7 Nov 2001 : Column 69WH

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 7 November 2001

[Sylvia Heal in the Chair]


Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Stringer.]


Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing this important debate to take place. I also thank the Minister and shadow Minister for attending and the Minister for answering the questions that will be raised.

The purpose of the debate is to discuss the future of Gibraltar and in particular its sovereignty. Members will be aware of the appropriate timing of the debate, as talks are continuing between the British and Spanish Governments about Gibraltar. I hope that the debate will provide the opportunity for clarification of the Government's plans, as well as assurances about the future sovereignty of Gibraltar.

The 30,000 people of Gibraltar are United Kingdom citizens, who have been loyal for almost 300 years. Their loyalty should never be questioned. At all times, during both world wars and when we were engaged in the Falklands and the Gulf, Gibraltar has supported the British armed forces. We should never forget what they have given on behalf of the United Kingdom.

Let me ask some questions. Which country has a border-crossing procedure that takes a minimum of one and a half hours, at all times of day on every day of the year? Which country prevents UK military flights from overflying its airspace, although both countries are members of NATO ? Which country provides reduced security for British citizens by denying them participation in the open skies agreement and related security provisions? Which country refuses further telephone connections to restrict the economic development of Gibraltar? Which country actively campaigned to restrict its neighbour from joining UEFA and even stopped judges from attending a dog show? Which country refuses to accept that people should have the right to determine their own future? Which country stops cruise ships from sailing to its neighbour; they have to go to a neutral port? Which country stops a ferry crossing the straights from Algeciras?

I am not referring to some tin-pot south American dictatorship, based on fascism; I am talking about Spain in the 21st century and its relationship with Gibraltar. Both belong to the European Union. The citizens of Gibraltar are naturally concerned about the outcome of discussions between the British and Spanish Governments. After all, we are dealing with their future and their right to self-determination.

The Minister has visited Gibraltar and is aware of the feelings of its people. I hope that he will keep their views at the forefront of all discussions with his Spanish counterparts. I commend the Minister on his work and on his determination to work with the Spanish to solve

7 Nov 2001 : Column 70WH

various issues, alongside my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. That needs to continue. Dialogue is important. I always tell people that discussions cost nothing; they are important and are a way forward. We cannot continue to allow anomalies to exist.

The uncertainty of change always causes anxiety but that has only been made worse by the actions of the Spanish Government, who continue to pursue their claim to Gibraltar. Why does Spain have a claim? The British have been in Gibraltar for almost 300 years, but the Spanish were there for only a couple of hundred years before that. Gibraltar belonged to the moors before that and Spain did not even exist. One could argue that Spain has the least claim over Gibraltar. Britain, however, did exist. Dutch marines and the Royal Marines fought in Gibraltar. The Royal Marines who will be going into Afghanistan carry Gibraltar on their crest. It is their most famous battle and it is silly for people to deny that.

We should recognise that Gibraltar has been British for 300 years since the treaty of Utrecht and its people have developed a clear sense of identity, with their own culture and heritage, as part of the United Kingdom. The territory is economically self-sufficient with an economy based mainly on tourism, ship repairing, port activities and financial services. The armed forces are there as well. We should remember that Gibraltar's industries are a major employer in southern Spain. Those using the border crossing are generally people from Spain going to work in Gibraltar rather than vice versa. Gibraltar has helped to ensure that that underdeveloped part of Spain has become economically more sound.

As Members will be aware, Gibraltar is also a full member of the EU, having entered as part of the UK in 1973. The people of Gibraltar value the political stability that membership of the EU brings which, unfortunately, is not being delivered. Given Gibraltar's membership of the EU, it is difficult to comprehend the actions taken by the Spanish, which are often extremely damaging to Gibraltar and its citizens. The Minister is well aware of such actions and although I do not want to spend too much time on the matter, it is necessary to remind the House of the appalling conduct of Spain. There are continual delays at the border, in clear violation of the EU freedom of movement laws. Spain refuses to recognize Gibraltar's telephone dialling code, which means that Gibraltar has run out of new telephone numbers. The Gibraltarians cannot create more numbers because of Spain.

Spain forbids Spanish operators from signing mobile roaming agreements with Gibraltar, so Gibraltarian mobile phones do not work in Spain in clear breach of EU competition rules. Spain has taken active steps to disfranchise Gibraltarians by taking the UK to court to prevent us including Gibraltar in European parliamentary elections. Continuous attempts have been made to damage Gibraltar's status as a finance centre with allusions to money laundering, which does not occur there. The case that the Government of Gibraltar are not in charge of the policing of Gibraltar can also be refuted. The Governor is in charge of policing, but the myth that he is not continues to be sustained by Spain, along with that of Gibraltar's involvement in drug running. Why would a smuggler want to smuggle drugs into Gibraltar and have to smuggle them back over a border that has one and a half

7 Nov 2001 : Column 71WH

hour queues? Why would he not just smuggle them into Spain? It should be recognised that Spain is the route for most drugs.

Spain should be careful. The Spanish should examine the sale of property along the Costa del Sol, as people are cashing in their currencies before euros are introduced. Spain ought to wonder where that money is coming from and consider allegations closer to home rather than making allegations against the financial institutions in Gibraltar. We must not forget that those institutions operate under the rules of the City of London, which have been tightened and strengthened by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

We have to talk about the prohibition of air and maritime links between Gibraltar and Spain, as well as Spain's obstruction of Gibraltar's participation in international sporting federations. When considering such examples it is little wonder that Gibraltarians are anxious about talks between the two Governments over the future of their country.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I come from an area where we have similar problems. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the people of Gibraltar understand the use of the word sovereignty but are a little concerned that the sharing of the sovereignty of Gibraltar with Spain is more in the mind of some of our representatives than Gibraltarians would want?

Mr. Hoyle : I know that there is concern about that. I believe, and the Minister has stated clearly, that the future of Gibraltar should not be decided over the heads of the people of Gibraltar, who have the right to self-determination.

Fears will have been made worse by recent press speculation about secret deals and in particular the comments made by Josep Pique, the Spanish Foreign Minister, that the British Government should not give the people of Gibraltar the right to vote on any matter involving sovereignty during discussions on Gibraltar's future and that they should be ignored when a decision is taken.

I find it difficult to believe that a country such as Spain, which is young in democratic terms and has come out of a dictatorship, which has seen fascism and gone through many years without the right to vote, refuses to recognize the rights of 30,000 citizens of Gibraltar to determine their own future. One must question whether that is hypocrisy. People may say that Gibraltar is part of a colonial past of which we should rid ourselves, but Spain's hypocrisy lies in the fact that the people of Ceuta and Melilla, two enclaves in north Africa that are not even on the same continent as Spain, are given full European Union rights. No one seems bothered about that.

If people want overseas territories to be modernised, let us please let that happen. Let us get away from some of the old colonial pressures. Let us consider what France has done in incorporating French New Guinea, Corsica and its other overseas territories, as Spain has done and as has been done in the Dutch West Indies. There is a model for us to consider. The British

7 Nov 2001 : Column 72WH

Government have decided on a different model, but neither is wrong. We must respect the wishes of people in overseas territories and those who are democratically elected should have respect for the people of Gibraltar. We must never lose sight of that. Thankfully, the Minister who is responding to the debate today has fought for and recognises democracy and will never give up on it.

We should remember Spain's hypocrisy, and the fact that the Canary islands are further from Madrid than Gibraltar is from London. Spain must recognise that it should treat the people of Gibraltar in the same way as it treats people in its own overseas territories.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster): The hon. Gentleman is right to contrast the way in which the Canary islands and Gibraltar are treated. The Canary islands have received enormous amounts of EU aid, new roads and airports and coastal defences, which sharply contrasts with the aid that Gibraltar is not receiving, although it is a full member of the EU and the Canary islands are associate members.

Mr. Hoyle : That is right. The two enclaves in north Africa are treated in the same way—this debate concerns how overseas territories are treated. Spain's actions towards Gibraltar and its unwillingness to recognize the right to self-determination of the Gibraltarians are not the actions of a responsible member of the EU. I am aware that Spain is a useful ally in the EU on many other matters, but in relation to Gibraltar I am afraid that this is not the case.

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): Would the hon. Gentleman accept a solution that made Gibraltar, like the Canary islands, an autonomous region of Spain? Is that what he is suggesting?

Mr. Hoyle : I believe in democracy and the rights of the people of Gibraltar to self-determination. A new Member of this House who has just been democratically elected should recognise that fact—and a trade union member should too, as many people in Gibraltar are members of the Transport and General Workers' union.

Given the concerns of the people of Gibraltar and the concerns that I and fellow hon. Members have, it is essential that the Minister provides certain assurances before further discussions and before decisions are taken. First, and most importantly, does the Minister agree that sovereignty is not negotiable without the consent of the people? I am aware of previous statements on this matter, but it is essential to clarify the point. Despite the views of the Spanish Government, no decision regarding sovereignty can be taken without a referendum.

Secondly, the Gibraltar Government must have their own voice at talks regarding the future of Gibraltar. If the Government of Gibraltar decide to go, they should have their own voice—the decision is for the Chief Minister to take. Those two assurances will guarantee the people of Gibraltar a voice in discussions on their future. They should have nothing less. Indeed, they should have the final say in determining their future. The problem is that the Foreign Office has sought to make it

7 Nov 2001 : Column 73WH

impossible for Gibraltar to attend the talks. That is no good for anyone and will not help to move the debate on.

I am sure that the Minister will look favourably on my requests and is working to ensure that future talks reach an amiable agreement. It might be a little more difficult to convince the Spanish Government to adhere to those requests, but I am sure that our Ministers will persuade them.

I have made my views clear. The Minister is aware of the views and feelings of the citizens of Gibraltar, which I ask him to represent in talks with the Spanish. I hope that he will guarantee that the people of Gibraltar are treated fairly and have the right to determine their future. That will end the anomalies that allow UK citizens to be treated so badly. We should look after the people of the UK, but we seem to have forgotten the loyalty of the 30,000 UK passport holders in Gibraltar.

9.45 am

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): I want to make a simple point. I have no special knowledge of foreign affairs, but I have the pleasure of regularly going on holiday to Gibraltar. My wife and daughter went there recently while I was working hard in politics here.

The Minister should be aware of the uncertainty in Gibraltar, which is a great worry. In the past, people always said, "Britain's okay, it's strong, it will never sell us out." Now, there is growing uncertainty and when people discover that I am a Member of Parliament, they ask me what is going on, because things seem to be happening in the background.

Feelings in Gibraltar are abundantly clear. As the Minister well knows, a referendum has shown an astonishing 98 per cent. support for retaining connections with the United Kingdom, so there is no doubt about the level of commitment. I have respected the Minister over the years and have always regarded him as sound, sensible and straightforward, particularly on European issues. I do not mean to disrespect the Labour party or to say that no other Labour Members are like that, but there are people in all parties whom one can trust and I have always regarded the Minister as straight, honourable and decent. I have been staggered by his recent comments, however, which conflict not only with reality but with his earlier comments. There might be a good reason for that: he might have come across facts and issues of which I am not fully aware, or which I am not intelligent enough to understand. However, he will understand that people are worried and are asking, "Is something funny going on?"

We should also remember that Spain is a major recipient of European Economic Community funding and it annoys people in Gibraltar that they get nothing even though they suffer considerable stress, worry, unemployment and misery.

I could go on for a long time, but I and the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), who made an excellent speech, believe that there is only one thing for the Government to say: no constitutional change must be made unless the people of Gibraltar want it.

What worries me most about the EEC—it used to worry the Minister—is that democracy does not matter a damn and that the views of the people do not count. I

7 Nov 2001 : Column 74WH

had the pleasure of being in Germany when people were talking about joining this single currency business and I met no one who wanted it. It seemed that the whole German community opposed it, but the politicians were for it. To that extent, the views of the people did not matter at all. People come to my surgery almost every week to ask about things that worry them, such as the export of live cattle or the amount that the EU spends on growing high-tar tobacco that it dumps in the third world, or even about the age of homosexual consent. People are worried about those things, but when they discuss them they have to be told, "I'm terribly sorry. Your MPs do not matter." Then they say, "Well, can we go to the European Parliament?" The answer to that is, "There is no point because, if the European Parliament closed its doors tomorrow, no one would notice apart from the taxi drivers of Strasbourg."

What can we say to the people of Gibraltar? We must tell them, "Your views matter. It is not a question of Ministers meeting in secret with representatives of the European Union to come to a dirty deal and sell you out." If that were to happen, my faith in British democracy and the British system of government would disappear. There is an easy answer. The Minister need not present complex arguments about his dealings over borders and about how things can be improved. He should simply tell us that the views of the people of Gibraltar, and nothing else, are what matter to Britain. After all, it is their place. They live there and their views are what matter.

Many of Britain's great problems, which Governments of all parties have faced, could have been overcome if we had simply had the decency and integrity to treat the views of the people as what counted. Without that clear message, the uncertainty in Gibraltar will continue.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): My hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour linked events in Gibraltar and the democratic deficit in the European Union. Does he accept that there is no question of a democratic deficit in Gibraltar if 98 per cent. of its population have made it crystal clear in a referendum that they want to retain their links with the United Kingdom?

Sir Teddy Taylor : My hon. Friend is right. It is a pleasure and honour to have him as a neighbour. He will make a splendid contribution to democracy. Something that worries me about getting old is who will defend democracy when I fade away, but the presence of my hon. Friend tells me that I need not worry and can relax.

Mr. Bryant : The hon. Gentleman is more likely to go out with a bang.

Sir Teddy Taylor : I did not hear that. I am sorry but the hon. Gentleman does not speak very clearly. He must come from somewhere—[Interruption.]

We want a simple message to be given to the people of Gibraltar: that their views count and nothing will happen without their agreement. If we cannot send that message and do not think that the views of the people count, there is no point in pretending that we are a democracy. I congratulate the hon. Member for Chorley on requesting the debate and on his honest, fair

7 Nov 2001 : Column 75WH

assessment of the situation. I hope that we can all agree on a new popular front—that nothing but democracy and the views of the people of Gibraltar will count in deciding this issue.

9.52 am

Margaret Moran (Luton, South): In a recent parliamentary question I asked the Foreign Secretary whether it was right, in 2001, that we should maintain the anachronism of what is effectively an outpost colony within a major European partner. I stand by my view, despite having since received several insulting e-mails. If their tone indicates the standard of debate about Gibraltar and its relations with the United Kingdom and Spain, that is depressing.

We need to examine how to bring about positive relations between the countries concerned. That does not mean taking the view that there will never be any change with respect to Gibraltar. However, the context of the debate needs to be made clear. The previous two speakers rightly maintained the need for democracy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) made clear, the Government stand by the commitment to the people of Gibraltar that was set out in the preamble to the 1969 constitution, which enshrines the principle of the consent of the people of Gibraltar to any change in sovereignty. On the need for democracy in Gibraltar, the Government stand by the preamble to the constitution. That is the context for our debate. Those who would raise doubts in the minds of the people of Gibraltar about the Government stance on the constitution do no service to them or our relations with Spain.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): How can the hon. Lady say that Gibraltar is a colonial outpost when Britain does not tell the Gibraltarians what to do? The Gibraltarians say what they want to do themselves. Does she accept that Gibraltarians are a legitimate democratic unit and are entitled to express their views and have their wishes followed and understood?

Margaret Moran : Obviously, the Government's commitment means that the Gibraltarians will have the opportunity to give their views. That is set out in the constitution and the Government stand by it.

The dispute has effectively raged since 1713 and it cannot continue until 2002 or 2050 without a resolution. The talks are nothing new. A recent article by Geoffrey Howe, previously a Conservative Foreign Secretary, made it clear that some of the discussions have gone on in detail for 17 years.

Mr. Hoyle : Does my hon. Friend agree that Spain's two enclaves in north Africa ought to be the model used for Gibraltar?

Margaret Moran : It would be ill-advised of us to try to pre-determine the outcome of any discussions, as many hon. Members have said. The Gibraltarian people should debate with Spain and the United Kingdom how to achieve a better future for Gibraltar.

7 Nov 2001 : Column 76WH

Having said that the constitutional commitment has been reaffirmed, I think it important that we move forward. Geoffrey Howe's discussions started 17 years ago with Fernando Moran—he is not a relative of mine—and appeared to make progress. However, they were halted once again. It is now time that we modernised our relationship with Gibraltar and Spain and put the discussions back on track. We need a vision for the future of Gibraltar rather than constant reference to its history.

Gibraltar needs to capitalise on its natural strengths, by which I do not mean only tourism and the naval base. Increasingly, it is a regional financial services centre. Its business links can be further advanced through more positive relations with the UK and Spain.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest): I noted carefully that the hon. Lady said that we needed a vision for the future of Gibraltar, but that is not so. The people of Gibraltar have a vision for the future of their country and we must support them.

Margaret Moran : We are all party to the future of Gibraltar, and "we" includes the people of Gibraltar. It is important that we have a collective vision of how we can enhance Gibraltar's natural opportunities, its business links, its sharing of a common language and law system with us and its reputation for sound regulation. More positive relations with the UK and Spain could further enhance those opportunities. It is important that we recognise the possibility of developing Gibraltar airport, which could bring further economic and commercial benefits to the people of Gibraltar and those in neighbouring regions of Spain.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): I apologise for missing the start of the debate.

As someone who has visited Gibraltar several times, both as a Member of Parliament and before I was one, I know that its people have a clear vision of what they want to do and of the economic and social developments that the hon. Lady talks about. However, their neighbour, Spain, increasingly frustrates them from achieving their ambitions. Surely this Government and Parliament should encourage Spain to allow them to seek and fulfil their destiny.

Margaret Moran : The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point and it is precisely the argument that I am trying to advance. We cannot resolve some of the problems articulated by my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley unless there is a more positive dialogue and relationship between Spain and this country. That would end some of the disadvantages that Gibraltarians suffer in their everyday lives—for example, the restrictions on flights and telephones and the border queues. We shall not resolve issues such as the border delays, which are unfair and unwarranted, simply by banging the table or threatening legal action which would be long drawn out and uncertain. Spain can be compelled to change the border regime, but we shall achieve that only through dialogue and more positive relations.

7 Nov 2001 : Column 77WH

Gibraltar needs to show more imagination. We have within our grasp the opportunity to end 300 years of what in some circles would be called Spanish harassment and the colonial trappings of the relationship with the United Kingdom. We should try to maximise that opportunity. Surely, Gibraltarians would be interested in new arrangements that would bring about good relations with Spain and greater self-government for Gibraltar, giving them a greater say in their own affairs. That must be a positive way forward for Gibraltar.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): Does the hon. Lady accept that the Government of Gibraltar have always been willing to talk to the Government of Spain? Does she agree—it is important that she is precise about this—that the people of Gibraltar are entitled to the United Nations right of self-determination? Will she give a yes or no answer?

Margaret Moran: I—[Interruption.] I was astonished by the question. Of course, the people of Gibraltar are entitled to United Nations—[Interruption.] The fact of the matter is that we understand the concerns of the Gibraltarian people. Britain's commitment to Gibraltarians makes their participation in the dialogue not only essential but safe. They have that safeguard for their constitution. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said that Gibraltar will speak to Spain. I hope that that will be the case in the further discussions in November and that Mr. Caruana will be at those discussions so that there may be some progress, which is long overdue.

We recognise the need for Gibraltarians to see early evidence of the potential benefits of improved co-operation with Spain to build up faith in the dialogue process. The quid pro quo is that Spain needs to show greater flexibility, particularly on some of the problems, for example the ways in which Gibraltarians are hindered in going about their daily business. There must be some movement and early benefit to show Gibraltarians that there are real advantages in a more positive relationship with Spain.

It is not for us to dictate the new dispensation for Gibraltar. The constitutional commitment is clear: it is for Gibraltar to decide in a referendum. It is patronising to suggest that any option should be ruled out of talks before the people of Gibraltar have had a chance to consider the options on their merits. A veto on constitutional change is not a veto on any change whatever.

We acknowledge the concerns that have been raised about uncertainty in the dialogue process, but the Gibraltar Government need to be part of the dialogue and to be positive. It is important that the Chief Minister participates in the Brussels process. Britain and Spain respect the need for him to have a separate voice in the process and he is best placed to voice Gibraltar's interests and wishes. The way to resolve the long-standing disputes about the future of Gibraltar is through dialogue, particularly between friends and allies. We seek a positive future and look to the opportunities that dialogue presents. We must focus not on the history of Gibraltar, but on a new vision of a European future in which it has positive relations with the UK and, in particular, with Spain.

7 Nov 2001 : Column 78WH

10.5 am

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I will be brief because many hon. Members wish to speak. That fact shows the importance and timeliness of today's debate. We should thank the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle).

We can take it as read that all those present are loyal and committed to our country and to Gibraltar. That is what the people of Gibraltar deserve, because they have also shown loyalty and commitment in the past three centuries. Many of us also love Spain and take a positive view about the many wonderful developments that have occurred there since democracy returned. Spain is now a pluralist country with devolved power and different levels of government, such as in Catalonia.

The Minister knows that I respect him greatly, but I should tell him that the British Government have been very wobbly on this issue for far too long. There is no reason why we cannot have a perfectly good relationship with our friend and neighbour Spain, while saying, "On this issue, you have to move on. You must give up this old-fashioned, out-of-date, pre-democracy position." If we enter into talks in Barcelona on 20 November with the attitude that everything is up for negotiation and that we should start from the beginning and ignore history and if we let Spain assume that it can negotiate sovereignty, formal agreements such as the treaty of Utrecht and the result of the Gibraltar referendum will be betrayed. Such an attitude would also be entirely unrealistic in terms of our obligation to maintain the existing position.

We must make the Spanish Government understand that they have to behave as adult Europeans on this issue. They behave that way in all other respects, but they have never responded appropriately to the Gibraltar question, and they need to be given a clear message. Will the Government make it clear to Spain that, although Gibraltar is a colony, the right to self-determination prevails? Will the Minister confirm that it remains Government policy to allow the people of Gibraltar to decide their future and to have the right of self-determination? Will he also make it absolutely clear that newspaper reports in the past two months on the sharing of sovereignty are inaccurate? The Government and the people of Gibraltar need to be assured that that is not on the agenda, so that the issue can be put to one side. The Minister knows the constitutional problems that such a change would present.

Will the Minister also confirm that the gradual passing of control to Spain is not on the agenda? Of course, there should be talks on the nonsense of border controls, the telephone exchange and so on. As the hon. Member for Chorley pointed out, the argument that Spain consistently adopts is pretty rich, given its territorial position in north Africa.

Over the years, Gibraltar Governments have fully understood their obligations to the European Union, of which Gibraltar is a proud member. They have also understood their obligation to deal with past problems such as customs and excise and financial controls. They have responded by doing all that was asked of them and by taking on the burden of EU obligations.

However, in one regard, we have failed Gibraltarians completely, as the case of the Gibraltarian woman who obtained a European Court judgment demonstrated.

7 Nov 2001 : Column 79WH

We failed to grant them their right to be full European Union citizens by failing to establish their right to vote in European elections. If the EU does not agree on how the matter should proceed, will the UK Government legislate in good time to ensure that the people of Gibraltar are granted their full right to participate in European elections?

Mr. Hoyle : Does the hon. Gentleman think that there is also a case for elections in Gibraltar resulting in representation in the House of Commons?

Simon Hughes : That is a perfectly proper option. In the first instance, I am keen to ensure that, in some way or other, the people of Gibraltar have a vote at the next European elections. The constituency to which they belong might be a matter for discussion, but the British Government should take the initiative.

I urge the Minister to show again the strength that he showed when he stood up for democracy in South Africa in his youth. He made many pronouncements from the Back Benches and, since becoming Minister for Europe, he has made many assertions about the importance of a modern, democratic Europe. I welcome him to the job, but he must do better than his predecessors, who gave Gibraltarians little consolation over the years. We need firm, clear and progressive views, not wobble.

10.10 am

Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford): I commend the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) for his stand against the desires of some to remove the rights of the people of Gibraltar. I also commend the work of Albert Poggio MBE and the Gibraltar Government office in London for their work to enable people in the United Kingdom, including Members of Parliament, to know the truth about the situation in Gibraltar.

I felt ashamed on hearing the remarks of the hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran). What are we here to do if not to stand up for democracy? The reality is that the people of Gibraltar are being bullied, and have been for a long time. It is outrageous and completely unacceptable for us in the democratic Parliament of the United Kingdom to allow the people of Gibraltar to be treated in a way that none of us would allow our constituents to be treated.

Mr. Bryant : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Rosindell : Not at the moment.

Gibraltar's people are as British as the rest of us; they are loyal decent subjects of Her Majesty the Queen. Gibraltar is British, and its people want it to remain so. We owe them the same support and loyalty that they give to the United Kingdom.

I am pleased that the Minister for Europe is here. He has a reputation for standing up for democracy and human rights. I hope that he will continue to live up to that reputation by standing up for the democratic rights of the people of Gibraltar, as he has done for peoples in other parts of the world. I was surprised to read a quote from the Minister in a recent newspaper article, in which

7 Nov 2001 : Column 80WH

he talked about "normalising" the situation and getting the people of Gibraltar to "modernise" their thinking. What is more modern than to allow people to choose their own future and to decide their own destiny? That is what we are talking about for the people of Gibraltar. How can we talk of modernising something when democracy is what counts?

The hon. Member for Luton, South spoke of an anachronism, and about three countries. That shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation. The people of Gibraltar are not the people of a third country; they are British and will remain so. Whatever people say and do and whatever the misunderstandings projected by hon. Members and others, the people of Gibraltar must be allowed to decide their own future.

I have visited Gibraltar many times, and I have also visited the Falkland Islands and Argentina. I have good relations with the Conservative party's sister parties in Spain and Argentina. I ask hon. Members who are sceptical about the rights of the people of Gibraltar to consider what has happened to the party in Argentina. It has adapted the way in which it handles matters to try to bring about better relations with the people of the Falkland Islands. To some extent, it has succeeded.

We should contrast that with the outrageous bullying tactics of successive Spanish Governments, including, shamefully, its current Government. Spain's Foreign Minister recently described Gibraltar as a parasite on the Spanish economy. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is scandalous that any British Government—if we had a Conservative Government, I would say the same—should for so long have allowed the people of Gibraltar to be treated in this shameful, unacceptable, undemocratic and bullying fashion by Spanish Governments.

Mr. Bryant : I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman agrees with the Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Donald Anderson), who said during a previous debate on Gibraltar that

We need a genuine debate, not talk of bullying, hypocrisy and similar nonsense.

Mr. Rosindell : That says it all. I am utterly astonished that any hon. Member could make such a ridiculous comment. Those of us who have come to the Chamber to speak up for the people of Gibraltar are not engaged in megaphone diplomacy—we are acting on behalf of people whose democratic rights are being denied to them by the Spanish Government. The hon. Member for Chorley described a whole range of unacceptable behaviour by that Government, who are supposed to represent a modern, democratic member of the European Union.

We should consider the situation on the border, where people have to wait for hours in appalling circumstances to get into Gibraltar. We should consider the Spanish Government's refusal to recognise the Gibraltar telephone code and their objection to Gibraltarians voting in European elections even though, for better or worse, they are part of the European Union and should

7 Nov 2001 : Column 81WH

be entitled to vote in them. We should consider the open skies agreement, on which the Government, sadly, appear to have capitulated. Even sporting events are affected. Disgracefully, a dog show was disrupted. Such behaviour is outrageous, and cannot be justified by any Member of Parliament who claims to believe in any form of democracy. None of us should tolerate it for a moment longer.

I wish to convey my immense admiration to the people of Gibraltar for their steadfast refusal to buckle under the crude and illegal pressure placed on them by the Spanish Government. Gibraltar has been a sovereign British territory for 288 years, and the British people of Gibraltar are happy with that arrangement. The entire situation is underwritten in the treaty of Utrecht, which states that Gibraltar is to be

by Great Britain. Meanwhile, Spain appears oblivious to the hypocrisy of its sovereignty over two less successful territories in Morocco, where it is doing the exact opposite of what it claims in respect of Gibraltar. How can that doublespeak be justified?

Later this month, discussions on Gibraltar's future will take place. There should be no such discussions. Why should we discuss the rights of British people? Would any of us discuss negotiating away the sovereignty of our constituents? We would never do so. If we were to do so, we would not deserve to be Members of Parliament. The people of Gibraltar should be given the same rights as our constituents. They should be able to vote in all elections, including elections to the House of Commons, and they should have equal rights across the board. How can anyone disagree with that proposal?

It is time that we had a consistent approach to not only Gibraltar and the Falklands, but all our overseas territories. I hope that the Minister will take that on board when we discuss the British Overseas Territories Bill. All overseas territories want to remain sovereign under the Crown. They want to remain connected with the United Kingdom, and their inhabitants should have the same rights as the rest of our people. I hope that that point will be considered in the British Overseas Territories Bill. Every British person, wherever they may be, should have the right to choose a representative and to vote in elections to the House. That is what democracy is all about.

I am saddened by the need for this debate. Spain, which proclaims itself to be a modern democracy, is not prepared to treat British territory in the way that it would treat any other part of the European Union. I appeal to our allies in Spain, Britain's friend, to reconsider its attitude and approach, which has achieved nothing. Its approach has caused a great deal of upset and heartache for the people of Gibraltar. The matter will never be resolved until Spain adopts the democratic, modern approach of accepting the human rights and the right to self-determination of the people of Gibraltar. It can only be hoped that Spain's diplomatic tantrums continue to wash over the proud Gibraltarian people as harmlessly as the sea spray assaults their great rock. Let the message go out from the House that Gibraltar will never be ceded to Spain and that it will remain British in perpetuity.

7 Nov 2001 : Column 82WH

10.22 am

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): I would say to the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) that a bombastic debate is not useful. We must make a genuine and honest attempt to achieve proper outcomes that give the people of Gibraltar a better standard of living and better opportunities to build their lives. They must have an opportunity to live as full and forthright members of the European Union.

I am glad that we are having today's debate because there should be discussion. The hon. Member for Romford, who has just declared that there should be no discussion, is flying in the face of reason. The status quo is not sustainable for the reasons advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle). The quality of life for Gibraltarians, which relates to issues such as border delays and phone lines, has no prospect of improvement under the status quo. Indeed, we have not considered the number of Gibraltarians who choose to use the Spanish national health service rather than St. Bernard's hospital. If we had a genuine, calm, decent, honest debate in which we did not start chucking around words such as "hypocrisy", we might be able to achieve significant benefits for Gibraltarians.

The present situation is unsustainable because Gibraltar will become increasingly isolated within the European Union. European Union elements that may be of benefit will contain an exclusion for Gibraltar that will make things increasingly difficult for its economy and for its people to live their lives.

Mr. Rosindell : Will the hon. Gentleman explain how Gibraltar would be disadvantaged? It is a member of the European Union, as we are members. How can he justify any suggestion that one set of European Union citizens should be disadvantaged in any way because of a territorial claim by another member state?

Mr. Bryant : I agree that European Union citizens should not be disadvantaged, but we have heard no proposals on how to change the status quo from any hon. Members who have spoken today. The open skies directive no longer applies to Gibraltar and other territorial issues in EU directives will make things more difficult for Gibraltar's economy.

Mr. Francois : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bryant : I may give way in a moment.

Many hon. Members who have spoken have not realised that the present situation is also unsustainable simply because Spain has changed. Between 1969 and 1972, when I was young, I lived in Spain. I remember the Government under Franco. I remember driving past the political prison in Carabanchel and seeing the guards outside with their Darth Vader hats. The country has changed dramatically. Some people have been rather caustic about Spanish democracy. Spain has, in fact, managed the transition to democracy with considerable aplomb, as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) mentioned. We need to recognise those issues.

I look for a new solution, but I openly say to hon. Members who have spoken in a different vein that Gibraltar should be taking part in the Brussels process

7 Nov 2001 : Column 83WH

on the basis of safety and dignity, as Mr. Caruana said when he first took office. I firmly believe that that is true and I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Donald Anderson) who said in a previous debate that the Foreign Affairs Committee

That is an almost impossible case to answer.

Simon Hughes : Does the hon. Gentleman understand that the Gibraltar Government have always said that they have been entirely happy to have an arrangement with the provincial Government over the border in Andalucia, so that the matters of that region can be worked out collaboratively? They are happy to participate in local government arrangements across Spain with the Spanish. So they have never been unwilling to come to practical arrangements, provided that Spain accepts that Britain has sovereignty. They must determine for themselves who the Government of Gibraltar are; that is up to them. If Spain were willing to take that off the agenda, there could be lots of co-operation.

Mr. Bryant : I agree, but that is all the more reason for Mr. Caruana to take part in the Brussels process at the end of the month, not least because he has asked for safety and dignity. I have no problem in saying that the constitution of 23 May 1969 is entirely right.

Furthermore, Her Majesty's Government will never enter into arrangements under which the people of Gibraltar would live under the sovereignty of another state against their freely and democratically expressed wishes. Several hon. Members have sought reassurance on that and it must be the fundamental principle on which we proceed. That should not prevent us from discussing enhanced co-operation that might involve EU money, NATO, customs, telephone lines, and other matters that would materially affect people's lives. Mr. Caruana should take part in such discussions and there should be some discussion of sovereignty.

We should not decide the conclusions of those discussions in advance. However, by virtue of the constitution, and as successive Governments have stated, at the end of the process the people of Gibraltar should have a referendum on any proposals. The British and Spanish Governments would then honour that referendum.

Mr. Francois : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bryant : I am sorry. I said that I would give way, but I want to finish my argument.

Mr. Francois rose—

Mr. George Stevenson (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Gentleman will obviously not give way.

Mr. Bryant : I shall press on, because others want to speak.

7 Nov 2001 : Column 84WH

If it is not possible to resolve the issue under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and Mr. Aznar, it is unlikely ever to be resolved. On behalf of the British and Spanish Governments and, most of all, the people of Gibraltar, I would feel ashamed if we got to 2050 without having come to a better resolution. I ask hon. Members who have argued differently in the debate which solution they propose.

Mr. Rosindell : Democracy.

Mr. Bryant : It is not good enough just to shout out a single word. Democracy is a good principle, but we have to create a better opportunity for the people of Gibraltar.

10.30 am

Mr. Nigel Jones (Cheltenham): I congratulate the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) on securing this important debate at a crucial period in the history of the people of Gibraltar.

I have visited Gibraltar twice, most recently in September this year, with the hon. Member for Chorley, other hon. Members and Members of the European Parliament. In a series of meetings, we were left in no doubt that the people of Gibraltar regard themselves as British, value their historic links with Britain and wish to remain British. Above all, they want the right to self-determination so that they can decide for themselves their own future. Surely they should have that right in a democratic world.

It was pointed out to us that historically there should be no question of Gibraltar's right to remain British, because that right is enshrined under the treaty of Utrecht. For any change to occur, Britain would first have to relinquish its claim on the territory. So, my first question to the Minister for Europe is easy. Does the Government have any intention of relinquishing our claim on Gibraltar? The political leaders in Gibraltar demand the right to self-determination. Chief Minister, Peter Caruana and the Opposition leaders, Joe Bassano and Joseph Garcia, are united in their view on self-determination.

Albert Poggio MBE, the United Kingdom representative of the Government of Gibraltar, sent hon. Members a copy of a declaration of unity that was signed on 4 October this year by all Members of the Gibraltar House of Assembly, four past and present Speakers of the House of Assembly and 20 former members of the Gibraltar legislature. It states:


7 Nov 2001 : Column 85WH

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove): The hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) made the Government's negotiation tactics obvious. Their aim is to discuss sovereignty with Spain in the hope that Spain will grant Gibraltar economic benefits. The Government would put that proposal to the people of Gibraltar in a referendum so that people could see that there would be economic benefits, but only if they accepted the poisoned chalice of interference in their affairs by the Spanish. It is obvious that those are the Government's tactics.

Mr. Jones : I do not know if it is obvious—we will have to wait for the Minister to give his response—but it is certainly a concern of many people in Gibraltar, not least the members of the Assembly there.

Mr. Rosindell : In September, it was my privilege to travel to Gibraltar with the hon. Gentleman. In the light of the declaration that he has read out, would he agree that it was astonishing to see the leaders of all three political parties—Joseph Garcia of the Liberal party, Joe Bassano of the Gibraltar Socialist Labour party and Peter Caruana, the leader of the Gibraltar Social Democrats—in total unity in their determination to ensure that the people of Gibraltar decide their own future?

Mr. George Stevenson (in the Chair): Order. This is becoming a second speech. I think the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones) has got the point.

Mr. Jones : Yes, I agree with the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell). It was one of the finest examples of constructive opposition that I have seen.

Those of us who were present on national day, 10 September, were in no doubt that the people of Gibraltar support the declaration. Half of the population of 32,000 turned out in the main square to celebrate their Britishness and to demonstrate their wishes to us and to other visitors. Undoubtedly, visitors from Spain observed that gathering and we have already heard about the number of difficulties that exist between Gibraltar and Spain.

I will concentrate on the open skies agreement that was mentioned in the declaration. I tabled two questions, the first was sent to the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to ask what criteria were assessed when deciding to sign the European open skies agreement. The Minister replied:

7 Nov 2001 : Column 86WH

I also tabled a question to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that asked what assessment had been made of the impact of excluding Gibraltar from the European single sky agreement. I received a long answer from the Minister, for which I am grateful. It said:

It seems to me that we caved in and allowed the Spanish Government to dictate terms. That goes to the heart of the problem, which the people of Gibraltar see as Spain claiming Gibraltar and Britain not batting for the people of Gibraltar. I am conscious of the fact that the Minister and the Opposition spokesman have to wind up, but if the people of Gibraltar wish to remain British, they should be given the right to vote in the European elections. If they want to be attached to the south-west region for those elections, I am sure that we would all welcome that.

10.39 am

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): I thank the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) for initiating the debate. It has been more than a year since the House properly discussed Gibraltar and this has provided a useful opportunity to discuss the issues at a very important time. I am sure that the whole House will join me in offering commiserations to Spain for yesterday's car bomb in Madrid. We all condemn terrorism wherever it is perpetrated.

The House may be amused to know that I have a personal link with Gibraltar. My father was commanding officer of 224 Squadron in the early 1960s and as a youngster I used to spend a lot of time running up the beach near the border with La Linea as he was flying his Shackletons on maritime reconnaissance over the Mediterranean. That was 40 years ago, but I have vivid memories of Gibraltar. My brother was born there and the last time I saw him he seemed British to me.

This is an important time for Gibraltar. The Foreign Secretary will meet his Spanish counterpart in Barcelona on 20 November to discuss the future and they have agreed to resolve that future by the end of the year. That has inevitably given rise to rumours and concerns that require the Minister to offer reassurance. I am sorry to say that there have been too many examples of the Government's lack of clarity. They have failed to reject the proposals of Abel Matutes for joint sovereignty. Those proposals sat on the desk of the previous Foreign Secretary for four years and now that the Government are negotiating with Spain—we would like to know about what—we have still had no assurance that they are doing so on the basis that those proposals are unacceptable. When the Conservative party was in office, the then Foreign Secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, rejected those proposals. I hope that the Minister will assure us that he will do the same.

Unfortunately, that is not the only instance of the Government's failure to respond unequivocally to Spanish claims. On 15 March, the Spanish Foreign

7 Nov 2001 : Column 87WH

Minister, Mr. Pique, referred to Gibraltar as a "gigantic duty free shop" and an "economic parasite" on Spain. In our view, those are ill-chosen words, and it is disappointing that the Government have not responded to those remarks and still more disappointing that they have failed to do so even after the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs criticised them six months ago for their lack of response. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to reject those comments on the record in response to the recommendations of the Select Committee.

Furthermore, and perhaps more significantly, on 30 October, Mr. Pique said:

Does the Minister agree that the citizens of Gibraltar have good reason to be wary of the current negotiations with Spain? Gibraltarians have a right to veto any proposed change in their status and if they want to remain under British sovereignty, they should. They have never voted for anything else and should be free from outside pressure. Gibraltar's position is very clear and supported by a massive majority on any measure that has ever been taken. Will the Minister tell the House what he intends to discuss and what will be on the agenda in his meetings with the Spanish?

The Minister could give one crucial assurance that would allay many fears. The Government could confirm unequivocally that Gibraltar retains the right to face no change in its status without the wholehearted consent of Gibraltarians. Will the Minister confirm that the preamble to the Gibraltar legislation of 1969 still stands and will govern all his conduct and discussions throughout the next few months?

I want to leave the Minister as much time as possible. Other hon. Members have spoken about the restriction of movement, the open skies agreement and other matters that appear to Gibraltarians to be an attempt to bully them into some form of submission. I would like an assurance that Gibraltarians will be able to vote in European elections.

The views of the hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) are puzzling. She views the status of Gibraltar as a British territory as an anachronistic relic. Is it an anachronistic relic of colonialism to respect the wishes of the people of Gibraltar and to respect the fact that they want it to remain a British overseas territory? If so, she believes that democracy itself has become an anachronistic relic. To approach issues of foreign policy in a simplistic way will cause great problems, because when an issue is tackled simplistically, it causes problems elsewhere on the globe. The hon. Lady thinks that a small territory whose only land border is shared with a larger neighbour should, whatever the wishes of its inhabitants, allow the larger neighbour to incorporate it. That logic is at best mad, and at worst—I dare not say. Does the hon. Lady think that East Timor should be part of Indonesia? If she follows her simple line of thought, she will find that it raises similar problems across the globe.

We seek the Minister's assurance that he is doing nothing behind the scenes to cause the House concern.

7 Nov 2001 : Column 88WH

Mr. George Stevenson (in the Chair): Order. Some hon. Members who have contributed to the debate may have visited Gibraltar as a guest of the Government of Gibraltar, or in some other capacity. They may wish to make that interest clear for the record, if they have not already done so.

Mr. Hoyle : I would like to do so.

Mrs. Laing indicated assent.

Mr. Rosindell indicated assent.

Sir Teddy Taylor indicated assent.

Miss Kirkbride indicated assent.

Mr. Nigel Jones indicated assent.

10.46 am

The Minister for Europe (Peter Hain) : I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) for securing this debate. The all-party Gibraltar group, of which he is chairman, does a valuable job.

I shall answer the questions that hon. Members have asked after I have placed the Government's policy on the record. Like the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, I believe that we have a unique opportunity to resolve the historic tensions between Gibraltar and Spain, to settle differences and to move forward to a better future for the people of the rock. We have a new opportunity to achieve three wins: a win for Gibraltar, a win for Britain, and a win for Spain. If we lack the courage to grasp the opportunity and retreat because of lack of political will or absence of vision, we shall all lose. The main losers, however, will be the people of Gibraltar.

Gibraltarians have nothing to fear from the discussions in Brussels; our dialogue with Spain is not a threat, but an opportunity for Gibraltar to secure a safer, more prosperous future. I know from a recent visit that Gibraltar is a proud place and that Gibraltarians are proud people. They are hugely suspicious of Spain and of British Ministers and officials. They do not like to feel that they are being told what to do. But no one is telling anyone what to do. When the dialogue ends, the people of Gibraltar will be able to form a judgment. I ask the people of Gibraltar to judge us by our actions and by outcomes, not by myths and prejudices.

I assure the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) that the Government stand by the constitutional commitment given to Gibraltar in the preamble to the Order in Council that established the 1969 constitution. It states:

I shall go further and, for the first time, give this pledge: we will never ask any Gibraltarian to sacrifice his or her citizenship unless they freely choose to do so. Gibraltarians shall remain British citizens for as long as they want.

7 Nov 2001 : Column 89WH

Europe has changed, and is changing. Gibraltar should not be left behind in those changes. Some politicians and pressure groups cry, "Stop this change, I want to get off." They let Gibraltar down. They are stuck in the previous generation, when the Iberian peninsula was a very different place. Spain was under the rule of Franco, and Gibraltar was threatened. Spain has long since undergone profound transformation, and it is now one of Europe's leading democracies. It is one of our closest NATO allies and one of our strongest partners in the European Union.

I was among those who refused to visit Spain when it was under the rule of Franco, but 13 million Britons now holiday in Spain every year. Some 500,000 Britons—more than 15 times the population of Gibraltar—have made Spain their home. Hundreds of Gibraltarians have properties in Spain. Many more shop and spend their leisure time there. The people of Britain and Spain have never been closer and, despite aggravation, the people of Gibraltar and Spain have never been closer.

The politics of 1969 must be replaced by the politics of 2001. The British Government must make choices. Will we try to reach a new deal for Gibraltar, or will we duck the issue and pretend that matters can continue as they are even though they take Gibraltar nowhere fast? Does Spain have the courage to make hard decisions? Does Gibraltar have the vision to contemplate a new deal? The choices will not go away. If they are ducked, Gibraltar will be left behind.

The dispute with Spain about Gibraltar is a constant factor in the otherwise excellent relationship between Britain and Spain. For a long time, Spain has placed grossly unsatisfactory and damaging obstacles in the way of normal life for the people of Gibraltar. The obstacles include restrictions on the use of the airport, long and unpredictable delays in crossing the border, restrictions on telecommunications and even restrictions on organising dog shows.

The dispute has gone on for so long that attitudes on both sides have hardened. The only key movement made by Spain was an offer of more than triple the number of telephone numbers available—from 30,000 to 100,000—and that was announced at the first meeting of the resumed Brussels process. The time has come for Spain clearly to demonstrate its new attitude through action. It could, for example, open up normal red and green channels at the border; allow normal procedures for the diversion of Gibraltar-bound flights in bad weather; ensure that Gibraltarian mobile telephones work in Spain; and ensure that telephone calls from other countries get through.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) said, the status quo is not sustainable, because Gibraltar's relations with Spain are abnormal and will remain so if the status quo prevails. Spain's historic aspirations are unattainable, and the continuous aggravation with Gibraltar is anachronistic and unseemly. Britain's relations with both Spain and Gibraltar are damaged by the status quo.

Mrs. Laing : Will the Minister give way?

Peter Hain : I will give way at the end of my speech if I have the chance. For the European Union, the status

7 Nov 2001 : Column 90WH

quo is a permanent threat to Britain and Spain's relationships—with each other and with our European partners. That is to Gibraltar's detriment.

As the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) said, we recently agreed to suspend application of the EU single sky agreement and aviation security legislation to Gibraltar. We did not take that decision lightly, but we must face reality; it is imperative that we have a safe air traffic system in Europe. The suspended implementation of that legislation will have a minimal impact on the people of Gibraltar and their security. None the less, I understand the feelings of those in Gibraltar who demonstrated on 4 October against the suspension of the single sky agreement and of the many senior figures in Gibraltar who signed the declaration on the subject.

I understand why some suggest that the solution is straightforward—that Britain should bang the table and demand that Spain and the European Commission sort out these and other problems—but a fortress Gibraltar would achieve nothing. Proponents of a fortress Gibraltar do not understand the realities of modern Europe or the need for consensus. The blunderbuss approach that we are persistently exhorted to adopt on Gibraltar's behalf would receive little or no support from our EU partners or from the Commission.

A second line of argument states that we should take all Gibraltar's complaints on the EU to the European Court of Justice. Even when that is possible, the legal processes involved are slow and uncertain, and there is no guarantee of a helpful outcome. We will get further, sooner, if all sides have the political will to find a solution. We and our European colleagues face huge challenges, big decisions and hard choices on the future of the EU, economic reform, security from terrorism, our environments and many other issues. Our European partners do not understand why a dispute between two member states over a territory with a population one fifteenth that of Luxembourg should be a deciding factor in such decisions.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. George Stevenson (in the Chair): Order. It is obvious that the Minister has no intention of giving way at the moment.

Peter Hain : As I have promised, I will give way at the end of the debate if I have the chance to do so.

As a result of regular discussions with the Spanish Government, the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and I firmly believe that Madrid's approach to Gibraltar is genuinely starting to change. We have no fixed blueprint. As I said to the House on 30 October, there is no secret deal with Spain; there is no hidden agenda. In fact, the position is quite the opposite. There is a mutually frank desire to resolve an unsustainable status quo, and it would be irresponsible of the Foreign Secretary and I not to pursue it.

I say to Conservative Members who tell us not to talk to Spain that the Conservative Government talked to Spain persistently to try to resolve such issues. Indeed, the former Foreign Secretary, Lord Howe of Aberavon,

7 Nov 2001 : Column 91WH

wrote about that recently in The Times and the former European Minister, Lord Garel-Jones, has written about it in the Gibraltar Chronicle.

If we cannot make serious progress within, say, a year, the Government and the House will attend to other priorities of great importance. Gibraltar will be left with a live dispute and problems with the rest of Europe. Continued tension with Spain will be a day-to-day reality. I am giving an honest assessment of political reality and those who choose to ignore it are doing the people of Gibraltar a grave disservice. As well as confronting reality, let us consider the huge opportunity for Gibraltar provided by the current situation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) said, let us have the vision and the boldness to grasp it. If we reach the agreement that I firmly believe is now within our grasp, Gibraltar will have a free flow of people, goods and services on and off the Spanish mainland. It will become the financial services hub for Andalucia and the wider region, and that will bring more jobs and prosperity to all. Agreement about allowing the airport to be fully developed—which is thwarted by the current impasse—would transform the opportunities for travel and tourism in the whole region.

The Government's objective is that decisions about Gibraltar are made in Gibraltar by elected representatives of the people of Gibraltar and not by officials and Ministers in London. The best way in which to achieve a new deal for Gibraltar is through dialogue. Gibraltar has nothing to fear and everything to gain from such a dialogue. That is why we have worked so hard to enable the Gibraltar Government to join the meetings under the Brussels process, with its guaranteed separate voice—as Britain and Spain have agreed jointly. Spanish Ministers have assured us that they would welcome the attendance of the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, who will be treated with the respect and dignity that his position deserves. There is no reason why he cannot attend such meetings, and I again invited him to do so by telephone last night. The next meeting is on 20 November and more meetings are planned thereafter.

However, if Gibraltar feels unable to accept the invitation to join the Brussels process, the process must and will go forward. It is vital that the momentum and good will that we have established are sustained. The dispute that led the Conservative Government to agree the Brussels communiqué in 1984 will not go away. It would be the height of irresponsibility on my part to pretend that it will. This is a moment of destiny for

7 Nov 2001 : Column 92WH

Gibraltar. The Foreign Secretary and I mean business. We shall do all that we can to resolve the impasse and build a new future for Gibraltar.

Several hon. Members rose—

Peter Hain : I wish to respond briefly to the specific questions that have been put to me and then I shall give way. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) asked about voting in European parliamentary elections. I assure him that we shall secure such a position urgently in accordance with the court judgment. The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir Teddy Taylor) said that Gibraltar's view counts—of course, it does. The hon. Member for Romford said that we should not discuss such matters with Spain, yet our Conservative predecessors held such discussions consistently.

Mr. Duncan : Will the Minister give way?

Peter Hain : I have been asked questions, and I am trying to answer them. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton asked about the Matutes proposals. At the ministerial meeting on 26 July between the Foreign Secretary and the Spanish Foreign Minister, we agreed to set aside the proposals and to focus on the future.

This has been a good debate.

Several hon. Members rose—

Peter Hain : I shall happily take an intervention from the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing).

Mrs. Laing : I should like an assurance from the Minister that he will not repeat his chilling remark that, because Gibraltar is small, it is insignificant: 30,000 people are 30,000 people.

Peter Hain : The hon. Lady mischievously puts words into my mouth. [Hon. Members: "You said it."] What I said was that we needed the agreement of our European partners to advance Gibraltar's interests. To do that, we need to build consensus with Spain. We are trying to do that, and the hon. Lady should support us.

Denzil Davies (Llanelli): My right hon. Friend said twice that the status quo was unsustainable. Does status quo involve sovereignty?

Peter Hain : As the Chief Minister said, in any discussion, he would expect Spain to raise its long-standing sovereignty claim. However, we are not prepared to enter into discussions on the basis of fixed agendas. We must find out whether we can find a way forward.

7 Nov 2001 : Column 91WH

7 Nov 2001 : Column 93WH

Next Section

IndexHome Page