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Why would tourists want to visit St Helena? I have already mentioned Saints who wish to spend their holidays there, but there are a host of other attractions for potential visitors. Napoleon was exiled to and died on St Helena. A section of the island around Longwood House where Napoleon lived has been given to France. A French official lives on the island and shows visitors round. There is an amazing collection of original

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Napoleonic artefacts, including the billiard table on which he laid out his battle plans while writing his memoirs. Around the world many people are interested in Napoleon. I am told that in the United States of America there are 4 million Nap nuts, as they are called, let alone those in the French-speaking world who want to see where he lived. St Helena need attract only a tiny fraction of these people to visit perhaps just once to fill every hotel and guest house on the island.

Napoleon is not the only reason for visiting St Helena. Anglers and divers will also find extraordinary attractions. There are 1,100 shipwrecks around St Helena—a diver’s paradise. The island was, of course, the place where ships called in to replenish stocks of fresh food and water during the days of the East India Company. The island has a wide variety of fish for sea anglers, which is a growing leisure activity. There are many varieties of birds—not just the St Helena wirebird—for the ornithologist. There are also a number of historic sites, many of which need refurbishment.

I talked about inward investment. There are potential investors, most particularly a consortium called Shelco. I have seen its plans for the most environmentally sensitive hotel in the world, not just in operational matters but in building materials, designed by the architect Jeremy Blake of Purcell Miller Tritton. It promises to be a landmark in sustainable tourism, using wind and solar power and growing its own fruit and vegetables, something St Helena used to do in abundance.

Other investors wish to help develop a thriving tourist industry, including some Saints who have already gone back and started to refurbish buildings that could be used as small hotels or guest houses. The problem is that none of this will happen until the airport is built. Has the Minister any idea how long this pause in negotiations will last, and is he confident that the preferred bidder, Impregilo, will stay in the frame with its current bid at the current price?

The consultation document’s figures seem to present the worst-case scenario, with spending for several years all bundled into a single total. If the airport were given the go-ahead now, what would be the cost in each of the financial years 2009-10, 2010-11 and 2011-12, by which time Impregilo plans to have finished the airport?

What has been the outcome of recent communications between the Government and Shelco, or with any other private sector companies? Have there been any meetings, and has there been any discussion of private sector assistance with the costs of building the airport?

It is difficult to imagine a French overseas territory suffering like St Helena. Have the Government made any application to the European Union for assistance in funding the airport? What about the UK’s responsibilities under the UN charter, which says that the UK has special obligations to our overseas territories, and the Government’s claims in their own White Paper that overseas territories have first call on DfID funds to meet “reasonable” needs?

If I had more time I would quote from two excellent books which I recommend to noble Lords: The Last Pink Bits by Harry Ritchie, the former literary editor of the Sunday Times, and The Teatime Islandsby Ben Fogle, the journalist and broadcaster.

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The Government made the right decision in 2005 to build an airport on St Helena. It is now time to deliver on that promise, give the Saints the chance to develop a thriving economy and put right decades of neglect by successive British Governments. I hope that the Minister will give some encouragement to these remarkable people and ensure that a government Minister will, at last, visit St Helena to gain first-hand knowledge of conditions on the island and the difficulties of getting there.

6.32 pm

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, I am sorry that I did not put my name down and am speaking in the gap; I was not expecting this debate. I hope, in view of the time, that I will be permitted a little longer than would be normal, because I want to follow up what has been said: that this decision has been awaited by St Helena and it thought it had got it. It has been waiting for it for nine years, to put this into context. Last December, as has been said, we were told that there would be a delay, and we knew that there was an economic crisis. Now we are being told that there will be a further delay until, I gather, July, although some say it may be the turn of the year before a decision is made.

What are the three options? First, to go ahead with the airport; secondly, not to go ahead with it but to commission a new ship, which will take another five years; or, thirdly, to delay any decision for five years. The economic circumstances of the island cannot take that kind of delay. Already the people who are required on the island—the young people, the working people—are leaving. That leaves, as has been said, an island of either very young children or very elderly citizens.

This airport was going to be the lifeline. It might be costly—all airports are costly wherever you build them, that is true. Nevertheless, if the island is going to be self-sufficient, if the people who live on it are going to have any opportunity for a future and indeed if the island is going to retain people at all, the airport is absolutely necessary. There is no other way around the difficulties, as the noble Lord explained—I have not been myself—of actually going by sea, and the length of time it takes. He described very graphically some of the beauties that can be found on the island, and the points of interest—it was the last resting place of Napoleon, from which he could not escape.

There would be a great deal of interest in St Helena. A lot of tourists would want to go there and development would take place in relation to the hotel. I say to the Minister that, because of the assurances that were given, a lot of people have already invested in the future and they will begin to lose. The people are extremely disillusioned, I must say, at this outcome of events; they have to wait again and they do not even know now whether there is a future—whether the airport will go ahead. A new boat will have to be commissioned if it does not. To wait another five years would absolutely kill it. The people interested in development in the island are not going to hang around for another five years.

Will the Minister tell us what discussions have taken place? I noticed that when this matter was discussed recently in the Commons—I think it was the day after the announcement was made—the Minister

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who was replying said, “I know a lot about St Helena but I have never been”. That is one of the problems that we are facing—many of the relevant people have not been. My interest is there because I have an interest in overseas territories generally, and I have a great interest in the people of St Helena because the situation that they find themselves in is life or death.

I know that we are not going to get a reply, and that is nothing to do with my noble friend Lord Davies of Oldham, because he has been forthright throughout his political career. He is not in a position to say any more to us, except that there is an economic crisis, that we are in the midst of recession, and that the Government cannot commit themselves at this time. But when are they going to commit themselves? That is the position. When are we going to get this answer? We are now told, yes, there could be a decision in July, or it could be the end of the year. There could be a decision not to go ahead. But to say “Another five years” is the end of the road as far as St Helena is concerned. I see my noble friend Lord Gilbert, who is a greater expert than I am on defence, but I would have thought that one of the other advantages of the airport would be that it would add an extra staging post to the aircraft going to the Falklands. That in itself should be invaluable. If we do not go ahead, there is a cost. Already “St Helena”, the ship, is costing roughly £9 million per year. As the Government said, there is a variation in help of about £1.75 million and this is an ongoing cost that will continue. It will continue because we have a commitment to the overseas territory. I think my noble friend would recognise this.

There is disillusionment; people are so disillusioned that they do not know whether to join in the debate. I make an appeal to them: I want them to continue to show their interest and to participate, and to make very clear to the Government that there can only be one answer and that is for the airport to go ahead. I welcome what my noble friend has to say, but I am not very hopeful, and the people of St Helena are not just not hopeful but are losing hope altogether—and that is the real tragedy of this situation. I hope that, although he cannot give an answer, he will press on the Ministers concerned that the lifeblood of the island lies with the airport, and that a decision—a positive decision—to go ahead is required as soon as possible.

6.40 pm

Lord Shutt of Greetland: My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Jones of Cheltenham on rising to the challenge, made 24 hours ago, to take his QSD today. He has given us a wonderful historic background from the experience of his visit and from what he has learnt. The debate is not perfect in timing, and perhaps we could have got two dozen people to speak had we had five weeks’ notice, but I am delighted that the option has been taken. It is not perfect for me as many of my relevant papers are in Greetland, but it is an important challenge for St Helena. I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, was able to speak in the gap as I know much about his interest.

I returned from St Helena exactly three months ago. I went on a CPA visit with MPs Fraser Kemp and Brian Jenkins. The island is not only an overseas

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territory but a dependent overseas territory. It is in the same position as Pitcairn and Montserrat; it is in need of significant aid and assistance and it is nowhere near self-sufficient. That is the starting point for a special island and its needs.

The island is two weeks away from Britain. As my noble friend Lord Jones said, we spent 56 hours on St Helena, but deduct 16 hours’ sleep and you are left with only 40 hours. It was enough time for me to realise that this was a beautiful place and that it had a very interesting heritage and a welcoming and hospitable people. There was enough time to give me a real understanding of the needs of the people, particularly when added to that was the reading and research both before and after.

The sea journey, leaving from Walvis Bay on a Monday and arriving at St Helena on Friday morning, was an absolutely wonderful experience. And it was a wonderful experience sailing again on Sunday and arriving at Ascension Island on Wednesday morning. It was wonderful and it was romantic, but it is not realistic. This is a place of isolation and restricted resources. Let me give three examples. When we were there, my wife, who came with me, had an alternative tour. She went to the hospital where she saw a scanner not in use. She made inquiries about it—it had arrived the previous September and unfortunately something had happened to it en route. I do not know whether anything has been done about it since, but then no one had been prepared to make the journey to St Helena to mend the scanner. If you think about it, you can understand that, because it takes a fortnight of someone’s time. When they get there, they might not have the necessary spare part, and it would take another fortnight to get it. That is one example of the island’s isolation and its dependency on the RMS.

We spoke to people who were concerned about medical treatment and told us about the amount of money needed to get to Cape Town for urgent medical treatment. They explained that in an emergency and for matters beyond the competency of the small hospital on the island, there were problems of having to travel by sea. I learnt of the restricted opportunities in education. I did not go to the school as it happened, but I made my inquiries. There is an average of 51 pupils in each year group at secondary school level. The resources of St Helena are such that only two of them can go to university. Here in the UK, it is the Government’s aim to have half the pupils in secondary school going to university. Therefore, if those pupils were in the UK, there would be an expectation that about 25 of them would go.

There are just over 4,000 people in St Helena and nearly two-thirds of the working people are in the public sector. The GDP is less than £5,000 per head. More than half the employees are earning £95 a week or less, yet the cost of living is greater than in the United Kingdom. Therefore, as my noble friend hinted, it has a four-tier economy: the people who are content to earn their living in St Helena; those who are content to go a little further and go to Ascension and earn a little more; those who are prepared to go a bit further and earn more still in the Falklands; and those who,

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until recently, came to the UK. Remittances from those working abroad assist the economy and are a very important part of it, but those working abroad rely on grandparents to look after their children in St Helena.

An airport would improve access, the economy and quality of life. Clearly, this comes down to money. I have looked at the nature of aid. As I understand it, the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, will respond to the debate with a brief from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, yet the resources for St Helena come from the Department for International Development. As my noble friend indicated, it is the stated policy of the Government that the reasonable assistance needs of the overseas territories are a first call on the aid programme. With the exception of St Helena, Montserrat and the Pitcairn Islands, DfID has an entirely different, albeit entirely honourable, remit of trying to achieve the millennium development goals. However, that aim is shared by others: 10 per cent of aid comes from Britain, 90 per cent comes from elsewhere. Many countries throughout the world that receive aid from us receive far greater sums of aid from elsewhere. However, that is not the case with St Helena, which receives aid only from the UK. The only bilateral aid that St Helena receives is from the UK. It has received some resources from the European Union, a tiny smidgen from a United Nations body and something like £7,500 from Australia and Greece.

I have been looking at aid from other Commonwealth countries. Hardly any of the small islands in the South Pacific that have been granted independence in the past 30 years are receiving UK aid now. In other words, once a place is independent, it is able to knock on other doors. However, that is not the position with St Helena. For example, well over half of the overseas aid of the former Portuguese colony of Cape Verde comes from countries other than Portugal. The point I am making is that other independent countries have other doors on which to knock. However, dependent overseas territories have no other doors on which to knock. I question whether DfID, as opposed to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, is fit for purpose in terms of dispensing aid to the dependent overseas territories.

There is a consultation document on the most appropriate option for access. When you first read the document you think that its proposals are fair enough, but when you read it again you think, just a minute, this jars somewhat. The document refers to a code of practice on consultation and when to consult. It states that formal consultation should take place where there is scope to influence the policy outcome. The document tells us that the preferred policy option is option C—delay. It then refers to who will be consulted. Consultation will take place with St Helenians, residents, expatriates and other stakeholders and others with an interest in the overall use of the Government’s development budget. These groups will include representatives of potential investors and non-governmental organisations. I am rather in favour of non-governmental organisations, particularly those that are involved in overseas aid, and so forth. If one bears in mind that DfID is in partnership with these very organisations and mentions them in particular as being appropriate to respond to

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this, then, almost on a wink and a nod, if an airport is built, perhaps there will not be quite as many resources for the NGOs to be concerned about.

The document also tells us a lot more about DfID than it does about the concerns of St Helena. It tells us about its global concerns over resources. In one sense, the document is slightly neo-colonialist because it almost assumes that the only money that one can spend is sterling. If it is a bad time for sterling, it is a good time for the euro and the dollar. It may well be that our aid money is not buying as much as it did, but the corollary to that must be that other people’s aid money is doing rather better.

Option C is delay but, in truth, option A means delay anyway. If the Minister were to say in 20 minutes’ time, “I am going to surprise you. We are going ahead with this airport now”, it will be 2013 before the first plane lands. That is a delay. Option C means even greater delay. Access and economy go hand in hand. DfID is already exposed to some £8 million on this project. St Helenians themselves are already exposed to £6 million and promises are being made. The airport is a significant issue for the Government to tackle. It is not some incidental matter in the projected DfID budget.

6.52 pm

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, I join others in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Jones, on swiftly seizing the moment and giving us the opportunity for such an interesting and, I suspect, quite significant debate, although it comes at the end of rather a quiet day. My honourable friend the shadow International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell MP, has taken a personal interest in the future of St Helena. Indeed, his deputy, Mark Lancaster MP, has this morning returned from St Helena, which he visited specifically to ascertain what the prospects are and how to go forward. That is part of thinking through the overall strategy for the dependent territories, which we feel has, frankly, been lacking from the Government.

The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, was eloquent about his romantic and prolonged journey, but he also raised some important questions about the administration strategy and handling of the situation, not only in St Helena but in other dependent territories. However, the subject is St Helena, which has a special place in our national historical memory. We all remember the vivid cameo of Bonaparte caged on the HMS “Bellerophon”, anchored, I think, off Falmouth, with people rowing out to look at the tyrant. He was waiting for an answer to a polite letter that he had written to the Prince Regent, asking whether, now that it was all over, he could have a modest-sized mansion in somewhere such as Claremont in Surrey, with a dozen servants, where he could live quite modestly as a country gentleman. He waited and waited and, of course, instead of a reply from the Prince Regent, to his dismay he got a note from the captain saying, “We are not going to leafy Surrey; we are going to St Helena and Longwood”.

That is the history, but now we must move into the future. My colleagues have been looking seriously at St Helena, examining the central question of whether an airstrip or airport could be built within an inevitably tight budget and whether something could be taken

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forward on a sensible scale, with the help of private enterprise. I do not know the precise answer, but I can tell the House that one suggestion put to me by a leading aviation consultant, Mr Michael Woodley, is that, in the absence of a decision about the big project—the £200 million airport—some thinking about an interim air-access development could be organised at a fraction of the cost. Options for enlargement would come later. That would begin to open up a situation in which, as we have been told, the only lifeline to the island is the RMS “St Helena”, which I want to come back to in a moment. Otherwise the islanders, particularly those who are seriously ill or with medical conditions, would be literally cut off and condemned, because they could not get out at short notice.

How could such an objective be achieved if there were an airstrip, rather than a full-blown airport that could carry larger jets? It has been suggested that the civilianised versions of the Grumman Albatross amphibian planes, which are especially equipped to land in rough water, could land in the St Helena harbour at first and, later, on a shorter airstrip, which would be half the length of the eventual full airstrip. Those aircraft would connect on a feeder basis from Ascension Island with the twice-weekly—I think—RAF flights from Brize Norton that pass through Ascension on their way to the Falklands.

I should very much like the Minister to comment on this, because it is an extremely important possibility. There was, and I hope still is, an agreement between the US and the UK to allow a few commercial weekly flights to land on Ascension, which, of course, is mainly controlled by the US military, in the light of its elaborate installations there. Is that agreement still there, because that could open the way for some unscheduled commercial flights and open up the possibility of air links that are otherwise denied to the islanders?

All of this is against the background that RMS “St Helena”, which is the only lifeline, needs refurbishment. There is talk of it needing a £12 million refurbishment and that, for that to be done, it would have to be out of action in 2010. The island would be even more cut off than it is now. It would have no link at all with the outside world.

I do not know whether any of this is possible. It would require expert aviation consultants and highly skilled engineers, including the Royal Engineers, to lay down quick and effective airstrips, as a start. However, it is an interim possibility that would open the way for the eventual development of a full link, when it can be afforded.

The time has come for a bit of creative thinking about the people of St Helena, who are, as we have heard, disillusioned and disappointed at the cancellation, postponement, pause or whatever it is in the major project. That creative thinking opens up the possibility of initial air links, if only to bring a few tourists or to bring a lifeline if someone becomes seriously ill, even if it reduces the connection with the outside world from whatever it is—five or six days—to a few hours. It could be done, but that degree of creative thinking does not seem to be evident in the consultation document or in the departmental thinking that we have heard so far about the future. I should very much like to hear

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the Minister’s views as to whether these kinds of propositions, which give hope to the people of St Helena, can be opened up. Then we would be able to see a way forward for this beautiful and historic island.

6.59 pm

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate and in particular to the noble Lord, Lord Jones, for promoting it at short notice. The importance of the issue is reflected by the strength with which the case was put on all sides of the House. I will let my noble friend Lord Hoyle know when I want to use a scriptwriter for any contribution that I make from the Dispatch Box and I will make absolutely sure to avoid the phrases that he suggested I would use.

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