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St. Helena

Volume 494: debated on Wednesday 17 June 2009

It is a great pleasure to have secured this debate on the future of St. Helena. I have been trying to do so since the beginning of the year and had almost given up hope, when out it popped from the bag, so I am absolutely delighted. I must declare at the outset that my interest in St. Helena was first stimulated by my constituency. Colonel Sir Thomas Reade was a native of Congleton and served as Deputy Adjutant General of the troops in St. Helena during the captivity of Napoleon Bonaparte. That is an important part of the history of the island and, in the future, would be a great added tourist attraction.

When I was first elected in 1983, someone who was to marry one of my very best friends, Philip Dale, served as secretary to the Government of St. Helena, and both Philip and Sue have always been very interested in the welfare of the island. I know that they and other people in Congleton will be delighted that we are having this debate. Moreover, I think that it must be more than a happy coincidence that we have a St. Helenian as the Badge Messenger on the door this afternoon. That is very welcome, and we are all delighted by it.

St. Helena has changed significantly for the worse in recent years. The close family unit on which the island prided itself is fast breaking down and the population now increasingly comprises the elderly and children. As a direct result, revenue and resources continue to decline and the inhabitants, who are loyal British citizens, are becoming increasingly distressed and disillusioned.

The average salary for local people is a mere £4,500 a year, but goods and food are more expensive than in the UK because of freight charges. For that reason and the fact that there are only limited opportunities in St. Helena for skilled workers and young people, many Saints are being forced to leave their families to seek work abroad. More than 150 children and young adults are now in informal foster care as a consequence, which cannot be right by anyone’s reckoning.

The Health Department has the painful and sensitive job of selecting which seriously ill patients qualify for further care and treatment in Cape Town or in the United Kingdom. With an ageing population, there is greater need for elderly care, but there is less of it with resources increasingly stretched. Education, too, is becoming more problematic as classes shrink but demands for a broad curriculum continue.

Finding teachers and nurses is increasingly difficult, as more Saints leave the island to find better paid positions elsewhere. The same problem exists with other jobs. Many people are initially interested in positions but are then put off by the difficulty of getting to and from the island. As a result, St. Helena has had to increase the number of expatriate staff to fill key posts in recent years, which is extremely expensive. Externally recruited staff are paid commercial rates, which are vastly more than the local norm. That leads to an ever-increasing disparity of wages on the island between expatriates and the indigenous population.

There is also the considerable burden on the United Kingdom taxpayer, which will only increase as more expatriates are needed. Many Saints in the UK have developed skills that St. Helena badly needs and are keen to return home to work and set up businesses on the island, but, again, the issue is access and we cannot get away from that.

The potential for stimulating St. Helena’s economy to enable Saints overseas to find jobs on the island is currently extremely limited. Apart from a modest agricultural potential and fluctuating availability of fish in its coastal waters, the island has no known natural resources. The existing arrangements for access by sea effectively prevent the development of any method by which the island’s economy can grow. The modest passenger-carrying capacity of RMS St. Helena and any of its replacements limits the number of tourists that can visit the island. The cost of shipping goods to and from Africa and the United Kingdom, together with the time scales involved, make the development of any industry involving the physical movement of goods uncompetitive.

High communication costs do the same for possible activities such as call centres. The development of financial services has been ruled out by the British Government on policy grounds. The only possible method of economic development is tourism. It was as a result of that consideration that an airport was first suggested as the only practicable means of getting tourists to and from the island in sufficient numbers.

In January 2002, 71 per cent. of islanders, both at home and abroad, voted in favour of an airport being built. In April 2005, following the overwhelming vote of support, the British Government announced plans to construct an airport on St. Helena to bolster the island’s economy and reduce its isolation. Impregilo S.p.A. of Milan was selected as the preferred tender to design, build and operate the airport.

With the British Government’s promise to build the airport, the island’s population ceased to decline, and there has been substantial investment in developing the island’s tourism industry. In addition to the recent acquisition of the Consulate hotel by an overseas investor, the St. Helena Leisure Corporation is planning a sustainable development to include a six-star hotel, spa and leisure resort to be created in partnership with Oberoi Hotels. Such a development would form a key part of the Government’s tourism policies by providing the quality of accommodation required, and it would serve as a significant point of attraction to the island. Shelco also proposes to invest in a whole range of local businesses to provide visitors with restaurants, horse riding facilities, deep sea fishing and fresh food as part of a holistic solution to regenerate the whole of the island’s economy.

St. Helena has some stunning scenery, but I am ashamed to say that I have never seen it. I have been selected twice for a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation. The first time, I was on the reserve list, and the second time, I was unable to go because RMS St. Helena broke down and the timing was changed. However, I have seen the most fantastic photographs of the scenery. The coastline of the island comprises high vertical cliffs cut by steep-sided v-shaped valleys, and a good network of roads makes much of the island accessible. However, the best of St. Helena is seen on foot, and there are some magnificent walks and hikes to be had on the island. St. Helena has other famous attractions such as Jacob’s Ladder, Plantation house, High Knoll fort and Diana’s Peak national park. The island also has a large and rare seabird population and is a centre for yachting and fishing.

A sustainable high-value, low-volume tourism industry would inject cash into the community, while minimising negative impacts. St. Helena needs that to survive. On 13 May, Lord Davies of Oldham accurately stated 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.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 13 May 2009; Vol. 710, c. 1094.]

St. Helena currently receives around £18 million a year in subsidies from the UK taxpayer. That figure is already predicted to rise to £25 million for the next fiscal year. Without an airport, such support will have to increase yet further. Continued reliance on access by sea means continued reliance on subsidies to maintain essential services at acceptable standards. It also means the continued stagnation of the economy and, in all likelihood, a resumption of the emigration of economically active residents. The result of that will be an increase in subsidies from the British taxpayer and the deterioration and ultimate destruction of St. Helena and its unique and irreplaceable culture.

Without an airport, we are simply talking about managing decline, and without an airport, St. Helena has no future. The Atkins feasibility study, commissioned by the UK Government in 2005, estimated annual revenues of between £1 million and £33 million from tourism up to a period of 20 years after the opening of an airport. That was confirmed by the Minister in the House on 9 March. The figure is almost twice the value of the current subsidy by the UK taxpayer.

A new consultation on access to the island was published on 9 April this year, the Thursday before Easter. As with the announcement of a pause in the airport project in the run-up to Christmas last, the timing seems to have been designed to attract as little interest and attention as possible. The document lists three options: option A is to build the airport now; option B is to decide now not to build the airport and commission a new ship to replace RMS St. Helena; and option C is to defer a decision on the airport for another five years and either extend the life of the ship or charter a replacement vessel in future.

Why are other practical aspects of the Department for International Development’s support to St. Helena on pause or being held back pending the outcome of the consultation? At a time when St. Helena most needs assistance in planning and coping with the uncertainty of the future, there appears to be a ban on DFID representatives visiting the island. It would be helpful if the Minister answered that question.

The consultation is unnecessary, and it is an expensive diversion. It will cost upwards of £40,000, for which UK taxpayers will foot the bill. Saints have already voted overwhelmingly in favour of building an airport, and the Government promised in 2005 that an airport would be built by 2011-12. The 2002 referendum produced a vote in favour of an airport, and a decision to proceed was announced by DFID in March 2005.

In any case, the consultation process is not intended to be used so late in the decision-making sequence. As the DFID code of practice for consultation clearly states:

“The consultation exercise should be scheduled as early as possible in the project plan”.

The 2002 referendum took place exactly in keeping with that advice, and the result should be heeded and acted upon now by the Government. Protracted delays since the decision to go ahead was made in 2005 have led many Saints in the UK and elsewhere to lose faith in the sincerity of the promise given by Her Majesty’s Government.

Saints see the consultation as a poorly disguised way of killing the airport project, without using so many words, particularly given that it ends before the Reading sports day on August 30, which is the largest annual gathering of Saints in the UK—some 2,000 or 3,000 Saints could have been asked for their views at the event. I hope that the St. Helena Government informally gauge the level of support for the airport project at the sports day, so that we can report back to the House. Most, if not all, will be in support. The Reading sports day was known about and ignored by DFID. Consequently, Saints feel embittered and badly let down, and I would be grateful if the Minister commented on that aspect of the timing of the consultation.

The consultation document provides inadequate information on a number of areas: the impact assessment mandated by criterion 3.5 of the code of practice is sparse, to say the least; information on the influence of the recession, which is apparently a key consideration, is sketchy to say the least; and there is a total absence of any meaningful assessment of the impact on St. Helena of the preferred option of a five-year delay in making a decision. That is unacceptable.

Furthermore, the funding argument for a delay or cheaper alternative is based on the assertion that DFID has to decide between the competing claims of overseas territories, such as St. Helena, and aid projects that are needed in other countries. However, there is an obvious contradiction, because page 2 of the executive summary states:

“The UK has special obligations towards our Overseas Territories. The people of the Overseas Territories are British citizens. The UK remains committed to meeting their reasonable assistance needs and to helping them move towards economic self-sufficiency”.

Moreover, article 73 of the UN Charter states:

“Members of the United Nations which have or assume responsibilities for the administration of territories whose peoples have not yet attained a full measure of self-government recognize the principle that the interests of the inhabitants of these territories are paramount, and accept as a sacred trust the obligation to promote to the utmost, within the system of international peace and security established by the present Charter, the well-being of the inhabitants of these territories”.

It is clear that the needs of the third world, however worthy, should be secondary to the obligation to our own citizens.

Deciding not to build the airport and commissioning another ship—option B in the consultation—would represent an enormous waste of taxpayers’ money on the access project, which has amounted to some £8 million to date. During the past 20 years, the UK taxpayer has spent more than £330 million at today’s prices in subsidies to St. Helena. That is more than the cost of building the airport. The Minister stated on 27 March, as I am sure he remembers, that it will cost up to £75 million to build a replacement for RMS St. Helena. That is almost a third of the cost of the airport and would be in addition to the continued and increasing annual subsidy to the island, which would still be required.

Building a new ship will not provide sufficient capacity for St. Helena to develop a tourism industry, nor will it arrest the continued, irreversible decline, and it makes no financial sense for the British taxpayer. Building a new ship also makes no logistical sense. RMS St. Helena currently travels to the island only 33 times a year, and only twice a year from the UK. When the ship is dry-docked, there is no access to the island. That can be a matter of life and death for inhabitants who require urgent medical treatment. There is also considerable anxiety on the island that should the ship be disabled for any reason, the island would be cut off for an indefinite period. The option of continuing sea-only access and the risks that that brings will prolong indefinitely reliance on such a tenuous lifeline.

Deferring a decision on the airport for another five years—option C in the consultation document—is without question the worst option of all. Financially, a five-year delay will benefit nobody, least of all the British taxpayer. The additional cost of the delay could be as much as £100 million. The consultation document concedes on page 17 that the cost of building the airport and its essential support facilities, including roads, a new bulk fuel farm and water supplies, a wharf at Rupert’s bay and inshore sea rescue services, will increase in the event of such a delay.

The consultation document also accepts that a delay would mean a loss of confidence in the bid process, which was at an advanced stage. Potential investors would understandably lose interest and the prospect for economic sustainability would be further set back as skilled workers continued to leave the island. Postponing a decision for five years would leave St. Helena in limbo, with no direction for the future, and condemn the island to depending on more and more subsidies just to maintain the status quo. Meanwhile, as the cost of building the airport increased, investors would lose interest and the British Government would be tempted to abandon the scheme.

If option C were taken, the need for an airport would increase, but the prospect of building it would recede, thus condemning the island and its population to terminal decline. St. Helena simply cannot afford to wait five more years with no guarantee that an airport will be built. With prolonged uncertainty over access and disillusion over economic prospects at home, outward migration is liable to resume, with serious adverse consequences for maintaining a viable society and economy.

The Government argue for delay on the grounds of the global recession and the resulting state of public finances in the UK, but that is a short-sighted approach. Building an airport now is the best solution for everyone. For the United Kingdom taxpayer, it would provide a tangible return on investment and reduce, if not end, the need for subsidies. Saints do not want to live on handouts from the British people. They do not want charity. They want desperately to stand on their own two feet, and it is up to this country to help them do so. Building an airport now is the only option that would give them the chance to manage their own affairs. Surely, that is a “reasonable assistance need”, as stated in page 2 of the consultation document.

All parties including the Government agree that building an airport is the only answer to the problem of long-term financial dependency. Even the certainty of building it will stimulate the economy and encourage significant investment. The Minister said on 13 March that

“without an airport, St. Helena will remain dependent on UK budgetary aid indefinitely…with the introduction of air access and development of the island’s tourism industry, the need for financial support would reduce progressively with the increasing potential for St. Helena to become self sufficient in the long term.”—[Official Report, 13 March 2009; Vol. 492, c. 856W.]

I could not have put it better myself.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) on securing this important and timely debate. She is right to say that the House and the Government must listen to the views of, and address the needs of the people of, St. Helena. The arguments are simple, and she ably set out the relevant points.

Like the hon. Lady, I was stimulated to take an interest in St. Helena by my constituents. I am fortunate to have in my constituency a community of Saints and many families with origins and connections in St. Helena. When we had a Labour club in Headington, it was the base for the St. Helena community and their social activity, and I got to know many of the families, building ties of friendship that have spanned more than 30 years. They are hard-working and loyal British citizens who understandably want to be able more easily to visit their island of origin and to see its economy—and thus its cultural and community viability—secured for the future. Although, against the backdrop of all that we need to do to combat change, it is right that any development of airports be closely scrutinised, the location of St. Helena, 1,200 miles from south-west Africa, surely makes a strong case. Indeed, that case has been considered, thoroughly evaluated and approved, and a promise has been made.

As my constituents, Mr. and Mrs. Brooks of Rose Hill, wrote to me earlier this year:

“The airport is vital to reduce the isolation of over 4,000 inhabitants who are loyal British citizens and give them and thousands of other ‘Saints’ who have been forced to seek work abroad hope for a better future. In December the Government announced a ‘pause’ in its negotiations over the contract. The announcement effectively brings the project to a halt. It appears that the Treasury refused to grant the money. The decision came as a huge shock to islanders, who had voted in support of the scheme. Many ‘Saints’ had plans to return to the island and find employment during the construction of the airport and develop business opportunities as a result of it. It would also enable many of us to return home to visit our family within a reasonable period of time, since we currently have to be away from the UK for three weeks to spend one week on the island.”

In response to the representations that I made on behalf of our St. Helena community, and after I received a petition, my hon. Friend the Minister told me in a letter of 11 April what had already been announced:

“Negotiations for a contract to build an airport in St. Helena were paused in December 2008 in the light of the changed economic climate.”

We should reflect on the phrase “the changed economic climate”. It puzzled me and seemed to contradict the Government’s sensible policy of tackling the recession by accelerating, not deferring, infrastructural investment. As we have heard, the consultation has now been published. It covers the same ground as previous consultations and the 2002 referendum. Incidentally, I hope that this debate will be accepted and considered as part of the response to the consultation.

What we need from the Minister is a Government commitment to get on and resolve the situation. If there are alternatives to the airport that offer St. Helena a future—as we have heard, nobody who has considered the issue has come up with one so far—we would need to know what they are, how they would work and, especially, how they would address the point explored so effectively by the hon. Lady: the island’s continued acute dependency and the decline of its social fabric due to an ageing population. Otherwise, that dependency will stretch on, at a cost of £25 million and rising. What is more, hope will be drained from the islanders.

As the hon. Lady said, the people of St. Helena want to stand on their own two feet. It must be right to help them do so. I hope that in replying, my hon. Friend the Minister will give us firm assurances that the acid test for the Government’s decision and future policy will be the economic, cultural and social viability of St. Helena and the welfare of its citizens. They are loyal to us, and we must be loyal to them and their future.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) on securing this debate and demonstrating again that, despite St. Helena’s distance and its relatively small number of inhabitants, as well as those Saints living in the UK, many parliamentarians take seriously the responsibilities that this country owes to our overseas territories. I will not make a long speech, as I had my own Westminster Hall debate on this subject a few months ago, but some of the issues bear repeating and considering in greater depth.

Overseas territories that receive budgetary aid from the UK Government do so through the Department for International Development. That creates a number of problems. In our previous debate, the Minister compared the support given to the people of St. Helena to support given to people in developing countries. I hope sincerely that he will not do so today. Although we have a moral responsibility to help people in developing countries—a responsibility that this Government have taken more seriously than any previous Government—we have legal responsibilities to the people who live in our overseas territories. To counterpose the two is most unhelpful and does not take us further forward. Development aid to people in developing countries is given for all sorts of good reasons, but just as we have had to consider how to develop the regions of our country—our policies to close the gap between the poorer regions of the UK and the south-east have been important to economic policy here in Britain—we must take seriously closing the enormous gap between the situation of British citizens in our overseas territories and British citizens who live here.

I will concentrate briefly on the social issues. The hon. Lady covered the wide range of issues important to the debate, but I want to focus a bit more on the social fabric. Successful societies have a diverse range of people of all ages. One issue facing western Europe generally is an ageing population, so we must consider how to get more people in to support the economy and so forth.

Like a number of our overseas territories, St. Helena has a small society. It needs people of all ages if it is to be successful, not just economically, but socially. If the economy does not enable people of working age to stay on St. Helena, the social side will suffer. These are not short-term problems. If children are not brought up by their parents because one or both of them have to work away from the island, that will impact on their long-term emotional well-being. If children have to stay with other people, all sorts of issues can arise.

I do not want to suggest that the people of St. Helena are different from any other society. However, we know that when children grow up with other families, whether through fostering or informal care, problems arise. My background is in social work, which I did for many years. I have seen the kinds of problems that children face in such situations. We know that those can be exacerbated in smaller societies because there are fewer people with the resources to provide support. If, in addition, the time that it takes for people to return to their families is exacerbated by poor transport links, that will affect children who, for example, become ill and need to see their parents. Those things can be damaging and we must take them seriously.

Elderly people do not face only the issue of whether they can get the right medical care and support. People thrive more if they have regular contact with their families. We often worry in the UK that people move away from where they grew up—for all sorts of reasons, such as jobs—and do not support their elderly parents. How much more difficult must that be for people who live thousands of miles away from their elderly parents, and for whom it would take several days to return?

I believe that if we invest in the island by creating an airport and opening up access, this society has real potential. That is not just a wish that comes out of the air. It is based on the experience of another of our overseas territories. The Falkland Islands had a population that was in decline and had relatively few elderly people because the resources for them were so poor that many had left. As a result of an event that none of us would have wished on the Falkland Islanders—the war of the early ’80s—the UK Government invested hugely in that territory.

The Government built roads. When I had the privilege to visit the Falklands, I was surprised to learn that there were few roads there before the conflict. The Government gave hospital support. A whole range of support is now available. The Falklands can sell fishing licences, and the economy is doing well. It has fewer residents than St. Helena. Elderly people who grew up on the Falkland Islands and then left because of the lack of support have returned. The hospital can undertake a wide range of medical procedures because of its links to other hospitals through technology and advice. Surgeons from the UK can also fly out there to undertake operations in a relatively short time.

The future for the people of St. Helena could be so much brighter. I will not go into the economic case because it is blindingly obvious. To delay at a time when we have the support of the private sector, which has invested hugely, is sheer madness. We should move ahead with the airport and give a real future to the people of St. Helena. Without doing so, can this Government say in all conscience that they are meeting their responsibilities to this overseas territory?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Dean. I congratulate the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) on securing the debate and the measured way she put her compelling case for the airport, which is necessary for the economic future of the island. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) on her contribution, which follows on from the debate that she secured earlier this year. I also congratulate the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) on his contribution.

I also congratulate the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster), although he has not spoken yet. As a member of Her Majesty’s Opposition, he has done something that no Minister has ever done: visited the island of St. Helena to see it first hand. What a pity that no Minister has ever bothered to do so. Royalty have managed to visit more than once and it is a shame that Her Majesty’s Government have never sent a Minister there. The Government have come up with schemes and then dashed hopes. It was a shameful act that, having taken the island so near to the commencement of work, the Government pulled the plug.

I must declare an interest as chairman of the all-party island of St. Helena group. The patron saint of Colchester is St. Helena, although it is pronounced differently. My wife, our three children and I were all taught at St. Helena school, although that is not why I ended up as chairman of the all-party group. It is because, like other hon. Members, a constituent contacted me. In 1996, one of the first letters I received explained that a previous Government had withdrawn British citizenship. It is to the credit of this Government that they restored full British citizenship to the overseas territories.

St. Helena’s pedigree predates the Union of England and Scotland. It was under the Crown of England before Great Britain existed. That is how strong its pedigree is. The islanders feel British; they are British. Why can they not be treated like British subjects, rather than as if they live in a country that has no connection with Britain and that we have no responsibility for? Quite rightly, the Department for International Development provides funds. That is to the credit of successive Governments and all political parties agree that it should happen, but the people who live on St. Helena should not be in receipt of international development aid. They are British citizens and should be treated as such.

It is worth pointing out the fact that residents of St. Helena serve in Her Majesty’s armed forces. I do not know what the statistics are now, but a few years ago I came up with a great pub question: which country has the most people per head of population serving in Her Majesty’s armed forces? Of course, the answer was St. Helena. More than 50 were serving then, which is a high percentage of a population of little more than 4,000.

As hon. Members have said, there is now just an ageing population at one end and a young population at the other because the economic generators have had to leave the island in large numbers to secure economic benefits for themselves and their families. Interestingly, some of those people find work on the Falkland Islands. I have said in jocular fashion in the past what a pity it is that the Argentineans did not invade St. Helena as well, because invasion was the saving grace for the Falkland Islanders.

I accuse the Government of economic apartheid. The vast majority of people, if not the entire population, on the Falklands are white. Overwhelmingly, the population of St. Helena is not white. The Government are treating two island communities in the south Atlantic totally differently. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been pumped into the Falkland Islands while the Government treat the people of St. Helena as second-class citizens. That extends even to the people from St. Helena who helped to liberate the Falkland Islands on the RMS St. Helena, all of whom have been denied the South Atlantic medal.

It is not the fault of those people that they were not in the exclusion zone long enough. They went down there, but were kept out until they were required to go in. It is appalling that successive Governments have not even recognised the bravery of people from the island of St. Helena, who gave up their only means of communication—the RMS—only for Governments to tell them, “You can’t have a medal.” That is shameful.

As another aside, I should say that five girl guides and two guide leaders from the island will come to the UK next year as part of the centenary of girl guiding. Funds are being raised. Would it not be nice if the Government chipped in? Two years ago, the island just managed to raise sufficient money for one scout to come here for the centenary of scouting in Hylands park, Essex. That young man was away from the island for about a month because of the problems with the connection provided by the RMS and the TriStar from Ascension. Little wonder people from the island feel betrayed.

There is not a single MP here today to support the Minister, which is not surprising because he does not believe half the things he will be saying in a few minutes. He does not believe, although he may want to contradict me, that the cancellation, postponement, deferment or delay of the airport is the right thing to do—of course it is not.

Let us look just at the economics and the finance, because the Government are clearly not listening to the people of the island of St. Helena or to the arguments about their needs and welfare. Whether the issue is families, human rights, employment or tourism, the Government have not listened to any of the arguments in favour of the airport. They say, “It’s the economics. It’s the downturn in the economy. We can’t afford it.” However, the simple maths shows that providing an airport would take the island from being a net recipient of aid to self-sufficiency and surplus within 10 years.

We have heard the figures. The annual subsidy will be £25 million and rising. The simple maths—the Minister can do it on the back of a fag packet—is that we have the subsidy and the cost of the airport minus the cost of the RMS St. Helena, including the cost of repairing or replacing it. We also have the certain knowledge that the capital costs will go up every year that the project is delayed. The simple maths is that an airport will make the island of St. Helena self-sufficient at the end of 10 years. That has to be a bargain. It makes economic sense.

I recognise that it is not easy to get the Government to accept economic sense, but the sums are quite simple—the Minister and his officials can do them. That is the economic case, but there are people living on the island and they deserve an airport, although I do not see that happening.

I cannot commit my party, but I shall work as hard as I can on this issue because I have spent my entire political life arguing that we should invest to save and to provide services, facilities and amenities to improve people’s quality of life. That is what the airport would do.

Obviously, the Minister cannot do it today, but I urge him to work behind the scenes to convince the bean counters in the Government that this is a clear case of the capital cost paying for itself at the end of 10 years. Thereafter, there will be no need for the British taxpayer to make any revenue contributions to the people and the island of St. Helena. The island will be self-sufficient, the population will grow, the children will be able to grow up with a full family network and everybody will be a winner.

I urge the Government to go with the option of building the airport now because the do-nothing option is far more expensive.

It is a pleasure to contribute to this timely debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) on securing it. Having listened to what she had to say, I am amazed that she has not been to the island, such was the informed level of her comments. She gave us a passionate speech, which outlined very well many of the concerns that I heard about when I was on the island. I would also like to take this opportunity—I am sure that I speak on behalf of all hon. Members here today—to thank Calvin Thomas, who is a St. Helenian, for his many years of service to Parliament.

The right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) also gave us an informed and passionate contribution on behalf of his constituents. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn), who is a former Minister, made a powerful argument as to why we should make a decision. Likewise, the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), who has put in many hours as the chairman of the all-party group on the island of St. Helena, made an equally powerful contribution. There seems to be a consensus on both sides of the House, and I hope that the Minister is listening to what is being said.

I want to take this opportunity to reaffirm the Conservative party’s commitment to our overseas territories. There is a feeling that they have been neglected to a degree over previous years, although, that said, I pay tribute once again to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley for her previous work. That neglect is precisely why my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) was absolutely determined that I should go to St. Helena—as we have heard, that is very difficult given the access issues, and it is particularly difficult when Parliament is sitting—to experience at first hand the concerns of islanders and to listen to their comments.

I was absolutely delighted to go the island last month. I want to put on record my thanks to the governor—Andrew Gurr—the executive council and all the islanders for their hospitality during my three days there. I had an incredibly busy programme. I spoke to nearly all the key stakeholders and had a series of public meetings, including formal ones and less formal ones in the pub, which was fun, if I am honest. The pub is a good place to meet St. Helenians, who are wonderful people. St. Helena is a wonderful island with a unique character, and I think that we all agree that whatever happens in the future, we have an obligation to ensure that that character is maintained. That must be at the forefront of our minds.

Although the debate is about the future of the island, it is worth talking about the situation today. Of the current £20 million-plus given by DFID each year, approximately £12 million is required to balance the island’s budget. In the past 10 years, the population has declined from just over 5,000 to 4,000, and UK aid to the island has risen from £10 million a year to more than £20 million.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Before we were interrupted, I was about to move on to the current access arrangements for the island—the Government-subsidised RMS St. Helena. Simply maintaining the current arrangements will limit the prospects for economic growth on the island. After my visit there, it is hard for me to disagree with the common view on the island that DFID is simply managing the island’s decline. I am sure that the Minister agrees that we cannot allow that view to continue. St. Helenians are fiercely proud of their British citizenship and have a long history of service to the Crown, as the hon. Member for Colchester has said. It is important to remember that the island has no indigenous population and was created entirely by the British, but I am afraid that islanders feel incredibly let down by the current Government in particular.

The access problem has been recognised for some time. Civil Aviation Authority studies carried out in 1973 and 1984 led to the initial air access feasibility study in 1999. A referendum of islanders in 2002 showed that 71.6 per cent. of voters favoured air access over a replacement ship. A further, detailed feasibility study carried out in early 2005 led to expressions of interest in a contract for the design, building and operation of the airport being issued in December 2005. In 2006, all four bidders pulled out because of concerns about risk allocation, and new expressions of interest were issued in September 2006; I shall return to that point in a moment. Following St. Helenian Government approval, Impregilo was selected as the preferred airport tender in October 2008. A few weeks later, in December 2008, the Secretary of State announced the pause.

Let me be clear: the islanders are utterly exhausted by the 26-year process and feel that any further studies will add little value because just about every piece of information that can be has been gleaned from them and the island. Let me also be clear that if the Government get their way and impose a five-year pause, and if the air access route is subsequently followed, it will be at least another nine years before an airport is delivered, given the four-year construction period. The current consultation, which was announced in March 2009, is viewed as a sham by many islanders, most of whom are deeply disillusioned, and, unfortunately, many of them will not participate. After years of engagement with DFID consultants, they feel that they have made their views plain.

During my time on the island, I was constantly referred to a brief section on overseas territories in the 1997 DFID White Paper, which states at paragraph 2.28:

“The Government reaffirms its responsibilities for Britain’s 13 remaining Dependent Territories...The reasonable assistance needs of the Dependent Territories are a first call on the development program.”

There was real anger that NGOs that have no involvement with the island have been invited to comment on the consultation. As fiercely loyal British citizens, and in light of the White Paper commitment, islanders do not understand why, to quote an islander, they should be

“lumped together and wait in line with non-British third-world countries”.

The islanders hate being dependent on aid, and they desperately want to be self-sufficient. They feel that the status quo of managed decline is unacceptable and will simply lead to further decline. Although the relationship has improved in recent years, thanks mainly to the sterling efforts of the DFID’s island representative, Mr. Eddie Palmer, DFID is, unfortunately, still widely viewed with suspicion on the island. DFID is seen as a micro-managing organisation that has sent a stream of consultants to write reports that recommend actions that are never implemented due to lack of funding. I cannot emphasise enough how badly let down the islanders feel by the Government’s dithering and indecision over the airport, especially given that the project was signed off by the Secretary of State, only to be reversed, out of the blue, eight weeks later.

What does my hon. Friend think happened between 16 October 2008, when the Secretary of State entered final negotiations, and the pause that was imposed seven or eight weeks later on 8 December? I might ask the Minister the same question in due course. What does my hon. Friend think happened in that period to change the Government’s view?

If only I knew. That is a key question, which I, too, was going to ask the Minister. All I can say to my hon. Friend is that the excuse about the economic downturn has been dismissed by islanders, because the looming recession was already anticipated when the document was signed in October. It is an incredibly hollow argument that within that eight-week period, given that the agreement was first signed in October, the economic recession suddenly loomed out of nowhere.

Let me say a few words on private sector involvement. The consortium Shelco has been involved in the process since May 2002, with a view to providing a private finance initiative and operating a high-end tourist resort on the island. It has secured an option on a 400-acre site on the island from Solomons—the 60 per cent. majority, St. Helenian Government-owned land owner—but that option runs out at the end of 2009, so timing is important.

Some islanders are concerned about the price that will be paid, both financially and in relation to the island way of life, for Shelco’s involvement. There are also concerns that a monopoly situation would emerge, with flights being unaffordable for islanders and with insufficient financial benefit being retained by the island to ensure economic growth. The private sector route remains an attractive option, but there are concerns that there is insufficient private sector expertise in either DFID or the St. Helena Government to negotiate with any potential operator to ensure that the best value deal for both the UK taxpayer and islanders is negotiated.

The previous invitation-for-proposal route failed when all the contractors pulled out, because there was too great a gulf between the private sector and the Government. Insufficient communication and round-table negotiation led to it being impossible for a satisfactory outcome to be achieved. If that route were pursued, a more sequenced, negotiated approach would be required, and if the Department lacks the skill to do that, outside support would have to be sought.

In summary, I must tell the Minister that my impression from my visit was that DFID is effectively managing the decline of the island through aid but very little development.

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has estimated what that period of decline might be. He may be aware that another overseas territory, the Pitcairn Islands, has, of Pitcairners, only about 47 people living there, and that the end of the period when that community can remain viable is not clear. Given that there are 4,000 people on St. Helena, does he have any idea how long that management of decline might go on, and therefore how long UK taxpayers’ money will be needed to support those people?

The hon. Lady makes a reasonable point. We seem to be doing nothing more than administering life support at the moment, which is why we have to do something, rather than kick this issue into the long grass. It is a key concern that infrastructure projects have been identified by a whole sequence of DFID representatives, but are rarely funded.

Worse still, the pause that was introduced following the change of heart over the airport has been very damaging to the island economically. That view has been emphasised to me during meetings with the chamber of commerce, the St. Helenian development agency and the building union, and the issue has caused enormous resentment among the islanders and the 10,000 Saints who live in the UK who feel utterly let down by the Government. During a dinner with representatives of the private sector, I was told that, as a direct result of the confirmation in October 2008 that the airport project would go ahead, approximately £57 million of pledged private sector investment was made, of which £18 million of actual investment has taken place. The anger among the private sector was palpable and there was a complete lack of trust in Her Majesty’s Government as a result, which is something it will take a long time to repair.

It is also important to remember that the airport formed the heart of a wider programme of infrastructure improvement on the island. The island needs new diesel storage tanks—it recently came within 72 hours of running out of diesel—a new road infrastructure, new port facilities and a new electricity generating plant. I experienced two power cuts while I was on the island, and I was assured that they were not arranged especially for me. All that has now been put on hold as a result of the pause. The entire economic development plan of the island has been based on the provision of an airport.

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that, in addition to the economic benefits that he has just described, the construction of the airport would require a new dock area and a new haul road to be built? That would also benefit sea transportation to the island and provide a further boost to the island’s economy.

That is exactly the point that I am trying to make when I say that investment in the airport is so much more than a matter of the airport itself. The airport is now on pause and, frankly, islanders simply do not know what to do because of the uncertainty and indecision. It has been repeated to me again and again that no decision is the worst decision, because of the inability to plan

Before I conclude, I want to look briefly at the recommendations in the consultation paper. Option A is to build an airport, which is undoubtedly the preferred option of the islanders. Although they would prefer an entirely publicly funded airport, that is clearly unlikely in the current economic climate. However, as the Minister admitted in May, it is clear that eventually an airport will have to be built, if the island is going to develop economically. It is also clear that doing so will not get any cheaper as time passes. Private sector partners—Shelco and Impregilo—remain interested and business models exist that show there would be a positive internal rate of return after 15 years or so with only modest visitor numbers. I understand that Impregilo wrote to the Minister on 30 April and offered to extend its arrangement until 30 June. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that and say whether he has replied to the letter and answered some of its many questions.

The Government’s commitment to maintaining current access levels equates to investing at least £70 million in a new ship. There is a mood on the island that that money could be used to prime the private sector development, while maintaining a degree of St. Helenian Government control over the project, which is crucial. Ironically, that was the original model proposed after the 2004 feasibility study. Why is that no longer an option, and why was it not included in the consultation document?

Option B is to replace RMS St. Helena, which is the preferred option of a minority on the island, in order to maintain the character of the island. Effectively, that would maintain the status quo of managed decline on the island. However, limited improvements could be made to access by having a faster ship and changing the schedule, so that the ship simply serves the Cape Town- St. Helena-Ascension triangle by removing the twice annual trips to the UK and relying on trans-shipping cargo in Cape Town instead. Interestingly, when I met the ship’s crew, they confirmed—perhaps surprisingly given their self-interest—that they had an overwhelming desire for an airport.

Option C is to defer the decision for five years, which is the UK Government’s preferred view and is, ironically, a do-nothing for five years option. If taken today, a decision would delay the building of an airport for at least nine years. Having visited the island, that is clearly the worst possible option, and it has been overwhelmingly rejected by islanders, because it would cause considerable damage to the island for reasons already stated. The early signs of the hastened economic decline as a result of the Government’s change of heart are already evident on the island. Interestingly, there was resentment on the island in some quarters that no opportunity was given to islanders to suggest other options, such as a flying boat service, a smaller runway or a faster boat service. After investigation, it appears that those options were looked at by the 2004 Atkins report and rejected. Having discussed them with the island’s Executive Council, it is clear that the extra time required to explore those options again would simply add to the pause and be unacceptable to an island that desperately needs a decision.

In conclusion, I say to the Minister that having been there, it is absolutely clear what the islanders’ view is— in fact, I sense that he already knows what their view is. He is a Minister who stands tall among his colleagues and I only hope that, in the final days of this Government, he will take the opportunity to do one thing as a Minister that he knows he can achieve. I ask him to be bold, be strong, be tall and make a decision, because I assure him that if this Government are not prepared to take a decision on the island for the future benefit of St. Helena, the next Government will.

It is always a pleasure to see you chairing such debates, Mrs. Dean. I extend my congratulations to the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) on securing the debate after, it seems, much trying and echo the comments made by the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) about her contribution. I know that she is retiring from the House at the next general election, but given what she said about St. Helena and its attractions, I am sure that there will always be a career for her in the tourism industry.

Given the frequency with which we seem to debate the issue of St. Helena, it is good to be among what some people would call the usual suspects—I like to call them my friends. I value their contributions and I will address the points that they have made. We have plenty of time to do so and there is no rush.

We are at an important point in the process in that, this week, the facilitated consultation referred to in the debate gets under way on the island. We shall await the outcome of the consultation process before reaching a decision, and with that in mind I suspect that hon. Members will not be surprised to hear that I can add little to what I said in this Chamber during a similar debate about St. Helena on 17 March. However, I reinforce the point that no decision has yet been taken and that we will take it only after the consultation has been completed.

Is the Minister asking us to accept that one of the options—to build the airport now—is still very much in the frame or is it there just for the sake of it?

All options are listed in the consultation paper. The Government have indicated what they consider the preferred position, but if option A was not going to be considered, we would not have put it in the consultation document. I can assure the hon. Gentleman of that.

Let me begin by reassuring hon. Members that the pause in the process in no way represents a dilution of the Government’s commitment to meet the reasonable needs of St. Helena. Let me make two things clear. First, the Government are not proposing to reduce their financial assistance to the island, which stands at approximately £20 million a year—in other words, around £5,000 for every man, woman and child resident on the island. Secondly, the Government are not proposing to reduce access to the island from the level that it has enjoyed over the past 20 years.

The question is therefore not whether we are discharging our responsibilities towards the people of St. Helena; it is, in fact, whether—in addition to our ongoing assistance to the island—the Government are in a position to finance the construction of an airport, which would require some £230 million to £260 million extra in aid over the next five years. In other words, it would involve an extra £57,000 to £65,000 for every man, woman and child resident on the island, on top of the £5,000 a year that I have already mentioned.

What the Minister said is perfectly reasonable. I simply ask him to rule out the do-nothing option.

I will come to the hon. Gentleman’s comments and answer the questions he and others asked at the same time, because this issue affects hon. Members from all parties.

I shall put the choice in context. We have paused the project not only because the costs I have highlighted are three times higher than the estimates we had at the time, which we committed to the project in 2005, but because the world has taken on a very different complexion from that of the economic environment in which our previous planning took place.

Does the Minister anticipate that capital building costs will fall during a five-year pause? Assuming that that is not the case, does he agree that 10 years of subsidy at £25 million a year roughly equates to the capital cost of building the airport? Thus, in year 11, the island of St. Helena would move from being dependent on the British taxpayer to self-sufficiency and then surplus.

The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point about what might happen to future costs. All I would say is that not just the basic raw material costs, but the important impact that the exchange rate has must be considered. I shall deal with that shortly.

I have two brief points to make. First, will the Minister answer the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster)? He asked what caused the pause between October and December when the Government decided that they would not go ahead with the airport and that there would be a further consultation.

The second and important point is that we all live in the real world. We know what the economic difficulties are in this country and elsewhere and that a new airport would cost a great deal of money. If by any chance further private capital—further investment—could be acquired elsewhere, would the British Government still contribute significantly to the project? If so, will the Minister speculate on how great their support might be?

I have said that I intend to reply to the question about what happened between autumn and Christmas, but I shall answer it now for the hon. Lady. The worsening of economic conditions intensified in the autumn, which brought to the attention of the Government and my Department the need to look again at what would be, in anyone’s language, a serious investment—a serious chunk of cash—that would have to be paid out in the next five years.

On the second question, my Department is perfectly happy and willing to look at any proposals that are made as a result of the consultation exercise. If the hon. Lady knows of private sector investors who are willing to make a contribution, I ask her to encourage them to present their ideas to the Department. I can assure her that they would not be ignored.

May I make more progress?

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) and the hon. Members for Colchester (Bob Russell) and for North-East Milton Keynes asked in different ways why overseas territories are part of DFID’s responsibility. I have to be perfectly honest and admit that that is an interesting question.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley will know from her time as a Foreign Office Minister with responsibility for overseas territories that there are differing views in Whitehall about exactly how overseas territories should be treated and who is responsible for their management and the funding that goes with it. The debate has gone on for some time. I have looked at the issue across the 12 years of this Government and before that. There has been a debate about who has responsibility because of the perceived conflict that can exist between meeting the first-call, reasonable needs of the overseas territories and, to use the more colourful language of the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes, who quoted a resident of St. Helena, dumping St. Helena with the third world. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman was quoting.

There is an issue that needs to be looked at. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that, in government, he would look at it and rejig the structure of Whitehall, I would be happy to hear his views.

I apologise for missing the first part of the debate, but it is timely to come in on this point. Surely, the Minister understands that we are talking about not just finance and economics, but loyal British subjects and an overseas territory that is not foreign or international, but British. We have a duty and a responsibility to the people of that island, which we now appear to be neglecting by introducing a shameful pause in delivering the promise that the Government made to them.

Without the airport, there will be economic decline, which none of us wants. A British territory deserves to be treated as British, not as foreign or international. When will the Government make true the promise that they made to the islanders of St. Helena?

The obligation that the UK Government have towards the overseas territories is being met. They have first call for reasonable assistance needs. Perhaps some difference of opinion about the definition of “reasonable assistance needs” will show up as a result of the consultation document. I suspect that that is the bone of contention.

In DFID’s current position, with the overseas territories as part of its responsibilities, we have a duty to consider what else is going on in the world. At this time, our best estimate of the impact of the global economic downturn, which is acknowledged as one of the most serious downturns of recent generations, is that 90 million more people are living on less than $1.25 a day, there has been an 80 per cent. reduction in capital flows to emerging economies and developing countries, there have been reductions in remittances to developing-country households and an estimated 1.4 million more infant deaths are likely to occur up to 2015.

I said in my speech that I hoped the Minister would not repeat those facts, as he did last time. That was not because some of us do not believe that the Government should respond to problems in the developing world, but because the reality is that if the situation on St. Helena deteriorates, or if, as I suggested, some problematic social situation arises, the British Government will have to deal with the results.

We have a legal responsibility that goes beyond the moral responsibility that we all feel for international development. It is that legal responsibility, which was set out by the United Nations, that hon. Members are asking the Government to fulfil. The overseas territories are different, which is why we do not think it appropriate for the Minister to counter-pose real and important development issues.

I know that my hon. Friend asked me not to put this debate into the context of developing countries and other needs, but, unfortunately for her, that is the situation that the Government find themselves in. I would be genuinely interested in—and may look back, if I can—the record of her time as Foreign Office Minister with responsibility for overseas territories. Did she make such recommendations and is this something she advocated? This important issue should be debated.

The loss in the value of sterling against the United States dollar over the past year means that in many countries of the world our aid is not going as far as it did. It has reduced the value of our multilateral payments and has also had an impact on many of the larger international non-governmental organisations to which we provide funding. DFID’s budget has come under pressure from new calls for aid to protect low-income countries that are most vulnerable to the global downturn. For example, we recently agreed to provide £200 million in response to a request from the World Bank for $5 billion to $6 billion for its vulnerability financing facility, and at the beginning of the year we approved £100 million of contingency funding for Africa.

There are also growing financial pressures in other overseas territories, which the Government must take into account. The value of our aid to Montserrat, for example, whose local currency is pegged to the dollar, has fallen by 30 per cent. due to exchange rate decline.

Important though those points are, does the Minister accept—I do not know how many times I have asked him this question, but he has not answered it—that 10 years of subsidy to the island of St. Helena roughly equates to the cost of building the airport? At the point the airport is built, the island will move from being dependent on the taxpayer to being self-sufficient and creating a surplus. Investment will save the British taxpayer money—and then there will be more money to give to Montserrat and the other countries.

I intend to reply in detail to the hon. Gentleman’s point, but the problem is that Montserrat is facing its difficulties now and cannot wait 15 years before money becomes available to deal with them. If he does not appreciate the difficulties faced by overseas territories such as Montserrat, let me tell him that last night its Government fell and there has to be a general election. It is facing serious difficulties.

Other Caribbean territories have seen tourism fall markedly, which is seriously affecting the viability of their economies. As I told the House in March, these impacts of the global crisis seriously affect the Government’s ability to achieve all their international development objectives. An airport for St. Helena represents significant outlay, which is why we have to revisit the choices before us. That is not to say that we are ignoring the special place that the overseas territories have in the aid programme, but as I said earlier reasonable need cannot amount to an unqualified commitment, irrespective of circumstances.

There is near-universal agreement that the current circumstances are exceptional. The Government cannot evade their responsibility to re-examine the case for the airport at this time, given current circumstances and the scale of the expenditure involved.

I want to say a word or two about the consultation, which was mentioned by hon. Members. The consultation is an indication that we are not taking this decision lightly. We are well aware of the importance of the airport to the Saints who voted for it in the 2002 referendum. We are well aware of the social problems, which have been outlined in the debate, relating to the lack of easy access and a weak economy in St. Helena. We launched the consultation to ensure that the Government can hear from all those who will be affected when we come to our eventual decision.

We have made every effort to ensure that the Saints will be heard. As I speak, our consultation facilitator is on the island, listening to the Saints first hand. This evening, she is holding a public meeting at the Kingshurst community centre, which is one of a series of events organised for her around the island during her eight-day stay. She has already spoken to Saints in London and Swindon, and she will make further visits to the Falkland Islands and Ascension Island before the consultation deadline.

If the hon. Gentleman shows a little more patience, he will see that I will deal with that. He is right to mention that the consultation ends on 31 July, after which there is, under the Government code of conduct, a formal period within which the Government are expected to produce a report based on that consultation. I will outline the details for him in due course.

I apologise for missing part of the debate. So far, the Minister has not provided the cost of managing the decline in St. Helena. It seems that that has been ignored, although it will cost the United Kingdom Government additional sums to manage the decline of that country because of the island’s failure, which will result from the failure to proceed with the airport.

Many of the calculations that the hon. Gentleman seeks were in the report that has been presented and is publicly available now. Those numbers are already available to give people an indication of why, when that report was produced, the outcome favoured an airport.

When all the responses to the consultation are collated, together with all written submissions received, we will summarise them in a consultation report that will be published in October. I assure the hon. Member for Congleton that, when we come to make a decision, which we will do by the end of this year, we will take those responses into consideration and weigh them up alongside the shorter-term financial considerations that we are contending with.

I acknowledge the interest expressed in the debate and outside by hon. Members who are exploring other ways to improve physical access to the island, because that is the nub of the issue and of people’s concerns.

Before the Minister moves on, I understood him to say that the Government would come to a decision by the end of the year. Will he give an undertaking this afternoon that, if that decision is deferred, there will still be a timetable in place so that uncertainty about the future of the airport on St. Helena can be removed, because as many hon. Members have said this afternoon, uncertainty is a killer? People on the island and those outside it—those investing—need to know what the future holds if this matter is to be progressed.

The hon. Lady makes a fair point. The delay is important and was mentioned when I spoke to the governor and representatives from St. Helena when they visited me at DFID. The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes also made a good point in that regard. As the hon. Lady says, delay is the killer.

We do not want the debate to be any more protracted than it needs to be. Because of the issue of access to St. Helena, we have extended what under Government guidelines would normally be a 12-week consultation to a 16-week consultation, just to enable due consideration to be given to people in St. Helena and to allow them to meet the facilitator and genuinely to engage in the debate.

The hon. Lady mentioned the event in Reading at the end of August, at which a number of Saints will be present. However, if we waited formally until the end of August before concluding the consultation, that would just extend the period by a month. With all due respect, I—and I think she—would rather we made a quick decision in the hope that the Saints had already taken an interest in the debate and not waited until the bank holiday event in Reading.

On improving physical access to the island, there has been discussion about whether a shorter runway or increased use of the Wideawake airstrip on Ascension would be appropriate. Some have asked for more imaginative means, such as flying boats, to be considered. Those options have all been examined and deemed unsuitable, either for reasons of technical feasibility or for their limited potential to enable economic growth. For example, it is believed that the option of a shorter runway would not deliver the benefits that connection to a recognised international hub would bring. That lack of connection reduces the attraction to the tourism market.

Additional factors are associated with restrictions on the use of the military airfield on Ascension Island. For example, it does not meet Civil Aviation Authority standards and is operated by the United States military. There are restrictions on the number of civilian flights that can go via Ascension. The cost of a short runway is not significantly lower than that of a longer one, for technical reasons that were all explored in the previous consultations.

Let me deal with some of the issues that have cropped up in the debate. The hon. Member for Congleton asked whether St. Helena lacks the practical aspects of support while the delay is going on and suggested that there is a ban on DFID representatives visiting the island. I can say categorically that there is no such ban. The three-year assistance package that was negotiated with the Government of St. Helena and started in 2007 remains unchanged in respect of its commitment. To provide examples of how we are still investing in infrastructure, last year DFID provided £5 million of infrastructure investment, including £2.25 million for rock-fall protection works in Jamestown. This year, the Department is making available up to £4.5 million for infrastructure investment.

To ensure that St. Helena can benefit from the higher funding that has been agreed, DFID is supporting the recruitment of experienced engineering managers to improve capacity in the public works and services department on the island.

I mentioned the Reading event, and I hope that the hon. Lady is satisfied on that point.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) proved to be a powerful advocate for his constituents and asked whether we would give a commitment to get on with the matter. The answer is yes; that is essential for us and for the Saints. He also asked whether we would take account of the long-term challenges facing the Saints on the island when we make our decision. The answer is yes, of course we will.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley asked about the overseas territories. She proved to be a powerful advocate on behalf of St. Helena and served its residents well.

The hon. Member for Colchester—my friend from Colchester—asked why we cannot treat Saints as British subjects, and I addressed that in terms of the position of overseas territories. I regret his use of language in referring to the Government’s decision being economic apartheid on the basis that Falkland islanders are white and Saints are not, and that that is why the Falklands received investment when St. Helena did not.

I think the hon. Gentleman used such language to reinforce his argument and that he does not believe it. But if he does, that is a mistake that many politicians make. The two facts may be correct, but that does not mean that they are causally related. There is a big difference between how the Government are dealing with the matter and how the South African regime operated apartheid.