Friday, May 15, 2009
On Wednesday, Lord Jones of Cheltenham initiated a short debate in the House of Lords on the Future of St Helena. For the full text, click here. I was invited by Vince Thompson, my old boss from Railtrack days, who now lives on St Helena and writes for the St Helena Independent newspaper.
We were kindly hosted by Lord Jones, who greeted us at the Peers' Entrance, led us through the Palace of Westminster, encountering Lord Hoyle of Warrington, who was to join us for the debate. As we were slightly early, we adjourned to the Peers' Guest Room overlooking the Thames. This is the tea room of recent infamy regarding hiring peers, but no such excitement today, instead Lord Jones explained what he planned to cover in his speech, and that he had emailed a copy of his questions to the Government minister who would be answering, Lord Davies of Oldham, which in my opinion was a decent and constructive thing to do.
As the time approached, Vince and I were led upstairs by a friendly doorkeeper to one of the galleries, at the far end from the regular visitors area.
We sat top right
From here we watched the debate, introduced by Lord Jones, who summarised the facts of the case, that the islanders were devastated by the government putting an indefinite hold on the project to build an airport to replace the ageing RMS St Helena boat, currently the only means of reaching the island.
Jamestown, St Helena
RMS St Helena
The arguments for and against have been summarised in my previous blog entry on the Westminster Hall debate, introduced by Meg Munn MP. Suffice it to say that despite dignified and reasoned speeches by Lord Jones, Lord Hoyle, Lord Shutt of Greetland, and a somewhat limp response from Lord Howell of Guildford for the Conservatives, for the Government response, Lord Davies of Oldham rattled off the excuses which Lord Hoyle predicted would be used.
As a "tourist", I was excited to see Lord Lamont in the chamber for the end of the previous debate and some of this one, and Lord Robertson, the Nato Secretary General, popped in and out of the chamber a couple of times.
The Government response was disappointing yet predictable. Effectively the position currently is that a consultation is being held, and they will not commit to anything until this new current consultation has completed.
Although this project comes under DfID's responsibility, it seems that the Treasury are holding the purse strings and must surely be responsible for the failure to proceed. What are not clear to me (and all) are the criteria to be met for the Government to continue the project. There is a business case for doing this, the islanders want it, there has been a positive consultation, DfID's own advisors recommend it.. what more is required?
Afterward the debate, the House adjourned, and Vince and I possibly breached protocol by not standing as the Mace, representing the authority of the Sovereign, is carried from the chamber. Everyone below us, including all the Lords, stood in silence, as did the guests at the far end. By the time it became clear to us, it was too late!
Thankfully we weren't gaoled, and instead had our belongings returned by the Doorkeepers, and retired as a group to the Strangers' Bar, where Lord Jones bought us drinks which we took out to the waterside terrace. The rules of the Strangers' Bar are that MPs and Lords may entertain up to three guests. Guests may not buy drinks! The drink in this case being an excellent ale from one of my favourite breweries, RCH Brewery from Somerset. Outside, we met Calvin Harris, a Doorkeeper in the Commons who comes from St Helena.
Lord Jones, Calvin Thomas, and Vince Thompson
Calvin has not been back for over 20 years, partially because of the lack of a timely way of accessing the island. Perhaps this is the same reason that no government minister has ever visited the island.
Out on the terrace, with the Thames flowing by, we discussed the outcome of the debate. Perhaps little progress had been made, but as Meg Munn had suggested before, the important thing is to keep up the pressure on the government, something Lord Jones had achieved with admirable grace, and at short notice, as the debating time only came available because of the postponement of the Post Office privatisation.
The Palace of Westminster - we were at river level under Big Ben
Again, as a tourist, part of the fun of being out on the Strangers' Bar terrace was of seeing so many familiar faces, inside and out - Liam Fox, Tony McNulty, Charles Kennedy, Geoff Hoon and many others. On finishing our beers, Lord Jones escorted us back to the Peers' Entrance. I should mention that even walking the corridors of the Palace is a wonderful experience, the walls and decor steeped in history, but sadly for us there was little time to pause and enjoy. What I would give to have free reign of the palace for a day, to be able to explore what is a huge complex. I have my doubts as to whether much of the place is opened up on the Open House weekends!
For me personally, this was a marvellous visit, and my sincere thanks to Vince for inviting me and Lord Jones for being our gracious host. Vince and I retired to the excellent pub nearby, The Speaker in Great Peter Street, to write his report for St Helena radio.
Posted by Sam Crawley at 9:41 pm