HL Deb 09 March 1982 vol 428 cc177-93

6.54 p.m.

Lord McNair rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what are their plans for the future social and economic development of Pitcairn Island.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. May I begin by saying a collective word to all the participants in this debate? It may take some months before a full record of tonight's discussion reaches Pitcairn Island, but it will eventually, and I am sure the islanders will wish me on their behalf to thank all those of your Lordships who are staying on and giving your time to discuss their difficulties tonight.

I will try to condense the colourful story of the early years of this community into a bare minute or two. After the mutiny on the "Bounty", which took place on 27th April 1789, and after casting the captain adrift, the crew sailed the "Bounty" back to Tahiti under the command of Fletcher Christian. Over half of them decided to stay on Tahiti, a decision which at least three of them must have regretted, because they were eventually tried and executed for their part in the mutiny. We are not concerned with those who stayed in Tahiti, but with some of the descendants of the eight British sailors and six Polynesian men and 12 Polynesian women who sailed, again under Fletcher Christian, and, after several adventures, eventually settled on Pitcairn Island in 1790.

Perhaps at this stage I should explain where it is. I will not give the precise latitude and longitude because it might not mean any more to some of your Lordships than it would to me. But, roughly, if you sail from Australia to Chile along the Tropic of Capricorn, when you are about halfway you are within a few hundred miles of Pitcairn Island. It is a very long way from anywhere.

I now regret to have to tell your Lordships that, in the rather prim language of the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, treachery and debauchery filled the first years of the annals of the beautiful island. By 1800, all the men were dead, except Alexander Smith, afterwards known as John Adams. This John Adams appears to have been, as it were, the George Washington, the founding father, of what became and still is a profoundly peaceful and law-abiding community.

I think there is only one other incident in the first 190 years of our story which needs to be mentioned today, and that is that in 1856 the entire population of Pitcairn Island was moved to Norfolk Island, about 1,000 miles away. There are two aspects of this incident which seem significant this evening. First, the reason for this evacuation was that the population, at just under 200, was felt to be more than the two square-mile island could then support; secondly, one might ask why evacuate them all, why not just some of them? The answer seems to be that, even then in the mid-19th century, they were so wedded to the idea of democratic consensus decisions that it had to be everybody or nobody, all or nothing, and so they all went to Norfolk Island. However, Norfolk Island was not to the taste of all the Pitcairners, and pretty soon six families had made their way back to Pitcairn. So, it is the descendants of those six families who make up the bulk of the present population of the island.

The population grew again to well into three figures. But it has now declined to a fluctuating figure of around 50 or 60. At this very moment, I believe, there are only 45 people on the island, though they are looking forward to welcoming their new teacher with his wife and three children on Tuesday, which will bring the population back, of course, to 50.

In the hope that it will help us to concentrate our minds I shall offer an attempt at an analysis or description of the kind of problem that I think we are discussing. Pitcairn Island is a colony, a possession of the Crown with a community of Anglo-Polynesian descent for which we are firmly and inescapably responsible. Its population has fallen well below the optimum and almost certainly below the minimum level of viability. What courses of action are open to us, the colonial power?

I suggest that there are only two honourable policies that we can adopt. First, we could go to them and say, "We are sorry, but there are too few of you left to make a liveable life for yourselves here. You will have to go and we, of course, will help you to go wherever you wish". We could call that the policy of evacuation. The other possibility is to go to them and say, "Your numbers are dangerously low and we want to discuss with you what can be done to increase the population, to make life less arduous and less dangerous, to underpin the economy of the island and, thereby, to enable you to face the future with reasonable confidence. When we have worked out what needs to be done, we shall do it without delay". That could be called the policy of restoration.

However, there is a third possibility which the House will unanimously reject and which I only mention because it is the sort of policy into which it is all too easy to drift without ever intending to do so and, that is the policy of playing for time, of dragging out discussions, and delaying decisions while the situation on the island deteriorates from had, to worse, to desperate, until the time comes when there is no alternative but to evacuate the few survivors. It is really to ensure that we do not fall into that grievous error that I have brought this matter before the House this evening.

As I see it, the key to the problem of the viability of Pitcairn lies in increasing the population and especially the able-bodied manpower and woman power on the island. If I am right, we then have to ask ourselves why their numbers have fallen so low. Although in this case there are certain special features, it is really the familiar story of the depopulation of inconvenient and inaccessible places where there are few opportunities and few attractions to young people who have to leave in order to obtain further education, and there are few reasons to attract them back. They are among the victims of the technological revolution of the last 100 years from which they have hardly benefitted at all. What we are pleased to call progress for them has been an almost unmitigated setback. To borrow a metaphor from ecomonics—the terms of trade have turned against them.

The worst damage to their way of life has come, I think, from the drastic changes in the whole pattern of world shipping. Visits from sealers and whalers are a thing of the past. Passenger liners which used to heave to for a while enabling the islanders to row out with their woven or carved handicrafts, and which frequently used to carry a doctor, are now few and all too often when one does pass all it does is to slow down in a tantalising way in order to give the passengers a good view of the islanders, but not to permit any trading or contact. To make it worse, it seems now to have been decreed by the London Shipping Conference that no outward bound ship going from here to New Zealand can stop at Pitcairn: only homeward bound ships can do so and the reason for that, frankly, I do not understand.

Perhaps I should make it clear at this stage; if I have not already done so, that of the two possible approaches which I mentioned—evacuation or restoration—I emphatically reject the former and for two reasons. The first reason is that the islanders themselves reject it. The second reason is that I believe that by taking a relatively few relatively simple measures we could enable the population to climb back to a figure of about 100 or 120 which may, under present circumstances, be about the optimum. Among those measures first must come communications.

We try to administer Pitcairn Island through our High Commissioner in New Zealand under whom, in the other island of that country, there is an officer known to the Pitcairn islanders as "The Administrator ". He communicates with the island by a radio link which still in 1982 is confined to morse code. I believe that a voice link is being established and I very much hope that the noble Lord will be able to tell us something about progress in this direction. However, I should like to ask whether I am right in thinking that, even when the voice link is established, it will still only enable the islanders to speak to the administrator and will leave them still without any regular communication with the world at large.

Continuing with communications, one must mention the highly problematical jetty. No ship can sail into Bounty Bay. All goods have to be off-loaded on to the islanders' own boats and then on to the jetty. I understand that at present the jetty is in need of repair and I hope that perhaps some later speakers will go into this matter in more detail.

What about communication by air? There has been much discussion of the possible construction of an airstrip on which light aircraft could land. In fact at about this time last year there was an unofficial referendum on Pitcairn Island with a turnout of 91.6 per cent. of the adult population, which means that 33 people expressed their opinion. I believe that 20 of them were in favour of an airstrip. It would take two or three years to construct and it would be expensive. But above all it would use up a great deal of the precious garden land on which the islanders largely live. So I prefer the alternative, which I do not think was put to them in their consultation, of an amphibious plane, if one can still be found, or better still of a helicopter if there is one of sufficient range.

A regular airlink would bring with it the fringe benefit of permitting a very modest amount of tourism. The simple life, such as is lived on Pitcairn Island, where people live very largely off their gardens, makes a strong appeal nowadays to quite a lot of people. If only access could be made reliable and regular it would make possible visitation from the outside world and possibly even limited immigration.

I have been on my feet too long for your Lordships' comfort and I have left out a great deal of what I would have liked to have said. I have not mentioned philately, which is very important to the island's economy. I have not described the grave medical problems which these islanders face, and I am very conscious that I have not given your Lordships any clear picture of the rugged, simple, self-reliant way in which they live from day to day. But there are other speakers who I hope will repair some of my omissions.

Perhaps I may sum up what I have said in this way. I suggest that a colonial power, which means us, has an inescapable duty to provide communication with its colony. Because of their remoteness and their romantic history, Pitcairn islanders have a host of friends all over the world. If we can supply this essential infrastructure, I believe that the islanders and their friends could, as it were, put a little butter on the bread. But time is running out very fast, and I am hoping that the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, will be able to convince the House that the Government are treating this admittedly small and peripheral problem as one of the greatest urgency for the people concerned.

7.11 p.m.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we are indebted to the noble Lord, Lord McNair, for enabling us to have this short debate on Pitcairn Island. I, myself, am an islander and I think that islands have a special fascination for everyone. On one occasion over 20 years ago I had the good fortune to spend about six weeks on St. Helena—and the good fortune to be allowed to return to this country! I was the first Member of Parliament to visit that lovely and lonely island. St. Helena has something in common with Pitcairn; it has an equable climate all the year round, but it is not quite so inaccessible and it has a much larger population.

The noble Lord, Lord McNair, in his admirable speech has covered the ground thoroughly, and I shall try, very briefly, to underline some of the main points which he made. The problems of Pitcairn appear to relate to the fact that it is a very small island; that it is a volcanic island; that it is very remote; and that very few people remain there. As the noble Lord said, there it stands, a pinpoint in the sea mid-way between Panama and New Zealand, and 1,350 miles east-southeast of Tahiti, with a population of 61 people, most of them descendants of the famous Fletcher Christian of HMS "Bounty".

It is a British settlement under the British Settlements Act 1887, although I understand that the islanders count their recognition as a colony from 1838, when Captain Elliot of HMS "Fly" gave them a constitution with universal adult suffrage and a code of law. They were well in advance of us at that time. The responsibility for administering Pitcairn is in the hands of the British High Commission in Wellington in New Zealand, and the hardy islanders live mainly by subsistence farming and fishing. As the noble Lord, Lord McNair, has just reminded us, their revenue is derived mainly from the sale of postage stamps. These small islands, these remnants of the British Empire, are much indebted to philatelists. It is also worth pointing out on Budget Day that there is no taxation on Pitcairn. No doubt there are moments when noble Lords feel like taking the next boat and sailing there without delay, notwithstanding the disadvantages.

I have been provided with a helpful note about Pitcairn Island and its problems which has been prepared by Mr. Glynn Christian, a direct descendant of Fletcher Christian, in which he has outlined the difficulties facing the inhabitants of this distant British outpost. For British it undoubtedly is, and it is this country's responsiblity to ensure that its people are given all reasonable assistance. As the noble Lord has pointed out, the ships which once called there in substantial numbers, sail there no more. The islanders are fortunate to see as many as three supply ships a year.

The implications of this are clearly profound in terms of education, medical care, especially in emergencies, and keeping family contact. The allegation that I have heard is that the islanders believe that they are being neglected and that pledges made to them by Her Majesty's Government are not being fulfilled. This is a point with which I hope the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, will deal when he winds up the debate.

The islanders' wooden boats, for example, on which they depend so much—fishing being an important part of their livelihood—are deteriorating; communications are appalling; as the noble Lord has said you cannot telephone Pitcairn Island, and they say that appeals for help are ignored. How true are these allegations? Furthermore, can the noble Lord the Minister say what is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's method of communicating with Pitcairn at the present time? How often do his officials hear from Pitcairn Island? How long do messages take to come through? I assume that they come via the High Commissioner in Wellington. Can something not be done to improve this and to bring the islanders in touch with the outside world, say, by the installation of a more modern system of communication? I do not think—and here I agree with the noble Lord, Lord McNair—that the Morse Code telegraph is good enough in this day and age. I believe that there is some contact by ham radio, but this is uncertain and undependable and, in any event, is a private arrangement. The only resident of Pitcairn Island who can operate the ham radio on the Island is, I understand, now away for some time.

Furthermore, can the Minister say what are the prospects of replacing the old boats to which I have referred with new metal boats designed for the purpose? These experienced sailors of Pitcairn are sailing into one of the world's most dangerous harbours and they deserve our attention. The new and narrowed harbour entrance, following the construction of the jetty, is known to be dangerous because of the powerful whirlpool which flows there. Is it true that they have been waiting for two years for explosives to clear the entrance? To what extent is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office responsible for this delay? As I myself once had the privilege of being a Minister in the noble Lord's department, I should not like to think that anyone in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was responsible for negligence of this kind. But there is the allegation and I think that the noble Lord will wish to deal with the charge.

Again, can the Minister state the position of British registered ships passing Pitcairn? As the noble Lord has said, it is alleged that they slow down to allow passengers to take a look at Pitcairn Island, but they do not stop, even to deliver the mail. But other foreign ships—for example, Scandinavian ships—do stop, and do deliver the mail. That, again, is a serious allegation. Is this substantiated and will the Minister be good enough to comment on this when he replies?

Then I come to the other important point to which the noble Lord referred—that is, the rather more ambitious possibility that an airstrip should be built there. The Royal Engineers, who were responsible for building the jetty on Bounty Bay, I believe made a study of the possibility of an airstrip there. Perhaps the noble Lord will be good enough to comment on that and upon the study, and to say what conclusion the Foreign and Commonwealth Office reached about it.

Yet another suggestion is that a satellite tracking station might be installed on Pitcairn Island. I think that the islanders deserve to have all these proposals carefully considered, including the new proposals—new to me at least—made by the noble Lord, of the possibility of an amphibious plane or a long-distance helicopter also being taken into account.

The noble Lord pointed to three possibilities for the islanders. First evacuation, which he dismissed, as I do, because the important thing that Her Majesty's Government must do is to take account of the wishes of the islanders themselves. Secondly, the noble Lord referred to the possibility of restoration. That is what they would like to see. Thirdly, there is the other possibility of playing for time, which in my view is undesirable. Another way of posing the question—and this is one which Mr. Glynn Christian himself has put in his notes to me—is whether Her Majesty's Government are really interested in continuing the British contact with Pitcairn at all.

Now, one understands that the British Government might take account of the fact that this island is very far away indeed, and there is very little we can do for them. Is it possible that the Norfolk Islands, with whom they have had an old contact, or New Zealand or Australia might in practice prove to be more effective partners in this day and age than the United Kingdom? Can the Minister say whether this has been under consideration and whether there have been talks with Australia and New Zealand, or the Norfolk Island authorities, on this possibility?

Pitcairn, this far flung reminder of other days, is our clear responsibility, and I am sure that your Lordships would wish that we should either treat them properly and honourably or see to it that some other arrangement beneficial to them is arrived at. I hope, therefore, that this short debate will help to clarify the island's position and give the islanders some hope of a more assured future.

7.22 p.m.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, if we were legislating I should have to declare an interest, but even though we are not I shall tell your Lordships about it. A great many of those present tonight can remember, as I can, even if they were small children the coronation of King George VI. At that time I remember the door of my father's house in London opening and my Pitcairn cousins coming in. They seemed to me very large, which was natural because I was very small, and very numerous, which was natural because it was a small house and I think there were seven or eight of them, and very black, which was also natural because I think they were the only coloured people I had at that time seen in my family's house in London.

They were the descendants of one of the mutineers, who was perhaps Fletcher Christian's right-hand man, called Edward Young, a sailor. They had come to visit their remote cousins in the house of my father, Edward Young. Therefore, that gives me a link. I dearly wish it could have been kept up and that by some means I could have gone there to visit them, or by some means they could have got here to visit us in another generation. Sometimes one talks of one world, or a small world, or the world village, but it is not true even within the Commonwealth.

There they are, living on the proceeds of stamps made for them in other countries and sold for them by people in other countries to people in other countries, and the proceeds are remitted to them. They till the soil a little, and they fish—and that is not very easy—and their only verbal contact with the outside world is by ham radio as the noble Lord, Lord McNair, pointed out. They rely on this not only for human contact, not only for small news, but for more than that.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, I must express my indebtedness to Mr. Glynn Christian for the information which we all of us have received before this debate. I have heard that a ham radio operator—I forget whether it was in California or in Western Chile—was having a talk with his contact on Pitcairn. At one time having opened the communication he learnt that his contact's wife was in labour and was in difficulty. He therefore got a doctor to his own transmitter in the Americas and step by step, in response to descriptions from the Pitcairn islander, the doctor was able to instruct him how to deliver his child. That is the daily reality, or yearly reality, of life there and it is probably not the situation of many people in the world today. We are dealing with the most cut off perhaps of the whole human race.

Many hopeful proposals have been put forward. I want to add only two, and the first is to do with the question of seaborne communications. We have these three official ships a year, and a number of other unofficial ships which just choose to stop off presumably because they are so small that they do not lose their owners very much money by making an unscheduled stop. It is a rotten way to live. I should have thought that it would have been part of the post-imperial duty and Commonwealth duty, or even the human duty, for this country to exercise whatever influence it can exercise to get more regular calls and also to do something about freight rates.

I dare say that the Government can tell us something about this. It appears to be the case that the freight rates from New Zealand and Australia eastbound to Pitcairn are so high that it costs the islanders more to get goods delivered that way than it does to get them delivered from Britain on the unspeakably rare occasions when a ship outward bound from Britain calls there. If this is true it seems absurd, and through all the morass of international commercial regulations which exists I feel certain that a benevolent government could pick a way to get those freight rates lowered.

The second notion I should like to put forward is one about the viability of which I have no idea. It may be completely offside. We know that, in the satellite age, tracking stations happen to be convenient in the most out of the way places. I do not know whether there is any need for a satellite tracking station in the wastes of the South Pacific at about that latitude, but if there were it would seem to me a justifiable object of benevolent Government expenditure to put it on Pitcairn even if it costs a little more than putting it somewhe else within a couple of thousand miles of that forgotten spot.

On the question of the political future of the island, we have to look in perspective at the few remaining spots on the globe which belong to us as a whole. We start at the top of the list. There is Hong Kong, and nobody is going to forget Hong Kong. I do not know the population size, but then there are a couple of places that we are not going to forget either; Gibraltar and Bermuda. They hit the headlines from time to time. We all know where they are. We all know what they want, and policy towards them and their possible independence, or whatever arrangement comes about, is considered publicly and will no doubt be decided publicly by Parliament.

Further down the line we have a decreasing number of what we might call middle-sized micro states. The Virgin Islands, I suppose, the most conspicuous one now that Antigua is an independent country. Further down the line again is St. Helena, which the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, has had the good fortune to visit. The Falkland Islands we are not likely to forget for another reason altogether. Then Pitcairn with only 45, and beyond that, as I conceive, nothing but lighthouse keepers and scientists wintering.

Yesterday I went to the Commonwealth Day observance—I must not call it a service—in Westminster Abbey. It was called an observance because it was not only interdenominational; it was not only ecumenical; it was something I had not expected to live to see. At it we heard the praises of Allah chanted in both English and Arabic from the High Altar of Westminster Abbey, and readings from the Bhagavad-Gita, from the Buddhist scriptures, readings by a holy man from the Sikh religion in Punjabi and in England, not to mention the rabbi, who was more familiar to us, and of course Christian priests of all stripes. Going out there were 46 flags and, among the last four or six, I noticed the smallest nation states now in the Commonwealth, Caribbean islands.

I wonder whether in our lifetime that procession will ever go so far as to have the Pitcairn flag at the end of it and, if so, what sort of a Commonwealth it will be which can support such an obviously unviable proposition as 45 or 50 people 120 miles from the next land and about 1,000 miles from the next inhabited land. I do not feel on hunch at all confident about handing over the administration to any other country in the Commonwealth. It is extraordinarily inconvenient for anybody to have to look after so few people so far away, and it would seem to me hardly less inconvenient for Australia or New Zealand than for Britain to do so.

I am really not in a position to suggest anything very definite, but I hope that this debate will fortify the Government in what I am sure is their existing resolve—namely, not to allow the fate of these people to be settled by an absence of thought. The British Empire may have been acquired in a fit of absence of mind. I do not think it can be said that any of it has been dispensed with in a fit of absence of mind, but a lot of it has been dispensed with in the absence of public discussion, and I believe strongly that these last and smallest islands should not go the way some of the others have and that more care should be taken.

7.32 p.m.

Lord Greenway

My Lords, I, too, wish to thank the noble Lord, Lord McNair, for asking this Question this evening. I shall direct my remarks towards the subject of the replacement of the Pitcairn longboats, about which we heard a little from the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, and at the end I shall have a little to say about communications. At present, the islanders have only two serviceable boats left, and they remain in service only through cannibalisation of the older ones. They are—or at least they were when new—sturdy 34-footers, built to a double-ended whaler pattern and reputedly based on a boat sent to the island by Queen Victoria as a gift. Originally they were propelled by 14 oars, but diesel engines have since been fitted.

I believe the decision was taken on the island to build a new boat, but unfortunately the timber for its construction was lost overboard from the ship bringing it from New Zealand and now there is not enough manpower available, nor the time, to do the job. I understand that a new engine is supposed to arrive at the island at any moment, but an engine is no use without a boat in which to put it. The two existing boats are already in a dangerous state of repair and it is only a matter of time before their seaworthiness is affected. Noble Lords will see, therefore, that the replacement of these craft, which are absolutely vital to the Pitcairn islanders for bringing their supplies in from passing merchant ships, has become a matter of some urgency.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, mentioned the difficulties that abound with the landing, and the possibility of the Government helping with the supply of some new metal boats. I have a suggestion for the Government. It is that they take note of what has been done and still is being done in the sphere of rigid inflatables. These are craft, with a rigid hull and two inflatable side pieces. Your Lordships will probably be well aware of them because they are widely used today around our coasts by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. They have been extremely successful, and larger designs, such as the 35-foot Medina and the Pacific range made by Osborne Rescue Boats, exist and are still undergoing evaluation. Their advantage is that they are light, seaworthy and highly manoeuvrable and they can be handled by only two or three men. Capable of carrying considerable loads, they have the added advantage, due to their type of construction, that the greater the load the greater the stability.

I hope the Government will address themselves to the problem and will look at the designs to see if perhaps a somewhat less sophisticated version than those required, for instance, for lifeboats here could be adapted to suit the purposes of the Pitcairn islanders. I realise that in the end it is the islanders themselves who must make the choice for, after all, it is they who have to use the boats—but I urge the Government at least to communicate to the islanders the different designs and possibilities available to them and, more importantly, when they have chosen a design, to see that suitable expertise is provided to teach the islanders how to deal with what will be to them new materials such as aluminium or fibreglass.

Noble Lords have touched on the problems of communication. It is a fact that far fewer ships call at Pitcairn these days. As the noble Lord, Lord McNair, said, this is due to the revolution that has taken place in shipping over the last 15 years, by which I mean the container revolution. The modern container ship displaces 30 or 40 conventional-type ships, and for that reason we have many fewer ships calling at Pitcairn than we did in the past. The noble Lord, Lord McNair, mentioned that southbound ships do not call at Pitcairn any more. The reason for that is possibly that the route from Panama of the container ships goes direct to Australia and not to New Zealand first, and they leave New Zealand as their last port of call when coming home, hence their being able to call there only on their way home.

I was a little worried that, container ships being what they are and not having any suitable lifting gear on them, they would not be suitable for dropping small parcels of stores off at Pitcairn. I am happy to say that I was reassured on that point today when I spoke to one of our leading shipping consortiums, and they assured me that two of their ships had called at Pitcairn recently, once to drop a small parcel of supplies and on another occasion to lift off a sick woman.

On the question of ships passing the island and not stopping, the Government could possibly help. I think it would be of advantage to the islanders if they were provided with two small VHF (very high frequency) sets of the type that I and many others use today in sailing yachts around our coasts. They are small, compact and very easy to use, and would provide the islanders with the means of communicating with passing ships, so that if they were in dire need of anything they could communicate that need to a ship passing, and I do not think it would be too difficult for ships to be advised to maintain a listening watch on a certain frequency when passing the island. Such sets would have the added advantage that they could be used by the islanders for communication between their own boats when they were out fishing or loading supplies, and with the island itself.

Before finally leaving the question of communications, there is a further possibility which I feel I should mention, and that concerns an American gentleman on the West coast of America, at a place called Sausalito, who has a fleet of four sailing trading schooners. This man believes that he can compete successfully with modern ships in the Pacific area, and I was wondering whether the Government could not see their way to helping the Pitcairn islanders perhaps to buy a share in one of these schooners. In that case, they could perhaps have a hand in their own destiny, in their own supply, as it were, and it would also give some of their young men an opportunity to do something worthwhile.

My Lords, I have here in my hand—I hope that I am not out of order—a small nail, a seemingly ordinary brass nail. This nail is in fact a very well-travelled nail. It comes from the wreck of HMS "Bounty". I hope that, as a result of Lord McNair's Question tonight, it will be bounty, not necessarily pecuniary bounty—because we all know that money is scarce—but bounty of advice and expertise that the Government will feel able to provide to the immensely loyal people of Pitcairn Island, and in so doing make up for the apparent deprivations of the islanders over the past 25 years.

7.42 p.m.

Lord Auckland

My Lords, from these Benches I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord McNair, not only on initiating this very important discussion, but on his most interesting and informative speech. New Zealand has been mentioned. My wife and I spent a month in the North Island of New Zealand in 1971 on an official visit. It did not involve anything to do with Pitcairn Island, but had we then known about it, we should certainly have made further inquiries. I am also a member of the New Zealand Society, and I hope that the society reads this debate—or I shall see that they do—with the very greatest of interest, since quite clearly New Zealand must have a considerable interest in this island.

The only information which I have gleaned is from Whitaker's Almanack, which, strangely enough, gives quite a comprehensive survey and information about the island, about the farming, fishing and handicrafts that are practised there. I read that there is a resident district nurse on the island, but, if a surgeon is to visit the island, he or she has to rely on a passing ship, and those of your Lordships who have already spoken, and who have studied more than I have the problems of the island, have already stressed the fact that ships pass at very infrequent intervals. District nurses are very competent people indeed, but they may not be able to cope with a major illness if there should he a very grave emergency on the island. I do not know whether my noble friend has any information as to whether there are plans to have a resident doctor on the island as well, particularly if the population increases over the next few years, as I think most people hope it will.

On the question of assistance, can my noble friend tell me—I have not managed to give him advance warning of the question—whether the Commonwealth Development Finance Corporation is in a position to give some form of aid? It need not necessarily be in cash. It could be in the form of advice to the islanders to develop their farming and agriculture still further, as well as any other aid that can be given. As I understand it, the island is still technically under British rule. As has been mentioned by other noble Lords, our High Commissioner in Wellington presides over the island—if that is the right way of describing it.

I should like to ask what communication there is between Her Majesty's Government and our High Commission in Wellington over the administration of the island, with a view to pooling or suggesting any ideas as to how the lot of the islanders can be improved I have read that there is an intention—or at least some hope—to develop tourism, but of course it would have to be possible to land people on the island, and, as has been said, there is no airstrip. I do not know whether it would be possible to operate if not a helicopter, some kind of hydrofoil to land people on the island, which seems to be an excellent haven for escaping not only from the Budget, but from other parliamentary problems which this country has suffered over the years. But of course it would not be mainly British people who would go as tourists; presumably it would be New Zealanders and Australians.

Finally, I should like to ask my noble friend to bear in mind that there is considerable interest in this part of the world and in these islands. Pitcairn Island, with its historical links with Captain Christian, is a place in which we should have an interest. I hope that my noble friend will be able to answer some of these points and that the Government will take serious note of the Question that the noble Lord, Lord McNair, has tabled this evening.

7.48 p.m.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNair, for his remarks this evening and for the opportunity that he has given for your Lordships to discuss this matter and for me to give the Government reply.

In looking at the future of Pitcairn, it may help if I give some details about the present conditions of the island and its inhabitants. It will, I think, serve to demonstrate that there are many strengths in the present economic and cultural life in this little island which enable the small community to look to the future with more confidence than might otherwise have been the case.

Pitcairn's population has always been small, and indeed is small today, though perhaps I should point out that it is still nearly twice the size of the group from the "Bounty" who first settled there. But who are these inhabitants of this remote island, how do they live, and what do they think about their way of life? Well, they consider themselves, firstly, and most importantly, to be Pitcairners. They are very proud of their heritage, and they are staunchly independent. The islanders' working lives are a balance of communal and individual activities. Their communal activities, which they call "public work", are in working together to repair roads or the longboats, and, when the weather permits, in undertaking joint fishing expeditions, while their individual pursuits include the cultivation of their small holdings, and carving curios for sale to the passengers and crews of passing ships and yachts. Some members of the community are also involved in the island's administration, in shopkeeping, and in philately work.

While the islanders' life is essentially a hardy one, they have also chosen to take advantage of many modern conveniences: almost all of them have refrigerators, many have deep-freezes, and the younger generation, I understand, have their stereo systems. Pitcairners, like other people, seek to obtain those labour-saving devices which best suit their way of life, and their standard of living has shown a continuing and steady improvement.

Although their material standard of living is important to the islanders, they also attach importance to social welfare and education. For example, medical facilities on the island more than meet the Pitcairners' everyday needs. A registered nurse, resident on the island, is responsible for the medical care of the islanders. She has at her disposal a well-equipped dispensary with an X-ray unit, a modern hospital bed, a diathermy unit, a small medical library and a full range of drugs and medicines appropriate to a facility of this nature. If the nurse requires outside advice she seeks it, depending on the circumstances and the degree of urgency, by a telegraph enquiry to Auckland or by amateur radio services. If the patient requires treatment not available on the island, evacuation to New Zealand or French Polynesia is arranged.

The education of their children is also of importance to the Pitcairners. Primary education is provided on the island by a teacher on secondment. At present there are six boys and four girls attending school, and they will be joined next term by two others. Although the community is too small for secondary and tertiary education to be provided on the island, arrangements are made for secondary-age students to study in New Zealand.

I referred earlier to the Pitcairners' independent spirit. This is perhaps best illustrated by describing how they manage their finances. The bulk of their income is earned by their world-famous stamp issues, while private income is generated by the sale of handicrafts. Expenditure is mostly on general maintenance costs for communal facilities and the importation of fuel and manufactured goods. However, so efficiently do they handle their finances that the 1981–82 budget surplus is likely to be of the order of £100,000. What is more, this excellent example of financial management has been a feature of the Pitcairn economy for many years. Surpluses have been carefully invested, and their investment portfolio now has a current market value of three-quarters of a million pounds.

These funds are occasionally called upon by the Pitcairners to enable them to undertake specific schemes. But although the islanders are financially independent, they are by no means ignored by Her Majesty's Government. In the past, aid has been granted on an ad hoc basis for major projects. For example, in 1977 over £47,000 was granted to finance the construction of a jetty, which was carried out for the Pitcairners by a team of Royal Engineers. As Pitcairn is a dependency, we are, of course, always willing to consider requests for aid, and some possible projects are under study.

Of course, the present constraints on our overseas aid programme mean that all proposals for official assistance are subject to careful scrutiny and must compete for priority with other claims, bearing in mind comparative levels of wealth per capita. I make that point because, of course, your Lordships will know that an important feature of our present aid programme is that we seek to concentrate our limited resources upon providing for the needs of the poorest countries, and I am not certain that Pitcairn would qualify under that particular criterion; but, of course, there are others as well.

My noble friend Lord Auckland referred o the possibility of the Commonwealth Development Corporation's services being used in Pitcairn. I am speaking from memory here, but I seem to recall that the facilities of the CDC are normally provided on a loan basis, albeit sometimes on a soft loan basis, and I am not certain that these facilities would be appropriate in the case of Pitcairn Islands. But I will certainly bear in mind what my noble friend has said.

I think that my description of the social and economic fabric of Pitcairn will have given the picture of a community of what seem to me hardy and thrifty people, consciously choosing their way of life and what they want from it. There is no doubt that the major question for the future of Pitcairn is that of the level of population. The population reached a peak of 233 in 1973, which must have been about the time that the relations of the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, came to call on him, but has since undergone a slow but significant decline to its present level. Although the people who live there do so very much by choice, there will inevitably be some who, perhaps after secondary schooling and studies in New Zealand, choose to make their life in New Zealand, or elsewhere, rather than return to Pitcairn. That is a choice which, of course, they should be free to make. It does, however, raise the question of what happens if the population declines further, and this problem is of growing concern, not only to the Pitcairners themselves but also to those of us who know and care for the people of that island.

An important factor for the Pitcairners in this is to continue to be able effectively to man the longboats, about which I will say more in a moment. But this question of population is essentially a matter for the islanders themselves to decide upon. It might be suggested—indeed, it has been suggested this evening—that a repopulation scheme be implemented. But in this context it should be borne in mind that the islanders' own residence rules are such as to preclude most potential settlers. These immigration regulations reflect the wish of the Pitcairners to retain their separate identity and also avoid the possibility that undesirables might go and settle there. Although some have criticised this insular policy, one can well understand that in such a small, tightly-knit and co-operative community immigration must be a highly sensitive matter for the islanders; and in the final analysis it is for the Pitcairners to agree among themselves how the problem of repopulation should be solved.

Although the declining population is of concern, there are other difficulties which the islanders face and in which we take an active interest. One of these problems is how to ensure a regular supply of goods to the island—a matter which has been touched on by, I think, almost every noble Lord who has spoken this evening. The islanders place heavy emphasis, for the maintenance of their present standard of living, on receiving manufactured goods by ship. Unfortunately, the changing pattern of world shipping, the virtual disappearance of passenger liners and the increased use of containerised ships has progressively reduced the frequency of shipping services passing near Pitcairn, and, indeed, many of those ships that might be able to call at Pitcairn do not now have the necessary deck gear to allow unloading while standing off the island, necessary because there is no deep-water harbour.

I have been asked why supply ships are not more readily available from the United Kingdom. In fact, experience has shown that it is easier to arrange supplies through the Commissioner for Pitcairn in Aukland. South-bound vessels on the United Kingdom/New Zealand route are assisted by the westerly currents 1,000 miles to the north of Pitcairn, which naturally they prefer to take advantage of, and this is one reason why vessels are very reluctant to divert from their route to call at Pitcairn. But the difficulties are less serious on the north-bound route, which is why the ships tend to come in that direction.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennett, asked about the difference between freight charges out of the United Kingdom and out of New Zealand. I am informed that the difference between north-bound and south-bound rates is in fact minimal. The total freight shipped annually to Pitcairn is actually about 75 tons, so your Lordships can appreciate that it is not exactly a gold mine for any shipping line concerned.

In 1981, however, 23 ships and eight yachts made calls ranging in duration from an hour or so to several days, but it was only possible to arrange for two actual supply vessels to call. However, I am very pleased to say that already in 1982 we have arranged for two supply ships to call at Pitcairn, and I am reliably informed that the islanders are not short of any supplies. Indeed, lest this matter be seen out of proportion, I think I should say that, in addition to the keeping of good stocks on the island, the good management of those supplies serves to provide the islanders well with their needs and in normal circumstances one supply ship calling every few months or so will probably be sufficient. We shall continue to make every effort to ensure that sufficient supply ships call at Pitcairn to cater for the islanders' needs.

As I have already mentioned, ships calling at Pitcairn have to stand off the island while cargoes are transferred into longboats. The existing longboats are made of wood but one, at least, is coming to the end of its useful life; and the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, referred to this. Following consultations between the Island Council and a naval architect, an aluminium replacement launch has been designed and the construction drawings are under way, When the drawings are completed, tenders will be called for and submitted to the Island Council for a decision on the purchase of an aluminium launch. I take note of what the noble Lord was saying about other types of vessel which doubtless the islanders will want to consider as well.

Other forms of communication with the outside world are, of course, also very important to the islanders. At the moment day-to-day communications are conducted by Morse telegraph. This system enables the island radio operator to contact the Commissoner, who is in Auckland, and the operator has fulfilled this role well. However, as at least one noble Lord has said, it is now a somewhat outdated means of communication and I am pleased to say that the island Commissioner will, with the assistance of the New Zealand Post Office, make arrangements early next month for the supply of new equipment which will provide direct voice-to-voice contact. The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, referred to the absence of telephones. I fear that it is the case that there is no telephone service to the island; but that will be hard to justify with the present modest populaton there.

The islanders also enjoy, as has been referred to by numerous noble Lords, amateur "ham" radio contact with numerous operators in various parts of the world, some of whom are based in the United Kingdom. This enables the island to keep in touch with the outside world on a more informal basis than would otherwise be possible.

I have been asked about proposals for an air strip, for a seaplane service and for a helicopter service. Most, if not all, of these proposals are contained in the ideas that Mr. Christian has recently put forward and which several noble Lords have received. I understand that these proposals will be put to the islanders in the not too distant future and their views taken on them. The Government will stand ready to consider what we can do to help in the light of the islanders' reactions to the proposals.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, asked about the use of explosives for clearing the harbour mouth. There is a stock of dynamite on the island, so that I hope this will not present a problem. One or two noble Lords referred to the possibility of a tracking station being constructed on the island. So far as the British Government are concerned, I have to say that we have no requirement for such a station, but it may be that others do and that is a matter for the islanders to consider. I understand that it is part of one of the proposals contained in the package they are to consider.

I hope that I have been able to illustrate how this tiny but self-contained community is, in general, well equipped to look after itself, but that when Her Majesty's Government's help is needed it is readily given. In doing so, we endeavour to work with the Pitcairners in the way which fits best with their of way life. I think it is important that we all, whether as Government or as other people and organisations showing an interest for the Pitcairners, avoid the temptation, however well intentioned, to attempt to impose external solutions on this unique society. These people are self-reliant, strong in character and, as so often in the past, have demonstrated their clear ability to guard their heritage. Today Pitcairners are as able to decide their future as were their famous ancestors. They have the added advantage of knowing that we stand ready to help them in shaping the future that they envisage for themselves.