Ascension : FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE - SELECT COMMITTEE ANNOUNCEMENT (04 JULY 2008)
Submitted by The Islander (Islander Internet Editor) 10.07.2008 (Article Archived on 24.07.2008)
Except for purposes of tourism, it is impossible to stay on Ascension Island without a job contract. There are also restrictions on housing and business ownership.
FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE
SELECT COMMITTEE ANNOUNCEMENT (04 JULY 2008)
PRESS RELEASE FOR PUBLICATION SUNDAY O6 JULY 2008
EXTRACTS APPERTAINING TO ASCENSION ISLAND
Except for purposes of tourism, it is impossible to stay on Ascension Island without a job contract. There are also restrictions on housing and business ownership. Between 2000 and 2005 expectations were raised on the Island that rights of abode and property
ownership would be developed, following a decision by the main commercial organisations on the Island that they no longer wanted to be responsible for providing infrastructure and public services (see Part Two). However, in December 2005 the FCO announced that these rights would not be granted. The FCO states that it took this decision because granting such rights would have exposed the UK to an unacceptably high level of contingent liabilities.152 Meg Munn told us:
It is the Government’s view that […] it would not be sensible to establish a permanent base there […] The people who are there work for a limited number of organisations, and if they decided to move for any reason […] sustainability difficulties would arise.
During our stop on Ascension Island we were told that Islanders suspected that the US had also expressed concerns about permanent rights being granted.
In March 2007 six out of the seven Island Councillors resigned in protest. The Governor then decided, in consultation with the FCO, to dissolve the Council and call another general election. When only two people came forward as candidates the Governor obtained ministerial approval to suspend the Island Council for a period of up to 12 months. In this interim period, the Governor has continued taking legislative and policy decisions he believes necessary, assisted by an Advisory Group.
We received a submission from a group of Ascension Island residents, which included members of the Island Council who had resigned. In its evidence the group strongly criticised the FCO’s handling of the resignation of the Island Council, calling its suspension a “dictatorship” and arguing that the Advisory Group lacked transparency:
Most of the invited persons are the Senior Managers of the main User companies, a definite hark back to Company Town days. The Advisory Body meets in secret. No minutes are published and no information is released to the public as to the issues discussed or outcomes of the discussions.
The residents’ submission also highlighted events which they claimed showed that the Government had changed its mind and had initially planned to grant permanent rights:
in his Christmas Message of 2000 the Governor of Ascension Island stated “We will also be addressing the democratic deficit to ensure that St Helenians on Ascension Island are given the right of abode there, the opportunity to own businesses and a form of local government which gives the residents choice and a say in the running of their Island”;
in March 2001 the Administrator stated in a press interview that “[…] we know that we are going to need Land Tenure legislation very soon. This will give people the right to either purchase or lease property or land. We will also need legislation to provide for
the right of abode on Ascension although we will have to decide how we are going to provide for the unemployed, the elderly etc.”;
the then Overseas Territories minister Bill Rammell had acknowledged a strategic five year plan produced by the Island Council;
a constitutional advisor invited by the FCO had visited the Island in September 2003 and held public meetings on developing immigration, drafts of which he then sent to Island Council, via the FCO;
in December 2003 an agreement was signed at Secretary of State level allowing civil aircraft to use Ascension’s airfield and Air Safety Support International (see para 375, Chapter 4) were commissioned to advise on necessary upgrades to enable commercial flights to use the airfield;
the FCO did not object when five infill plots were identified and agreed to be marked and advertised for freehold sale or when the Island Council agreed to purchase two houses;
during 2004 the FCO granted the Ascension Island government £70,000 (subsequently raised to £106,000) to employ a Legal Adviser whose terms of reference included aiding the Attorney General in drafting land tenure and immigration legislation;
in December 2004 the FCO hosted meetings between the Ascension Island government Fisheries Officer, an elected Councillor and two companies it had sourced and invited to investigate the feasibility of a commercial fishery on Ascension Island; and
in January 2005 the Attorney General produced a timetable for land tenure and rights of abode.
This version of events was supported in evidence from a former FCO diplomat, now head of consultancy BioDiplomacy, who told us that FCO officials had initially been asked to promote a “huge move to civil society” on the Island, including “legislation providing for right of abode and a local property register”. We also note that in the 1999 White Paper the Government highlighted Ascension Island as an example where consultation on constitutional change was already under way, stating:
We are planning, for example, to consult the people of St Helena and its Dependencies about how to develop the democratic and civil rights of people living on Ascension Island.
We also received evidence from a former Island Council member, who did not form part of the group which resigned. He told us that the “endless exploitation and manipulation of elected members” had “forced a mass resignation from councillors”. He explained that he had agreed to sit on the unelected Advisory Group because “albeit an
undemocratic process with many limitations, I believe it allows me to continue questioning and focusing attention on some of the issues that concerns the taxpayers of Ascension.” He added:
My prime concern is that the […] Governor […] should set a date for new elections and permit the taxpayers' to have democratically elected representation. Our incomes are taxed, and there is no justification for taxation without representation on Ascension.
In late February 2008 the Governor published a consultation document, which made a number of proposals on the future of the Ascension Island Council, including:
reducing the number of elected members from seven to five;
reducing the quorum;
reducing the term of office for Councillors and the qualifying period for standing for election;
making the period for canvassing short with no reimbursement of costs;
holding quarterly Council meetings with the Heads of Employing Organisations.160
The document appears to confirm that the Government has no intention of reconsidering granting rights of abode and property ownership to those who live and work on the Island.
During our evidence session with Meg Munn MP we asked her whether the FCO had carried out a U-turn. She replied:
I find it difficult to say, because I was not part of that conversation. The Ascension Islanders told me that that was the understanding that they were given, and I regret that, because it is not the Government’s position.
She told us that she had visited the Island to discuss the re-election of an Island Council:
I had a full and frank discussion with a number of people on Ascension Island, and I believe that at the end of it they were clear […] that we wanted to move forward on having an Ascension Island council re-elected, because we believe that people living there and working there, even without permanent rights, should be involved in governance issues—it makes for better governance. Part of that process will be to establish a mechanism by which, without having permanent property rights, it will be possible for businesses to develop in a more sustainable way than is currently the case.
She noted that there had been a lot of anger, explaining what they said to me was that while they might disagree about the issue of residence, their biggest issue was being misled, and that if we were moving to a stage where we would be absolutely clear about what could happen and what arrangements could be made, people might well be willing to reconsider standing for council, but in my view, that position would not be achieved before later this year. We are looking at autumn rather than spring.
We conclude that the FCO did raise expectations that rights of property and abode would be granted to those who live and work on Ascension Island. We recommend that the FCO must make greater efforts to restore trust among the residents of the Island. In particular, we recommend that it should try to re-establish the Island Council as soon as possible. We further recommend that the FCO should work with elected representatives to consider the potential contingent liabilities of a permanent base on Ascension Island, and means of reducing these liabilities, with the ultimate aim of granting rights of property and abode to residents.