Its isolation, its history and its position—a tiny dot in the south Atlantic—make St. Helena a romantic and beguiling place. It does not disappoint. From the island's first appearance as a misty bump on the horizon until the Royal Mail ship St. Helena drops anchor under the towering cliffs flanking Jamestown harbour, and when visitors leap ashore up the same steps as Napoleon used, the sense of history is everywhere.
Fascinating as that is, I requested this debate to address the present-day issues of St. Helena and the Saints who live there. My colleagues and I are grateful for the speed with which the debate was granted by Madam Speaker.
The hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke), who is in his place, Lord Beaumont and I visited St. Helena with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. Those who know St. Helena will not be surprised to hear that we were given a warm and friendly welcome. Arrangements for the visit were well structured—we had an opportunity to meet many islanders at a large reception at Government house, and we had well-organised briefing papers and discussions. We all felt that the way in which the visit was put together was a credit to the island's Government, staff and elected councillors, and made best use of our time, which was short because of the shipping schedule.
Despite being on the island for only two and a half days before the ship left for Cape Town, we were able to get a clear picture of the problems facing St. Helena. I regret not having been able to lean over gateposts for a chat and meet people in the street. I should also have liked the opportunity to see more of that beautiful and interesting island, but that would have required a longer visit, which would not have been easy for the CPA to fund or organise.
The four key issues that came up over and again were: citizenship; communications—or lack of them—with the island; the commitment of the United Kingdom Government and Parliament to St. Helena; and the constitution. I shall deal with those four Cs in turn.
The first issue is citizenship. Many hon. Members—but by no means all, as I have found from talking to some—will be aware that full British citizenship and the right to live and work in the United Kingdom were removed from the Saints in 1981, and they regard that as a serious and continuing injustice. Citizenship is the key and burning issue for them.
The restoration of the right for Saints to live and work in the UK, quite apart from citizenship, would have many beneficial effects on the island: it would benefit the island economy, because money would be remitted to families still there; the opportunity to work in the wider world in the UK would motivate the islanders further to make progress at school and afterwards; and—this is a key factor in moving forward the development plan for the island—it would bring back outside experience and expertise to St. Helena, particularly from those who might have had entrepreneurial experience in the United Kingdom. Unless the island benefits from such experience, the strategic plan, on which the Government's policy hinges, is unlikely to be effective.
Those two issues of citizenship and development are linked. All those from the House who visited St. Helena believed that, after the handover of Hong Kong later this year, Parliament should again address the issue of citizenship in the interests of justice and practical economics. I am not having withdrawal symptoms about my decision not to stand for Parliament again, but I shall regret no longer being here to advance these arguments—particularly that on citizenship—in the interests of St. Helena.
My second point is about communications. Almost every other place in the world is becoming more accessible and more closely tied to the rest of the world by better air transport links and improved roads. St. Helena, in contrast, has become more isolated in recent years. In the days of sailing ships, 1,000 ships a year called at St. Helena. Until the 1970s, many of the Union Castle vessels sailing between the United Kingdom and Cape Town called there, giving St. Helena a ship probably every two weeks. They were not the fastest Union Castle liners, but the second category, which carried cargo and passengers.
Since the 1970s, the island's only link with the outside world has been the Royal Mail ship St. Helena. It is correctly called the Royal Mail ship, because it carries the mail, which cannot get there any other way. The standard of service on the ship—the way in which it is run, the food provided and the sociability of the crew in looking after their passengers—is excellent. The ship is also a major employer. It has some UK officers, although some are Saints, and all the crew come from St. Helena. It is run by the Curnow line and is an excellent ship, providing a good service.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning not only RMS St. Helena but Curnow Shipping, which operates from Porthleven in my constituency. Does he accept that, over the years, the company has shown absolute dedication to not only the running of the ship but the whole cause of St. Helena and the House's responsibility to face up to its problems, which he is promoting in this debate?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I entirely agree with his points. The company deserves congratulations.
The ship attracts a large element of subsidy, without which it could not run between Cardiff, Ascension, St. Helena and Cape Town. The shipping line is endeavouring to promote greater use of the ship as a cruise attraction. Indeed, several people who were on board during our visit had used it many times. One individual, a Brit living in South Africa, of great age and character, had journeyed on the ship about 14 times, which is a pretty good recommendation.
The ship can carry about 140 passengers, but some of that accommodation, which is fairly basic, has to be kept available for the shuttle between Ascension and St. Helena to allow the Saints who work in Ascension and on the Falkland Islands to book places on board the ship as part of their working life. There is therefore always the problem of striking a balance between the extent to which the ship can be promoted for straight cruise tourism and the need for it to service St. Helena. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) made the point about Curnow's dedication in trying to hit such a balance effectively.
There is no air strip on St. Helena, which remains a major issue for the Saints. Much investment would be required to build an air strip, and, once built, not only would the running of the airport need Government funding, but any of the airlines that have already considered the prospect would require the St. Helena Government to guarantee a certain number of bookings, so a further subsidy would have to be provided. Britain and our taxpayers would therefore face the problem of continuing subsidies for the future.
In my view, the better chance of progress is through the development of a proper breakwater, which would provide a sheltered harbour for St. Helena, and through improvement of the wharfage facilities, which would be of direct assistance to the fishing proposals—to which I shall come in a moment—and would allow passengers on cruise liners to land more easily. At the moment, a liner cannot go alongside. Even RMS St. Helena has to anchor offshore, and passengers and freight have to be taken ashore in launches and lighters. In bad weather, if they get off the liner at all, passengers have to go down to the lighter in a cage and land on the exciting and slightly hazardous steps, which, as I said, Napoleon used when he landed there.
One of the difficulties is that the cruise liners and the shipping lines become vulnerable under insurance arrangements if any injury or loss occurs to passengers. The captains of the liners are therefore even more cautious than they used to be in allowing their passengers to disembark: it is at the captain's command whether landing happens or not. We know that many liners call at St. Helena with the intention of putting a cruise party ashore for a whole day—which would bring very effective income to the island—but due to the swell cannot do so. Major improvements to the wharfage are therefore absolutely vital. Some such improvements are taken care of in the island's development plan, but I suggest that the British Government look further than the development plan if St. Helena is ultimately to be able better to stand on its own economic feet.
I turn to the UK's commitment to St. Helena, the Government and this Parliament. We cannot doubt that St. Helena is a residual responsibility from the days of the empire. The ancestors of those who live there were employees of the British East India Company. Those who live there now, like their ancestors, do so on the understanding that they are British. They know no other citizenship and belong to no other country. They are a special case.
I referred to the strategic plan for the island, which is entitled "The St. Helena strategic review 1996 to 2001". It is the key policy and development plan for the island produced by the Overseas Development Administration. I should like to refer to a few of its key points. It is endeavouring to provide a way forward for the St. Helena Government, elected representatives and Government employees to produce and implement a strategy for economic growth and greater self-sustainability. The British taxpayers' total subsidy to St. Helena during the period of the plan is about £9 million a year, and covers the ship subsidy and the island itself.
Interestingly enough, only last week the hon. Member for York (Mr. Bayley), in a ten-minute Bill, questioned whether ODA money was best spent on work that does not address the poorest in the world. He cited St. Helena as a country that would not be regarded as being among the poorest. He was not in any way suggesting that it does not have problems or does not need aid. He was making the point that, under the ODA budget, such issues need to be considered, and I think that they are bound to be in future. Making such points in the House increases the importance of the development plan to St. Helena's ability better to stand on its own feet—it will never entirely do so; it would not be realistic to expect that.
The plan identifies tourism, import substitution—especially in agriculture and fishing—some basic manufacturing service industries and construction arising from the contracting-out of capital investment projects as key elements. The plan seemed sensible to all of us who visited the island. I shall make two points about it. First, ODA funding needs to be stable during the implementation of the plan—it is important that the House keeps a close eye on that—and, secondly and most important, the elected representatives on the Legislative Council and the Executive Council in St. Helena should take ownership of the plan. It has not been imposed on them; it was drawn up as a result of intensive discussions on the island. The Government in St. Helena must accept responsibility for implementing the plan. We all know that plans are splendid things, but making them work is what really matters.
When the Foreign Office considers appointing anybody from Britain to the Government of the island, it is important that it chooses people who have a real understanding of commercialism and the importance of commercial activity to the island. A glossy brochure aimed at encouraging investment in St. Helena, which was published before the governor took office, showed a complete lack of understanding of reality. When we explored whether the legal infrastructure or the financial arrangements to encourage such inward investment existed in St. Helena, it was made plain to us that they did not. There was nothing to encourage a company to come to the island, and there has been a lack of understanding by the Foreign Office of the importance of putting the commercial elements together if the ODA plan is to work. In many other areas, the Foreign Office has taken up with both hands the challenge of making our embassies and high commissions more relevant to commerce. They need to do the same in St. Helena.
I wish to refer to tourism, which came top of the agenda in the development plan. Those of us who travelled to St. Helena had to fly, courtesy of the RAF, from Brize Norton via Ascension island, and it was our view that Ascension needs to be brought into the tourism and commercial picture with St. Helena. At present, the Bahamas treaty—a 40-year-old treaty between Britain and the United States—prevents Ascension from having any use but a military one. That will not do if fishing is to develop effectively, let alone tourism. We believe that there is scope for the development of tourism on Ascension, which has the right climate and beaches. St. Helena has no beach and a wetter climate than many people appreciate. These factors must be dealt with, but they cannot be dealt with unless the Government address the problem of the 40-year-old Bahamas treaty, which needs a major review. The strategic and defence issues that existed at the time of the treaty have now changed dramatically, so there is every reason to tackle the problem.
There is good news on the fishing front. Argos St. Helena—a company that has developed fishery activities with great success in the Falklands—has a ship called the Argos St. Helena that currently spends half the year fishing off South Georgia. The weather prevents it from fishing there during the other six months. The company, in negotiation with the St. Helena Government—and with, I am glad to say, a fair wind from the Foreign Office—has now established itself, but has registered in Jersey because of the difficulty of registering a company in St. Helena. That makes my point about the lack of a legal framework. The ship will fish from St. Helena, and the company, with the St. Helena Government, will develop a cannery on the island. Commitments have been made by the British Government to improve the cranage at Rupert's bay, where the cannery will be established, and those must be kept.
I had a positive and interesting meeting with Mr. Thompson, the chief executive of the company. He is an experienced man who has made a significant contribution to the development of fishing in the Falklands. He made the point that increased fishing activity around St. Helena would enable the St. Helena Government to go further in providing a fishing zone around the island. At present, such a zone cannot be policed effectively, but other fishing vessels with proper licences can do a good job in chasing away and reporting on those vessels that may be fishing in the area without a licence or adequate permission. My point about Ascension fits in here. Given that the fish move at different times of the year, the need to be able to fish from Ascension for part of the year and to have fishing vessels based there is important. It is crucial that the job opportunities for Saints that exist on Ascension and, through the Ministry of Defence, in the Falklands are maintained. Those are the only job outlets other than work on the island, which is scarce.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate, and I share his view that, for historical reasons, we have an obligation to St. Helena. My concern in last week's debate related to the fact that the ODA has to weigh our historical responsibility for St. Helena against its responsibility for development in much poorer countries in the third world. Does the hon. Gentleman share my view that it might be better to ask a part of Government other than the ODA—possibly the Foreign Office itself—to take responsibility for dependent territories, in the same way as the Foreign Office takes direct responsibility for other institutions, such as the BBC World Service or the British Council?
That suggestion is worth considering and, happily, it leads me to my final constitutional point.
If ever there was a case of he who pays the piper calls the tune, it is the ODA and its role in St. Helena. Since the ODA pays for almost everything, our overriding perception was that the ODA experts second-guess practically every policy decision on the island. That is done with the best intentions and because the work involves the use of public money. My taxpayers in Sevenoaks—and those of the hon. Member for York—would expect that public money to be accounted for. However, we found that an ODA expert would give a view and, on some occasions, it was almost a case of the umpire umpiring the umpire. That works directly against the development of the democratic process in St. Helena.
It is sometimes difficult for the Foreign Office team to refer everything to the ODA, whose decisions will most directly affect the island. I am not criticising all the work and the commitment of the ODA to the life and prosperity of St. Helena, as it is vital. But we must encourage those who are politically elected in St. Helena—where there are no political parties—to take real responsibility for the decisions affecting the government of the island.
When there are no political parties, it is difficult for policies to develop and be put through. The policy is developed in the strategic plan, and the Members of LegCo need to feel responsible and must have it demonstrated to them that they have the responsibility for decision making on implementation.
All members of the St. Helena all-party group are extremely grateful for the opportunity to participate in this debate. I apologise on behalf of its chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin), who is committed to attending the Defence Select Committee; otherwise he would be here.
St. Helena will remain in my mind for many years to come. I shall continue to follow its fortunes with interest, admiration and warm regard.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) on securing the debate, which is timely because the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association recently sent a delegation to the island, of which he, my hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) and Lord Beaumont were members.
It is a pity that the CPA can send a delegation to St. Helena only once every 12 or 13 years; I was a member of the previous delegation in 1984. St. Helena is probably our only dependent territory receiving budgetary aid, and it is extremely isolated. What I have to say will not all be good news.
The hon. Member for Sevenoaks made several important points and I agree entirely with all but one. I hope that the Minister listened carefully. Citizenship is perhaps the most important point. The St. Helenians feel isolated and betrayed by the removal of citizenship, and that must be reconsidered either by the Government or by successor Governments. The matter will not go away, and a settlement must be reached as soon as possible.
I also agree with the hon. Gentleman about Overseas Development Administration officials umpiring the umpire. They have a nice time looking at St. Helena and gathering some information and then they second-guess any decisions that are to be made on the island. One of the Members of the Legislative Council, the honourable John Newman MLC, sent me a fax referring to the recent visit by ODA officials. The fax said:
It is felt that there was insufficient time given to meetings with the Elected Members and that the majority of consultation was undertaken by expatriate officials which consisted of the Chief Secretary, Financial Secretary, Economist and Chief Auditor with no St. Helenian officials included. I raised this matter with the Chief Secretary and my point was noted.
That shows us in a nutshell what is wrong in St. Helena. I am not attacking ODA officials, who have integrity and try to do their best for St. Helena, but somehow or other the Saints are not included in the discussions, consultations or decisions.
Another important matter is the ability to take advantage of any commercial decisions. The Atlantic Mammoth project is supposed to be a lottery based on the Internet, although I do not know whether it will, or deserves to, get off the ground. It may be, as the hon. Member for Sevenoaks said, that the financial facilities do not exist on St. Helena to allow the project to go ahead. Nevertheless, the elected Members of LegCo are not consulted, their views are not taken into consideration and their questions are not properly answered.
I received a fax from LegCo, and I suspect that other hon. Members received it, too. It said:
We, the elected members of the Legislative Council of St. Helena do hereby request that permission, co-operation and assistance be given to the Government of St. Helena by HMG to enable it to increase external revenue by any legal means, and by so doing reduce the amount of Financial Aid given to us by the ODA.
That is signed first by Bill Drabble, and by nine other Members; that is the large majority of the elected Members of the Legislative Council.
What is going on in St. Helena? Is the Legislative Council treated as being of no importance? I hope not. I hope that the Governor and the officials who are sent from the Foreign Office to St. Helena by Her Majesty's Government take elected Members of the Legislative Council seriously. If a proposal is made, it should be considered seriously, and if it truly cannot be put into operation, a proper explanation should be given.
If that was all that was wrong with St. Helena, it would not be much of a problem; but there is more. A programme of improvements needs to be implemented. We must consider whether an airport can be built. My views are mixed, but I think that we could investigate the possibility of a mainland African company flying an aircraft one day a week to St. Helena and back from a coastal town on mainland Africa and using that aircraft on other business for the other six days. It would be reasonably easy to build an airport on the island.
Tourism development is important. Other matters that interest St. Helenians and should be addressed include an integrated port management, development of fisheries, better cargo handling equipment, wharf improvements, a wind turbine, water development, a second 1 MW generator, better electricity distribution, expansion of the bulk fuel installation, better water catchment and drainage; and the social issues, including care of the elderly, waste disposal, housing and all the matters that will inevitably crop up in any civilised society. Those matters are talked about, but nothing much happens.
I want to make a crucial point about the government of St. Helena. I am told that the Governor, in an interview on board MS Explorer, which visited the island, said that he found St. Helena "boring and tedious", and that that comment was broadcast to islanders over the radio. That cannot be right. If the Governor can say such a thing, why is he the Governor? I asked a parliamentary question about that, but the Minister of course glossed over it.
We need some honesty about what is going on. It is said by the St. Helenians that the Governor spends much more of his time away from the island than other Governors. Worse is to come. The police used to be given free transport between their home and the police station, and they were suddenly told, with no consultation or negotiations, that that concession was being withdrawn and that in future they would have between £30 and £50 docked from their monthly pay of about £300. They took the Governor to court. The Chief Justice had arrived, but unfortunately had to leave on the ship before the case could be concluded, because the Government did not produce the files that he needed to determine the case. I am told that the island's Attorney-General said that the case had had to be postponed because of the way in which they were deliberately misled. That is not good. There should not be such Government duplicity with civil proceedings on the island.
On 27 October, there was a 200-strong protest march of teachers and nurses led by elected councillors of LegCo. They wanted to petition the Governor because they had been given only a week's notice that fares on school buses would rise by between £9 and £20 a month. There had been no consultation, negotiation or explanation; they were told by diktat. While many matters on St. Helena are the responsibility of the Government, power is vested in the Governor, not LegCo. Hon. Members must understand that all important powers are kept by the Governor, who is nominated by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Whitehall and sent to the island.
The Governor would not meet the protesters. I am told that he watched from Solomon's office in Main street and sent the Chief Secretary, Mr. John Perrott, to deal with the deputation. The Governor had previously been manhandled during another demonstration, which is unheard of in St. Helena, which is a civilised place. The last thing that would occur to people there would be to go on a demonstration, let alone manhandle the Governor. I understand that it was simply a case of someone getting hold of his tie, but even so, matters are not right.
The Foreign Office should review the government of St. Helena. A new constitution has been prepared, partly by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association international secretariat. We must also review whether expatriate officials have empathy, as the hon. Member for Sevenoaks put it, with the people of St. Helena. I do not think that they do.
Finally, there is the case of Mrs. Brenda Cairns-Wicks. She had been a teacher in St. Helena for six years and was an unestablished civil servant. We dispensed with all that 20 or 30 years ago. She became pregnant. Normally, when a teacher becomes pregnant, she gets 14 weeks' leave or whatever, but not a bit of it. The rules and regulations in St. Helena had not been updated and she was required to resign. After her confinement, she would have to apply for another job, if one were available. I brought the matter to the Minister's attention. He is an honourable man and I like him, but it is to his shame that he has done nothing about the matter. She was forced to resign. The rules were changed a week after she resigned, so that others who become pregnant will not face the same appalling situation. Nothing could be done after she had resigned, because her job had already been filled. It does not reflect well on the Government and shames the Minister. No competent Governor would have allowed it to happen.
I do not want to bring this into my closing remarks, so I should like to deal with it immediately. I very much regret what happened to Mrs. Cairns-Wicks, but by the time the matter had been brought to our attention, her job had been filled. She has been told that she can reapply for any future vacancy, but I believe that she is living on Ascension and has no intention of taking up that offer. The Government regret that she suffered from a failure of the law that we rectified as soon as we found it.
I am pleased to hear that. The case should never have happened. I hope that if Mrs. Cairns-Wicks applies for another job, she will be given every consideration.
My time is nearly up, but there are other matters that the Government should consider. The ODA has been trying to do its best, but it could change its views on certain issues. The constitution needs upgrading. Above all, when we appoint expatriate officials, we must ensure that they have empathy with the islanders. It is not enough for them simply to be the man or woman from Whitehall sent to rule the island. To some extent, once they arrive, they are the representatives of the island in Whitehall. In the past few years, I fear that that dimension has been slightly missing.
I speak as secretary of the all-party group on St. Helena and dependencies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) on securing the debate. St. Helena is a British dependent territory; its culture is British and its only language is English. There are fewer than 6,000 people on the island. Those people are our responsibility and it is right that we should debate them in Parliament.
I concur with much of what was said by the hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek). The House will have sympathy for Saints, as St. Helenians are called. They are almost marooned on an island 700 miles from Ascension and six days' steaming from Cape Town. Inevitably and necessarily, its economy depends on financial support from Britain of between £6 million and £8 million a year. That is a large sum and the Government naturally want to restrain it. However, I shall show that Government policy militates against success in that respect.
Government policy is to persuade the islanders to move towards standing on their own feet. The unhealthy 75 per cent. of jobs in Government employment is being reduced. That is all very well, but as there are only a small number of private sector jobs on the island, the policy has pushed up unemployment to 17 per cent. The Government have responded by advocating self-help, but that is where the British Government have to open doors to enable it to become a realistic opportunity.
There are several matters on which the Government should act. The first is employment opportunities. I know that I am not the only hon. Member who did not realise when we passed the British Nationality Act 1981 that we were closing off the route for St. Helenians to come to work in the UK. I recognise that this is not the appropriate time to press for St. Helena to join Gibraltar and the Falklands in having a general right to seek employment in UK. That should not be done until the Hong Kong issue is out of the way. I should be surprised if the Minister and candidates of all parties at the general election were not approached by Saints in their prospective constituencies and asked for a commitment on that after the election and after the Hong Kong problem is out of the way.
Meanwhile, there are three steps that the Government could take without creating a precedent or other problems, and I urge them on the Minister. First, we could restore the pre-1994 domestic work scheme, under which some 50 permits for Saints to work in the United Kingdom were issued. Secondly, that scheme was replaced by a training and work experience scheme, but it ends at age 35. It would be practical and useful to extend it to 40 or 45. That scheme provides only temporary access to the United Kingdom and only 30 people in St. Helena are currently able to take it up. Making it easier should increase numbers and help tackle unemployment on the island.
Thirdly, general work permits for entry to the United Kingdom from anywhere in the world are issued in respect of specialist skills not available in the UK. Only one Saint has been able to qualify under that scheme. The Government should relax the severe criteria to enable more Saints to qualify and should perhaps place a limit on the number of years that someone can be here—say, seven years. So my first message to my hon. Friend the Minister is that self-help needs opportunity. I urge him to create that opportunity, in a way that will cost him no money and which will help the economy of the island and perhaps make it possible in a minor way to reduce the Government's commitment.
Tourism is a swift route to job creation in any economy, but its development requires an improvement in communications. The only regular access on and off the island is RMS St. Helena. I praise the recent change in its sailing schedules. It now operates more frequently to Cape Town and Ascension island and less frequently on the long, slow journey to the United Kingdom. If tourism is to prosper, we need quicker and easier access from Europe. There is a way in which that can be achieved. The Royal Air Force currently provides a military service to Ascension island as a staging post on the way to the Falklands. We need the Government to put the service personnel flights out to commercial tender and allow tourists to be carried as far as Ascension, with its superb, untarnished beaches. That would reduce from 15 days to four the travel time from Europe to St. Helena and give a tremendous boost to the tourist trade. Self-help needs that opportunity.
As commercial flights to Ascension island are clearly the key, I recently raised the possibility with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. He noted what I said and agreed to come back to me in due course. I look forward, as I am sure many on the island do, to hearing what he can say on that score.
So far, so good, but I have to say that the islanders must be encouraged to create the accommodation and services on the island that modern-day tourists expect. In the past, there has been far too much licensing and far too many restrictions—undoubtedly designed to protect the fragile market of existing providers—but the island needs to be more open and welcoming to competition, which is, after all, the customer's best friend and the best way to raise the standard of tourist facilities.
Before I leave tourism, I have to say that it is not helped when cruise liners visit the island and are unable to land their passengers because there is no mole or decent-sized jetty. Last year, five major tourist vessels were unable to land a single passenger. Indeed, a cruise ship called earlier this month and could not land tourists. That represented a serious loss of potential revenue to the island. So if self-help is to succeed for tourism and local industry, the Government must put in that essential piece of infrastructure.
I illustrate the point in relation to the local tuna fishing industry. The island's boats and its fishing industry have been held back by strict quotas—my hon. Friend the Minister will know about this. The limits are not for conservation reasons, as one might have thought, but are because of the lack of processing capacity for fish when it has been landed. Happily, as a result of the help and encouragement of my hon. Friend the Minister, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the island's Government, Argus Helena Ltd. will open a new processing plant, probably in September this year, and the restrictions will then go. It will then be possible for St. Helenians themselves to build up their fishing industry. However, once the tuna has been landed, gutted and frozen, it needs safe anchorage for dispatch to markets in Japan and Italy. I praise the FCO and the Government for the encouragement that they have given, but a quay, jetty or protective mole is needed. Self-help needs a bit of investment.
I have a question for my hon. Friend the Minister about an inward investment proposal, which would provide some 50 jobs. It has already been referred to by the hon. Member for Wrexham, who, like me, no doubt received a fax from a Swedish company, Swegame, which wants to set up an international lottery, using the world wide web and the Internet. The Internet is spreading like wildfire, as my hon. Friend the Minister will know. It is an immense growth industry. An international lottery on the Internet can expect explosive growth. I understand that the Government are minded to refuse consent. I have also received the fax that the hon. Member for Wrexham received, signed by 21 Members of LegCo. I will not quote it because the hon. Gentleman has done so already. My hon. Friend the Minister should explain the Government's attitude and assure us that he will take into account the views of LegCo. If something is a legal and proper international operation—whatever his reservations, I should like to hear them—and if Gibraltar is allowed to have such an operation and there is nothing to stop it there, why should not St. Helenians be allowed to do so?
I sum up by saying that St. Helena is a responsibility of the House. The Government are right to move the economy of the island to self-help, but if that is to succeed, there must be opportunity. Opportunity requires, first, more access to the United Kingdom for employment, secondly a jetty, mole or quay for safe landing and unloading and, thirdly, the relaxation of restrictions on tourist flights to Ascension island and thence on to St. Helena. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to give assurances on all those points.
I shall follow up some of the points that the hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir D. Mitchell) made, in a constructive speech. It was a pleasure to listen to the speech of the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson). I congratulate him, as others have done, on raising the situation in St. Helena. His descriptions were as fascinating as his arguments were persuasive. Unlike him, I have not visited the island—the isolation and the time required have prevented me—but I have visited the Falkland Islands. As a result, and because I have been for a long time associated with the Falkland Isles parliamentary group, I have gained a reasonable amount of knowledge over the years of the islands of the south Atlantic. My noble Friend Lord Beaumont has told me about the visit which the hon. Gentleman described. I should like to make only a short speech, so I will follow the structure that the hon. Member for Sevenoaks chose.
We have had a pretty bad record in recent years on the citizenship question. Several hon. Members have referred to Hong Kong. The treatment there of the ethnic minority is potentially a scandal. With respect to the hon. Member for North-West Hampshire, I do not see why St. Helena has to be put in a box until Hong Kong is sorted out. We are talking about fewer than 6,000 people, not a great flood of immigrants. As the hon. Member for Sevenoaks said, those people had British citizenship until 1981 and know of no other loyalty. I should have thought that we had a responsibility to them.
As for communications, I am sure that the hon. Member for Sevenoaks is right about the airstrip. Several hon. Members and my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) said that it was possible. I should like to know how much it would cost, if the Minister is able to say roughly.
That is a fair point. Of course, if resources are limited and the number of people using the transport mode is limited, one may have to decide between one and the other. I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Certainly, everyone seems to be saying that the improvement of landing facilities is of pre-eminent importance. It was bad to hear the hon. Member for North-West Hampshire say that five cruise ships visited the island and had to go away without landing one tourist. That must have represented a large loss of potential income.
On the Government's commitment and the constitution, the hon. Member for North-West Hampshire was talking about self-help and saying that the Government should do this and that, but it is difficult for Governments who are pledged, as an article of faith, to non-intervention where possible to be terribly good at self-starting all those things.
We are talking about regional development on an island in the south Atlantic. Everyone has been careful to say that they know that Overseas Development Administration officials are well intentioned and so forth. There has been a "but" at the end of the sentence, however. I suppose it comes back to the fact that unless one motivates people to motivate themselves one will not succeed through some sort of paternalistic activity, as the hon. Member for North-West Hampshire said.
I want the Minister briefly to say something about medical services. I presume that any airstrip would have short lift-off capacity. I do not know what the hospital facilities are. If someone is in a severe medical condition on St. Helena, what does one do?
Courtesy of the questions asked by the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) in March, I have been thinking about education. The information in the answers to the questions is pretty awful. The hon. Gentleman asked:
how many (a) female and (b) males normally resident in St. Helena had commenced higher education courses (i) on the island and (ii) overseas".—[Official Report, 25 March 1996; Vol. 274, c. 417.]
A list was provided in the answer. Last year, out of the population of just under 6,000—that would perhaps mean 1,500 to 2,000 young people—there were two males and five females. In 1994–95, the previous year, it was one male and nine females. If the community is not educated—through no fault of its own—it will not be a progressive community and that is the plain fact of the matter.
Most things have been said about development. Unemployment of 18 per cent. in a small community is obviously bad and there is a concentration on tourism and fishing. Obviously, St. Helena is a fascinating place and it attracts spasmodic attention because of it. Books on Napoleon are produced every so often, for instance. However, we have a debt to the place and we have a responsibility that we are not fulfilling as we should.
As I have said before—no one agrees, but I will say it again—I have long admired the French system of dealing with their remaining dependent territories. St. Pierre and Miquelon, the two islands off the Canadian coast, are not as isolated as St. Helena, but they have a smaller population—2,500 to 3,000, I think—and they are well treated and backed by the French, as are Martinique, Guadeloupe and all the other French territories. Through France, they also have access to European Union funding. That is a good solution for our remaining dependent territories and not one that should be dismissed simply by saying, "We do not do that—the French do."
I found the speech of the hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) very concerning, not least because, as anyone who knows him realises, he is not given to sensation and exaggeration. He said,
Something is not right on the island.
Sadly, that seems to be true. I hope that when the Minister replies, he will at least tell us that the Government are aware of those shortcomings and of the needs and will respond.
Again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Sevenoaks, who has been the means of our having an interesting morning's debate.
On these occasions, it is customary to pay tribute to the initiator of the debate and I do so with more sincerity than usual this morning, as the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) has done some service to the people of St. Helena and to the House by raising this matter.
To pick up on the remarks of the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston), there can be no doubt that our commitment—whether that of this Government or of a future Labour Government—to the island and its dependent territories is legal and historical, but it is also a moral commitment and we cannot avoid that. The question, therefore, is how we discharge that commitment, rather than whether it exists; I think that all hon. Members would take that view.
I must own up to my relative ignorance about St. Helena. Possibly the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber, the Minister and I are the only ones present who have not had detailed exposure to the islands and their people. I must thank my hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke), who attended the recent Commonwealth Parliamentary Association visit and took the trouble to tell me of his observations and to pass on those of the hon. Member for Sevenoaks, whose written comments and his speech this morning were interesting and important.
I do not want to make a partisan or party-political point, but some of the responses of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office when island issues have been raised have smacked of complacency. That might be an unfair charge, but I wanted to put it on the record and the Minister can deal with it in whatever way he chooses.
An article on St. Helena appeared in The Sunday Telegraph after the invasion of the governor's office and the assault, albeit a minor assault, upon his person. The issue is serious and the Minister's answer in Hansard tended to play it down considerably, playing down the underlying and clear unhappiness of the people on the island. In the article, the governor is quoted as saying that although "dumbstruck" by the events he also found them understandable. He said:
The islanders are fearful of their future. They worry about what will happen to them—and their anger was taken out not at me personally but at the institution I represent.
The House and the Government have to accept that collectively we are the institution against which that anger was vented. That is important. We have to take seriously the uncertainties and fears of people on the islands.
To an extent I am repeating remarks that have already been made this morning, but if we recognise that two thirds of the jobs on the island depend directly on British Government subvention—the hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir D. Mitchell) said that it was 75 per cent., I think—that the direct bilateral aid budget is more than £8 million but was £11.7 million at the beginning of the decade and that that decrease has paralleled an increase in unemployment from a little under 8 per cent. to the present 17.5 per cent., we must also accept that the worries and fears of the islanders are legitimate. While we are not talking of a third world economy, nevertheless it is not an economy in which people are individually or collectively well off.
While I took considerable comfort in the comments about the progress of the fishing industry, which is clearly to be welcomed, that industry is a relatively modest employer. Even if we envisage great change, it will probably still remain a modest employer for some time to come. The hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) asked a question about the number of businesses since 1984 that had taken advantage of the taxation breaks available on the island. The answer shows that in the two years for which figures are available, one cabinet maker and one coffee producer had done so. Business formation at that rate will not resolve the problems.
That brings us to the issue of what the islanders want, what the ODA wants, and what the Foreign Office wants. We recognise that economic development will depend on significant input from Britain—however we engage the private sector, the commitment of the public sector will be needed. Will the Minister comment on the strategic review and the country policy plan which either has arrived or is due arrive on his desk this month? We need to know what are the implications for bilateral aid. The need for consistency of aid has already been emphasised; people need an element of certainty in order to operate successfully. That is a legitimate demand, to which I add my voice.
Will the Minister comment on what is known about likely future flows of inward investment? It is clear that inward investment of some sort will be needed—whatever self-help can do, there is neither the level of capital nor the potential for formation of capital on the island to make the necessary investment without outside intervention. What estimates have been made of the potential for investment? In addition, will the Minister comment on what assessment has been made of the viability and growth of traditional industries such as fishing, which has already been mentioned, agriculture and forestry? They have some potential, but one would not want to overestimate their likely impact.
The industry that all hon. Members who have spoken today have mentioned is tourism. When I returned from the Falklands recently and passed through Ascension island, I was lobbied during my brief sojourn on the issue of tourism and on the need to examine both the viability of tourism on Ascension in the interests of Saints who have given many years of service to Britain and to the British Crown, and the possibility of having a two-centre approach. The hon. Member for Sevenoaks mentioned that his report to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association referred to the opportunity to link the futures of Ascension and St. Helena in a little tourism matrix, as a unique niche form of tourism.
That would depend on transportation links and hon. Members have said that there is a trade-off to be made between the potential arising from air links being opened up and the impact—possibly damaging—on the existing sea route. There must be a strong case—indeed, the Minister may confirm that it is already being done—for carrying out a serious feasibility study into the linkage between the different transportation systems and the development of a tourism industry that could allow the islanders, in a guided way, to exploit the island's resources.
I want to pick up one of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire. It seems ridiculous that, not only potential, but real demand for tourism is being turned away because of the lack of facilities that would probably require only a relatively modest investment. I urge the Minister to take that matter seriously as part of his consideration of developments that could be achieved in the short term.
In my remarks on the economy of the island, I hope that I have demonstrated that the commitment of any Government of this country to the island must be genuine. I shall now return to the four Cs raised by the hon. Member for Sevenoaks. I have already touched on communication in my comments on transportation links, but there is another aspect to that. I am aware that the island currently receives Cable News Network, courtesy of Cable and Wireless. It might be out of the question, but in view of my personal enthusiasm for the service I want to ask the Minister about the role of the BBC World Service, both radio and television. St. Helena is not only an English-speaking community, but a British community. From my visits to South America, I know of the demand that Britain should have a presence there and that BBC television should be made available. I should have thought that the possibility of extending the BBC service to St. Helena at reasonable cost to the islanders should at least be considered.
All that I can say in respect of citizenship is that I recognise that from the bishops commission—now the citizenship commission—onward there have been demands for citizenship and that will continue. There is no easy answer that I can offer on behalf of a future Labour Government and I shall not pretend otherwise, because that would be dishonest. I shall listen with interest to the Minister's comments.
On the issue of constitutional arrangements, I was concerned by the comments of the hon. Member for Sevenoaks on the legal framework—whether it was adequate and whether it could change quickly enough to respond to the needs of the islanders. That might have an impact on constitutional matters, for example, whether the constitutional settlement is such that the pace of legal change can be rapid enough to respond to the need to welcome business investment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) has a detailed knowledge of these matters and I was interested in his remarks about the case of the school teacher. I accept and understand the Minister's explanation, but hon. Members must ask themselves whether issues should have to be raised with a Minister in Britain when they might be resolvable at local level. I am sure that the case raised by my hon. Friend would have been resolved in everybody's interests at local level had the local authorities had the necessary powers. That case calls into question whether the current constitutional settlement is one that we would want to promote in the modern world.
We are not talking about a colonial regime of times gone by, but about people who should be given the maximum encouragement to help themselves. That self-help should extend not only to economic matters, but to issues such as local control and self-government where that is appropriate. I ask the Minister to tell us about the various constitutional reviews that have taken place, including the CPA review, and where they fit into the framework. I urge him to consider carefully whether the time has now come for a proper examination of the island's legal capacity and of the potential for local control.
This has been an important debate, because it forces hon. Members—especially me in my capacity as a Labour party spokesmen and as an individual Member of Parliament—to recognise that issues of concern are outstanding and that they are the responsibility of the House of Commons. We cannot duck that responsibility. The relationship between St. Helena and Britain cannot and will not be dissolved—our commitment exists and we have to examine how we can honour that commitment as we move into the 21st century.
I add my thanks to those already expressed to my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) for raising this issue. I welcome the opportunity to set out the Government's position, to explain some of the issues raised by hon. Members today and to state clearly the way in which we propose to deal with the problems in St. Helena.
I agree with my hon. Friend that the state of St. Helena's economy is precarious and that it requires our closest attention. I assure the House that it is getting that attention. The diplomatic and aid wings of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are keenly focused on the need for positive and real change. I assure the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) that there is no question of complacency on the part of the Government—we are addressing these important issues vigorously.
Everyone who has the welfare of St. Helena at heart agrees that the status quo is not an option. The problem, as we have known for some time, is that economic and social pressures, when allied to aid dependency, can only lead to a downward spiral of economic stagnation. As with all the remaining dependent territories, we care very much about the welfare of St. Helenians and share wholeheartedly their desire for a better and more prosperous future. Our task, along with that of the St. Helena Government, is to shape that desire and turn it into reality.
Our continuing commitment to the island is evidenced by our aid support, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks and others mentioned, is more than £8 million a year. That equates to some £1,500 per head of population and is the highest per capita package of UK aid in the world. It is testimony to the seriousness with which the Government take their responsibilities towards the island and shows the importance that we attach to it.
However, we and the "Saints" themselves want to see a reduced dependency on aid, not only because of the burden on the UK taxpayer under the present circumstances, but because we want a self-sufficient, confident and economically viable St. Helena. Neither we nor the Saints want the island held back by financial dependence on the United Kingdom. We want the island to develop. We are committed to a process of change. To paraphrase the St. Helena Government's stated vision for the future, we want economic development to lead to a prosperous future for the island.
Private sector development and public sector reform are the keys to the island's future. To begin that process, we are negotiating an important three-year country policy plan with the St. Helena Government. The basis for the agreement was the St. Helena Government's strategic review, which was completed last year. The document results from a great deal of hard work by the St. Helena Government and the governor, and we congratulate the team on its efforts. The strategic review provides a comprehensive approach to St. Helena's economic and social development.
The country policy plan will set out action plans for each sector. A specific plan will encourage inward investment and private sector development. We shall help with this in every way we can. The plan will also highlight how the Government can either transfer activity to the private sector or deliver services more efficiently through the public sector.
There has been a degree of concern on the island about the Government's public sector reform programme and its social consequences and that has led to some of the matters that have been mentioned, particularly by the hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek). I appreciate that there have been difficulties between the governor and some of the inhabitants of St. Helena, and I have no doubt that the governor is trying hard to deal with the exceptionally difficult circumstances which the state of the economy in St. Helena has imposed on him. It is not easy for reform programmes to be put in place without a certain amount of short-term hardship and discontent, but I hope that those circumstances can be resolved and that, as the policy plan is put into effect, we shall improve St. Helena's economy and get over the problems that have been mentioned in the House today.
For our part, the plan would commit the ODA to a substantial aid package spread over the next three years, which would give the St. Helena Government more responsibility for their own affairs. They could divert savings from within the budgetary aid element of that framework to other priority areas of Government expenditure. Thus, they would maintain firm control on their own expenditure programme and be able to prioritise accordingly in a way which hitherto they have been unable to do. I hope that that will reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks, who raised the question of the inability of the St. Helena Government, particularly LegCo and ExCo, to play a full part in handling the economy. As we move forward with our plan, those difficulties will be resolved.
St. Helena's isolation proved useful in Napoleonic times and at other times in the past, but in today's world it is a major drawback. It is approximately 1,200 miles from the nearest continental land mass and it takes five days by ship to Cape Town. Physical isolation means that the cost of St. Helena's products when they are exported are high, which is obviously a substantial brake on the island's potential for economic development of the export market. Isolation also deters potential investors from spending their valuable time getting to and from the island to explore ideas for development. We need to find ways around this. I accept the points made today about the need to develop a wharf and to examine air services and I assure the House that the Government are looking closely at those issues.
The RMS St. Helena provides a vital link between the island and the outside world. It is a modern, well equipped ship funded by the ODA and it serves St. Helena and her people well, and long may she continue to do so. As the hon. Member for Stretford said, neither he nor I have had an opportunity of getting to St. Helena, unfortunately. I believe that those who have travelled on RMS St. Helena have found her comfortable and have been extremely well looked after. She should be an asset not only as a means of communication for Saints but to encourage tourism, and I hope that many more people will use the opportunity. As the House knows, we have altered the ship's schedule so that long-haul journeys have been reduced and short-haul local journeys increased. I hope that that will enhance both those opportunities. We shall continue to seek the best balance in the schedule between the island's transport needs and the need to make the ship commercially viable.
Several hon. Members touched on the possibility of providing an airport on the island. We continue to keep that under review, but I shall not hide from the House the fact that such a project would be extremely expensive and currently difficult to justify. One problem would be to find a commercial air service able to run a viable route to the island. Another problem is the enormous expense of building a modern airport that conforms with Civil Aviation Authority rules. The distance from Cape Town means that we would need fairly large long-haul aircraft to make the journey. Moreover, the difficulties of providing an airport on St. Helena are great but we are looking at that problem and I hope that we can find ways around it in due course.
Inward investment is absolutely vital if the island is to prosper. It will breathe new life into the economy. The current cash flow is tiny and the existing private sector is saturated with small service industries. We need new productive investment, encouraged by the St. Helena Development Agency. We also plan a new business forum in London whereby we hope to encourage investment and focus the attention of people in this country on the opportunities that St. Helena offers.
As has already been said, the fishing company, Argos, is leading the way and I welcome the investment that it has put into the island. It is extremely good news as it will create some 40 jobs, which represents about 10 per cent. of the island's unemployment rate. It is worth noting that we do not need extensive investment to deal with the unemployment problem. About 450 people, representing 18 per cent. of the island's work force, are involved. That should not present insuperable problems so long as we and the St. Helena Government work together, as we shall.
Unfortunately, I have very little time with which to deal with the many points that have been raised, so I intend to take some of the more important ones. I mentioned the difficulties that the governor has had on the island. I assure the hon. Member for Wrexham that the ODA consults strongly with the island. Of course, the islanders are sometimes disappointed that the ODA does not accept their plans but the reason is that the ODA does not think that those plans are viable, and the islanders' well-being is the primary reason for any decision that has been made.
I take the opportunity, while touching on inward investment, to commend the work of Mrs. Essex, who is listening to this debate today. She will return to the island in May and has done a phenomenally good job as its representative in this country. I wish her well and hope that her labours will bear fruit.
Hon. Members mentioned constitutional change. There again, we now have the CPA plan at which the St. Helena Government are looking closely. Her Majesty's Government will look with great sympathy at any proposals put by the islanders for constitutional change. It is in our interests as well as those of the islanders that those matters should be satisfactorily sorted out so that the balance of responsibility reflects the reality of the day.
My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir D. Mitchell) raised a series of important points. He asked about the training and work experience scheme in this country. I assure him that the scheme is unlimited in terms of the numbers which we would take and it therefore offers great opportunities to St. Helenians to get the necessary work opportunity to stimulate investment so that their expertise can be used on the island.
No, I do not have time.
I accept my hon. Friend's point about the age limit of 35. My officials are looking into that and I hope that we shall find ways to raise it. I accept that it would be useful if slightly older people could be included in the scheme.
With regard to the wharf, detailed proposals are being put forward to build a breakwater and to improve the anchorage at St. Helena so that we can get the tourists in on the cruise ships and make sure that ships can be loaded and unloaded, whatever the weather.
Finally, on Swegame, we are not prepared to allow an Internet lottery. It takes place on Gibraltar without the consent of the Government or the Governor of Gibraltar. We are investigating how that happened. We cannot yet resolve the difficulty of regulating an Internet lottery, but we hope to do so in the future.