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St. Helena (Airport)

Volume 489: debated on Tuesday 17 March 2009

I am pleased to have secured this debate on St. Helena and its transport links with the rest of the world. I welcome colleagues from different political parties who have come along to show their support for the people of the island.

When I put in for the debate, my intention was to press the Department for International Development to make a decision on building an airport on the island and to go ahead with this vital project. We now know that DFID has once again decided not to make a decision, but to put the issue out for yet more consultation, engage yet more consultants and spin things out until the turn of the year. No doubt the Minister will try to put a positive gloss on that, but, in reality, these events have more to do with trying to avoid a judicial review of the Department’s handling of the scheme.

DFID’s history on this project is shameful. It has used delaying tactics and done anything it can to avoid settling the issue of St. Helena’s transport links with the outside world—links that could mean life or death for any one of the thousands of British citizens on the island. Those people are British citizens because St. Helena is a UK overseas territory. Just because it is situated in the south Atlantic does not make those people less British, although it perhaps makes them more forgettable for DFID.

St. Helena is one of the most isolated places in the world. It is approximately 1,400 miles west of Namibia, 1,800 miles east of Brazil and 700 miles south of Ascension Island. The only way to get there is by ship, with the island being served by RMS St. Helena, the last Royal Mail ship still in service. This purpose-built ship was constructed in 1989 and is obviously towards the end of its operational life, rather than the start.

That raises the question of how to ensure that the islanders have reliable transport links in the future. Replacing the ship with another purpose-built vessel is possible, but expensive. The jetty at St. Helena would also require remedial work, but that, too, would be expensive. In addition, the islanders are concerned about that option because they remember what happened in 1999 when the current ship broke down, leaving them stranded until repairs had been made.

Let us be clear: if the supply ship breaks down, people and supplies, including vital medical drugs and equipment, cannot get to the island. It also means that islanders cannot leave, including those requiring urgent medical attention that is not available on the island. Even as I speak, the ship is on its way to the UK and will not return to the island until 11 April, but the shops have run out of potatoes.

The obvious answer—it has been obvious for a number of years—is to build an airport. Of course, there is the cost. Building an airport anywhere is an expensive undertaking, and building one on an island in the middle of the south Atlantic, with all the problems of supply, would not be cheap. Until recently, however, the Government supported building an airport. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office supported the project, and we can take it that the Ministry of Defence would welcome an additional landing strip for its air bridge to the Falkland Islands. Incidentally, those islands have fewer residents than St. Helena, but they have flourished thanks to British Government support.

No doubt the Minister will say that the recession provides a new context for delaying the airport project. Taken on its own, that argument might appear to have some worth, but this is at least the ninth year that DFID has appeared unwilling to give the project the go-ahead. Although the Government have continued to give British citizens at home commitments about infrastructure projects, this vital project for British citizens abroad is once more being delayed. Given the positive support, or acquiescence, elsewhere in the Government, it is not surprising that minds begin to wonder why DFID is the one Department of State that prefers to park the scheme. It will not say yes, but will not say no either.

The Government have accepted that overseas territories should be self-governing as far as possible, that they can remain UK overseas territory as long as they wish and that Britain will continue to fulfil its responsibilities to each territory, as set out in each constitution. Citizens of the overseas territories have also all been granted British citizenship and the rights that come with it. When DFID was set up, it was also recognised that the overseas territories would have first call on its funds. To my knowledge, no one in the Government has suggested that the relationship between the UK and the overseas territories should change or that the right of such territories to have first call on DFID funds has been rescinded.

St. Helena is an overseas territory and the islanders are British citizens. The island’s economy is weak and deteriorating, and life is becoming increasingly desperate for the population. The infrastructure is poor and not sufficient to realise the island’s potential or to sustain the population without subsidy. In 2007-08, the Government’s bilateral aid to the island was £17.5 million. In addition, the RMS St. Helena requires an annual subsidy of at least £3 million. The average salary is £4,500, with goods and food being more expensive than in the UK because of freight charges. Many people are forced to leave families and work abroad.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. A number of the islanders have friends and family in the St. Helena community in this country; indeed, Swindon has the second largest number of people from that community. Would not an airway allow those people to visit their friends and family? At the moment, they are isolated from them.

My hon. Friend is correct. Indeed, one of our Doorkeepers in the House of Commons comes from St. Helena.

Since 2000—this very much illustrates my hon. Friend’s point—the population has fallen from approximately 7,000 to fewer than 4,000. As a result, more than 150 children and young adults are in informal foster care. The population increasingly comprises the elderly and children.

The health department has to select which seriously ill patients qualify for further care and treatment in Cape Town or the UK, and that practice will only increase with an ageing population. Access to medical supplies is poor. Residents rely on supplies delivered by RMS St. Helena. As we saw in 1999, when the ship broke down, the island is vulnerable.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the debate. Does she share my concern about the fact that the hospital has been unable to use a scanner for a number of months because of the difficulty in getting an engineer from Siemens—the company that provided the scanner—to look at it? That is another example of how the lack of access impacts on every walk of life, whether in health, education or the economy.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who has had the opportunity to visit St. Helena, although many of us have not, because of the time it takes to get there. By contrast, the scanner in the hospital on the Falkland Islands, which I have visited, is state of the art. The hospital can scan patients and send the scans to Brazil for advice on what treatment to use. The fact that the scanner on St. Helena cannot be used is an indictment of the current situation.

Discussions about building an airport first took place in 1947, but the current project goes back nine years to 2000. Over those years, there have been many twists and turns, feasibility studies and consultants’ reports. I will not spend time discussing all that, suffice it to say that it does not reflect well on DFID’s ability to develop and implement projects.

The Government have already earmarked £234 million for the airport and associated infrastructure improvements. DFID has selected an airport contractor via competitive procurement and spent substantial amounts of taxpayers’ money in the process. The contractor—Impregilo—has already invested significantly and has a team on the island ready to start work. Significant inward investment is ready to go as soon as the airport scheme is given the go-ahead.

Shelco—the St. Helena Leisure Company—has been set up specifically to develop the leisure facilities to support the development of St. Helena’s economy. It has substantial investors in place to underwrite between £80 million and £100 million of investment. Shelco has acquired options on an area of St. Helena and the Oberoi group is its hotel partner. They propose creating low-volume, high-value tourism, including a six-star eco hotel. That is the local preference, and it was recommended in a UN report and supported by two DFID-commissioned reports. That would create jobs and future income for the island.

Developing St. Helena and building an airport would be in the UK’s strategic interests in the south Atlantic. It would substantially help the economies of other British overseas territories—the dependencies of Tristan da Cunha, Ascension and the Falkland Islands. Opening the island to low-volume, high-value tourism would create opportunities for new local business ventures.

The infrastructure and economy needed to support the influx of tourists would provide the many islanders working abroad with the opportunity to return to the island, which would help to generate a self-sustaining economy. That would enable the island gradually to reduce its financial dependence on the UK. We understand that the modelling undertaken by DFID economists shows that the airport is the best-value option to achieve the Government’s policy of creating a sustainable economy. I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed that that is the case.

It is not an overstatement to say that DFID’s recent decisions threaten the viability of the airport project. They also threaten the regeneration project put forward by Shelco. Impregilo, the preferred airport contractor, needs certainty. If that does not happen, DFID will lose the company, and the lengthy and expensive airport tendering process will have to start again. It is most unlikely, given its history, that other parties will come forward. The delay will exacerbate the difficulties faced by the islanders, who are already dealing, month by month, with economic decline.

Building an airport is the choice supported by the people of the island. In a 2001 public referendum, 72 per cent. of the islanders voted in favour. Without an airport, there are no positive prospects for St. Helena—nothing except continued, steady economic and social decline. At the same time, the UK taxpayers’ subsidy will be steadily climbing, but the people of St. Helena do not want UK handouts. As British citizens, they deserve—and need—the Government to take them seriously, and to support them in a way that will open up possibilities for developing their economy and securing their future.

The airport option would do that, and do so immediately. The stimulus to the economy once the project started would be substantial. These are dark economic days for most of the world. By keeping the long-standing promise to build an airport, we would stimulate recovery and hope in one of the poorest British areas of the world, and we would do so in a manner that created growth and self-sufficiency. The recession provides an additional reason to get on with the project, not a lame excuse to delay it further. At this late stage, I urge DFID to support St. Helena, agree to the building of the airport and invest in the future of the island.

I speak as chairman of the all-party group on St. Helena. If the Minister is not aware of the fact, I advise him that last week hon. Members and many of the Saints living in the United Kingdom presented a petition to 10 Downing street. We await a response with great interest. What we did not expect was the shameful ministerial statement, made yesterday and published this morning, to which the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) referred. I congratulate her on her measured speech, but this is not the first time that we have had an Adjournment debate about the island of St. Helena. The sense of betrayal cannot be understood, but if the Minister had been present last week, he would have witnessed it.

I offer the Minister an invitation. No Minister has ever visited the island. Royalty has been there, but no Ministers. If the Minister, or a member of his ministerial team, were to visit St. Helena, things could be seen at first hand. Perhaps the dead hand of the Treasury, rather than DFID, is involved. However, the only future for the island and its residents is the airfield, as was well set out by the hon. Lady. Such a betrayal—after all these years and when the contract was about to be let—is inexcusable.

There are Saints living here, and some keep Ascension Island and the Falklands going. Why are the Falklands and St. Helena treated so differently by Her Majesty’s Government? It is time that the airfield was built. Yesterday’s shameful act must quickly be rescinded. The Government should get on with the contract. The builders are ready to go in. They should be able to get on and do the job now.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) has instigated a timely debate on the important matter of air access to St. Helena.

I use my remarks today to present a wider perspective on the issues that have been raised and to elaborate a little on the statement that the Government made yesterday on how we wish to proceed. Although I have not had the experience of visiting the island myself, my immersion in the subject over recent months makes me feel almost as if I had been there. Because of the interest shown in the project, and expressed on both sides of the House, I feel rather as Napoleon must have at one time—that there is no getting away from St. Helena.

I want to reassure my hon. Friend that, at root, there is no difference between us on a long-term commitment to St. Helena. However, in facing the challenges before us today, the Government must be responsible and take stock if circumstances change to the extent that they have. That is what we are doing. That is why we announced the consultation exercise yesterday; we want to ensure that all views will have been heard when we come to decide on the way forward. I shall speak on that in more detail in a moment.

Hon. Members will be aware that on 8 December last year we announced that there would be a pause in negotiations over the St. Helena airport contract. We decided that it was necessary in the light of the changed economic climate, which has been changing for the worse for many months but which intensified quite dramatically in the autumn. The Government had a responsibility to take a step back and to review whether it was right to proceed with the project in such circumstances.

I hope that all hon. Members will agree that present circumstances present a very different setting from those of 2007, when the project was tendered for, and even more different from when the initial announcement was made in 2005. We have a responsibility to be absolutely sure that levels of expenditure that the project could incur remain appropriate. I met the Governor of St. Helena on his recent visit to the United Kingdom to explain how matters stand and to hear his views. I have also met Impregilo, the bidding company, to explain our position. I am, of course, aware of its decision to maintain the validity of its bid until the end of April. It is for the company to judge its response in the light of yesterday’s announcement, which presents a longer timeline before a final decision is made.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said recently, the present economic conditions are unlike any that we have seen for generations. The medium and long-term consequences are uncertain at present. However, those conditions significantly affect the Government’s ability to achieve all their international development objectives. Therefore, the reality is that we must revisit the choices before us, although we recognise the special place that our overseas territories have in our aid programme.

At this point, I should correct my hon. Friend—the overseas territories do not have first call on DFID’s funds per se, but first call for reasonable development needs. It must be seen in that wider context. Inevitably, part of the consideration is what is reasonable in the present circumstances. Other overseas territories are also experiencing difficulties in the current climate, and we must recognise those new pressures too when coming to a decision.

The impact of the crisis is being felt in the developing world already. Aid and private finance flows are already falling, remittances are dropping and demand for trade exports is slowing. It is estimated that by December 2010 about 90 million more people will be living on less than $1.25 a day, because of the financial crisis. Progress towards delivering the millennium development goals will slow significantly, and there is already evidence from Ethiopia, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan suggesting that the poor are taking their children out of school to save money.

Developing countries are being hit, and in different ways. The volume of our aid has been adversely affected by the sharp depreciation of sterling against most other currencies. Our UK aid pound is not going as far as it used to. Export markets are reducing and the level of world trade is falling for the first time in 25 years. Remittances sent by individuals back to developing countries are expected to fall by up to 6 per cent. this year alone. Capital flows to emerging economies are predicted to fall by 80 per cent. in 2009, compared with 2007 levels. The prospects, therefore, for millions of people in developing countries are changing rapidly for the worse.

That was made very clear at the outset, when I explained the position of the overseas territories, of which St. Helena is one.

The changes that I have described are already resulting in new demands on DFID’s budget. Countries need more help to adjust to these impacts, to produce contingency plans and to ramp up social protection systems. In Ethiopia, DFID has given £15 million for social protection to help to sustain the livelihoods of 7 million people.

I entirely understand the Minister’s concern about people in the developing world, with which I am sure that not one hon. Member here disagrees. However, the point that I and other hon. Members are making is that the cost of maintaining the current situation will be greater than that of building an airport. Our aim is to save money and to ensure that it is available for development elsewhere, not to pay more.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point about the potential for the airport to deliver the self-sufficiency outlined in the 2005 Atkins report. In the current climate, pausing and reviewing the situation makes good fiscal management. We are not turning our back on the people of St. Helena.

The future is very uncertain. We know neither the length and depth of the recession, nor its impact on developing countries, so it is incredibly important that DFID remains flexible and resilient, and able to move resources around and to adapt to shocks. It is also important to appreciate that the projected cost of the airport is of a level that makes it a significant factor in the consideration of our priorities.

Will the consultation bear in mind that the huge figure quoted in headlines would not be paid up front, but could be tranched over a number of years? It is important that the consultation considers that and other economic factors. For example, it will cost £10 million to fit RMS St. Helena with two new engines. Furthermore, it would be helpful if the Minister could indicate when we can expect a response from the consultation.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point, and I would hope that those listening will take on board his comments about what factors should be considered in the consultation. I shall come shortly to the time scale that we envisage, when I talk about the consultation in a little more detail.

I cannot go into detail about the tender estimates—it would be wrong to do so—but Members need to appreciate that we are contemplating a figure well above the one reported in the media recently of £100 million. Since we began, in 2005, the estimated cost of the project has grown more than threefold, which makes it a more finely balanced choice—even more so in the current conditions.

Has the Minister or his Department made an estimate of how much it will cost, over the next one, two, three, four or five years, to keep RMS St. Helena going?

Absolutely. A feasibility study was carried out in 2005, and the maintenance of RMS St. Helena formed part of those considerations. I hope that that is borne out in the responses to the consultation exercise.

The consultation was announced yesterday. We will publish a consultation document by early next month, and much of the detail in which I imagine Members are interested will be set out there—I cannot go into the details too fully today. It will provide more information about the factors that we have to consider in reaching a decision, in particular the impact that the present economic difficulties have on the Department’s resources, and including the special position of the overseas territories. We are likely to indicate some options on access where views are particularly sought, including an airport and one or more ship options. We will also make it clear that it will be open to respondents to submit views on any relevant aspect of the access issue. It will be open to any interested party to respond, and we will ensure that a visit to the island is part of the exercise, which we will run in line with the Government’s code of conduct for holding public consultations.

People will ask, “What will this tell us that we do not already know?” I cannot prejudge the outcome of the consultation or what it might produce. However, we want to ensure that, before taking the final decision on the project, we are satisfied that we have all the information and views relevant to our decision, and that everyone with an interest in the matter is also satisfied that they have been able to put their perspective to us.

We have had consultations before. What is new about this consultation? Does the Minister not accept that the failure to provide an airfield means that the island’s economy will continue to decline, whereas an airfield would enable the island to be economically viable?

The economic conditions have changed. The whole world is grappling with that at the moment. It is only prudent to reflect on that change before coming to a final decision on the St. Helena airport contract.

In conclusion, I recognise that those who have followed the fortunes of this project will be frustrated with the current situation, but these are exceptional times. The challenges we face are also exceptional, and no one is immune from them. Although St. Helena is remote, its people are well aware of the gravity of the challenges being experienced by the UK and all other Governments around the world. I hope that there is a strong participation in the consultation. It is important to hear a representative view from the island and, of course, from islanders elsewhere, especially those living in the UK.