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General Lighthouse Authorities (Beacons: Automatic Identification System) Order 2006

Volume 684: debated on Wednesday 12 July 2006

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 12 June be approved [31st Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lady Crawley, I beg to move that the draft order be approved. The order under Section 223(3) of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 will permit the three general lighthouse authorities (GLAs) to operate the automatic identification system (AIS) as a marine aid to navigation. The order empowers the GLAs to make proposals to the Secretary of State for Transport to operate AIS installations and the Secretary of State to sanction systems with costs met from the general lighthouse fund.

The general lighthouse authorities provide marine aids to navigation services around the British Isles. They are Trinity House for England, Wales and the Channel Islands, the Northern Lighthouse Board for Scotland and the Isle of Man, and the Commissioners of Irish Lights for Northern Ireland. The Commissioners of Irish Lights is in fact an all-Ireland body based in Dublin. This order will apply to its operations in the north and similar powers are available to it in Ireland under Ireland’s Merchant Shipping Act 1894 as amended.

The department and the GLAs are promoting the international development of marine e-navigation systems. The UK has secured a commitment from the International Maritime Organisation to develop a work programme to make that a reality at the global level. It requires a move away from the heavy reliance on traditional aids to navigation to an integrated electronic system comprising satellite navigation systems supported by a separate ground-based radio navigation system. We envisage that this will comprise the US GPS system, plus the European Galileo System with enhancements such as AIS, and the enhanced Loran C long-range radio system currently under trial and development.

All commercial vessels in excess of 300 tonnes undertaking an international voyage are required to transmit an AIS signal. That shows the ship’s name, next port of call, course and cargo details. The system can be interpreted by other vessels and from the land in either graphic or alphanumeric displays. It offers security data and allows ports to assess well in advance of normal reporting times when vessels are likely to arrive.

The purpose of the order is to support the use of AIS as an aid to navigation. A lighthouse, light vessel or buoy can transmit its location and other details using AIS and they will appear on the ship’s display. The GLAs have been experimenting with AIS systems and have concluded that AIS will allow them to reduce the size and range of a number of physical aids to navigation if they can enhance the aids with AIS. For example, light vessels might be replaced with a cheaper buoy plus an AIS signal. Lighthouses might still maintain a light but with a reduced range, again enhanced by an AIS signal.

Ultimately some of the traditional aids might be replaced altogether by an AIS signal. The aid to navigation would not have a physical presence, but the ship’s AIS display would show the aid on its AIS display, with the AIS signal being transmitted from the land. Those developments may take many years to achieve but it gives an indication of the system’s capabilities if it is developed to the full.

The department and the GLAs envisage that the system will ultimately make a major contribution to safety while reducing expenditure on providing the essential aids to navigation service. Traditional costs estimated at £3 million will be met from the general lighthouse fund in the first instance. Savings will come from reducing the scope of traditional aids—although we do not envisage that they will disappear completely. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 12 June be approved [31st Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Davies of Oldham.)

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his clear and lucid explanation of the order. I am pleased to say that we are happy to lend our support, recognising the importance of the legislation in improving the safety of international shipping, especially in and around UK waters. I congratulate the Government on being at the forefront of introducing and promoting this new technology. Anything that helps to lessen the possibility of another major incident at sea should be welcomed. Therefore, I will not detain your Lordships’ House too long on the order; certainly no more than is strictly necessary. However, I shall take the opportunity to ask a number of short questions.

First, where will the scheme operate? Is the idea that it will cover all the waters around the United Kingdom, or will it cover simply those areas that experience the greatest density of shipping, such as the Dover Straits? This is a very important point, which needs clarifying. The Minister may recall that, a couple of months ago, we all participated in a Starred Question on improving the safety of shipping around the Minch Strait. If I recall correctly, calls were made then that such an environmentally sensitive area should be covered by just this sort of technology. Given that we have this technology in place, it is strange to restrict it to use in particularly difficult areas.

Secondly, can the Minister give us an idea of the time scale for the introduction of the scheme and, linking this to my previous question, say whether it will be rolled out nationally or just gradually in one or two pilot areas? Finally, I notice in the Explanatory Notes that the shipboard version of this technology is fitted to all vessels over 300 tonnes that have signed up to SOLAS—the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea. Therefore, presumably we could still have vessels significantly over 300 tonnes in UK waters without this technology simply because they have not signed up to SOLAS. Indeed, can the Minister tell us what proportion of shipping passing through UK waters has this system already in place? What steps will the Government take to close this anomaly and to ensure that all vessels greater than 300 tonnes have the onboard version of the technology, regardless of whether they have signed up to the necessary convention?

I hope the Minister will be able to help me with my short questions. Other than that, we on these Benches support the order.

My Lords, I concur entirely with what the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, has just said. I believe the order is worth while. I have one further question for the Minister beyond those asked by the noble Lord. It concerns vessels of less than 300 tonnes. When is it proposed to withdraw navigational aids? Is cognisance being taken of the fact that many smaller vessels will still depend on less sophisticated technology?

My Lords, I declare an interest as a commissioner for the Irish lighthouse service, which the Minister has mentioned. I support the order and I can assure your Lordships that I have seen the AIS operating live both from the Irish Lights tender and in trial from a desktop in Dublin. It is a fantastic and very simple system. One of the great things about it is that most ships around our coast are less than 300 tonnes—yachts, in other words, of one size or another—and certainly my yacht, and the yachts of most yachtsmen now travelling the seas, will carry a small version of the AIS, which does not transmit but can receive. That means that if you are in a shipping lane—crossing the English Channel, for example—you can see other ships on your AIS screen as targets. They will have their MMSI number, which is in effect their telephone number, and you can talk to them if you are worried about getting in their way or about what they are doing. You can do similar things from a ship’s bridge with land-based navigation aids or with buoys. There is an experimental buoy out now in Larne harbour. One of the important things to ferries travelling in Larne harbour is wave height—believe it or not, there are restrictions on wave heights. The buoy will be able to tell skippers what the wave heights are on the approach to the harbour, and so on. It is a fantastic system, it is not very expensive, and it is being used now all around our coast. In Ireland, we are moving around the coast and starting to make it one of our navigation aids. It really is fantastic.

My Lords, I also support the order, and declare a non-pecuniary interest as a Younger Brother of Trinity House. The order designates AIS as a beacon under the terms of the Merchant Shipping Act. As the Minister has explained, this will allow the general lighthouse authorities to fit beacons to aids to navigation that will transmit data on the sea state—we have just from the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, about that—as well as tidal data and the position of the aid, which will benefit ships’ safety. This was foreseen when the AIS first came into operation at the beginning of last year, primarily as a means of communicating a ship’s name, position and next port to shore stations and indeed to other ships.

The general lighthouse authorities—Trinity House, the Northern Lighthouse Board and the Commissioners for Irish Lights—have worked diligently over the past 13 years to introduce new nav-aid technology, which has in effect reduced the cost to the shipping industry, which pays through light dues, by some 40 per cent. The order will allow this trend to continue. We are moving towards an integrated bridge system on ships that will combine radar, electronic charts and the AIS, but, for the time being, as the Minister has said, we still need traditional aids to navigation. Certainly some of the newer technology relies on the GPS, which is subject to the whims of the US military. I welcome the order, and I wish it a fair wind.

My Lords, the order is of particular interest to me as a former serving lighthouse keeper. It is 200 years ago this summer since Parliament approved the building of the Bell Rock lighthouse, the oldest wave-washed lighthouse in existence that still operates. Thus tonight, that lighthouse will give a characteristic white flash every five seconds, and no doubt will do so for many nights into the future. That may come as a surprise to many noble Lords, as satellite navigation is now the primary system used by navigators, but, as we have just heard, it is not 100 per cent reliable, and the relatively expensive back-up of traditional aids such as lighthouses continues to be necessary as we must have two completely independent systems of navigational aids.

Some 200 years on from the decision about the iconic Bell Rock, we can take another big step tonight in ensuring safe navigation by approving this statutory instrument, which will allow the general lighthouse authorities to fit the necessary equipment to use the AIS as a beacon. Until now, it could be used only for trials, and the order needs to be carried so that the GLAs can go ahead and use the AIS as a beacon. As we have also heard, there will be no increase in light dues paid by shipping using our ports as a consequence of the approval of the order tonight. If we do not approve the order, the three GLAs will not be able to develop the system, which will lead inevitably in the future—perhaps some years ahead—to increases in shipping dues.

The beauty of the AIS is its ability to provide real-time data. The plan of the Northern Lighthouse Board is just one example and, complementary to what the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said about the buoy at Larne harbour, the Northern Lighthouse Board wants to deploy an AIS buoy at Milleur Point at the entrance to Loch Ryan. That buoy would transmit, via Corsewall lighthouse, the actual sea state and wind speed at the sometimes difficult entrance to Loch Ryan. That will significantly enhance the safety of the high-speed passenger craft and other ferries on that busy sea route between Scotland and Ireland.

There are many other ways in which the AIS will contribute, although noble Lords will be relieved to know that I shall not list them. One of them, which might seem to be science fiction to an old lighthouse keeper, is the prospect of virtual aids to navigation. Broadcast from an AIS station, a symbol appearing on a ship’s display can indicate a hazard, even though there is no buoy or beacon on that hazard. If that can be failsafe, it is bound to lead to a considerable reduction in future costs. I hope the House will agree to this work commencing and to further research being done. The motto of the Northern Lighthouse Board and the Commissioners of Irish Lights is, In salutem omnium. For any non-Latin scholars among us, that means, “For the safety of all”. That safety can be only enhanced by the approval of the order this evening.

My Lords, I, too, support this order and I declare a non-pecuniary interest as an Elder Brother of Trinity House. I believe that this is an important advance in safety and navigation, and much to be welcomed. As has already been mentioned, it is important to keep in mind craft which are less than 300 tonnes as the system matures in years to come and older systems are phased out. I think that that has been half-addressed already. We can look forward to a reduction in costs as we move away from some of the older and more expensive systems. Finally, I believe that this will keep us in step with other major maritime nations which are going down this route. Not least, it will also chime with the developments in the Ocean Security Initiative, which is now gathering international momentum. We may see this AIS system deployed in other littoral states as well.

My Lords, perhaps I ought to declare an interest as I had an exceedingly good lunch at Trinity House today, but I hasten to add that it was nothing to do with this order or with the lighthouse authority. I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate, particularly the testimony of those who are very much in a position to know about the advantages which AIS will bring to safety at sea.

The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, asked me three questions, which I will do my best to answer. Certainly, the AIS will operate in all waters where there is high risk. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord MacKenzie who identified the crossing of the Irish Sea, which needs attention in these terms. Obviously, places such as the Straits of Dover and so on will be equipped first. It is a roll-out programme. In due course we would expect to see considerable, if not universal, coverage.

Of course, this is dependent on costs. Pilot areas are being organised and operated, but it is clear that the speed with which it will be developed will be dependent on and proportionate to the costs involved. The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, will readily recognise that the scheme will be brought into place where there is the heaviest traffic and greatest risk. The timescale is also part of that general position. As the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, and others testified, the system is already in place to a very limited extent in pilot work, but it will take time before it is fully operational. It is an ambitious system. The intention is to cover all vessels except those of 300 tonnes and below, so it is a very big operation.

The noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord Bradshaw, mentioned vessels of less than 300 tonnes. We hope and expect intelligent people operating in waters to be very keen to avail themselves of the latest technology and devices which guarantee the greatest safety. But there are costs involved for people on board ships and we cannot make this mandatory for the smallest leisure craft. Therefore, we will have to have in place the traditional aids, which will give security to vessels unable to fit AIS. Of course, the long-term intention is that all ships of more than 300 tonnes will be fitted with this system. Therefore, we will be able gradually to transform the nature of those traditional navigation aids into the more modern framework.

It will be recognised that the lighthouse authorities have got a long and proud tradition stretching back almost 500 years. Everyone who uses the sea is grateful for their services in the past. In fact, this country is redolent with stories about those who are concerned with safety at sea who have saved lives on very many occasions. It is only right that even organisations as traditional as the lighthouse associations take the fullest advantage of modern technology. I do not think that anyone doubts that this system is a very significant development. It will aid safety at sea against a background of our waters becoming increasingly crowded. The mixture of traffic is also very extensive. We also know that British waters, particularly the Straits of Dover and the English Channel, are the busiest waterways in the world.

We want this system to transform the security situation. It cannot be done overnight, but this order represents the intention of organisations which we hold in the highest regard to pursue new technology and carry on their age-old commitment to safety at sea. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.