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Standing Committee Debates

Draft General Lighthouse Authorities (Beacons: Automatic Identification System) Order 2006

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. David Wilshire
Bellingham, Mr. Henry (North-West Norfolk) (Con)
Brazier, Mr. Julian (Canterbury) (Con)
Brown, Lyn (West Ham) (Lab)
Carmichael, Mr. Alistair (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
Clapham, Mr. Michael (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab)
Cousins, Jim (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central) (Lab)
Cryer, Mrs. Ann (Keighley) (Lab)
Davies, David T.C. (Monmouth) (Con)
Davies, Philip (Shipley) (Con)
Dorrell, Mr. Stephen (Charnwood) (Con)
Jones, Mr. Kevan (North Durham) (Lab)
Khan, Mr. Sadiq (Tooting) (Lab)
Ladyman, Dr. Stephen (Minister of State, Department for Transport)
Leech, Mr. John (Manchester, Withington) (LD)
Milburn, Mr. Alan (Darlington) (Lab)
Roy, Mr. Frank (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Slaughter, Mr. Andrew (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab)
Frank Cranmer, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

First Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Monday 10 July 2006

[Mr. David Wilshire in the Chair]

Draft General Lighthouse Authorities (Beacons: Automatic Identification System) Order 2006

4.30 pm
The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Stephen Ladyman): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft General Lighthouse Authorities (Beacons: Automatic Identification System) Order 2006.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Wilshire. The order under section 223(3) of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 will permit the three general lighthouse authorities to operate the automatic identification system as a marine aid to navigation. It empowers the GLAs to make proposals to the Secretary of State for Transport to operate AIS installations and to sanction systems with costs met from the general lighthouse fund. The general lighthouse authorities provide marine aids to navigation services around the British Isles.
The GLAs are Trinity House for England, Wales and the Channel Islands, the Northern Lighthouse Board for Scotland and the Isle of Man and the Commissioners of Irish Lights for Northern Ireland—the CIL is, in fact, an Irish body based in Dublin. The order will apply to the CIL’s operations in the north, and similar powers are available to it in Ireland under Ireland’s Merchant Shipping Act 1894, as amended.
The Department and the GLAs are promoting the international development of marine e-navigation systems, and the United Kingdom has secured a commitment by the International Maritime Organisation to develop a work programme to make it a reality at the global level. It requires a move away from the heavy reliance on traditional aids to navigation to an integrated electronic system comprising satellite navigations systems supported by a separate ground-based, radio navigation system. We envisage that that will comprise the United States global positioning system, plus the European Galileo system with enhancements such as the AIS and the enhanced Loran C long-range radio system, which is currently under trial and development.
All commercial vessels in excess of 300 tonnes undertaking an international voyage are required to transmit an AIS signal, which shows the ship’s name, next port of call, course and cargo details. The system can be interpreted by other vessels and from the land in either graphic or alpha-numeric displays. It offers security data and allows ports to assess well in advance of normal reporting times when vessels are likely to arrive.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): The Minister has mentioned the figure of 300 tonnes. As an hon. Member who represents a fishing constituency that contains several boating organisations and organisations that represent pleasure craft, will he say what discussions have taken place with organisations that represent vessels which are below that size and which might not have such advanced technological systems on board?
Dr. Ladyman: The hon. Gentleman has put his finger on the nub of a long project. If we are to rely entirely on e-navigation, the vessels that he has identified must ultimately have all the technology that is necessary for e-navigation. We are in discussions with organisations that represent smaller craft and with the International Maritime Organisation. As time goes on, we shall introduce further proposals to deal with those issues. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we do not intend to do anything in the short term or as a result of the order that will lead to a reduced level of safety for the smaller vessels that he has identified.
As I have said, some of the traditional aids might be replaced altogether by an AIS signal. The aid to navigation would not have a physical presence, but the ship’s AIS display would show the aid, with the AIS signal being transmitted from the land.
David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): The explanatory notes do not make it clear whether the measure is about improving safety or saving costs.
Dr. Ladyman: The measure is ultimately about improving both safety and the navigation of our waterways. It may well have a long-term impact on costs, because we will not have to maintain some of the very expensive traditional navigation aids that we currently provide. The main thrust for making the changes is a thrust towards safety. It seems odd that in the 21st century we are still totally reliant on physical lights and buoys as the only aids to safe navigation on the waterways. The developments will take many years, but they give an indication of the system’s capabilities, if it is developed in full.
The Department for Transport and the general lighthouse authorities envisage that the system will ultimately make a major contribution to safety while reducing expenditure and providing essential aids to navigation. Transitional costs, which are estimated at £3 million, will be met from the general lighthouse fund in the first instance. Savings will come from reducing the scope of traditional aids, although we do not envisage that they will disappear completely.
The Chairman: I apologise to the Committee, and particularly to the Clerk, for nearly giving him a heart attack by arriving exactly on time, or a whisker late.
4.36 pm
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): Welcome to your place, Mr. Wilshire. I came through the door only a few seconds ahead of you.
The Chairman: Thank goodness for that.
Mr. Brazier: The measure is basically welcome, as, obviously, bringing modern technology into the equation could significantly enhance safety, but several questions need to be asked.
I was particularly pleased by the Minister’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) because I am conscious, as a former offshore sailor, that traditional aids are important to people who might not have the latest equipment. What timescale does the Minister envisage for the run-down of traditional aids to navigation? Presumably the systems that we are discussing are extremely robust, as they are all based on existing technologies, but have the implications of freak electrical storms and other extreme conditions, which could include terrorist activity, been thought through? There might be a catastrophic failure of the new technology, in which case the loss of traditional systems would be dire indeed.
My next point concerns the Minister’s comments last year about the European maritime Green Paper:
“The bridge of a typical merchant ship is cluttered with all sorts of different navigation technologies - but they're neither standardised nor complementary.”
Even when good equipment is available, one cannot guarantee that a crew will know how to use it. Sometimes an over-reliance on computers can be very dangerous, as with the Berit incident of 5 January. The marine accident investigation branch report into that incident, which was released this week, stated:
Berit was also fitted with an electronic charting system (ECS). In this case, too great a reliance was placed on the basic information provided by the ECS, and the full functionality of the system was not employed...The paper charts did not have regular positions marked, even though they were the primary means of navigation onboard. Fixes were recorded in the log, but these positions were only derived from the GPS. Good navigational practice requires that positions are cross-checked by independent sources.”
As that great man Douglas Adams once said:
“The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong, it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair.”
Even if the Minister can guarantee that all UK seafarers have sufficient training to ensure that they can work AIS, how can he be certain that those from other states, such as flag of convenience states and others, have been suitably trained? There are nearly 9,000 holders of certificates of equivalent competency on UK ships, many of which come from countries where English is, at best, a second language. Foreign flagged ships cannot be expected to have crews with a sufficient working knowledge of English in every case. The safety incident on the Pilgrim 2, an extract about which I shall read out, if I may, Mr. Wilshire shows how dangerous the situation can be aboard some of the ships in our waters. I use this by way of analogy, because we are clearly talking about a shift from fairly basic navigational skills to the use of a different system.
When a port state control officer visited Pilgrim 2, his report stated:
“The PSCO noticed a heavily corroded extinguisher at the gangway, and found several more CO2 extinguishers with the horns missing. An accommodation fire damper was found lying on the deck.”
He then ordered a fire drill. I hope that you will indulge my quoting a little, Mr. Wilshire, because this indicates the difficulties that can arise when a vessel is not adequately crewed:
“It took considerable effort for the crew to understand, as the master and officers spoke almost no English. The Inspector had to write ‘Fire Drill’ on a piece of paper in large letters and hold it up. The drill was not up to the required standard, as was displayed by the fire team. The team leader showed up in a fire suit wearing trainers and donned the breathing apparatus upside down with the waist strap around his neck which proceeded to choke him. The second member of the team, without a breathing apparatus set, grabbed a length of hose and dashed into the engine room, the scene of the fire, which was supposedly ablaze. His progress came to an abrupt halt halfway down the first ladder when he ran out of hose.”
I shall not go on quoting. My penultimate question to the Minister is: do the Government accept that less trained crews may still need the traditional navigational aids, even if they have all the right equipment on board?
I am also concerned to hear that the introduction of AIS is being used as an excuse to phase out the use of pilotage on the Prince’s channel in the Medway. The plan, currently being consulted on by the Port of London Authority, is to offset the costs of additional dredging of the entry points by reducing the area in which ships must have pilots. Furthermore, we all know that there will be many more ships after the Shallhaven complex is opened.
As I wrote to the Minister on 14 June, it is surprising that just as we are expecting a significant increase in the usage of this—
The Chairman: Order. You asked me to indulge you, Mr. Brazier, and I have done so, but there is a limit to my patience.
Mr. Brazier: Indeed, Mr. Wilshire. You are right to reproach me. Finally, can the Minister guarantee that the introduction of this system will not be used by other bodies as an excuse to cut necessary traditional aids to navigation?
4.43 pm
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I am delighted that we are discussing this order. Unlike you, Mr. Wilshire, and the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), such was my excitement that I was uncharacteristically a few minutes early for the commencement of proceedings.
I am one of a handful of Members who has a significant number of lights in their constituency. I have taken close interest in the workings of the Northern Lighthouse Board since my election, and its chairman and chief executive recently confessed to me that in the past five years I am the only hon. Member to have been in correspondence with them about their workings on any sort of regular basis.
I was interested to hear the remarks made by the hon. Member for Canterbury, who described the operation of non-English speaking crews. Of course, it was not always thus: until the Conservative Government in 1979, the provision of officers and masters from this country was the norm rather than the exception. Indeed, it was as a result of the merchant shipping policies of Conservative Governments throughout the 1980s and the early 1990s that we find ourselves in this situation today. I say that merely so that I, too, can have my share of your indulgence, Mr. Wilshire.
David T.C. Davies: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr. Carmichael: Well, it will be difficult for the hon. Gentleman to stay in order, and it will be impossible for me to do so, but I shall give way.
David T.C. Davies: I am grateful for that confession. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that we should do everything possible to prevent people in third world countries from having jobs?
The Chairman: Order. As predicted, that question was not in order.
Mr. Carmichael: Not only was it not in order, but it was not relevant to my point, Mr. Wilshire, so I am grateful to you for intervening.
The general lighthouse authorities are to be commended on how they have adapted their operations in recent years and achieved a significant reduction in the dues that they levy. Indeed, today’s order will give them a further opportunity to continue that modernisation process. It seems nonsensical to continue to deny the general lighthouse authorities the ability to operate and maintain AIS, when the Maritime and Coastguard Agency has that ability. The change will make a considerable and significant contribution to maritime safety, particularly in inshore waters.
I am told that the Northern Lighthouse Board would like an AIS-fitted buoy to be deployed at Milleur point at the entrance to Loch Ryan, which would transmit, via Corsewall lighthouse, actual sea state and wind speed at the entrance. That would be of huge benefit to the high-speed craft and other ferries that operate out of Loch Ryan. That is an excellent working example of what can be achieved with the powers that the order gives to the general lighthouse authorities.
In answer to a Conservative intervention, the Minister said that it was intended ultimately to rely on e-navigation, which is, perhaps, a little on the optimistic side. If what he means by “ultimately” is “at some time in the distant future”, I might agree, but I do not think that it will happen in my lifetime. There will surely be a need in the foreseeable future to maintain traditional aids to navigation, such as lighthouses and lit buoys.
I have only one substantial question for the Minister: how long has it been since the GLAs first sought the power in question, and why it has taken the Government so long to give it to them?
4.47 pm
Mr. Bellingham: The Commissioners of Irish Lights is an all-Ireland body. Obviously, most of the money that goes into the general lighthouse fund comes from dues, but as I understand matters some money comes from the Department, and some comes from the Irish Department of Transport, too. What level of discussion has the Minister had with his Irish counterpart and when does he expect that they will next meet? Is there an arrangement for a pro rata contribution from the Irish Government to that part of the operation of the Commissioners of Irish Lights that covers the Republic of Ireland? Furthermore, the order makes major changes—are the Irish Government perfectly happy about them?
4.48 pm
Dr. Ladyman: I can start by answering that question straight away. I have regular meetings with my Irish counterpart at the European transport council. I do not have specific meetings scheduled with him on this issue at present, but it is something that we discuss.
The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Canterbury have been particularly inventive in getting issues into the debate that have nothing to do with the order, but the question of the dues of the Irish Lights is thorny, and it is regularly debated in the House. The Irish Government’s contribution is, of course, set by treaty, but there are many complaints that they do not contribute the full amount that they should to the provision of the Irish Lights. The Irish Minister and I regularly discuss that matter, and industry regularly raises it with me. I shall continue to press the view of industry that there should be a greater contribution from the Irish Government.
The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) has said that we will not be able to rely on e-navigation in his lifetime, and he might be right. I did not say that we had any short-term plans to turn off the traditional aids to navigation, but we will do so as we prove that the system works.
The hon. Member for Canterbury asked about the time scale that we envisage for such work. It will be some 20 to 30 years before we see significant reliance on e-navigation across the whole of the fleet, so we are not talking about something that will happen tomorrow. However, one starts a long journey with the first step, and if the destination is 20 to 30 years in the future, it is better to start now than to wait another 10 years.
I have been asked how long it has been since the general lighthouse authorities first sought the power. I think that the answer is 2004, when there was a problem in drafting the appropriate regulations. The British Government have led the efforts to try to get the world to move to electronic navigation, which have really begun in the past 12 months or so.
Our strategy to try to get the world to adopt e-navigation answers most of the other questions asked by the hon. Member for Canterbury. The effort must be made through the IMO, because it sets the training standards. The IMO must ensure a clear standard for equipment on bridges, so that the proliferation of different equipment is dealt with, so that standards are set for manufacturers, so that equipment is simplified and so that training standards are set to ensure that the mariners of the world can use all those pieces of equipment.
I reiterate that it was never our intention merely to turn off the lights and pick up the buoys. However, as we improve the systems and see those improvements flow through the rest of the marine fleet, we might be able to change some of the systems. For example, when all the large ships have e-navigation and AIS systems, the lights will not need such a long range, because they will be used by smaller vessels that are closer to the shore, in which case we might be able to reduce the range of some of them. It might be possible eventually to turn off some of the lights, but nobody is suggesting doing anything to compromise safety. While there are vessels that cannot navigate without lights and buoys, lights and buoys must remain, but we need to start moving into the 21st century at some point.
I was struck by the thought that the speech made by the hon. Member for Canterbury was probably the same speech that one of his predecessors made a couple of hundred years ago, when it was suggested that we move from dead reckoning by stars to a system of lights. We must modernise from time to time, and when we say that we will not compromise on safety, it is not the same as saying that we will always do things in the future in the same way as we have done them in the past.
Mr. Brazier: May I say to the Minister, with whom I have always had a good personal relationship, that he knows perfectly well that I support the measure? I made it clear at the outset that there is nothing inconsistent about supporting new technology on the one hand and being strongly in favour of a long-term transition from old technology on the other, given that the adjustment by some crews has been slow.
Dr. Ladyman: Since I have given the assurance that there will be a long transition, and that it will be done with all due diligence and the appropriate training and standardisation, I hope that the hon. Gentleman is suitably reassured and can join us in the move forward.
The Chairman: It might be of assistance to the Committee in deciding whether Mr. Carmichael will live long enough to see e-navigation to know that he is 41 next week.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft General Lighthouse Authorities (Beacons: Automatic Identification System) Order 2006.
Committee rose at five minutes to Five o’clock.

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