I am pleased to announce that there will be no changes to the light dues rates for 2003–04. Current rates were set last year, when the rate was reduced to 40 pence per ton and a 40,000 tonnage ceiling was introduced to reduce the burden of light dues falling on the largest vessels. Rates were last increased in 1993. Efficiency savings have funded two replacement ships and met the costs of redeveloping the Oban depot. Rates were reduced in 1997 and 2002. We shall continue to work closely with the General Lighthouse Authorities to secure cost effective provision of GLA services and to keep future requirements for marine aids to navigation under review.Additional investment is required to further reduce running costs. A review of the operation and management of the GLAs' 5 ships will be completed shortly. The replacement of two vessels over the next four years will reduce costs. Trinity House has already announced a depot rationalisation scheme. The Northern Lighthouse Board will close the Stromness depot in 2004. We are considering options to redevelop the Commissioners of Irish Lights depot at Dun Laoghaire. We believe that this work can be carried out within the existing income levels.The Government remain committed to a cost recovery system. Taxpayers generally should not meet the costs of providing aids to navigation for shipping. It was disappointing that only 160 responses were received to our consultation exercise on the review of light dues. The results were inconclusive with no consensus on the way forward.I therefore propose to carry out further work on a number of key areas. These include:
an economic study on arrangements for funding aids to navigation and the possible economic effect on commercial trading patterns, in consultation with the shipping and ports industry;
development of an electronic collection system to come into operation during 2004 which will remove some of the practical restrictions on charging patterns and would, for example, permit the introduction of a flatter charging structure;
working with the GLAs to review the future requirements for marine aids to navigation;
further work on the use of navigational aids by each sector—commercial, fishing and pleasure craft; and
seeking further discussions with the Irish Government to negotiate the full costs of provision of navigational aids in Ireland.
We will also publish a fuller response to the consultation exercise as soon as possible.