HL Deb 18 November 1997 vol 583 cc527-30

7.35 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 28th October be approved [11th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the General Lighthouse Authorities (Beacons and Maritime Differential Correction System) Order 1997 was laid in draft on 28th October. This order defines a differential signal as an aid to marine navigation and permits the General Lighthouse Authorities to operate a system and the General Lighthouse Fund to meet the operating costs.

The General Lighthouse Authorities (GLAs) are the statutory providers of marine aids to navigation in the waters surrounding the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. They are: the Trinity House Lighthouse Service, responsible for England, Wales and the Channel Islands; the Northern Lighthouse Board, responsible for Scotland and the Isle of Man, and the Commissioners of Irish Lights, which is an all-Ireland body and responsible for both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

They provide traditional aids to navigation—lighthouses, buoys and beacons—together with radionavigation aids—the Decca Navigator, radiobeacons and radar beacons (more commonly known as Racons). The GLAs are not publicly funded. They are funded from the General Lighthouse Fund, which draws most of its income from the levy of light dues on commercial and fishing vessels calling at UK and Republic ports. The GLAs spend around £65 million per annum. They have an excellent record of efficient operation and joint working over recent years which has resulted in light dues being held at 1993 levels until 1997, when they were reduced by 4.6 per cent.

The statutory position of the GLAs as providers of aids to navigation and of the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions as managers or trustees of the General Lighthouse Fund are set out in Part VIII of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995.

Turning to the order, in 1995 the GLAs carried out a joint consultation exercise to determine the provision of marine aids to navigation over the next 25 years or so. The resulting proposals received qualified acceptance from Ministers on 18th March 1997 (Hansard, col. 505). The future provision will include: maintaining traditional aids—lighthouses, buoys and beacons; discontinuation of the Decca Navigator System around the year 2000; an interest in adopting the North West Europe Loran C System when acceptable UK coverage is available; termination of the current radiobeacon system, which is now little used, and the provision of a differential global positioning system. This order deals with the latter system.

The Global Positioning system is well known. It is generally used to refer to the US Department of Defense-operated satellite system though there is also a Russian system. GPS can be used free of charge by the end user but the system can be subject to variations and perhaps failure without the end user realising that there is a problem. That can be corrected by the addition of differential signal. That is transmitted from a known location where GPS is monitored, the known position compared with that indicated by GPS, and corrections are transmitted to suitably equipped receivers.

Section 223(3) of the MSA 1995 provides powers for the Secretary of State to propose (by affirmative order) that a different type of aid to navigation shall be construed as an aid to navigation. As such, it can be operated by the GLAs and the costs can be met from the GLF. That power has been used three times; twice in 1987 to permit the GLAs to adopt the Decca Navigator (two orders were required, one to cope with the general UK provision, with a second dealing with the particular requirements of operating a transmitter from Jersey) and again in 1991, when provision was made for the GLAs to operate the Loran C system. In the event the latter power has not been used but has been retained in the event of the UK adopting the scheme.

The Republic of Ireland proposes to make similar provisions within the Merchant Shipping Act (Commissioners of Irish Lights) Bill 1997, which is currently under consideration in the Republic's Parliament.

Apart from a clear contribution to safety, the provision of DGPS is part of a package which is expected to save about £30 million over 25 years. The system is expected to cost £1.7 million in capital with running costs of about £35,000 per annum. That compares with the £3.5 million annual running costs of the Decca Navigator. Provision for the capital costs has already been made within the expenditure proposals of the GLAs and the detailed financial planning arrangements of the GLF. There would be no requirement for an increase in light dues in the short term. In the longer term, the expectation of closing the Decca Navigator around 2000 will greatly assist the department in maintaining light dues at low levels. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 28th October he approved [11th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton.)

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lord, I thank the noble Baroness for introducing this order and giving the House such a comprehensive view of what it does. I am sure that everyone will agree that it is a different kettle of fish to what has been debated so far this afternoon. Nevertheless, it is important to many people, including yachtsmen, among whom I count myself.

I congratulate the General Lighthouse Authorities on what they have been able to do over the past two years, culminating this year in a reduction in light dues. I welcome the order as it stands. As the noble Baroness said, it foreshadows—I do not know whether that requires any further parliamentary time—the end of the Decca system around the end of the year 2000. That was an issue with which I had some involvement some six years ago. I should have liked to see it done then, but it was not possible. The Decca system was a good one but, unfortunately, it is expensive to run. The fact is that Decca can no longer obtain money from selling the system, which means that it receives no income. That is why it has become a cost on the General Lighthouse Fund. In the old days it obtained a little money from every hit it sold.

The noble Baroness referred to the fact that the GPS is operated by the United States Department of Defense and is now what most people use. Sets can be bought for as little as £200 each. The problem with it is, as the noble Baroness said, that the United States Government can alter its accuracy and therefore we need to have this mechanism in place which can compensate for that.

I should like to ask the noble Baroness one or two questions. I have not given notice, and I apologise for that. If she cannot answer them, perhaps she will write to me in due course. At one time there was a proposal that it might be possible to make a contribution towards the cost of GPS in order to obtain a better guarantee from the United States Government. I do not know whether anything happened in that regard or whether it has been pursued. I appreciate the difficulties that it may cause and that we may not obtain the necessary guarantees as to the validity of the system.

The noble Baroness mentioned also the Commissioners of Irish Lights. In my day there was considerable argument about the cost of the Irish lighthouse authorities and how much was coming from UK light dues. I do not know what the present situation is and whether we are still subsidising Irish lights to the extent that we were. I realise that it is an all-Ireland body and therefore we must take care of the Ulster part of it, but we are subsidising the Republic part of it by a considerable amount. Perhaps the noble Baroness can tell me what progress has been made over the years on that.

Generally, I welcome the order and I am encouraged to hear of the possible savings of £30 million over the next 25 years. I am sure that we shall end up with a better system than what we have now, and the GPS is the system that most people use at the moment.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I am sure the whole House is grateful to the noble Baroness for so comprehensively explaining the order and its background. I should like to thank also my noble friend Lord Brabazon. I am someone who prefers to keep his feet firmly on terra firma and it was extremely helpful to hear his remarks. This order seems to combine saving lives with saving money, which is an excellent proposition, and we support it.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, for raising his two questions and for his support for the order. Perhaps I may write to him in detail in relation to the financial proposals with regard to possible support of the United States' system and the benefits.

With regard to the Irish subsidy, the current arrangements pre-date the establishment of the Irish Republic, as I am sure the noble Lord is well aware. Officials will be proposing to Ministers that negotiations commence later to look at the current and future funding arrangements. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.