St Helena — Question for Short Debate

– in the House of Lords at 6:20 pm on 13th May 2009.

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Photo of Lord Jones of Cheltenham Lord Jones of Cheltenham Liberal Democrat 6:20 pm, 13th May 2009

To ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of the future of St Helena.

Photo of Lord Jones of Cheltenham Lord Jones of Cheltenham Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am grateful to the business managers for allowing this debate at short notice. While the quantity of contributors is not great, I am confident we shall hear comments of great quality from the noble Lord, Lord Howell, the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, who is to speak in the gap, my noble friend Lord Shutt and the Minister. I must declare an interest as one of the officers of the All-Party St Helena Group chaired by Bob Russell MP. Like him, I am one of very few parliamentarians to have visited St Helena. I did so in 2003 as a member of a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation accompanied by John Smith MP and Anthony Steen MP, while valuable administrative and seafaring assistance was given by Paul Jackson, the deputy secretary of the CPA UK Branch and a former commander in the Royal Navy.

One of the facts we learned was that no government Minister has ever visited the island. Members of the Royal Family have, and we visited the Prince Andrew School. My noble friend Lord Shutt will have more to say about educational opportunities on St Helena. The reason that no Minister has visited is that it takes such a long time to get there. Currently there is no airport and the only scheduled transport available is by the RMS "St Helena", the last remaining Royal Mail ship in operation. Occasionally cruise liners venture near the island, but for insurance reasons their passengers are often not allowed to disembark if the swell is too great.

The RMS can transport 120 passengers and a limited amount of freight. There is no wharf on St Helena so disembarking is fraught with excitement. As a result of the difficulty of getting to and from St Helena, the island has no effective economy. As a British Overseas Territory, it is entirely dependent on an increasing subsidy from the British Treasury, the largest of any overseas territory. Over the last 25 years, the taxpayer has given St Helena more than a quarter of a billion pounds. Unless something changes, that sum will be significantly larger over the next 25 years.

Due to the lack of employment opportunities on the island, many Saints, as they like to be called, have sought work elsewhere. I met some of the 600 or so Saints in the Falklands when I visited last year. There are several hundred on Ascension Island, one of St Helena's dependencies, along with the even more remote Tristan da Cunha. There are thousands of Saints in the United Kingdom with particular clusters in Reading, Swindon and Southampton, and we have 20 or so in my former constituency of Cheltenham. The local college, now part of the University of Gloucestershire, had an educational link with St Helena stretching back over several decades. We trained teachers from St Helena, some of whom went back to the island while others stayed in the UK, married and brought up families here. I met the Cheltenham Saints before I visited St Helena in 2003. Without exception, they wanted to go back to the island, either to retire, to settle with their families or at least to be able to spend their holidays there. With no airport that is simply not possible. Many noble Lords will know that one of the Doorkeepers along the corridor is a Saint who has not been back to the island in more than 20 years. This brings in a related issue of frozen pensions, but that is a debate for another day.

To reach St Helena it is necessary to start from Cape Town in South Africa or Walvis Bay in Namibia. There one embarks on the RMS and sails for five days. The Atlantic Ocean is a very large expanse of water. There is nothing but ocean all around. You go to bed, sleep, wake up and there is still ocean, nothing but ocean, day after day after day. Eventually you reach the island, disembark, spend 56 hours there, some of it sleeping, and then embark again for the voyage to Ascension Island, another two days at sea. That schedule is simply not feasible for tourists or those wanting to spend regular holidays there to see families and friends. With very small numbers of visitors, it is impossible to sustain a tourist industry.

Following the CPA visit in 2003, we had a debate on St Helena in Westminster Hall, when I said that the island needed three things: airport, airport and airport. Actually, it needs only one thing. All three of us who visited the island agreed that an airport was needed, which is something that has been talked about and consulted on for decades. A referendum among islanders showed 72 per cent in favour of air access.

It was a great delight to learn just before the previous general election that the Government had decided to build the airport. The then Secretary of State for International Development, Hilary Benn, made the announcement and I recall meeting him in a Corridor and congratulating him warmly. An environmental impact assessment was carried out and the project received a clean bill of health. Of particular relevance was the situation of indigenous species on St Helena, including the wirebird or, to give it its Latin name, charadrius sanctaehelenae. I have my St Helena National Trust wirebird adoption certificate, as I am now the proud adoptive parent of a wirebird with a unique identification number, NW44532. I hope to meet it one day.

An invitation to tender to build the airport was issued and received no bids. Another invitation to tender was issued changing the terms to include government payment for island visits. Four expressions of interest were received, two of which dropped out at a later stage. Two companies produced compliant bids to build the airport, the Basil Read Group based in South Africa, and the Italian-based Impregilo. After a long evaluation Impregilo's was selected as the preferred bid. Then last December, the Government announced a pause in negotiations. Later, yet another consultation was announced which is ongoing. The last consultation showed undisputedly that an airport is necessary to give St Helena any chance of becoming self-sufficient financially. That is still the case so this consultation is regarded by many as no more than an expensive time-wasting exercise.

The new consultation's options are: first, to build the airport now; secondly, to not build the airport at all; or, thirdly, to wait five years before making a decision. I understand the current financial difficulties in which Governments find themselves, but there are reports from Mr George Soros and other experienced commentators of green shoots of recovery breaking out. Hanging around for years to build St Helena's airport makes no sense. Not building it at all will lead to an ever increasing subsidy to the island year on year, and any delay is likely to lead to an increase in the cost of building the airport and the possibility of losing potential private sector investors who are keen to develop a tourist industry for St Helena. Frankly, who would enter a new bidding round after the shenanigans of the current process?

Why would tourists want to visit St Helena? I have already mentioned Saints who wish to spend their holidays there, but there are a host of other attractions for potential visitors. Napoleon was exiled to and died on St Helena. A section of the island around Longwood House where Napoleon lived has been given to France. A French official lives on the island and shows visitors round. There is an amazing collection of original Napoleonic artefacts, including the billiard table on which he laid out his battle plans while writing his memoirs. Around the world many people are interested in Napoleon. I am told that in the United States of America there are 4 million Nap nuts, as they are called, let alone those in the French-speaking world who want to see where he lived. St Helena need attract only a tiny fraction of these people to visit perhaps just once to fill every hotel and guest house on the island.

Napoleon is not the only reason for visiting St Helena. Anglers and divers will also find extraordinary attractions. There are 1,100 shipwrecks around St Helena—a diver's paradise. The island was, of course, the place where ships called in to replenish stocks of fresh food and water during the days of the East India Company. The island has a wide variety of fish for sea anglers, which is a growing leisure activity. There are many varieties of birds—not just the St Helena wirebird—for the ornithologist. There are also a number of historic sites, many of which need refurbishment.

I talked about inward investment. There are potential investors, most particularly a consortium called Shelco. I have seen its plans for the most environmentally sensitive hotel in the world, not just in operational matters but in building materials, designed by the architect Jeremy Blake of Purcell Miller Tritton. It promises to be a landmark in sustainable tourism, using wind and solar power and growing its own fruit and vegetables, something St Helena used to do in abundance.

Other investors wish to help develop a thriving tourist industry, including some Saints who have already gone back and started to refurbish buildings that could be used as small hotels or guest houses. The problem is that none of this will happen until the airport is built. Has the Minister any idea how long this pause in negotiations will last, and is he confident that the preferred bidder, Impregilo, will stay in the frame with its current bid at the current price?

The consultation document's figures seem to present the worst-case scenario, with spending for several years all bundled into a single total. If the airport were given the go-ahead now, what would be the cost in each of the financial years 2009-10, 2010-11 and 2011-12, by which time Impregilo plans to have finished the airport?

What has been the outcome of recent communications between the Government and Shelco, or with any other private sector companies? Have there been any meetings, and has there been any discussion of private sector assistance with the costs of building the airport?

It is difficult to imagine a French overseas territory suffering like St Helena. Have the Government made any application to the European Union for assistance in funding the airport? What about the UK's responsibilities under the UN charter, which says that the UK has special obligations to our overseas territories, and the Government's claims in their own White Paper that overseas territories have first call on DfID funds to meet "reasonable" needs?

If I had more time I would quote from two excellent books which I recommend to noble Lords: The Last Pink Bits by Harry Ritchie, the former literary editor of the Sunday Times, and The Teatime Islandsby Ben Fogle, the journalist and broadcaster.

The Government made the right decision in 2005 to build an airport on St Helena. It is now time to deliver on that promise, give the Saints the chance to develop a thriving economy and put right decades of neglect by successive British Governments. I hope that the Minister will give some encouragement to these remarkable people and ensure that a government Minister will, at last, visit St Helena to gain first-hand knowledge of conditions on the island and the difficulties of getting there.

Photo of Lord Hoyle Lord Hoyle Labour 6:32 pm, 13th May 2009

My Lords, I am sorry that I did not put my name down and am speaking in the gap; I was not expecting this debate. I hope, in view of the time, that I will be permitted a little longer than would be normal, because I want to follow up what has been said: that this decision has been awaited by St Helena and it thought it had got it. It has been waiting for it for nine years, to put this into context. Last December, as has been said, we were told that there would be a delay, and we knew that there was an economic crisis. Now we are being told that there will be a further delay until, I gather, July, although some say it may be the turn of the year before a decision is made.

What are the three options? First, to go ahead with the airport; secondly, not to go ahead with it but to commission a new ship, which will take another five years; or, thirdly, to delay any decision for five years. The economic circumstances of the island cannot take that kind of delay. Already the people who are required on the island—the young people, the working people—are leaving. That leaves, as has been said, an island of either very young children or very elderly citizens.

This airport was going to be the lifeline. It might be costly—all airports are costly wherever you build them, that is true. Nevertheless, if the island is going to be self-sufficient, if the people who live on it are going to have any opportunity for a future and indeed if the island is going to retain people at all, the airport is absolutely necessary. There is no other way around the difficulties, as the noble Lord explained—I have not been myself—of actually going by sea, and the length of time it takes. He described very graphically some of the beauties that can be found on the island, and the points of interest—it was the last resting place of Napoleon, from which he could not escape.

There would be a great deal of interest in St Helena. A lot of tourists would want to go there and development would take place in relation to the hotel. I say to the Minister that, because of the assurances that were given, a lot of people have already invested in the future and they will begin to lose. The people are extremely disillusioned, I must say, at this outcome of events; they have to wait again and they do not even know now whether there is a future—whether the airport will go ahead. A new boat will have to be commissioned if it does not. To wait another five years would absolutely kill it. The people interested in development in the island are not going to hang around for another five years.

Will the Minister tell us what discussions have taken place? I noticed that when this matter was discussed recently in the Commons—I think it was the day after the announcement was made—the Minister who was replying said, "I know a lot about St Helena but I have never been". That is one of the problems that we are facing—many of the relevant people have not been. My interest is there because I have an interest in overseas territories generally, and I have a great interest in the people of St Helena because the situation that they find themselves in is life or death.

I know that we are not going to get a reply, and that is nothing to do with my noble friend Lord Davies of Oldham, because he has been forthright throughout his political career. He is not in a position to say any more to us, except that there is an economic crisis, that we are in the midst of recession, and that the Government cannot commit themselves at this time. But when are they going to commit themselves? That is the position. When are we going to get this answer? We are now told, yes, there could be a decision in July, or it could be the end of the year. There could be a decision not to go ahead. But to say "Another five years" is the end of the road as far as St Helena is concerned. I see my noble friend Lord Gilbert, who is a greater expert than I am on defence, but I would have thought that one of the other advantages of the airport would be that it would add an extra staging post to the aircraft going to the Falklands. That in itself should be invaluable. If we do not go ahead, there is a cost. Already "St Helena", the ship, is costing roughly £9 million per year. As the Government said, there is a variation in help of about £1.75 million and this is an ongoing cost that will continue. It will continue because we have a commitment to the overseas territory. I think my noble friend would recognise this.

There is disillusionment; people are so disillusioned that they do not know whether to join in the debate. I make an appeal to them: I want them to continue to show their interest and to participate, and to make very clear to the Government that there can only be one answer and that is for the airport to go ahead. I welcome what my noble friend has to say, but I am not very hopeful, and the people of St Helena are not just not hopeful but are losing hope altogether—and that is the real tragedy of this situation. I hope that, although he cannot give an answer, he will press on the Ministers concerned that the lifeblood of the island lies with the airport, and that a decision—a positive decision—to go ahead is required as soon as possible.

Photo of Lord Shutt of Greetland Lord Shutt of Greetland Chief Whip in the House of Lords 6:40 pm, 13th May 2009

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Jones of Cheltenham on rising to the challenge, made 24 hours ago, to take his QSD today. He has given us a wonderful historic background from the experience of his visit and from what he has learnt. The debate is not perfect in timing, and perhaps we could have got two dozen people to speak had we had five weeks' notice, but I am delighted that the option has been taken. It is not perfect for me as many of my relevant papers are in Greetland, but it is an important challenge for St Helena. I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, was able to speak in the gap as I know much about his interest.

I returned from St Helena exactly three months ago. I went on a CPA visit with MPs Fraser Kemp and Brian Jenkins. The island is not only an overseas territory but a dependent overseas territory. It is in the same position as Pitcairn and Montserrat; it is in need of significant aid and assistance and it is nowhere near self-sufficient. That is the starting point for a special island and its needs.

The island is two weeks away from Britain. As my noble friend Lord Jones said, we spent 56 hours on St Helena, but deduct 16 hours' sleep and you are left with only 40 hours. It was enough time for me to realise that this was a beautiful place and that it had a very interesting heritage and a welcoming and hospitable people. There was enough time to give me a real understanding of the needs of the people, particularly when added to that was the reading and research both before and after.

The sea journey, leaving from Walvis Bay on a Monday and arriving at St Helena on Friday morning, was an absolutely wonderful experience. And it was a wonderful experience sailing again on Sunday and arriving at Ascension Island on Wednesday morning. It was wonderful and it was romantic, but it is not realistic. This is a place of isolation and restricted resources. Let me give three examples. When we were there, my wife, who came with me, had an alternative tour. She went to the hospital where she saw a scanner not in use. She made inquiries about it—it had arrived the previous September and unfortunately something had happened to it en route. I do not know whether anything has been done about it since, but then no one had been prepared to make the journey to St Helena to mend the scanner. If you think about it, you can understand that, because it takes a fortnight of someone's time. When they get there, they might not have the necessary spare part, and it would take another fortnight to get it. That is one example of the island's isolation and its dependency on the RMS.

We spoke to people who were concerned about medical treatment and told us about the amount of money needed to get to Cape Town for urgent medical treatment. They explained that in an emergency and for matters beyond the competency of the small hospital on the island, there were problems of having to travel by sea. I learnt of the restricted opportunities in education. I did not go to the school as it happened, but I made my inquiries. There is an average of 51 pupils in each year group at secondary school level. The resources of St Helena are such that only two of them can go to university. Here in the UK, it is the Government's aim to have half the pupils in secondary school going to university. Therefore, if those pupils were in the UK, there would be an expectation that about 25 of them would go.

There are just over 4,000 people in St Helena and nearly two-thirds of the working people are in the public sector. The GDP is less than £5,000 per head. More than half the employees are earning £95 a week or less, yet the cost of living is greater than in the United Kingdom. Therefore, as my noble friend hinted, it has a four-tier economy: the people who are content to earn their living in St Helena; those who are content to go a little further and go to Ascension and earn a little more; those who are prepared to go a bit further and earn more still in the Falklands; and those who, until recently, came to the UK. Remittances from those working abroad assist the economy and are a very important part of it, but those working abroad rely on grandparents to look after their children in St Helena.

An airport would improve access, the economy and quality of life. Clearly, this comes down to money. I have looked at the nature of aid. As I understand it, the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, will respond to the debate with a brief from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, yet the resources for St Helena come from the Department for International Development. As my noble friend indicated, it is the stated policy of the Government that the reasonable assistance needs of the overseas territories are a first call on the aid programme. With the exception of St Helena, Montserrat and the Pitcairn Islands, DfID has an entirely different, albeit entirely honourable, remit of trying to achieve the millennium development goals. However, that aim is shared by others: 10 per cent of aid comes from Britain, 90 per cent comes from elsewhere. Many countries throughout the world that receive aid from us receive far greater sums of aid from elsewhere. However, that is not the case with St Helena, which receives aid only from the UK. The only bilateral aid that St Helena receives is from the UK. It has received some resources from the European Union, a tiny smidgen from a United Nations body and something like £7,500 from Australia and Greece.

I have been looking at aid from other Commonwealth countries. Hardly any of the small islands in the South Pacific that have been granted independence in the past 30 years are receiving UK aid now. In other words, once a place is independent, it is able to knock on other doors. However, that is not the position with St Helena. For example, well over half of the overseas aid of the former Portuguese colony of Cape Verde comes from countries other than Portugal. The point I am making is that other independent countries have other doors on which to knock. However, dependent overseas territories have no other doors on which to knock. I question whether DfID, as opposed to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, is fit for purpose in terms of dispensing aid to the dependent overseas territories.

There is a consultation document on the most appropriate option for access. When you first read the document you think that its proposals are fair enough, but when you read it again you think, just a minute, this jars somewhat. The document refers to a code of practice on consultation and when to consult. It states that formal consultation should take place where there is scope to influence the policy outcome. The document tells us that the preferred policy option is option C—delay. It then refers to who will be consulted. Consultation will take place with St Helenians, residents, expatriates and other stakeholders and others with an interest in the overall use of the Government's development budget. These groups will include representatives of potential investors and non-governmental organisations. I am rather in favour of non-governmental organisations, particularly those that are involved in overseas aid, and so forth. If one bears in mind that DfID is in partnership with these very organisations and mentions them in particular as being appropriate to respond to this, then, almost on a wink and a nod, if an airport is built, perhaps there will not be quite as many resources for the NGOs to be concerned about.

The document also tells us a lot more about DfID than it does about the concerns of St Helena. It tells us about its global concerns over resources. In one sense, the document is slightly neo-colonialist because it almost assumes that the only money that one can spend is sterling. If it is a bad time for sterling, it is a good time for the euro and the dollar. It may well be that our aid money is not buying as much as it did, but the corollary to that must be that other people's aid money is doing rather better.

Option C is delay but, in truth, option A means delay anyway. If the Minister were to say in 20 minutes' time, "I am going to surprise you. We are going ahead with this airport now", it will be 2013 before the first plane lands. That is a delay. Option C means even greater delay. Access and economy go hand in hand. DfID is already exposed to some £8 million on this project. St Helenians themselves are already exposed to £6 million and promises are being made. The airport is a significant issue for the Government to tackle. It is not some incidental matter in the projected DfID budget.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Shadow Minister, Foreign Affairs, Deputy Shadow Leader, Parliament, Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 6:52 pm, 13th May 2009

My Lords, I join others in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Jones, on swiftly seizing the moment and giving us the opportunity for such an interesting and, I suspect, quite significant debate, although it comes at the end of rather a quiet day. My honourable friend the shadow International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell MP, has taken a personal interest in the future of St Helena. Indeed, his deputy, Mark Lancaster MP, has this morning returned from St Helena, which he visited specifically to ascertain what the prospects are and how to go forward. That is part of thinking through the overall strategy for the dependent territories, which we feel has, frankly, been lacking from the Government.

The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, was eloquent about his romantic and prolonged journey, but he also raised some important questions about the administration strategy and handling of the situation, not only in St Helena but in other dependent territories. However, the subject is St Helena, which has a special place in our national historical memory. We all remember the vivid cameo of Bonaparte caged on the HMS "Bellerophon", anchored, I think, off Falmouth, with people rowing out to look at the tyrant. He was waiting for an answer to a polite letter that he had written to the Prince Regent, asking whether, now that it was all over, he could have a modest-sized mansion in somewhere such as Claremont in Surrey, with a dozen servants, where he could live quite modestly as a country gentleman. He waited and waited and, of course, instead of a reply from the Prince Regent, to his dismay he got a note from the captain saying, "We are not going to leafy Surrey; we are going to St Helena and Longwood".

That is the history, but now we must move into the future. My colleagues have been looking seriously at St Helena, examining the central question of whether an airstrip or airport could be built within an inevitably tight budget and whether something could be taken forward on a sensible scale, with the help of private enterprise. I do not know the precise answer, but I can tell the House that one suggestion put to me by a leading aviation consultant, Mr Michael Woodley, is that, in the absence of a decision about the big project—the £200 million airport—some thinking about an interim air-access development could be organised at a fraction of the cost. Options for enlargement would come later. That would begin to open up a situation in which, as we have been told, the only lifeline to the island is the RMS "St Helena", which I want to come back to in a moment. Otherwise the islanders, particularly those who are seriously ill or with medical conditions, would be literally cut off and condemned, because they could not get out at short notice.

How could such an objective be achieved if there were an airstrip, rather than a full-blown airport that could carry larger jets? It has been suggested that the civilianised versions of the Grumman Albatross amphibian planes, which are especially equipped to land in rough water, could land in the St Helena harbour at first and, later, on a shorter airstrip, which would be half the length of the eventual full airstrip. Those aircraft would connect on a feeder basis from Ascension Island with the twice-weekly—I think—RAF flights from Brize Norton that pass through Ascension on their way to the Falklands.

I should very much like the Minister to comment on this, because it is an extremely important possibility. There was, and I hope still is, an agreement between the US and the UK to allow a few commercial weekly flights to land on Ascension, which, of course, is mainly controlled by the US military, in the light of its elaborate installations there. Is that agreement still there, because that could open the way for some unscheduled commercial flights and open up the possibility of air links that are otherwise denied to the islanders?

All of this is against the background that RMS "St Helena", which is the only lifeline, needs refurbishment. There is talk of it needing a £12 million refurbishment and that, for that to be done, it would have to be out of action in 2010. The island would be even more cut off than it is now. It would have no link at all with the outside world.

I do not know whether any of this is possible. It would require expert aviation consultants and highly skilled engineers, including the Royal Engineers, to lay down quick and effective airstrips, as a start. However, it is an interim possibility that would open the way for the eventual development of a full link, when it can be afforded.

The time has come for a bit of creative thinking about the people of St Helena, who are, as we have heard, disillusioned and disappointed at the cancellation, postponement, pause or whatever it is in the major project. That creative thinking opens up the possibility of initial air links, if only to bring a few tourists or to bring a lifeline if someone becomes seriously ill, even if it reduces the connection with the outside world from whatever it is—five or six days—to a few hours. It could be done, but that degree of creative thinking does not seem to be evident in the consultation document or in the departmental thinking that we have heard so far about the future. I should very much like to hear the Minister's views as to whether these kinds of propositions, which give hope to the people of St Helena, can be opened up. Then we would be able to see a way forward for this beautiful and historic island.

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords) 6:59 pm, 13th May 2009

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate and in particular to the noble Lord, Lord Jones, for promoting it at short notice. The importance of the issue is reflected by the strength with which the case was put on all sides of the House. I will let my noble friend Lord Hoyle know when I want to use a scriptwriter for any contribution that I make from the Dispatch Box and I will make absolutely sure to avoid the phrases that he suggested I would use.

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

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

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

Reference was made to the fact that the Minister has not been to St Helena. I ask the House to recognise the obligations of the DfID Minister, given the support that we give to so many countries in the world. Our aid to Africa alone involves a significant number of countries. I was on the Select Committee on development in the 1970s, when we shifted our priority towards Africa. Even with a Select Committee working full-time, we did not begin to touch the surface of the problems of Africa. We made one or two visits, largely because Select Committees do not have to answer Questions back in the House, respond to debates or undertake any other ministerial obligations. In the four or five years that I was on the Select Committee, I never felt that we could—

Photo of Lord Hoyle Lord Hoyle Labour

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

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords)

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

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

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

Photo of Lord Gilbert Lord Gilbert Labour

My Lords, I have been listening to the debate with great interest. I was at a private briefing in the town a few weeks ago where it was made clear to me—an official of Her Majesty's Government was present—that private interests were prepared to contribute substantially to both the capital and the running costs of the airport. I have heard no mention of that today. Can my noble friend assist the House by telling us precisely what private interests may be involved? Have there been discussions with Her Majesty's Government?

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords)

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

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

I was asked about European funding. St Helena gets its proper share of European funding and that money is already voted for this year, so it is not being short-changed on the European front. Of course, it would not be in the interests of the Government to fail to obtain a guarantee on the availability of those resources to St Helena. The money is available over a considerable period—the next five years. However, it is a very limited sum and so we cannot look to the European Community resource for too much; it is a little more than tokenism but far short of what is needed to make a real impact on the lives of the people there. That is why the British aid programme is so critical. Although I will fulfil the expectation of my noble friend Lord Hoyle in not really saying anything too positive about the airport project, I am positive about the Government's commitment in its aid programme to ensure that we sustain the position as far as St Helena is concerned. Against a background where we all appreciate the pressures on government expenditure, the Government deserve some credit for that.

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

Photo of Lord Shutt of Greetland Lord Shutt of Greetland Chief Whip in the House of Lords

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

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords)

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

House adjourned at 7.15 pm.