with information first. I have not received any information so there has not been a meeting yet.

Mr. Jamieson : I hope that in the light of the debate a meeting between the hon. Gentleman and the chief executive of the NLB will take place at an early opportunity. It may be a proper place for the hon. Gentleman to talk about some of the matters that concern him. If he then wants to explore them further with me, I shall be happy to do so.

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The hon. Gentleman asked some specific questions about the Department's role in the matter, and I hope that I can clarify it for him. He may not yet have received my answer today to his written question about our advice to lighthouse authorities on the maintenance of their depots. The reply states:

The original letter, dated 30 August, may have been slightly at variance with the advice that we gave. After the meeting, it was our view that possibly three depots would be appropriate for the United Kingdom, but not necessarily one for each of the areas. There may have been some misunderstanding of what we meant. We felt that three strategically placed depots might be sufficient to provide the coverage required.

The changes that have taken place in the use of lighthouses have substantially reduced the need for mainland support over the years, as the hon. Gentleman is aware. All three of the general lighthouse authorities are reviewing their support structures and all three recognise that they have spare capacity. All three authorities recognise the need to reduce overheads and their supporting structures so that they are more closely related to the statutory requirements. A useful side effect is likely to be that they will then be in a better position to compete for commercial work, especially the maintenance of aids to navigation that are the responsibility of other organisations. Success in that respect will further reduce costs to the authorities.

The GLAs have a good record of reducing operating costs. They are funded by the general lighthouse fund, which draws its income from the levy on light dues on commercial and fishing vessels using UK and Republic of Ireland ports. My Department is accountable for the fund and responsible for setting the light dues tariff. Rates rose rapidly during the time of automation in the 1990s, but the last increase was in 1993 and rates were reduced in 1997 and 2002. We have been able to fund major changes—new ships and improvements to depots—within the reduced rates. Even so, some shipping lines are paying more due to the increasing trade as more or bigger ships use our ports. Trinity House, the GLA for England, Wales and the Channel Islands, is also undertaking a depot review.

The northern lighthouse board, which is the GLA for the waters surrounding Scotland and the Isle of Man now operates from three locations: its headquarters in Edinburgh, and depots in Oban and Stromness, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. One depot —at Granton in Edinburgh—has already been closed. The Oban depot was almost 100 years old, and was not considered to be fit for purpose. The board considered that that site had the greatest development potential for a more efficient buoy-servicing facility, combined with the best access to support services—buoy storage potential, and helicopter handling capabilities.

The board therefore developed a detailed business case for updating the Oban depot. That case formed the basis for discussion with the officials in my Department who manage the general lighthouse fund. We were

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satisfied that a good case had been made for that investment, and, over the last three years, £4 million has been spent on creating that new facility, which was opened last year.

We understand that the commissioners now believe that the new depot at Oban has the capability to meet all of the board's requirements. The commissioners are therefore reviewing the future of their other depot facility at Stromness, because that depot, if it were to continue in its current use, is likely to require significant expenditure to update it to meet modern standards of health and safety. That expenditure might be difficult to justify if the facility was no longer required to meet the statutory obligations of the commissioners.

Mr. Carmichael : I know that the Minister will not be able to respond to this question at the moment, but perhaps he could do so in writing. When in consultation with the Department over the £4 million to be spent on Oban, did the lighthouse board give any indication of its intentions with regard to Stromness?

Mr. Jamieson : It is my understanding—if I am incorrect, I shall certainly write to the hon. Gentleman—that that indication was given after the July meeting. The indication came from the board itself, not from the Department. Our indication was that there needed to be a rationalisation, and that, possibly, three strategically placed depots might be appropriate. However, the northern lighthouse board came up with the proposal for Stromness.

The commissioners are currently consulting staff and the local community about the future use of the facility. That consultation is neither an exercise nor a procedural formality. It is about achieving the widest possible input of facts and understanding the feelings of those affected by the final decision. I should like to hear from the hon. Gentleman and from his constituents if they feel that that has not been the case. I should be interested to know how any improvements might have been made to that procedure, if needed.

I understand that the board's review should be completed within the next few weeks. The commissioners are expected to consider the conclusions at their meeting on 9 December. I also understand that the commissioners are very aware of the socio-economic impact that any decision on the future of the depot could have on the local community, and that that is being taken into consideration along with the business case. To that end, I understand that the northern lighthouse board is providing information to the Orkney Islands council, which is undertaking a socio-economic review, the results of which will be shared with the northern lighthouse board.

The United Kingdom has a marine navigation aid service of the highest quality. Sailors over many centuries have travelled in greater safety thanks to the lighthouse keepers, and to those who work in the depots and on board the ships that support the aids to navigation.

The three GLAs are facing change so as to meet the challenge of maintaining new types of aids to navigation. The way ahead is still under development, but in broad terms the authorities envisage a reduction in the requirement for traditional aids, and a greater

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reliance on satellite navigation and new aids such as automatic identification systems. I know that the GLAs are concerned about the welfare of staff, and that they will deal with the management of change in a sensitive manner. They wish to reduce the period of worry and uncertainty to the absolute minimum. I am sure that that will be of some consolation to the hon. Gentleman's constituents. My officials will keep in close touch with the northern lighthouse board, and with the other lighthouse authorities about the strategic decisions on

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the future of support facilities and related matters. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will keep him, and the House, informed as those matters are taken forward.

This has been a short but helpful debate. As always, the hon. Gentleman has raised matters that are very pertinent to his constituency, and if he feels that any matter has not been considered properly in the debate, I will be happy to write to him. I urge him to seek a meeting with the chief executive, so that some of the issues that he has raised can be ironed out.

Question put and agreed to.

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