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Peter Bradley: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point; he is both right and wrong. As I understand it, he is wrong inasmuch as the conditions that apply to other people living outside the United Kingdom will now apply to Saints. In other words, they will not be disadvantaged compared with other people in the same position. However, I share the concern expressed by the hon. Gentleman and by other Members and make this plea to the Minister: given the importance of education to the economy of St. Helena, Departments should work vigorously with British universities and higher education institutions to ensure that places are made available to a small but important number of young people and others. They come to this country not only to enjoy the right to British citizenship and to acquire education and skills that enrich them, but to develop their economy in St. Helenawhither I suggest that the vast majority who will come to this country for education and training will want to return.
I shall concentrate most of my remarks on St. Helena, because of its special position. Perhaps more than any of the territories, St. Helena was almost literally cast adrift by the 1981 Act. It is a tiny island: 47 square miles, mostly of volcanic rock. It has little more than 6,000 inhabitants, most of whom feel intensely British. Their island is incredibly remote and isolated. It is almost 4,500 miles from this country; about 1,200 miles from the coast of Africa; and about 1,800 miles from the coast of south America.
The 1981 Act caused enormous hurt and grievance to the population of St. Helena. It also severed an economic lifelinetenuous but nevertheless importantand forced the community into an unequal struggle for self-reliance.
St. Helena has had a long association with this country. It was first settled in the year of the Spanish Armada, in 1588. It was more permanently settled by half a dozen families who were displaced by the great fire of London. For 150 years, it was administered by the East India company, but became a Crown colony as long ago as 1834.
In those days, the island was of great strategic importance to this country. It was a key station on our sea routes and provided invaluable service both to the Royal Navy and to merchant shipping. In its heyday, about 2,000 ships a year put in for re-provisioning or repairs. Since the opening of the Suez canal, that number has declined swiftly and substantially; at present, only one ship, the RMS St. Helena, plies between Falmouth and the island.
The island is rich in landscape and wildlife habitats, but in little else: economically, it is poor. It had a flax industry that was undermined by the development of synthetics. I am indebted to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), who tells me that when the Post Office decided to bundle letters in rubber bands rather than string, not only was there enormous growth in the littering of our streets and doorsteps but St. Helena was deprived of an important export outlet.
Unemployment has reached about 18 per cent. in St. Helena. Provisions for a three-day week and job sharing were introduced because of the straitened circumstances in which the economy found itself. Retirement at 60 was also introduced, and 1,000 of the 6,000 residents of St. Helena now work outside the island700 on Ascension Island and 300 in the Falklands. Its GDP is one of the lowest of all the aid-receiving overseas territories£2,500 per capita, compared with just over £17,000 enjoyed by people living in the British Virgin Islands.
It is vital that we reconfer rights of citizenship and of abode in this country and open up opportunities for training and skilling, but the aid provided by the Department for International Development should also continue. Hon. Members have mentioned the importance of the airport, which will make a huge difference to St. Helena. Reading the Hansard account of debates in the Lords, I came across an anecdoteprobably apocryphal, as I have heard it several timesabout the previous Government, who thought it expedient to dispatch a Minister to St. Helena. However, they could not spare one, so they sent a Whip, who disappeared off the radar, not for days or weeks, but for several months, so difficult is it to get to St. Helena and, more to the point, to get back again.
The airport is crucial, not just to the quality of life of people who live on the island, but to the development of their economy. There are prospects for the limited expansion of their tourism industry. As I said earlier, although much of the island is volcanic, there are exceptional wildlife habitats and beautiful landscapes. Hardy and adventurous people will want to visit St. Helena and spend their money there, not least the French, who will want to visit Napoleon's former home.
It is important that we restore citizenship rights to Saints, but this is not just about rights and opportunities: it is a matter of principle. The hon. Member for West Suffolk quoted the royal charter of 1673, which was conferred on the island by Charles II. It says that the inhabitants of the island
The 1981 Act did a great injustice to the people of St. Helena and, indeed, those elsewhere. I was not in the House in those days, so I am not sure how readily Conservative Members conceded that the 200,000 inhabitants of the dependent territories, as they were then called, should be disadvantaged by the need to protect the country, as their Government saw it, from the implications of returning Hong Kong to mainland China. I am not sure that they were willing to concede that point. However, the hon. Gentleman made it clear that rights were withdrawn from Saints and others, not by accident but by design. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) made clear, with a little more thought and consideration, and to honour our commitments and the provisions of the charter, those territories could have been
The White Paper "Partnership for Progress and Prosperity" was widely welcomed when it was published, not just for the rights that it re-established, but for the responsibilities that it conferred. Indeed, the previous Foreign Secretary drew attention to four subjects in his introduction: the important right to self-determination, which is not abridged in any way by the Bill; responsibilities on both sides; the right of territories to control their own destiny; and their right to depend on or look to this country for continuing aid where necessary. As I have just said, self-determinationthe ability of territories to take control of their own futureis an important principle. Although a few people will regard it as political correctness, changing the term "dependent territories" to "overseas territories" is important; it is politically significant, not least because it makes it clear that those territories should no longer regard themselves as subsidiary to the motherland, even if the ties are strong, and have a right and responsibility to pursue their own future.
The White Paper also insists on conformity to higher standards of human rights. An important by-product of the process that led to its publication and the subsequent introduction of the Bill is the fact that there have been changes and significant improvements in human rights in most of the territories. In most of them, corporal punishment and capital punishment have been abolished; laws that curtailed equal rights for homosexuals have been amended. We must be vigilant, as must the territories' Governments and people, that standards in human rights continue to improve. When they fall short, our Government and Parliament have a responsibility to ensure that every encouragement is given to Governments in the territories to improve them.
The White Paper makes important reference to the need for stricter financial regulation. Money laundering has been a problem for a long time and pre-dates the events of 11 September, but the need to deal with it is now much more urgent. I hope that the Government will give aid, as well as incentives, to the emerging economies and their Administrations to ensure that their offshore financial regimes are not vulnerable to the money laundering with which we have become all too familiar recently.
I referred to continuing aid, which is significant. Technical aid is given to Anguilla, Pitcairn Island and the Turks and Caicos Islands. Financial aidbudgetary supplementsis given to St. Helena, this year totalling £9.5 million. By comparison with our own public expenditure, that is not a great deal of money, but it is a considerable sum for an island with a population of 6,500. This year, Montserrat will receive £24.5 million, not least because of the continuing need to recover from the effects of the volcano. I hope that the Minister will assure us that the aid will continue and that, in particular, the Government will do all they can to advance the project to develop an airport. A consultation paper was completed this year and the Government have pledged aid for
That welcome for the White Paper and the Bill was shared by my constituents, whom I ought to mentionKen Butler and his wife, Edie, who provoked my interest in St. Helena. Like most hon. Members, I was blissfully ignorant of its existence, other than in the history books, and of the plight of the people who live on St. Helena, until the 1997 general election, when I knocked on Mr. Butler's door. He said, "You politiciansyou only come round at election time." We are all familiar with that opening gambit. He went on to say, "There is one issue that concerns me and which I feel passionate about, but if you get elected, you won't take the slightest interest in it." I am particularly pleased to discharge a debt today and to redeem the pledge that I made to Mr. Butlerthat I would remember his words. Since that time, I have taken an interest in the fate of St. Helenians.
I pay tribute also to Dr. Dorothy Evans, who is a lifelong friend of the St. Helenians and has been extremely helpful to them in the development of their education system. She provided the basis of much of my knowledge about St. Helena and, I discovered, happens to live in the same village as my sister, from whom she bought a jumper recently. If anyone else would like to buy a jumper from my sister, who makes them for a livingvery warm and elegant they are, tooplease let me know after the debate.
People like Ken and Edie Butler and Dr. Dorothy Evans have kept the flame burning and campaigned tirelessly for the rights of an isolated people many thousands of miles away. I pay tribute to such people, without whose support Saints would not be on the threshold of achieving their new status. Their commitment and love for that place are paying off. They have kept the faith and kept the crusade going.
I am grateful to the Minister for offering a meeting some time ago to discuss the Bill. I repeat that, on 21 May 1502, the Portuguese Admiral Joao da Nova Castella discovered St. Helena, although it was the British who settled the island. In six months, Saints will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the discovery of their island. It
That is why, in a series of interventions today, I have made a plea to the Minister not to allow the bureaucratic difficulties of establishing consensus among the territories about the format of the new passports, and the technical ability to issue passports, to delay the commencement order which confers British citizenship on those 200,000 people. It would be sad if that were to happen. Conversely, it would be the cause of much celebration throughout the territories if we were sensible and sensitive to those people's needs and issued the commencement order as soon as the Act receives Royal Assent. We owe that much to Saints, to ensure that they can celebrate their anniversary as British citizens.
I welcome the Bill. It discharges a debt and acknowledges the associations of the past, but it goes further. It will help to secure the future for hard-pressed economies and isolated communities such as those of St. Helena. They are a few, but they are an important few in the British overseas territories. I hope that when we have achieved Third Reading, Royal Assent and commencement, there will be happy days of celebration for those people.