I sought this debate because there is an emerging controversy—indeed, a scandal—about the small British dependency of Ascension Island. Over a period of years, its inhabitants, of whom there are just over 1,000, were led to believe that they had a settled future on a developing, liberalising island. Those expectations have been rather brutally removed following a Government policy U-turn announced at the end of last year.
Concern over the issue has been compounded by the suspicion—there is no proof of this—that much of that change in policy is attributable to the influence exerted on the Government by the Americans, who have a major strategic interest in the island. That, therefore, is the context of the debate.
I was prompted to seek the debate by a constituent, Mr. Hutchison, who is passionately interested in the subject. Since then, I have been deluged with e-mails and other messages from islanders, their elected councillors, people who have served on the island and former British administrators, all of whom feel passionately that the islanders have been betrayed and that we might well be on the brink of a case similar to that of Diego Garcia, which aroused much controversy four decades ago and whose consequences rumble on to this day. The island is, of course, very small, and the issue affects a small number of people, but it is worth remembering that this country went to war 20 years ago over the 2,000 people in the Falklands. The status and rights of just over 1,000 people on Ascension Island should therefore concern us, and rightly so.
Let me give a bit of background to explain why the issue is important and how it came about. The British started using Ascension as part of the empire roughly at the time of the Napoleonic wars; that was related to Napoleon's incarceration on St. Helena. From the outset, there have been arguments within the Government about what to do with the island. That was rather beautifully captured in a quotation about the first Admiralty commandant at the beginning of the 19th century, Captain Bates. It was said that he was
"by no means the last commandant of Ascension to be crippled by changes in—or rather the lack of—any proper policy in London. The Lords of the Admiralty seem never to have made up their minds about what they wanted Ascension to be."
That is as true today as it was 200 years ago.
The geography is unpromising, as the island is on a volcanic outcrop on the Atlantic ridge. The rock is very new; indeed, it is so new that there was originally no soil on the island. However, when people involved in the campaign first showed me pictures of it, I was struck by the fact that there were forests and small farms at the top of the mountain. I was told that they were there because people had imported soil in the 19th century so that agriculture could begin. They had carried it to the top of the mountain because that was the only place where water could be captured. Great labour has therefore gone into creating this British dependency and into its active use.
The population is small, and there has been a long tradition of controlling it. A statement of policy in, I think, 1925 said that only friendly tribes could go to the island. That was a reference to St. Helenians, and migrant workers from St. Helena make up three quarters of Ascension Island's population. The pattern of population has been characterised by contract working. Workers on the island are, in effect, Gastarbeiter in the truest sense: they are there to work for a period and are required to leave when they retire. That has been the traditional pattern.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. I can establish no connection between my constituency and Ascension Island, but a former mayoress of Kettering came from St. Helena, and the island was very proud of her elevation to that post. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we owe a huge debt of gratitude to Ascension islanders, not least in connection with the Falklands war, and that it is up to Her Majesty's Government to do the right thing by the islanders as regards their future administration?
The hon. Gentleman has captured in a sentence the essence of what I am going to say at rather greater length. His reference to the lady mayoress raises the interesting issue of what constitutes a resident of the island. The Foreign Office doctrine, which it often repeats and which the Minister has echoed in his parliamentary answers, is that there is no indigenous population of islanders. That is a fundamental Foreign Office principle and it certainly reflects the intention, but the problem is that the truth is more complicated.
The situation was captured for me in an e-mail that I received from Mr. Martin Cole, who told me about his great-grandmother, Flora Wilson, who apparently was born on Ascension Island in the middle of the 19th century and always considered herself an Ascension islander. She wrote many times to the Foreign Office and the authorities on Ascension for documentary proof of her birth, and they always refused to answer her letters. On one occasion, she was told off the record that it would be rather embarrassing if they had to acknowledge that people had been born on the island, and that they were committed and attached to it, because that would blow something of a hole in the official definition of an islander.
Over the years, many people have been born on the island. The average is five a year, which is not an enormous number, but people have been born there, and there are grandchildren of residents. The extent of settlement is therefore rather more substantial than the official definition would suggest.
My final point by way of introduction, which is crucial to an understanding of how the place works, is that the island has long been a centre of communications and military activity. On the British side, it has long been an RAF base. As Mr. Hollobone said, it was used during the Falklands war, when it was described on one occasion as the busiest airport in the world. It is also an important base for GCHQ and for British military and communications activity. It is also important for the Americans. In particular, there is the Wideawake airfield, which I shall discuss later.
That leads me to the question of governance and administration. For many years, Ascension was managed by the Admiralty, and in 1922 it was passed to St. Helena, of which it remains officially part. However, the practical point is that it has been run for most of the past 80 years as a company island. Public and private sector users of the island formed a committee or consortium to manage and run it, using contract labour from overseas. They provided services and charged islanders for using them by means of what amounted to a poll tax.
All that came to an end in 1999, when the late Robin Cook issued his White Paper on dependent territories, which created new expectations about how dependent territories should be run. A key passage says:
"Discussion of constitutional change is already under way. We are planning, for example, to consult the people of St Helena and Dependencies about how to develop the democratic and civil rights of people living on Ascension Island".
A lot flows from that, politically and economically.
The next key step was that the Government encouraged a study to set out a plan for the island. It was called the Portsmouth study, after the university of Portsmouth, and I met one of its authors yesterday to discuss its continuing relevance. The Portsmouth report initiated its argument with a key passage, which said that
"decisions must be made about whether this island becomes normal or another Diego Garcia".
That is exactly the issue. Normality consisted of three main developments, and the logic of the proposals was that each development was interlocking.
The first element was the development of a proper economy based on what the report called the public finance option. In other words, public services should be provided by the state and people should pay taxes for them—a simple principle, but it had not operated in Ascension until then. That was acted on, and by April 2002 a system of income tax and property taxes for business had been introduced to finance the embryonic services on the island. The islanders then said, "No taxation without representation." They wanted democracy. Democracy was agreed and a council elected in November 2002. Much of the feedback that I have received has come from the islanders' democratically elected representatives.
The third element of the package is the crucial one, but it has caused the greatest difficulty. The Portsmouth report argued that it was not possible to have a meaningful economy or democratic polity without the wider liberalisation of the island. What was meant by that was property rights, the right of abode, the privatisation of assets—so that there could be an embryonic business system, with the growth of small business—and opening the island to visitors, with limited specialised tourism.
Since then, all three elements of the package have been gradually put into place, with the full and active support of the Government. A lot has happened. A land registry has been established, which is crucial, because there can be no property rights without the designation of land. The implicit assumption throughout has been that the islanders would be given property rights. Houses were built for the first time—there used to be only barrack-type residences for contract labour—and there has been privatisation, although we are talking not Railtrack, but the privatisation of the launderette, among other things. None the less, important assets have been created for private business, in terms of the scale of the island.
The Department for International Development has been actively involved in the development of the island, spending £500,000 to support a nature reservation, with some unique turtles and bird life being protected with the help of British taxpayers' money. All that has taken place on the assumption that the island will develop a tourist industry and that the islanders working on the island will acquire long-term residence and become stakeholders in the process.
The Americans were co-operative and agreed to the idea that there should be a limited number of flights to the island. There was no problem at that stage and, most crucially, legal advice was sought on how property rights and the right of abode could be consolidated in law. A leading lawyer, Michael Bailey QC, was commissioned to do that legal work. I received a slightly odd parliamentary answer when I asked how much that legal advice cost, which said that it was £2,500. My information is that it cost at least £60,000. There may have just been an accident in the Foreign Office, but that fits with the story that has emerged of the attempt to minimise the extent of the Government's commitment to the process.
This happy story was evolving very nicely and coherently until the end of November, when a delegation from the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence went to island, supposedly to consult—in fact, an announcement was simply made—on what was described as "new thinking" in the Government. A statement was made that said, among other things, that
"the UK Government could face unacceptable risks", and that
"UK Ministers were . . . moving . . . towards the view that it would not be appropriate to grant . . . right of abode and rights to property . . . ownership to people . . . living on Ascension."
That was followed by a letter from the governor, who said that he was reluctant to proceed with the reforms, and a letter from Lord Triesman about significant new risks that had emerged.
The islanders were horrified. They felt badly betrayed and have expressed themselves forcefully in letters to the Government. I shall read not some of the more emotional comments, but a low-key statement that captures, in essence, why the islanders have a powerful sense of grievance. A letter from the island council to Lord Triesman says:
"Expectations of right of abode and land tenure have been raised by a whole raft of Ministers, FCO Desk Officers, our previous Governor and Administrator and there must now be some accountability for this. Tax Payers' money has been spent on the construction of . . . houses with the full knowledge of the Administrator and Governor, neither of whom challenged this development at any stage and Individuals on Ascension Island have invested money, time and effort in small businesses and now face losing everything."
So, we come to the question, why have the Government done this? Why has there has been such a brutal and abrupt U-turn? If the Government had openly said, "Look, we have a serious problem here. It's all connected with security—we're sorry," they would have had some sympathy. Instead, they have hidden behind opaque Foreign Office language, which I am familiar with. As a former member of the foreign service, I used to use and manufacture such language in my day.
The first argument that is employed is that there are so-called contingent liabilities to British taxpayers. As my party's finance spokesman, I should be aware of contingent liabilities and duly deferential to such arguments, but the Government have never spelt out what those contingent liabilities are. They have been asked, but they have not said. One can guess what the contingent liabilities are. I think the Government are worried that if islanders are given the right of abode, some may stay and become old and sick, and somebody may have to pay for that. The Government consider five or 10 people becoming destitute on the island a rather horrific prospect for the Treasury.
Apart from being a little petty, that position is economically wrong, because if the island were to be run down, the contract workers would return to St. Helena. St. Helena would lose its remittances and the destitution would appear there instead, so we are not talking about additional cost to the Government. It would be interesting to know what the Government believe the contingent liabilities to be and to have them properly examined by the Public Accounts Committee, which is where I believe the issue will end up.
On the other hand, there are some contingent assets. As I said, the Government have spent more than £500,000 on environmental improvements such as a nature reserve. What will happen to that now? Will the money be written off because there will not now be a tourism industry?
More seriously, there is a direct link with the controversial development of the full-scale airport on St. Helena, which I understand will cost the taxpayer between £150 million and £350 million. The link is that Ascension Island could provide many activities that the St. Helena airport is due to provide. There is complementarity between the islands. None the less, the Government have decided, through DFID, to spend large amounts of money on the St. Helena airport. It is difficult to find out what the options were or whether they have ever been examined, because the Freedom of Information Act 2000 has been repealed on the island of St. Helena to disguise such information, so we cannot have a proper analysis.
The situation is worrying, not least because if the full-scale airport on St. Helena goes ahead, there will be no cross flights to Ascension and the Ascension islanders who are left will have to get back to St. Helena via London. There are some strange arguments being used. I do not know what the underlying facts are, because they are not being revealed and the Government will not reveal them. However, when we talk about contingent liabilities, we need to know the interaction between the cost to the island of maintaining its current path and the cost of terminating it. Many of those costs are involved in the St. Helena parallel development.
During the hon. Gentleman's extensive researching of the island, has he managed to ascertain what the Government's investment in the island has been for the past few years—how much money have we given to it? Also, has he managed to find out what contribution has come from the United States of America, which has 150 citizens on the island?
That is a good and appropriate question. The further the controversy develops, the more exactly that question will need to be answered. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the global figure. I know how much DFID has spent, and that the Foreign Office has spent a substantial amount on legal advice, but we should also consider the administration of the island.
Britain committed itself both politically and financially to the course of action that it now proposes to abandon, and the Americans have, in their own way, contributed to its development. One of the oddities of Ascension is that, despite its small population, it has two sets of roads. On one, people drive on the right, while on the other they drive on the left, because America has a big presence and nobody has thought to integrate the two sets of roads. That is one of the lasting legacies of American involvement there.
One set of the British authorities' arguments involves contingent liability, which has never been properly explained, while the other involves security, which has not been explained either. Indeed, it is a rather odd argument. When the development of the island was first raised, the British military authorities and GCHQ apparently saw no problem and raised no objection. Ascension is a very secure island—one has to get security clearance to go there, and then to go to Brize Norton to get on an aeroplane—and it is not as though people just wander in and out.
The British authorities saw no problem, nor did the Americans—indeed, they agreed that civilian flights should go there—but something suddenly changed in the middle of last year. I can only speculate, as I have no proof whatever, that the United States undertook a major security review of its strategic objectives. At some point, somebody in the Pentagon must have raised objections to having a permanent population and an increased number of tourists on Ascension. It would appear that the British Government simply rolled over and accepted that, regardless of the commitments they had made to the islanders.
That is a hypothesis; one can only assume that it is what happened. The comments made at a public meeting by the major responsible for the base on the island rather confirmed that that was what occurred, but I have no proof. Whatever the case, it appears that the British Government have been rather spineless in their dealings with the Americans over the matter.
My final point is that spinelessness might have been excusable if major strategic interests were involved. What is inexcusable is how the British Government have acted over the past two months. Instead of being honest in saying that we have a problem and that we will have to do a U-turn, they have reverted to the most extraordinary deviousness in their attempts to deal with information, and to denying the facts.
Let me give just two examples. I am not criticising the Minister personally, because he has put his signature to parliamentary questions on an issue that is not his direct responsibility. I asked him a fairly innocuous parliamentary question about whether the Government had ever set a timetable for legislation on property rights. He replied:
"The Government have provided no such timetable to the Ascension Island Council".
Actually, I have here—month by month, date by date—a timetable that was agreed with the British authorities. It was drawn up by the Attorney-General for the islands, who covers St. Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, and who came out from London, briefed by the Foreign Office, and prepared the work on the timetable with the full knowledge and support of the British authorities, yet the Government are now claiming that there is no such thing.
The Government have also supported and subscribed to a series of programmes and timetables, such as the Ascension Island strategic plan for 2003–08 and the land management plan. They even submitted a report to the European Commission on the plan for the island, so it is completely wrong to say that the Government have no responsibility for planning the transition to legal rights. I hope that the Minister will have a chance to talk to his officials about the things they have asked him to sign.
To take another example, I asked a parliamentary question about the basis of employment. The Minister replied:
"There has been no change to the basis on which people work and live on Ascension Island".—[Hansard, 6 February 2006; Vol. 442, c. 763–64W.]
That repeats the Foreign Office line that everybody there is a contract worker, which is simply not true. Substantial numbers of people, in Ascension Island terms, have been admitted on a flexible basis—not necessarily linked to contracts—such as business people and members of families who have been reunited. The expectation of normalisation was explicit.
The deviousness that I mentioned extends to foreign investors. In entirely good faith, British companies—Obsidion Group, for example—bought property under the privatisation programme. I have the contract for the privatisation here. It makes it clear that the document was approved by the British authorities, who said that the company would be issued with a long-term lease. It bid, it paid and it acquired its asset, but when it asked where its long-term lease was, it was told, "Sorry, we don't have one." When it asked for meetings at the Foreign Office, it was refused. So, the acts of bad faith do not relate just to the islanders, but affect other people who have brought their resources and given their commitment to the island. There is something very unsatisfactory about the whole episode.
I apologise, Mr. Bercow, for having spoken for rather longer than I should have, but I thought it necessary to spell out the facts. I think that this is a story that will run and run. We are probably just at the first stages of exposing a very seedy and disreputable episode in recent British colonial history, and I hope that colleagues from all parts of the House will join me in trying to take the matter forward. I was about to conclude, but I give way to Mr. Clifton-Brown.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. It seems that property rights are the key. Presumably, the Government have given the Americans a lease over Wideawake airfield, so a legal mechanism for granting property rights must exist somewhere. Has he investigated that?
Clearly, in respect of property, the relationships between states are somewhat different from those between individuals and the state. However, the relationship with the United States is governed by the 1956 Bahamas agreement, which governs British military co-operation in the Atlantic area. There is no doubt that the arrangement that the Government proposed and agreed for the island, and supported, could have been accommodated in the treaty arrangements with the United States. The Americans had never previously suggested that there was a contractual problem. For the second time, I shall draw my remarks to a close.
I congratulate Dr. Cable on having secured the debate. When I first knew that we were going to have a one-and-a-half-hour debate about such a small island with so few people, I was rather puzzled as to how we could justify it. However, some of the points made by the hon. Gentleman have made it very clear indeed why this is such an important issue and why it needs an airing in our Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman gave a good account of the situation in the island, but I want to mention one historical aspect that he omitted. The island was discovered by the Portuguese seafarer Joao da Nova Castelia in 1501, although the visit apparently went unrecorded, and was rediscovered on Ascension day two years later by Alphonse d'Albuquerque, who gave the island its name. That is why it is called Ascension Island.
Ascension is an island of great strategic importance to our country. In effect, it is a permanent aircraft carrier in the mid-Atlantic. It must save this country a great deal of money because of where it is and how it is used. Therefore, as a tremendous asset, it needs to be discussed and we need to find out about the problems there.
I very much hope that the Minister will take on board the views that have been expressed. The hon. Member for Twickenham asked some important questions, particularly those involving the distortions between the answers he received from the Foreign Office on costs and what he was told by experts.
Today, I should be on Ascension Island en route to the Falkland Islands. Unfortunately, the trip had to be cancelled because of this evening's votes, but that gives me a good opportunity to talk about the island. Obviously, as I was going to go there, I have done some research on it.
I am extremely concerned about the lack of Government accountability—not just for Ascension, but for all our overseas territories. That is why I shall introduce, in March, a ten-minute Bill on our 14 overseas dependencies. It will refer to the administration of those dependencies and how they participate in terms of voting and accountability with us and the European Union, which also, ultimately, makes decisions on their behalf.
Although Ascension is owned by the UK, it does not have the same status as French overseas territories—the départements d'outre-mer, which are an intrinsic part of France. The French have realised the importance of bringing those overseas territories into the 21st century and giving them proper status. The people there have the same rights as the people of France and can send representatives to the French Parliament. Such accountability and democracy, which are so important in this modern age, are granted to French overseas territories but not to ours, it would appear.
I am extremely concerned by the first part of the briefing that I received from my researcher, which tells me that Ascension Island is a dependency in the overseas territory of St. Helena. There is an overall governor of the territory who is based on St. Helena—he is not even on the island—and represented on Ascension by an administrator. It seems that the island is run by an administrator about whom we in this building know little, and who has little accountability to us. I would like the Minister to consider us having a similar option to the French départements d'outre-mer.
As I said, Ascension is governed not only by the UK, but by the EU. We have seen that the EU plays a major part in people's lives in overseas territories. It interfered on a massive scale in how the 40 people on Pitcairn Island live. Although the EU can issue diktats to such places, the inhabitants have no representation in the EU. That is totally unacceptable in the 21st century.
We should be proud of those islands. I am always talking to children in my schools in Shrewsbury about the Great British empire and our imperial past. I am not ashamed of the history of our country—we should be proud of it, rather than try to cover it up—yet when I talk to children in Shrewsbury about the history of our country and about the empire and its legacy, and when I talk to adults, I find that they know little about overseas territories such as Ascension Island, or any of the other 14 islands.
I believe those territories to be an integral part of our country, but it seems as though Governments of all colours in recent times have somehow tried to airbrush them out of existence and not talked about their importance. We have to hold on to those territories for future generations. That can be done partly by sharing information about them with future generations and discussing them in the House of Commons. We must increase knowledge of and interest in them, and increase tourism, because only by going to see them will we be able to grasp how we have to work with them in the future.
Order. The hon. Gentleman's disquisition on imperial affairs is of considerable interest I am sure, but I know that he will want fairly narrowly to focus his remarks on the administration of Ascension Island.
Yes, certainly. I was about to conclude.
As the hon. Member for Twickenham said, when administering an island such as Ascension—as is the case with Diego Garcia—it is important that Parliament knows how much money is being spent on it and what is going on with the Americans. I ask the Minister, what are the 150 US citizens on the island doing? How much is the United States paying us for them being there? How do we benefit from their position on that island?
I conclude by again thanking the hon. Member for Twickenham for securing the debate. I hope that he continues to scrutinise the Government in relation to the administration of the island.
I was an expert on Ascension Island last autumn: I was in Ascension on a Monday and, later on, on a Sunday.
I think that the answer to the question posed by my hon. Friend Daniel Kawczynski is that the Americans find it useful to have a spare runway or landing strip for the shuttle in case it comes down in the wrong place. Ascension has a long runway.
Dr. Cable has done Ascension Island, the Government and the House a service by raising this topic. This is one occasion on which I would have preferred the Minister to speak second in the debate, so that the rest of us could contribute having heard what the Government have to say. A number of issues have come forward. The Minister has had some good material, and obviously has some more now. However, the rest of us would have been able to speak with greater advantage had we heard what he has to say.
I should declare an interest of sorts, as my grandfather was in the Colonial Office and my father was in the Commonwealth relations office of the Foreign Office, so, on the whole, I take the view that what the Department behind the Minister says and does are normally wise and often well considered. If that has changed, it is for Ministers to explain why, because it is they who take the decisions.
I went to Ascension on the way to the Falklands, which are one of the real reasons for the investment in Ascension, rather than, in particular, those who are resident there, whether temporary or more than temporary. The investment is made because Ascension Island fulfils a function. When I went there, I got the impression that the question of islanders' rights is a live issue. If the Government feel the need to adapt their policy, to make it clearer or to reverse it, that ought to be done in the open. Decisions are normally better if they are announced in the open and discussed retrospectively, but not prospectively. It will be interesting to hear whether the hon. Member for Twickenham is right that an American security assessment is leading to difficulty. I am not sure that that is necessarily the explanation, but when we hear from the Minister we will know better.
For those who have not yet been to Ascension Island, the greatest interest, besides the runway and the turtles, is the mountain, which is the wrong way up, so to speak. The tropics are at the top, eucalyptus trees are in the middle and there is nothing but volcanic rock at the bottom. It is an intriguing part of nature.
Having said that it would be better if we could have listened to the Minister first, I shall let him explain what the policy is and whether it has changed.
I, too, congratulate Dr. Cable on securing the debate. When I saw that there would be a debate on this issue, I could not help but come and say a few words, although I shall be brief. I shall concentrate on two areas: the environment of the island and the military impact on it.
I am fortunate to have been to the island many times. When I first went there, I was due to stop for just one day on the way to the Falklands, but in true style the Royal Air Force broke down and I spent a week there. I have been back on several occasions to do engineering work, not least with the Army, and to do environmental work, also with the Army.
Before I get on to my two main points, I shall try to add a bit of colour to this rather barren rock, because I think it the most remarkable place in the world. It is, of course, the second most remote island in the world, but other hon. Members have touched on how unique it is. It is an island full of surprises.
Green mountain, to which my hon. Friend Peter Bottomley referred, is remarkable. Reaching the Dew point on the way to the top, one enters a marvellous microclimate with a mini rain forest on top. One of my worst memories of Ascension is having to do the Dew point run, which involves running from the shore to the top of the mountain. It covers about 7 miles and the runners are absolutely exhausted by the time they get there. The island is probably the only place that I have ever played half a round of golf—there is only half a golf course—entirely on flint and rock with not a blade of grass to be found.
The community is unique because it has so many different elements. GCHQ is there, as is the BBC. There is an American community and there used to be a Royal Air Force community. All four parts of the community, as well as the St. Helenians, manage to work together well. The island is one of the few places in the world where I have spent any time where people did not have to lock their doors, and I would hate for that to be spoiled.
As one travels up the island through Donkey plain to Cricket valley around the back, one can see that it is the most remarkable environment. Although it is essential that tourism on the island is developed, I am concerned about how we will ensure that such a unique place is not destroyed by too much tourism. I would like to hear the Minister's view on that. We have already done our bit by introducing the rat to the island, which has caused some problems, although we have also done some quite remarkable things. As one goes up to the now defunct National Aeronautics and Space Administration centre—I know that it is defunct because I kicked the front door in during a military exercise once, and there is definitely no one there any more—one passes a remarkable plantation with incredibly tall, thin trees. I asked what it was, and was told that they are trees planted by the Royal Navy in the 19th century to provide spare masts. They are still there. That is the sort of place Ascension Island is—an island full of secrets.
I am concerned about the environmental impact of an increase in tourism. I was fortunate when I went in that the green turtle, which lays its eggs on the shores, was laying its eggs when I arrived. When I went back in the summer, they were hatching. I can see the appeal and that tourists would want to see such things, but that must be handled sensitively so that we do not impact on the island or on that population.
I also want to touch on the military aspect. I am concerned that the state of the island is deteriorating. I saw the range on the far side of the island only recently. It is kept in mothballs, but it is an essential facility. I am sure that during the Falklands war no one expected that Ascension Island would be as prominent as it was. It is essential that we keep it in top condition.
As the Royal Air Force squadron was withdrawn several years ago, I am concerned that the island is being overlooked to a degree. We rely entirely on the Americans to look after the runway. I realise that it is leased to them, but it is vital that as a country we maintain some form of military community there to ensure that it is there when we need it.
I apologise for my late arrival, Mr. Bercow. I was involved with the launch organised by the all-party group on small shops.
In my role as chair of the all-party group on St. Helena—Ascension Island, of course, comes within the orbit of St. Helena—I congratulate the Government on all they did to restore full British citizenship to the citizens of the overseas territories, which include St. Helena and Ascension Island. I also congratulate them on the progress that they have made towards the establishment of an airstrip on the island of St. Helena. Of course, Wideawake airport on Ascension Island can take jumbo jets as well as TriStars when it is working, but like Mr. Lancaster, I have been marooned on Ascension Island because of the inability of the RAF to provide flights from the Falklands through to Brize Norton.
The island is indeed remarkable and the American presence is the dominant feature, but it is strategically important for this country as well. We know that because of what happened in the Falklands war and in the years that followed. The community on Ascension is predominantly made up of people from the island of St. Helena. I asked many of them whether they regard themselves as Ascension islanders or Saints from the island of St. Helena, and they still regard themselves as Saints.
The rights of abode of the people who live on Ascension Island are the important aspect of the debate, and the Government were going down the road to achieving them. Serious questions have to be asked. When the island is so obviously British and its citizens have had their full British citizenship restored by the Government, why do those people find themselves once again relegated and, in effect, second-class citizens? Although they retain the full British citizenship that has been granted them, they have been told that they cannot have rights of abode on the island.
Those of us who have visited the only real village on the island, Two Boats—I am not sure what happened to "One Boat"—know that that community is home. Many people have lived there for decades. Some youngsters have lived nowhere other than Ascension Island and the village of Two Boats. I think that, per head of population, more young males are members of the scouts than is the case anywhere else in the world. Nothing is more British than the scout movement.
The 1,000 or 2,000 people, or however many there are, on that British island have rightly had full citizenship restored. The Government are doing a good job, although they need to do more, to bring the mother island of St. Helena fully back into the British family. However, the Minister needs to explain why Ascension Island is being treated differently from everywhere else. In simple terms, will he explain whether that is just an aberration, or will the good moves that were being made up until recently be reinstated?
I am in an unusual position as I have never been to Ascension Island and I am in a room of people who are all great authorities on that remote part of the world. However, for anybody of my age—I am 35—Ascension evokes our upbringing, because it was such a dominant feature of the Falklands war and the preparation for that conflict.
I want first to pay tribute to my hon. Friend Dr. Cable, who is an example to us all. He manages to be an authoritative Treasury spokesman for our party, as well as a diligent and conscientious MP for his constituents, yet he still manages to have a global scope to his activities and to promote causes such as this. He has a versatility that, as an MP who has been here for only nine months, I can only wonder at and learn from.
The debate has been effective already: not only has it drawn the Minister to this Chamber and given hon. Members the opportunity to raise their concerns, but it has provoked a large public and media interest. Only yesterday, I turned on the "Today" programme to hear my hon. Friend discussing the subject, and The Daily Telegraph and others have covered it. That shows that one can create interest in a subject and a wider debate by securing Adjournment debates here. That should encourage us all.
We in the House should be concerned about individual liberty and the freedom of people to live their lives against a consistent backdrop of rules, without the state moving the goalposts in a way that makes it difficult or impossible for their lives to progress in the way they would like.
I have read information about the situation on Ascension Island and I can see that there are cases to be made against opening the island up. I understand that there are serious problems with securing enough water for the inhabitants and generating electricity in sufficient quantities. Furthermore, as my hon. Friend said, there may be issues involving liabilities for the Government. He cited caring and providing for people who are sick or have reached old age, but there are also considerable environmental issues. I am referring not to the issues alluded to by Mr. Lancaster, but to the impact on the island of dumping waste and similar practices. I can understand the Government being somewhat concerned about having an open-ended commitment to clean up and preserve the environment of the island.
That said, I understand that there are no substantial infrastructure-related reasons why the island should not be inhabited and function effectively with a modest population. Ultimately, the point is that the Government have shown a serious disregard for those based on Ascension Island, who were led to believe that it would be opened up for residency and who, in many cases, invested a large amount of money—perhaps their life savings—as well as time and emotional energy in trying to make a new future. The Foreign Office has shown—this is a modest way of putting it—poor judgment in not being as straight and consistent with the island's inhabitants as they deserve.
To resolve the situation, the Government have an opportunity either to try to push ahead with opening up the island and devote adequate resources to that task or, at the very least, to be straight with the islanders and offer them compensation and clarity on the way forward. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response to those challenges.
I congratulate Dr. Cable on securing the debate. I think that it was my first day in the House when I went into the Tea Room and someone said to me, "You know, whatever topic is discussed in the House, there will always be someone who is an expert on it." When I saw the title of this debate on the Order Paper, I obviously knew that the hon. Gentleman was an expert on the subject, but I did not know that my hon. Friends the Members for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster), for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) and for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley), as well as the hon. Members for Colchester (Bob Russell) and for Taunton (Mr. Browne), were also experts. I congratulate them all on their speeches.
I also congratulate you, Mr. Bercow, as I think this is the first time that you have found yourself in the Chair for these proceedings. We are delighted to see you in that exalted position and hope that you will have many happy years sitting in the Chair, doing exactly what you are doing today.
I tend to the theory that there has not been a conspiracy over what is happening on Ascension Island and that the Government have found themselves in a bit of a muddle. As the hon. Member for Taunton said, they did not want to be totally open about their thinking on what the future of the island ought to be.
I declare an interest: like a number of my hon. Friends, I have been to Ascension Island on the way to the Falklands. I spent a happy lunchtime in the administrator's delightful residence. It had a lawn that many people in this country would be proud to tend, and a great deal of effort must go into tending it considering the problems on the top of the mountain there. We had to spend even more time on the island on the way back from the Falklands because the RAF would not take us out of there until the fog had cleared at RAF Brize Norton. The RAF did not want to land at Heathrow or Prestwick because of the cost.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes, therefore, I have spent several hours on Ascension Island. There is not much there, but it is no exaggeration to say that the Falkland Islands invasion could not have been repelled without the use of the island. It is strategically very important to the Government and to the Americans, as one can see by the size of the airport there and the facilities that GCHQ, Cable & Wireless and the RAF have there. It is a vital strategic base for us, as well as an important test base for the Americans, with their tracking of rockets and so on. The Government therefore need to be totally open about what they want to achieve for the island.
I, too, was struck by the article in The Daily Telegraph on
I have given the Minister notice of my questions. If he cannot answer today all the points raised in the debate, I would be grateful if he put a note in the Library, or perhaps provided a written statement to the House on the points that emerge. Perhaps we could have a position paper on the Government's intentions for the future of the island. It might be helpful to have that on the record.
I shall ask the Minister a few of the questions of which I gave him notice. Do the Government regret their recommendation that there should be a review in relation to the constitutional rights of residence for people living on Ascension Island? Do the Government now believe that the residents of Ascension Island should have any influence on local decision making or not? What will be the future of the island council? If the people are to have some form of representation, the Government need to know how they are to be represented, both on the island council and directly to the Government.
What did the Government have in mind when they decided in April 2001 that fundamental changes were necessary in how Ascension Island was run? Do the Government regret their decision to introduce the idea of an island council in the 2001 concept paper, and their introduction of a new fiscal regime in April 2002, which brought in local income, property and customs taxes without the award of local democratic representation to the residents of Ascension Island? Those are critical questions, as are those on property rights, to which the hon. Member for Twickenham alluded.
Ascension Island's revenue budget for 2003–04 amounted to £4.3 million. Fiscal expenditure amounted to £3.3 million for recurrent expenditure and £0.7 million for capital expenses, leaving transfer reserves of £0.3 million—7 per cent. of revenue. Government expenditure funds one school, one hospital offering limited services but including basic operations, and police and judicial services, all of which are provided free to local taxpayers. Given that the economy is so fragile, surely the Government should reassure the residents of Ascension Island by employing a consistent and fair policy towards the island.
Following the completion of negotiations with the US authorities in October 2003 to allow air-charter access to Wideawake airfield, what approaches have been made by private transport groups to operate a link with Ascension Island? Have the Government considered promoting such links? Incidentally, Wideawake airfield is a misnomer if ever I heard one, because one nearly always arrives there in the middle of the night after a long flight from RAF Brize Norton anything but wide-awake. I think that the name refers to the birds, rather than the human condition.
What assessments have been made of the effect on the Ascension Island economy and on the local economy of a link with airports such as Brize Norton? It seems to me that that would be a possibility. Having visited Brize Norton, which is contiguous to my constituency, and knowing that the RAF is thinking about introducing a more commercial element to Brize Norton, there is an ideal opportunity to establish some form of tourism and more commercial activity with the island if the Government want to do so.
The hon. Member for Twickenham asked how many people were born on the island. It seems to me that if people, and perhaps their parents and grandparents, were born there, they have gone a long way down the road of citizenship. If they have citizenship of the island, will the Government recognise it?
What discussions have taken place in the past 12 months with the US Administration on changes in the administration of Ascension Island? Have those discussions impeded the agreed powers of the Ascension Island Administration? That is a key matter. I suspect that some discussions have taken place with the Americans and that some security implication has caused the Government's change of mind. It would be helpful—within, obviously, the bounds of open government—if the Minister gave us an idea of that today.
What are the contingent liabilities? The hon. Member for Twickenham, with his financial background, concentrated on the financial possibilities of contingent liabilities, but they could cover a multitude of possibilities—including even contamination and things of that kind. Alternatively, are we just thinking about the human condition and the problems of providing health, pensions and social security? Are they what is meant by contingent liabilities? We need to know. This is one of the crucial questions that we need to have answered in the debate.
According to Government figures, the cost of internal security and policing on Ascension has not been borne by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Who has shouldered that cost and what influence do they now have over the running of the island? Is it true that Ascension Island's local government paid for its own policing and internal security in 2004–05 and does the Minister believe that the Ascension Island Administration are now capable of running their own affairs? If there is to be a council, we need to know what revenue-raising powers, and thus the likely powers over administration of the island, it will have with regard to those essential public services.
What measures are the Minister's Department and the Ministry of Defence taking to ensure that the residents of Ascension Island who are entitled to a state pension receive a fair deal? If the Government will not award them quarterly uprating, does the Minister intend to give the Ascension Island Administration the powers necessary to provide for those residents? We need to know that with regard to not only pensions, but the entire range of public services.
My hon. Friend and the Minister will be aware of the anomaly whereby many people with British state retirement pensions who go abroad to an old dominion do not receive inflation upratings, whereas those who go to some other countries do. Perhaps the Minister will write to hon. Members about whether someone from this country who retired to Ascension Island would be caught in that way and not get the inflation uprating.
My hon. Friend takes me down another route that I did not intend to travel, although I had it in mind when I raised the question. Many other countries, not least Zimbabwe, suffer from exactly the same problem.
Finally, we need to know what the islanders' future is to be. Will they be granted citizenship? If so, will they be granted property rights? What representation will they have to their own island council, if that is allowed to continue? What rights of representation will the island council have to the Government, and what rights will the islanders, whatever their status, have to lobby the Government?
Will the islanders have voting rights in the future, as voting rights are a vital part of citizenship? Will they have voting rights in the EU? My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham said that the EU likes to interfere in the running of such islands. If it is to do that, it should certainly follow the precedent set in the case of Gibraltar and give the islanders voting rights in European elections.
I am afraid that I have asked the Minister a host of questions, but the debate has been very interesting. Ascension Island is a hidden corner of the world and a spotlight has been shone on it this morning. We owe the hon. Member for Twickenham a debt for that. Let us hope that the Minister will shine not only a spotlight but a searchlight on the problem, so that we all emerge fully informed about what is going to happen.
Thank you, Mr. Bercow, for chairing this important debate this morning. It would be remiss of me to begin other than by paying tribute to your chairmanship on your first outing in this new role. Having crossed swords with you in this room and in the Chamber, I feel some relief that you are the referee in today's debate, not a player. This has none the less been an important debate in which several hon. Gentlemen have raised points. I would like to deal with one or two of those before moving on to my main remarks.
First, I shall of course endeavour to respond to the specific points raised by Dr. Cable about parliamentary questions, legal advice, the timetable and terms of employment. He may rest assured that I shall discuss what he raised today with my ministerial colleague Lord Triesman and my officials.
Secondly, as to the point about the European Union raised by Daniel Kawczynski, I was, I must say, intrigued to hear from a member of the Conservative party such a suggestion about the EU's reach and the proposal that Ascension should reach directly to Brussels. That is a novel line of inquiry, but it perhaps speaks to the new diversity abroad among those on the Conservative Benches. Certainly, notwithstanding your remarks about a broader disposition on imperial affairs, Mr. Bercow, clear distinctions can be drawn between the external départements of France and the traditional position of the overseas territory.
As to the question about United States citizens, they are working at the United States base. Ascension Island provides an important strategic base for, among other things, evacuation or humanitarian aid, which might be needed to enable the United States to undertake activities in west Africa. The 1956 Bahamas agreement, which was referred to by the hon. Member for Twickenham, allows the use of Ascension Island without charge. Those people are, however, liable for taxes for any goods and services purchased off their base and their main contractor pays income tax. I hope that that deals with the point that was raised.
I am humbled by the knowledge and experience of Ascension Island that Opposition Members offer. I am not sure that it has been the greatest advertisement for the reliability of RAF flights, but the experience of hon. Gentlemen has clearly illuminated aspects of the debate. I was asked about the environment by Mr. Lancaster, and about the concerns that understandably have been raised about the ecostructure. The Government are strongly committed to protecting the environment on the island and the rich biodiversity of Ascension.
I understand that, under the joint FCO-DFID overseas territories environment programme, £169,310 has been committed for projects relating to environmental issues specifically on Ascension Island. Ascension has been involved in a further three cross-territory projects. The FCO has also funded £500,000 towards the seabird restoration project, in conjunction with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. I hope that that is evidence of the enduring commitment to the environment, which the hon. Gentleman raised as a specific issue.
Several other points were raised. I reiterate that, although I am Minister for Europe, I am answering the debate on behalf of my noble Friend Lord Triesman, the FCO Minister directly responsible for the overseas territory, and I shall ensure that he is fully aware of the points and comments made by hon. Gentlemen this morning. I am aware that the debate takes place in the wake of several stories—some of which have been referred to by Opposition Members—that appeared in the papers at the weekend in anticipation of our discussions.
The debate offers the opportunity to set out the Government's position with regard to Ascension and to refer to the issues raised by the hon. Member for Twickenham. I am also aware that Mr. Clifton-Brown has raised some specific questions. I am grateful to him for giving us notice of those, and I will endeavour to deal with them in my speech. If they are not covered by what I say, I shall ensure that Lord Triesman is aware of them.
Perhaps it would be most useful if I were first to set out the context of the situation on Ascension Island. Ascension has no indigenous population, no exploitable natural resources and a very limited water supply. All that is needed to meet the needs of those who work on the island—everything from food to pharmaceuticals—is therefore imported. Today, the major employers, or "users" as they are known on the island, are the UK and US military bases, the BBC, Cable & Wireless and the Ascension Administration.
According to the most recent statistics available to me, there are just over 900 people living on Ascension Island, including those on short-term visits. Ascension Island is unique in that all those working and living there are on the island only because they or their families are employed by one of the users.
The administrator of Ascension has authority to grant permission to enter and remain on island. I was asked about the administrator. The administrator is the responsibility of the governor, who operates from St. Helena, as was recognised. In turn, the governor is accountable to the FCO, whose Ministers, as hon. Members can see this morning, are accountable to the House of Commons. There is no distinctive feature here. There is a chain of accountability leading through the governorship on St. Helena to the Foreign Office and on to Parliament.
Does the Minister accept that once upon a time St. Helena did not have an indigenous population? Does he agree that many of those who live on Ascension Island have lived there for decades? Can he cite any other dependent territory where residents do not have the right of abode?
Let me deal with the specific issue of the right of abode. Where Ascension Island is unique and can be distinguished from St. Helena is that all those working and living on the island are there only because they or their families are employed by one of the users. The administrator of Ascension has authority to grant permission to enter and remain on the island, and employees of the users and their families are entitled to enter and remain on Ascension for the duration of their employment contract. On the termination of their contract with a user, they are required by Ascension Island law to leave. There is, therefore, no general entitlement to enter or remain on Ascension Island, nor has there ever been under British rule.
The hon. Member for Twickenham argued that the Government raised false hope for the people living and working on Ascension—a point also raised by Bob Russell—by giving them the impression over the last six years that they would be granted a general right to remain and own property on the island, separate from employment with a user. I shall set out the chronology surrounding consultations on this issue to explain how the Government reached their decision, as set out by Lord Triesman in his letter of
I am quite keen, not least given the specific questions that have been put to me, to set out my response comprehensively. With the forbearance of the hon. Gentleman, I shall make further progress.
First, I shall explain what the decision entails. Allowing the development of a settled population by granting a general right to remain would make the UK ultimately responsible for ensuring a viable future for those individuals who chose to settle on the island. That means that the UK would be taking on contingent liabilities, and possible—indeed, it is judged, probable—extra financial commitments in relation to the future provision of infrastructure and services. Before taking such a decision, it was imperative to explore where this funding could be found, now and in the future.
"consult the people of St Helena and Dependencies about how to develop the democratic and civil rights . . . on Ascension".
Indeed, that quote was used by the hon. Member for Twickenham. But that White Paper also noted that every territory was unique and needed a constitutional framework to suit its own circumstances. There must be a balance of obligations and expectations. The White Paper also set it out that each territory had to be considered on its own terms.
In the late 1990s, the users on Ascension informed the Government that they no longer wanted to finance directly the majority of the services on the island, as they had been doing for many years. In the light of that, the UK therefore needed to address the future administration of the island. A consultation paper setting out options on how Ascension could be run was produced in April 1999, and a follow up fiscal and economic study by Portsmouth university, again referred to during the debate, was commissioned. In line with the consultation document, it recommended the establishment of a publicly funded system.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office agreed with the Ascension Island Administration that they should take over responsibility for core services from the users. A new fiscal regime was put in place in 2002. Revenue is now derived primarily from personal income tax and property tax, both borne primarily by the users on their employees' behalf, and customs duty.
Following that, those living and working on the island were consulted on the form of democratic representation for the island, which was only appropriate given they were contributing to the running of the island through taxation. A 10-strong Ascension Island council with seven elected members was set up in the same year. The council's establishment, therefore, resulted from the UK's intervention to ensure that Ascension remained economically viable for the users. As a result, there were continued employment opportunities. This was not taken forward as part of a staged process that was intended to result in those living and working on Ascension being given the right of abode.
The 1999 consultation paper, as the hon. Member for Twickenham pointed out, raised the issue of the development of a general right of abode and property rights, in addition to other issues including services and democracy, but it stressed that those were options only and stated specifically that the UK had not yet made up its mind on what those changes should be. Up until 2002, the possibility of developing the general right of abode and property rights on Ascension had not been developed. The island council engaged a legal draftsperson to draft proposed legislation. This process, which started in 2003, remains incomplete.
In 2003, the UK Government also concluded the Wideawake agreement, referred to by the hon. Member for Cotswold, to open up the possibility of commercial charter flights to Ascension, if viable. Partly as a result of these consultations, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office looked again in 2005 at whether the island would be economically viable to support a settled population, with regard to fishing and tourism in particular.
The Government commissioned an economic study by Oxford Policy Management Ltd. in August 2005. The report highlighted the limited scope for development without significant external investment. It concluded that the prospects for buoyant growth driven by significant inward investment seemed slender in the near-to-medium future, and that the costs entailed by the local and physical characteristics of Ascension made the development of tourism unlikely to succeed.
During 2005, the FCO continued to consult, but in the light of the Oxford Policy Management report published in October, it became increasingly apparent that the economic argument was outweighing the views of the minority of those working and living on Ascension Island who wanted a general right to remain and reside there and to buy property. FCO officials and Ministers were in contact with the island council during the year, including through two visits in May and November. Lord Triesman also talked to Councillor Lawson Henry in London in October.
The Government accept that the continuation of the process to assess whether this was politically and economically viable might have led to confusion on the part of some of those living in Ascension. That, of course, is to be regretted. However, it would have been wrong to prejudge the decision that my colleague Lord Triesman took last month without examining all sides of the issue, including the steps I have just outlined.
In exploring all the options, the Government consulted widely, with Ascension and across Whitehall. The FCO took into account representations made by those on the island to the governor, administrators and groups of visiting officials. Before the decision was made, the FCO considered fully the representations to the team that went to the island in late November 2005 and the letter of
I do not wish to stop the Minister's flow and I know that he is pressed for time. He has acknowledged that confusion was created among the islanders. Does he not agree that that confusion was systematic? Why did the British authorities encourage the islanders by establishing a land registry, the only purpose of which was to entrench property rights? Why did they endorse the council's campaign to regard Ascension as a "family island"? That was its slogan, which, by implication, involves settlement and long residence. Surely the Government were not assessing the options, but were very actively involved in creating the framework they now wish to repudiate.
As a Scottish lawyer, I was intrigued by the establishment of a land registry, given that Scottish jurisdiction has the distinction of having the last system of feudal land ownership in Europe, so I raised exactly that question when I spoke to officials yesterday. They informed me that it was important to have a public record of property on Ascension and who currently occupies it.
The question of individual leases, which have already been issued, is being examined by the Attorney-General, but the almost mechanistic view that the establishment of the land registry would, in and of itself, prejudge the decision that would ultimately be taken by Ministers—in this case, by Lord Triesman—is wrong. It is wrong in the sense that there was, I understand, a clear articulation at the outset of the process that options were being considered. I have acknowledged candidly that there appears to have been some confusion among the limited number of those who reside and work on the island—a number of whom were represented on the island council—who have come to hope for and aspire to property rights being secured.
None the less, from the Foreign Office's point of view, there was a clear view that a decision had yet to be reached and that the consultation that followed—in terms of the visit of the officials to the island and the further discussions that Lord Triesman had with one of the councillors—reflected that ongoing process before the decision was reached last month.
My recollection from my discussions with officials is that when they visited the island in November, it was made clear to them that those with expectations of securing the property rights that we are discussing today were prejudging a decision that was ultimately for the Minister to take. I understand that there was some indication that clear consideration was being given to the outcome that was finally reached in terms of a decision made by my ministerial colleague in January.
I shall address a couple of further points that have been raised following those interventions. Up until 2002, the possibility of developing the general right of abode and property rights on Ascension had not been developed. As I have said, the island council engaged a legal draftsman. Those points have already been covered during our debate.
A jagged edge has emerged from this debate. It seems that people were given an expectation of property rights, and as a chartered surveyor I know about such matters. If they were given that expectation, and they have invested considerable sums of money in building those four houses and are now to be denied any proper permanent legal rights, will the Government consider paying compensation to them?
I am respectful of the past professional experience of a chartered surveyor, but I speak with the past experience of a solicitor, and a very clear distinction can be drawn between confusion and expectation. I have been scrupulous in my language today, making it clear that there may have been confusion. We accept that there may have been confusion, but that is an entirely separate matter. I make that observation not least in terms of the importance in public law of expectation. It is helpful to have clarified that point, but I would draw a clear distinction between expectation and confusion.
Reluctantly, the Government have concluded that granting the general right to remain could cost the UK taxpayer considerably, in the short and long terms. If the users were not on the island to provide a regular income for employees, the cost of meeting Ascension's reasonable ongoing needs—the provision and maintenance of utilities and infrastructure, and the provision of social and additional education and medical services—could easily run, on the Government's estimate, to tens of millions of pounds.
With the greatest respect, I have been generous with the Chamber in giving way and I am keen to make a little more progress.
Granting a general right of abode and property rights could impact adversely on the unique working environment of Ascension Island, rather than improve it. I am sure that all Members of the House recognise that the Government have an obligation to take responsible decisions for the good governance of their overseas territories. That spirit has been very much abroad in the Chamber today. The Government also have a responsibility to minimise the future risk to UK taxpayers by not unnecessarily exposing the UK to an increased likelihood of contingent liabilities.
At the same time, the Government remain committed to a sustainable quality of life for those whom they hope will continue to work on Ascension in the future.