Previous SectionIndexHome Page

19 Nov 2003 : Column 289WH—continued

19 Nov 2003 : Column 290WH

St. Helena

2 pm

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes): I want to thank the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) for securing the debate and I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for agreeing to substitute my name in view of the hon. Gentleman's duties in the Chamber.

I was fortunate to be one of the three Members on the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association visit to St. Helena last month. I therefore speak with a special knowledge of and interest in the island and its people. After what I saw and the people whom I met, I must conclude that the Government's track record on St. Helena, one of the 14 British overseas territories, is at best disinterested and at worst deliberately neglectful. That is especially true when the record is contrasted with those of other EU countries that care for their dependent territories so differently.

The Saints—as the St. Helenians are called—want their island to be self-sufficient. That means that the Government must help them to help themselves, instead of merely treating them as a backwater dependency. It is like the old Oxfam adverts, which showed the need to encourage people in the third world to create their own food, rather than have it sent to them by developed countries. The French view their overseas territories as a department of France—equivalent to metropolitan Paris. That ensures that their West Indian islands, such as Martinique, and their Pacific islands, such as Tahiti, have a standard and quality of life similar to that in mainland France. The Spanish will receive Euro1.846 million between 2000 and 2006 for renewable energy in the Canary islands alone.

That aid dramatically contrasts with the embarrassing and obscene waste of public money that the British taxpayer has had to find. The Minister's Department spent, not Euro1.75 million, but £300,000 in 1999 to install three small wind turbines on St. Helena to reduce electricity costs there. In an answer on 3 November, the Secretary of State for International Development said:

So, £300,000 of taxpayers' money was spent on three small wind turbines that really did not work for long. According to the Secretary of State's figures, the fuel costs saved while the turbines were operational were far less than half the set-up costs. The British taxpayer has paid around £170,000 for a totally wasted operation. Furthermore, the Department's evaluation team has just left the island—it was there at the same time as the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation. The further cost involved was £90,000. The team has yet to produce its report—I am sure that it will be compelling.

I contrast that situation with the competently installed American turbines on Ascension island, which were spinning round and creating electricity while we were there. The turbines are working well and producing considerable savings. Our Government provided the wrong sort of wind turbine in St. Helena. In Tenerife, there are wind farms with 40 or 50 turbines in groups,

19 Nov 2003 : Column 291WH

which were provided by EU money and which produce considerable energy savings. The money has come from structural funds. Why does not St. Helena have a wind turbine park such as the one in Tenerife, paid for by structural funds? Why do France and Spain get preference for their islands, while Britain does not? Why is what is good for the Canaries not good for St. Helena?

Peter Bradley (The Wrekin): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is creating a great deal of wind. He mentioned 1999, when the St. Helenians were not British citizens because of action taken by the Conservative Government in the 1980s. Will he acknowledge that the granting of citizenship to the St. Helenians means a great deal to them? I hope that he will credit the Labour Government with righting a wrong.

Mr. Steen : I am not going to spend my time arguing for or against the past, but I acknowledge what the hon. Gentleman says. I am concerned about the present. I accept that the Act to which the hon. Gentleman referred has benefited individual St. Helenians, but it is disadvantageous to the island as a whole. I am not suggesting that we should go backwards; we must go forwards and put matters right in view of that Act. I do not, however, agree with his unparliamentary remark about wind.

The wind patterns in St. Helena are similar to those in the Canaries and Ascension island. All those islands are volcanic, and they have similar topography. It is strange that the French and Spanish have built tremendous energy-saving parks out of EU largesse, while the British taxpayer has had to pay for a failed experiment on St. Helena which has still not been put right. I hope that the Minister will answer this question: why cannot St. Helena have a good wind park with turbines to reduce electricity costs which is paid for by the EU rather than by the British taxpayer?

I gather from a note that I received from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office this morning that St. Helena is eligible for structural funds. Some Euro6.9 million was rolled over from European regional development fund 8, but the proposal for cliff stabilisation was not approved. The reason is not clear, although it may have stalled because it was wrongly ordered, which is another example of the Government getting the issue wrong. Now Euro8.6 million has been earmarked under ERDF9, and the St. Helenian Government are producing a single programming document. It is strange that while the French in Martinique and the Polynesian islands and the Spanish in the Canaries have obtained multi-million pound schemes, we are playing around for peanuts in St. Helena, where small sums have been spent on unsuccessful execution.

St. Helena is a volcanic island, and its wind pattern is similar to that of other such islands. It may be a little further away from Britain than they are from Spain or France, but it is not that much further away. Regardless of the past, the Minister has an opportunity to explain both the Government's commitment to St. Helena and his wish to visit it.

St. Helena is currently one of the most isolated places on the planet. As one approaches it after nearly a week at sea, one sees a mass of vertical black rock cliffs between 800 and 1,000 ft high encompassing the entire

19 Nov 2003 : Column 292WH

coastline and dropping sheer into the south Atlantic. The island is about 1,300 sea miles from Cape Town, more than 1,000 miles from Angola, the nearest mainland, and at least 700 miles from Ascension island, which is the next port of call.

I do not know whether you have had the good fortune to visit the island, Mr. Gale, but it is certainly worth a visit. The Portuguese discovered St. Helena in 1502. It was first settled by the East India Company in 1659 and taken over by the Crown in 1834. It is most famous for its renowned and involuntary guest Emperor Napoleon, who was imprisoned in Longwood house in 1815. Longwood house is now a beautifully preserved museum with many of the original artefacts that Napoleon used. Elba, from which Napoleon previously escaped, currently attracts 800,000 visitors a year, so Longwood house must have considerable potential.

For hundreds of years, St. Helena was a vital staging post for all ships needing water and provisions in the south Atlantic. The number of ships calling at the island peaked at 2,000 a year. The birth of the Suez canal greatly reduced the need for such facilities and, since the advent of air travel, St. Helena has been passed over physically and metaphorically. The island's only means of contact is the Royal Mail steamer, RMS St. Helena, which plies a route between Weymouth and St. Helena via the Canaries, where all the wind farms are, and the Ascension islands, where the Americans have their wind farms. It docks in Cape Town—I did not see any wind farms there.

St. Helena is currently more isolated than during the Napoleonic days. At the time of the most recent census in 1998, its population was 5,157. It is estimated that since the passing of the Act referred to by the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley), the population has declined by about 25 per cent. to 3,900. That is largely because that Act restored British citizenship to the Saints. Although they deserved to have that status restored, it has adversely affected various aspects of life on the island. The current estimated population compared with that of the 1998 census illustrates how serious the haemorrhaging has been. A 25 per cent. decrease in four years is considerable.

When we visited the island, we discovered that against the odds its institutions were impressive and that they provided hope. There are three tiers of schools: three first schools for children aged four to seven; two middle schools for ages seven to 11; and the Prince Andrew community high school for ages 11 to 18. Declining numbers of pupils and teachers has meant that one middle school is downsizing and the learning support centre for primary level pupils with extreme learning difficulties is in some trouble.

Teachers in St. Helena earn considerably less than cleaners in Ascension island, so, understandably, teachers are leaving in droves to wield mops. Since 2002, those with PGCEs and other recognised teaching qualifications have been able to come to Britain, where the drive for teachers means that they can earn 10 or 12 times as much as they can in St. Helena. The island's good education system is currently at risk. Will the Minister stand by with benign indifference to the islanders' plight while the decline continues as teachers abandon the island?

19 Nov 2003 : Column 293WH

St. Helena remains one of the most remarkable time warps in the world. There is virtually no crime; people care for and consider each other; there is a strong sense of community; and everyone knows everyone else. Although they are rich spiritually and socially, the people are materially quite poor. In 1989–1990, St. Helena received £24 million from the Government. That figure has gone downhill ever since, and last year, grant aid was only £9.5 million.

The average wage is between £3,000 and £4,000 a year, so the island's survival is wholly dependent on the Government's modest stipend administered by the Governor, David Hollamby. He understands the island's problems and works closely with the island's Executive Council and Legislative Council, which greatly impressed me with their collective wisdom and common sense.

The Saints are proud people; they do not want handouts. They want to be like every other self-respecting people: independent and financially self-supporting. On the one hand, the Government keep them short of money; on the other hand, they are not given any opportunity to help themselves. The EU, which has provided billions of euros for the French and Spanish islands, has provided virtually nothing except hurdles and obstructions for the Saints.

One island product is its wonderful wild honey. I have a sample with me. When I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), what amount of wild honey has been imported over the past few years, he replied:

However, St. Helena has a very strict bee ordinance. It is 700 miles away from any other land mass, so its beekeeping credentials are impeccable. I know about beekeeping because Buckfast abbey is in my constituency, and the monks' beekeeping record is second to none. In fact, the beekeeping credentials on St. Helena are considerably better than those in other EU countries. Not surprisingly, St. Helena's bees are free from disease, such as varoa, which has spread throughout the European bee population blighting the quality of honey.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation:

a nice piece of bureaucracy. It continues:

more bureaucracy—

They do not have any of those in St. Helena. The organisation also says:

19 Nov 2003 : Column 294WH

When a list of such "third countries", which had received provisional approval, was published on 1 January 2003, St. Helena was not there. Why was it not there? I believe that the reason is simple. St. Helenians do not have the laboratories and the beekeepers do not have the money to pay for the tests. As Leo's Pure Wild Honey states on its label, it is produced from contented bees in the flowering meadows of St. Helena, and Napoleon loved it, too. What better endorsement could there be? In contrast, honey from the Spanish islands of the Canaries has been through all the processes.

Mr. Roger Gale (in the Chair): Order. I feel obliged to point out to the hon. Gentleman that hon. Members are not allowed to use props. In order to facilitate the debate, I shall allow the hon. Gentleman to treat his labels as notes, but that is on the understanding that he does not wave the bottles around.

Mr. Steen : You are so right, Mr. Gale. I was about to point out that the Canaries produce honey at about £6 a bottle. The St. Helenians can produce it at £2.50. One is very pure and delicious. The other tastes of heavy metals and the other things that one gets if one does not buy honey from St. Helena.

That is my point about honey, but what about Arabica coffee? I shall not wave a packet of Arabica coffee around—that would be quite inappropriate—but I brought one just in case you felt it would be appropriate to look at the label, Mr. Gale. Such coffee grows well in St. Helena. There is considerable potential for the industry to expand. Being a coffee buff, I can vouch for it as one of the best beans of its kind. Why is it that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs explained in response to my question of 5 November that imports to the UK of St. Helena coffee had fallen from 1.8 tonnes in 1998 to only 0.7 tonnes last year?

At a time when coffee houses are on every street corner, and exotic and special coffees are an obvious money-spinner, what are the Government doing to help to market and encourage the export of St. Helenian coffee? I wonder whether there are any incentives to help the St. Helena coffee growers, or are they caught by a procedure similar to the bee ordinance? The EU prevents honey from getting in; is it preventing coffee from coming in as well?

There cannot be a more distinctive or unique location than St. Helena. It is an exclusive one too. The problem is that St. Helena only manages to attract 1,000 tourists and 7,000 day visitors a year, and even those numbers are now dwindling. In 2000 the QE2 was forced to turn away as the sea was too rough to carry out the docking procedure; the same thing happened to the Crown Odyssey in 2001, and last year the MV Aurora and the QE2 were unable to dock. The simple reason for that is that there is no dock. There is no port, jetty or breakwater.

All embarkation and disembarkation of passengers in St. Helena entails transit by launch between the harbour steps at Jamestown and ships anchored a quarter to a half a mile offshore. To get from the ships offshore, one has to walk down the gangway on to a wooden platform secured to a launch. The problem is that with a swell, the gangway might be between eight and 10 ft off the

19 Nov 2003 : Column 295WH

platform, so passengers have to jump at the right moment, as the platform moves up. Passengers who jump at the wrong time could suffer injury. Because of the prevalence of civil actions for negligence, the captains of ships are understandably reluctant to allow passengers, who may not be very nimble, to embark on what could be a fateful journey. I am told that the fear of actions from passengers going down the gangplank and getting their timing wrong is the sole reason that the big passenger vessels do not stop at St. Helena.

A breakwater at Jamestown has been on the cards since the early 1990s. In 1998, the consulting engineers, Coode Blizard, produced a report on wharf development that was subsequently submitted to the Department for International Development in the form of a financial proposal by the St. Helena Government. The Government rejected the breakwater element of the proposal, for two reasons. First, it did not meet the DFID target of an economic internal rate of return of at least 8 per cent., so that ditched it. Secondly, the Government did not consider Coode Blizard's design for the breakwater to be sufficiently robust to make enough of a difference. Imagine the Spanish or French letting that happen in one of their little islands. They would not have it; they would push ahead for development and get the money from the EU, but our Government spend their time finding reasons why progress cannot be made there.

In answer to a parliamentary question, the Secretary of State for International Development, no less, said that

perhaps the Under-Secretary can say how carefully he is monitoring it—

When did the hon. Gentleman last review the matter? What is the state of play now? Has any progress been made?

The total loss of revenue to the island due to the loss of cruise ships has been devastating. It is estimated to be at least £250,000, and it is probably more. Due to the difficulties of landing, cruise liners have taken St. Helena off their itineraries altogether. No Cunard Line ship calls there now, and Cunard says that it is not about to start again because it cannot risk it.

The lack of transport connections is the major obstacle to economic revival. Someone who misses the RMS St. Helena may have to wait up to two months for the next ship; it is no good putting a hand out at the request stop, because no ship is there. One cannot go 1,300 miles in a speedboat from Cape Town, and one cannot go in a rowing boat from Ascension island, which is 700 miles north. Although a breakwater will help tourists from cruises, the only hope for better transport links is an airport, which has been talked about for years. The Department's offer of a contribution to the airport costs of up to £26.3 million is based on the lowest cost, at 1990 prices, of a replacement for RMS St. Helena, which will be pensioned off in seven years.

The proposed site for the airport is a black, wild, windswept and deserted piece of flat rock, which ends in a sheer drop of some 800 ft into the ocean. It is a desolate

19 Nov 2003 : Column 296WH

place; as far as one can see there are massive slabs of volcanic black rock and a few local birds, known as wire birds. In many ways it resembles Dartmoor in my constituency, but without marsh bog covering. There is no infrastructure nearby—no roads, no water, no electricity, nothing except wire birds. However, without the airport there is little future for St. Helena and its people.

The governor recognises the situation well. Last year's referendum confirmed that the people wanted an airport. With an airport, tourists will start to trickle in; I suspect that they will largely be French tourists wanting to see Longwood house, Napoleon's final home. I do not often pay tribute to the French Government, but I do so in this case for the quality with which they have preserved and conserved a national monument and its gardens. The curator's guided tour is compelling and will attract, if not the 800,000 people who go to Elba, a sizeable number. Tourism will bring job opportunities, new wealth creation, new hotels and new opportunities to sell local produce such as honey and coffee.

While I was in St. Helena, two EU officials were inspecting the hygiene at the fish processing plant. I have never seen so many officials in my life as when I was on St. Helena. Everyone who stopped in the street was another official checking things—no one was checking the bees, though. For years, the plant has provided fish for the Saints. That industry has flourished, even though there is a shortage of boats capable of fishing in the sandbanks a few hundred miles off the coast. Furthermore, without an extended market, there is insufficient consumer demand to merit additional investment in a more robust fleet.

Tesco, no less, recognises the potential of imports of canned fish from St. Helena; indeed, one can buy canned tuna from St. Helena from the shelves of most stores. It seems satisfied with the hygiene standards, but the EU is still carrying out inspections, even though I am told by the secretary of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association branch in St. Helena, Ms Ethel Yon—who organised our trip magnificently—that the last case of food poisoning was in 1994, when an elderly lady ate a partially cooked turkey. No other incidence of food poisoning has been recorded, although there is some speculation as to how Napoleon died.

Offshore fishing is probably one of St. Helena's biggest potential assets. It is the island's largest natural industry. Thanks to the sale of fishing licences for foreign vessels, it looked like a money-spinner. Revenues from those licences have plummeted, though. In answer to my question of 11 November regarding licence revenue in the last five years, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Rammell), said that in 1999 the total revenue was £614,000, but last year it was down to about £56,000. When I asked to what extent the Government provided air surveillance of St. Helena's 200-mile exclusive fishing zone to determine the number of fishing vessels fishing legally and illegally, that Minister answered:

Both the Government and St. Helena are considering other methods to control illegal fishing, including the possibility of using satellite surveillance to identify

19 Nov 2003 : Column 297WH

individual vessels in the 200-mile zone. However, if there is no means of enforcing licences, it is no wonder that few see the point in buying one. I am glad to hear that the Government are looking into other means. Satellite surveillance sounds like a particularly good option, but it will not come cheap and I doubt that the Government will pay for it. Again, the fishing industry is in a Catch-22 situation.

As for the Government's attitude to the islanders, I expect this Minister to jump up and down, saying that the Government very much appreciate the loyalty and determination of the islanders. No doubt he will cite the fact that the island provided an entire regiment to fight in the second world war. Some of the survivors marched down Whitehall this year. An entire regiment from the population of St. Helena is proportionately a very large sacrifice. Why do the islanders not deserve the recognition that other Commonwealth countries receive?

The Saints are passionately loyal to Crown and country. It is fitting that visits have been made to St. Helena by George VI and the Queen. Visits were made by Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret in 1947, the Duke of Edinburgh in 1957, Prince Andrew in 1984 and the Princess Royal last November.

In contrast, despite St. Helena's being a British overseas territory, no Foreign and Commonwealth Office Ministers have ever been to St. Helena—they do not even know where it is. In answer to my question of 3 November, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Harlow, said:

I therefore decided to ask this Minister, from DFID, about his visits to the island. I refer to his answer of 10 November:

What does one conclude from all that? One concludes that the issue is not important to the British Government. If I am wrong, this is an opportunity for the Minister to put the record straight, as I am not the only hon. Member who feels that the Saints have been treated rather shabbily.

The answer to the problem is simply to give the people the tools to enable them to help themselves. We should ensure that the airport and breakwater get built; the obstacles preventing exports to EU countries are overcome; the infrastructure is in place for tourists; and the wind turbines work and produce electricity savings. St. Helena is supposed to be one of the windiest places in the world, yet we cannot even get that right for the islanders. We also need to provide banking facilities, so that they can borrow money for home improvements, starting businesses and buying fishing vessels, as there are no banks there. The French, Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese do that for their offshore islands.

Why is our track record so bad? Our track record for overseas territories, if St. Helena is any example, is totally unimpressive. I hope that the Minister will use

19 Nov 2003 : Column 298WH

this opportunity to make it clear that the Government are wholly committed to making St. Helena a prosperous, happy and flourishing island. If he does, our visit will have been worth while.

2.29 pm

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen), whose speech was interesting, although I cannot agree with everything that he said. That was characteristic of our recent enjoyable and extremely interesting visit to the island of St. Helena, and it is a reflection of how important Commonwealth Parliamentary Association visits can be—there were three hon. Members from three different parties, with very robust views that did not always coincide. I am sure that we learned an enormous amount from the visit.

I should also like to place on record our thanks to the delegation secretary, Sir Paul Jackson, who did an absolutely superb job on what I am sure was a difficult trip, because of the logistics of putting together a visit to such a remote part of the world. That sums up the island's whole problem. Its geography means that it experiences structural, economic difficulties and makes it very different from other nations' overseas territories and dependencies.

I want to address the island's geography in my short speech. I indicated that I do not share all the hon. Gentleman's views, and one view that I do not share is his overriding observation that St. Helena's problem is that all Governments—not just this one—have neglected the island and seemed disinterested. I concluded the opposite: St. Helena's problem is that there has been too much Government interference. The hon. Gentleman is quite right about the officials. I have never met so many officials from different Departments, including the Foreign Office, DFID, the Department for Education and Skills, and the EU. The island was full of people, all with good intentions, wanting to do good for St. Helena.

Governments are not very good at creating wealth, although they are very good at distributing it and at delivering public services. Indeed, 80 per cent. of those in St. Helena who are lucky enough to have a job work directly for the public sector, and most of the other 20 per cent. work indirectly for the public sector in one way or another. That is the problem that we must address. The hon. Gentleman is right to point to a number of important issues relating to small businesses on the island. We should encourage those businesses in any way that we can, and obstacles to them should be removed. However, it is my view—based not only on my visit to St. Helena but on general experience—that that would not solve structural problems.

I have some experience in economic development and regeneration and in the attraction of inward investment in my home country of Wales, which has suffered enormous structural problems in the last two or three decades with massive capital restructuring and the decline of the traditional heavy industries such as coal and metal. Over 80 per cent. of the population were employed in those industries, which disappeared over a short period. In a sense, there is a parallel with St. Helena; despite its remote location, the island was the centre of the world because it was, for a long time, one of the most important refuelling stations in the world.

19 Nov 2003 : Column 299WH

There is an historical link between St. Helena and my constituency and the ports of Barry and Cardiff in south Wales, not only because the RMS St. Helena docked at Cardiff until recently, but because for many decades we provided the coal for the refuelling station that was visited by ships from all over the world. The island was a vital strategic location, which meant that the East India Company and other private companies profited by having a link with and visiting the island. Most of the wealth—[Interruption.]

Mr. Roger Gale (in the Chair): Order. There is a Division on the Floor of the House. The sitting will resume in 15 minutes.

2.34 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

2.36 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Roger Gale (in the Chair): The Division is off, but I understand that another is imminent. [Interruption.] The 15 minutes for this Division will start from 2.36 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

2.51 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Steen : On a point of order, Mr. Gale. You indicated that there would be a 15-minute suspension, but before that we were waiting for at least three minutes. I hope that the benefit of that will also be extended to the debate.

Mr. Roger Gale (in the Chair): The delay was two minutes and that has been taken into account.

Mr. John Smith : I assure you, Mr. Gale, that that will not encourage me to speak at unnecessary length. I agree with many of the points that have been made about some of the smaller industries, but I differ slightly about what the big problem is. The big problem is too much Government interference and the need for the major restructuring to make the island a success. However, I am sure that all three of us who visited St. Helena would agree that the one thing that is vital for its future is an airport.

In short, if we are having a debate on the future of St. Helena we should have a debate on the airport proposals. We must ensure that they not only succeed but succeed quickly and that DFID makes an early decision on the favoured bidders for the initial proposals. For goodness' sake let us get on with it. I mentioned my experience in these matters; I fear that if we fail to act quickly in this area we will miss an opportunity.

I said earlier that the private sector will solve the problems of these islands; if it does not, they will not be solved at all. It will not be enough for the Government simply to go in and build an airport. The Department has it absolutely right when it calls for a much broader

19 Nov 2003 : Column 300WH

set of proposals based not just on the construction of an airfield, but on the provision of an air operator and a sustainable economy, built round the airport and based on tourism. The hon. Member for Totnes quite rightly referred to the tourist potential. That is the biggest potential of all and the one on which the Government should focus.

I am sceptical when I hear grand ideas about how, if Governments build this and that, all of a sudden the future will be transformed. The experience on some of the projects mentioned, such as windmills, and others shows that that tends not to work. Indeed, the diesel-generated power station is a bit of a disaster in itself. I therefore took an interest in these proposals. It is not my intention to express a preference for any one of them. It is for the Government to decide and to use the existing rules on competition to do so.

I thought it was important, however, to establish whether those bids were serious. By coincidence, one of them involves two major companies located in or near my constituency. I made a point of making contact with them, not to give them favourable access in consideration of their bids, but to find out whether they were serious. I wanted to ensure that we were not talking about a company bidding for the airport, rushing in, pouring lots of concrete and then rushing out again, leaving the islanders with an airport that was never used, or not used enough, which would end up requiring an even greater subsidy from the British Government. I am delighted to be able to say that at least one of the bids is extremely serious, and it involves an air operator with a track record and some of the world's best specialists in construction and in the provision of sustainable economies.

One air operator that has expressed an interest is TBI, which is based in Wales. It runs the airport in my constituency and has a wide portfolio of successful airports throughout the world. I am not saying that it should undertake this project, but it is the sort of company that should be involved, because it delivers on air services. A company with such a worldwide reputation would not become involved in a project unless it was likely to succeed.

Similarly, Ove Arup, which is involved in at least one of the bids, has its international office in Cardiff. I recently met with Mr. Steven Luke, not to indicate any preference towards that bidder rather than another, but to find out whether the bid was serious, and I am delighted to say that it most definitely is. Ove Arup has some of the best experts in the world, who have visited the site and assessed its potential, with regard not only to the construction of the airport and the civil engineering involved, but to the operation of the airport and the development of a viable large commercial hotel that would attract the low-volume, high value-added tourism that the island needs. The company has done its homework—it is not just using business-speak or Government-speak.

This project can be successful, and the only criterion to which I should draw attention—I am sure that my colleagues who accompanied me on the visit agree—is that there should not be any unnecessary delay in considering the bids that are now before the Government, because that would put off the sort of high-quality contractors that are interested.

19 Nov 2003 : Column 301WH

We must solve the geographical problem: access to the rest of the world. If there were a direct flight to Paris, that would attract the rich French tourists who want to come and see where Napoleon spent his last few days and died in somewhat questionable circumstances—I am sure that those will be debated for another 100 years or so. We have been there, and it is worth seeing.

The future of St. Helena is the airport, the airport, the airport, and a decision on it must be made quickly. I know that there is a risk, and that the Government must consult widely. Moreover, the Saints must be encouraged to share the ownership of the project. As someone with some experience in this field, I advise the Government to tread carefully because, when we were on the island, we heard concerns expressed about the "threat" that large-scale investment, especially that based on foreign tourism, could present to the islanders' cultural values and heritage. Coming from Wales, where we have similar problems, and the associated problem of language, I know that people from small communities are sometimes fearful of that type of investment, but in fact its effect is often the opposite of what is feared.

The biggest challenge facing the island is depopulation. If it continues at its current rate, only the elderly and young will be left on the island, and that will make the provision of a sustainable economy impossible. My colleagues and I were immensely impressed with the skills, talent and ability of the young people. We all regularly visit schools in our constituencies, but when we visited Prince Andrew school, I was astounded and impressed by the ability and latent talent of the young people. The future of the island depends on exploiting those talents. The only way to do that is through investment, and the only way to attract investment is through the construction of the airport. The honey was delicious—I refuse to say, on the grounds that it may incriminate me, whether I brought any home—but it is not the solution to the island's problems. The solution for the future of St. Helena, and this is my one plea to the Minister, is to get on with that construction project. It can work and it will work, as long as we do it in good time.

Mr. Roger Gale (in the Chair): Order. It may be convenient to tell hon. Members that, if there are no further Divisions in the House, the debate is scheduled to finish at 3.47 pm. Three Front-Bench spokesmen have suggested that they want 10 minutes each to wind up. I shall therefore call the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones) at about 3.17 pm. Two hon. Members who are not on the Front Bench wish to speak, and if they pay attention to the fact that 15 minutes remain, they will both be called.

3.1 pm

Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford): Thank you, Mr. Gale, for allowing me to make a brief contribution. I begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) and commending him for raising the issue of St. Helena.

It is vital not to forget that we, as Members of Parliament, represent not only people on the UK mainland, but British citizens living overseas. It is sad

19 Nov 2003 : Column 302WH

that the Minister replying today represents the Department for International Development, because St. Helena is British; it is not a foreign territory. St. Helena, and all remaining British overseas territories, should be treated as we would expect our constituents to be treated, so this debate is vital. During business questions last week, I suggested that we should debate issues relating to overseas territories more regularly. There is no annual debate on overseas territories but there should be.

Today we have the opportunity to focus on St. Helena, a territory I have not had the privilege to visit, although I hope some day to have that opportunity, and I have visited several other British overseas territories. However, having spoken to many people from St. Helena, including Calvin Thomas, who is one of our distinguished doormen in the House of Commons, I know how proud they are of being British. They want to feel like they are part of our country, just like every one of us and each of our constituents.

The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley), who has since left the Chamber, stated that the people of St. Helena were granted British citizenship only in 2002. That is correct, but it does not devalue the fact that those people were British subjects long before then. St. Helena remains a British territory. It seeks not independence or greater autonomy, but the opportunity to make its own decisions and govern itself. British Governments of all parties have let down the people of St. Helena. How can it be right that the people of that wonderful territory do not have access to an airport and are treated as second-best British subjects?

Mr. Steen : Is my hon. Friend aware that if a St. Helenian wants to study at a university in Britain, he pays between eight and 10 times more than a British subject from the UK? He also pays substantially more than some students coming from Europe. Does that make sense?

Mr. Rosindell : That makes no sense to me at all. As Members of Parliament, our job is to ensure that all British people are treated in the same way and given the same opportunities, and it is disgraceful that someone from St. Helena is not given the same opportunities as our constituents.

My hon. Friend referred on several occasions to the attitude of France, the Netherlands and Spain towards their overseas territories, which is different from the attitude that our Foreign Office has adopted over the years. I am afraid to say that I suspect that the Foreign Office has long hoped that our overseas territories would seek independence or join another country. I hope that that does not happen, as the remaining territories want to, and should, remain British. We should encourage them, and we should value and cherish the overseas territories that we have.

I want to commend the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), who chairs the all-party group on St. Helena, of which I am proud to be a member. I hope that more prominence is given to the needs of St. Helena and that the British Government will ensure that the EU does not impose restrictions on our overseas territories without giving them the advantages that the overseas territories of other European countries are given. I

19 Nov 2003 : Column 303WH

accept that St. Helena is not part of the EU, so how can it be right that restrictions and regulations are imposed on it? I know that the same is true for other overseas territories. The Falkland Islands have had similar restrictions imposed on them while receiving no benefit—how can that possibly be justified?

I endorse everything that has been said about the need to push ahead with the development of the airport. St. Helena is a honeypot for the future, which we should encourage to develop in tourism and trade. We should give it the advantages that it needs to be self-sufficient while retaining its unique British status.

I hope that the Minister will consider one important point that has not been mentioned—democracy. The people of St. Helena are British, like us, but they have no vote in British elections. They cannot send a representative, or even part of a representative, to this place. How can it be right that we can debate, make laws for and effectively decide the future of that territory, when its people have no vote or say in how this place is elected? That cannot be right in democratic terms, and it is not how France, Spain, the Netherlands and Denmark treat their overseas territories, all of which have votes in elections to their Parliaments.

Our system is undemocratic and wrong, and I hope that that and all the other valid points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes and other hon. Members will be taken into account and that the Foreign Office will change its attitude. I hope that St. Helena will remain British, like Gibraltar, in perpetuity.

3.8 pm

Bob Russell (Colchester): I apologise to you, Mr. Gale, and to the Chamber for not being here at the commencement of this debate. I was in the House presenting a ten-minute Bill.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing the debate and I thank the hon. Members who have spoken, in particular the three Members who have recently returned from St. Helena, an island that I had the great pleasure of visiting four years ago on the previous Commonwealth Parliamentary Association visit. By all accounts, the economic situation on the island has deteriorated in that time, and the population has fallen, arguably to below break-even point. Clearly, something has to be done.

The airfield is a vital—if not the most vital—aspect. However, there is more to the matter than that, because by my reckoning more citizens of St. Helena now live off the island than live on it. Get-up-and-go people are getting up and going, and one reason is that, given the education on the island, if a youngster is to progress through higher or further education, it is in the family's interest to move away to the United Kingdom.

Families establish residence here to qualify for an education system that is currently denied them, although, ironically—and I am sure that Napoleon would have been amused by this—a young man or woman from France can attend university in the United Kingdom for a fraction of what it costs a young person from the island of St. Helena, who is British. There is a difference between this country's treatment of its citizens who live on St. Helena and its treatment of those who live on the mainland of the United Kingdom.

19 Nov 2003 : Column 304WH

It is not as if St. Helena is a rich country. It is not a third world country, but per capita income is considerably lower than in this country. I should explain that my interest in the island involves an extraordinary coincidence, in that the patron saint of Colchester is St. Helena. The spelling is the same, but the pronunciation is different. My wife and I and our three children all attended St. Helena school. That fact and a couple of constituents with connections with St. Helena are the reason for my keen interest in the island and its future.

We have a historical obligation to the people of St. Helena because the island played an integral part in sustaining empire for between 200 and 400 years. We have an obligation to the citizens who live there; I hope that we can create an economic climate such that some of those who have left will feel that they can return, and those already living there will be able to remain. I commend all that has been done. I suspect that per head of population the island of St. Helena has more spokespersons in this House than any other part of the Commonwealth or, indeed, the United Kingdom.

Something has to be done. We treat children differently if they come from St. Helena, but interestingly we are more than happy as a nation to recruit young people from St. Helena into Her Majesty's armed forces. There are more Saints per head of population serving in the British Army—about 50 young men and women from a population of fewer than 4,000 people—than there are from any other part of this country. If that sort of recruitment could be replicated across the UK, we would not have a shortfall in the Army.

This has been a welcome debate. I hope for some encouraging answers from the Minister. He is relatively new to his post, so he is not saddled with the baggage of those who have gone before. Four years ago, the new airport was on the agenda and a decision was imminent. Four years later, it is on the agenda and a decision is imminent. The best thing that I can suggest to the Minister is to tell us that the airfield is progressing. If he cannot give that assurance today, I recommend that he make an early visit to St. Helena. He would then make history; he would be the first Minister of any generation ever to visit the island. Royalty has been there, but no Minister has.

3.14 pm

Mr. Nigel Jones (Cheltenham): It is a great pleasure to speak after the hon. Members for Totnes (Mr. Steen) and for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith), who were interesting and enthusiastic travelling companions—as, indeed, are you, Mr. Gale.

In the last 25 years the British taxpayer has spent £250 million—a quarter of a billion pounds—on St. Helena, without the island becoming remotely financially self-sufficient. We have heard that the population of the island is declining rapidly. There were 5,000 people on the island 18 months ago. When we were there last month, the population was 3,800. It has lost almost a quarter of its population in 18 months. Something is seriously wrong, and something needs to be done. St. Helena has lost its raison d'être, to use an expression that Napoleon might have used. The island used to be a great strategic asset to the East India Company and the British Crown as a provisioning point for naval and

19 Nov 2003 : Column 305WH

merchant ships. That has gone now, and the island has become a supplier of migrant labour to Ascension island, the Falkland Islands and the UK.

I should declare a constituency interest. St. Helena has enjoyed an education link for several decades with Cheltenham's colleges of higher education, which now form the university of Gloucestershire. Professor Tony Charlton, head of the link programme, sent me an e-mail at the weekend to say:

He continued:

Before I went to St. Helena, I sought out Saints in my constituency. Several of them came to see me. Most of them came to train in the UK as teachers; most did not return to St. Helena. Although we are delighted that they have made their homes here, they point to and underline the main problem of St. Helena, which is population loss.

The need for air access to St. Helena has been discussed for decades. It simply is not sustainable in the modern world to rely on a single ship, the RMS St. Helena, plying its way up and down the Atlantic ocean, making occasional calls at St. Helena with fresh supplies, islanders returning for, perhaps from holiday, and a few tourists. Air access is vital. To underline what the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan said, airport, airport, airport—those are our three priorities.

The Government have set aside £26.3 million. The island's people, including Members of the Legislative Council, believe that that is a firm commitment. I want an assurance from the Minister that it is, because the Government do not seem to have made the final commitment to providing air access. A study of the four bidders is under way; hopefully, that will soon be concluded. We want a statement from the Government that there will be air access to the island.

I want to question the sum of £26.3 million. That is apparently the likely cost of replacing RMS St. Helena at 1990 prices. What kind of economic basis is that for making international development decisions? The actual cost of RMS St. Helena was £33 million, as it overran its initial estimate of £19 million. The airport will certainly cost more than £26.3 million. I would like the Government to revisit those numbers. I do not want them to take the £26.3 million away; I want the figure

19 Nov 2003 : Column 306WH

nailed down and, if necessary, given to my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) for safe-keeping. It is important that the airport goes ahead.

The RMS St. Helena requires an annual subsidy of £1.5 million, which is set to increase. As evidenced in places such as the Scottish islands, airports, particularly small ones, require subsidies to support them. St. Helena is no different. The airport will require a subsidy, which will eventually be provided by the St. Helena Government when the economy picks up. The current subsidy for the RMS, or something like it, will need to continue in the early days of the airport. Do the Government propose to subsidise the airport in the early years?

We have heard about ship access. I have some video footage—for sale at an enormous price—of the hon. Member for Totnes descending from the RMS St. Helena on to a barge. There was an extraordinary swell, but he made a very good fist of it; it was a good landing. Even when there is an airport, the island will require ships to carry freight. Better provision, such as a deep-water jetty or wharf, is needed for landing freight and passengers. We have heard that cruise liners could not send passengers to the island last year because of the choppy water. Not for the first time, the island lost a considerable amount of income because of that. Is there a Government commitment to contribute to the building of a deep-water jetty or wharf?

With air access, there is a good prospect of attracting greater numbers of tourists to St. Helena. We have heard about Longwood house, where Napoleon died. Fans of Napoleon would be showing dereliction of duty if they did not visit Longwood. The museum on Elba attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors—

Mr. Steen : Eight hundred thousand.

Mr. Jones : As we have heard, it attracts 800,000 visitors a year. Longwood has far more authentic artefacts to offer. I do not suggest that St. Helena needs hundreds of thousands of visitors, but many would come if transport links were improved. People would visit St. Helena for the sea. The island has no beaches, but does have fishing and scuba diving. Sea lovers would find a host of attractions, including a wide range of sea life and numerous wrecks, which offer a fascinating opportunity for divers. However, it may be necessary to introduce measures to ensure that those wrecks are not stripped of anything valuable.

As far as eco-tourism is concerned, many of the endemic species have died out, but some have survived, such as the wire bird—a long-legged plover, which we have seen—and the gumwood tree. The St. Helena National Trust's efforts to plant their millennium forest deserve to be applauded and supported. The forest is to include a section named the Colchester plantation, which will be devoted to the gumwood. My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester has raised more than £500 for that, some of which was from me.

Eco-tourists might like to visit the phenomenon that is Jonathan the tortoise at Plantation house. He is almost 200 years old, is reputed to be the only living creature to have met Napoleon, and has a harem of five large lady tortoises. They are all thought to have come from Mauritius. It is believed that the island may cease to exist when Jonathan passes away. I hope that that will not be the case.

19 Nov 2003 : Column 307WH

I was surprised to find so little agricultural or horticultural activity on the island, as it must be possible to grow vegetables or keep chickens there. Besides providing a fresh source of food, island-produced vegetables and chicken would reduce the need to import food from South Africa, and they would be something to offer to the visitors that the island hopes to attract.

One health problem on the island that was brought to my attention was the high incidence of hypertension. As someone who suffered a heart attack a year ago, I readily sympathise. My doctor tells me to eat five portions of fresh fruit a day, and I suspect that one of the reasons for the hypertension epidemic on St. Helena is the lack of fresh food. Tinned vegetables on display in shops contain a lot of salt, which is a major cause of hypertension. Growing more fruit and vegetables on the island would help to solve that problem.

The health system on the island is generally excellent. There is a well equipped cottage hospital and four doctors who can cope with most operations and run Government clinics. I had a titanium stent inserted into a coronary artery following a heart attack last year, and I was interested and comforted to be told that the procedure could have been carried out on St. Helena. However, if a medical emergency occurs for which the hospital is not equipped, there is no air ambulance to take the patient speedily to South Africa or the UK. On such occasions, the islanders become acutely aware of their isolation and the need for an airport.

We have heard little about the plan for a new constitution, which is provoking much thought and discussion. There is a disagreement between the island's Legislative Council, which wants a three-tier system of government, and the Minister, who wants a two-tier system. The only advice that I can give the Minister is that if the islanders get the system that they want, they are far more likely to make a success of it than if something is imposed on them from London. Members of the Legislative Council raised a range of issues with us, including the infrastructure, the wind turbines, illegal fishing—they really do want their 200-mile limit to be patrolled properly—and the EU regulations regarding illegally imported honey, which were mentioned. They also want a ministerial visit.

What struck me as the RMS St. Helena chugged gently towards the island is just how far it is from anywhere else. For somewhere this remote to have survived into the 21st century, with the sea as the only access, is a tribute to those who decided to stay. However, the shrinking population is a threat to a viable future. If the much discussed airport and wharf are built in the next few years, a more prosperous, albeit changed, future for this distant outpost of the Commonwealth should be secured. Without significant, dramatic and urgent change, including air access, Her Majesty's Government will be faced with another bill of £250 million, if not more, in the next 25 years.

3.26 pm

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon): It is a pleasure to take part in this important debate on St. Helena. I congratulate the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) on securing the debate and my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on his able and vivid speech about the issues. I was extremely

19 Nov 2003 : Column 308WH

interested to hear the first-hand accounts of three colleagues who visited St. Helena only a few weeks ago. Over the years, we have all learned that there is no substitute for seeing a place in the raw in order to learn about it. I have just returned from North Korea—an isolated country. It will be interesting to talk about another country that is isolated only for the completely different reason of geography, not for reasons of politics or demography.

I have abandoned my set speech, as I do not want to go over ground that has already been well trodden, and I want to give the Minister as much time as possible to reply to the several points that have been made. I shall row in behind some of those points. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes, in his usual vivid and interesting style, asked several interesting questions, one of which is of particular concern to me: windmills and the Government's injection of capital into a project that seems to have failed. I hope that the Minister will tell us what went wrong, what he intends to do to put it right and in what time scale. I come from a part of the world—Devon and Cornwall—where there are many windmills that seem to work extremely well, much to the irritation of local people. I wonder why this project has failed.

Hon. Members also talked about the treatment of St. Helena compared with the overseas territories of other EU countries, especially in relation to access to EU structural funds. I hope that the Minister will tell us what rules apply to St. Helena in that regard and why funds have not been made available in recent years.

We also heard about the costs of accessing education in the United Kingdom, which seem to defy logic. I appreciate that that is not entirely within the Minister's remit, but in preparing for the debate I read that he had been made aware of the issue some time ago and that he would look into it. Can he tell us today why students from St. Helena have to pay the top rates to gain access to our institutions of further education, and much more than UK and EU students?

Finally, we have heard much about the airport. It is obvious that the airport is critical, and I shall return to the matter after I have made four points, which I hope will take the debate forward.

First, I agree with the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith) about changes to the strategic position of the island. Once upon a time, as the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones) said, it was almost in the centre of things. Ships had to pass the island, and it was a strategic refuelling stop, so people had a reason for going there. Such changes happen not only to islands and countries; they can happen even to towns. Market towns that have no market may start to struggle, and a coal mining town that no longer has a coal mine will certainly start to struggle. Places like that need to find a new, strategic raison d'être. That is what the island has been trying to do.

One does not need to be a genius to work out that tourism is obviously an important part of the island's future, but one cannot do tourism in today's high-flying, mass-communications age without an airport. How many people have the time to sit on a ship for a week, travelling from Europe to St. Helena, enjoy a week's holiday and then spend another week on the ship going

19 Nov 2003 : Column 309WH

back? That is not a viable way to run a tourism industry. The issue seems to come down to the island having an airport.

Secondly, it is absolutely fundamental that the Government are responsible for infrastructure. We know that a capital project of that kind could not possibly be achieved by the island itself. The Government clearly have a responsibility for it. I do not propose a love-in with the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan, but I agree with him that it is a question not of there being more government but of the Government doing the right thing.

The Government should provide the infrastructure, even if it is the enhanced port and docking facilities that were so graphically described by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes. I shall probably dream tonight of his legs waving around in the breeze as he tries to jump from a gangway on to the shore or on to a ship—it is a vivid impression. If the Government can move forward on proposals for the airport and the upgrading of the docking facilities, I am sure that the islanders will find the energy and enterprise to do the rest. I have read some of their websites recently, and it seems that they are not short of innovation and energy; they will provide the facilities to make the project work and come up with ways to attract tourists.

We have heard about Longwood house and Napoleon. We are all fascinated with that remarkable character, and that fascination will not go away. All tourist industries need a focal point; and the island has not only that but a beautiful climate. With the right sort of airport, it could become self-sufficient over a number of years if people focus on tourism. It is important that the Government deliver on that.

Thirdly, why has there been such delay? The issue has been raised many times in the House. I do not point the finger at the Minister, who is relatively new to his post; it is not his fault. However, the Government have taken an awfully long time deciding whether to back an airport proposal. For some time, it seemed that they were calculating whether it might be better to pump money into a new ship rather than an airport, but the advantages of an airport over a new ship cannot be compared.

The subject was raised in a debate in the House in 1997. It was explored again by my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) in 2001, and it has been raised several times since. Each time the Government were pressed for a decision. Will the Minister say what has happened? How far forward are we in reviewing the bids that have apparently come in? What is the time scale for the start and completion of the project? We need definitive answers.

Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) said how sad he was that DFID should be dealing with one of our overseas territories. I wonder whether it is the right Department to oversee such a massive infrastructure project. Would it not be better, for example, if the Department for Trade and Industry were to be in charge of such a project? I am not saying anything negative about the Minister, but I wonder whether the Government's thinking is right. Was the transfer of responsibility for overseas territories from

19 Nov 2003 : Column 310WH

the Foreign Office to DFID a few years ago a step in the right direction, and did it affect our thinking about overseas territories? We do not want St. Helena to have handouts for ever and a day; we want to build self-sufficiency and give the islanders what they need.

The Government have often said that they want to make the island self-sufficient. That is clearly the right policy, but it has not yet happened and we have heard some alarming tales about population loss and a struggling economy. It has been obvious for many years that an airport is the main infrastructure project necessary to turn the island around, but it has been subject to dither and delay with the result that the island's economy is struggling. We look to the Minister today to give the residents of St. Helena some much-needed hope.

3.35 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas) : I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing this debate. He was, as ever, characteristically robust in his approach, but he was misguided in his conclusion that the Government are neglecting St. Helena. I completely reject that conclusion, but I welcome the opportunity to set out in more detail what the Government have been doing for the island. There is considerable interest in the House about St. Helena, and during oral questions in October I gave the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) the opportunity to come and have a longer conversation with me. I was toying with ways of offering other hon. Members the opportunity to consider the issues facing St. Helena and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for helping me out.

We heard an excellent contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith) and an interesting insight from my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley), as well as interesting speeches from the hon. Members for Colchester, for Romford (Mr. Rosindell), for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones) and for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter).

St. Helena is one of the most isolated of our overseas territories, being equidistant in the south Atlantic ocean between the coasts of Africa and south America. St. Helenians are a proud people and I am privileged to have responsibility for the development issues facing them. I feel somewhat hurt that the hon. Member for South-West Devon might be seeking to take responsibility for St. Helena from my Department just as I am enjoying getting to grips with the issues facing it.

Many hon. Members rightly touched on the innovative spirit, skills and talents of the people of St. Helena. I have not been to the island, nor, as the hon. Member for Totnes said, do I have any immediate plans to do so, but I have been very lucky to have had two full and helpful discussions in London with visiting representatives from the island's Executive and Legislative Councils. I had the pleasure of meeting Councillor Eric George, a senior member of the island's Council, on both occasions. He was accompanied on the first occasion by Mr. John Newman, the Speaker of the island's elected Assembly, and on the second occasion by Councillor Eric Benjamin, another Member with long experience in the Assembly.

19 Nov 2003 : Column 311WH

On both occasions, we discussed the challenges and constraints of the island's economic development. We reviewed progress towards the development of air access and reflected on the implications of the recent decline in the island's population. We considered the prospects for privatisation of some Government services to free up additional resources and examined the need for further assistance to help with the implementation of a proposed move towards a ministerial system of government, to which the hon. Member for Cheltenham referred. I look forward to further discussions on those and other issues with two other councillors who will be visiting London next month for the overseas territories consultative council.

Hon. Members are right to draw attention to St. Helena's difficult economic background. Indeed, over some five centuries St. Helena's economic fortunes have endured what can only be described as a roller-coaster ride. The real low point came in 1976 when Union-Castle Lines ceased the regular service between Southampton and Cape Town which had maintained St Helena's essential physical access to the outside world for decades.

As the island had no airport, the Labour Government stepped in to ensure that access was maintained, and the Conservative Government who followed rightly continued that. Ever since we have provided St. Helena with a cash subsidy of over £1 million a year to support regular calls by a dedicated passenger and cargo vessel. The present one was purpose-built for St Helena's needs in 1989 at a cost to the Government of some £32 million. It would have been cheaper but for the fact that the company making the vessel went into receivership in the middle of the process. The vessel will reach the end of its economic life by about the end of this decade, and we will have to look at the situation then.

The new ship, which was launched in 1990, represents just part of the Government's consistent and unflagging commitment to St. Helena over the past 30 to 40 years. Our contribution since 1997 alone, when DFID was established, amounts to over £50 million. In addition, during the current financial year, we expect to spend over £10.5 million on a combination of budgetary and technical assistance support for the island community. We have given the St. Helena Government assurances on a number of occasions that our support will continue for as long as it is reasonably required.

We are about to start negotiating a new three-year aid package with the St. Helena Government. It will take full account of their strategic development planning. St. Helenians potentially have access not only to British Government funds but to the European regional development fund. Some £9.5 million has been set aside through to 2007, and that has been earmarked by the St. Helena Government for wharf improvements, rock stabilisation on the wharf and possibly improvements in landing arrangements. I will come on to that in a little more detail shortly.

Our shared goal for St Helena, as it is for other overseas territories that still require our support, is to try to achieve sustainable economic and financial self-sufficiency for the island as soon as possible. In an

19 Nov 2003 : Column 312WH

increasingly competitive global world, however, we recognise that this will remain a major challenge for such a small, isolated island that has a declining population.

Like the St. Helena Government and hon. Members, we remain concerned about the decline in the island's population. St. Helena cannot continue to lose its people at the current rate, even if some have every intention of returning either on retirement or at some future point in their career. We are working closely with the island authorities to find ways of encouraging more Saints to stay on or to return to their island.

Bob Russell : What point must the population reach for the island no longer to be economic? Has the Department even considered the possibility of a total depopulation of the island of St. Helena as a cheaper option?

Mr. Thomas : No, we have not. It would be entirely wrong for us to do so. We should concentrate our efforts on what we can do to encourage people from St. Helena to stay on the island. With that in mind, and with the support of the St. Helena Government, we are considering advertising some key posts on enhanced remuneration terms to make them more attractive to St. Helenians. I am thinking, for example, of the post of financial secretary and the post of head of Prince Andrew school.

Hon. Members have rightly identified air access as the key issue. As the hon. Member for South-West Devon said, the issue has been around for some time. One company submitted proposals to us for establishing air access. We considered them in detail and did not feel that the proposition stacked up at that point. As hon. Members will know from written answers that I have given, in April we launched an international competition to attract further interest in the idea of establishing air access. We have made it clear that the advances in air transport technology make an airport on the island a real possibility, thus opening up much greater opportunities for tourism. The competition has received four expressions of interest, which are being evaluated. We expect to receive the evaluation and share it with the St. Helena Government on 17 December. We will then have to consider its results in detail. I understand the point about the need to progress as quickly as possible. Clearly, we will keep the House informed about what we can do.

If air access can be developed, it will be some time before it comes on stream. We are assisting the St. Helena Government with an important review of the existing scheduling and routing of the RMS St. Helena to try to achieve more time for it in the south Atlantic waters, perhaps with more regular and more frequent calls to St. Helena. Further decisions on that are needed. We are looking again at the issue of the breakwater, which a number of hon. Members have raised and which the St. Helena Government continue to press with us. The hon. Member for Totnes, in particular, raised a number of other issues. I will write to him in detail with the answers.

19 Nov 2003 : Column 311WH

19 Nov 2003 : Column 313WH

Next Section

IndexHome Page