Question for Short Debate
My Lords, as we meet today to consider matters about overseas territories in the south Atlantic, we must offer our thoughts, prayers and concerns to the troubled people of other overseas territories, in the Caribbean, following the onslaught of Hurricane Irma.
Transport and infrastructure in these south Atlantic islands are interrelated; both are both hugely relevant to the islands’ economies. Saints are hardworking people. The resident population is just over 4,000. Few people are unemployed but 300 Saints work in the Falkland Islands and 600 on Ascension Island—indeed, they are 70% of its residents. It is not unreasonable for these people to want to return home from time to time. From Easter Sunday this year, the regular Brize Norton-Falklands flight ceased to call at Ascension. There has been no call since, the refuelling stop now being in Cape Verde. Why? We are advised that the heavy RAF planes cannot now land on the crumbling Wideawake Airfield runway. Why no earlier maintenance? Even at this stage, should there not be urgency in attending to the runway, rather than waiting until 2020? One wonders what else on the island is in urgent need of repair. How is it expected that Saints working in the Falklands may return home?
Surely emergency arrangements should have been put in place for the returning Saints, for those who have engaged in important environmental and conservation work and for those interested in holidaying on Ascension, particularly for two-island visits—indeed, to keep Ascension Island going. The economy, which is reliant on visitors, is, like the runway, crumbling. The owners of the only hotel are likely to close their doors for good. Following the seven-month gap, a monthly air link is promised to start on 11 November. This will not assist tourism; how many visitors can spend a month away? Nor will it help anyone with business there who cannot afford a month there. I wonder how helpful a monthly service will be to the working Saints.
Ascension Island has been promoted by this Government as a blue belt of marine protection. Surely this promotion is incompatible with the present totally inadequate transport links. What are the Government’s plans for Ascension’s transport and infrastructure? Indeed, what are the plans for the future of the island?
Turning to St Helena, while awaiting the air link, the RMS “St Helena” struggled on beset by breakdowns, but the air link is now but 37 days away. This weekly service will provide, if every aircraft seat of the 76 available is filled, only 80% of the full capacity of berths on the RMS. That will be the position once the air and ship luxury of this next few months ends with the expected withdrawal of the RMS next February. Perhaps the Minister could confirm that the RMS will serve at least until the completion of Voyage 268 at Cape Town on 11 February 2018. Furthermore, is the Minister aware of whether, at a later stage, the carriage capacity of the aircraft can be increased? Is any resolution in sight on wind shear so that larger aircraft may be used? The air service now on offer will not add to the tourist potential of St Helena and the enrichment of the economy. How can it? The airport was supposed to be the gateway to a tourism-led economy, but the creation of that base in terms of infrastructure has barely started. There is much more to do.
Although the island’s newest hotel in Jamestown, supported by the St Helena Government, is due to open in October, all other hotel developments proposed by private interests are stalled. Why? I believe it is due to a lack of confidence in the sufficiency of transport links and the related confidence of lenders to invest in the absence of any guarantee that these links will be robust.
St Helena also needs to enhance other infrastructure, such as its sewerage arrangements, road network, further work in rockfall abatement and the inadequate broadband connections. There are proposals for a south Atlantic cable, which could have a St Helena link. Are this Government disposed to support that? The cost of internet connection in St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha is very expensive, perhaps the most expensive in the world. For Tristan da Cunha—the remotest settlement on earth, where a cable connection is unlikely —it is still vital for education, health, good governance and economic development that there is good access. How is the Minister able to assist to improve these links?
Resources to improve infrastructure can come from several budget lines. Clearly, DfID has an important role, with its enhanced budget and the requirement to attend as a first call to the overseas territories’ needs. Under the 11th European Development Fund, however, these islands have been granted aid of €21.5 million for the period 2014-20. Are these funds guaranteed in European Union departure times? Will replacements be made in this type of funding? I am aware that some of the NGOs are looking to obtain funding from the UK National Lottery for environmental and heritage work. Does the Minister support that aim?
In the last week of our time here in July, I attended, alongside other noble Lords, a roadshow put on by the Commonwealth Development Corporation, or the CDC as it is known. I picked up and studied its annual report and strategic framework to understand its role in development. I was interested to learn that the organisation engages in Africa and south Asia. Sixty-seven countries are listed as to where they may invest: 49 on the African continent—all of mainland Africa—as well as Cape Verde and São Tomé and Príncipe. The St Helena group are not so listed. Surely they can only be part of the African continent; I cannot see them being in any other. The Central Intelligence Agency has helpfully produced a list of 198 countries in the world, showing their gross domestic product per capita. St Helena’s GDP is $7,800, less than half the world average. Of the 49 African countries that the CDC is prepared to consider supporting, 13 have a greater GDP per capita than the St Helena group of islands. I put it to the Minister that the CDC, with its quadrupled financial resources and considerable expertise, is well-placed to be part of the answer to enhancing the infrastructure of St Helena.
The investment in St Helena Airport was a very important achievement, but it is only part of the solution to translate the economy to one based on sympathetic tourism. The infrastructure investment must follow now. This Government, either directly or through their agencies, have the resources, skill and experience to translate these dependent economies to self-sustaining ones. Will the Minister commit today that the Government have the will to do it?
The correspondence I have received prior to this debate, both from St Helena and the many friends of the islands in the UK—and elsewhere—shows the timeliness of the debate. I thank those who wrote for their knowledge and interest. I also thank all noble Lords for taking part and look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Shutt—I call him my noble friend because although he is in a different party, he is usually on the same side—on securing the debate. I also associate myself with his remarks about the problems facing our overseas territories in the Caribbean and our friends in independent Caribbean countries. The hurricane seems one of the worst they have faced and I hope we will see the Department for International Development and the UK Government doing as much as they can to help. It would be helpful if the Minister could mention that in his reply.
I want to deal with two issues: the sad saga of St Helena and how it has been dealt with by the British Government, and Ascension Island. I do not want to go over the terrible saga of the airport again; I am afraid DfID does not come out of it well. Getting information, with the help of the Minister—I am not blaming the noble Lord, Lord Bates, because he has been helpful—out of DfID has been like drawing hen’s teeth. It has been very difficult. The answers to my Parliamentary Questions are like the famous bikini: what they conceal is much more interesting than what they reveal. I do not think it is very clever of civil servants to see how well they cannot answer questions. If I were a civil servant, I would go out of my way to try to help Parliament by answering questions properly.
There needs to be some inquiry into why so much money was spent and wasted in building the airport without proper planning and foresight. We now know that aircraft can go in and out—it is clear that they can. That could have happened from day one if it had been planned properly. There needs to be some inquiry and I hope the Public Accounts Committee in the other place might have a further look at it.
One of the problems is the question of who makes the decisions in relation to St Helena and other overseas territories. It is split between DfID, the FCO, which appoints the governor, the governor herself and the island’s council. I pay tribute to the council: to Lawson Henry and to Derek Thomas, whom I know very well and have sat with on important Commonwealth Parliamentary Association committees. He is a very good man, as is Lawson. They are elected, and yet they are not given a proper place in decision-making in St Helena. The truth is that the man who pays the piper—and usually it is a man; sorry, ladies—calls the tune. In this case, DfID is paying the piper. Some 52% of St Helena’s expenditure comes from a DfID budget. We know that although the fiction is that the governor makes a decision, it is not the governor who ultimately does so but the United Kingdom Government, DfID, in particular.
That is why this plan was devised in the first place: to get away from that and make the island more independent and self-sustaining through tourism, not just from the United Kingdom but from France. A lot of French people want to go to see the reminiscences of Napoleon’s visit to the island. There is great potential there for environmental tourism and a range of other things. That is why the development must go ahead. I hope the Minister will give some indication of what he is doing to support the companies that have already shown an interest and to help the individuals, some of whom have put in their own money and have had no compensation or indication of help. I keep getting a brochure about some scheme; I hope the Minister will not refer to that again because it is not really the kind of help they need. They need more sustained and better help.
I am hearing about problems with the new wharf at Rupert’s. Again, the islanders, who know, suggested that it should be in Jamestown, but DfID, which thinks it knows better, insisted that it should be at Rupert’s Wharf. Now we have problems of potential rockfall. It is about time DfID paid more attention to what the islanders—the people on the ground—say, because they know what is going on. I hope the Minister will give an indication of whether DfID has agreed the funding and business case for the next three years. The islanders need to know that. They need some planning and some foresight. I hope that business case has been agreed.
I must watch my time because I want to come on to Ascension Island. I have some information that I would like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, for. The airport has been closed—or so we are told—to everyone except the Americans. How is it that the Americans can use this broken runway? Do they have some kind of aircraft that we do not? Do they have special aeroplanes that can land on broken runways? The islanders there have a suspicion that we are heading for another Diego Garcia and that the United Kingdom will hand over Ascension to the Americans. They already run Wideawake Airfield. I have no doubt that they are very keen to take it over for their own purposes. With the current President we do not know what the hell will happen there. Why is it that the Americans can land there and others cannot?
We have a big interest there, not just Cable & Wireless. GCHQ has a base there. It has potential for environmental tourism as well. I hope the Minister will spell out—I think my noble friend Lord Shutt covered this—exactly what will happen regarding access for aircraft flying in and out, and how frequently we will have them into St Helena and then perhaps up to Ascension. I hope the Minister will give an absolute assurance that there is no intention to withdraw RMS “St Helena” until it is absolutely clear—100% sure—that there are viable alternatives.
My time is up. In conclusion, there is a feeling abroad, in this Committee and in the Chamber down the road, that the Government are so preoccupied with Brexit, with so much attention put into it, that they are not dealing with some of the other important issues, such as St Helena or Ascension. I hope the Minister will give us some indication that he, at least, is concerned about the kind of issues that my noble friend Lord Shutt, I and others will raise today.
My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Shutt on tabling this Question for Short Debate, which raises an issue that is in some ways seen as slightly niche. I told somebody this morning that I would be speaking about transport and infrastructure in Ascension, St Helena and Tristan da Cunha. They had lost the will to live before I got as far as saying, “And the Falkland Islands”. There has, perhaps, not been sufficient discussion, debate and oversight of what is going on for our overseas territories.
I am taking us slightly further down into the south Atlantic. We have heard so far predominantly about Ascension and St Helena—not so much about Tristan da Cunha. I will talk a little more about the Falkland Islands, partly because last year, under the auspices of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme, I had the opportunity of travelling to the Falkland Islands and therefore stopping in Ascension and coming down. That was quite an efficient although slow route, but it is one that operated twice a week and is clearly important to UK forces. We still have the three services in the Falkland Islands; the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force and the Army are still based in the islands so we need mechanisms to get our service men and women there effectively. That is a question that possibly needs to go back to the MoD, but I have a few other questions I want to raise regarding our service men and women.
There was an established route that worked for the military and for the civilian residents of the Falkland Islands. If they wanted to come to the UK, they could book on to the twice-weekly Voyager flights. That is quite different from the number of services we are seeing at the moment, which might be available going through St Helena or to Ascension using different routes. I seem to recall that when the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, raised this issue in the Chamber during a Question, the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, suggested that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, should be sent on the first commercial flight in and out of St Helena. I think the noble Lord might be there for some time because clearly the flights are not frequent.
The noble Lord might say that but I could not possibly comment. However, there is a question about the frequency of the flights and their utility for islanders, whether from Ascension, St Helena or the Falkland Islands.
While I was drafting my notes for today’s debate, I wanted to investigate a little further into Ascension. I looked at the island details online and found a web link for “Flights”. I clicked on it and a message stated, “The server is temporarily unable to service your request due to maintenance downtime or capacity problems. Please try again later”. It looks like a dead web page but clearly it also links to the fact that the flights are not functioning either. The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, has suggested that we are looking at 2020 before the Ascension airfield will be back in service. That is neither a short nor a temporary break in service; it is a very long time. One question I should like to put to the Minister is: what assessment have Her Majesty’s Government made of the additional costs to HM Armed Forces of the rerouting via Cape Verde?
In answer to a Question for Written Answer tabled on 17 July in the House of Commons, Mark Lancaster stated that it was too early to provide details of the costs related to the rerouting of the South Atlantic Airbridge covering items such as fuel, handling and landing fees, but that they would be tracked and recorded. Is there an answer to that question, because we are looking at at least three years of this rerouting? What is the cost and might it be better to talk to the United States and ask whether the United Kingdom could not assist in the renovation of what is supposed to be called the Wideawake Airfield, although it seems more like fast asleep. As the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, pointed out, it seems closed to everyone apart from the Americans, and that in itself raises questions. Perhaps the USAF uses smaller planes than the Voyagers flying on behalf of the RAF, but why is that happening? There are questions about maintenance and the costs of dealing with the airfield in Ascension.
There remains a wider set of questions about the role that the United Kingdom feels it can play in association with the British Overseas Territories. For months and years we have been hearing that in the light of Brexit, we are looking to go global. Surely the first places we should be thinking about are our territories overseas whose links to the European Union will be damaged by Brexit. The islands have benefited from British membership of the European Union, including EDF funding. So far, under the current 2014-2020 EU budget, some €21.5 million has been assigned for the Atlantic territories. Has that all been spent, and if not, will it be part of the divorce budget that the United Kingdom is facing? If it is, should we not be thinking about making sure that it is spent in useful ways?
Finally, I should like to touch on infrastructure in the Falklands. It is not only a question of the runway on Ascension; it is also about the roads in the Falklands, in particular the road between Port Stanley and Mount Pleasant airfield. Who is affected by that? In part it is the resident islanders, but it also affects our service men and women. RAF staff may be sent on six-month deployments. The roads are dreadful. They are not necessarily made, and at the moment they are being upgraded at the rate of, I believe, a mile and a half a year, which is all that can be afforded. Will Her Majesty’s Government look at ways of improving the infrastructure, given that it affects not just the islanders but, crucially, our service men and women, who go on long deployments and would benefit enormously from safer and quicker road transport? It would enable them to get to Stanley and spend some of their time not just at the airport.
There is a whole set of infrastructure questions that could be dealt with. A final one concerns IT. Are there mechanisms for looking at, again, communications? Cheaper and more effective IT infrastructure would be most beneficial not just to islanders but to our service men and women.
My Lords, for people living in remote places, communications are vital. One can only imagine what it must feel like to lose existing air services and links such as Ascension, and anticipated new links such as the airport in St Helena. I have had the pleasure of visiting Ascension to watch the green turtles, before going on to the Falkland Islands, where I have also made a few visits, but I have not yet had the privilege of going to St Helena. I have, however, a long-standing interest and involvement in the overseas territories, going back to the days when they were known as dependent territories. This debate is about helping the overseas territories to remain independent.
The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, has given us a wonderful opportunity to focus on the issues affecting these three tiny territories and has provided a very detailed factual background, for which we must all thank him. This is indeed a timely debate. It is very important to raise awareness of the problems and to seek and suggest solutions, and I look forward to hearing from my noble friend Lord Bates on the Government’s thinking and answers to some of the questions raised. Given that the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, has covered the ground so thoroughly, as indeed have others, I wish only to underline and emphasise certain points.
The airport saga in St Helena has indeed been a saga, but the main assurance needed by the people of St Helena—the Saints—is a guarantee for a transitional period, once the airport finally opens in October, and that the RMS “St Helena” will remain as a back-up service for as long as possible. I understand that the aeroplanes to be used at the new airport have a capacity for some 70 people, which is not very great. RMS “St Helena” can transport some 156 passengers, I believe. Given that the high season for tourism is approaching and hotels and other tourist-related activities need some certainty, it is important that such a guarantee is given urgently. Therefore I hope my noble friend the Minister can give us a positive answer on this subject.
My understanding was that there are no specific issues relating to the Falklands in the Falklands themselves other than issues of access via Ascension, as has been said. As for the issues in Ascension and St Helena, the sooner action is taken the better, since we all know that infrastructure costs always rise with time, and there is the added issue of European Union funding, which will no longer be available in the future. I hope that such resources as are required to meet these issues will not be affected by the current tragedy and needs of those overseas territories in the Caribbean—I would mention Anguilla in particular. I join those who have sent their good wishes to the people who are suffering in those places.
I hope very much that, as a result of this debate, we will get some answers to provide reassurance for the peoples of St Helena, Ascension and the Falklands.
My Lords, I, too, wish to associate myself with the remarks about Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean, which is clearly on an unprecedented scale. In my capacity as president of the Caribbean Council, I know that many of the people whom we are associated with will be affected by it. I also congratulate my noble friend Lord Shutt on this debate. I know he has a long-standing interest and has had the advantage of going to St Helena, which not all of us have.
My involvement in this goes back about 10 years. I freely admit that it was only in my capacity as chair of the International Development Committee that it was brought to my attention that the future of St Helena was believed to depend on the development of an airport, which at that time was not at all a firm commitment but a consideration. The process of getting to the final commitment was a pretty convoluted and stop/start one, in any case.
What I remember from that time is this fundamental point, which relates to what has been said about Ascension, too: the survivability of these communities depends on having a functioning economy, albeit maybe a subsidised one. There is a clear worry that these territories will become the 21st century’s St Kilda and that the lack of support, investment and infrastructure will be such that it will be declared impossible to support the communities and they will be abandoned. I would like the Minister to assure me that the Government have a real commitment to ensuring that these communities can and should survive. I do not want to be in any way contentious in saying this but, partly because of the conflict, the Falkland Islands have had a lot of attention and a huge amount of investment, whereas these other communities have, frankly, been almost forgotten. It is time that was redressed.
The point made to me when I was being lobbied, apart from that fundamental one that it was important for the viability, economic development and opportunity of the St Helena community, was that the ship—which was, incidentally, built in Aberdeen—was reaching the end of its life. Rather than build another ship, it was therefore said that it would be better to put the money towards an airport, which is the modern means of communication, although I appreciate the worry about having no shipping. I then heard the objections or issues from various sources, the first of which was the cost of developing an airport, the difficult terrain being very remote and there being no heavy lifting equipment on the island. It all had to be brought in and subsequently removed, which is a problem now, and that consideration made it more expensive.
The second concern was about the environment, both the physical impact on the appearance of the island and the disruption to wildlife—I have heard about other consequences—on the grounds that the ecosystem was part of the island’s attraction, and so should not be damaged or destroyed. There were people actually saying, “Let’s not have the airport”, but the argument was won and it was clear that the overwhelming majority of the community wanted it.
What I never heard about, not once, was the possibility of wind shear. I heard about it only last year, as I think most of us did, apparently when flying into the airport started to be thought about. I have read that there were test flights and calibration measures. I was told that the islanders could tell just by watching the birds that there was a wind issue. There is a question of whether the process of reorganising the landscape to build the airport had any effect on aggravating the wind shear. I have no idea—it would be interesting to know about that—but what is now clear is that the wind shear exists. It also now appears that there is a partial resolution, which my noble friend Lord Shutt referred to, as it is a problem from one way at the airport but not the other. You can land more safely with a tail wind—I have just seen the video—but the problem is that when you land, you keep on going and at the end, there is the sea. It is therefore unsuitable for heavier planes to do that because the runway is not long enough.
That brings me to the question of what to do now. For example, is there a possibility of an extension to the runway, because it is slightly shorter than was originally envisaged? Would that help? Could any other measures be put in place that might affect the wind shear? Again, I do not have the technical knowledge to know whether that is possible. The point about Ascension then comes into play, because it gives you alternatives. Apart from direct flights from Angola, South Africa or Namibia, it would also perhaps be possible, if the runway in Ascension were in use, to take larger planes into Ascension and then have a more regular link service for smaller planes into St Helena, which might deliver volume if the demand developed.
We should step back and recognise that the hope for this was to create a significant opportunity for the island to sustain and grow its economy as a unique tourist destination. It would obviously not be for the mass market; it would be both expensive and special, but it requires reliability of the service, and the knowledge that you can get on and off the island at reasonable intervals. It would require decent accommodation and facilities to enable people, if they are to be there for a week or 10 days, to benefit from what the island has to offer and have reasonable comfort.
The point being made about the developers and the CDC is to get to find a reasonable solution to guarantee an amount of flying capacity on a regular basis. That should give confidence for developers to provide the tourism facilities that would benefit from this. The CDC should reasonably regard that as within its remit.
When I was chairman of the International Development Committee, people asked why we were spending money in this small community, when there is much greater need in Africa and elsewhere. I understand that argument. As a committee, we decided to leave it alone, because we did not want to be seen to be standing in the way of the needs of the St Helenians. The reality is that it is the Government’s responsibility. It qualifies for ODA, so maybe it should legitimately be DfID’s, but it should be done nevertheless and the Government should have a commitment. There should be an assurance that there is a real future, a solution that can be sustained and the ability to support the economy’s development, in the terms that the local community hoped for when the decision to go ahead with the airport was taken.
My Lords, I also associate myself with the comments regarding Hurricane Irma. No one could not be moved by the remarks on the radio this morning about the devastation. I know the Government have made a Statement in the other place, and it would be helpful if the Minister could give us a brief update on that situation. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, for initiating this debate. I cannot believe it is over three years since the first one I was involved in, which he initiated. We had the report about the building of the airport then. It was scheduled for completion in 2016. It was clear that the airport would provide opportunities for growth and jobs but we knew then that, without proper investment, the cost of failure would be high.
Only by developing sustainable enterprise will St Helena be weaned off the budget support of around £25 million to £30 million a year. The noble Lord, Lord Bates, has said the airport business case depended not on rapid development but slow growth over 25 years, going from fewer than 1,000 tourists to 30,000 tourists by 2014. Of course that was based on five flights a week, not the initial weekly flight service that is now planned.
Most noble Lords in the debate have mentioned key infrastructure issues. There is value in cross-learning and development between islands. The noble Lord, Lord Bates, has said that the Joint Ministerial Council is an obvious vehicle for putting that into practice, as is the Overseas Territories Consultative Committee. Can the Minister indicate how that sharing of best practice has been delivered by those committees?
Noble Lords have mentioned the CDC, and I make another plug for it. It is vital for the five-year plan that has just been published that we in Parliament debate the priorities in that plan, and I hope the Minister can tell us that the Government will make time for a proper debate. It is, as noble Lords have said, concerning that DfID did not foresee and address the impact of difficult wind conditions on landing commercial aircraft safely sooner. However, as my noble friend mentioned, I am grateful to the Minister for keeping noble Lords informed of the remedial action taken by the department. In particular, I am grateful that he responded to my questions about the need for clear contingency plans combined with a realistic timetable to remove uncertainty. That includes provision of sea routes while we are assessing the success of the airport.
My noble friend Lord Foulkes also mentioned compensation for residents who have expanded their business, where the uncertainty has affected their investment. The department says that there have not been any claims, but I would appreciate it if the Minister could give us a bit more news on the role of the business support initiative and how it has responded to the needs of those who have invested. We now have confirmation that we will have a scheduled commercial air service. The agreement was signed in July, and I am grateful to the Minister for advising me that regulatory approvals from the South African CAA have been given, that we had a successful proving flight last week and that the service will start on 14 October. That is fantastic news, but it does not alleviate the need for contingency planning, ensuring greater certainty and protecting the investments that have been made.
Another announcement was of a weekly charter service to Ascension, which has now been put into question by the US authorities, who own and are responsible under the Bahamas agreement for managing that airfield, the Wideawake Airfield, which does not seem so wide awake at the moment. Again, I come back to contingency planning. Why was there not more advance notice of this? Why is there not much more effective contingency planning? Why is there so much uncertainty, which is creating stress in those communities’ lives?
I hope that the Minister will respond to the key issue, which is what assistance the Government will provide to residents of St Helena employed in supporting the British military presence in the Falklands. Are we any further forward from the response that the MoD is working to find a solution? We have had three months of that, and it is vital that we hear from the Government today.
The noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, said that the response to support people employed in Ascension is for the employing organisations. He acknowledged, however, the considerable logistical challenges created by the current air access issues and said that the Government were “urgently considering” how best they could support those on Ascension with this. That was three months ago, so I should like to hear from the Minister: is he in a position to tell us what support can be given today?
My Lords, I first join other noble Lords in paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, for securing this debate on transport and major infrastructure needs of St Helena, Ascension, Tristan da Cunha and the Falkland Islands. He and several noble Lords began their remarks—correctly—by expressing their thoughts and prayers for all the people in the Caribbean, including those on Anguilla, Montserrat, the British Virgin Islands and Turks and Caicos Islands who are dealing with the effects of Hurricane Irma. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, referenced the Statement made by Sir Alan Duncan in another place earlier. There will be a COBRA meeting starting at 2 pm today; further announcements will be made following that. The Secretary of State, Priti Patel, has announced that the Royal Fleet Auxiliary “Mounts Bay” is already in the Caribbean and should reach the affected territories today. The ship carries Royal Marines and Army engineers and her primary task is the protection of the overseas territories. She is loaded with a range of equipment, vehicles, tents, stores and hydraulic vehicles, specifically intended to respond to disasters such as this. As I say, we are aware that further action will be needed and it will be forthcoming, as an expression of not only our humanitarian concern but, of course, our legal obligation to those territories.
I will deal with as many of the points that have been raised as possible. My approach will probably be one that is fairly positive. It is in my nature—I am afraid that my blood group is B positive and I therefore live in that positive world. I recall that the St Helena air service is indelibly printed upon my ministerial memory at DfID: I was appointed in the morning and, in the afternoon, I faced my first Question on the issue from the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes. I am grateful that noble Lords have acknowledged that we have tried to work together through this. We have had several meetings, which I have been grateful to noble Lords for attending. We have tried to keep noble Lords informed throughout the very difficult progress and as we wrestled to find a solution for this. We met with a quality assurance panel and with the team and have been sharing that information. I hope very much that the conversation we have been able to have with those who are interested in the future of these overseas territories can continue, even beyond the start of the service.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, has already referred to the commercial air service, by SA Airlink, which is expected to start on 14 October. These are exciting times for St Helena. This service will end centuries of isolation for the island. My noble friend Lady Hooper referred to the fact that communications are vital to these remote communities. This connection will be extremely important. For those who are looking for our commitment to these islands, I think the fact that we spend £285 million of British taxpayers’ money on the airport is a real commitment. One thing that we are absolutely sure of is that we want to ensure that not only the Saints but the British taxpayers see that there is good value for money from that very significant investment in the air service. The service will end centuries of isolation for the island which, until recently, had been accessible only by sea.
Some noble Lords commented on the parity between the existing link with St Helena and the number of places that are available. The air service will have an initial capacity of 76, which will increase to 87 in early 2018. Reference has been made to the capacity on RMS “St Helena”, but it takes five days to get to the island. Airlink will get there in six and a half hours. The costs are less: proposed ticket prices start at £804, making it a real, affordable opportunity for people to take advantage of. The service will be extended every month, providing a much quicker connection to St Helena for Saints on Ascension Island. DfID has supported the St Helena Government throughout the process, from designing and building the airport to the commercial negotiations necessary to have reached this stage. We have also supported a substantial programme of technical work to better understand wind conditions on the island. That work has been key to securing significant interest from commercial airlines to operate the service.
St Helena is a beautiful island. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, referred to the ambition for an increase in tourism over the long term, which justified the initial investment for up to 30,000 visitors. We know that will be a significant ask and that significant investment in infrastructure will be required, but we are confident that once people discover St Helena’s amazing scenery, attractive walks, varied bird and marine life—including whale sharks—and Napoleonic and other historical heritage, those numbers will increase.
Enterprise St Helena, the island’s economic development agency, is working on a number of fronts to enhance the tourism product, including assistance for start-ups and expanding businesses, skills development, and improving standards of accommodation, catering and transport services. With the UK’s investment in the airport and the air services starting, we are working with the St Helena Government and Enterprise St Helena to attract further international private sector investment in tourism infrastructure alongside the growth in the airport.
Initially, the frequency of the air service will be once a week. We have said that number. We expect that will increase, but it has to be on the basis of demand. The agreement we have is to support the service and make it viable. That is part of our confidence that once people see the attraction of the island, the service will continue. We are looking at other ways we can talk about the business support operation, which I know the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, told me not to mention, but the noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked me to mention. I am happy to reference that operation, through which we can offer support to the organisations and business that have had difficulties as a result of the delays.
In addition to investment in the airport, we have provided £16.5 million over three and a half years to improve the island’s infrastructure, which I know the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, was keen to know about. That investment has enabled the St Helena Government to make improvements to areas such as social housing, education, health and utilities. The investment has improved the lives of the people of St Helena. For example, the level of healthcare available on the island has increased following the refurbishment of the hospital. There have also been improvements to power generation and water distribution.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, and several others, referred to the internet and to the CDC. We had a very interesting discussion at that point and I know those discussions are ongoing. Sometimes it is not necessarily that we do not want to answer questions, but these matters are very complicated. I assure noble Lords that those discussions and ideas are being taken very seriously. We funded the feasibility programme for the submarine internet connection to the islands because we see it as complementary to our tourism ambitions. We have also continued our support to the core budget of the St Helena Government, which the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, mentioned as the man paying the piper; in this case, it was Priti Patel, a female, paying the piper. That commitment continues and we have agreed a further project of up to £4.8 million over the next three years to help support tourism and economic development.
We have invested nearly £13 million in Tristan da Cunha’s infrastructure. That has kept the harbour open, allowing access to the island and allowing the lobster catch, which is very important to the island’s economy, to be landed. In addition, the newly built health facility opened its doors in June 2017. This replaced the failing hospital with a facility which offers an improved level of medical care. The UK Government have received positive feedback from the islanders and clinicians.
Turning to Ascension, the rerouting of the South Atlantic Airbridge has clearly had an impact on the lives of people on the island and on operations with the organisations based there. However, the runway remains open should there be a need for medical evacuation and the MoD military flights are still running. I recognise the particular interest which the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, has through her Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme experience. Let me just add, on maintenance of the runway, that it is the US Government who own the runway on Ascension and contract and patch repairs. It is they who have asked that, until further notice be given, the RAF should cease from operating the heavier Voyager aircraft, due to the deterioration of the runway that has occurred during that time.
This is a debate we are having here. I thought it would be helpful for noble Lords to hear what HMG are actually doing in these areas. Discussions with the United States Government are of course ongoing under the terms of the agreement about how this will operate. I am very happy to write to and update noble Lords with the outcome of those.
The majority of those on Ascension are from St Helena. The new once-a-month air service to St Helena, with onward travel to South Africa, will drastically improve travel times, allowing Saints to return home to visit their families and friends, as the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, requested. The Government are clear about the importance of continued access to Ascension before and during the planned runway repairs. My noble friend Lord Ahmad spoke to the Ascension councillors on 7 July to hear their views, and the FCO is in close contact with the Ascension Government, employing organisations and representatives of the people of the island. Ascension continues to have a role in delivering a number of strategic priorities for the UK and our allies. The UK Government are committed to working with the Ascension representatives to find a sustainable operating model that works.
Travel to and from the UK to the Falkland Islands has been maintained by rerouting the South Atlantic Airbridge through Cape Verde, for which Her Majesty’s Government are very grateful. The responsibility for infrastructure investment on the Falkland Islands is a devolved matter to the Falkland Islands’ Government, which I know the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, is interested in.
I again thank the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, for calling this debate and to all who have contributed. It shows the depth of support in this House for the people of the overseas territories, to whom we have a special responsibility. I hope the House can continue to support the work of the UK Government in discharging this responsibility to some of the most remote and challenging places in the world, and that the investment which we have placed already and the communication which we have already invested within this House can continue into the future for the benefit of the Saints and other organisations elsewhere.
The first debate has now concluded and the Committee will stand adjourned until 2 pm.