Letter and submission from Residents of the Ascension Island, 12 October 2007

Ref: Foreign Affairs Committee Overseas Territory Enquiry

This memorandum is submitted by a group representing a cross section of Ascension Island residents. The group represents people born on island, those who have lived and worked on island for a significant number of years, those who have had and raised children on island, those who have invested in private sector businesses and former elected representatives. Its aim is to demonstrate to the Committee that during the course of the last decade, in relation to Ascension Island, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has repeatedly failed to promote democracy, to operate in an open and transparent manner, to facilitate neither social nor economic development and to provide an environment conducive to the principals of good governance.

In the interests of brevity we have not included all written materials referred to in the main text as most are documents already in the public domain. However should the committee have need of any specific documentation then we would be happy to furnish it.

We hope that the result of this inquiry will be a strong recommendation to the FCO to promote democracy, good governance, accountability, social development and economic growth not only in areas of keen political interest but in its own Overseas Territories on behalf of British Citizens.

Yours sincerely

 

1. Ascension Island was run as a 'Company Town' until the start of this decade. The senior managers of the main User organisations sat on various committees together with the island Administrator (paid for by the Users) and they decided on local issues, from infrastructure to policy agreements. Workers did not pay any taxes and had no representation or rights enshrined in legislation. All the island work force living in accommodation owned by their employers and "tied" to their employment - many having lived for 30 - 40 years + on the island on "short term contracts".

2. At the end of the nineties the Users expressed a wish to concentrate on their core businesses and to devolve island administrative powers to an alternative body. In 1999 Robin Cook published a White Paper 'Partnership for Progress and Prosperity in the Overseas Territories which seemed to offer the new way forward for Ascension Island.

3. Various reports and studies were undertaken and the views of the Ascension Island workers were sought. (Ascension into the Millenium, Portsmouth Report, Referendum) A decision was taken by the FCO and HMG to democratise Ascension Island. Taxation was to be introduced but in return elected representatives would be asked to form an Island Council and to take forward development of Ascension Island socially and economically.

4. Businesses and property were advertised as being for sale or lease and people were encouraged to invest in the private sector. A new company Ascension Island Commercial Services was formed and public meetings held to publicise and inform residents of the privatisation of former government held assets. Local residents formed and bought several of these businesses.

5. Taxation was duly introduced in April 2002 and the first Island Council elected to office in November 2002. Every single candidate who stood for election did so with a manifesto outlining the need to bring social change to Ascension Island. To allow rights of abode, land/property ownership and to create an infrastructure and environment attractive to inward investment. This was in no way believed to be wishful thinking. Indeed in his Christmas Message of 2000 the Governor of Ascension island stated "We will also be addressing the democratic deficit to ensure that St Helenians on Ascension Island are given the right of abode there, the opportunity to own businesses and a form of local government which gives the residents choice and a say in the running of their Island". This was followed by the Administrator in March 2001 who stated during a press interview that "As for the rest, we know that we are going to need Land Tenure legislation very soon. This will give people the right to either purchase or lease property or land. We will also need legislation to provide for the right of abode on Ascension although we will have to decide how we are going to provide for the unemployed, the elderly etc." Given that the 2 most senior representatives of both the FCO and HMG on the island were publically promoting these changes it is obvious that local workers believed them to be true and planned accordingly.

6. Having formed a Council based on the principles of self determination, rights of abode and property ownership a 5 year Strategic Plan was produced and presented to the then Minister for Overseas Territories, Bill Rammel when he stopped over at Ascension en route to the Falkland Islands in November 2003. Following his return to the UK his department wrote to the Council acknowledging both the visit and the Plan. It is important to highlight this event as the FCO subsequently tried to deny this Plan either existed or had been made known to the FCO and Ministers.

7. Constitutional Advisor, Michael Bradley visited the Island in September 2003 at the behest and expense of the FCO to assist in the development of immigration legislation including the granting of belonger status. Public meetings were held and were well attended. Mr Bradley drafted basic immigration policies which he sent to the Ascension Island Council, via the FCO, for further discussion and public consultation.

8. In December 2003 the Wideawake Agreement was signed at Secretary of State level allowing for civil aircraft to use Wideawake airfield. Ian Ramsay from Air Safety Support International was commissioned to advise on what upgrades would be necessary to enable commercial flights to use the airfield. The clear intent was to increase the number of civilian passengers travelling to Ascension with a view to developing a niche tourism market.

9. During an Island Council meeting held in May 13th 2004 which was attended by Ralph Jones from the FCO item 3.15 referred to the ongoing Land Adjudication process and 5 infill plots were identified and agreed upon to be marked and advertised for freehold sale. At a subsequent meeting on 24th September 2004 AIC agreed to purchase two houses from CSO. If as the FCO contends that all property belongs to the Crown (and by default Ascension Island Government) and given that no new laws in respect of this have been written or enacted, why would the Crown sanction AIG paying for property it already owned?

10. During 2004 the FCO granted AIG 70k (subsequently raised to 106k) to employ a Legal Adviser whose terms of reference specifically included aiding the Attorney General in drafting land tenure and immigration legislation.

11. In December 2004 the FCO hosted meetings between the Ascension Island Government Fisheries Officer, an elected Councillor and 2 companies it had sourced and invited to investigate the feasibility of a commercial fishery on Ascension Island. Early indications were that this was potentially a good source of income and the FCO promised 15K to initiate the process.

12. In late 2004 a new Attorney General was appointed and in January 2005 during a council meeting he produced a timetable for land tenure and right of abode. This timetable formed part of the minutes and efforts by the FCO to deny that they had been involved in this timetable are rather trite as the AG was acting on their current policy in drafting this and it was authorised by the Governor before being released to the Council.

13. At a council meeting on 30th May 2005 chaired by HE the Governor, the council was advised that he had had meetings with FCO officials in London and that these officials felt that they now had a better appreciation of the needs and aspirations of Ascension Island. In order to take this forward a summit had been arranged for September 2005 so that elected representatives and concerned residents could put forward their points of view directly to the FCO.

14. In October 2005 a new Economic Feasibility Study was commissioned by the FCO. The elected representatives were not invited to comment on the terms of reference although many other agencies were. (PQ 58744 refers). This Oxford Policy Management report was paid for by the FCO and one of the main consultants was a former FCO employee. It is unsurprising that its findings were somewhat different to those by the independent consultants who compiled the Portsmouth Report. A case of 'He who pays the piper"?

15. The first council came to the end of its term and elections were held in October 2005. Once again all nominees campaigned on the issues of right of abode, property ownership, self determination and economic development. Prior to the election the Administrator asked to see all manifestoes and promised the candidates a face to face summit meeting with Lord Triesman Minister for Overseas Territories to discuss Ascension Island's future. This would be in lieu of the promised summit that did not take place in September.

16. Only 10 days after the election a delegation of FCO and MOD officials delivered the U-turn announcement to the newly elected councillors only 1 hour before going public. There was no discussion or negotiation. The delegation had arrived on island with a prepared statement that allowed no room for manoeuvre or flexibility. All development of any kind was to cease and no rights would be conferred on any persons living and working on Ascension Island.

17. At the next Council meeting in December it was announced that FCO were no longer going to fund the Fisheries research project. They made reference to a desk study that had been completed in 1990. This study had never been made known to Councillors. Pre-council, fishing licences for Ascension waters were being sold by St Helena for over 100k per annum. Furthermore even the OPM Economic Feasibility Study referred to a possible viable economy being developed through the fishing industry.

18. There then followed a long period of non-communication. The Adminstrator made absolutely no attempt to meet and discuss the implications of this change in FCO policy. When Councillors requested that the promised summit with Lord Triesman be honoured so that they could make their case directly to him they were told that it was not going to happen as there was nothing to discuss.

19. Councillors became frustrated in their efforts to engage officials in debate. The Administrator remained remote and withdrawn and the only way to prompt responses to questions was to have them asked as formal Parliamentary Questions by MPs in the UK. The replies to these questions were at best often inaccurate and at times they appeared deliberately obstructive. Frequent requests from the Councillors for FCO officials to meet and hold crisis talks were denied. Instead the rhetoric from King Charles Street became quite dark, accusing the people of Ascension of being confused, and misled and of not understanding the real issues.

20. Finally in August 2006 Frank Savage FCO OT Advisor) was engaged to meet with elected representatives to see if dialogue could be re-established. Council made him aware of the inability of the Administrator to engage with elected representatives and their frustration at the lack of interest from the FCO.

21. In November 2006, Ascension Island was represented at the OTCC and the delegate gave warning to the FCO and Lord Triesman in both public and private fora that the population of Ascension were becoming weary of their treatment at the hands of Government Officials and it was likely that the youngest democracy in the world was about to fail in its infancy. Despite protestations from FCO officials and Lord Triesman that they would do all they could to prevent this, there continued to be no real dialogue between the two sides or a willingness by the FCO to meet half way on any issue.

22. Lord Triesman was supposed to have visited Ascension Island en route to the Falklands but due to bad weather changed his flight plan and bypassed Ascension altogether. This was not the first time Ascension had been missed off an official's itinerary. During the tenure of the first Island Council, not one official government representative of any standing visited Ascension for the purpose of meeting with island representatives. Some were encouraged when using the island as a staging post en route to the Falkland Islands or St Helena to take some time to meet the council but no trips were ever arranged for the express purpose of working with the council. During the second Council's tenure it became de rigueur to send officials out shortly before they moved onto other departments, which certainly led to suspicion as to how seriously the FCO took the democratic process on Ascension Island.

23. Finally after more than 12 months of silence a group of Overseas Territories officials visited for a 2 day summit with Councillors. Even this was dismissive of the local representatives. A request to the delegation that if possible one of the days could be a weekend to allow for maximum attendance of councillors was flatly refused on the grounds that FCO staff do not work weekends. Then when the officials did arrive half a day was taken up by sight seeing and the first evening was an FCO only dinner at the Residency to which no local representatives were invited. In this way valuable time for discussion was lost and meetings became more charged due to the added pressure to accomplish everything in a short time. All Councillors held other full time employment and generally gave up free time to perform council duties for no remuneration. In actuality, attendance by Councillors at various seminars and Overseas Territories Councils (OTCC, Economic Development ?? for example) entailed Councillors using up personal leave entitlements and subsidising some of the costs themselves.

24. The result was the meeting was brought to a premature end when the head of the FCO delegation, Hugh Philpott, made it clear that whilst there was no intention to return Ascension to a Company Town, at least not publically, there was to be no development in any other area thus condemning the island to a state of limbo. He was dismissive of the councillors and their efforts and wanted to minimise the level at which they could operate.

25. Subsequently the majority of the Councillors (5 out of 6) resigned in the next few days (one had resigned a week earlier in frustration as he could not obtain leave from work to attend the meetings and was left with no way to participate). It was clear that effective representation had been nullified. The governor called a General Election but only 2 candidates came forward due to the whole island realising the futility of the process. There being no elected body the Governor then appointed people to form an Advisory Body. Most of the invited persons are the Senior Managers of the main User companies, a definite hark back to Company Town days. The Advisory Body meets in secret. No minutes are published and no information is released to the public as to the issues discussed or outcomes of the discussions.

26. There was no movement from either the Governor or Administrator to engage with the taxpayers for almost six months except for an announcement that a council may be considered again in 12 months time. Meanwhile the workers of Ascension were expected to be content with a dictatorship.

27. Eventually the Governor, whilst transiting from St Helena, held a public meeting on Ascension Island. However the purpose of the meeting was to allow trainers that had been on St Helena the opportunity to give a presentation on politics. There was virtually no notice given and many people on island were unaware that the meeting was taking place. The few that did go requested that the Governor take back the message to the FCO that the residents on Ascension still wanted to have a dialogue with the UK and to move on. However this could not be achieved when local officials were uncommunicative and if there is to be no flexibility in approach. The Governor agreed at the meeting that the current Advisory Body set up was not democratic.

28. The FCO's handling of Ascension Island since 2000 has been shameless and unprofessional. There has been no clarity of purpose or effective communication. The elected Council has been used to legitimise an illegitimate system that has never been a true democracy and, it seems, was never intended to be. The hypocrisy of the FCO and HMG has left the taxpayers of Ascension disenfranchised, disillusioned and disgusted with UK government tactics. It has also set the framework for future problems as more people become unsettled and leave and employers are faced with increasing recruitment problems. Also by stagnating Ascension's economy the burden to replace and improve the outdated infrastructure will increasingly fall to the workers rather than the employers or the UK yet they will have no stake in the future of the island. It is inconceivable and undeniably sad that Britain in the 21st century has allowed one of her Overseas Territories to be denied basic democratic freedoms, and taxation without representation.

29. In conclusion we ask that the following recommendations be considered. That democracy be immediately instigated on Ascension Island. Clear commitment by the FCO to facilitate democracy and to engage in meaningful and productive dialogue with the people of Ascension Island and their elected representatives, perhaps with the assistance of professional mediators if necessary.

30. A brief history of key dates is contained in appendix 1.

31. A freehold agreement is contained in appendix 2.[1] The owner has asked that his name being blanked at this time. Special attention should be drawn to sub-para (g) in which provision is made for future onward sale of the property indicating a clear policy of private sale of property and/or land.

Caroline Yon JP; Paul Bennett; Lawson Henry; Iva Henry; Geoff Jones; Pete Cundy; Natalie Hewat; Johnny Hobson; Harold Henry


ASCENSION ISLAND TIMELINE

 

May 1997: Users pull out of Government indicating that they will concentrate on core business and no longer want to be involved with management of the island and it`s infrastructure.

June 1999: White paper 'Partnership for Progress and Prosperity in the Overseas Territories published by Robin Cook.

April 1999: HMG produces Ascension Into The New Millennium - a Public Consultation Paper.

July 2000: Portsmouth Report suggests Right of Abode as viable way forward.

July 2001: Ascension Island Commercial Services initiates the selling of businesses.

Sept 2001: UK OT Environment Charter signed by Ascension representative.

July 2002: Steering Group Formed to canvass public opinion on appropriate Government model.

Apr 2002: Taxation introduced.

Aug 2002: Referendum on preferred Government Model - 98% in favour of Ascension model of Island Council that has fiscal control and non-voting rights for appointed members.

Oct 2002: Island Council (Ascension) Ordinance Enacted, 4th October.

Nov 2002: First Island Council elected

Sept 2003 Michael Bradley on island from 22nd to 27th to draft immigration and belonger status legislation.

Nov 2003: Bill Rammell (Head of OT) visits the island and 'Strategic Plan' presented to him (Letter of acknowledgement dated 07/04/04)).

Dec 2003: Wideawake Agreement concerning the use of the Airfield by Civil Aircraft presented to Parliament.

Dec 2004: FCO host meeting to gather expressions of interest for Fisheries.

Jan 2005: Attorney General gives timetable for Land Tenure and Right of Abode Legislation.

Oct 2005: Cllr Henry at OTTC told by Lord Triesman there will be no U-turn. (Lord Triesman had sent a letter out on 3rd Oct 2005 re Good Governance).

Oct 2005: The Oxford Policy Management (OPM) Economic Study of Ascension published, 10th October.

Nov 2005: Second Island Council elected, 18th November.

Nov 2005: U-turn decision by OT Minister conveyed by Tony Crombie (FCO) on 30th November.

Dec 2005: FCO refuses to fund Fisheries Research Project after tenders had been sought to undertake the desk study - conveyed at Council meeting 15th December.

Jan 2006: Lord Trieman writes to councillors stating there will be no right of abode on Ascension Island.

Jan 2006: Councillors request advice regarding funding for legal advice regarding right of abode.

Feb 2006: Open letter to Lord Triesman from Ascension Elected Members expressing their disappointment.

April 2006: Denise Holt responds denying all knowledge of the Strategic Plan presented to Bill Rammell.

Aug 2006: Frank Savage visit (FCO OT Advisor).

Nov 2006: Cllr Yon attends OTTC.

Feb 2007: The Ascension Island Fisheries Report (paid for by AIG) received. Recommends management of Ascension Island's waters.

Mar 2007: Majority of councillors resign following meeting with FCO delegates headed by Hugh Philpott.

May 2007: Lack of nominees for new council signifies the collapse of Britains youngest democracy.

June 2007: Pre-selected residents are invited by the Governor to form the Island Advisory Group.

Sept 2007: Public meeting with UK National School of Government. Governor once again informed that Ascension Island taxpayers were unhappy with the lack of democracy and lack of any real effort by FCO to redress this.

To Present No contact from FCO concerning collapse of the Council and restoration of democracy

 



[1] Not published with memorandum