HL Deb 01 February 1994 vol 551 cc1241-58

6.22 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they propose to take to ensure greater access by the people of St. Helena to training and work in the United Kingdom.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg leave to ask Her Majesty's Government the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

This is the first time your Lordships have debated the affairs of St. Helena since the noble Lord, Lord Buxton, whom I am delighted to see is to speak again tonight, asked another Unstarred Question exactly 10 years ago.

I hope your Lordships will forgive a little explanation here, because, although I know that most noble Lords in this Chamber will know quite a lot about St. Helena, certainly all your Lordships who are to take part in the debate, if you ask someone in the street about St. Helena you will find a great deal of mystification over exactly where it is. So for the benefit of Hansard perhaps I could start off by giving one or two facts. St. Helena is a dependent territory of the United Kingdom and has itself two associated territories, Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha to which the present admirable and hard-working Governor of St. Helena, who is himself married to a St. Helenian is at present on his way for his annual visit, Tristan da Cunha being even more isolated than St. Helena.

St. Helena has roughly 6,000 inhabitants, all of whom look to the United Kingdom as their mother country. Their ancestors came and settled in an island which had no aboriginal inhabitants and whose immigrating inhabitants had been guaranteed British citizenship by a charter of Charles II in 1673. Unlike almost every other dependent territory, it has no culture except British culture and their own adaptation of that. It has no airport or airstrip and is several days' sailing from any land mass. All these factors add together to show why it is in a class of its own.

We are shortly to have a debate, I am glad to see, on the dependent territories as a whole, but the day is past when the United Kingdom Government had so many of them to look after that it could make blanket rules for them all. They now can and should be looked at individually and no excuse that "We cannot do this or the others will be wanting it too" can hold water.

As I have said, it is 10 years since St. Helena was debated here and rather longer, I think, since it was debated in another place; but I venture to predict that it will not be another 10 years before it is debated again. Noble Lords who are down to speak in this debate—and I am most grateful to those who have agreed to take part—will see to that. I must tell your Lordships that the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, would very much have liked to have spoken in this debate but, alas, is not yet well enough. Also, the noble Lord, Lord Runcie, rang me last night to say how much he regretted that he could not take part in this debate today.

There are enough urgent matters affecting St. Helena to take up a whole day's debate, even if there are not, alas, quite enough informed noble Lords to fill an afternoon's speaking list. But today I am asking a Question about facilities for training, work experience and jobs off the island; that in effect, largely for the reasons that I have already rehearsed, means in the United Kingdom.

I am not tonight asking about citizenship and the right of abode. That is in the minds of all your Lordships who know anything about St. Helena, and we shall come to it in due course in your Lordships' House, possibly when the affairs of Hong Kong are on a more even keel. Nor am I asking about greater access to the island, although I understand that at least two, if not three, noble Lords will mention the matter this evening. It is time for either a shuttle ship or an airstrip to supplement the monthly calls of the Curnow Shipping Line's "St. Helena", that admirable ship. One of the tragedies of St. Helena is that no one wants to invade it. If anyone wanted to invade it, I am quite sure that there would be an airstrip there within a week and certainly much better methods of communicating with it.

I am merely asking tonight for opportunities for training and work experience for the "Saints", as they call themselves and as I believe they are right to call themselves. In so asking, I know that I am supported by the Governor, the Legislative Council and the people of the island. There is a first-class primary school system on the island. There is, since recently, a very good secondary school, the Prince Andrew school, and while there is room for the upgrading of standards to UK levels in examinations, teaching and so forth, the education system may be regarded as generally satisfactory. And it is worth noting that in a world-wide rating of children being adjusted, or maladjusted, St. Helena is in the very first rank—thus rightly earning its people's sobriquet of "Saints".

There is some work available on the island and, in my view and in the view of others who are qualified to know, there is the opportunity and the possibility for much more. We may turn our attention to that on another occasion. I know that the ODA is investigating this and is indeed taking many steps and taking a lot of trouble over this. There is also work available on Ascension and in the Falklands. What there is not is the opportunity for higher education and training; and that is what the Government must provide. This is particularly so with the phasing out of the work permit scheme for the dependent territories. It is not a complicated matter. There is in place an admirable organisation called St. Helena Link, which was set up by the Government of the United Kingdom and St. Helena jointly, to offer pastoral care to those coming from an unsophisticated island. There are over 3,000 St. Helenians already living in this country with their own admirable newspaper, an Anglican Diocesan Association, an Official Government representative, a St. Helena Association and an Organisation of Friends.

There is a strong need. I became involved because my wife visited St. Helena at the behest of the Curnow Shipping Company 18 months ago to take an exhibition of contemporary British art there and she ended up organising a local exhibition as well. I am grateful to her for first teaching me about the island and its inhabitants. I am grateful also to all those friends of St. Helena who have instructed me further.

It is our duty as the Parliament of this country, which is the only Parliament which has power in St. Helena, to look after these people, to pay them more attention than we have in the past and to provide opportunities for its young people as they grow up. I now look forward with some optimism to the Government's solution to this not very difficult but, for the 6,000 subjects of that country, extremely important question.

6.31 p.m.

Lord Braine of Wheatley

My Lords, we must all be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, for making it possible for us to have this debate and for introducing the subject in his excellent speech.

I have been concerned about the future of St. Helena—a beautiful island which is sometimes described as the "lost county of England"—ever since I visited it in August 1980. I went there at the request of the then Governor and his Executive Council who hoped that I would draw the attention of Parliament to the anxieties that they felt about British policy and the island's future.

St. Helena has been a British colony for over 300 years. The first "Saints", as the islanders call themselves, came from England in 1659, followed seven years later by refugees from the Great Fire of London. They brought English ways and the Christian religion. When I visited the island there were some 15 churches. For all I know, there may be more now.

In the early part of the last century when we were waging war against the iniquitous slave trade, captured slave ships were brought to the island and the slaves were released there. They somewhat enlarged the population. Then, St. Helena was a fortress, a keypost on the long voyage to India, round the Cape. That was before the Suez Canal was built.

St. Helena's population when I visited was only about 5,000, but it was English-speaking, literate and British in character and allegiance. Alas, when I was there I found many people facing difficulties and beginning to border on despair. Basically, the problem for St. Helena at that time was one of physical communications with its associated dependency of Ascension Island 700 miles to the north—a vitally important place strategically, as the Falklands War was to prove—Tristan da Cunha to the south and, of course, faraway Britain herself.

More recently, there have been some important developments. Since 1991, Cable and Wireless has revolutionised links with the world network through the earth satellite system. Satellite communications have brought St. Helena into the data transmission age. Moreover, the Falklands conflict demonstrated the importance of the links with all our South Atlantic dependencies: for example, we could riot have waged that war so effectively without access to Ascension.

Then again, the new RMS "St. Helena", built here with British Government aid and operated by the Curnow Shipping Company of Cornwall, is proving to be of very great value in moving goods and passengers between St. Helena and South Africa and between St. Helena and Britain. This year, for the very first time, regular shipping links have been established between St. Helena and West Africa.

What is still needed, however, is a regular inter-island shipping service linking St. Helena to Ascension which is 700 miles away. 1vloreover, what has happened to the idea that was advanced some years ago that St. Helena might have an airport? Is any thought being given currently to that idea here in London?

There is, however, a much more fundamental question which does not seem to have been properly considered in Whitehall; namely, the importance of linking all our South Atlantic dependencies more closely. With the development of very important oil and fishery resources off the Falkland Islands, surely that will soon open up opportunities for St. Helenian labour which has proved its solid worth in development elsewhere. St. Helenians are a literate and pleasant people, British in their allegiance, dependable workers and Christian in their outlook. Surely, thought should be given now to the opening up of opportunities for them in the Falklands where both oil and fishery development on a large scale will undoubtedly promote a growing demand for reliable labour. join the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, in asking what thought is being given to the prospect of that happening.

That brings me to the more direct question of the discrimination against these people that British immigration policy has imposed—and here, I speak frankly. If St. Helenians are British, why have the Government here continued to deprive them of the clearest expression of their British ideality; namely, a British passport? What difference does distance or separation by sea really make? It makes no difference at all under American law. Both Alaska and Hawaii enjoy full statehood. It makes no difference under French law: Reunion is a département of France even though it is far away in the Indian Ocean. If the British view is that distance disqualifies, how is it that the Falkland islanders are British citizens—and it is right that they are; thank God that they are—although they are further away from the mother country than St. Helena?

The simple truth is that St. Helenians are not clamouring to become British citizens because they are already British —and always have been British. Yet when their Legislative Council petitioned the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs in 1990 for recognition of their inalienable right of entry into Britain, it received a negative reply.

I hope and I trust that this debate will have the effect of concentrating minds in Whitehall. Perhaps your Lordships will permit me to quote from the concluding paragraph of a detailed report that I made to the Government of the day in August 1980, which I entitled St. Helena—A Case of Enforced Dependence. This is what I said: The first objective of British policy in our remaining dependencies should be to encourage the maximum self-reliance. But that is only possible where people are given the confidence that they can earn a reasonable living by their own efforts. Too often the difficulties in a 'colonial situation' are inherent in the society itself, in its attitudes and mores. Not so in the case of St. Helena. Its people are hardworking, intelligent and law-abiding. They have proved themselves resilient and adaptable when given the chance. Most of the obstacles in the way of achieving a confident self-reliance lie outside the colony, not within it". Unhappily, that is still the situation. It must be changed.

6.39 p.m.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, for raising this important subject and for his impressive speech setting the scene for this short debate. I also appreciate the knowledgeable speech of the noble Lord, Lord Braine, arising from his experience when he visited the island in 1980. Thirty-six years ago I was asked by the late Hugh Gaitskell if I would visit St. Helena. He had received complaints that that small and distant colony was being neglected by the British Government, and he was anxious that that charge should be investigated and the facts brought to light. I knew little of St. Helena then, save that Napoleon was exiled there, and I was not sure why I had been chosen to go there. Perhaps it was because I represented the Isle of Anglesey in Parliament !

I realised how ill-informed I was when I called at the House of Commons Travel Office to book a flight to St. Helena. After studying some papers, Mr. Buchanan, the official in charge, asked me whether I would call again in an hour or so as he wanted to make some inquiries. When I called, he informed me that there was no airfield on St. Helena and no flight there. He said that I would have to go by sea. So it was that I sailed to St. Helena in the "Braemar Castle" of the Union Castle Line, and spent nearly two months away from the other place. It was a factor I had not anticipated when Hugh Gaitskell approached me, but it was made more agreeable when my wife agreed to accompany me.

I was told then that I was the first Member of Parliament to visit St. Helena, and I realised that I had undertaken a considerable responsibility. The community there gave us the warmest of welcomes, and my stay gave me ample opportunity to familiarise myself with the way of life and the problems of the people. I cannot go into great detail in a short speech, but there are some key points that I should like to make. First, the people regard themselves as British, although they were born and bred in the South Atlantic, a point which the noble Lord, Lord Braine, has just made. If it were a little closer to Britain, it could become an ideal unitary authority in the British local government system without any difficulty! Unlike some who come here, they share the British tradition and its way of life completely.

The inhabitants of St. Helena believe that they are British because they originate from the England of the 17th century. When the Dutch occupied the island, it was uninhabited; the first inhabitants sailed there from these islands, and today, as the noble Lord, Lord Braine, said, their descendants are hurt and offended because the Government refuse to give them the full recognition of a British passport. A report published last August conveys the sense of frustration which exists. It states: There is bitter irony that Gibraltar … which has less cause to be regarded as British, nevertheless has received the rights denied to this other island which has a greater and longer claim to the same national identity". The Commission on Citizenship which has been looking into these matters on behalf of St. Helenians has said that they accept the need for comprehensive immigration legislation although they are very critical, and rightly so, of the British Nationality Act 1981. They say that they are now prisoners on the island, whereas previously they had the right to a British passport. That deep feeling is reflected in the Legislative Council's petition to the Foreign Secretary as recently as 1990 when it said: We. the twelve elected representatives of the six thousand loyal, patriotic British people of the South Atlantic Dependent Territory of St. Helena, do hereby again plead on their behalf for the reinstatement of their inalienable rights of entry into the United Kingdom". The negative response of the Foreign Office was, in my view, quite unacceptable. It refuses to recognise the unique position of St. Helena. It is, presumably for political reasons, more sensitive to the demands of Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands. For example, I understand that the Secretary of State has power by regulation to permit registration in Gibraltar. I hold the view strongly that the right of St. Helena to a passport is stronger than that of any other British dependent territory. Why do I say that? I do so because the people of St. Helena are not a native population of the island; they were settled there by the British Government. The island was populated by the British Government, and was then used as a fortress by the British Government. It is not a happy story because it was later neglected and forgotten by the British Government.

Notwithstanding all that, the members of the community on the little island regard themselves as loyal Britons. Their resources are very limited, as we know, and they must look elsewhere for employment and the means to live, as the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, made plain. That is why we must thank him for bringing this sad human problem once again to public notice.

During my stay in St. Helena, I formed a great respect and affection for. the law-abiding, friendly and hardworking islanders. They deserve practical assistance today of the type described by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont. Will the Minister tell us what is the present position of the work permit scheme in relation to St. Helena? If it is to be abolished, we must have a practical and effective alternative. I hope that the Minister will tell us about that and that he will advise his right honourable friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary to consider carefully the speeches in this debate and produce a more just and compassionate policy for St. Helena.

7.46 p.m.

Lord Buxton of Alsa

My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, for raising this debate. I also feel some sense of inferiority as I speak after three noble Lords who have visited St. Helena. I can almost tear up my notes, because the problem has already been explained so effectively. Not having set foot on St. Helena, my interest derives from considerable familiarity with the Falkland Islands for over 20 years, and with St. Helena. I have always been interested in that part of the world, including the Antarctic. My daughter has been to Tristan da Cunha for some months and—wait for it!—in 1941 I saw St. Helena in the moonlight from a troopship. So it is not totally unknown to me.

I do not regard citizenship as being outside the debate, because I believe that giving full citizenship to the St. Helenians would solve many of the problems and probably the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont. We are all aware that what was holding up things in Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, and now St. Helena, was the fear in Whitehall that the right to a pas sport would produce an avalanche of mass migration from Hong Kong. I say "Whitehall", because, in fairness to my noble friend the Minister, this matter has been going on for decades: certainly two or three. Therefore we cannot hold Ministers, or any particular government, responsible. It is a permanent issue: the idea that if we were to give anyone full citizenship it would cause a conflagration and the United Kingdom would be inundated with people from dependent territories all over the world. I believe that to be untrue.

The questions I wish to ask my noble friend the Minister are, first, will he tell us, or if he cannot perhaps he will kindly find out, what problems have arisen, what difficulties there have been, how many people, or what percentage of the population of Gibraltar, have arrived here as immigrants since they were accorded British citizenship?

Secondly, may we have the answer to the same question in relation to the Falklands? The Falkland Islanders were given citizenship as a result of the invasion. I was there immediately after this. As the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, rightly said, it is a bit much if people have to be invaded in order to gain citizenship. Will the Minister tell us in respect of the Falkland Islands what difficulties have arisen, what damage has been done and what percentage of the population has arrived here as immigrants that could cause any problem? I believe that no problems have been raised, no damage has been caused and there have been no immigration difficulties.

The Government may believe that by giving citizenship to those in a dependent territory others will demand the same and cause considerable trouble. However, that has been amply disproved by what occurred in respect of Gibraltar and the Falklands. There is therefore no conceivable excuse for saying that the St. Helenians cannot be given full citizenship—which would answer the noble Lord's Question —simply because the same might happen in another part of the world.

Hong Kong is off the agenda; St. Helena. is irrelevant as far as the future of Hong Kong is concerned. Is Whitehall going to scratch around looking for somewhere else to point to and say, "We cannot do that in case someone in the Caribbean or elsewhere makes an immediate demand too"?

I do not wish to extend the debate and I am grateful to previous speakers who have covered the issues so effectively. I merely wish to put on record the fact that we want to know about the problems which arose in respect of the Falklands and Gibraltar. I totally reject the notion that in future the St. Helenians can be tied to some other territory some thousands of miles away. That is completely irrelevant.

6.52 p.m.

Lord Greenhill of Harrow

My Lords, we are grateful to Lady Beaumont for prompting the noble Lord to raise the subject of St. Helena tonight. It has long been a problem island and the islanders' access to the UK is currently being discussed in Whitehall. Therefore the timing of the debate is most apt.

I wish to comment briefly on access to the UK and then raise one or two other matters in which I have long been interested. But before doing so, I should like, with others, to pay tribute to the present Governor, Mr. Hoole, for his enthusiasm and helpfulness. He has the advantage of having a wife from the island and a special access to its hopes and fears.

My first point is that the British Government are under an undoubted and inescapable obligation to help this small dependent territory. They have a similar obligation to other dependent territories left over from our former Empire. There is no possibility of independence in the future for St. Helena and many of the other islands and it has special features which must be taken into account in deciding British policy. Our Government do, of course, already subsidise and help the island, but I believe that more should be done not only now but over the next few years.

I visited the island with my wife some few years ago—it was a visit which made a considerable impression on us—although I had some experience of its affairs when I was in the Foreign Office.

As I indicated, there are unusual features of the island which must be kept in mind and which must dictate our policy. First, it has virtually no natural resources and no port. Going from ship to shore can be a distinct adventure. Persons of my age and that of the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, are now put ashore by crane. Many attempts have been made, without success, to develop resources since the flax growing collapsed. There is still some hope for the fishing industry, and en route to the island we sailed through large Russian fishing fleets. Whether their ships remain I do not know, but presumably the fish do.

The island is now served by a new passenger/freight ship from Plymouth or Cardiff which appears to he heavily booked. We have the noble Baroness, Lady Young, to thank for it as she overcame the reluctance of the Treasury to place the order. The noble Baroness asked me to say that she very much wanted to speak in the debate tonight but was unable to do so.

The island has a long history linking it with the UK. It provided shelter and aid to the vessels of the East India Company centuries ago. Every school child knows of Napoleon's connection and Longwood is a potential attraction for tourists from this country and Europe.

There are important ways in which Her Majesty's Government can help the island. The regulation of permits to come to the UK is the centre of our discussion tonight. That was put most clearly by the noble Lord, Lord Buxton. The present quota is soon to expire but there are strong reasons for it to be extended.

Islanders are of course employed on Ascension and the Falklands. This is a comparatively new development. The development of the oil industry in the Falklands may one day provide further opportunities. But these outlets are no substitute for a closer connection with the UK after which the islanders understandably hanker.

There is now a secondary school on the island which was built after a miserly correspondence with London for over 20 years. In fact, it was only the prospect of a naval visit by His Royal Highness Prince Andrew that caused Her Majesty's Government to yield. Pupils from this school will make it easier for islanders to be usefully employed here and contribute to their economy and our own. Large numbers will not be involved. I hope that the Minister will comment on that.

The second way in which we can help is the provision of an airfield. This has been a hobby-horse of mine for many years. There are difficulties, not only of cost (which have been exaggerated) but of air safety. But they are not insurmountable. A golden opportunity was missed when construction plant which was returning from the Falklands could have been put off at St. Helena to contribute to the building of the airfield.

An alternative is being considered—to provide a boat shuttle between St. Helena and Ascension from which long distance air services could be available. But I do not believe that this would bring a benefit as great as a direct air service. Such a direct service could attract tourists and from not only the UK but also France in particular.

The Minister, I am sure, knows the problems only too well. But in the long run a direct service would reduce the present subsidies to the island and give the population a chance of all-round advancement. I know that the subject has been under close review but I hope that the Government will see the value of an ambitious step forward now rather than the false economy of a more modest sea shuttle. Seven hundred miles between St. Helena and Ascension or Angola is a long journey. St. Helena is also dependent on South Africa, for example, for medical emergencies. The subject of the airfield is a complicated one for which we do not have sufficient time this evening. However, I hope that when the noble Lord, Lord Holderness, returns from his future visit he will give his impressions of that controversy. A direct service must be established one day. Why should that not be done in the last years of this century?

7 p.m.

Lord Holderness

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, will forgive me for daring to take part in this well-informed debate without any first-hand knowledge of the island, or, indeed, of the South Atlantic. As the noble Lord, Lord Greenhill, suggested, that is an omission which I intend to put right in 16 days' time. In the light of the noble Lord's speech, I hope that the important crane which could hoist the noble Lord, Lord Greenhill, or the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, will be available also for me.

This country's continuing responsibilities to the few colonies which remain have been the theme of the speeches of many noble Lords. This debate concentrates on the particular problems of St. Helena. As I read history, in the past the island seems to have been relatively rich in natural resources but now, as the noble Lord, Lord Greenhill, said, natural resources are sadly scarce as, for other reasons, are human resources. I suppose that one reason is the extensive employment of the Saints in the Falklands, on Ascension and aboard the RMS "St. Helena", for which Her Majesty's Government deserve great credit.

For those reasons, in my opinion and that of all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate, Great Britain has a duty to find some way out of the vicious circle whereby a lack of skills is undoubtedly frustrating development. At the same time, that same lack of skills deprives the inhabitants, the Saints, of the opportunity to use fruitfully their own natural abilities or to acquire new skills or improve them, by being given the chance to visit this country.

If, as the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, suggested, the Government remain determined to bring to an end the present scheme of work permits, we must press them hard to propose a constructive alternative, which I hope my noble friend Lord Henley will be able to provide. In my opinion, that would give enormous encouragement to the people of St. Helena who at present, to put it mildly, feel rather left out.

I hope that my noble friend can give encouragement as regards three matters. First, is there scope to put still more emphasis, within the considerable total of aid which Britain continues to provide to the island, on technical assistance, skills training, and so on, and on other means to create and keep in St. Helena the human resources essential for the island's development? I purposely said "create and keep" because I understand that bright young pupils at Prince Andrew School are acquiring skills and their education is good. However, the experts are asking what that education is for. One such expert concludes: The talented go away, get qualified; … come back; … rediscover the pitiful money they will earn and go off again". Therefore, I ask the Government what incentive they can suggest to make it more worthwhile for the bright and energetic, when they return, to remain on the island and to contribute their skills towards its development.

I ask Her Majesty's Government to give urgent consideration to the consequences of bringing to an end the present system. I give one example of its importance, not only to St. Helena but also much more widely. Nearly 40 years ago a young man named James Johnson came from St. Helena to Britain with his young wife. They took jobs as domestic servants. Unless there is an effective replacement for the existing system, people like that young couple will be excluded from Britain after next year. It would certainly have been a pity if those two people had been kept out.

A few years after his arrival, James Johnson began his studies for the priesthood while his wife worked to support them and his young son. After ordination he returned to St. Helena. He came back to this country and in 1985 he was consecrated as the Bishop of St. Helena. That reversed the usual trend of Christians because he became the first Saint to turn into a bishop! No doubt that is a rare example. Very few will come here as domestic servants and end up as bishops.

That illustrates a different but important point. If such people are firmly kept out of Britain, it will be a deprivation for them. It will be a deprivation also for a number—I know riot how many—of people in this country who are growing old, whose health is failing and who long for the caring help which, in my observation, a number of the Saints are willing to give. They may not fit easily into the exact requirement for skills which the Government lay down, but they can give to the old and the ill the care that they badly need.

I hope fervently that the new provisions, which I understand the Government are considering, will include those who cannot qualify easily under the scarce skills requirement. The Government should offer not only training leading to an occupational skill and work experience to increase industrial and commercial expertise and improve knowledge of English, but also the opportunity for unskilled people to acquire not specific skills but to give freely, as many already do, of their natural abilities. The offer of such opportunities would bring new hope to hundreds of men and women still living on the island.

7.9 p.m.

Lord Morris

My Lords, like other noble Lords who have spoken in the debate, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Beaumont of Whitley, for giving us the opportunity to speak on this extremely important subject.

I justify my qualification to speak on two grounds, one of which is extremely thin and one of which is not so thin. An ancestor of mine on my mother's side was the officer who escorted Napoleon to the island of St. Helena. It is my ambition to escort a Minister of the Crown to St Helena and keep him in the fortress there until he makes up his mind to do something about this matter.

The other reason is that I bear the burden of being the chairman of a committee of which two extremely distinguished members have already spoken; that is, the South-West Atlantic group, of which my fellow committee members are my noble friends Lord Braine of Wheatley and Lord Buxton of Alsa.

I am speaking last in the debate not as a result of a cruel and overbearing Chief Whip, but because I generally choose to speak in this position for the very good reason that noble Lords who speak before me usually say precisely what I want to say so much better than I could possibly say it. Today's debate, which has been superb up until now, is no exception in that regard. I should like to make a few simple points. I agree and follow all the comments made so very well 'by other speakers. Indeed, it has been a most excellent and moving debate. I hope that Her Majesty's Government will bear in mind with precision what has been said.

However, I should like to stress one point. I have studied the problems for some years now. Ai we all know, the island of St. Helena is one of the interests of the committee that was formed by myself, my noble friend Lord Buxton of Alsa and, above all, by the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, in 1981. The committee has taken an interest in the island for the whole of its existence.

It has now become absolutely clear that an airport on the island would generate revenue in several directions. It would reduce the United Kingdom subsidy which is presently essential to maintain the population. Such a development must be good for the United Kingdom and, above all, good for the Saints. It has been a delight to listen to the contributions to the debate. I thank all those who have taken part.

7.11 p.m.

Lord Harvington

My Lords, I apologise for intervening in the debate. However, I hope that noble Lords will understand why I have done so. I did not realise that the noble Lord's Unstarred Question was tabled for today, and I had very much hoped to be able to listen to the debate. However, by great good fortune I have been able to hear it. I visited St. Helena about 15 years ago. Like other noble Lords, I went there on a cruise ship. I wish that the crane about which my noble friend Lord Holderness spoke had been there then because I fell in the water as I was going ashore and got myself thoroughly wet. However, the island was so nice when I eventually got there that I forgot about the incident. I did a great deal of walking—as I could in those days—so it did not matter.

My daughter now lives in the old house where brought up my family. It is a small Cotswold estate with a number of cottages which need to be looked after. Two St. Helenian families are there taking care of it. They are magnificent people. I believe that they are a fair sample of the people who live on the island. It seems very likely that in a small community—indeed, I believe that someone said that about 6,000 people live there today—people tend to be alike. For example, if they are good at something, then they are all good at it. It is only when size comes into consideration that some people are perhaps not quite so good as others.

However, I want to say that those people are quite magnificent. They look after the estate, they help in the house and are extremely good-tempered. do not know how they manage to do all that complicated estate work, which includes the maintenance of drains, and so on, because they have not had the necessary training and experience. But they have taken to it. They are: good people. I believe that everything possible should be done for them. I am very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, has raised the Question. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will be able to give him some very satisfactory answers.

7.14 p.m.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, for raising the issue this evening and, in particular, for the background that he gave to the House. I must confess that I know very little about St. Helena, apart from the fact that Napoleon died there. But I suppose that everyone knows that. The reason that I am addressing the issue from this Dispatch Box is because it refers to, training and work in the United Kingdom", among other issues. Regrettably, as I said, I have never been to St. Helena. However, when I realised that an Unstarred Question had been tabled about the island I looked into the matter to see what I could find out. I have learnt that the island which lies in the South Atlantic was governed by the British East India Company from 1673 and came under the direct control of the British Crown in 1834.

Your Lordships will have heard from other noble Lords with a great deal more knowledge than I have much about the history of the island. But, at general elections, the population returns by an overwhelming majority the party that advocates retaining close links with the United Kingdom. The economy depends on economic aid provided by the British Government. As we have heard, the island's main economic activities are fishing, the rearing of livestock and handicrafts. As other speakers have said, the population consists of about 6,000 people. I understand that 2,516 males are in employment but, surprisingly, only 909 females. Perhaps there is not much opportunity for female employment on the island.

It would also appear that there is unemployment on the island with a large part of the population being forced to seek employment overseas. As noble Lords have already said, there is no airstrip. Perhaps that is very unfortunate. If there was an airstrip, there would probably be greater opportunities for development and thus for employing people in St. Helena itself. I understand that some of the population seek employment in neighbouring Ascension Island. It is a dependency of St. Helena and is an important communications centre. That island has no indigenous population, but is inhabited by British and US military personnel, as US forces occupy the airfield which is used as a tracking station for guided missiles. Clearly that island does offer employment to some people from St. Helena, but whether it is sufficient, or the right kind of employment, I simply do not know. Presumably the type of work carried on there would demand a fairly high level of technological skills. Whether such facilities for training exist on St. Helena is, perhaps, a part of the debate. From what other speakers have said, it looks as though the facilities for such training are simply not there.

As I understand the situation—and this has been referred to by other speakers—the work permit scheme operating in the United Kingdom is being phased out for dependent territories, including St. Helena. That phasing out was announced in 1991 and takes full effect this year. I am informed that the quota was reduced to only 30 permits in 1993. I support the aim of the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, in attempting to secure for St. Helenians access to training schemes. It is a small population and one entirely dependent on British economic support; one, moreover, where the population would appear to be very loyal to this country and very intent upon retaining the links. I believe that parties with a different viewpoint—including the Opposition party at the last general election—desire to break the link and to develop a greater degree of autonomy. However, those views were rejected repeatedly by the populace and now the parties advocating such policies appear to be virtually moribund.

It is unfortunate that the Government should have chosen to phase out the scheme for dependent territories such as St. Helena. As a result of the debate, I hope that the Government may feel that they are able to reconsider the situation. I understand that the debate is primarily about access to training and work in the United Kingdom. Nevertheless many speakers have passionately made the case for the whole issue of citizenship and the issue of passports to be considered by the British Government. In particular, I refer to the statement made by my noble friend Lord Cledwyn based on his enormous knowledge of the island and his reference to the frustration that St. Helenians feel because they believe that there has been declining interest in their fate on the part of all British Governments. As a result of the contributions made to this evening's debate by noble Lords with a great deal of expertise in the area, I hope that the Government will feel disposed to look at that issue, even though it is not part of the "training and work" as mentioned in the noble Lord's Unstarred Question.

7.20 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Employment (Lord Henley)

My Lords, unlike others, I have still to visit St. Helena, nor have I even seen it, but nevertheless I will take up the suggestion made by my noble friend Lord Morris to escort me —or one other Minister of the Crown—to St. Helena. I have to say that I am very tempted by the offer. I heard the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, say that he was away for some two months 36 years ago. Whether my noble friend the Chief Whip would allow me to be away for two months with my wife in the 1990s is another matter.

I also noted that my noble friend Lord Holderness is to visit the island in 16 days' time, and I wish him well, certainly with his arrangements for access and the celebrated crane. We would be most interested to hear the noble Lord's views on his return.

The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, was asking particularly about training and work matters and not particularly about citizenship, access or other matters. Other noble Lords—I think perfectly properly—have ranged considerably wider and I intend, first of all, to address the particular points of the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, and then, if noble Lords will allow me, to deal briefly with just some of the other points that have been raised.

In recent years citizens of St. Helena, along with those from other dependent territories, have been able to come to this country to take lower-skilled work under a concession within the work permit scheme. This quota scheme is open to all dependent territories; there is no specific quota of permits for St. Helena. In practice, each year 150 of the 200 permits available were taken by Hong Kong and the remainder almost exclusively by St. Helenians.

In 1991 a review of the longer-term position of this special dependent territories quota scheme involving relevant government departments concluded that the quota was anomalous and inconsistent with British immigration control in so far as permits were granted for jobs where the skill level was below that required under the normal work permit scheme rules. It had never been intended that the quota scheme would continue permanently. Therefore, on 24th July 1991, following consultation with all appropriate colleagues, my right honourable friend the then Secretary of State for Employment announced that this concessionary arrangement would end in 1995. In order that the dependent territories should have time to adjust it was agreed that the quota would be phased out so that the numbers available to St. Helena would be reduced from 50 to 45 in 1991, 40 in 1992, 35 in 1993 and 30 this year, the last year of operation of the quota. In recent years the quota available to St. Helena has not been fully taken up, suggesting that it is possibly of declining value to the island.

Nevertheless, Her Majesty's Government recognise that St. Helena has a special relationship with this country and in particular that it is the only dependent territory in receipt of budgetary aid. Consequently, discussions have been held between the government departments involved to consider the likely impact of the ending of the quota scheme on St. Helena with a view to lessening its impact. We realise that the loss of the quota scheme will have an effect on the economy of the island and on the opportunities available to its citizens. There will be some loss of income and it may increase the sense of isolation which St. Helenians already feel. We have therefore been looking into ways in which St. Helenians might be helped to benefit from opportunities in this country which would help individuals and the contribution they make to the economy of the island.

Officials in my department, the Department of Employment, in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and in the Home Office have been discussing how the training and work experience scheme operated by my department might be adapted specifically to accommodate the needs of St. Helenians. Following consultation with all concerned, Her Majesty's Government propose to introduce, on a pilot basis, a special arrangement to help St. Helenians benefit from the training and work experience scheme. This will allow St. Helenians to come to Britain to gain valuable skills by undertaking training or work experience which is not readily available to them in their own country.

In view of the generally lower skill level of people on the island, St. Helenians will be able to qualify for permits for training or work experience at a much lower level than is normally permitted. They could, depending on the opportunities available to them, spend up to four years training towards vocational qualifications, or up to two years gaining valuable work experience while working with British businesses or other organisations. I should also emphasise that St. Helenians will continue to be eligible under the normal rules of the work permit scheme where they do have higher qualifications arid skills.

I should like just to deal briefly with some of the points made by my noble friends Lord Braine and Lord Buxton and by the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, relating to citizenship. The British Nationality Act 1981 established the principle that British citizenship should be confined to those with close ties with the United Kingdom, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. Dependent territory citizens would have their own citizenship. The extension of entitlement to British citizenship to Falkland Islanders and Gibraltarians, which was referred to by my noble friend Lord Buxton and others, has been due to very peculiar and particular circumstances and is not to be taken as establishing a precedent for citizens of the other British dependent territories.

Under the 1981 Act the majority of Falkland islanders already possessed British citizenship by virtue of descent and the British Nationality (Falkland Islands) Amendment Act, which was introduced as a consequence of the special circumstances of the 1982 conflict, extended British citizenship to BDTCs with a connection with the Falklands who did not already possess that status. Those British dependent territory citizens with a connection with Gibraltar are entitled to registration as British citizens because Gibraltar is a European territory of a European Community member state, and therefore they are United Kingdom nationals for the purpose of Community treaties. I would argue that the case of St. Helena, as compared with Gibraltar, is somewhat different. But I understand the very, very strong views that have been expressed by several noble Lords—the noble Lords, Lord Braille and Lord Cledwyn, and my noble friend Lord Buxton among others. Certainly, I shall take it on myself to pass on those very real concerns to both my noble friend Lady Chalker and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State.

May I just say a word or two generally on St. Helena and our aid? I do not think that it is the case, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, put it, when talking about the situation some 30 years ago, that we could say that they are forgotten by our aid, or by the United Kingdom Government. Our aid programme is running at a level of about £9 million a year. That consists of aid for development projects, budgetary aid" training and manpower assistance and an annual subsidy for the shipping service. I am certainly grateful for the kind remarks of my noble friend Lord Holderness on that particular point.

Within its development programme the St Helena Government have been giving priority to strengthening productive capacity, in particular in agriculture, fisheries, forestry and the initial activities leading to the creation of the St. Helena Development Agency. But, certainly, I hope that the points made by my noble friend Lord Holderness about any development programme being designed to encourage people to stay there rather than to acquire skills elsewhere and then leave and stay away will be taken on board by those concerned. But I would hope that that figure of £9 million a year will be some indication of the measure of our commitment. St. Helena, as I said earlier, is unique among our dependent territories in still receiving budgetary aid support to cover the gap between domestic revenue and recurrent expenditure.

Turning to the question of an island shipping service, or shuttle, raised by my noble friend Lord Braine, I have to say that despite considerable efforts over the past four years, including the extensive use of specialist consultants, we have been unable to identify a vessel for the proposed shuttle service that meets the technical requirements at an economic cost. Suitable vessels not requiring disproportionately expensive conversion or operating charges are in very short supply; but I do have to say that our efforts are continuing and we are still in discussion with the St. Helena Government on the way forward.

Perhaps I may say just a word or two about the air service raised by several noble Lords, or the idea of an airport. We are aware of the interest that has been expressed by a private company in the development of an air field and a regular air service. Obviously such a project would carry considerable financial risk. The capital and recurrent costs which the British taxpayer would be expected to fund through the aid programme could be very high indeed. So far my understanding is that only one proposal for the development of an air field on St. Helena has been made to the Government; neither we nor the St. Helena Government have any knowledge of the existence of several competing, well researched schemes, as has been argued.

Any proposal for the development of an airfield on St. Helena would have to come from the Government of St. Helena and have its clear support. I also understand that there is currently a division of opinion among some islanders as to whether there should be an airfield. While some see such an airfield as being of benefit others see it as leading to a permanent change in the island's character and existing way of life.

I understand that later this year the St. Helena Government proposes to canvass opinion on the island on this particular matter. If the St. Helena Government were to make an official proposal about an air service we would certainly consider it on its merits, but that would need to involve very close scrutiny of both the technical and financial aspects of the case.

Perhaps I may return to the specific question which the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, raised and which I believe has generated a very useful and frank debate. We recognise the unique relationship that St. Helena has with this country. Our purpose is to replace the quota scheme, which by and large simply provided for the employment of domestic staff, with something which has the potential to offer more in providing opportunities for citizens of St. Helena to develop themselves. I hope that the special arrangement that I have outlined today, and which I am pleased to say has been welcomed by the St. Helena Government, will be of general benefit to the economy of the island as a whole and will help it in due course achieve greater self sufficiency.

House adjourned at half past seven o'clock.