To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they now expect commercial flights to start at the airport in St Helena.
The Minister of State, Department for International Development (Lord Bates) (Con)
My Lords, scheduled commercial flights will begin when the conditions are considered safe to do so and the St Helena Government are able to contract an airline with the right aircraft and regulatory approval so that St Helena can develop its tourism industry and become less dependent on UK financial support.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Lab)
My Lords, I warmly welcome the noble Lord back to the House—
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock
I understand he has raised a huge amount of money for charity, which we all commend him for. I also welcome him to the Front Bench. It gives me hope—and I hope it will not be shattered. I want to help him today. Is he aware that Atlantic Star Airlines is willing to start a commercial air service with British Aerospace Avro RJ100 jets—a British company with British jets? It is sending a test plane this week and it reckons it can start the service within weeks. Will the Minister look into it and, if it is possible, get the service started as quickly as possible?
First, I thank the noble Lord for his warm welcome. As he is a distinguished alumnus of the Department for International Development, as a Minister in that department, I particularly appreciate his praise. I know he has taken a great interest in the specific point he raised, and we are grateful for that. He mentioned Atlantic Star Airlines. We are aware that that flight is heading out from Zurich and is due to arrive on Friday this week. It is a kind of test flight, I suppose. The contracting of the commercial arrangements is a matter for the St Helena Government, but Her Majesty’s Government have made it very clear that we want to find an operator as soon as possible so that the airport can begin commercial flights and improve tourism on that island which we both care so much about.
Lord Forsyth of Drumlean (Con)
My Lords, I welcome my noble friend back to the Front Bench and to the service of the House. I suggest to him that, given the assiduous nature of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, on this matter, it might be a good idea to arrange for him to be sent to St Helena on the first commercial flight.
I think that exile is a matter for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and negotiated through the usual channels.
Lord Shutt of Greetland (LD)
My Lords, I, too, welcome the noble Lord to his new role. It is now nearly six months since the announcement that the airport was not going to open. It has been a disastrous six months for St Helena, not knowing about the airport or whether the sea service was going to continue. Bearing in mind that the first call on the overseas aid budget is to look to the overseas territories, does the Minister agree that it would be right for some of those extra resources for overseas aid to be used to assist people who are trying their best in the tourism industry in St Helena, which was bereft of tourists this summer, so that those businesses can be kept afloat?
Those specific points about compensation are a matter for the St Helena Government, and representations should be made there. But the Government are committed to this. That is why, when asked about the flight, I said Her Majesty’s Government would be looking to provide a subsidy during the initial period to ensure that that flight can operate. That is why we have also said that we are committed to ensuring that the Royal Mail Ship “St Helena” continues in service until June next year and why we have also commissioned these additional pieces of research to look particularly at the issue of wind shear—which, of course, is stopping some of those flights from coming in. I totally agree with the noble Lord on the importance of this.
Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
My Lords, a fully functioning airport is absolutely vital, but there is an important lesson to be learned here. I asked the previous Minister about the contract for the airport and what risk assessments were undertaken. We were assured originally by the last Government that the contract would shift all the risk to the private contractor. It is important for the future that we learn the lessons from this huge and important investment so that we do not make the same mistakes again. Can he assure us that that will happen?
I have read the remarks that the noble Lord made in the debate in, I think, June 2014, about the contract with Basil Read. It is important to say that the problem is not necessarily with the airport—the structure is good, strong and sound—but with the wind shear. It is important, particularly in areas of international development, that we ensure that British taxpayers’ money is spent wisely. That is why the Major Projects Authority and now the Infrastructure and Projects Authority have undertaken gateway reviews every year. The noble Lord may also be aware that the National Audit Office looked into this airport in June this year and published a report to say that the business case put forward by the previous Labour Government was in fact sound.
Lord Spicer (Con)
My Lords, if they can build a runway on St Helena in the wrong place, why can we not build one over here in the right place, at Heathrow Airport?
Discuss the term “the right place”.
Lord Anderson of Swansea (Lab)
My Lords, I join in the chorus of praise and welcome for the noble Lord. He actually tries to answer questions, which is a major benefit. In respect of the contract, a major mistake has potentially been made. Everyone knew that the winds were extremely fierce around the islands, so why was nothing done? What lessons have been learned and was anyone held responsible for what clearly was a failure of preparation?
The noble Lord says that, but the wind was tested by the technical advisers and advice was taken from the Met Office. The issue came to light only when flights attempted to land in April, and of course we have to have the highest regard for public safety. It has been approved by Air Safety Support International as a category C airport, which is the same as London City Airport or Gibraltar Airport, for example. It is possible to see that it is used. Lessons need to be learned, of course, which is one of the reasons why, at the instigation of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, we are having a meeting for all interested Peers on 25 October between 1 pm and 2 pm in Committee Room 10A. I am very happy to extend that invitation to the noble Lord.