HC Deb 30 March 1979 vol 965 cc776-9

'In section 634 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894 (which provides for superintendance and management of the aids to navigation) the following subsection shall be inserted: — Notwithstanding anything to the contrary in this Act, any person or body of persons responsible for the operation of an offshore structure within the prescribed limits, shall be deemed to be a local lighthouse authority having authority over all lighthouses, buoys and beacons, maintained on or positioned so as to mark any part of a structure or its associated works except for any lighthouse, buoy or beacon which a General Lighthouse Authority maintains.".'.—[Mr. Ridsdale.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Julian Ridsdale (Harwich)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I wish here to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral (Mr. Hunt), who led our side in the Committee stage on the Bill and who proposed this new clause at that time.

It is a technical clause. It relates to radio aids. The general lighthouse authorities have made an excellent contribution to international thinking on electronic aids for the mariner. If responsibility for electronic aids is rested with the GLAs, as the legislation always intended, the mariner and not the taxpayer will pay for them. That will be generally acceptable these days, when people feel that no further burden should be put on the taxpayer.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral said in Committee, it is not proposed that the GLAs should take over all functions currently carried out by the Government in respect of navigational aids. The proposal applies only to those directly concerning the mariner. That would include the siting of transmitters, the receiving of information concerning interruptions and inaccuracies and informing users of them, contributing, with the Admiralty Surface Weapons Establishment, to monitoring devices, and the approval, with the Home Office, of navigation and other matters.

Mr. David Hunt

I wish to support my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Ridsdale), and in doing so to congratulate him on once more raising this matter which is of considerable importance to Trinity House. Let me pay a compliment to him, as I did in Committee, for so eloquently and effectively representing the case of Trinity House. It is a fine, great national institution, which has always had as its primary objective the safety of the public and of the mariner. Therefore anything that it has to say, even on this technical matter, must be very carefully considered. That is why we proposed this clause in Committee and why we once more support it.

There is no doubt that the 1894 Act, and section 742 in particular, has not stood the test of time and that there is need to amend it to ensure that it is brought up to date. With those few words, I strongly support my hon. Friend.

11.30 a.m.

Mr. Clinton Davis

This matter was examined with fairly close scrutiny in Committee. I explained then why I felt that there was no need—indeed, I thought it undesirable—for the general lighthouse authorities to be local lighthouse authorities. I said that this was a matter of protection of the general lighthouse fund, for which my Department is responsible and which is financed by ship owners. My Department and the General Council of British Shipping are satisfied that there is in practice no threat to the fund in the present situation.

What is the problem? There is a fear that the general lighthouse authorities are not sufficiently able to carry out their superintendence and management duties in relation to offshore structures, and they might therefore, they say, be held liable if an accident occurred due to a defective light. But there are ample arrangements already for inspecting the light on offshore structures—I have set them out before and I need not rehearse them now—and to have additional inspections by the GLAs would merely duplicate arrangements and would, I think, be entirely superfluous.

In these circumstances, I hope that the hon. Member for Harwich (Mr. Ridsdale) will be prepared to ask leave to withdraw his new clause. However, I think that it may be helpful—I suggest this, although you have not grouped my manuscript amendment for debate at the same time, Mr. Deputy Speaker—if I add a few words at this point. It may shorten the debate dater.

The manuscript amendment that I shall seek to move later would, in effect, give the Secretary of State power, by order, subject to the affirmative procedure, to extend the jurisdiction of the general lighthouse authorities over new navigational devices. At present, the GLAs have vested in them the superintendence of lighthouses, buoys and beacons. The definition of buoys and beacons already goes very wide, but it does not necessarily cover the most modern area coverage aids to navigation and is unlikely to cover completely new devices.

I said in Committee that we did not believe that the GLAs should have responsibility for hyperbolic aids, such as Decca. The ship owners share that view, which I still maintain. But the general lighthouse authorities believe—I have some sympathy with this—that they should not be wholly deprived of the opportunity to participate in the forefront of new technology on navigational aids. The amendment which I shall move will allow each case to be considered on its merits. The House will have a role to play, and obviously no order could be made or would be made without extensive prior consultation with ship owners, the GLAs themselves and any other interested parties.

I hope that, against that backcloth, the hon. Member for Harwich—I recognise that he is rightly concerned about the matter and has, I think, some personal expertise—will think it appropriate to ask leave to withdraw his new clause.

Mr. Ridsdale

In view of the Minister's comments and explanation, together with his foreshadowing of the manuscript amendment to be moved later, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, and clause, by leave, withdrawn

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