HL Deb 16 April 2002 vol 633 cc817-9

2.44 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to ensure that the inhabitants of Ascension Island can hold free elections by secret ballot so that the implementation of tax legislation on 1st April 2002 does not result in taxation without representation.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Amos)

My Lords, the Ascension Island Government are undertaking a public consultation exercise on the options for democratic representation on the island. We want to see democratic representation in place quickly. The Ascension Island Government recognise that taxation without representation is an important issue and have had extensive discussions with employers to seek to ensure that no individual will see a reduction in take-home pay after the introduction of income tax.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, which is satisfactory as far as it goes. Is it not deplorable that, although public consultation opened in April 1999, there has, until now, been no public meeting with the governor to discuss matters? Will the Minister also comment on the progress of the negotiations with the Americans about the freeing of the airport? Mr Hoon recently said that those negotiations had not got far.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, it was agreed in 1999 that St Helena and its dependencies would be consulted about the development of the democratic and civil rights of the people on Ascension Island. Since that decision, several reports have gone to the Ascension Island Government. One of those was a fiscal and economic survey. There was also a recent visit by the constitutional adviser, as a result of which the first public consultation meeting took place on 10th April. There is a further meeting tonight on two specific options. There has been a time lapse between 1999 and now, but several actions have been taken to develop those options.

We have been in discussion with the United States about the airport. Those discussions, understandably, stalled following 11th September, but we are in the process of restarting them.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, will the Minister tell us how many people there are on Ascension Island?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, there are 980 people on Ascension Island, 700 of whom are from St Helena.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, it would probably have been better to get the representation arrangements straight, before imposing the income tax. I appreciate that not one but two elections are in prospect. Are we to believe the report in the Ascension Island newspaper that advice on organising the elections is being taken from the Zimbabwean "How to host an election" committee? Is the Minister convinced that that is the best possible source of advice?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, to answer the noble Lord's final point, I must say that I was unaware that advice was being taken from the Zimbabwean "How to host an election" committee. I would certainly not recommend that advice should be taken from the Zimbabweans. Noble Lords know my views on that matter very well.

With regard to the issues of representation and taxation, the noble Lord will be aware that the users made the decision that they would no longer fund essential services on Ascension Island, so we needed to make a decision. It would, of course, have been preferable for the two things to go hand-in-hand. The situation is not ideal, but two options have been put to the islanders, and we hope that a decision will be taken shortly.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

My Lords, where do the Government stand on the issue of an airport for St Helena? Most of'the 980 people that we heard about are from St Helena. They have a two-and-a-half-day journey to work on only a handful of days each year.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, that is slightly wide of the Question. I am happy to write to the noble Lord on the matter. Progress is being made.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, what are the implications for the economy of St Helena of the changes that are to take place on Ascension Island? In particular, what decision has been made about the revenues from the licences for fishing in the waters around Ascension Island? Has any decision been reached as to whether the people on Ascension, who are, as has been said, almost exclusively St Helenians, should have representation in the St Helena House of Assembly?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, a number of those questions relate more directly to St Helena than to Ascension Island. In terms of the impact of decisions taken in respect Ascension Island on the economy of St Helena, we do not anticipate any adverse impact. The noble Lord will he aware that many individuals on Ascension Island who come from St Helena remit some of their salaries to St Helena and we expect that to continue.

With respect to the revenues from fishing licences, I am not aware of any decisions that have been made. However, I shall of course write to the noble Lord.

As regards representation, there is a constitutional review in St Helena. A report has been received and is under consideration.

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