Second Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.


Wednesday 6 February 1991


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The Committee consisted of the following Members:


Campbell, Mr. Ronnie (Blyth Valley)

Cummings, Mr. John (Easington)

Davis, Mr. David (Boothferry)

Grist, Mr. Ian (Cardiff, Central)

Hicks, Mr. Robert (Cornwall, South-East)

Holt, Mr. Richard (Langbaurgh)

Hood, Mr. Jimmy (Clydesdale)

Lewis, Mr. Terry (Worsley)

McLoughlin, Mr. Patrick (The Minister for Shipping and Public Transport)

Michie, Mrs. Ray (Argyll and Bute)

Miller, Sir Hal (Bromsgrove)

Neale, Sir Gerrard (Cornwall, North)

Pendry, Mr. Tom (Stalybridge and Hyde)

Porter, Mr. David (Waveney)

Shelton, Sir William (Streatham)

Simms, Mr. Roger (Chislehurst)

Skeet, Sir Trevor (Bedfordshire, North)

Walley, Ms. Joan (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

Mr. M. D. Hamlyn, Committee Clerk.

2 3 Second Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. Wednesday 6 February 1991

[SIR ANTHONY MEYER in the Chair]


10.30 am

The Minister for Shipping and Public Transport (Mr. Patrick McLoughlin): I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the draft General Lighthouse Authorities (Beacons: Hyperbolic Systems) Order 1990. This order extends the statutory functions of the general lighthouse authorities—Trinity House, Northern Lighthouse Board and the Commissioners of Irish Lights—to enable them to establish and operate the Loran C Radio-Navigation system in the United Kingdom. The order does not represent any final United Kingdom commitment to Loran C. It would take effect only if the United Kingdom were to become a party to an international agreement to establish the system in the waters around the British Isles. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State expects to take a final decision on this before mid-1991. In recent years, consideration has been given by some European Countries to establishing a single civil Loran C system in north-western Europe and the north Atlantic. Similar consideration is being given to the Mediterranean and other parts of the world. the USSR is discussing with Norway, Germany and its neighbours in the east the possibility of linking Loran C coverage with its oven Chaika system—a system very similar to Loran C. It is currently a United States military system—except in France— operated by the United States coastguard in many parts of the world. The USA is expanding Loran C coverage within the USA itself, but outside the USA it is to be replaced for USA military purposes by the satellite navigation system known as GPS —or global positioning system. The USA coastguard has offered to transfer its Loran C Stations in Norway, Greenland Iceland, Faroes and Germany to the host nations to form the basis of a possible civil system, under European and Canadian control, covering north- west Europe and the north Atlantic. Our conclusion in favour of Loran C rests on our view that the United Kingdom should not stand aside, without good reason, from the adoption of a standard regional radio-navigation system under independent joint European and Canadian control. Loran C offers a number of technical benefits in addition to its international dimensions—it suffers significantly less from seasonal and night skywave effects; it offers greater range and more consistent coverage; and its adoption will allow significant running cost reductions once the transitional period is over. Those cost savings will benefit all payers of light dues in due course. At this stage, I should stress that the decision in favour of Loran C remains one in principle only, since my right hon.Friend, the former Secretary of State, laid down a number 4 of clear conditions, which are still to be met, before the United Kingdom could finally commit itself to change from the Decca system. First, the terms of any international agreement would have to be acceptable to the United Kingdom, particularly regarding the cost commitment. These negotiations are still in hand and incomplete, though much progress has been made. Secondly, there is a need to reach such an agreement by mid-1991. That is to ensure an adequate transition period in United Kingdom waters for any change from Decca to Loran C. Under Racal Decca's current contract with the general lighthouse authorities, the Decca system could not continue beyond February 1997 and we see a need for a transition period of a good three years, during which both Decca and Loran would operate side-by-side. Too short a transition would impose severe problems for the fishing industry. Thirdly, new Loran C transmitter sites would be needed in both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. The location and the necessary approvals would also have to be secured before a United Kingdom commitment could be made to the international agreement. Slippage on these aspects would have similar unacceptable consequences for the transition period. Progress is being made with the site selection but, like the international discussions, final decisions have yet to be taken. The fourth contingent element relates to today's debate in that, before the general lighthouse authorities could establish Loran C in the United Kingdom, their powers need to be extended to cover the system. The order before the Committee for its approval is required because the general lighthouse fund may be drawn on by the authorities, subject to my right hon. and learned friend's approval, only to carry out their statutory duties and for no other purpose. The prescribed duties include the superintendence and management of lighthouses, buoys and beacons in the authorities' area of responsibility. I am advised that under the relevant law the Merchant Shipping Act 1894, the term "beacons" does not cover radio-navigational systems such as Loran C. The possibility that the general lighthouse authorities' responsibilities might have to be extended in that way was nevertheless foreseen, and appropriate power was taken under section 34(3) of the Merchant Shipping Act 1979. That enables my right hon. and learned Friend to promote an appropriate order, subject to an affirmative resolution by both sides of the House to give a wider meaning to the expression "beacons". Parliament's approval to the order is being sought as securing such approval is one of the conditions for my right hon. and learned Friend entering into the international agreement. In the event of the agreement not being concluded the order will have no effect. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Parkinson), the former Secretary of State, said that if such an agreement were not reached within the envisaged timetable, it would be our intention to withdraw from the international discussions and to consider, with the general lighthouse authorities, whether to arrange for a modification of the existing Decca system and its continuation beyond 1997. I hope that the order meets with the approval of the Committee.


Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East): This is one of those occasions where one flies by the seat of one's pants.

Mr. McLoughlin: And hopes for good navigation.

Mr. Prescott: Yes, as the Minister says, one must hope for good navigation. I listened carefully to what he said about the order. It makes good sense in terms of having the best navigational possibilities and the best technology. We are presumably talking about having a better system than the present Decca system, which may be phased out by 1997. The Opposition would welcome any means that improves navigation for people in what is still a dangerous occupation at sea. Any improvements that make the best use of technology are to be welcomed. It is clearly good sense for the Government to introduce an order to take account of the restrictions of the present fund, and to say that we can move in a certain direction if we so wish. We may still go for a modified version, although I hope that we do not. At least the Minister has held his judgment until the time is right. Modified versions are never as good. Clearly, costs are a consideration in all these matters. As I understand it, the general lighthouse fund will have resources available to begin to implement these measures which are denied at present because of the legal definition of beacons and the new technological development. The Minister expressed concern about the possible costs. What costs are envisaged? I assume that the Government have some idea of their magnitude. The general lighthouse fund is funded by subscription from the industry in one form or another. How does the industry see those subscriptions or levies increasing, as they presumably will, to meet the demands of the new system? I appreciate that these matters may be somewhat detailed and the Minister may not have sufficient information available. If that is the case, I would be happy to receive comments from him by letter. I have not been able to give him any notice of these questions, some of which have been sparked by his introduction. Could he nevertheless give us some more information about the costs and about the people who will be expected to contribute to them? The Ports Bill that is before the House has a section on navigation. I do not know whether that is affected by this. Presumably a transfer is involved and these responsibilities are transferred to another body. Are there any changes under this order that would need to be taken into account in the new Ports Bill? There was a private Member's Bill before the House whose purpose was to close the port of Exmouth. It meant that charges for the navigational aids in the river were passed to the Exeter authority, which then found that it did not have sufficient revenue from the Exmouth port. That port, incidentally, is still closed. Under those circumstances, the charges were extended to small craft which hitherto did not have to pay. Does that mean that the Government would widen charges and levies to include boats beyond the limits of present tonnage requirements? Will the Minister tell us about potential problems for the fishing industry? He said that the industry may have problems in the process of transition or on account of the limitations of the present Decca system; but I do not know exactly what he meant by that. 6 Finally, there is the issue of how the Americans are operating the system through the coastguards. The massive reduction in the numbers of coastguards has caused much anxiety around the country, especially as the demands placed on them by incidents are increasing continually. It may be due to holiday-makers. Coastguards do a marvellous job in coping with real problems, but are being restricted. As I said earlier, we are increasingly dependent on technology, and we are talking specifically about an advanced navigational system. However, the coastguard service suffers from the problem of the bunker mentality—if I may use such language—where people rely on radios. Many incidents involving coastguards have much to do with sightings and information by telephone or ineffective pagers. I raise that issue because I presume that coastguards will be involved in some way with the system—

Mr. McLoughlin indicated dissent.

Mr. Prescott: I note that the Minister disagrees. Will he given an assurance about pressures on coastguards, and also about a leaked document that suggested further cuts in the coastguard service? It would be nice to hear the Minister say that there were no further plans to cut the number of coastguards or to replace them by more pagers. I would be grateful if the Minister would respond to those few questions. In the main, however, the Opposition support the order, which is clearly an advance on the present system in its introduction of new technology. It will improve the quality of navigation around our shores and make it compatible with the international system.

10.42 am

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland): I wish to follow the remarks about coastguards that were made by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott). The automation of lighthouses around our coast will result in longer and longer expanses of coastline that will have no human look-out. That is worrying. I should be glad to hear the Minister provide the reassurances sought by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East, also asked about the impact that the changes may have on the fishing industry. The current Racal Decca system is still in operation, and will be for some time to come. The most optimistic time scale for introducing the changes would be about three or four years. New vessels or older vessels being refurbished presently have to install the Decca system at some expense. As the Minister knows, I have asked him previously about what compensation, if any, the fishing industry can expect. The industry is certainly not going through easy times. We should give greater consideration to the threat posed to the industry by having this potential expenditure looming over them. I also wish to ask some detailed questions. The Minister said that he hoped that a decision would be made before 1991. What will be the state of international negotiations? I have heard rumours that Denmark is now less than enthusiastic about an international agreement. We are all aware of the sensitivities of international negotiations, but the Minister should tell us how they are progressing. The Minister also mentioned the importance of transmitter sites and the permissions required for them. Will they be subject to normal planning permissions? Did I 7 understand him to say that they would have to be obtained before Britain could accede to an international agreement? Perhaps he would explain how that would fit in with the time scale that he outlined. If he cannot do so today, I would welcome a letter containing such information.

10.45 am

Mr. Tom Pendry (Stalybridge and Hyde): One point is not yet clear to me, although it may be clear to other hon. Members. Perhaps I was unable to follow all of the Minister's speech, as he spoke faster than my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott). It is no surprise that the Merchant Shipping Act 1894 did not include electronic systems. However, I understand that the 1979 Act did. I am unclear about the Decca system, and anxious about jobs in the electronics industry. Who makes the Decca system, who will make the new system, and what will be the job implications for the electronics industry? That is a minor point, which the Minister may not be able to answer now. However, perhaps he could add it to the list when he writes to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace).

10.46 am

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh): I wish to ask my hon. Friend the Minister about an issue on which I may be way off beam—as some of the ships coming up the channel may be. Will the measures be financed by the shipping lines or centrally? When the shippers coming up the channel are deciding whether to turn left to Tees or right to Amsterdam and Hamburg, they bear in mind the light dues that they will have to pay. For some reason, we are still carrying the Irish Government in that capacity. Will it be long before we dispose of the need to carry the Irish Government and be on all fours with our competitors in Europe? Ships should have as much inducement to turn into Tees as into Amsterdam.

10.47 am

Mr. McLoughlin: First, I shall deal with the points raised by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott). The order will have no implications for the Ports Bill. We needed the long transitional period so that we could inform the fishing industry of our intention to change to Loran C. I accept the point raised by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace). There are difficulties with a system that lasts perhaps for 10 years, and with a fishing industry which, as a result of the present refurbishment, does not know which way to go. If we can reach agreement, the Government intend to introduce the new system. It would therefore be sensible if the fishing industry examined the possibility of joint receivers. We specifically tried to ease the system as much as possible following representations by the fishing industry to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East referred to the eventual cost, and the effect that that would have on the light dues. I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt), but there is no 8 provision to take the cost of light dues from a central purse. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East would also like that to happen. When we did the costings, the Loran C system seemed to be significantly cheaper, and that will help the fishing industry in the long term. Loran C is also a far more reliable system for the fishing industry. Obviously, we want as much international agreement as possible. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland asked —

Mr. David Porter (Waveney): Could my hon. Friend confirm that he is taking advice about the fishing industry only from his colleagues in MAFF. Is he aware that many parts of the fishing industry, especially in my constituency, believe that they are not always consulted by MAFF, and therefore feel that they have not been advised, let alone asked, about the Government's intentions in the matter?

Mr. McLoughlin: We had a substantial consultation period, which we extended, so that everyone would have the right to be heard. MAFF took part in the consultations, as did the fishing industry generally. I have a copy of the document issued to the fishing industry and to people who showed an interest in the matter. There was great interest because the whole coastline system is covered. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland asked about the international agreement. The Loran C system relies on international agreement. There have been discussions with Canada, Denmark, Germany, France, Iceland, the Republic of Ireland, the Netherlands and Norway. The Dutch withdrew earlier this year, but have now rejoined. Denmark does not wish to participate as a full member, but it wishes to keep the stations in Greenland and the Fair Isle as part of the overall system. It is willing to make a financial contribution to its running costs. There is a long way to go, but we are hoping for agreement. Planning applications are subject to planning procedures and we are making progress on the matter. It would be wrong for us to try to ride roughshod over local authorities—indeed, we could not do so. There will be the usual consultations. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East made some important points about the long-term benefits of the scheme. International agreement would benefit our shipping and fishing industries and the pleasure boats that create considerable traffic around our coastline. The hon. Gentleman mentioned coastguards—

Mr. Prescott: Will the pleasure craft industry be charged?

Mr. McLoughlin: We are considering that issue. A report has gone out for consultation and vigorous discussions are being held. I cannot anticipate when my right hon. and late Friend the Secretary of State will decide on the issue. The hon. Gentleman mentioned coastguards. I said that a consultation document was available. The hon. Gentleman should not have said that we were relying on a leaked document because it was given to the trade unions. That document helps to define the coastguards' role and the sort of service that they should provide. An abridged copy of the document is in the Library to encourage maximum participation during the consultation period. I did not want the document just to float around the Department of Transport because it needs as wide a consultation as possible. The coastguards' role has changed 9 dramatically in the past few years, with increased numbers of pleasure craft and other traffic around our coastline and shoreline. The hon. Member for Staleybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) mentioned the effect of the Decca system on jobs and I shall write to him in more detail about that. Cost was important in our consideration of future decisions on the system, especially the cost to the shipping industry of future light dues. We wanted to ensure that we provided the best means of helping shipping traffic throughout the world. I understand the hon. Gentleman's anxiety about the job implications and as I said I shall write to him.

Mr. Prescott: I wish to take up the Minister's point about the function and role of the coastguards. I do not want to go beyond the remit of the Committee, but the Minister mentioned an abridged report that had been placed in the Library. He said that he wanted the maximum consultation on the report, and I shall be delighted to help him achieve that. Could the full report, rather than the abridged version, be made available, so that there is no misunderstanding?


Mr. McLoughlin: I guarantee to make a copy of the report available to the hon. Gentleman. We made an abridged copy because it it such a large document. I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley) are supplied with a complete copy so that they can consider it and make representations.

Mr. Wallace: Will the hon. Gentleman extend that courtesy to me?

Mr. McLoughlin: Of course. Perhaps I should put a copy in the Library and save everyone a lot of time. I hope that the Committee will approve the order.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Committee has considered the draft General Lighthouse Authorities (Beacons: Hyperbolic Systems) Order 1990.

Committee rose at five minutes to Eleven o'clock.


Meyer, Sir Anthony (Chairman)

Davis, Mr. David

Grist, Mr.

Hicks, Mr. Robert

Holt, Mr.

McLoughlin, Mr.

Michie, Mrs Ray

Neale, Sir Gerrard

Pendry, Mr.

Porter, Mr. David

Shelton, Sir William

The following also attended pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(2):

Prescott, Mr. John (Kingston-upon-Hull, East)

Wallace, Mr. James (Orkney and Shetland)