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5. Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): What recent discussions he has had with Spain on Gibraltar; and if he will make a statement. [45520]

The Minister for Europe (Peter Hain): There have been regular discussions over recent months. A further ministerial meeting under the Brussels process will be held in the coming months.

Mr. Walter: The House and the people of Gibraltar would like to know what is the Government's bottom line in these discussions? What will be the future status of the citizens of Gibraltar? Will they be British subjects or Spanish nationals?

Peter Hain: Our bottom line is very clear, and has been repeated to the House on a number of occasions. The people of Gibraltar will remain British subjects if they choose to do so, and they will have our full support in doing so. We have absolutely no intention of handing Gibraltar over to Spain. That is a non-starter—another bottom line. In addition, we will retain our full control over the military base on the Rock, which is of key strategic importance to us. That is another bottom line.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): If the people of Gibraltar reject the treaty that has been put before them on joint sovereignty, can we ensure that the heads of agreement that will have been signed by the Spanish and British Governments will be withdrawn once and for all?

Peter Hain: There has been no agreement signed between our two Governments, and we are still seeking to explore whether we can reach agreement. If the people of Gibraltar in a referendum reject any proposal put to them—in other words, that agreement, because the whole package would have to be put to them—then that is the end of it. Let me just say to my hon. Friend something that applies to him and to the other critics of what we are trying to do—which, incidentally, despite all the moans and groans from the Opposition, is carrying on exactly what the Conservatives were doing in their 18 years of Government in seeking a resolution to the Gibraltar dispute. What has happened since my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister and I have sought to move matters forward is that a series of

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advances have been made. One is that, since 22 March, a second channel has been opened on the border between Gibraltar and Spain.

Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk): Ah!

Peter Hain: The hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) says, "Ah!", but what that has done is reduce the border delays about which Gibraltarians have consistently complained. The average delay for each person crossing used to be of between 30 and 90 minutes, but that has been reduced to around 10 minutes. That is a result of our talking to the Government of Spain, making progress and seeking agreement to relieve the harassment and aggravation that the people of Gibraltar have suffered.

This Government have talked and negotiated and achieved something, whereas the previous Conservative Government achieved nothing in 18 years. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) that he ought at least to applaud that advance.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell): May I take the Minister back to the beginning of that very long answer? In reply to the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), he said that, if the people of Gibraltar rejected any agreement, that would be the end of "it". What is "it"? Would that mean that the agreement would be torn up by the British Government and that there would be nothing left on the table? Anything else would just not do.

Peter Hain: I do not know—[Hon. Members: "Oh!"] Wait for it. I do not know whether the Government of whom the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) and some of his colleagues were members used to tear up agreements that they had reached with foreign Governments, or pretend that those agreements did not exist. Of course, once agreements have been reached they cannot simply be airbrushed away, but this agreement cannot be implemented because the people of Gibraltar will have the final say in a referendum.

Moreover, if we come to the point of reaching agreement—and I do not know whether we will or not—it is our intention that this House will be the first to hear about it. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will seek to make a statement to the House, if and when we reach an agreement.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): On the last day before the summer recess, I bet!

Peter Hain: I enjoy the interventions from my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), but he is wrong in this case. The House will be sitting. Over the past six to nine months, the Government have kept the House informed on this matter. We have had debates and answered questions, and we will continue to do so.

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston): Is my right hon. Friend aware that the pension arrangements in Gibraltar may be in contravention of EU law? What liabilities might the Government incur as a result?

Peter Hain: We are very concerned about this matter because, despite our warnings, the Government of

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Gibraltar have been indulging in what we think may be discriminatory pensions practices. I have had to write to the Chief Minister explaining that. The European Commission at present is investigating these potentially illegal practices.

What is important—[Interruption.] If Opposition Members will listen for a moment, the House will wish to know that a bill of £77 million could fall on the taxpayers of Britain if, as a result of this scam, the Government of Gibraltar do not pick up responsibility and accept their obligations. So far, they have resisted—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I say to you, Mr. Mackay, that you must be quiet. You have asked a question, and the Minister is entitled to reply.

Peter Hain: I do not think that the House will support British taxpayers picking up a bill for a pensions scam that is down to the Government of Gibraltar. That Government must pick it up, and we will ensure that they do so.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): Does the Minister realise that there is widespread unease throughout the House at the way in which he is conducting these negotiations? Can he not accept that most people believe that the negotiations should not have begun before the pressures applied by Spain had been removed? In addition, his answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) was both ambivalent and disturbing. Will he please give the House a categorical assurance that there will be no change to the status of Gibraltar or its citizens, unless and until the majority of those citizens wish there to be a change?

Peter Hain: Yes, Mr. Speaker.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): I listened very carefully to what the Minister said about pensions and noticed that he used the word "scam". Does he really think it fair that a Government or people should be traduced in this House without any representation? Whatever our views on this, we are all acting on a surrogacy basis. Such people are not represented in this House although they are in other jurisdictions—in the United States, Spain, France and the Netherlands: they have no access to their Foreign Minister, their Prime Minister or those who traduce them in this place, and I think that that is very bad. I hope that the Minister will consider granting representation in this place to overseas territories. What does he say to that?

Peter Hain: My answer to that is no, Mr. Speaker. Can I say again to my hon. Friend—it is a point that I will repeat briefly—that the only way to solve a dispute like this is to talk about it and negotiate? That is what we are doing and what we are seeking to do, and the end will be decided by the people of Gibraltar.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes): Further to the answer that the Minister gave my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), can I ask him a very precise question? Can he give an unequivocal guarantee to the House today that every element of any agreement arrived at with the Spanish Government on the future of Gibraltar,

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including those of principle relating to sovereignty, will be put in its entirety to the people of Gibraltar in a referendum, and that any elements of any such agreement, including those relating to sovereignty, that are not endorsed by the people of Gibraltar would then be deemed null and void as if they had not been made?

Peter Hain: We will put the agreement in full to the people of Gibraltar—the agreement in full. [Hon. Members: "And then?"] Well, if the people of Gibraltar reject it, it cannot be implemented. I am not going to take lectures from the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram). This is a group of Tories who, nearly 30 years ago, we now learn from The Sunday Telegraph, tried to give Gibraltar away to Spain. The Tory Government were wrong then; the people of Gibraltar should not trust the Tories now any more than they should have trusted them then. The Tories were wrong then to try and give Gibraltar away; they are wrong now to try and stop us negotiating a deal which, for 18 years, they tried to negotiate when in government. Now that they are in opposition, they are indulging in shabby opportunism.

Mr. Ancram: We always know that the Minister is losing when he retreats into history, particularly when that history predates the time when his party was committed to withdrawal from the European Union.

The people of Gibraltar will not be fobbed off by the sort of weasel words that we have heard today, and nor will we. Let me make it clear that an incoming Conservative Government would not feel bound by any agreement that has not received a democratic and free endorsement from the people of Gibraltar. Let me say, too, in relation to what we heard from Barcelona, that just because the Government can apparently be bought by any political donor, that should not lead the Minister to believe that the people of Gibraltar can be bribed into selling their heritage, their history and their sovereignty. They cannot, they will not and they are right.

Peter Hain: This is jumped-up rhetoric, frankly, from a member of a party which tried for 18 years, as we have tried for the past nine months or so, to seek a resolution of this dispute—to give the people of Gibraltar a better future, to give the people of Gibraltar an end to the aggravation and harassment that they have had from Spain for decade after decade and to try and end this 300-year dispute. We will seek to do that, despite the cheap criticisms and attacks that the right hon. Gentleman makes on us, and the people of Gibraltar, in the end, will have a better deal as a result.

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