Wednesday, 8 June 1983
Dáil Eireann Debate
The purpose of this Bill is to enable the Minister for Transport by order to give a statutory basis for the levels of light dues collected in respect of ships calling to ports within the State and to enable him to vary the levels of light dues from time to time.
The provision and maintenance of the lights services, comprising lighthouses, beacons, buoys, and other aids required for general maritime navigation, around the coasts of Britain and Ireland, including Northern Ireland, are governed by the provisions of sections 634 to 669 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, as adapted. The Act vested responsibility for the lights services in three bodies known as general lighthouse authorities.
The three general lighthouse authorities are Trinity House, London, which has responsibility for the lights services throughout England, Wales and the Channel Islands, and also the adjacent seas and islands; the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses whose responsibility extends throughout Scotland, its adjacent seas and islands and the Isle of Man; and the Commissioners of Irish Lights who are responsible for the lights services throughout the 32 counties of Ireland and its adjacent seas and islands. The 1894 Act also confirmed the three authorities in the ownership of the lights and other property held and maintained by them.
Local harbour lights, buoys and other navigational aids, which are used only by vessels entering or leaving a particular  harbour or pier, are provided and maintained by the individual harbour authority or other local body concerned, subject only to the technical supervision of the appropriate general lighthouse authority.
While the lights in the three areas are separately owned and managed by the three general lighthouse authorities, who have wide discretion in local matters, the whole system of lights around the coasts of Britain and Ireland is administered as a single self-supporting financial unit.
All ships using ports in Britain or in Ireland, except those specifically exempted, pay light dues on a uniform scale, fixed by the British Department of Trade, to the general lighthouse authority within whose area of jurisdiction the ports lie. Light dues in respect of vessels calling to ports within the State are collected by local Customs officers, acting as agents of the Commissioners of Irish Lights. They are remitted via the Department of Transport to the British Department of Trade, by whom they are paid, together with the light dues collected by the two other lighthouse authorities, into a statutory General Lighthouse Fund established under the Merchant Shipping (Mercantile Marine Fund) Act, 1898. Expenditure incurred by the three general lighthouse authorities is met from this fund.
The fixing or altering of the level of light dues is governed by the Merchant Shipping (Mercantile Marine Fund) Act, 1898, as adapted. Section 5 (2) of that Act provides that light dues may be altered by Government order. Since the foundation of the State, however, the practice has been that the light dues fixed from time to time by the British Department of Trade have been applied on an administrative basis to vessels calling to ports within the State.
The whole question of the anomalous position of the Commissioners of Irish Lights was raised by the British Comptroller and Auditor General in his report for the years 1979-80 and 1980-81, in which he drew attention to the fact that there was no legal basis for the collection of light dues in the State at rates in excess of those in operation in 1922. He also referred to the loss of revenue to the  General Lighthouse Fund by virtue of the fact that since Ireland joined the European Monetary System on 13 March 1979 light dues had been collected in Irish pounds as though they were equivalent to pounds sterling.
Preliminary discussions took place last year between the British Department of Trade and my Department about various legal and financial anomalies of the situation of the Commissioners of Irish Lights. It was agreed at the time that the whole complex question of the Commissioners of Irish Lights and their relationship with the British and Irish authorities should be the subject of further bilateral discussions after the matter had been considered by the Department of Transport in consultation with other Government Departments and other interests concerned. It was also agreed in principle that light dues charged at Irish ports should be fixed as soon as possible at a level in Irish currency equivalent in value to the sterling rate fixed in Britain.
The Attorney General, who has been consulted by the Department of Transport, has confirmed that there is no statutory basis for the charging of light dues at Irish ports at a level in excess of that prevailing at the time of the transfer of powers from Britain to Ireland in 1922. It is necessary, therefore, to take steps to remedy this position and, as already mentioned, that is one of the purposes of this Bill — the other being to enable the Minister to vary the levels of light dues from time to time.
I have already referred to the provisions in the Merchant Shipping (Mercantile Marine Fund) Act, 1898, whereby light dues may be altered by Government order. Section 5 (3) of that Act provides, however, that, before any such order is made, the draft order shall be laid before each House of the Oireachtas for not less than 30 sitting days and may be rejected by resolution of either House. Because of the excessive delay which would be involved in following the procedure laid down in the 1898 Act, the Government decided to introduce the present Bill for the purpose of amending and updating the relevant provisions of the 1898 Act.
The Bill is a short one and is primarily  of an enabling nature. Section 2 of the Bill will empower the Minister for Transport to make an order amending the scales, rules and exemptions set out in the Second Schedule to the 1898 Act for the levying of light dues, with retrospective effect to the date of introduction of this Bill. The purpose of the retrospective clause is to prevent a shipowner from claiming that he was not obliged until the ministerial order was made to pay light dues at a level higher than that existing in 1922. Under section 2 (4), any such order will be laid before each House of the Oireachtas in the customary manner. Section 3 provides for the repeal of certain parts of section 5 of the 1898 Act which will become redundant once this Bill has been enacted.
It is interesting that we have to go back to 1898 for the statutory authority for the operation of the Irish Lights charges. In researching for this Second Stage debate, I could not help but notice that the 1898 volume of Bills contained the Local Government Act which had far-reaching effects on the administration of this country and, in particular, in allocating responsibility for local administration to local elected authorities. This may not be irrelevant in considering what we are doing here with regard to the amendment of the 1898 Act.
One thing that is pleasing as far as the system is concerned is that the administration is on an all-Ireland basis, the Commissioners of Irish Lights dealing, as is only rational and sane, with the whole country as a unit. That is something which would be pleasing to all sides of the House and I am sure it could be a pointer to what can happen in the future because, as the Minister said, this matter comes up for consideration in the future. The year 1898 was a significant one with regard to taking powers from the Westminster Parliament and allocating them to this country.
It is interesting to look at the original  Act, and the Second Schedule, which lays down the fees because this gives an idea how necessary it is to update many things. The House will be interested to know that the scale of fees as laid down in the 1898 Act shows how technology has changed in 85 years, even at sea, beyond all powers of conception at that time. I read the debate in the British House of Commons at that time and I do not think they could have envisaged what was going to happen with the ships. In the 1898 Act a scale of fees was laid down: 1d per ton per voyage for home trade sailing ships; 2¼d — even that charge shows how times have changed because the farthing is a collector's piece in Britain and Ireland — per ton per voyage for foreign-going sailing ships; 1½d per ton per voyage for home trade steamers — a distinction is made between sailing ships and steamers; 2¾d per ton per voyage for foreign going steamers; 1/- per ton per year for tugs, pleasure yachts and so on. The very scale of the charges, the mention of sailing ships, and the idea that a substantial amount of money could be got from dues on sailing ships, bring us back, and are a pointer to the need for updating many things in our legislation and in our general relationship with the UK.
I want to make a few points because there has been a certain amount of aggro with regard to Ireland and its enjoyment of certain financial privileges as a result of the arrangement made in 1898. One of the good old criteria applied in all these cases is cui bono, who is gaining. When we hear strong arguments from Westminster, and criticisms of the advantages we have here as a result of the arrangement made in 1898, we should bear in mind that all the lighthouses and other appurtenances for the safety of and benefit of sailors, benefit greatly the very large UK merchant fleet. It is well to keep that in mind.
As of now I do not want to go into this point in any great detail, or to speak strongly about certain remarks which were made by various people in positions of importance in the UK. As the Minister said, consultations are going on at the  moment. It is well to indicate that there are arguments on our side as well. For example, the Minister mentioned that our customs people provide a service also which is of benefit to the system.
At one stage since we joined the European Monetary System the punt went ahead of the pound sterling and was stronger. Admittedly that was not to the advantage of this country, or of our exporters, but it happened. What happened once might happen again. The powers being taken by the Minister in this Bill will enable him to deal with such an eventuality. As the Minister said, the whole complex question of the Commissioners of Irish Lights and their relationship with the British and Irish authorities is the subject of further bilateral discussions. I have confidence in the Minister and in his team. I am sure they will make the points which will strengthen our case, and that they will be able to resolve any difficulties which may have arisen as a result of the comments and remarks made by the British Comptroller and Auditor General with regard to the drop in income to the fund as a result of the fees being paid in punts rather than in pounds sterling. This Bill will regulate that anomaly, and the payments from our side will be at the same rate and will be the pro rata equivalent.
I have not got very much more to say on this Bill. When the whole system comes up for consideration, and perhaps reorganisation, it will be important that the new body, if there has to be a new body, established on the Irish side will be subject to democratic choice and that the Dáil will have a say in the structures of any boards which may be established, and will have control over such boards. There may be no need for such a development. The negotiations and discussions may wipe out any difficulties which may have arisen. It is important to keep in mind that this House should have a strong say in any administrative unit which may be established to deal with this in the future.
I should like to tie that in with the original comments I made about the 1898 Act. In that year people were talking about giving local government to this  country. They actually delivered a Local Government Act. We have had a kind of ad hoc arrangement since then for the Commissioners of Irish Lights with regard to the facilities provided for sailors around our coast. If it comes to a reorganisation, it should be on the basis of democratic control by this House over appointments and activities. I welcome the Bill.
Minister of State at the Department of Transport (Mr. Donnellan): I want to thank Deputy Wilson for his remarks and for his co-operation in the smooth passage of the Bill. The current rates have changed quite dramatically since 1898 and vary from 80p per ton per voyage to £3.20p per ton per voyage.
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