A SENIOR officer from the Isle of Man Customs and Excise Division has recently returned home after an 18-month placement to one of the most remote countries in the world.
Peter Henderson has been praised for making a ‘significant contribution’ to modernising the Customs Service during his time in St Helena, a small island in the South Atlantic that is accessible only by sea.
He travelled to the British Overseas Territory in January 2009 as part of an agreement that reflects the Isle of Man Government’s ongoing commitment to international development.
As well as directly benefitting the economy of St Helena, his placement helped to promote further awareness of the Isle of Man and showed the potential to strengthen Manx business links with South Africa and South America.
Peter’s positive impact on the economic and social life of St Helena was demonstrated upon his departure in July when hundreds of local people – known as Saints – turned out to wish him a fond farewell.
Treasury Minister Anne Craine MHK, whose Department has responsibility for the Isle of Man Customs and Excise Division, said: ‘We were delighted to once again take a lead in sharing our expertise with small developing countries around the world.
‘The UK Government clearly recognised the technical knowledge and leadership qualities of staff in the Island when they headhunted Peter for this unique posting.
‘The relationship that has developed with St Helena, and the wider economies of South Africa and South America, could present some interesting new opportunities for the Isle of Man Government and business sector to explore.’
The placement arose when the Government of St Helena first appealed to the UK Government for assistance in overhauling the island’s Customs Service.
Peter’s background and broad experience made him an ideal candidate for the post and, with the support of the Isle of Man Government, he agreed to take on the challenge – initially for 12 months.
His epic journey to the volcanic island in the South Atlantic Ocean served to underline its remoteness. Peter flew from RAF Brize Norton to Ascension Island before embarking on a three-day sea crossing aboard the RMS St Helena, the last remaining Royal Mail Ship operating today. His return trip included a five-day boat journey to Cape Town.
On his arrival Peter immediately set about reorganising St Helena’s Customs Service, training staff and implementing improvements to strengthen its law enforcement and revenue gathering operations.
The importance of this task is emphasised by the fact that import duty now underpins the economy of a country that has in the past been a producer of coffee beans and flax, a military prison and a key staging post for trade ships.
Working alongside six full-time and eight part-time officers in the capital Jamestown, Peter helped to put in place systems that boosted income generation by an impressive 118% and led to seizures of drugs, blood diamonds and illegal arms.
He was also involved in reviewing legislation and direct taxation, and advised on the design and construction of new customs freight and passenger terminals.
As well as growing accustomed to a new working environment, Peter – whose salary was paid by the Government of St Helena – had to adapt to life in an island 10 miles long and five miles wide, with no airport, no mobile phone connection, no credit card facilities, one bank and three television channels.
‘St Helena really is in the middle of nowhere and some people cannot cope with the sense of isolation,’ said Peter who had no such problems thanks to his upbringing in the Shetlands on the tiny island of Fair Isle.
‘The locals were absolutely marvellous – warm, welcoming, hard working and well educated. Members of staff were like sponges, very eager to soak up the training and learn new ways of working.
‘Many locals leave St Helena to find employment in the UK, Ascension Island, Falkland Islands and South Africa in order to further their careers and secure a higher standard of living as average salaries in the island are low. Consequently, part of my role was not only to develop the Customs Service, but also to help create a more business friendly environment that will attract new investment and improve job opportunities, whilst preserving the local identity.’
The improvements Peter introduced were recognised by the Government of St Helena which successfully negotiated a six-month extension to his placement.
Acting Governor Andrew Wells said: ‘Mr Henderson has made a significant contribution to modernising, training and developing the Customs Service in St Helena. The results achieved have been of substantial benefit to the Government, staff and people of the island.’
Peter, who also worked on the neighbouring Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha, was asked to remain in St Helena until the end of this year.
‘I would go back in a heartbeat, but my loyalties are with the Isle of Man and there are several projects here that require attention,’ he said. ‘I will keep in touch with St Helena via the internet and offer advice wherever necessary.
‘I had a fantastic time there and have many treasured memories of the people and the place. It is a real melting-pot of cultures, the food is phenomenal, and I didn’t wear a jumper the whole time I was there as the temperature never dropped below 16C.
‘I had mangoes and bananas growing in my garden in Longwood which is the place where Napoleon was detained in the years before his death.’
Peter, who is married with grown-up children, said: ‘It was a tremendous experience and I’m very grateful that I have such a tolerant wife.’
And with an airport scheduled to be built in St Helena, he added that there could be some exciting opportunities for Manx companies to extend their business interests in the South Atlantic.
‘Potentially there could be more than £300 million worth of new projects in St Helena in the coming years, and people are now aware of the Isle of Man and its excellent reputation as an international business centre.
‘Strengthening our links could be mutually beneficial,’ he said.