My Lords, the Department for Transport in the UK and the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport in Ireland work together to support the Commissioners of Irish Lights’ Republic of Ireland self-funding endeavours. The process remains on course for completion in 2015-16, and in preparation the Commissioners of Irish Lights continues to reduce its headcount and to introduce new operational and commercial initiatives.
I thank the Minister for that positive Answer. In fact, it is the first positive answer that the ship-owners who bring their ships into UK ports have had for 90 years, because this has been going on for 90 years. Why successive Governments have failed to make this negotiation in all that time escapes me. I am very grateful to the Minister, but can he confirm that, with or without the Commissioners of Irish Lights sorting out its financial problems, payments from the UK to the Irish Government for these lights will stop in 2015-16?
My Lords, I know that it took a long time to achieve this agreement, which is down to my honourable friend Mike Penning, who secured agreement with the Irish Government. The noble Lord asked when transfer payments would stop. That is a bit of a complex question. If a Commissioners of Irish Lights vessel works in UK waters as part of the co-operation between the various lighthouse authorities, there will of course be a transfer payment. It is a little complicated to say exactly when any transfer payments will stop; they may never stop. The main thing is that we will, by 2016, no longer support the Irish lights.
My Lords, it is interesting to note that the Atkins report, commissioned by this Government in 2010, recommended that we retain the Northern Lighthouse Board and Trinity House to provide lights in Scotland and England respectively. We have no intention of changing those arrangements.
My Lords, in commending the Commissioners of Irish Lights on reducing its costs, can the Minister confirm that after 2015-16 the joint strategic board set up by the Atkins report will continue the interoperability arrangements for ships, as exist at the moment?
The noble Lord raises an extremely important point. One of the ways in which we have managed to reduce unnecessary expenditure is through the work of the joint strategic board to set the modalities so that assets can be shared and facilities are not duplicated.
My Lords, does my noble friend recognise that, for some of us, the fact that there was continued collaboration between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland on lifeboats, lighthouses and the Ordnance Survey throughout the Troubles was a bright light in a darkened world? Furthermore, does he recognise that the reconstruction of the Ballyconnell Canal, 80% of which was paid for by the Irish Government—both of us being helped by the European Union—has had a powerful effect on tourism on our side of the border in Lough Erne?
My Lords, I agree that there has been surprising co-operation between the Republic of Ireland and the UK Government over many years. It is important to understand that the general lighthouse authorities will continue to co-operate around the coasts of the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
My Lords, the House will of course welcome the optimistic and accurate position which the noble Earl has reflected. However, the urgency of the situation ought not to be underestimated. General shipping costs are going up 11% this year on these dues. For shorter crossings and ferries, they are going up by 43%. People have ways of avoiding these costs, such as by putting into other ports if costs continue to escalate. I therefore hope that, in the time before the full Irish payments come in, increases in costs are kept to an absolute minimum.
My Lords, throughout this process, all GLAs have managed to reduce their operating costs, which is a great benefit to the shipping industry. We will shortly determine the light dues for 2013-14, but there is already a commitment from the Government that in cash terms they will not go up. One of the beauties of light dues is that they are quite a difficult tax to avoid. It is pretty obvious when you take a big ship into a harbour.
The Atkins report, to which the Minister has referred, although written largely in impenetrable jargon contained at least one clear recommendation. It stated:
“The UK and Irish Governments should consider additional sources of revenue including a charge on leisure sailors, charges on passengers, cars landed and cargo”.
Are such changes being considered?
My Lords, one obvious target for increased revenue for the General Lighthouse Fund would be small pleasure craft. The difficulty is that it would be uneconomic to collect that revenue because the amounts would be relatively small, whereas a large merchantman would pay several thousand pounds on each visit to a port.