The Jubilee Room, upstairs from Westminster Hall was the scene for an adjournment debate today called for by Meg Munn MP on the subject of Airport Development on St. Helena.
The debate was timely, given the international development secretary Douglas Alexander’s announcement yesterday that the project would remain on hold whilst a new consultation exercise was undertaken.
The debate was called to press the government for a decision to continue with the project, and Meg Munn opened with a speech covering the history of the project, its importance to the island, the alternatives and why they have been rejected, and the shameful tactics the government has adopted in stalling since last year.
She highlighted the difference in approach to the Falkland Islands, which has fewer residents yet receives far greater support. Indeed the St. Helena airport also provides an additional runway for the MOD’s air-link to the Falklands. Meg Munn called on the minister present (Michael Foster MP) to confirm the principle that overseas territories should always have first call on DfID development funds.
She then gave way to Anne Snelgrove, MP for Swindon, who highlighted the link in terms of friends and family with the UK, especially as a large number of those living in the UK from the island are in her constituency. In fact, one of the door keepers in the House of Commons is a Saint, as the islanders are known.
Meg Munn MP, Peter Allport (Snelco), and Anne Snelgrove MP
Meg then continued, noting that discussions regarding the airport have been on-going since 1947, but the current project has run for 9 years. The contracts had been signed, the company ready, teams in place on the island to start. Inward investment is ready and awaiting the runway, including £80-100m through Shelco, and the 6* hotel plans supported by the UN and two DfID enquiries. The key to the whole project is to reduce the dependency on the UK, and DfID’s own economists have confirmed that the airport is the best way to support this in developing a sustainable conomy.
Of course the airport contractor needs certainty – it would be extremely expensive to restart the whole tender process, and doubtful as to whether any companies would want to engage in the project given the history. It is also the people’s choice, with a referendum confirming 72% of islanders support the project. The island is in decline as its financial demands on the UK rise, this is therefore the time for the government to keep its longstanding promise, and the recession provides an additional reason to get on with it rather than another lame excuse for delay.
Meg then gave way to Bob Russell MP, the Chair of the St Helena Parliamentary Committee, who mentioned the demonstration and petition handed in to Downing Street last week.
Bob Russell MP
Speaking with passion and anger, he explained that he did not expect the shameful ministerial statement yesterday, published this morning, and feels a deep sense of betrayal. No government minister has ever visited the island. Royalty has, but never the government. He wondered whether it was DfID or the dead hand of the treasury behind this? It is absolute shameful betrayal when the contract was about to be let, and is inexcusable. Why are the Falklands and St. Helena treated so differently?
Michael Foster MP, minister from DfID, thanked Meg Munn and noted that the debate was timely, though he wanted to use it more widely and elaborate on the government’s policy in general. He acknowledged that there was no getting away from the issue of St. Helena, and claimed that at root, the government shares Bob Russell and Meg Munn’s support for the island. However, they have to take stock as circumstances have changed, hence the consultation that is being launched so that all views can be heard. The pause is necessary because of the changed economic circumstances, which are very different to 2005 and 7. The government has to be sure that the possible levels of expenditure remain appropriate.
He noted that the company has offered to maintain the bid until April – it was up to them as to what they decided to do after the latest announcement yesterday.
Overseas territories do occupy a special place in their plans, however they do not have first call on DfID funds. It is first call on reasonable aid. Other territories were also suffering. He then started going into the general worsening situation in developing countries across the world, quoting examples such as Bangladesh and Ethiopia, that export markets were reducing and that British overseas aid funds were not stretching as far.
Bob Russell then interrupted to ask the simple question: Will the minister accept that the people on this island are British?
Foster continued, saying this was already clear, then went back to his developing nations speech. Ethiopia has apparently received 15 million from DfID for a particular project etc.
Meg Munn then interrupted, saying that she understands completely the concerns regarding the developing world. But the point is that the cost of not building the airport will be more than building – we as a group and Island want to save money – yielding more to be used elsewhere.
Michael Foster then suggested that a pause and review is good fiscal management, and that the DfID wants to remain flexible. The projected cost of the airport is of a level that makes it significant in the department’s priorities. He couldn’t go into the tender estimates, but the estimated cost had tripled since 2005, and was more than the 100million being quoted in the press.
Snellgrove interrupted to ask how much the ship would cost to keep going and replace, surely these other costs are also escalating over time?
Foster said that early next month there would be a consultation paper, and he couldn’t go into details today. It would look in more detail at the factors surrounding any decision, and some options for access, including the airport and one or more ship options. He invited contributions from all and it would include a visit to the island. What would this tell us that we don’t know today, he posed the obvious question? It was not for him to pre-judge!
Bob Russell rose to ask: What exactly is new about this consultation? As we fail to build the airport, the economy continues to decline.
Foster replied that things have changed – the world’s economic conditions, and it is only prudent that we reflect on this. He was aware of frustrations but these were exceptional times. St Helena is remote but the islanders are aware of the global challenges. He hoped that there would be strong participation in consultation.
Time was then up, the debates having a strict half an hour to proceed before the next one started immediately. The almost full crowd gallery (20 people or so) all emptied as a young MP started talking about car parking in Richmond!
In the hall afterwards, I asked Meg Munn whether she thought anything had been achieved. Not much, but it is important to keep up the pressure on the government, she replied. Your reporters own thoughts on the debate are that it was helpful in continuing to highlight the deplorable way the government is behaving, but there was certainly no signs of them yielding, and I thought Michael Foster padding his speech out with waffle about developing nations was disgraceful. No clear reason has been given for the suspension, no clear reason for the delay, no clear reason for the new consultation. Bob Russell had it spot on when he asked what exactly was new about this latest consultation. I wondered whether this was a ploy to push the airport contractors into reducing their bid, but Meg Munn thought not. The inexplicable behaviour of a paranoid and vindictive government continues to baffle…
Update: Link to Hansard record of debate here (starts half way down) and continues in the next section).