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House of Lords

Wednesday, 19th February 2003.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Chelmsford.

Light Dues

Lord Geddes asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is their policy regarding the abolition of light dues.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, we issued a consultation document entitled Light Dues Review: Meeting the Costs of Marine Aids to Navigation last summer seeking the views of the maritime industry on the structure of UK light dues. The issues raised in response to the consultation exercise are currently being considered and we plan to make a statement in the next few weeks. However, as we said in the review document,

    "The Government does not believe that taxpayers generally should meet the cost of providing aids to navigation for shipping".

Lord Geddes: My Lords, while thanking the Minister for that reply, which does not surprise me, and ignoring for the moment the 1845 recommendation of the Select Committee in another place that,

    "all expenses for the erection and maintenance of lighthouses be henceforth defrayed out of public revenue",

does the Minister consider it damaging to the UK economy to charge a tax on commercial shipping which does not apply to the UK's trading partners in the European Union other than Greece and Ireland? Given the benefit derived from the lighthouses of Ireland by all shipping going to and from EU ports in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, as well as the UK, would it not be more equitable for the expenditure of Irish Lights to be defrayed in whole or in part by the EU rather than, as at present, only by ships calling at English and Welsh ports?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am afraid that my research did not go back to 1845, but I am grateful for the history lesson. The noble Lord, Lord Geddes, makes an interesting suggestion about the EU defraying the costs. I do not think that that suggestion was made in the responses to the consultation. But, in so far as we are still considering the responses, I should like to feed the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, into the response process. As the noble Lord suggested by his first phrase, it has been mostly argued that the British taxpayer should pay the costs. I am not aware of any proposal that that should be a European Union responsibility.

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Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that this tax falls very largely on British merchant shipping, which nowadays does not need lighthouses as other means of navigation such as satellites are used? As many vessels are exempted from paying, such as ferries, warships and tugs, are the Government considering a review of the situation?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, it was precisely the review of the situation to which I referred in my first Answer. The costs do not fall just on British merchant shipping; they fall on all ships entering British ports. It has usually been argued that that would result in ships not coming to British ports but going instead to continental ports, and that containers in particular would undergo transhipment. There does not seem to be any evidence that that has happened although we have had light dues in this country for many, many years.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that if it is proposed that these sums should be paid by the European Community, it is this country that will in fact pay?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, this country would certainly pay part of the sums as part of our contribution to European Union expenses. As I said, the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, is entirely new to me. I am not aware that it was made in the responses to the consultation document. The point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, will have to be taken into consideration.

The Earl of Caithness: My Lords, does the noble Lord think that it is ethically right to impose a tax on a group of people for a service that they do not use in order to subsidise that same service for another group of people who do use it but do not pay anything?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the tax, as the noble Earl calls the light dues, was in operation when he was a shipping Minister so he is very familiar with it. The tax, as he calls it, is imposed on those who use lighthouses, buoys and navigational aids for shipping. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, reminded us of electronic means of navigation. A small part of the light dues is allocated to global positioning satellites, but it is rather a small part.

Lord MacKenzie of Culkein: My Lords, I declare a minor interest as a former lighthouse keeper. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that although there may be a case for reviewing the way in which light dues are applied to protect the commercial interests of British ports, there is no case for transferring the costs of British lighthouses and navigational aids to the taxpayer, and that the principle should be that the user pays? There should perhaps be a review of users to

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ensure that people who do not pay the costs at the moment do pay them. However, there is no case for transfer to the taxpayer, particularly as a great deal of the drive for that comes from foreign-flag shipping companies. I do not think it right that the taxpayer should pick up the tab for them.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend. I made that point clear in my Answer. Of course, we are prepared to look at different ways of making the charge. It is true that, for example, pleasure vessels do not pay the light dues. Nevertheless, the principle that the user should pay is fundamental.

Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I shall first confess an interest. I am a commissioner for the Irish Lighthouse Service, and have been for 18 years. Does the noble Lord agree that, in general, costs exclusive of lighthouse dues in the UK are considerably more expensive than many others in Europe? Does he also agree that that is very largely because the nations on mainland Europe tend to subsidise their ports, whereas ours are almost 100 per cent privately owned?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, it was the government supported by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, who were so keen to privatise ports, so perhaps he should take responsibility for that. I do not agree with him. There is no clear evidence that other ports in Europe are less expensive than in this country. We have to take into account, for example, charges for pilotage if we are to make a full comparison.

Incidentally, what sort of a House is this that has a commissioner and a lighthouse keeper among its Members?

Lord Burnham: My Lords—

Lord Greenway: My Lords—

Noble Lords: Cross Bench!

The Minister for Trade (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, the Cross-Benchers have not yet spoken.

Lord Greenway: My Lords, have Her Majesty's Government had any success in persuading our EU neighbours to adopt a "user pays" policy on the matter?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, a lot of countries adopt a "user pays" policy. I do not have the statistics in front of me, but it is quite common outside Europe. It is a matter for individual member states rather than for EU policy.

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President Mbeki: Chequers Meeting

2.45 p.m.

Lord Blaker asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What was the result of the Prime Minister's recent meeting with President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa so far as it concerned Zimbabwe.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Amos): My Lords, the Prime Minister met President Mbeki at Chequers on 1st February. They discussed a wide range of issues, including Zimbabwe. We shared our views of the problems facing the country. President Mbeki said that his government are engaged in dialogue with the Government of Zimbabwe to address the difficulties there. The Prime Minister made the UK's position clear—that we want to see a return to good governance in Zimbabwe, including respect for democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

Lord Blaker: My Lords, I am grateful for that reply. Has not the abuse of human rights in Zimbabwe worsened since it was suspended from the councils of the Commonwealth in March last year? President Mbeki and President Obasanjo of Nigeria are two of the members of the troika, with the Prime Minister of Australia. Is it true that they do not wish to meet the Prime Minister of Australia and wish the suspension to be removed?

Is the noble Baroness aware that Mr Mbeki is reported as having recently told The Times that:

    "African countries . . . should be left to deal with human rights issues in their own way"?

Will the Government make it perfectly clear to every member of the Commonwealth that, in their opinion, it is not solely for the African countries to deal with abuse of human rights when the principles of the Commonwealth are themselves abused, but for every Commonwealth country?

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