HL Deb 07 November 2000 vol 618 cc1357-60

2.38 p.m.

Lord Waddington asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to facilitate the building of an airport on St Helena.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, a comparative study of the options for air and sea access to St Helena is currently being undertaken. The team undertaking the study visited St Helena in mid-October and we expect its draft report to he produced by the end of this year. The final report will then need to be considered and discussed with the St Helena Government.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her reply; also, I thank the Foreign Secretary for his reply to me at the end of October. Does the noble Baroness agree that, with an airport, St Helena might have a real chance of economic development and of freeing itself from dependency on overseas aid? Does she further agree that the proposals for development put forward by the St Helena Leisure Corporation (SHELCO) for not only an airport on the island but also a five-star hotel and the formation of an airline to serve the island deserve our support? Will the report to which the noble Baroness has referred deal not only with public sector development: plans, but also with plans such as those proposed by SHELCO?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the Department for International Development has agreed that, subject to the outcome of the comparative study, it will provide funding equal to the least capital cost option: that is, either the cost of replacing RMS "St Helena" or the estimated capital cost of an airport and related infrastructure. We have to await the outcome of the study. We are aware that the St Helena Government have a preference for air access. If, however that happens not to be the least capital cost option, clearly they will need to ensure that there is private sector investment to meet any difference in cost.

We are aware of SHELCO's proposals for an hotel, a golf course and an airport. Officials from the FCO and DfID met representatives from SHELCO earlier this year. When the report is published—indeed, whether it is published—is up to the St Helena Government. Clearly, the report will contain a n umber of options that will have to be considered.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there has not been a ministerial visit to St Helena since 1699—which perhaps demonstrates how far away and difficult to get to the island is? In welcoming my noble friend's remarks about the publication of the report, will she give an assurance that the islanders of St Helena will be consulted widely? I understand that there is more than one point of view on whether they prefer air or sea access.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, indeed, there has not been a ministerial visit since 1699. Given the length of time it takes to get to St Helena, and to get back again, I am not sure that the Chief Whip would approve of anyone from these Benches going there on a ministerial visit. With regard to consultation, I assure my noble friend that the government of St Helena, councillors, civil society organisations and other stakeholders, including SHELCO, have been widely consulted as part of the comparative study process. I am sure that, once the draft report is published, further consultations will take place.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, is not the need for an airport emphasised by medical emergencies? I believe that, last year, a young girl had to be taken by ship to South Africa, and that the only way in which a ship could be contacted was by sending out a Mayday call. Is that acceptable?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the comparative study will consider health issues, including emergency medical evacuation from the island. That will feed into the process of deciding which is the best option.

Baroness Young

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware of how very long this question of an airport has been under consideration? It is a very serious situation for the people of St Helena, who are almost entirely dependent on overseas aid to survive in any way at all. Indeed, the journey by boat is so long that it makes it difficult for anyone to visit the island. Will the noble Baroness ensure that great pressure is put on those concerned to reach a decision on this issue which is of such importance to the people of St Helena?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, consideration was given in the 1980s to the possibility of airport access. It was agreed then that it would be far too difficult and complicated. However, this Government have made the decision to go ahead with the comparative cost study on the basis of developments in air technology. As I said in my Answer, the draft report will be available in, I hope, December of this year. We shall then have consultation on the document; the St Helena Government will decide whether or not they want the report to be published; and decisions can then be taken. This Government have not sat down and done nothing.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, can the noble Baroness give the House the complete picture? Can she tell us, for example, how often ships visit St Helena, whether from this country, South Africa, or wherever? What is the frequency of sea travel to the island? Clearly, neither people nor goods can reach that destination in any other way.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I believe that RMS "St Helena" sails to the island twice a year. However, I shall check that fact and write to the noble Baroness to ensure that she receives the relevant information. I shall also place a copy of that letter in the Library.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, as with the airport, for years we have heard much talk about citizenship, with little action. In December 1999 in your Lordships' House the noble Baroness assured us that British citizenship was promised, as soon as practicable, to the people of the overseas territories like St Helena. Further, in answering a supplementary question of mine last month, the noble Baroness said that parliamentary time had been sought for such a Bill. Can the noble Baroness say what progress has been made in that respect?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I can assure the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, that we remain committed to our promise to grant UK citizenship to all our overseas territories. Preparations for an overseas territory Bill granting British citizenship have reached an advanced stage. Her Majesty's Government will make available a slot in the timetable for the business as soon as it is feasible.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that one of the most important aspects of the SHELCO report is its imaginative plan for building the airport at a very much lower cost than that originally forecast by DfID? Further, is not what she said about the time that it would take for a Minister to visit the island a conclusive argument for an airport, rather than having more ships visiting the island?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I hope that I have made clear to the House the exact position of the UK Government. We have made a commitment to the St Helena Government that we shall meet the costs of the least capital cost option, be that sea access or air access. We cannot prejudge the outcome of the comparative study, which is due to be published at the end of the year.

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