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Light Dues

Volume 493: debated on Tuesday 2 June 2009

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mark Tami.)

It is a great pleasure to be here, and to be able to bring to the attention of the House the urgent need for reform of light dues—a tax on merchant vessels calling at British and Irish ports. Light dues are intended to cover the cost of providing lighthouses and navigational warnings around the coasts of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, one or two minor territories in the Red sea and, of course, Gibraltar.

The maintenance, upkeep and modernisation of navigational aids around our coastline falls to one of three bodies—Trinity House for England, Wales, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar, the Northern Lighthouse Board for Scotland and the Isle of Man, and the Commissioners of Irish Lights for Northern Ireland and the Republic. Light dues are paid into the general lighthouse fund, and money is drawn from the fund to pay for the running costs of the general lighthouse authorities. The GLAs provide working capital and pay annual unfunded pensions for retired staff. Shipowners feel particularly aggrieved that they have for so long continued to bear the burden of such costs.

What hon. Members may not know is how long the controversy over the tax has been raging. At least three Select Committee hearings recommended the abandonment of lighthouse dues tax in the 1850s without success. The Official Report enabled me to do a little more research. I came across the Second Reading debate of the Merchant Shipping (Mercantile Marine Fund) Bill, which took place in 1898. As the title suggests, the legislation set up the mercantile marine fund, which was the forerunner of the general lighthouse fund.

The mercantile marine fund was often exhausted of funds and had to borrow to overcome a downturn in trade and industry—a condition that may have some resonance with today’s economic situation. Some of the comments made 111 years ago by our predecessors in this place are worth an airing. One argument for the retention of light dues has always been, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” On 17 March 1898, Mr. T. Gibson Bowles, who represented Lynn Regis, said, in response to such a sentiment, that it was

“about as true as saying that because it is usual to skin eels they have been reconciled to the practice.”

He also said that he hoped the Bill would be

“an earnest attempt to deal with a matter which has been a scandal for the last 70 years.”

That takes the controversy back to the 1820s. He went on:

“I have looked into this Bill, and a more jejune, undigested, unsatisfactory, and unpromising attempt to deal with this matter I have never seen.”—[Official Report, 17 March 1898; Vol. 55, c. 137.]

Many of the comments made during that debate 111 years ago could quite easily have been made yesterday. I suggest that for 111 years, successive Governments have failed to reform the system. They are secure in the knowledge that the commercial maritime industry is simply worn down by so many unsuccessful years of calling for change.

To return to the present day and the real purpose of my debate this morning, I should like the Minister to respond on two main issues. First, the current system is inequitable. The charges paid by ships calling at British ports subsidise the costs of those in Ireland, which is quite bizarre. Secondly, another bugbear of the current system is the failure of successive Governments to tackle structural imbalances in the administration of the general lighthouse authorities. In simple terms, we have reached an identical situation to that of 1800. Then the general lighthouse fund borrowed £200,000. A figure in excess of the alleged £21 million deficit is now claimed by the Government to restore the general lighthouse fund to health.

My hon. Friend has gone back in history and made an interesting analysis of the issue. There are a lot of old-fashioned taxes that may cause concern to many of us. Will he shed some light on what element light dues are of overall port costs? He has given the impression that it is a huge element, but my understanding is that it is a relatively small, albeit historically irritating, element of the overall port costs.

Although it may be a small element for merchant vessels, which deal in very big commercial transactions, it is a significant element for the fishing fleet. Why should vessels of the UK-registered fishing fleet that are just over 10 metres pay when they make no use of the GLA navigation aids and when other EU-registered vessels do not have to pay? It puts our fleet at yet more commercial disadvantage against the European fishers.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the UK fishing fleet has to pay those dues. I should like to draw the matter to the attention of the Department for Transport because it is dealing with it. It has allowed panic to set in. The investments held by the general lighthouse fund, which is still in a substantial surplus, fell by some £18 million. That was due to the parlous state of the economy. Meanwhile, the burden of the subsidy accrued to the Irish Government for maintenance of lights around the Irish coastline increased. The cause was the appreciation of the euro against the pound sterling, and it placed a further burden on the fund, currently totalling a staggering £16 million.

Astonishingly, the Department for Transport also accepted in its forecast a 4 per cent. annual compound increase in the costs of the general lighthouse authorities over the next five years. Things got even worse. On 23 February, the Government began a consultation exercise on changes to light dues. Among the proposals were a hike of 6 per cent. net registered tonnes on light dues rates for merchant vessels calling at UK ports from 1 July, a rise in the tonnage cap from 35,000 to 50,000 tonnes and an increased cap on taxable voyages from seven to nine a year. As a result, the maximum charge per call became £20,500.

On the face of it, such adjustments do not seem dramatic. But the impact of the changes will increase the burden of charges on some sectors of the shipping industry by a whopping 115 per cent. Something close to my heart is the impact that such proposals could have on, say, the port of Southampton. I use ports such as Southampton and Cowes each week to get to and from my constituency. The Government assume that deep-sea vessels will continue to call at UK ports, including the busy port of Southampton, regardless of cost. I suggest that that is risky. Shipping companies have already said that they are examining how to reduce their direct calls, and some are considering adjustments in their sailing schedules, so we cannot and must not assume that shipping companies will carry on as usual.

My hon. Friend is making some valuable points, some of which the Department for Transport could make to the Irish Government. On that last point, there is a general economic pressure, of which dues are not a part, to reduce direct calls. However, just in case he is thinking of linking the question of direct calls to the cost of light dues, does he have an economic analysis of how much calls increased as light dues, in effect, halved in real terms over the past two years?

I do not have those figures, but we are always as a consequence pressing for dues to decrease rather than increase.

No one will be surprised to learn that the situation has caused unparalleled outrage among the international and UK shipping communities. News of the additional burden has reached Bombay, Tokyo, Shanghai, New York and all world cities that control major shipping lines. What incalculable damage to our reputation as a leading maritime nation has been inflicted by the proposed tax increase?

Will the hon. Gentleman concede that the damage to our international reputation would be incalculably worse were there to be a disaster as a result of not observing the maintenance that is required to ensure that the lighthouse services are maintained at the highest possible level?

That need not happen if the conduct of the process is more reasonable. The Minister is pressing in the wrong direction.

As the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) indicated, the costs of lighthouse services have gone down by some 40 per cent. in the past 10 years and have been cut four times. The service is not increasing its costs irresponsibly; rather, it has been acting with the best possible managerial efficiency. Notwithstanding that, there is a 5.6 per cent. cut this year.

The statistics mentioned are of course true, but we must remember that other transport bodies have been expected to reduce their costs. The lights business has been transformed over a generation. Only 10 years ago, substantial numbers of lighthouse keepers were employed, so one would expect there to have been a very large cut in the cost base since that time—[Interruption.]

I am very grateful to you, Mr. Olner.

This is the point: the shipping industry put its faith in the Government to honour the commitments that were made in 2004. They promised to abolish the Irish lights subsidy and to take steps to eliminate the duplication of services provided by the three lighthouse authorities, but they have blatantly failed to honour those commitments. Eliminating the Irish subsidy alone would virtually solve the anticipated deficit in the general lighthouse fund, and requiring the general lighthouse authorities to implement a 5 per cent. cut in operating costs would eliminate the deficit altogether.

I fully support the efforts of the noble Lord Berkeley, who has introduced a Bill in the other place that would require the Government to remove the Irish subsidy and rationalise the three general lighthouse authorities.

Just because I am a great believer in plain English, does rationalisation mean amalgamation? If it does, many people will think that the first thing that the new organisation would have to do is set up three different control centres.

That could be a consequence. Whether the authorities are rationalised, improved or abolished, the point is getting the costs down. I hope the Government will take the proposal seriously and that they will support such a measure. It could be introduced early in the next Session. The Minister will tell us that he is in negotiations with his counterpart in the Irish Republic, but before any such proposal can be made, will he make the notes of the meetings and frequent updates on the situation available in the Library?

The hon. Gentleman has been negative rather than positive in that he has not given his views on how the problem ought to be fixed. Does he agree that Britain and the Irish Republic are transparent about our port costs? Has he compared our light dues with those of other continental ports or ports around the world?

I approve of what is happening on transparency—we are at least doing things openly—but I do not answer for what is happening in continental countries, whether or not it should be happening.

Will the Minister set out a firm timetable for eliminating the Irish subsidy? He should suspend the proposed increases that are due to come into effect on 1 July pending the preparation of a new budget to reduce the administrative costs of the three general lighthouse authorities. The Independent Light Dues Forum, which represents major international shipping lines, other trade association bodies and individual shipping companies of all sizes have all urged such action. It is imperative that the Government act to remove the burden of this proposed tax increase on ships calling at British ports.

In 1898, Sir Thomas Sutherland, the then Member for Greenock, said:

“I am quite certain it passes the wit of man to devise any scheme for imposing those lighthouse dues which shall be absolutely equitable. It has never been done, and it never will be done.”—[Official Report, 17 March 1898; Vol. 55, c. 170.]

I am more of an optimist—I do not believe that that is the case. Let this be the Minister’s legacy: he could be the Minister who, after nearly two centuries of controversy, finally did right by the shipping companies and introduced a reform of light dues that is fair and equitable to our maritime industry.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) has done well to secure this debate and to highlight the problem of maintaining marine and navigation safety equitably. Before anybody jumps to any conclusions about how this matter might be resolved, it is extremely important first to point out the great success of the general lighthouse authorities in creating very high standards of marine and navigation safety, and in looking after 20,000 miles of coastline. They have done so using regional knowledge, and it is vital for hon. Members who are considering changes in the arrangements to recognise the importance of organisations that have such local knowledge on which they can act.

As was correctly pointed out, there has been no increase in light dues since around 1993. However, I also recognise that we are in unprecedented global economic difficulties, which is affecting shipping as much as other industries, including in the UK. Therefore, any imposition of significant increases may well impose difficulties on the shipping sector, which is already under pressure. We are particularly concerned about maintaining shipping in the UK and the viability of our ports. No hon. Member would want to do anything to jeopardise that given the economic difficulties that we face.

That is the situation. The system of GLAs works effectively and the dues have not been increased for a significant time. Nevertheless, we are in a position of great economic difficulty in which we do not want to jeopardise shipping in the UK by encouraging shipping companies to invest elsewhere, leading to reduced investment here.

I am glad that neither the hon. Lady nor my hon. Friend suggested that yachtsmen should have to start contributing to light dues. One of the great things about this country is that they can use the facilities without paying. I declare that I am a member of the Royal Yachting Association.

I note the hon. Gentleman’s important points.

Last year, the Select Committee on Transport considered the draft Marine Navigation Bill as part of its pre-legislative scrutiny. It contained a provision that might provide part of the solution to the problem by permitting GLAs to engage in more commercial activities and to use their expertise to raise more income. The provision contained the necessary safeguards and the Committee supported the proposal. It is a matter of regret that the Bill has not passed into legislation and that that and other important clauses have not been enacted. I hope that the Minister will say what progress is to be made on that. Enabling GLAs to produce additional income by using their expertise is one way in which the issue could be addressed.

It is important that GLAs continue to take cost-saving measures. They have made great progress on that over recent years. The Department must continue to fund projects that look at more efficient ways of conducting such activities and lowering the costs. For example, the eLoran project is developing a land-based, high-powered, precise terrestrial radio navigation system. It is important that that project and others are pursued because they can reduce costs without jeopardising safety.

I endorse the comments of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight on the subsidies given to the Irish Republic. I note that discussions on resolving that matter are ongoing, but more urgency is required.

In conclusion, I support the excellent work of the existing GLAs in maintaining safety. I recognise the major problems faced by shipping at the moment and do not think that we should do anything that would jeopardise the viability and success of that important sector. The funding of marine and navigational safety is a critical and ongoing issue. I urge the Government to consider other ways of enabling more income to be produced so that increased costs do not fall on users of the service in a way that could jeopardise the sector.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) for securing the debate and congratulate him on it. Not since I secured a debate some years ago on the future of the Stromness lighthouse depot in my constituency has the oxygen of public scrutiny come to fall on the work of the general lighthouse authorities. Such scrutiny is necessary. I will not stand here and argue against reform because, as he said, it is long overdue.

I do not suggest that our system is perfect. It has clearly agitated people in the industry for well over a century, as my hon. Friend said. Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that some clear institutional and operational efficiencies are part and parcel of the system? Almost any reform is likely to be costly and there will be losers as well as gainers. Those who represent constituencies such as his will appreciate more than I do that we have a highly complex coastline and crowded shipping lanes, which require specific regional experience. The system we have allows for that. A new system could put it in jeopardy.

The hon. Gentleman has anticipated a great deal of what I will say. I am minded to sound a note of caution in the clarion call for reform. My concern is that we could end up with a system that does not have at its heart the safety of seafarers and shipping, and the environmental integrity of the seas around this country. That is what the issue comes down to.

The Northern Lighthouse Board, the GLA with which I am most intimately acquainted, is a curious creature. It comprises a sprinkling of people with an interest in and experience of the shipping industry, topped up, or adorned, by the Lord Advocate, the Solicitor-General for Scotland and the six sheriffs principal. I will pick my words with care because with the current febrile political atmosphere, the day might come when I appear again before some of those sheriffs principal. That risk stands for us all. I bow to none in my admiration for those people. I have known the Lord Advocate and the Solicitor-General for a number of years. They trained me in my early days as a trainee solicitor. They have many fine qualities and are admirable lawyers. I do not recall from my days as a trainee solicitor in the Crown Office any great discussion of matters maritime.

Although I do not doubt that the current office holders take their duties seriously and contribute vigorously to the work of the Northern Lighthouse Board, there is no guarantee that that will necessarily be the case. There is an argument that the structure of the GLAs—the Northern Lighthouse Board in particular—requires a careful look. My guess is that historically, people became part of GLAs because of the geographically diverse nature of the work. The current vast range of public service and bureaucracy did not exist. Therefore, there was a range of people with standing and ability in different geographical areas who could contribute something. However, let us not kid ourselves that this is any longer an appropriate structure for a lighthouse authority.

We must also look at the powers that are given to GLAs. I agree with the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) that it would be eminently sensible to consider the opportunities for them to engage in more commercial activities. That is long overdue.

To those who call for an amalgamation of the three bodies into one, I sound a note of caution. That proposal is superficially attractive, but I need to be persuaded that there are significant cost savings to be made. I have seen few occasions on which the solution to a problem has been greater centralisation. Before we move from a structure that can accommodate the different needs of navigational aids and lights in the north and west of Scotland, while allowing different approaches in the busier shipping lanes of the south-east, I want to be persuaded that it would bring a significant benefit. Again, this exercise must be driven not entirely by cost, but by the maintenance and continuation of good practice in navigational aids and by the safety of seafarers.

Hon. Members have spoken about the need to deal with the so-called Irish question. That much is genuinely, even in Government terms, long overdue, but we should not forget that although Ireland is one island, it has two states. Whatever solution we come to, the Irish Government must be brought to the table to pay proper dues, but we must not ignore the fact that we have a significant interest in Northern Ireland, from which there can be no walking away.

At the root of this issue are the finances of the GLF, which was recently described to me as being a pension fund with lighthouses. Given the dramatic way in which the service has changed in the past 20 years, that is undeniably the case. There have been significant cost reductions as a consequence of automation, and that is entirely sensible. I remember from my youth people who were employed as lighthouse keepers even in a small community such as Islay off the west coast. If one replicates that for the rest of the coastline, one realises there is a substantial legacy. The pension fund concerns the commissioners greatly, and it is no secret, either in the industry or in politics, that it was only the granting of a letter of comfort by one of the Minister’s predecessors, David Jamieson, that has allowed the current situation to continue without major crises and drama. If we are not to see the increases in light dues and the caps that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight has talked about, there is a danger that we could precipitate a crisis, but the people who would suffer most as a consequence would be current and future holders of lighthouse fund pensions, and I would need to be persuaded that that crisis is worth precipitating.

One Voice, the Chamber of Shipping and others who have given briefings on this issue are right to make their concerns known, but we should not rush to assist them and put the interests of shipowners and the shipping industry above other competing interests. Lights and navigational aids have to be paid for somehow, and if it is not going to be from the current system, it will have to be from general taxation. That has been suggested by the shipping industry over the years, but has never found favour with the Government, for obvious reasons. The danger of taking the money from general taxation is that, as a global industry, the ability of the shipping industry to avoid paying tax is fairly well documented. I would want to see something pretty bomb-proof before we moved from our current system to something that relied on general taxation, even if any Government were ever to be persuaded to pick up the tab, although I think that rather unlikely in the current economic climate.

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) on securing the debate. He presented his case in a balanced and eloquent way, but he is a very assiduous Member, so that does not surprise me. He has brought before the House a matter that is important, even if rather narrow.

We are proud to be a maritime nation, and I hope that we can keep the navigation of our waters safe. The Minister has rightly pointed out that that is the primary objective, and he will no doubt point it out again. The aims of ensuring the safety of our waters and navigation, and of modernising and making more efficient the general lighthouse authorities, are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The GLA structure is old, and I do not see why we should not carefully consider amalgamating the three lighthouse boards. That seems a sensible way forward, not just to save costs, although that is important, but to spread best practice and have economies of scale. We should consider that suggestion, and should also resolve the problem of our subsidy of the Irish. Any programme should grasp that matter and deliver that change.

I want to make a brief contribution on behalf of fishermen who have to pay light dues if they have a boat of more than 10 metres. UK-registered fishing vessels pay those dues, but I think we all understand that fishermen are having a particularly tough time at the moment with fuel costs and quotas, which are killing them—especially the small inshore fleets, which are not only boats of under 10 metres; many boats of just over 10 metres never go near the GLA-provided navigation aids, but must still pay a contribution towards them, even though they do not use them. They are at a great competitive disadvantage against vessels that are registered in other EU countries, which do not pay the dues, and there is a perception that those vessels do not adhere to many of the rules or regulations. Our fishermen feel particularly aggrieved about that problem.

I completely disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s assertion that fishing vessels do not use the services provided by the GLAs. It is clear from my information that they do. Notwithstanding that, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has said that it will reimburse lighthouse dues to fishermen in England and Wales this year. Is he aware of that?

No, I was not aware of that. I am grateful to the Minister for that briefing, and to the Minister with responsibility for fisheries, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who probably made that announcement.

There are many larger fishing vessels that go out to sea and use the navigation aids, but I am talking about the sort of small inshore fleets that operate from Leigh-on-Sea and Canvey Island in Essex, and from the small Kent ports. They tell me that they have to pay light dues on boats of over 10 metres, and they are aggrieved because they do not make use of the systems provided by the GLA, so they are at a competitive disadvantage. I would like the Minister to pass a message to his colleague in DEFRA, who has set up the sustainable access to inshore fisheries project under the chairmanship of Alan Riddell. Will he ask him to take account of light dues when he considers matters of economic viability, sustainability, the environment and societal consequences in relation to the small inshore industry and the SAIF project? Will he ask him to extend further an exemption from light dues for all small inshore fishing boats, including those just over 10 metres? I am grateful to have had the opportunity to make those points.

I came to listen, Mr. Olner, but I have to indulge, I am afraid. I have had a great interest in marine safety ever since I was a young boy, when I wrote an essay on a sea rescue and won a prize from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Some hon. Members might remember that I put through the Marine Safety Act 2003, which plugged two loopholes in previous legislation that was attributable to the late Lord Donaldson.

We must remember that there have been at least three major shipping disasters—the Torrey Canyon and the Sea Empress, to name just two—and that Lord Donaldson wrote two magnificent reports which resulted, first, in four emergency towing vehicles being put around the British coast to rescue ships in trouble, and, later, more legislation. Today, Britain has some of the best legislation in the world on marine safety.

Having said that, the main problem that we face is wider than just light dues; it is about competition in the shipping industry, which, obviously, is an international industry. Responsible shipowners, who are probably the ones who are making the most noise about light dues, are in competition with shipping firms at the other end of the spectrum that invest very little in the training of their crews, including the senior officers, from the captain downwards, who are in control of their ships. They spend very little on maintenance of what are well nigh rust buckets sailing the seven seas, and the salaries and wages of the crews do not bear thinking about. That is the problem in the shipping industry.

When we talk about investing £90 million in maintaining buoys, lighthouses and the rest of the marine safety features that dot our coastline—20,000 miles of it—we are talking about a small percentage of total shipping costs. I believe that it is international competition that is making our shipowners shout about the light dues. Piracy must also be increasing shipping costs for some of our main shipowners who travel down the east coast of Africa.

We must praise Trinity House. Very little has been said about it, but it collects 87 per cent. of the revenue. It was mentioned that it has reduced its costs by 50 per cent. in the past 10 years alone, yet there has been no increase in light dues since 1993. Let us give credit where it is due. How has Trinity House managed that? As the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) said, lighthouses have been automated, but they still have to be regularly serviced by helicopters to ensure that the lights are always working, particularly in the most dangerous outlying situations.

We are talking about the British isles plus the coastline of the Irish Republic—20,000 miles of some of the most dangerous coastline in the world. Shipping coming into Liverpool has to negotiate Ireland. Surely that is part of the reason why we subsidise the Commissioners of Irish Lights. When we talk about the CIL, we are talking about the whole of Ireland. Obviously, we have to subsidise the part of Ireland that the British Government are responsible for, but shipping coming into Liverpool, Cardiff and other ports, including some of the smaller ports, has to negotiate Ireland. If Ireland were not properly lit and buoys were not properly placed in the sea around the Irish coast, it would be far more dangerous for shipping to come into ports such as Liverpool. Therefore, I cannot get as anxious as some hon. Members are about subsidising the CIL.

How have Trinity House and the other general lighthouse authorities managed to achieve such a massive reduction in their expenditure? Apart from automation, which includes solarisation—I am always amazed by the many solar panels that are on top of buoys and attached to other marine safety features—they have made many redundancies, not just of lighthouse keepers but across the estate. They have massively rationalised their operations during the past 10 years, and they have sold land and property in their ownership and are still doing so, one of the most recent sales being at Great Yarmouth.

However, there is a warning for all three of the GLAs in this country. One shipping company made the point that it now relies more on global positioning systems. It said that it can almost bring a ship into a British port or any port in the world relying entirely on the one satellite that provides GPS. The ship almost drives itself if it is attached to GPS. Those are very expensive navigation instruments, of course, and they have to be paid for, but what would happen if that one satellite were to go down? We would again be reliant on traditional and well-tried methods of lighting our coastline.

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. Will he accept the counterpoint, which is that in an era of roll-on/roll-off and the channel tunnel, there is in fact no requirement for most ships to come into British ports at all? The real danger is that they will simply go to continental ports and shift their containers and other things straight on to the backs of lorries.

I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point. There has to be a balance, and we must weigh all the factors. My warning to the GLAs is that Galileo is to provide an alternative to GPS and the Chinese are planning to put up a satellite which will provide yet another alternative for automatic navigation. Satellites measure wave heights and record the weather. The whole business of international shipping is being transformed by great advances in technology, and I can certainly see that, within the next 20 or 30 years, the captains of ships that ply between international ports will rely more and more on satellite navigation systems.

This argument will not go away. Trinity House and the other GLAs should bear in mind—we could dream and imagine for a moment—that international shipping could, be navigated almost totally in the absence of captains by satellites in the sky. Governments and light authorities around the British isles and in Ireland must take advancing technology into account. To be fair to Trinity House, to date it has taken advances in technology into account. It has welcomed and adapted them, and that is why there has been such a tremendous reduction—I repeat, 50 per cent. in 10 years—in its costs.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Olner.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) on securing this important debate. As a history and politics graduate, I appreciated the history lesson that he gave us. It was a first for me to attend a debate in which an hon. Member has blamed successive Governments, including a Liberal Government. There is a first every day.

The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) made a valid point about the impact that increased costs may have on the fishing industry, especially at a time of economic recession, and the Minister made a valid point about safety being of paramount importance. However, this debate is not about whether we are going to scrimp on safety but about how we will pay for it.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), who is the Chairman of the Transport Committee, referred to the report in which the Select Committee dealt with the possibility of general lighthouse authorities being able to diversify the work that they carry out to bring in extra income. The Minister should bear that in mind when considering how the system is funded in future.

My hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), who probably knows more about maritime issues than any other hon. Member, made a valid point about the need for structural reform but also the need to ensure that the safety of our seamen, our ships and the shipping industry in general is of paramount importance.

The Minister, who is also the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town until the next election, announced in a written statement on 23 February that the Government were consulting on proposed amendments to the Merchant Shipping (Light Dues) Regulations 1997 to deal with the estimated funding shortfall of £21 million for 2009-10. The proposals are for an increase in the rate of light dues from 35p to 41p per net registered tonne, an increase of 17 per cent., together with increases in the tonnage cap and the number of chargeable voyages per year. For the largest vessels, the charge per call would rise by nearly two thirds to £20,000 and the overall annual cost would be even more if they were frequent callers at UK ports. The maximum payable for a single ship in a year would more than double from £85,750 to £184,500. For smaller regular traders, the increase would be about 45 per cent.

One Voice, the organisation created by the shipping, ports and maritime business services sector, whose member organisations include the Baltic Exchange, the British Ports Association, the Chamber of Shipping, the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers, Maritime London and the UK Major Ports Group, points out that increases of this magnitude are almost unprecedented and certainly have not been seen in the past 20 years, and argues that there is a significant risk that some ships will divert to ports on the continent, where lighthouse costs are financed through public expenditure.

In a recent letter to the Secretary of State for Transport, Michael Drayton, the chairman of One Voice, said:

“It is clear to all of us from reading the proposals that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the economics of shipping: the assumption that deep-sea vessels will continue to call at UK ports regardless of cost is wrong. Several operators have stated that they will reduce their direct calls at UK ports by 60 per cent., and others are considering similar adjustments to their sailing schedules. Nor is it safe to assume that a reduction in calls by deep-sea vessels inbound from the Far East would be offset by a rise in calls by feeder ships. Container operators could readily reorganise their services so that UK cargo is trans-shipped at Rotterdam or another European hub and then fed to/from the UK on other available deep-sea services. Once direct calls by inbound deep sea vessels have been stopped, they are very unlikely to be reinstated.”

I would be grateful if the Minister told hon. Members what assessment has been made of the likelihood that the increased charges will result in reduced direct calls at UK ports and what financial impact there would be if operators did reduce their direct calls by up to 60 per cent.

My hon. Friend is right to say that the Government must make an early and hard-headed assessment of the likely impact, but does he agree that light dues are just one of the costs of bringing ships into harbour and that, given the increasing scale of shipping, the increases that we are talking about must be set in that wider context?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I agree that the issue needs to be considered in the context of the overall costs for the shipping industry. The shipping industry will obviously try to fight its corner as much as is humanly possible. That is reflected in the letter sent by One Voice to the Secretary of State.

Will the Minister accept that there is a danger that the increased charges could be more than offset by a reduction in ships if the doomsday scenario set out by the shipping industry came to fruition? If that were the case, would the Government intend simply to increase light dues again to offset the losses made as a result of ships not going to and from British ports?

Are these hikes in charges really acceptable during a recession? The loss of direct calls by deep-sea vessels would make UK trade more expensive, with cargoes attracting additional terminal handling charges at the transhipment ports. There would be a serious risk of economic activity and jobs transferring to continental ports if that happened. At a time when hundreds of thousands of British workers are losing their jobs, the industry is understandably concerned about the impact that the proposals will have on jobs in the ports and shipping industry.

The Minister was able to announce a freeze in light dues last year, before the recession took a grip, and that was on the back of a reduction the previous year. Does he really believe that the industry can sustain these big increases now, at a time when the economy is on its knees? I am thinking back to the comments by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside about the unprecedented economic difficulties that we face. Has the Minister considered postponing the charges, at least for this year, to give the economy time to recover, or perhaps phasing in the increases over a longer period? How does he react to the accusation by Martyn Pellew, group development director of Teesport operator PD Ports, who has accused the Government of trying to kill off the ports industry?

One Voice has also claimed that increasing the number of chargeable voyages will reduce the competitiveness of short-sea and coastal shipping, thereby increasing the risk of modal shift and more lorries on the road. What assessment has the Department for Transport made of the likely increase in lorry movements and the resultant impact on carbon emissions if that happened? Should we not be encouraging the use of short-sea and coastal shipping as a way of tackling climate change and cutting congestion on our roads?

The Minister is likely to argue that the increased charges, while unwanted, are necessary to bridge the projected £21 million gap between the income and spending of the three lighthouse authorities. Nobody can dispute that the money needs to come from somewhere, through either efficiency savings or increased charges. The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) is likely to call for the merger of the three lighthouse bodies. The Liberal Democrats would not currently support such a merger, and there is probably little to be gained in the way of savings by doing so, given that significant cost-cutting measures have been taken already in the past few years—a point made by the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon).

However, it is clear that a large proportion of the shortfall could be found if the Government delivered on their commitment in 2004 to end the annual subsidy of Ireland. One Voice calculates that it amounts to up to 75 per cent. of the projected deficit, and even the Government, in a parliamentary answer on 27 January, estimated more than £8 million being lost in potential savings in this financial year and about £30 million in the period since the then Secretary of State committed to ending the subsidy back in 2004. Will the Minister therefore give hon. Members a firm commitment on when the subsidy will end and offer some crumbs of comfort to an industry that will face real hardship if the charges are introduced now, during the recession? Will he also examine the viability of delaying increases in light dues, at the very least until the economy shows signs of recovery?

This has been a very interesting and thorough debate, with good points made in all parts of the Chamber. I particularly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) on obtaining the debate and on taking a very long view indeed on the issue. As the son of a distinguished international yachtsman, I was very taken with the quote from Sir Thomas Sutherland with which he ended his speech. It reminded me of the time when the Kaiser caused an incident by turning up in London at very short notice off the boat train at Victoria. The embarrassed officials from Buckingham palace who met him told him that King Edward VII was on the Isle of Wight—my hon. Friend’s constituency—and he said:

“I suppose the man is boating with his grocer again.”

When businesses face severe difficulties, there is a particularly strong onus on Government to minimise potential additional costs. As a number of hon. Members, including my hon. Friend, have remarked, the shipping industry has been particularly hard hit by the current economic turmoil. In January, Lloyd’s List reported that freight rates for containers shipped from Asia to Europe had hit zero, with customers paying just bunker rates and terminal charges. The Baltic dry index, which measures freight rates for bulk commodities, had fallen by 96 per cent. Those were desperate times, and things have picked up a little since then, but in mid-April Lloyd’s List was still reporting that 10 per cent. of global container ships were idle.

Shipping companies everywhere are busy analysing all aspects of their operations to reduce costs. Measures include service suspensions, slow steaming, service deviations, off-hiring chartered tonnage and lay-ups. Worst of all, many jobs are disappearing onshore and offshore. Last week, figures from Lloyd’s Maritime Intelligence Unit showed that 26 ships with capacity of at least 6,000 20-ft equivalent units had not moved in the past 19 days. Sadly, Coastal Bulk Shipping Ltd, which is based in Kent, has gone to the wall. The company operated a fleet of 13 vessels and was engaged in the extremely ecologically sound process of coastal shipping. It employed 90 people, but they have lost their jobs.

The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) mentioned the fishing industry, and I know from constituents in Whitstable that it is struggling. Although DEFRA’s measures are welcome, they are only for the current year.

I have had discussions with several members of the independent light dues forum, the Chamber of Shipping and One Voice. I have also met managers at Trinity House and I am looking forward to visiting their depot in Harwich next week. None of us should doubt the difficulty or the magnitude of the task facing Trinity House and its two sister authorities. Britain is an island nation, and our sea lanes are our arteries. One of those arteries—the English channel—is the busiest shipping lane in the world. The Minister kindly arranged for me to visit the Maritime and Coastguard Agency headquarters near Dover, and I saw the printout of the shipping movements that took place at just one moment in time. It was impossible not to be impressed.

I must make it absolutely clear that Trinity House, the Northern Lighthouse Board and the Irish organisations do a first-class job. The Minister, the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) and other hon. Members are quite right when they say that nothing that we say or do should compromise the quality of the work that those organisations do. Nevertheless, as my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight made clear, ships docking in the UK and the Republic of Ireland are paying light dues that apply in few other countries, including most other EU member states.

That brings me to the proposed increase in light dues. Trinity House informs me that light dues are now typically between 1 and 11 per cent. of total port charges and that they will go up to between 1 and 15 per cent. after the proposed increase. The planned rise ramps up fees from 35p to 41p per net registered tonne. For the largest vessels, the charge per call would rise by nearly two thirds to £20,000, and the overall annual cost would be even more if those vessels were frequent callers at UK ports. For smaller regular traders, the increase would be about 45 per cent.

In the current climate, the UK ship industry—shipping lines and ports alike—sees light dues as an albatross around its neck. I meant what I said when I stated that we must not compromise the quality of the work done by Trinity House, and there is no question of a future Conservative Administration expecting the taxpayer to pick up the bill for its work. However, we need to understand what the proposals mean for the shipping industry. To take one example, Maersk has told me that it will face an additional bill of £3 million per annum.

Light dues act as a cost multiplier. When shipping lines and ports are stripping out inefficiencies and costs, such a tax undermines UK competitiveness and retards the development of the UK’s short sea shipping market, as evidenced by the collapse of Coastal Bulk Shipping. Indeed, we risk losing stops at UK ports altogether. In the era of the ro-ro and the channel tunnel, containers can simply be unloaded at Rotterdam or other major continental ports and put straight on to the back of a lorry. That is bad for British jobs in ports, it is bad for the regions of our country and it is very bad for the environment in terms of not only CO2 emissions, but congestion pressures on the M25 and some of the most crowded parts of our road system. There is also a longer term threat to the City of London, as the world’s centre of excellence on maritime issues, if large amounts of trade shift from British ports.

I will not repeat the eloquent quote that the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) read out from One Voice, which echoes concerns expressed by the Chamber of Shipping and many individual lines. Instead, I want to look at some of the effects on the industry. COSCO is pulling one of its big container ships out and moving its route to Rotterdam. Maersk is considering pulling five of its six container ships out of their bases in Britain, and Grimaldi and APL are considering similar action.

Light dues are one part of an accumulation of measures that the Government have recently introduced.

If, when the hon. Gentleman concludes, the Minister stands up and says, “Okay, these increases won’t happen. The pension fund costs and the operating costs can all be met from my Department’s budget,” does the hon. Gentleman really think that these shipping companies will not make the changes that he expects? Are they not perhaps operating in a wider economic context?

The hon. Gentleman puts a perfectly reasonable question, but I tried to make it clear in the early part of my speech that the proposed increase is one of a number of factors. I will list some more of them, which have nothing do with light dues, but which have worked in conjunction with them to drive COSCO’s decision to base one of its container ships at Rotterdam rather than here.

We have had the debacle over seafarers earnings deductions for those employed in part of the maritime sector. We have had the Government’s plans for administered incentive pricing for spectrum frequencies, which vessels are obliged by international agreement to use for communication and navigational aids. Worst of all has been the destruction of businesses in many British ports because of the muddle over port rating. That is why I firmly believe that the Government must prevent light dues from becoming yet another nail in the coffin of British ports. We must look at a more imaginative way forward.

It is to the credit of Trinity House and its sister organisations that they have achieved a nearly 50 per cent. reduction in costs over the past decade. Now, however, they propose an 18 per cent. increase in costs over the next four years. Despite the fact that the general lighthouse fund was tasked by the Department for Transport with finding efficiencies, it forecast a 17 per cent. increase, and it has now come up with a slightly higher figure.

Much of the debate has focused on the Irish position, and I have exchanged a series of letters with the Minister on the issue over the past 18 months. As far back as 2004, the Government pledged to end this absolute nonsense, which has seen us pay roughly two thirds of Irish costs, but get roughly 15 per cent. of the value. As has been said, most of the deficit is accounted for by that single factor. How can that be right?

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland referred to pensions, and the position is actually worse. I stand to be corrected, but I think that the last lighthouse keepers to retire were all in Ireland, so a disproportionate amount of the longest end of the pension fund will apply to the Irish side. The 2007-08 GLF accounts recorded the pensions liability as follows: Trinity House, £136 million; the Northern Lighthouse Board, £72 million; and the Commissioners of Irish Lights, £130 million. That is a total of £337 million, of which more than a third goes to Ireland.

The general lighthouse authority pension schemes are operated by analogy with the principal civil service pension scheme. That is a career-average, or final salary-based, non-funded, pay-as-you-go arrangement, although the GLF does of course have assets, which cover a portion of the liabilities. The GLA’s net pension expenditure in 2007-08 was around £14 million. I hope that the Minister, who has recently been to Ireland, will tell us today what steps he is taking, or, better still, give us a firm date for the stopping of the subsidy. In particular, what will the small print say about Irish pension liabilities?

Several hon. Members have referred to the fact that there are three lighthouse authorities, and have considered whether there would be benefits from amalgamating them. Considerable savings have been achieved by working together in several areas. However, how can there still be six lighthouse authority employees who earn more than the Minister? He is good value—a good man in a bad Government. Interestingly, five of the six are employed on the Irish side.

The chairman of the Transport Committee, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), made an interesting point about more opportunities for commercial operations by the lighthouse authorities. Trinity House generated more than £2 million last year, I believe, from other commercial sources. That income, of course, goes into the GLF, and already helps, in a small way, to reduce light dues. The hon. Lady discussed the possible scope for expanding that approach, and I hope that the Minister will say something about it.

As to the issue of capital expenditure, virtually every private sector organisation in the country, and certainly every one with an involvement in the maritime area, is looking at ways of pushing capital spending to the right. An independent review by C-MAR commissioned by the Government and the three lighthouse authorities concluded that the GLAs could manage with the residual fleet once Patricia is retired in 2012 but that, in order to provide operational flexibility and “surge capacity” for emergency response, another tender, similar to Pole Star, should be acquired to replace Patricia. Has the Minister considered the proposal? I am told that Patricia is not especially old. Is a replacement really necessary in the next three or four years? Is the decision driven by safety, or is it just following former practice?

No one should doubt the need for navigational aids, or the difficulty of the task and the professional requirements of those who manage our sea lanes so well, but at a time of desperate economic difficulty for shipping and our ports we have a strong duty to reduce cost pressures wherever that can be done safely. Ways should be found of curbing light dues without compromising safety, starting with Irish costs.

It is a pleasure to see you presiding this morning, Mr. Olner, as other hon. Members have mentioned. I congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) on securing this important debate. It has been a useful discussion.

As well as the many aids to navigation that are maintained by the various harbour authorities, Trinity House has no fewer than three important historic lighthouses on or close to the Isle of Wight, at Nab tower, St. Catherine’s and the Needles, with another on the opposite side of the water at Hurst point. The general lighthouse authorities may be among our oldest institutions that have an unbroken history. Trinity House dates from 1514, but, as many hon. Members have mentioned, the authorities are not old-fashioned. The 11 staff in their joint research and radio-navigation department have a worldwide reputation. In the new headquarters of the Commissioners of Irish Lights I recently saw their high standard of work and the control room where one operator monitors and controls the lighthouses around the coast of Ireland. Their performance regularly exceeds the highest international standards for all types of aids to navigation.

Paying for the GLAs is a contentious matter, and I fully understand the points that have been made by many hon. Members. The general lighthouse fund was created in 1898 to replace a complex system whereby lights were provided by a mixture of the GLAs and private operators. It pays for the GLAs in the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic. The fund’s income is mainly from light dues paid by ships using ports in the UK and Ireland and from investment income. It contains £44 million of pension contributions from GLA employees, which is sacrosanct. We can use the investment income to fund pensions and other liabilities, but we cannot use it for capital funding or operating costs. We must also maintain a sensible reserve for operational expenditure or unforeseen and uninsured costs. There may be an argument for reviewing the present system of light dues and the general lighthouse fund because it has now operated largely unchanged for more than 100 years. I am wary, however, of arguments that aids to navigation and the GLAs are unnecessary for large modern ships, because it is precisely for their benefit that the deep water channels have to be surveyed and marked, and obstructions monitored and dealt with.

In February we published our light dues consultation. As many hon. Members have mentioned, for more than 16 years light dues have not been increased. They have been reduced on four separate occasions during that period. That has meant a decrease of over 40 per cent. in real terms—an enviable achievement by the GLAs. Few public or private bodies could claim to have equalled that. In April 2006 the light dues rate was cut by more than 10 per cent. in the knowledge that the new rate was unsustainable in the long term but that it was possible because of the relatively high level of the general lighthouse fund, good investment returns and significant windfall gains from asset sales. The reduction was made after consulting the Lights Advisory Committee, representing light dues payers, who said at the time that they would support a necessary future rise in light dues rates.

As foreseen, an increase in light dues is now essential. What we did not foresee was that it would happen in a global recession, when investment income has virtually ceased and trade has reduced so that shipping companies are laying up vessels, rationalising routes and concentrating on larger ships. Fund income is falling and we must act to ensure that the GLAs can maintain their safety functions. I understand that the shipping industry has been hit hard; it has reacted quickly by making significant cuts. We have asked the GLAs to make cuts, to defer non-essential expenditure and to look at further efficiencies. They have made cuts of 5.6 per cent this year, but there is not such a close correlation between trade and spending, in their case. Lighthouses must be lit, radio-navigation signals broadcast, channels surveyed and buoys moved. We cannot avoid taking steps to maintain those safety-critical functions, and all the hon. Members who have spoken accepted that. Expenditure deferred now may well result in greater costs in a year or two. We therefore have a difficult balancing act to perform. We have received 47 responses to the consultation, and I have held four meetings with the representatives of those most affected. I am now looking very carefully at all the comments before announcing any decision. I hope to do that within a few days.

With three GLAs, and their integrated funding, we have a co-ordinated lighthouse service for the whole of the British Isles which is efficient and second to none in the world. We are nevertheless in a difficult position because since 1922 the fund has had to meet costs in two sovereign states where income does not necessarily equate to expenditure in each country. Light dues collected in the United Kingdom are being used, in part, to pay for lights in the Irish Republic. A 1985 agreement recognised that, so the Irish Government make an additional contribution towards the costs. Both Governments accept that the 1985 agreement should be changed. We have done more work and, as has been mentioned, I recently met the Irish Minster of Transport in Dublin to discuss the matter. I am pleased to say that we agreed a better formula for apportioning Irish costs on a north-south basis.

We also agreed on the need for an overall assessment of the provision of the integrated aids-to-navigation service to all regions of the UK and Ireland. An evaluation is to be undertaken to consider all aspects of delivery, including continuing increases in efficiency, potential structural improvements and the overall financing arrangements. We now have the basis for making real progress. We will make every effort to reach an agreement that is more soundly based than the old one and one that ensures a fair apportionment of funding. The Irish negotiations also raised the question of whether the present GLA structure was the best.

I am grateful to the Minister for characteristically giving way. I wish to make two quick points. First, will he tell us whether the subjects under discussion included the pension arrangements, which form a large part of the picture? Secondly, he referred to the 1985 agreement. That was set against the background of the appalling difficulties in Northern Ireland. We were desperately dependent upon southern Ireland at the time, so we had very little leverage. In the present situation, however, we should be in a position to tell another sovereign state that it should pay its way.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very reasonable point. I have asked the simplistic question: can we turn off the lights? The answer is clearly no, as it would affect shipping going to the rest of the British isles, and not only that going to Ireland. We have an agreement with the Irish Government, and we need to negotiate a way forward from that. We cannot simply say to the Irish that we no longer accept the arrangements. The discussions in Dublin nearly two weeks ago resulted in a commitment to a ratio of 85:15 in payments for this year; and we have a commitment to consider the 50:50 payments in the longer term.

As I said, the Irish negotiations also raised the question of whether the present GLA structure is the best solution. There are good historical reasons for the position that we now find ourselves in, and we must protect the undoubted advantages that stem from the expertise and geographical knowledge to be found in each of the GLAs, a point made by a number of colleagues. However, I believe that we need to take a fundamental look at how the lighthouse service is provided, and that view is shared by the Irish Minister. Without Irish co-operation, implementing change will be more difficult. I do not intend to destroy the good service that we have, but we need to consider, in the 21st century, how it can be improved in order to achieve efficiencies that will deliver a better service.

We are already working on some matters; for instance, there will be a full review of the combined GLA fleet of ships and their management. We will be taking forward its recommendations with the GLAs. I will also be making an announcement once we have finished our analysis of the current need for funding the GLAs. That will have implications for their work programme for the coming year. Inevitably, they will have to bear some pain, but that cannot be at the expense of safety. That, in turn, will lead to the annual planning process for the three GLAs. I expect that their corporate plans will be given particularly thorough scrutiny in the autumn by the Government and the Lights Advisory Committee.

I turn to points raised during the debate. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) spoke of fishing vessels. Although smaller vessels tend to use port-provided navigations aids, they certainly rely upon GLA-provided aids outside the port and harbour limits. I heard what he had to say about DEFRA; it has given a commitment this year, but it is very much a matter for the Department in future. However, I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), will read the report of this debate, because it impacts on his area of responsibility.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon). I am glad that he was provoked into making a contribution. He is highly regarded for his scientific and engineering expertise. We now know that he is also an award-winning writer. He made some telling points, and I am grateful to him for that.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) risked provoking the legal authorities in Scotland. He obviously recognises that some of us have escaped their jurisdiction, so we would not be that worried about upsetting anyone if it led to an improved service. However, the matter will certainly be considered.

I was asked whether we will be placing the outcome of the Dublin talks in the Library. The answer is no: it is not general practice to put notes on ministerial meetings in the Library. However, I have covered some of the points made there in my speech, and more will become clear in due course.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) spoke of the threat by shipping companies to decrease calls to UK ports by 60 per cent., going instead to Europe. The Department has commissioned a report from Raven Trading to review the impact of increases in light dues, and in due course the report will be placed on the Department’s website and in the Library. Indications are that the argument that ships will switch to continental ports because of the cost is not supported.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about support for short sea shipping. We have discussed the matter before, and I know that he realises that the Department offers freight facility grants to equalise the cost of coastal and short sea shipping to encourage a modal shift from road to water-borne transport. We are doing what we can to support short sea shipping, both in the UK and Europe.

I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way a second time. It is indeed true that his Department offers those grants, but will he tell us how much has been paid in grants over the last few years? I believe that it is very little.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I understand that there are three reasons for that. The first is the complicated nature of the application procedure, and we are simplifying that. The second is people’s lack of familiarity with the grant, and we are trying to promote its availability. The third is European rules in respect of state aid. We have made strong representations in Europe, and have made some progress, to ensure that short sea shipping receives more aid from national and sovereign Governments, as we are not alone in being frustrated in our attempts to promote and support it. I accept entirely the criticism and concern that not enough is being paid out, and we are doing what we can to promote the grant and change the position.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) said that we need more urgency in respect of the Irish question. I hope that she accepts that my personal visit to Dublin indicates that we are taking the matter seriously, and that we have made some progress. My hon. Friend said that the regional and local knowledge of GLAs is important, and that we must recognise the economic difficulties of shipping. We appreciate the local knowledge of the GLAs; it is important, and we will take account of the many representations that we have received on that point before making our announcement. My hon. Friend also mentioned the Marine Navigation Bill. We, too, are disappointed that parliamentary time could not be found for the Bill, but we intend to bring it forward as soon as possible.

The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) makes the point that few other countries have light dues. Of the 54 major shipping nations, two thirds impose light dues of some description. He asked about the Patricia, the Trinity House flagship. It is also used for cadet training, as well as in maintaining buoys and lights. All those matters will be considered at the appropriate time. The hon. Gentleman also said that light dues must be seen in the context of other pressures on the shipping industry. That point is entirely valid and fair, and we will take account of representations from the industry in reaching a decision on light dues. We have spent much time talking to the industry over the past few months to ensure that it realises that we want to hear what it has to say. The Patricia dates from 1986, and a smaller, modern, cheaper and more flexible ship is recommended. We will be considering the implications in due course, with the review of the GLAs.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight for securing this debate. It is good to see him back in his place and at full strength, having had to battle with serious illness. I know that many of us were concerned about him, but the fact that he is here this morning and leading this debate demonstrates that he is on good form again. I welcome that, as I am sure do other Members.

I hope that I have done justice to the work of the GLAs. I trust, too, that I have given assurances that the Government are not complacent in managing the general lighthouse fund and overseeing the lighthouse service. We will be announcing the outcome of our considerations following the submissions to our consultation within a few days. I hope that the results will demonstrate that we have taken account of representations from all sides.

May I say that I found that discussion absolutely enthralling, given that I do not have a lightship or a lighthouse in my inland midlands constituency?