Lord Foulkes: The ominous silence over St Helena's UK-funded airport
Former international development minister Lord Foulkes of Cumnock questions why he has been met by a "wall of silence" as he seeks answers about why St Helena's airport is not operational.
Why should 60 million UK citizens worry about 4,000 Saint Helena Islanders isolated in the South Atlantic? In a DFID annual budget of £11 billion the £300 million cost of their airport is relatively miniscule.
The reasons for us to be concerned are because St Helena is still a colony for which we are responsible and because their airport which was due to be opened in June is still not operational and a wall of silence has come down to hide the reasons why.
When I was a Minister at DFID in 1999 we first started looking at providing air access to the Island which was only accessible by boat, taking nearly a fortnight’s sailing from the UK on the RMS St Helena.
But, like so many of these projects the decision was not finally made until 2010 by the then Secretary of State, Andrew Mitchell, and the contract finally signed in 2011 after much delay and many changes.
All seemed to be progressing well with even a runway extension agreed which would allow some flights directly from the UK, with a stopover.
The airport was due to be opened by The Earl of Wessex June and all the arrangements had been made.
Meanwhile on the Island 27 staff had been trained in security, baggage handling and other functions and Comair had been approved as the preferred bidder to operate the service to Johannesburg.
In preparation for the influx of tourists both DFID and the St Helena Government had encouraged islanders to invest in facilities for them. Hotels have been developed, boats acquired to offer diving, fishing and shark sighting trips and other investments made with loans, whose repayment depended on the anticipated flow of income from tourists.
Then the body blow struck. Without any detailed explanation it was announced that commercial flights could not operate because of “wind shear”. The RMS St Helena was sailing up the Thames on that very day preparing to go to the scrapyard.
Having been contacted by concerned people I tabled an urgent question in the Lords asking why the airport was not opening in answer to which the then Minister, Baroness Verma, misled the House by claiming it was open. Under pressure she admitted that it wasn’t open for commercial flights.
So the Islanders were about to be left completely isolated with no commercial flights possible and their lifeline ship on the way to the breakers.
Since then I have tabled many more questions to which I have had the most minimal and evasive answers. Baroness Verma struggled to answer in the House resorting to promising me and other concerned peers a meeting at DFID to explain the position.
After nearly three months that meeting has not been arranged in spite of repeated reminders from me. Baroness Verma has been replaced but her successor, Baroness Anelay is continuing to stall. Knowing a bit about the workings of the Department I can only assume there is something to hide.
Meanwhile the Islanders who invested are getting into deep financial trouble, neither DFID nor the Island Government are offering any kind of help, transitional or long term.
I have received cries of anguish from Islanders and have written to the Chairs of the International Development Select Committee and the Public Accounts Committee, Stephen Twigg and Meg Hillier, asking if one of the Committees could investigate.
I have today chased up DFID for the promised meeting and I intend to raise the issue yet again when Parliament returns next Monday.
Although I have never visited the Island I have met “Saints” as they are known working in Ascension and sat with their Councillors at meetings of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. They are friendly, hard-working people for whom the UK is ultimately responsible.
We cannot continue to treat them in such a cavalier manner. Everything must be done to find a way of getting the airport open to commercial traffic and meanwhile a way must be found to ensure those who invested on our promises are not made bankrupt as a result.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock is a Labour member of the House of Lords and served as Parliamentary Under-Secretary in the Department for International Development from 1997 to 2001.