[John Bercow in the Chair] — Overseas Territories

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:22 pm on 23rd April 2009.

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Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Defence) 4:22 pm, 23rd April 2009

It is not only the Chagos islanders who feel betrayed by the Government. I endorse all the points made by the previous speakers, and I congratulate the Foreign Affairs Committee on its excellent report.

I want to concentrate purely on the island of St. Helena, which was under the flag of England before the Union of Scotland and England. The islanders are proud British subjects and I endorse the points made by Andrew Rosindell in that regard. There is a sense of betrayal and disbelief that their Government, after all the promises, should, at a relatively late stage, pull the plug on the airport. As the Chairman of the Select Committee pointed out, the project was agreed in September. Work was due to start when news came through of the pause, which is now more than a pause; it is an exceptionally long delay. It may be more than a delay.

Paragraph 342 of the Overseas Territories report states:

"We conclude that the building of an airport and related infrastructure on St. Helena could be a significant step towards self-sufficiency for the Territory."

I am chairman of the all-party parliamentary Island of St. Helena group. The patron saint of Colchester is St. Helena—same spelling, different pronunciation. My wife, myself and our three children were all taught at St. Helena school in Colchester. That is the connection. Moreover, I have visited the island, which is more than any Minister has done at any stage in the 450 years that it has been under the Crown of England or Britain. The island was discovered by the Portuguese, but the English, being the English, found it subsequently and thought it would be better off under English and then British jurisdiction.

The islanders are a very proud people. There is a sense of disbelief and outrage at the way in which events have unfolded. The island is one of only three territories that are dependent on British aid. All the evidence points to the fact that the airport would quickly transform the island from being a net recipient of aid to being self-sufficient within a decade. Doing nothing is the Government's option C, and it is a very expensive option. Incidentally, I hope that the Committee will make a robust response to the consultation, stressing the valid points that have been made.

Although no Minister has ever visited the island, royalty has, as have various Members of Parliament. I find it remarkable that no Minister has thought it necessary to visit St. Helena. After all, Napoleon went there. One of the reasons why an airport would be very popular is that it would attract tourists from France as well as from this country and around the world. It is interesting, therefore, that no British Minister has been there.

It is worth contrasting St. Helena with the Falkland Islands in the south Atlantic. What a great pity that the Argentines did not invade St. Helena at the same time. Since the invasion, hundreds of millions of pounds have been invested in the Falkland Islands, but not in St. Helena. I am bound to observe that the resident population of the Falkland Islands, which is half the number of St. Helena, is predominantly, if not exclusively, white. The population of St. Helena is predominantly non-white. We have economic apartheid by this Government in two islands in the south Atlantic.

Following on from the points made by the hon. Members for Romford and for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) about the laying of wreaths, there are many young people from the island of St. Helena who serve in Her Majesty's armed forces. During the Falklands war, the islanders of St. Helena readily gave up the Royal Mail ship St. Helena, which was the only means of access to their island, so that it could sail to its fellow south Atlantic islands to assist in their liberation.

To the lasting shame of successive Governments, those who served on the RMS St. Helena have been denied the south Atlantic medal on the spurious grounds that the vessel was not in the exclusion zone for long enough. That is not their fault. They volunteered, they went down and were kept out of the exclusion zone. They should have had that medal; they should have had it 25 years ago. It is an absolute disgrace. It is small things such as that which cause outrage. We are talking here of three dozen medals. Surely, for goodness' sake, the British Government can give recognition, even after all these years, to people who went to help the British flag, the British Army, the British people, the British Navy, the British Air Force to liberate British people in the Falklands?

Option C in the consultation document—the do-nothing option—talks about providing alternative means either to keep the Royal Mail ship St. Helena going or chartering separate passenger and freight vessels, which will cost £20 million to £30 million. I am not sure whether that is per year or in total; it is a bit ambiguous. There are contradictions in the document: it states that the airport will cost £300 million or more, yet option A, on the front page, states that the approximate cost will be between £230 million and £260 million in the next five years. Even within this one document, the Government cannot keep to the same financial story.

The cost of subsidy in the next five years will be in the region of £100 million to £125 million. An airport would transform the island not only from being dependent on the British taxpayer so that it would be self-sufficient, but so that it would generate income of anything up to £33 million. The simple sums are that in five years, the island's self-sufficiency would pay for the cost of the airport. We could take the pessimistic view that it could take eight to 10 years, but we would at least have begun to move in the direction of self-sufficiency. None the less, within a maximum of 10 years, the construction of an airport on the island of St. Helena would make it self-sufficient so that it no longer required economic support from the mother country.

Incidentally, there was some confusion in the debate about the number of overseas territories. According to the Committee's report there are 14, but we could include the two dependencies of St. Helena, namely Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha. I hope that 16 would be the definitive measure.

Over the years, I have developed quite a file of parliamentary questions and reports of debates on the matter. In answer to a question I tabled as recently as 27 March, I was told that in the past 10 years, the total subsidy from the British taxpayer to St. Helena has been nearly £120 million. For the next four or five years, as I indicated, the subsidy will be between £100 and £125 million. One assumes that, over 10 years, that sum will double. What an extraordinary coincidence that the subsidy over 10 years is in the same ballpark as the cost of constructing the airport.

The population of St. Helena—this is borne out in the evidence taken by the Committee—is lopsided. The economic generators—the mums and dads—are departing from the island, leaving their children behind with aunts, uncles or grandparents, while they go and sustain Britain's interests on Ascension Island, in the Falklands or, sometimes, in the UK, because the incomes that can be paid on St. Helena are considerably less. When I went to St. Helena—admittedly, it was 10 years ago—one of the two police sergeants was just about to leave the island to work in the Falklands. He could earn more money as a toilet cleaner there than as a police sergeant on St. Helena. It cannot be right that because people in the Falklands earn far more, the population of St. Helena is made up of the elderly and young.

I will not go into the details of the report because time is pressing, but they are illuminating. I am more than happy to share my file with the Minister—I suspect that it is greater than her briefing because the material in it goes back many years.

The do-nothing option—option C—would create a serious concern about the serviceability of the current RMS St. Helena. The case for the airport is set out clearly in early-day motion 1113. There can be no moral justification for not accepting its argument. Without St. Helena, the British empire in India could not have gone ahead as it did. With the opening of the Suez canal, St. Helena's importance for the Indian subcontinent was no longer paramount, but the island was still crucial for the British empire in Africa. The island has been of more importance and for many more years than the Falkland Islands, which have been important only relatively recently.

If the Government spent on St. Helena just a tiny proportion of the money that they spend on the Falklands, it would transform the island, the population of which are the most deprived loyal British subjects in the world, into self-sufficiency. That could happen within a decade of the airport's being built. Equally importantly, it would mean that the island's population could be all-embracing in that it would no longer be made up predominantly of the young and elderly.

The Government have betrayed the people of St. Helena. What makes the situation even worse is that, until September, there was a hope and a belief that the Government were genuine, but they broke their word because, they said, of the changing world economic situation. There is no denying that there is a changing economic situation, but the construction of the airport would mean that St. Helena would not be dependent on British overseas aid. The economic argument is powerful and the moral argument is overpowering. I therefore urge the Government to take seriously what the Committee said and to do the right thing. They should build the airport without further delay.