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The noble Lord, Lord Jones, was right to say that we are in considerable difficulty with regard to the St Helena airport project, for reasons that we all understand. Of course I am guarded this evening, because we are involved in a consultation exercise and there is no way that I will pre-empt the outcome of that process. The consultation exercise is part of the pause in the project that we have initiated. I heard what the noble Lord, Lord Jones, said about the pause being dispiriting for those who had hoped that the project would go ahead according to our plans of 2004-05, but the world lives in changed circumstances and it is understandable that a project of this significance should reflect that change.

Of course we have difficulties, with regard to our development and aid budget, in meeting our requirements. Resources have gone down while the demands of those who need aid have increased with the impoverishment that the changes in the world economy have brought about. The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, mentioned Montserrat. The value of our aid to Montserrat has dropped by 30 per cent because its currency is pegged to the dollar. We will address this cut in support as constructively as we can, but it is a measure of how difficult the economic crisis is making matters for DfID and for our aid projects. A project on the significant scale of the airport in St Helena was bound to occasion great difficulty, which is why we are engaged in the consultation exercise.

I have been asked how long the pause will be. The consultation exercise ends at the end of July, so the Government expect to produce an analysis of the situation, and a response, by the end of the year. We will then take the matter from there. In his opening speech, the noble Lord, Lord Jones, left us in no doubt about the significance of the airport to a society that is clearly suffering. The figures relating to the loss of population from St Helena are clear. We know, from the difficulties aptly described by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, and by everyone who has had the good fortune to make it to St Helena, how difficult the journey is.

Reference was made to the fact that the Minister has not been to St Helena. I ask the House to recognise the obligations of the DfID Minister, given the support that we give to so many countries in the world. Our aid to Africa alone involves a significant number of countries. I was on the Select Committee on development in the

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1970s, when we shifted our priority towards Africa. Even with a Select Committee working full-time, we did not begin to touch the surface of the problems of Africa. We made one or two visits, largely because Select Committees do not have to answer Questions back in the House, respond to debates or undertake any other ministerial obligations. In the four or five years that I was on the Select Committee, I never felt that we could—

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, my noble friend is making a very good point about the amount of travel that a Minister has to do, but can he tell me of any other overseas territory that the Minister has not visited?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am saying that there are bound to be several because otherwise a Minister would spend the whole of his time in aircraft. My noble friend has spoken with great strength on the issue, but I wonder with what enthusiasm he envisages regular visits to St Helena, given the travel difficulties that noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, have identified. That is bound to be a constraint. After all, there is a constraint on the airport.

I heard what the noble Lord, Lord Howell, constructively said about the airport, although I notice that he made no commitment on behalf of his party about the resources involved; he had smaller-scale suggestions. I understand the noble Lord’s concept that smaller aircraft might produce a feeling among the community that something was being done, however marginal. I can see the value of that for a very small number of people. It might act as help for those who are stricken and cannot get elsewhere; I am not denying the value of that and I take the point on board. The noble Lord will know that the airport is about the development of that society, and the only prospect of development is tourism. The airport is therefore about how you get tourists in sufficient numbers to make an impact on the economy. The noble Lord’s proposal for small sea-planes landing in the non-existent harbour in choppy waters seems to me to have limited attraction for large-scale tourist operations, although I have no doubt that he will find my noble friend Lord Hoyle to be the first on that aircraft, if it ever emerges.

There are difficulties. This is a large-scale project for a very small economy. That is not to decry the needs of the people of St Helena. We have obligations to them—obligations that the Government are fulfilling. It was recognised in the opening remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Jones, that the island can sustain its present population, distressing though aspects of that level is, only through British commitment and British aid. We are fulfilling our obligations under the United Nations charter to St Helena and other overseas territories in the resources that we make available. Inevitably, those resources are more limited at present than they otherwise would be.

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, I have been listening to the debate with great interest. I was at a private briefing in the town a few weeks ago where it was made clear to me—an official of Her Majesty’s Government was present—that private interests were prepared to contribute

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substantially to both the capital and the running costs of the airport. I have heard no mention of that today. Can my noble friend assist the House by telling us precisely what private interests may be involved? Have there been discussions with Her Majesty’s Government?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, there certainly are discussions; of course the Government are keen to examine every conceivable option. My noble friend, with his vast experience of defence contracts, will know that the capital work involved is the bulk of the cost and has to be met up front. The estimated costs in the consultation document are between £230 million and £250 million. We are not talking chicken feed here; we are talking about significant resources. Therefore, in the period of credit crunch and shortage of resources in the private sector as much as in government circles, he will appreciate how much more difficult it is to obtain private support.

The noble Lord, Lord Jones, asked about a particular group of private contributors, namely Shelco. Officials have had a meeting with Shelco, which has had ideas about financing the project. We understand that proposals may be submitted for a private sector approach and of course we are open to and indeed enthusiastic about such possibilities and look forward to seeing the nature of those proposals. However, we are at a rudimentary stage with those developments at present and I did not dare not wax enthusiastic about the potential outcome; I merely record the fact, bearing in mind what my noble friend Lord Gilbert has said—and it has reinforced what everyone who has spoken in this debate has said—that, if we can get resources from elsewhere to buttress government funds for this project, we are eager to explore every option. However, I am counselling against undue expectations about that position.

I was asked about European funding. St Helena gets its proper share of European funding and that money is already voted for this year, so it is not being short-changed on the European front. Of course, it would not be in the interests of the Government to fail to obtain a guarantee on the availability of those resources to St Helena. The money is available over a considerable period—the next five years. However, it is a very limited sum and so we cannot look to the European Community resource for too much; it is a little more than tokenism but far short of what is needed to make a real impact on the lives of the people there. That is why the British aid programme is so

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critical. Although I will fulfil the expectation of my noble friend Lord Hoyle in not really saying anything too positive about the airport project, I am positive about the Government’s commitment in its aid programme to ensure that we sustain the position as far as St Helena is concerned. Against a background where we all appreciate the pressures on government expenditure, the Government deserve some credit for that.

As for timescale, I have indicated that we are not going to pronounce on the outcome of the consultation; I merely say that we will receive the results in the very near future, although that will be against a background of substantial constraints on government expenditure. All noble Lords will recognise that the only responsible way of addressing these significant issues is not to suggest that it is easy for us to create the circumstances that obtained in 2004-05, when we were setting about the task of addressing the airport issue at costs that were much lower than they are now. The figure of £230 million to £250 million is a significant escalation on the costs that we were contemplating in 2005. More important than that, the economic circumstances of the world and the British Government have changed significantly over the last 18 months. That is bound to condition our response to this important and worthwhile project, although I congratulate the noble Lord on bringing this debate today and airing the issue.

Lord Shutt of Greetland: My Lords, does the Minister acknowledge that the aid budget is a huge figure? If the Government want to honour these responsibilities to St Helena, they can do so knowing very well that this expenditure will be spread over several years.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, as I have indicated, the expenditure on the construction of the airport is not spread over a number of years. We will have to spend a lot of money very soon to get things going, but I hear what the noble Lord says. Noble Lords could speak to this House on every aspect of the aid budget and rightly identify very real need and very real reasons why the Government should direct themselves to such a priority. These priorities are myriad; that is in the nature of development and aid. I shall state the obvious: the Government might be subject to certain criticism at the present time, but the expansion of the aid budget since 1997 has been second to none.

House adjourned at 7.15 pm.


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