HC Deb 20 June 2000 vol 352 cc148-9
9. Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester)

What plans he has to visit the island of St. Helena to mark the 500th anniversary of its discovery. [125212]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. John Battle)

Regrettably—I am tempted to say—I have no current plans to visit St. Helena.

Hon. Members

Why not?

Mr. Russell

I invite the Minister to think again. I am advised that no Minister has ever visited St. Helena, and that the party on 21 May 2002 will be a good one. Does the Minister agree that the Government should be represented—and that it would be even better to deliver the news that citizenship had been restored?

Mr. Battle

The hon. Gentleman chairs the all-party St. Helena group—I understand that he takes an interest because St. Helena is the patron saint of his constituency. However, it takes about seven days by boat to get to St. Helena, and seven days to get back. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hooray."] I will not volunteer to be sent; indeed, I am not so presumptuous as to book now for a passage in May 2002. We are co-operating in supporting the celebrations. The Foreign Office is contributing towards a new museum and national archive that will be completed in time for the anniversary, and I know that that is welcomed.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East)

I am sure the Minister knows that one famous person who went to St. Helena never returned. I have a suspicion that that person was poisoned by the people looking after him—but I am sure that the food has improved greatly since then. I am certain that St. Helena and many other British dependent territories are awaiting publication of a Bill to give them UK citizenship. When will such a Bill appear?

Mr. Battle

My hon. Friend raises a serious point. Under the British Nationality Act 1981, most St. Helenians are British dependent territories citizens, but they believe that they have a special claim to British citizenship. Preparations for an overseas territories Bill are well advanced, and we hope to make a slot available in the legislative timetable as soon as possible. Such legislation would affect all overseas territories—there are no special circumstances affecting St. Helena that would justify a separate Bill. We are working energetically on the legislation, and will meet all our commitments to the overseas territories.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I was about to suggest that the Minister should take the boat journey to St. Helena, so as to understand something of the sense of remoteness that the people of that island feel. But as it is not the wish of the House to give the Minister a prolonged holiday, what steps are the Government taking to minimise St. Helena's isolation and improve its communications?

Mr. Battle

St. Helena is remote, and access is mainly through passing ships that call in. There have been problems with its economic restructuring, but as a result of the efforts of both Governments, employment projects—by encouraging people to come here—have helped to reduce unemployment in St. Helena. We keep in close touch through our high commission, and get to St. Helena when we can. If any hon. Members would like to visit the island, we will happily make sure that they have a safe passage.

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