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The Northern Lighthouse Board, the GLA with which I am most intimately acquainted, is a curious creature. It comprises a sprinkling of people with an interest in and experience of the shipping industry, topped up, or adorned, by the Lord Advocate, the Solicitor-General for Scotland and the six sheriffs principal. I will pick my words with care because with the current febrile political atmosphere, the day might come when I appear again before some of those sheriffs principal. That risk stands for us all. I bow to none in my admiration for those people. I have known the Lord Advocate and the Solicitor-General for a number of years. They trained me in my early days as a trainee solicitor. They have many fine qualities and are admirable lawyers. I do not recall from my days as a trainee solicitor in the Crown Office any great discussion of matters maritime.

Although I do not doubt that the current office holders take their duties seriously and contribute vigorously to the work of the Northern Lighthouse Board, there is no guarantee that that will necessarily be the case. There is an argument that the structure of the GLAs—the Northern Lighthouse Board in particular—requires a careful look. My guess is that historically, people became part of GLAs because of the geographically diverse nature of the work. The current vast range of public service and bureaucracy did not exist. Therefore, there was a range of people with standing and ability in different geographical areas who could contribute something. However, let us not kid ourselves that this is any longer an appropriate structure for a lighthouse authority.

We must also look at the powers that are given to GLAs. I agree with the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) that it would be eminently sensible to consider the opportunities for them to engage in more commercial activities. That is long overdue.

To those who call for an amalgamation of the three bodies into one, I sound a note of caution. That proposal is superficially attractive, but I need to be persuaded that there are significant cost savings to be made. I have seen few occasions on which the solution to a problem has been greater centralisation. Before we move from a structure that can accommodate the different needs of navigational aids and lights in the north and west of Scotland, while allowing different approaches in the busier shipping lanes of the south-east, I want to be persuaded that it would bring a significant benefit. Again, this exercise must be driven not entirely by cost, but by the maintenance and continuation of good practice in navigational aids and by the safety of seafarers.

Hon. Members have spoken about the need to deal with the so-called Irish question. That much is genuinely, even in Government terms, long overdue, but we should not forget that although Ireland is one island, it has two states. Whatever solution we come to, the Irish Government must be brought to the table to pay proper dues, but we must not ignore the fact that we have a significant interest in Northern Ireland, from which there can be no walking away.

At the root of this issue are the finances of the GLF, which was recently described to me as being a pension fund with lighthouses. Given the dramatic way in which the service has changed in the past 20 years, that is undeniably the case. There have been significant cost
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reductions as a consequence of automation, and that is entirely sensible. I remember from my youth people who were employed as lighthouse keepers even in a small community such as Islay off the west coast. If one replicates that for the rest of the coastline, one realises there is a substantial legacy. The pension fund concerns the commissioners greatly, and it is no secret, either in the industry or in politics, that it was only the granting of a letter of comfort by one of the Minister’s predecessors, David Jamieson, that has allowed the current situation to continue without major crises and drama. If we are not to see the increases in light dues and the caps that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight has talked about, there is a danger that we could precipitate a crisis, but the people who would suffer most as a consequence would be current and future holders of lighthouse fund pensions, and I would need to be persuaded that that crisis is worth precipitating.

One Voice, the Chamber of Shipping and others who have given briefings on this issue are right to make their concerns known, but we should not rush to assist them and put the interests of shipowners and the shipping industry above other competing interests. Lights and navigational aids have to be paid for somehow, and if it is not going to be from the current system, it will have to be from general taxation. That has been suggested by the shipping industry over the years, but has never found favour with the Government, for obvious reasons. The danger of taking the money from general taxation is that, as a global industry, the ability of the shipping industry to avoid paying tax is fairly well documented. I would want to see something pretty bomb-proof before we moved from our current system to something that relied on general taxation, even if any Government were ever to be persuaded to pick up the tab, although I think that rather unlikely in the current economic climate.

10.4 am

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) on securing the debate. He presented his case in a balanced and eloquent way, but he is a very assiduous Member, so that does not surprise me. He has brought before the House a matter that is important, even if rather narrow.

We are proud to be a maritime nation, and I hope that we can keep the navigation of our waters safe. The Minister has rightly pointed out that that is the primary objective, and he will no doubt point it out again. The aims of ensuring the safety of our waters and navigation, and of modernising and making more efficient the general lighthouse authorities, are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The GLA structure is old, and I do not see why we should not carefully consider amalgamating the three lighthouse boards. That seems a sensible way forward, not just to save costs, although that is important, but to spread best practice and have economies of scale. We should consider that suggestion, and should also resolve the problem of our subsidy of the Irish. Any programme should grasp that matter and deliver that change.

I want to make a brief contribution on behalf of fishermen who have to pay light dues if they have a boat of more than 10 metres. UK-registered fishing vessels pay those dues, but I think we all understand that fishermen are having a particularly tough time at the
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moment with fuel costs and quotas, which are killing them—especially the small inshore fleets, which are not only boats of under 10 metres; many boats of just over 10 metres never go near the GLA-provided navigation aids, but must still pay a contribution towards them, even though they do not use them. They are at a great competitive disadvantage against vessels that are registered in other EU countries, which do not pay the dues, and there is a perception that those vessels do not adhere to many of the rules or regulations. Our fishermen feel particularly aggrieved about that problem.

Jim Fitzpatrick: I completely disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s assertion that fishing vessels do not use the services provided by the GLAs. It is clear from my information that they do. Notwithstanding that, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has said that it will reimburse lighthouse dues to fishermen in England and Wales this year. Is he aware of that?

Bob Spink: No, I was not aware of that. I am grateful to the Minister for that briefing, and to the Minister with responsibility for fisheries, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who probably made that announcement.

There are many larger fishing vessels that go out to sea and use the navigation aids, but I am talking about the sort of small inshore fleets that operate from Leigh-on-Sea and Canvey Island in Essex, and from the small Kent ports. They tell me that they have to pay light dues on boats of over 10 metres, and they are aggrieved because they do not make use of the systems provided by the GLA, so they are at a competitive disadvantage. I would like the Minister to pass a message to his colleague in DEFRA, who has set up the sustainable access to inshore fisheries project under the chairmanship of Alan Riddell. Will he ask him to take account of light dues when he considers matters of economic viability, sustainability, the environment and societal consequences in relation to the small inshore industry and the SAIF project? Will he ask him to extend further an exemption from light dues for all small inshore fishing boats, including those just over 10 metres? I am grateful to have had the opportunity to make those points.

10.9 am

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): I came to listen, Mr. Olner, but I have to indulge, I am afraid. I have had a great interest in marine safety ever since I was a young boy, when I wrote an essay on a sea rescue and won a prize from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Some hon. Members might remember that I put through the Marine Safety Act 2003, which plugged two loopholes in previous legislation that was attributable to the late Lord Donaldson.

We must remember that there have been at least three major shipping disasters—the Torrey Canyon and the Sea Empress, to name just two—and that Lord Donaldson wrote two magnificent reports which resulted, first, in four emergency towing vehicles being put around the British coast to rescue ships in trouble, and, later, more legislation. Today, Britain has some of the best legislation in the world on marine safety.

Having said that, the main problem that we face is wider than just light dues; it is about competition in the shipping industry, which, obviously, is an international
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industry. Responsible shipowners, who are probably the ones who are making the most noise about light dues, are in competition with shipping firms at the other end of the spectrum that invest very little in the training of their crews, including the senior officers, from the captain downwards, who are in control of their ships. They spend very little on maintenance of what are well nigh rust buckets sailing the seven seas, and the salaries and wages of the crews do not bear thinking about. That is the problem in the shipping industry.

When we talk about investing £90 million in maintaining buoys, lighthouses and the rest of the marine safety features that dot our coastline—20,000 miles of it—we are talking about a small percentage of total shipping costs. I believe that it is international competition that is making our shipowners shout about the light dues. Piracy must also be increasing shipping costs for some of our main shipowners who travel down the east coast of Africa.

We must praise Trinity House. Very little has been said about it, but it collects 87 per cent. of the revenue. It was mentioned that it has reduced its costs by 50 per cent. in the past 10 years alone, yet there has been no increase in light dues since 1993. Let us give credit where it is due. How has Trinity House managed that? As the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) said, lighthouses have been automated, but they still have to be regularly serviced by helicopters to ensure that the lights are always working, particularly in the most dangerous outlying situations.

We are talking about the British isles plus the coastline of the Irish Republic—20,000 miles of some of the most dangerous coastline in the world. Shipping coming into Liverpool has to negotiate Ireland. Surely that is part of the reason why we subsidise the Commissioners of Irish Lights. When we talk about the CIL, we are talking about the whole of Ireland. Obviously, we have to subsidise the part of Ireland that the British Government are responsible for, but shipping coming into Liverpool, Cardiff and other ports, including some of the smaller ports, has to negotiate Ireland. If Ireland were not properly lit and buoys were not properly placed in the sea around the Irish coast, it would be far more dangerous for shipping to come into ports such as Liverpool. Therefore, I cannot get as anxious as some hon. Members are about subsidising the CIL.

How have Trinity House and the other general lighthouse authorities managed to achieve such a massive reduction in their expenditure? Apart from automation, which includes solarisation—I am always amazed by the many solar panels that are on top of buoys and attached to other marine safety features—they have made many redundancies, not just of lighthouse keepers but across the estate. They have massively rationalised their operations during the past 10 years, and they have sold land and property in their ownership and are still doing so, one of the most recent sales being at Great Yarmouth.

However, there is a warning for all three of the GLAs in this country. One shipping company made the point that it now relies more on global positioning systems. It said that it can almost bring a ship into a British port or any port in the world relying entirely on the one satellite that provides GPS. The ship almost drives itself if it is attached to GPS. Those are very expensive navigation instruments, of course, and they have to be paid for, but
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what would happen if that one satellite were to go down? We would again be reliant on traditional and well-tried methods of lighting our coastline.

Mr. Brazier: The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. Will he accept the counterpoint, which is that in an era of roll-on/roll-off and the channel tunnel, there is in fact no requirement for most ships to come into British ports at all? The real danger is that they will simply go to continental ports and shift their containers and other things straight on to the backs of lorries.

Dr. Iddon: I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point. There has to be a balance, and we must weigh all the factors. My warning to the GLAs is that Galileo is to provide an alternative to GPS and the Chinese are planning to put up a satellite which will provide yet another alternative for automatic navigation. Satellites measure wave heights and record the weather. The whole business of international shipping is being transformed by great advances in technology, and I can certainly see that, within the next 20 or 30 years, the captains of ships that ply between international ports will rely more and more on satellite navigation systems.

This argument will not go away. Trinity House and the other GLAs should bear in mind—we could dream and imagine for a moment—that international shipping could, be navigated almost totally in the absence of captains by satellites in the sky. Governments and light authorities around the British isles and in Ireland must take advancing technology into account. To be fair to Trinity House, to date it has taken advances in technology into account. It has welcomed and adapted them, and that is why there has been such a tremendous reduction—I repeat, 50 per cent. in 10 years—in its costs.

10.17 am

Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Olner.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) on securing this important debate. As a history and politics graduate, I appreciated the history lesson that he gave us. It was a first for me to attend a debate in which an hon. Member has blamed successive Governments, including a Liberal Government. There is a first every day.

The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) made a valid point about the impact that increased costs may have on the fishing industry, especially at a time of economic recession, and the Minister made a valid point about safety being of paramount importance. However, this debate is not about whether we are going to scrimp on safety but about how we will pay for it.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), who is the Chairman of the Transport Committee, referred to the report in which the Select Committee dealt with the possibility of general lighthouse authorities being able to diversify the work that they carry out to bring in extra income. The Minister should bear that in mind when considering how the system is funded in future.

My hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), who probably knows more about
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maritime issues than any other hon. Member, made a valid point about the need for structural reform but also the need to ensure that the safety of our seamen, our ships and the shipping industry in general is of paramount importance.

The Minister, who is also the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town until the next election, announced in a written statement on 23 February that the Government were consulting on proposed amendments to the Merchant Shipping (Light Dues) Regulations 1997 to deal with the estimated funding shortfall of £21 million for 2009-10. The proposals are for an increase in the rate of light dues from 35p to 41p per net registered tonne, an increase of 17 per cent., together with increases in the tonnage cap and the number of chargeable voyages per year. For the largest vessels, the charge per call would rise by nearly two thirds to £20,000 and the overall annual cost would be even more if they were frequent callers at UK ports. The maximum payable for a single ship in a year would more than double from £85,750 to £184,500. For smaller regular traders, the increase would be about 45 per cent.

One Voice, the organisation created by the shipping, ports and maritime business services sector, whose member organisations include the Baltic Exchange, the British Ports Association, the Chamber of Shipping, the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers, Maritime London and the UK Major Ports Group, points out that increases of this magnitude are almost unprecedented and certainly have not been seen in the past 20 years, and argues that there is a significant risk that some ships will divert to ports on the continent, where lighthouse costs are financed through public expenditure.

In a recent letter to the Secretary of State for Transport, Michael Drayton, the chairman of One Voice, said:

I would be grateful if the Minister told hon. Members what assessment has been made of the likelihood that the increased charges will result in reduced direct calls at UK ports and what financial impact there would be if operators did reduce their direct calls by up to 60 per cent.

Mr. Carmichael: My hon. Friend is right to say that the Government must make an early and hard-headed assessment of the likely impact, but does he agree that light dues are just one of the costs of bringing ships into harbour and that, given the increasing scale of shipping, the increases that we are talking about must be set in that wider context?

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