St Helena’s welfare reform programme has been used as a tool to chide the UK government on its own drive to reduce social benefits, in a column in the UK’s Guardian newspaper.
Hugh Muir notes that executive councillors have “taken the best advice” and “agreed to introduce a new system based on minimum income standards, linking benefit rates to the cost of a basket of goods judged necessary for an adequate standard of living.”
The Westminster government, on the other hand, has been accused of throwing some households into poverty with changes to housing benefits.
And it is taking a tough line on employment benefits too, saying there are “insufficient incentives to encourage people on benefits to start paid work or increase their hours”.
The Guardian makes no mention of the long-standing discontent over unequal treatment of people on different kinds of benefits on St Helena.
The island’s government appears gratified by the Guardian’s implied approval for its reforms. It has drawn attention to it in a press release, with the comment: “Diary columns traditionally take a quirky look at the news.”
A report of discontent among Saints on Ascension has drawn a retort in the Guardian newspaper from the island’s administrator, Colin Wells.
Writer Fred Pearce quoted four long-time island residents voicing concerns about the effects of Ascension’s declining population – with a suggestion that it was the result of deliberate policy.
He also described the sense of betrayal felt by many long-term workers when the British government made a “necessary U-turn” by going back on a promise to give them the right to live on the island, even without a work contract.
Mr Wells’s letter says: “Ascension has always operated as a workplace. All of those coming to the island do so on short-term contracts, which they sign in full knowledge that their presence on the island is conditional on their employment and there is no right of permanent abode.
“There are solid reasons for this. Ascension has extremely limited infrastructure. It would be vastly expensive to convert the island from a place of work to one of permanent residence.
“It would, for instance, require provision to be made for elderly care, pensions, and an expanded public service and legal system. This would place enormous burden on the taxpayer and would still not guarantee a viable permanent community given the remoteness, small size, and largely barren nature of Ascension.
“There is no intention of squeezing life out of Ascension, but it is true that the number of people working there may fluctuate. It is precisely to retain this flexibility that the government does not have any expectation that it will artificially sustain a permanent community on Ascension.”
Mr Wells also dismissed the opening angle of the article, which made comparisons with the scandal of Diego Garcia, another UK overseas territory from which local people were forcibly removed to clear the islands for a US air base. .
He said: “The claim that Britain is uprooting families [on Ascension] to make way for a US military base is bewildering: there has been a US airfield on the island for over 70 years.”
COMMENT: St Helena Online carried a report about Fred Pearce’s article, re-angled to reflect the impact of depopulation on Saints and island life. In truth, most of what was said will have been very familiar to people with any knowledge of Ascension: the grievances have been building up over a few years. However, the impact is being felt more keenly as time passes, and the concerns deserved to be reported.
The issue drew a number of comments on the Ascension Island page on Facebook, here.
Long-held resentments over treatment of Saints on Ascension have been aired in a lengthy article on the UK’s Guardian website.
It accuses the UK of depopulating the island – with teenagers facing sexual pressures as a result.
Writer Fred Pearce says people who have lived on the island all their lives are being forced out because they have no right to stay without work – and the number of jobs is being systematically reduced.
“Jobs are being shed and workers moved on to short-term contracts,” he writes. “Families now only accompany workers if that is essential to fill positions, say officials.
“The loss of families means that three-quarters of the population is now male. Sexual exploitation of the remaining teenage girls is becoming a serious problem.”
The school is losing pupils and in danger of becoming unviable, says the article – quoting prominent resident Caz Yon, who was recently awarded the MBE for services to the island.
The discontent dates back to 2006, when UK foreign secretary Jack Straw went back on promises to give resident workers the right to live on the island without a job, and rights to own property.
“Businesses set up during the ‘Ascension spring’ have lost their value because they cannot be sold and have no secure land tenure.”
Administrator Colin Wells defends the UK’s “necessary U-turn” in the article.
He also denies that the island is seeing “a slow motion repeat” of the ongoing scandal of Diego Garcia, another British territory whose people were expelled to make way for a US air base – and are still fighting to return.
Pearce quotes Lawson Henry, now an executive councillor on St Helena, where retired Ascension workers are denied local pensions because they have not worked on their native island for the required 20 years.
Little has changed since Jack Straw’s U-turn, but now the island is seeing the effects of Britain’s decision to avoid having to pay pensions or unemployment benefit.
But maybe noises are about to be made again, says the article, which is headlined, US and UK accused of ‘squeezing life out of’ Ascension Island.
“The issue is expected to come to a head in elections later this year for the island council – a purely advisory body that is the island’s only semblance of democracy after 198 years of British rule.”
Democracy: another promise that didn’t quite come off.