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House of Commons

Tuesday 20 December 1994

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Traffic Flow (Belfast)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Kirkhope.]

9.34 am

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I rise to speak in the Adjournment debate before we depart for the Christmas recess. I extend to you, Madam Speaker, the Clerks and others my wish that the joy and peace of Christmas will be yours at this season.

I have chosen to speak on the subject of traffic flow in Belfast and appreciate the opportunity to raise the subject. I begin on a positive note by recognising the tremendous work that has been done, particularly within the northern and eastern approaches to the city, with the advent of the cross-harbour rail and road bridges, which will help in many ways. I suspect, however, that until the approach roads are completed, bottlenecks will cause problems.

I pay tribute to the fact that, after a long campaign, we have managed to achieve some calming measures in one part of my constituency, Great Northern street, which had been used as a means of bypassing seven traffic lights. People could go right through the area even though it is densely populated and heavily used. Some humour was apparent as I fought the campaign. I received a letter from the Department of the Environment assuring me that, according to a census of usage, the traffic flows were insufficient to require calming measures. I looked at the calendar and discovered that the census was taken on a Sunday. I told the Department that I was not surprised that there was not a great traffic flow on that day. I obtained my calming measures--whether because the Department had made a mistake in the date or because I would not going away, I shall leave for others to say. The residents certainly appreciate the measures.

In keeping with most cities, Belfast has seen an escalation in car traffic. In the United Kingdom overall there was an increase in traffic of 40 per cent. in the 1980s. That followed the rejection of rail transport. One has only to look at the imaginative designs for developing Belfast 30 years ago to see that they were doing away with the rails completely.

I remember, 40 years ago, when I was a young assistant minister in south Belfast, I bumped up the Lisburn road on my bicycle because there were tram tracks on the road, but the trams and the trolley buses have disappeared in the search for mobility. Most of our roads and streets are narrow and were not built for the tremendous growth in the number of cars, so traffic adds to congestion in the lungs of a city where a high percentage of people have bronchial and asthmatic problems.

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Before developing my argument on traffic flow I want to say a word or two about parking problems. I have found it difficult to persuade the Department to act on this subject. For at least eight to 10 years, I have been trying to secure residents' parking facilities in Belfast, which does not have legislation similar to that in London. I recognise that such legislation would not solve every problem and that different sections of the community have their own agenda, but, acting on behalf of my constituents, I broached the subject and was told that it was being studied.

I discovered some years ago that three experimental projects were being undertaken. On making inquiries, I discovered that two of them were in south Belfast--Stranmillis road and Pakenham street. The third one was in east Belfast, but I could not for the life of me understand why there should be parking problems there. I knew that, with the advent of many catering establishments, the growth in student population and the revival of night life in Great Victoria street, there was a great demand for parking in Stranmillis road and Pakenham street, to the detriment of local residents.

When I investigated further, I discovered that there was no experimental project or pilot scheme; it was a desk-top demonstration. I do not know how a desk-top demonstration can illustrate parking problems, but I was assured that no pilot projects were being conducted. I was told that there was a difficulty in finding the time to enact legislation. I understand that the Department is currently considering legislation-- I do not know whether it is running on AC or DC current, but over the years it has been on-off, on- off.

The people of Belfast are crying out for adequate parking facilities. The Department had ample opportunities to introduce the necessary legislation. Under the abominable Orders in Council system, which has plagued us for years, the Department managed to propose orders when it so chose. It has not verified that legislation is in the pipeline, so I press the Minister to re-examine the issue. Some of the busiest roads in Belfast-- indeed in the United Kingdom-- are located in my constituency. I welcome the decision not to proceed with the Belvoir Forest Park road and the widening of Balmoral avenue--the latter with a new junction at the Malone and New Forge roads. The authority's short-sighted planning led to road development towards the Lagan Valley parkway in the face of advice and protests from the residents. It did not realise that it would block traffic flows if cars travelling from the country to the city had to turn right into New Forge lane, and it has subsequently started construction of a roundabout.

I welcome the halting of the Belvoir Forest Park road project and the widening of Balmoral avenue, but that decision may be only temporary. Will the Minister cast some light on that issue? Was the project halted for good planning reasons or did the Department not have the finance to continue with it, and therefore its construction is threatened in the future?

The Donegall road development has had tragic consequences for 25 or 30 years. Reasonable housing in the area was allowed to degenerate as a result of the halting of the development and the plans for the city hospital. When the planning authority was pressed on the matter, it demolished houses in several streets and began construction of the road. However, the rest of the Donegall

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road is blighted by the Department's tendency to plan in the long term and to forget about the immediate impact of its plans on local residents. One has only to drive down Great Victoria street, Sandy Row and the Lower Grosvenor road to witness the Department's failure to complete its road planning schemes in the centre of Belfast. Was the development of Belvoir Forest Park road and the widening of Balmoral avenue halted on good planning grounds or is it merely in remission for financial reasons? Is it a permanent decision or has the development merely been postponed?

I wish to plead the case of a constituent who resides at the corner of New Forge lane and Malone road. He has sought planning permission for years to construct a smaller house more suited to his needs. He is in financial difficulties due to the failure to proceed with a purchase scheme, and I do not believe that that is the proper way to treat a senior citizen.

Four of the busiest roads in Belfast are situated in Belfast, South. Lisburn road is lined with some very fine shops, but there are inadequate parking facilities. Some 40 years ago it was the fourth busiest road in the United Kingdom-- even the construction of the M1 did not reduce significantly the flow of traffic on the road. I welcome the fact that private enterprise shopkeepers have developed and improved their shop frontages along the road, but shoppers have nowhere to park because the provision of adequate parking facilities was not considered when making long-term planning decisions. The Minister may be aware that approaches were made to his predecessors over the years to secure some co-operation on that subject. Cregagh road is a very busy shopping thoroughfare. I believe that small shops are the spirit and the life-blood of any community, but traffic congestion has produced vehicle fumes, which are affecting citizens' quality of life.

I wish to discuss two areas where I believe that something can be done to ease the traffic flow problem. There is a problem with the development of Ormeau road and the area near the Upper Saintfield road. The traffic flow into Belfast is phenomenal and a development was planned for Forster Green at the junction of the Saintfield, Ormeau and Newtown Breda roads. Has that project been postponed permanently or has someone else been left to carry the can? It is necessary to develop that junction properly.

Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford): I must declare a personal interest in the matter as I have a small printing business that is situated beside the Forster Green junction, so I know exactly how chaotic the traffic is. The chaotic traffic conditions are mentioned every morning on Radio Ulster and the whole of Northern Ireland knows that it is the most difficult road in the Province.

The Minister prepared his tender documents for the road scheme, which was due to commence in spring 1992, but it was postponed when other, less important road schemes around Newry proceeded. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister owes it to the House to give a firm announcement about when the road scheme will commence? It is the busiest road junction in the whole of Northern Ireland.

Rev. Martin Smyth: I agree with my right hon. Friend on the issue, and I share his concern. He is aware that I have argued for a long time against money being spent to

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develop the road south of Newry while the roads on the other side of the frontier are not able to handle heavy traffic. We should not develop less important roads, which will only add to traffic congestion.

As a graduate of Trinity college, Dublin, I remember when I could travel from Dublin to Belfast in less than two hours. With modern traffic movements, that journey now takes two and a half to four hours. Why should we spend millions of pounds developing the road south of Newry when the needs are in Belfast and along the Larne line, where traffic is heavier and which is vital to the economy of the Province and the Republic of Ireland? Perhaps I should declare an interest as I live just off the Ormeau road.

The Donegall road was the road of my birth and, with the advent of the west link, which joins the motorways, I understood that the original plan was for a flyover at the Broadway roundabout. We did not get that and it was due not to objections from residents, as happened in an area of east Belfast, but to financial considerations. It is a nightmare for people coming off the west link or travelling on the Donegall road. The Department has the excuse that the Roden street crossing was closed for security reasons and that it is not pressing for it to be opened--but it is--which means that the residents of Roden street, which has developed as a quiet residential area and is mainly made up of older houses, will be subjected to the rattling caused by heavy vehicles heading down the street.

A flyover on the west link would ease the flow of traffic down the street and improve the quality of life for many people. When will that flyover be built to ease the flow of traffic? There was a similar problem at the Grosvenor road exit to the west link in west Belfast. I wonder whether the Department is trying to deal with the two problems together.

Has the Department given much consideration to immediate or long-term planning to deal with traffic flow? People love their cars. They love them so much that they would even take them to bed, if they could get them up the stairs. The average car driver will park where it suits him or her, without considering the impact on other people. As long as it is convenient for them, they will park anywhere, irrespective of the convenience of others.

Is the Department considering car sharing--what our American cousins call the car pool--or transit lanes, such as around Sydney in Australia? Is any thought being given to the provision of out-of-town free car parks? Those schemes would allow people to travel into town by sharing a car or by train --the latter should be better promoted, especially as the cross-harbour bridge line now comes into the Central station and the line from Lisburn has a number of excellent halts along the road.

I understand that a designated bus route is being considered for the Ormeau area, but how far has that been developed? Is the Department persuaded that it will resolve traffic pressures and flows? It might help the buses, but will it deal with the problem of traffic flow?

What thought is being given to rapid transport or modern tram systems? In "Parliamentary Brief" this month, Professor Peter Jones wrote:

"A combination of technological and political ingenuity will also be needed to come up with workable schemes that are both viewed as equitable and as effective."

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What are we doing to try to get those equitable and effective schemes? How are we bringing technological and political ingenuity together to improve the traffic flow in Belfast?

Other countries have introduced urban transport schemes for health and environmental reasons. I have alluded to the health and environmental problems and it is important that we use the instinct to protect health that is developing in many people, that we have effective prevention measures and that we create a city with a quality of living that will attract people back into it, rather than driving them out.

The Minister will be aware of the Manchester Metrolink and the Sheffield supertram light rail system. I understand that other cities are in the queue for funding--for example the west midlands and Croydon. What consideration has been given to Belfast? I encourage the Minister to give us leadership in Belfast. How far advanced are plans for developing the old Comber rail line as a light railway track into north Down, which would allow people the choice of travelling that way instead of facing the journey down the Newtownards road, which can be a nightmare at times?

Will the Minister consider the progress in Caen, Normandy? It is significant that 50 years ago the parachute battalion of the Royal Ulster Rifles relieved Caen. I wonder whether we can learn something from that city that will now relieve Belfast. It is fascinating that Bombardier--a firm with significant interests in Belfast industry and manufacturing--is involved in the scheme there. Might some of our people examine that scheme, as I believe it to be innovative? There will be a single rail on the road for guidance and the system will be electric, which would help with the use of our electricity supply, which is improving day by day, and might help to reduce overall costs for industry. I trust that the price will come down, rather than increase, if more people use electricity. The trams in Caen will also have a diesel generator so that they can convert to a mobile vehicle on wheels, which would be an added advantage. Unlike the old fixed- track systems, which demanded expensive depots at the ends of the line and other places, the Caen system is imaginative and innovative. A single, fixed tram track with a diesel engine might be a scheme to consider in Belfast.

I appreciate the opportunity to raise these issues. I trust that the Minister will give us some light at Christmas time. I know that the roads are congested with holidaymakers and Santa Claus doing his shopping, but I hope that the Minister might be able at least to give us a foretaste of a Christmas present that will ease the traffic flow in Belfast.

9.57 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Malcolm Moss): May I reciprocate his warm messages for the Christmas festive season and congratulate the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) on his success in coming first in the ballot? I thank him for that as it means that I can get over to the Province to do some work later today. I also congratulate him on his choice of subject and commend him for the great detail that he has given. I will attempt to answer most, if not all, of his queries. I promise to write to him about those that I fail to cover in the time available.

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Traffic flow in Belfast is an important subject. Approximately 19, 000 vehicles enter Belfast city centre in the morning peak hour and, while congestion is not as severe as in a number of United Kingdom cities, we realise that it will become a problem if present traffic growth trends continue. With this in mind, we are looking at ways of making the best possible use of the capacity of the existing road network through improved traffic management techniques and public transport systems.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South began his speech by taking us back to his youth, when the tram system in Belfast city centre was an important ingredient of the transport network. Public transport, of course, still plays an important part in the movement of people in the Greater Belfast area. For example, more than 26 million passenger journeys were made on Citybus alone in 1993-1994--an increase of more than 5 per cent. on the previous year.

Another indication of the increasing attraction of bus travel for commuters is the City Express service, which was introduced in 1991 between Newtownabbey and Belfast city centre. The service regularly carries more than 10,000 passengers a week, 16 per cent. of whom are former car users and 20 per cent. of whom are new to bus travel. There is clearly a market among commuters for fast and reliable alternatives to the private car. I believe that our public transport operators are responding to the demand for improved services from the travelling public. Undoubtedly there is scope for Ulsterbus, Citybus and Northern Ireland Railways steadily to increase their share of the market--particularly the commuter market. I would welcome that shift towards public transport as one way of helping to ease congestion on the city's roads.

The Government's commitment to the development of bus and rail services in the Belfast area can be seen in the number of major investments that we are making to the city's transport

infrastructure. The new Dargan rail bridge, which opened on 28 November, links the Larne line with the rest of the rail network for the first time and represents an investment of some £30 million. More than 80 trains a day are now crossing the viaduct bringing passengers to and from Central station, and NIR is evaluating the economic case for building a station at Donegall quay, which would give direct access to the north of the city and the Laganside area.

In autumn 1995, facilities for passengers will be further enhanced by the reopening of the railway station at Great Victoria street. It will cost about £6 million and will provide an integrated travel centre with the Europa bus centre and will give passengers direct access to the business and social heart of the city.

At the opening of the Dargan bridge, I was delighted to be able to announce my support for the upgrading and reopening of the stretch of line between Antrim and Bleach Green on the Londonderry line. The new bridge and the reopening of this more direct route in 1997 will mean a 20-minute time saving for passengers between Antrim and Belfast and will allow NIR to assess the demand for new stations within the commuter belt along that corridor.

As well as introducing innovative services to cater for customer demand, the bus companies have a significant programme of capital investment to ensure that vehicles and facilities are among the best in the United Kingdom. I have already mentioned the Europa bus centre, which

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was opened in 1991 and which won a charter mark for the high quality of its service provision to customers. A new bus station costing more than £2.5 million is currently under construction at Donegall quay, and is scheduled to open in the spring of 1996. The new station will replace the existing station in Oxford street and will offer greatly enhanced facilities for travellers.

Other measures are also under consideration for improving the city's bus services. The Department of the Environment, the Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Ulsterbus and Citybus are all represented on a working group examining bus priority opportunities for Belfast.

Rev. Martin Smyth: A former deputy lord mayor of Belfast said that it was the only capital city in the world which had its city hall in the middle of a bus depot. Will the Minister assure us that, in developing bus services in Belfast, consideration will be given to preventing a lot of buses from parking around the city hall?

Mr. Moss: I promise the hon. Gentleman that I shall look into that as and when the working group reports.

The group has been responsible for the introduction of a "with flow" bus lane on the Ormeau road and a system of selective vehicle detection on the Upper Newtownards road, which gives greater priority to buses by allowing them more "green light" time at traffic signals.

The bus companies recently presented a consultants' report to the Department on a range of bus priority measures that could be implemented throughout Belfast, and officials are currently giving the proposals careful consideration.

The biggest road scheme currently under way in Belfast is the cross-harbour road bridge, and I thank the hon. Member for Belfast, South for his warm welcome for that major capital scheme. When the bridge is opened to traffic in mid-January, it will, along with Westlink, form a new link in the strategic highway network, which will contribute to a reduction in traffic levels in the city centre. To help to control and facilitate traffic movement in the Belfast area, a new system of traffic management will be gradually introduced, the aim being to discourage through-traffic from entering the central area while still allowing easy access for essential vehicles and buses. The most important feature will be the proposed new traffic circulation system, which will require completion of the inner ring road. Priority will be given to schemes to complete the section between Cromac street and Grosvenor road, as these are designed specifically to remove traffic around the city hall-Donegall square area of the city centre.

In the longer term, improved road capacity along Cromac street and Durham street may also be required and this will be considered as and when a need is identified. In the meantime, the Department intends to protect the lines of the new improvement schemes.

The approaches to the city centre are important in establishing a positive image of Belfast, and the Department is carrying out wide-ranging reviews of the traffic situation on the southern and eastern approach roads. The reviews of the southern approaches strategy will consider many options, ranging from the provision of new road links to radical new public transport proposals.

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It was suggested that the road to Belvoir park has been cancelled or stopped. I am afraid that that is press speculation at this juncture, but I hope to publish a report in the new year when all will be revealed.

A major cause of traffic congestion in the southern approaches is the Forster Green junction, and a scheme to improve that important intersection will, it is hoped, commence early next year. This is a £2 million improvement scheme, which was previously in the programme for 1996-1997. We expect to bring the programme forward to 1995 as an infrastructure contribution from an adjacent commercial development, but its exact timing is in the hands of a developer.

Although it is not included in the southern approaches strategy, the need to improve traffic conditions on the M1 motorway between Dunmurry and Belfast is also being considered in conjunction with schemes to provide grade separated junctions at Broadway and on the Westlink at Grosvenor road. It goes without saying that schemes on that scale will be expensive and, given the many constraints on public expenditure, could not be constructed in the foreseeable future. With that in mind, the Department is exploring the possibility of attracting private finance for constructing these schemes. If the approach is successful, it may enable us to commence the schemes sooner.

Roads Services has had preliminary discussions with the Construction Employers Federation about the potential generally for private finance in road schemes. Discussions have also taken place with long-established construction firms that are particularly interested in the Westlink.

The eastern approaches strategy will concentrate on schemes which will link in with the Belfast cross-harbour road bridge, and includes proposals such as the Hollywood Arches bypass, the Connsbank link and a new flyover junction at the Harbour Estate access, which will remove extraneous heavy traffic from the Dee street-Mersey street residential area. A scheme to widen the Sydenham bypass is also proposed and those schemes are all included in the Department's six to 15-year major works programme.

Rev. Martin Smyth: The Minister mentioned the upgrading of Cromac street, Durham street and Grosvenor road. How much demolition will be required to clear the way for that upgrading and what impact will it have on the city?

Mr. Moss: I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an immediate answer, but I shall write and give some indication of what it will entail.

Mr. John D. Taylor: May I return to the Minister's response on the necessity to improve the Supermac junction at Forster Green hospital? He was a little disingenuous when he said that it was previously in the programme for 1996-97. It was previously in the programme for 1992 and the Government put it back. He now says that it may go ahead in 1995, conditional on some project by a private developer. Will he assure us today that, whether or not that private developer proceeds, the Government recognise that the Forster Green junction

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scheme has top priority in Northern Ireland and that they will proceed with the scheme irrespective of involvement by a private developer?

Mr. Moss: I cannot give that road junction top priority in the Province. The hon. Gentleman will realise that I have plenty of other priorities.

Mr. Taylor: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Moss: No, let me finish. The scheme was in the rolling programme for 1996-97 and we hope to bring it forward with private capital. That development is going on. If it does not come to fruition, it will still be in the programme for 1996-97.

Mr. Taylor rose --

Mr. Moss: I should like to continue because the hon. Member for Belfast, South made a number of specific points that I want to answer.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South asked me about the Balmoral avenue widening scheme. The scheme was permanently dropped from the Belfast urban area plan on planning grounds. A public inquiry will be held next February into the accident remedial scheme at the junction of Balmoral avenue with Malone road, where some 25 personal injury accidents have occurred in the past three years. I can offer no commitment in view of that public inquiry.

Car parking is another important issue that is vital to the functioning of the business and commercial life of the city centre. The Department intends to concentrate its future efforts on providing additional short-term parking, but the number of additional spaces provided will depend on the level of private sector interest, as the budget for car parking is limited. In the current financial year, the only new car parking facilities being provided by the Department are in the Lisburn road area, where existing car parking lay-bys at Maryville street and Ethel street are being extended and a new 40-space car park is being constructed at Ferndale street. I am aware that the Lisburn Road Association of Retailers and Business Services and the hon. Member for Belfast, South have lobbied consistently for the provision of additional car parking spaces in Lisburn road and I hope that my announcement today will go some way towards alleviating the problems in that area.

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Rev. Martin Smyth: If my memory is correct, the scheme will simply replace lost car parking spaces: spaces will not increase. Some 50, 000 cars go through the Supermac junction every day. It is the busiest in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Moss: We accept that it would merit providing some additional car parking on Lisburn road but unfortunately not on the scale that the Lisburn road association wanted.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South also asked about residents' parking. As he pointed out, all-day car parking in residential areas on the edge of the city centre is a constant source of annoyance to residents and downgrades their environment. With that in mind, the Department is introducing the necessary legislation, which will allow for the implementation of a residents-only parking scheme. We recognise that the introduction of residents-only schemes in one location may simply move the problem to adjoining areas, so a number of pilot projects may be required. Full consultation will be carried out with all local residents before any schemes are made permanent. The hon. Member for Belfast, South referred to the Road Traffic Regulation (Northern Ireland) Order, which we are preparing for the legislative programme in the current Session. The timetable envisages a draft Order in Council being published before the end of the year, with the order being made by late 1995.

The Department is aware of the growth of traffic in Belfast and the fact that we must keep it under control. Contrary to public opinion, the construction of new roads is not a magic panacea that will solve all our problems. In the circumstances, a more wide-ranging approach is required to reduce potential traffic growth to a tolerable level. That does not mean that all road building will stop, but we must think twice and explore other alternatives before deciding whether a road scheme is required.

In the current major works programme, almost £12 million has been allocated to major roads schemes in the Greater Belfast area, excluding expenditure on schemes directly related to the cross-harbour bridge--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris): Order. The next subject for debate is Gibraltar.

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10.15 am

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside): I have been lucky enough to win two draws in the ballot for Adjournment debates within five days. That is fairly good going and I pray that my luck holds until Saturday, when the next draw for the national lottery takes place.

I shall use this occasion to raise the topical and important subject of Gibraltar. I do so first as chairman of the

British-Gibraltar all-party group, but I also declare an interest because one of my daughters is married to a Gibraltarian who runs an extremely successful business on the Rock.

I am pleased to see the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. Goodlad), on the Front Bench to reply to this debate. I appreciate the fact that the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Boothferry (Mr. Davis), who would normally reply, is engaged in talks with the Spanish Foreign Minister, Mr. Javier Solana, at this very moment. I appreciate my right hon. Friend's coming here instead.

This matter is topical not only because of the talks taking place in the Foreign Office this morning but because, once again, Spain is laying siege to Gibraltar. Throughout its history, Gibraltar has resisted some 19 sieges and I am sure that it will have no difficulty resisting this one, provided that it gets the help that it deserves from the United Kingdom. Gibraltar has an important place in the history of this country. As BBC radio reminded us at the weekend, it is one of the last remaining red splodges on the map of the world and, as such, it is important that we stand by it. Although it now has little strategic value in terms of defence, we must not forget the role that it played in two world wars and as a back-up staging post in the Falklands war. I do not know where we would have been without it during the Falklands war or those two world wars, and we owe a debt of gratitude to the people of Gibraltar which will never be forgotten by this country. Britain must honour that.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): People in Northern Ireland have an empathy with the people of Gibraltar. The hon. Gentleman will know that Gibraltarians stayed in Northern Ireland during the war. In Gibraltar today, among other things, there is the Ballymena block. So we trust that the Foreign Office will represent Gibraltarians as British people rather than Spanish mandarins.

Mr. Colvin: That was a useful intervention and I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman's part of the United Kingdom stands as solidly, if not more solidly, with the people of Gibraltar as those of us on this side of the Irish sea.

Although Gibraltar's strategic value in terms of defence may have diminished, Gibraltar still has an important place in our political lives. It is essential that we continue to sustain and support it, particularly in its present difficulties with Spain. It is money which the United Kingdom taxpayer must be prepared to pay. The importance of Gibraltar to Britain may be diminishing, but that does not mean to say that there is not still a strong body of opinion in this House and in the upper House that supports the Rock, and if things ever went wrong on Gibraltar, an awful lot of flak would fly.

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I have been encouraged, too, by the media response to Gibraltar's current difficulties, and it is interesting to note how many people have written to me, knowing my position and my interest in Gibraltar.

The frontier delays result from the Spanish Government's increasing harassment of people, during the past five weeks, at the land border. They have introduced a secondary control immediately after the usual passport and customs control. There have been delays of up to eight hours, into and out of Gibraltar, for those in vehicles, and delays of four hours for people travelling on foot. About 2,000 Spanish people walk in and out of Gibraltar every day.

This second control, some 10 m past the frontier line, has also resulted in drivers being fined for not carrying such items as surgical gloves in their first aid kits or a spare set of spectacles for those who wear glasses. Women have been strip-searched. These measures have been justified by the Spanish authorities as necessary to curtail smuggling of cigarettes and drugs, and to prevent money laundering. Smuggling certainly takes place, as it does at any frontier. A packet of 20 cigarettes costs 60p in Gibraltar, but it sells in Spain for £1.20, so it is hardly surprising that smuggling goes on. It works out that 1.5 billion cigarettes are brought in and sold, which makes 50,000 per head of the Gibraltar population. There must be awful lot of smoke in Gibraltar--or clearly the cigarettes are going somewhere else.

I suspect that Spain's complaint relates to the smuggling of tobacco from Gibraltar and to the trafficking in cannabis from Morocco: both by sea. It is illogical that drugs should be transported from Morocco to Gibraltar and thence to Spain; nor is there any evidence that they are. If anything, it has been the infiltration of drugs such as cocaine and heroin from Spain to Gibraltar since the frontier opened in 1985 which gives rise to real concern.

The fact is that Spain is using this camouflage to bring political and economic pressure to bear on Gibraltar, just at a time when it is vulnerable because of the rundown of the Ministry of Defence's commitment to the Rock. There is certainly a case for tougher action against smuggling. Many of us have seen the 50 or 60 high-speed launches in Gibraltar harbour. They are painted dark grey and have no windscreens, so as to have a low profile on radar, and they are very powerful. Already regulations have been introduced to reduce the size and power of these launches, but more action is needed. The Government must take steps immediately to ensure that the launches are banned or have their power restricted even more. I see no reason why that cannot be done. If it is not, Spain will be given good cause for taking the type of action that it is. The British Government have a duty to remove that cause.

I should also like to draw the attention of the House to an article that appeared in The Independent on 14 December, suggesting that there was some sort of dirty tricks department at work in the Foreign Office, trying to undermine Gibraltar's position in advance of the talks with Spain. Will the Minister categorically deny that? Since the rundown of the MOD's establishment in Gibraltar--it used to constitute about two thirds of the local economy--the people there have managed to establish a growing financial services sector, regulated by a strong financial services commission which is headed

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by Financial Commissioner Mr. John Milner. He was appointed by the Secretary of State after consultation with the Governor of the Bank of England.

I am told that the Gibraltar Government remain fully committed to ensuring that the good name of their financial centre is maintained. It was brave to set up the centre when the world was in recession. The Gibraltarians need all the help they can to get it going properly.

If the Spanish authorities have any evidence that Gibraltar companies are being used for illicit purposes, they should provide details directly to the Gibraltar Government or to the British Government so that the necessary action can be taken. The measures being adopted at the land frontier may be justified by Spain only as a means of strangling the financial services centre at birth. The checks have been indiscriminate--affecting old people and children as well as other travellers. They are wholly indefensible, and I should like to know what HMG are going to do about the situation. What powers can be used to prevent the rights of British and European citizens-- to freedom of movement under the European Union treaties--from being trampled on?

Self-determination is a matter that has been raised by the Chief Minister of Gibraltar many times in speeches to various audiences. I appreciate that it is not the same as total independence, but it could go some way towards it. The United Kingdom ratified the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights in 1976. Article 1 reads:

"All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development."

I would argue that when the United Kingdom ratified that covenant, she extended a list of dependent territories which included Gibraltar. At no stage did Britain say that she had any reservations about the applicability of this article to the people of Gibraltar. If the United Kingdom thought in 1968 that the treaty of Utrecht of 1713 prevented the application of the right of self-determination to the people of Gibraltar, she would have felt the need to enter a declaration to that effect at the time of ratification. It would be a good idea if the Minister clarified the position, particularly in respect of the treaty of Utrecht and Gibraltar's constitution, which states that Gibraltar will remain British while the people of Gibraltar wish it to, but that if Britain does not want to hold on to Gibraltar it reverts to Spain.

The full benefits of European Union membership do not accrue to Gibraltar as yet; it is still outside the external frontier. Both we and the people of Gibraltar feel that it is high time Spain agreed to ratify the external frontier convention. It does not do so, because that means acknowledging the Rock's sovereignty--and that Spain will not do. Of course, if Gibraltar were within the external frontier, the problems of smuggling might not be so acute, because of the ensuing moves towards tax and duty harmonisation. Moreover, the difficulties with the airport might be overcome, and Gibraltar might begin to benefit from the advantages that other European countries enjoy via the liberalisation of air services.

Bringing Gibraltar within the external frontier would also mean that it could benefit from other forms of direct aid from the EU--the social fund, for instance. As time goes by, the European Union will, I think, replace Britain as Gibraltar's principal economic supporter. Thus, the sooner the latter is inside the external frontier, the better.

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