31 Jan 2002 : Column 135WH

Westminster Hall

Thursday 31 January 2002

[Sir Michael Lord in the Chair]


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

2.30 pm

The Minister for Europe (Peter Hain) : The Government have called this debate because we want to report to the House on the negotiations on Gibraltar. I understand the suspicion and fear on the Rock about the Government's motives. So I want to explain our policy, and to nail the many myths about it. Our aim is to safeguard Gibraltar's way of life, to secure a better future and to end our dispute with Spain. That is not because we want to appease Spain or to rid ourselves of Gibraltar—quite the reverse.

Why have the Foreign Secretary and I devoted such time and energy to Gibraltar these past six months when we have also had to deal with international crises from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe and vital issues elsewhere in Europe? We did so because we feel it is our duty. We did so because the current situation is damaging Gibraltar, constraining our relationship with Spain, blocking British objectives in the European Union and undermining Britain's wider interests. We did so because there is a moment in history either to seize or to lose, perhaps for a very long time.

Gibraltarians have had to live under the shadow of Spanish antagonism for far too long. They have endured disruption to their everyday lives that no one should have to put up with in modern Europe—lengthy border queues and delays, telephone problems such as insufficient landlines and inoperative mobiles, restrictions on proper air services, and continual frustration.

It is not just Gibraltar's present that is difficult. Gibraltar cannot stand still in a globalised world. Its economy will not thrive in the new global marketplace unless it can modernise. It will not thrive unless it can attract new investment. It will not thrive unless it opts for full and unfettered access to the EU's single market. It will not thrive until the barriers that separate it from the wider region come down. Those things will be harder or impossible to achieve while the current dispute festers.

Already Gibraltar's special tax breaks will have to change as a result of modernising initiatives from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and the European Union. That will happen whether or not any agreement that we reach is supported by the people of Gibraltar, but if we reach an agreement that is acceptable to Gibraltar we will receive the support of the European Union and the Government of Spain in upholding Gibraltar's interests and ensuring that changes are implemented in a way that protects the Rock's prosperity. If we do not reach an agreement, it will be much harder to secure the necessary transitional arrangements to provide the protection that Gibraltar wants.

31 Jan 2002 : Column 136WH

Be clear that change is coming anyway, as the Chief Minister, Peter Caruana, has recognised. Moreover, the strong relationship that Britain now enjoys with Spain cannot reach its full potential until we resolve the Gibraltar issue. Gibraltar matters to us. It has mattered for many hundreds of years. It will continue to matter to us, but so does our relationship with Spain. Spain is a big country. It is increasingly prosperous; soon it will be a net contributor to the EU. It is increasingly powerful inside and beyond Europe.

We already have a strong alliance with Spain on a range of key issues, including reform of the European economy to deliver greater prosperity and more jobs in all our constituencies, which we will take further forward at the Barcelona European Council in March; creating an EU that is more effective and accountable and in which the key decisions remain with the nation states; and fighting the domestic and international terrorism that has afflicted both our countries more than many others in the EU. Our two Governments co-operate closely at all levels.

The relationship matters to real people too. Some 500,000 British citizens live in Spain. Our exports to Spain are worth more than £8 billion per year and support thousands of British jobs. But this relationship, good though it is, remains constrained by the Gibraltar issue. We will not realise its full potential and the benefits for Britain that will flow from it unless and until we resolve that issue. The Spanish Government feel exactly the same way.

Nor will we secure from the European Union all the benefits that we want for the British people until the issue is resolved. In the EU, the dispute damages our interests. It has complicated and delayed for years the opening up of a European single sky and measures to make air travel safer, flights cheaper and delays shorter.

So this is not an abstract diplomatic dispute. It has real effects on the lives of 30,000 Gibraltarians and of 59 million Britons, who are unable to enjoy all the potential benefits of our relationship with Spain and the European Union because of it. It needs solving, but not at the expense of Gibraltar. Any solution must be in the interests of Gibraltar. That is our objective and our pledge. We will not solve the problem by posturing or shouting or carrying on, as successive British, Spanish and Gibraltarian Governments have done for decades. Where has all that got us? The old ways have been abject failures.

When the British Governments of John Major and of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister started out on the road that brought a new settlement to Northern Ireland, no one thought that they could succeed. But my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has succeeded. He has done so only by breaking with the failed approaches of the past. Britain, Spain and Gibraltar must have the vision and self-confidence to negotiate a new deal for a new century. We must also have the political courage. Leadership is not about telling people what they want to hear, or hiding behind failed old shibboleths. That demonstrates not courage but weakness.

Why should anyone be afraid of negotiation? It is the right way to advance Britain's and Gibraltar's interests. Negotiation is not selling out. The only sell-out is by those who try to fool the public that there are serious alternatives to talking—there are not. The

31 Jan 2002 : Column 137WH

Government's first aim is to preserve Gibraltar's way of life, its culture and its proud British traditions. Our second aim is to establish greater self-government in Gibraltar so that its people can have what they want—more power over their own lives. Our third aim is to deliver real and lasting practical benefits to Gibraltar—a stronger economy, more and better jobs, and an end to border delays, problems with telephones and restrictions on air services, through a new relationship with the region and with the European Union. Our fourth aim is a lasting agreement on sovereignty, so that the 300-year-old dispute and all its damaging effects are finally put behind us, enabling Gibraltarians to enjoy security for their way of life and an end to feuding with Spain.

That is why we and Spain relaunched the Brussels process last year. We are making good progress, with a view to agreeing proposals to be put to the people of Gibraltar. However, it will be tough going. The negotiations are difficult. The positions are entrenched and have been for centuries. We continue to hope that the Chief Minister of Gibraltar will join us in those talks to represent at first hand the interests of the people of Gibraltar. Our offer to him to participate remains on the table. Both my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I had long, friendly and constructive discussions with him last Friday.

I have since written to Mr. Caruana to reaffirm our offer to him to participate in the talks and to reassure him about our aims. Our aims remain to agree proposals covering all outstanding issues, including those of co-operation and sovereignty. The guiding principle of those proposals is to build a secure, stable and prosperous future for Gibraltar and a modern sustainable status consistent with British and Spanish membership of the European Union and NATO. The proposals will rest on four important pillars: safeguarding Gibraltar's way of life; measures of practical co-operation underpinned by economic assistance to secure normalisation of relations with Spain and the EU; extended self-government; and sovereignty.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): The Minister has referred several times to the European Union and the relationship with it. Will he confirm that changes to the status of Gibraltar may require subsequent change to European Union treaties, to which we are party?

Peter Hain : Any changes of that magnitude would have to be endorsed in a referendum by the people of Gibraltar. However, there could be changes to the treaties required, which would require the approval of the European Council at the intergovernmental conference in 2004.

If and when we have agreed proposals, which will not be easy given the difficulty of the issues involved, we intend to report them fully to Parliament. We hope that the Government and people of Gibraltar will study the proposals carefully. If they wish, they will have the opportunity to negotiate a final agreement before putting it to a referendum.

I want to make two things crystal clear in case they were not clear before. In the absence of the Chief Minister, the proposals will be in the form of a joint

31 Jan 2002 : Column 138WH

declaration from Her Majesty's Government and the Government of Spain. As such, they will be historic. Crucially, however, they will not be a fait accompli. Neither Government will say to the people of Gibraltar, "Take it or leave it." Instead, there will be proposals for consultation with the people of Gibraltar and negotiation with their Government. Once the Brussels process meetings have concluded, both Governments will be ready to invite the Chief Minister to fresh negotiations, especially on those matters of detail and substance without which any new settlement could not be satisfactorily implemented to the benefit of all concerned, especially Gibraltar. If at the end of that process we have a viable agreement, we plan to put the whole package to the people of Gibraltar in a referendum and let them decide. If they say yes to the package, we will implement it. If they say no, we will not.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): The Minister has said that if we have a viable agreement, we will put it to the people of Gibraltar. I refer him to the evidence that he gave to the Foreign Affairs Committee recently, when I probed him about this point, as I do not want there to be any misunderstanding or ambiguity. If no agreement is reached with Spain, or if an agreement is reached with Spain that falls short of transference or shared sovereignty, what is agreed will nevertheless be put to the people of Gibraltar. I understand that a memorandum of understanding is likely to emerge. Will the Minister clarify whether its contents will be put to the people of Gibraltar?

Peter Hain : My hon. Friend—he is a good friend—may not have been listening to what I have been saying. I will continue with my remarks, and allow him to intervene if he is not satisfied.

If the people of Gibraltar say yes to an agreement negotiated after the Brussels process meetings with the Government of Gibraltar have finished, the final word will lie with this House. Any changes to sovereignty would require primary legislation. We said at the start what we were going to do, and we are doing it. At each stage, we have reported to Parliament and will continue to do so. If and when the process reaches a conclusion, we will come back to Parliament. I continue this rich tradition of transparency today by announcing that the next in the series of ministerial meetings in the Brussels process will be held in London on 4 February.

At every stage, we have worked hard to bring the Chief Minister into the talks and meanwhile we have maintained close contact with him. I also offered to brief the Opposition on the usual terms where matters of state, not party, are at stake. They declined, despite the fact that in opposition Labour accepted precisely the same offer from the Conservative Government when they were involved in the same process to support a bipartisan process. We could not have been more transparent and accountable to the House short of inviting television cameras into the negotiations, and anyone who knows anything about diplomacy realises that that would have been ridiculous.

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale): Is my right hon. Friend saying that this House could decide to give joint sovereignty over Gibraltar between Britain and Spain, even though it is not what the people of

31 Jan 2002 : Column 139WH

Gibraltar want and they voted against it in a referendum? That would be wrong. We should take the views of the people of Gibraltar into account, and the overwhelming majority want to stay British.

Peter Hain : My hon. Friend is another good friend, but I invite her to consider what I said rather than what she thought I was going to say. I said that the issue would arise and primary legislation would follow only if the people of Gibraltar had accepted an agreement in a referendum. If the people of Gibraltar endorsed an agreement, it would be for the House to implement their wishes. I hope that that provides a categorical reassurance on that point.

Mr. Bob Laxton (Derby, North): Despite all the discussion, openness and transparency, and the fact that many Gibraltarians would welcome an easing of the relationship with Spain, are we not facing the danger that the result of a referendum might be no? That would render the whole process described by the Minister abortive.

2.46 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.1 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Laxton : I am sure that Gibraltarians will welcome much of what the Minister said about the possibility of improving the relationship with Spain. However, despite the transparency of the negotiations, does the Minister agree that it is possible that the process may be abortive if the Gibraltarians vote in large numbers against any change in the relationship? Would it not have been better to place some pressure on the Spanish to go through a perhaps lengthy process of easing restrictions and adjusting their demeanour in relation to Gibraltar in a way that would have found more favour with Gibraltarians and encouraged greater affirmative response in any referendum?

Peter Hain : I thank my hon. Friend and agree with him. If we or our Conservative predecessors had managed to persuade Spain to treat Gibraltarians as they have a right to be treated, we would not have had to embark on this course. We have not managed that, like all previous Governments, which is why we have chosen a fresh approach. I am confident that it can produce an outcome for which the people of Gibraltar will feel able to vote in a referendum and one that will guarantee them a stable and secure future. That is our objective. If the people of Gibraltar say no at the end of the process, that is their democratic right, but at least we will have tried as hard as we can.

I will clarify something for my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), who asked about a referendum. I have tried to explain something this afternoon that is perhaps new. Given that we have been unable so far to attract the Chief Minister of Gibraltar to the Brussels process meetings, we have secured Spanish agreement to putting proposals to the people and Government of Gibraltar, which they could then use to engage in fresh negotiations outside the

31 Jan 2002 : Column 140WH

Brussels process that may be easier for them to take part in. There is fresh thinking in Madrid and London and there should be fresh thinking everywhere to resolve this impasse.

Andrew Mackinlay : I am genuinely bewildered. I understood the Minister to say that he hoped that heads of agreement—or words to that effect—would emerge from the process, which would be put to the people of Gibraltar and, if they were accepted, that there would be subsequent negotiations. Will there be a second referendum? Is that what the Minister is saying?

Peter Hain : I am grateful that my hon. Friend has sought clarification, as it enables me to clarify the matter in triplicate, so to speak. If, between us, we are successful in achieving a way forward with the Spanish Government—I do not know whether we will be, as difficult issues are involved—there will be a joint declaration of proposals, not a final agreement. There is no fait accompli or take-it-or-leave-it decision. We do not envisage a referendum on the proposals; we envisage the proposals being put to the people of Gibraltar to study, think about, consult on and form their own views about. We can then invite the Chief Minister in the Government of Gibraltar to negotiate with us jointly— Spain and Britain—bilaterally with Spain and bilaterally with Britain, as is appropriate, to form a final agreement which will then go to a referendum.

At this moment I do not envisage one referendum after the other. I do not know; we would have to see what the Government of Gibraltar felt, but if there were no subsequent agreement following the conclusion of the Brussels process with the Government of Gibraltar, I am not sure that there would be any point in calling a referendum. However, that is a matter for the Government of Gibraltar, who may want to call a referendum, in which case we would happily discuss with them how to proceed in order to achieve a definitive conclusion to the process. That is something for the future.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock shows a genuine and principled interest in the matter and I ask him to think of a fresh way through, because that is what we are trying to find.

Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South): If there is a joint declaration between the United Kingdom and Spain, and if proposals are made, how will the people of Gibraltar express their position on them? If there is no opportunity to reject those proposals how can the Minister take the process forward?

Peter Hain : As I have explained, if the Government of Gibraltar feel that it is in their interests to do so, they may want to go straight to a referendum on the proposals without negotiation. Hon. Members should bear it in mind that without Gibraltar's presence in the Brussels process negotiation it is not possible, let alone desirable, to reach anything like a final agreement, because that would have to include matters of detail and substance that are properly the preserve of the Government of Gibraltar.

Let us suppose that the final declaration to emerge from this round of the Brussels process meeting included something on the airport, in principle—for example,

31 Jan 2002 : Column 141WH

removal of the restrictions on flights that exist at present due to the ban by Spain. It would not be possible to take that forward and implement it in a practical way unless the Government of Gibraltar agreed the modus operandi and all the detail, because they not only have a stake in it but have powers over the matter.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): If there were a substantial no vote by the people of Gibraltar—we appreciate that that is one possibility—would the joint declaration then be dead so that we would start again, or would the joint declaration between Britain and Spain have a continuing status? That is something that mystifies many of us, even though we have different views. Can it be clarified?

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it appropriate for hon. Members who want to speak in the debate to say whether they have made any visit to Gibraltar that was funded by the Gibraltar Government?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Edward O'Hara): It is entirely for hon. Members to decide whether they wish to declare an interest.

Peter Hain : I shall respond to the hon. Gentleman in some detail, as this is an important point. I refer him to the background. The European Council asked us to take forward the Brussels process discussions in the interests of all concerned. The Government of Gibraltar left Britain and Spain with no alternative but to see whether we could agree proposals, as we were the only parties that could do so when the Chief Minister left an empty chair. Now that the Government of Gibraltar realise that their attempted veto has failed and that the talks must proceed because the European Council requested us to reach a conclusion if possible, people seem to be saying that we should create a second veto instead of filling that empty chair.

As I understand the point made by the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor), any proposal that emerged from the Brussels process is supposed to vanish as if it had never appeared, in the way that communist governments air-brushed events from their history books. Any proposals that emerge will be just that—proposals. If they are put to a referendum and rejected, no one can air-brush them away, but they cannot be implemented. I remind the Committee that in 1994, under a similar line of attack, the Conservative Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was asked about the status of the Downing Street declaration that was agreed between the Governments of Britain and Ireland. He told the House that

That was greeted with outrage from some quarters, but led eventually to the Good Friday agreement of 1998, which has brought peace and stability to Northern Ireland when none looked possible. The short answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is that one cannot air-

31 Jan 2002 : Column 142WH

brush the joint declaration away, but it cannot be implemented without the people of Gibraltar voting yes in a referendum.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell): In response to the point of order raised by the hon. Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick), I have never visited Gibraltar as a guest of the Government of Gibraltar.

I want to take the Minister back to his remarks about the airport. Does that mean that there would be a vote under duress? In other words, would the legitimate rights of the people of Gibraltar over their airport be met only if they voted the right way in a referendum? If so, that would confirm all our fears.

Andrew Mackinlay : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I told the Deputy Speaker who preceded you in the Chair that if I was called, I would refer to a visit that I made to Gibraltar, which I do not have to do, as declarations are time-limited. I also said that I would give notice that there is a material point about access to a place where we have responsibilities, but where, as Members of Parliament, we cannot go.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. That is not a point of order. It may be an observation of indeterminate pertinence. If hon. Members have visited Gibraltar at the expense of the Government of Gibraltar, they are advised to declare the interest.

Peter Hain : I will respond to the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay). It is a problem in this debate that there is always an interruption, whether it is a vote or some other thing, before I can answer the question.

My remarks about the airport do not mean what the right hon. Member for Bracknell says that they mean. They mean what I said. I offered as an example the airport, or any other matter that is currently under the jurisdiction of the Government of Gibraltar in which they have a direct, practical interest and for which they have a legal responsibility. We could not simply proceed to implement something without agreement or negotiated participation. That would be impossible. That is why the policy of the empty chair pressed on the Chief Minister by many on the Rock is mistaken. If he is unable to participate in the Brussels process negotiations for understandable reasons, given the history of the past few months, the Chief Minister and the Government can negotiate a phase II, after we have agreed a joint declaration of proposals, if we are able to do so. That will still be subject to a referendum.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): Will the Minister give way?

Peter Hain : I will, but I should make progress in the interests of everyone.

Rev. Martin Smyth : For the avoidance of any doubt, I should say that a long time ago I went to Gibraltar as a guest. Since then I have been there at my own expense with my wife. My last visit there was with the British islands and Mediterranean region conference of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.

31 Jan 2002 : Column 143WH

The Minister referred to the Downing Street declaration. He will be aware that there are those of us who accepted the principle of consent. This is what concerns the people of Gibraltar; that consent is taken for granted and people move forward because joint sovereignty has been given away and the people of Gibraltar, like the people of Northern Ireland, are not keen on joint sovereignty.

Peter Hain : I do not want to enter into the history of Northern Ireland—[Hon. Members: "You raised it."] I raised the declaration and I was pleased to do so. There was a declaration of principles, which many criticised, but for all its imperfections, it has led to more peace, stability and security than Northern Ireland had enjoyed for generation upon generation. We should not approach the issue with closed minds, but, as has been the case in Northern Ireland—if one wants to extend the comparison—so it will be in Gibraltar. Irrespective of whether any proposals lead to a final agreement with the Government of Gibraltar, which would be ideal, in the end the people of Gibraltar will have their say in a referendum. That is our pledge.

Mr. Greg Pope (Hyndburn): With a name like mine, I am not going to raise Northern Ireland. Will my right hon. Friend the Minister assure us that, if the Government of Gibraltar continue to boycott talks, not only in the Brussels process but after its conclusion, that will not prevent the people of Gibraltar from having a say in their future and they will not be able to veto a referendum?

Peter Hain : I understand my hon. Friend's point. From the moment we began the latest phase of the Brussels process negotiations, the introduction of vetoes has been a negative aspect of the discussions. It would have been far better if the Chief Minister had joined us, as he could have done, and as he still can with his conditions of safety and dignity satisfied. Even if he is unable to do so until after the joint declaration is published—if we reach that stage with the Government of Spain; there are still major issues to be resolved—I hope that there will not be a second veto.

I hope that the Government of Gibraltar will say, "We may not like all of this, but we may like some of it. Let's negotiate over it and see if we can reach a better deal. Let's see if we can represent our interests on behalf of the people of Gibraltar. If we can't, and the negotiations don't succeed, we will ask people to vote no in a referendum or we won't consider it worth putting to a referendum". That will be a matter for us to discuss with the Government of Gibraltar. I would not want to go to a referendum against the wishes of the Government of Gibraltar. That would not be sensible, regardless of what we felt, Gibraltarians felt, or indeed the Chief Minister felt about the contents of any proposals.

Let me again set out our pledges. Our opponents clearly do not read Hansard, so instead I invite them to read my lips. First, the British and Spanish Governments want the Government of Gibraltar to be represented in negotiations. The door remains open for Mr. Caruana. Secondly, we will not impose any deal on the people of Gibraltar. They will have the final say in a referendum. Whatever the Conservatives may say, the

31 Jan 2002 : Column 144WH

Chief Minister of Gibraltar acknowledges that. In his new year message to the people of Gibraltar, Mr. Caruana said:

That is exactly the process in which we are engaged. As we made clear, we hope that the Government and people of Gibraltar will help to shape the proposals that we and Spain are working out before any vote in a referendum.

Our position is clear. The real problem is not the Government's approach but the Opposition's approach. How many Opposition Members here today agree with the following statement:

It is striking that so few Opposition Members are prepared to endorse the common-sense views of their former Foreign Secretary. Perhaps we should not be surprised. As Lord Howe also reminded us in that speech:

Many of those people are sitting here today. Like Lord Howe, this Government reject that view absolutely. The Opposition seem keen to forget the views of their former Foreign Secretary. They are keen to forget other things too. The people who launched the Brussels process that they now deride were members not of this Government but of the Conservative Government in 1984. The person who first agreed to discuss Gibraltar's sovereignty with Spain was not our Prime Minister but Margaret Thatcher.

I will accept responsibility on behalf of Labour in two matters connected with Gibraltar. First, the Government who gave the pledge that I have reaffirmed again today—no change in sovereignty without the consent of the people of Gibraltar—was a Labour Government: Harold Wilson's in 1969. I am glad that the Tories are rallying to this. Secondly, although the Tories started this process, the people who aim to finish it—we are determined to finish it successfully—are this Labour Government.

So why have the Tories lurched from supporting a process that Margaret Thatcher launched in the 1980s to condemning it as virtually treasonable in 2002?

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest): Will the Minister give way?

Peter Hain : No.

31 Jan 2002 : Column 145WH

The answer is simple. The Tory party has changed. Today's Tory party does not believe in negotiation. Today's Tory party does not believe in Europe. Today's Tory party has made sovereignty a virility symbol—even when pooling it in the EU actually benefits the people of Britain. Today's Tory party prefers to posture from the Back Benches rather than face reality; to make trouble in opposition rather than make a difference in government. That is of course the luxury of opposition. As long as Conservatives stick to their current polices they will enjoy that luxury for a very long time to come.

This Government are serious about delivering. We live in the real world. We are serious about safeguarding Gibraltar's way of life, about securing a better future for Gibraltar and about advancing our interests in Europe for the benefit of the people of Britain. That is why we are in this process. That is why we will continue to take it forward with clarity and commitment. And that is why I hope that this House, and all who want a better future for Gibraltar, will support us.

3.23 pm

Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk): Many hon. Members are concerned about recent reports about developments in the latest round of the Brussels process. I am grateful to the Minister of State for initiating the debate this afternoon so that those matters can be aired. He is absolutely right. This is about real people and real problems. We are all interested in resolving this matter.

There have been widespread concerns that Gibraltar is being pushed into a done deal whereby sovereignty will be shared with Spain. The Government have done precious little to allay those fears. The Government must understand their responsibility for the mess and heightened passions that they have created. The Minister should just look around him. All parties in the House of Commons share a concern about the future of Gibraltar. To suggest that this is a partisan issue is unworthy of the Minister.

We must have calm negotiations, which would allow for resolution of the difficulties in the relationship. Surely the Minister agrees that a reassuring approach is the only way to resolve the difficulties satisfactorily, particularly for the people in Gibraltar who are affected by them. The Minister made several important points this afternoon, but they beg many questions.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): Does the hon. Gentleman endorse the Chief Minister's refusal to take part in the talks unless he is given an absolute veto on their outcome? Can the hon. Gentleman cite any precedent for that approach, apart from that of the Democratic Unionist party?

Mr. Spring : I am disappointed by the hon. Gentleman's intervention, because that is a parody of the Chief Minister's position, which I shall discuss in detail later.

Ministers have done nothing to reassure the people of Gibraltar. Of course, the Government are involved in the Brussels process, which the Conservative party began. I accept that, from the beginning, "the issues of sovereignty" were to be discussed. However, when the

31 Jan 2002 : Column 146WH

Spanish put forward proposals on changing Gibraltar's sovereignty, the Conservative Government always rejected them. By contrast, by allowing the Matutes proposals to lie on the table unanswered, this Government have helped to create the atmosphere of uncertainty in which the Government of Gibraltar refuse to participate in the talks. I shall elaborate on that later.

The words of the Government and the Minister have not helped. The Minister will no doubt remember his insensitive observation on 7 November:

Equally, on 17 September he bizarrely told the Gibraltar Chronicle:

whatever that is supposed to mean.

Does the Minister think that those comments convinced the people of Gibraltar that he and his Government have their best interests at heart?

It does not stop there, however. The Minister has form. In the 7 November debate, he said that, if Gibraltarians did not make the choices he wanted,

He may also remember once saying that he was puzzled that the Government of Gibraltar had taken a boycott stance. No one else is puzzled, given the background of remarks.

There is still more. In evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee, he said:

Whatever the merits of that bizarre observation, the tone is extremely unhelpful. It implies that he believes that the very existence of a Gibraltarian entity separate from Spain is an anachronism that should be abolished, whether the people of Gibraltar like it or not. Does he agree that Gibraltar should be able to have a "modernised" relationship with Spain which leaves the present situation on sovereignty intact? Or does he see that as part of the status quo which must be changed? I would be interested to hear his response.

I wish to refer again to the extremely damaging and unhelpful remark made by the Minister's Parliamentary Private Secretary on Sky Television. She said that

To my knowledge, not even Spanish commentators have ever claimed that. It is that sort of background mood music coming from Foreign Office Ministers that is destroying a constructive relationship. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity today—he declined to do so earlier—of dissociating himself from remarks made by his Parliamentary Private Secretary.

Hon. Members will know of the reports issued at the weekend on the current state of the negotiations. We read that our Government at first appeared to give the Government of Gibraltar the reassurances that would

31 Jan 2002 : Column 147WH

allow them to feel comfortable participating in the negotiations. It seemed to Gibraltarians that at long last the Government were seeing sense and agreeing to the formula. We talked earlier about Northern Ireland, so we can talk in the context of the two flags, three voices policy that was first advocated by my noble Friend Lord Hurd. We read that subsequently Foreign Office officials told representatives of the Government of Gibraltar that the result of a Gibraltarian referendum on any proposals agreed by the British and Spanish Governments would not be truly decisive, a point on which I shall elaborate. In other words, the principles agreed to bilaterally—I think that the Minister used the term "a joint declaration"—would remain on the table even if the Gibraltarians rejected the proposals that emerged from the agreed principles.

We need to know whether the joint declaration speaks of joint sovereignty or whether the Minister is prepared to rule that out categorically. I have obviously not seen the letter to the Chief Minister of Gibraltar to which the Minister referred, but my understanding is that it did not rule that out. If that is the case, it would be damaging to the successful outcome of any negotiations and hon. Members need immediate reassurances that that will not happen. What have Foreign Office Ministers been playing at? Have they agreed with the Chief Minister of Gibraltar that Gibraltar should have a distinct voice in the talks of a single composite British delegation? If not, why not? If that were the formula, progress could be made. Will the Government produce a done deal with Spain and an agreement of principles which will stand as a milestone, as one Spanish official put it, regardless of whether the people of Gibraltar agree to it in a referendum? That is a crucial point.

We have reason to fear that the agreement of principles, or joint declaration, will propose the sharing of sovereignty, yet the Foreign Secretary told the House on 14 January that no agreement to share sovereignty had been reached. Will the Minister tell us, without any weasel words, whether such an agreement is now being reached? Is it true that there will be a joint declaration and agreement of principles, or whatever it is called, regardless of the result of the referendum? If so, the measure is counter-productive and shows contempt for the democratic process.

Does the Minister realise that such an agreement would also, in international eyes, legitimise Spain's claim on Gibraltar? It is interesting that the whole process is apparently being spurred on by the European Union; begun by the Brussels process, the proposal suddenly gets put in as a mechanism to push it on. The internationalisation of the issue is of great concern. It contradicts the position that every past British Government have adopted—indeed, in a written answer to a question from the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Crausby) on 6 November, he admitted that it has been the position of the British Government since the mid-1960s that Gibraltar's right of self-determination is limited only by article X of the treaty of Utrecht. Does the Minister agree that that would no longer be true once Spain's claim is legitimised by an agreement between the two Governments, thus negating for the first time the United Kingdom's historic position? Such an agreement would run the risk of creating irreversible parameters for future negotiations, even if a referendum produced the result that I think is inevitable.

31 Jan 2002 : Column 148WH

Does the Minister not understand that an agreement of principles such as a joint declaration that would still stand after a rejecting referendum would betray the guarantee that the Foreign Secretary gave the House on 14 January that the final outcome will be subject to the wishes not of the Spanish or British Governments, but of the people of Gibraltar? I ask the Minister for a clear reassurance on that point.

I find the proposal extraordinary, given that the Minister has been warned repeatedly by the Opposition, the Government of Gibraltar and many of his parliamentary colleagues that the least desirable result would be a done deal between Britain and Spain that would act as a marker for any future negotiations despite its rejection by Gibraltar. Does he not realise that the proposal flies in the face of the people of Gibraltar's rights? He has made much play of wanting a better future for Gibraltar. Of course, we all want that, but how can Gibraltar have a better future when the proposal appears to leave the sword of Damocles hanging over its head, as the Chief Minister put it?

We all want Gibraltar to have better relations with Spain, as do the Government and people of Gibraltar. Spain is one of our closest friends and allies. We all greatly admire its magnificent political and economic achievements over the past generation. Spain is a valued partner in NATO and the European Union, and we have similar attitudes on many common interests and concerns.

I was interested to read the article by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) in The House Magazine, in which he called for "confidence-building measures". I could not agree more. The Minister and his colleagues have proved themselves incapable of such measures. We expect a measure of diplomacy from Foreign Office Ministers, but that has been remarkably absent over the past few months. Instead, as I said, we have had a catalogue of observations and remarks that can only demolish confidence in Gibraltar.

Time and again, I call on the Government to show some sense. Before an irreversible agreement with Spain that the people of Gibraltar do not want is reached, will the Minister agree to the principle of two flags and three voices and continue the negotiations within arrangements with which the Government of Gibraltar will feel comfortable?

Several references have been made to Northern Ireland, but unlike the situation there, we are talking about only three parties between two states, so this matter should be much simpler. Only when detailed arrangements had been agreed by all parties did an agreement between Britain and the Republic of Ireland become bilateral, as we saw in the Good Friday agreement.

As my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State has suggested to the Foreign Secretary, will the Minister use another successful formula from the Northern Ireland negotiations—nothing is agreed until it is agreed? Does he agree that no satisfactory solution will come from treating the negotiations as purely bilateral? Just as Gibraltar cannot insist on agreements that Spain cannot live with, so Spain should not be able to insist on agreements that Gibraltar cannot live with. With that principle, all parties could move forward

31 Jan 2002 : Column 149WH

constructively without feeling that they were committing themselves to doing something irrevocable. In the joint statement with the Spanish Foreign Minister on 20 November, the Foreign Secretary said that he sought a comprehensive agreement, but he will not achieve a just and enduring agreement unless he comes up with something to which the people of Gibraltar can agree. They are the people who will be affected.

The negotiations need not be the unpopular mess that they have turned out to be. I ask the Minister to listen to the criticism by hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber that he has heard and will hear this afternoon, and to that by the Government and Opposition in Gibraltar. I ask him to change course before the negotiations do irreversible damage. Public opinion in this country will stand for nothing less.

3.38 pm

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East): Normally, I have some affection and respect for the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring), who spoke from the Opposition Front Bench. Normally, he is a responsible spokesman for his party on these matters, and I agree with much of what he said, but the position in which he has put his party with some of the remarks that he has made this afternoon is irresponsible. That is uncharacteristic and regrettable.

There are four broad headings of significance in this debate. The first—this is where we came in with Gibraltar—is its strategic importance. The second covers several issues broadly falling into the constitutional category, including any perceived on-going moral obligations and cultural identity—another issue raised in this afternoon's debate. The third is the practical difficulties—my right hon. Friend the Minister mentioned them in his opening speech—arising from living cheek by jowl with Spain, which is antagonistic towards Gibraltar's current status. Telephone facilities were one example. The final issue is the engagement or non-engagement of the Government of Gibraltar and the people of Gibraltar. I shall attempt to cover those four headings as briefly as possible and discuss any parallels between Gibraltar and Northern Ireland.

The Minister will be aware that I recently asked a question about the strategic importance of Gibraltar. The answer I received will not surprise any hon. Member present. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence replied:

Andrew Mackinlay : Some secret stuff.

Mr. Howarth : My hon. Friend is helpful. It may surprise him to know that I had almost guessed that myself.

I accept that the position set out by the Minister of State in that reply is an accurate description and responsible attitude for the Government to adopt. However, a century or so ago, in the time of Lord Salisbury, the strategic importance of Gibraltar was

31 Jan 2002 : Column 150WH

entirely different. It was still a base for British armed forces—presumably different communications, logistic and training purposes were met—but in a wholly different international context with a different relationship obtaining between the United Kingdom and the rest of the world. We were still an imperial power: the Suez canal was still important and we had significant imperial interests in places such as the Indian sub-continent. The nexus of military organisations and agreements was also different. It was before the time of NATO, the European Union and even before the United Nations.

I accept that a strategic interest remains, but it exists because we are already in Gibraltar, not because of where Gibraltar sits in relation to the rest of the world. My main argument is that much of the strategic interest is transferable: it could be done from elsewhere and it is not beyond the wit of the Ministry of Defence to find alternative arrangements within a certain time scale if the people of Gibraltar felt that they could order their affairs differently.

Moral, cultural and other obligations broadly fall under the title of constitutional arrangements. At this point, I want to draw parallels with Northern Ireland. I served as a Northern Ireland junior Minister for two years, and I do not claim to be the sole repository of wisdom on the subject. However, one lesson can be learned from Northern Ireland. Whichever example we consider—the start of the peace process in Northern Ireland during the time of John Major or the start of the Brussels process—we find that, if a party is over-prescriptive, possibilities are eliminated.

Although I suspect that the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) would disagree, I believe that the strength of the package put to the people of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in the referendum on the Good Friday agreement was that it was constructively ambiguous. It enabled someone who held nationalist views to contemplate an immediate future in the United Kingdom without having to give up their republican views. It enabled the bare majority of Unionists who voted for the agreement to retain their Unionist identity, and recognise that a different set of relationships with the Republic of Ireland would be introduced alongside different constitutional arrangements, such as devolution.

Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Howarth : I shall finish in a moment. That process enabled people to retain their cultural and national identities and enter into an arrangement that allowed the possibility of peace. It is an imperfect peace, but it exists, and people have put aside some ancient enmities.

Mr. Rosindell : Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the crucial difference between Northern Ireland and Gibraltar is that Northern Ireland is a divided community? A certain section of the community in Northern Ireland would like to become part of the Republic of Ireland. Barely a single person in Gibraltar wishes it to be a part of Spain, or would want the Madrid Government to have any power over Gibraltar.

Mr. Howarth : I accept the distinction that the hon. Gentleman makes. However, it is not possible to make

31 Jan 2002 : Column 151WH

exact comparisons between a situation in one place and one in an entirely different place. That was not my point. Although I accept the differences that he described, we must allow people flexibility to look for a solution. There may be a solution that no one has yet suggested. That is why I used the term "constructively ambiguous", to the bafflement of those sitting here. It requires imagination, and space in which people can exercise it, to foresee how a relationship might develop in future. That is my point on the Northern Ireland process. I accept that the parallel is not exact.

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East): I listened carefully to my hon. Friend's comments on cultural identity and the relationship that he explored. Is he aware that an Indian community has been around in Gibraltar for 130 years? That community, of which the Hindu and Muslim communities are part, has made a large contribution. How will he protect their rights under his suggested arrangements? Gibraltar has an identity, which the Indian community has enjoyed and which has been protected for so long. How, under the arrangements that he is floating, will that be protected?

Mr. Howarth : I do not know whether my hon. Friend has misunderstood me. I am arguing for space in which a new settlement can be developed, not prescribing a blueprint. I entirely accept that Gibraltar is a multicultural society with a long tradition of people from different cultural and religious backgrounds contributing to the richness of Gibraltar's life. That is also true of Spain.

My comparison with Northern Ireland showed that arrangements on equality and human rights are in place so that the identity and rights of people of all backgrounds—not just those of nationalists, Catholics, Unionists or Protestants—are protected, overseen and looked after. Any negotiated settlement could and would address such issues in a way that suits everyone. I make that point not to offer a particular solution but to suggest a process similar, but not the same, to that in Northern Ireland—I accept the distinction made by the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) in his intervention—

Geraldine Smith : Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Howarth : If my hon. Friend lets me finish my sentence, I will gladly give way. Such a process offers the possibility of bearing fruit.

Geraldine Smith : Does my hon. Friend accept that the Good Friday agreement was agreed to by the people of Northern Ireland? If a joint declaration is agreed to by the people of Gibraltar, we will not have a problem, but we are talking about what happens if it is rejected, and whether it should be imposed on the people.

Mr. Howarth : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I have been careful about making a point for no particular end solution, and have not described what arrangements might look like; frankly, I am not in a position to be able to. I have tried to describe a process, and my hon. Friend's intervention is wide of the mark because she assumes that I am defending a particular set

31 Jan 2002 : Column 152WH

of arrangements. I strongly agree with my right hon. Friend the Minister, and am in favour of the idea that the status quo is probably not a sensible arrangement as regards modern relations between the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe. Moreover, it is probably not the most sensible arrangement for the people of Gibraltar.

Rev. Martin Smyth : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is another similarity between Gibraltar and Northern Ireland on which he has not touched? For years, the policy of the Foreign Office was to try to get rid of any problems and yield to the greatest pressure point.

Mr. Howarth : The hon. Gentleman and I are old and good friends, so he will forgive when I say that I do not speak for the Foreign Office. It is a relief not to be speaking for it, or for any Government Department, but to be giving my own views.

It is important to say—I agree to some extent with the critics, but the matter is not necessarily a bone of contention with the Foreign Office—that the people of Gibraltar must have a say in the matter and their views must be factored into any agreement.

Mr. Tynan : Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Howarth : I seem to be popular for interventions. I am looking to you for guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am usually generous about giving way, but the more I give way, the less time will be available for other hon. Members to be called. Seeing the expression on your face, I shall give way to my hon. Friend, but that will be the last intervention before I conclude my comments.

Mr. Tynan : Let me test my hon. Friend's position. Does he accept that the negotiations between Britain and Spain should involve the Government of Gibraltar before a joint declaration is made to test the proposition in the statements?

Mr. Howarth : I am grateful for that intervention, because it leads me to my final point on engagement. My right hon. Friend the Minister referred to an empty chair, which is a good and accurate description of the situation. If the Gibraltar Government were properly engaged in the process, the shape and context of any declaration would probably be entirely different. If three parties were involved in the negotiations instead of two, I am convinced that, although my right hon. Friend and the Foreign Secretary will do everything possible to protect the interests of Gibraltarians, there could be no better guarantee of those interests being advanced than involving the Gibraltar Government in the process and filling the chair. My right hon. Friend is putting the cart before the horse. I am sure that there is a better analogy, but I cannot think of it.

In the interim, it is important for the Gibraltar Government to be involved in the process because, first, the strategic interests, although they still exist, are different from 100 years ago; secondly, any process involves engagement and that must be constructive, with space for a different arrangement to be agreed that suits everyone better than the current arrangements; and thirdly, because of the practical difficulties being experienced by the people of Gibraltar, it is in

31 Jan 2002 : Column 153WH

everyone's interests that a new future is carved for Gibraltar that recognises not only its place in the world, but the place of Spain, the United Kingdom and Europe. I appeal to the people and Government of Gibraltar to be constructive and not to sulk in a corner.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. The next speaker will be a Front-Bench spokesman and when he has concluded the Front-Bench contributions will have taken up a large part of the debate. It was scheduled to end at 5.30 pm, to which can be added 15 minutes for the Division, so it will end at 5.45 pm. It is my intention to confine the winding-up speeches to a ministerial response and I understand that 10 minutes will be adequate. It may help hon. Members to know that so that they may balance their contributions and enable as many hon. Members as possible to contribute.

3.59 pm

Mr. Michael Moore (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale): I heard what you said, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I welcome this debate. When the subject has been discussed recently, it has been during Back Benchers' time or as the result of private notice questions, and it is welcome that the Government have provided time for this debate. Perhaps the issue will be promoted to the Chamber for discussion.

We are rapidly approaching the 300th anniversary of Britain's involvement with Gibraltar. In three centuries the issues have proved largely intractable, and in three hours this afternoon we are unlikely to find a solution. Nevertheless, seeking a solution must be the objective of everyone who has an interest in Gibraltar and, as we have heard today, there are plenty of options.

The history of the different disputes is well known and well rehearsed, but it is worth focusing on several key issues. What Gibraltar wants out of the process is clear: it wants easier living, whether that is clearer and fairer border controls, the ability to use a phone or better access by air or other modes of transport; it wants greater autonomy, which we can all support; and, most crucially, it wants to maintain its right to self-determination. To achieve any and all of those it will need the United Kingdom and Spain to work alongside it.

It is also evident what the United Kingdom wants out of the process. An easier life might be a cynic's view, and the occasional impression has been created that Gibraltar is an administrative embarrassment to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and perhaps something of which it would gladly be rid. More seriously, there is the prize of making progress on several issues, which the Minister was at pains to set out, in the European Union. Crucially, the United Kingdom must want to see things right for Gibraltar and to ensure that it is treated fairly. In all those areas the Government need both Gibraltar and Spain to co-operate with them.

It is clear what the Spanish Government want. Strategic gains would accrue from repossessing the rock over which Spain has a historic desire to reassert its

31 Jan 2002 : Column 154WH

sovereignty. However, it, too wants broader progress on the larger European Union issues that are at stake. None of that will be possible without Gibraltar and the United Kingdom. Over too long a period the situation has developed, such that we now have an elaborate diplomatic version of the game of rock, paper, scissors in which each participant is interdependent and has the ability to blunt, smother or skewer the other's progress.

Whichever view is taken of Gibraltar's history, there is plenty of scope from the Utrecht treaty, the 1969 constitution of Gibraltar, the Brussels process and the Barcelona communiqué to justify the arguments for or against. Here in Britain it should not be too difficult for us to agree that the current situation is untenable, that Gibraltar must retain the right to determine its future and that there are greater European Union prizes to be gained if the problem can be resolved.

Mr. Rosindell : The hon. Gentleman hits the nail on the head. He discussed greater prizes in the context of the European Union, but the reason why the Government are determined to push this ahead is because Gibraltar is being used as a bargaining chip to allow deals to be done with Madrid, and the Government want greater concessions at the next intergovernmental conference. That is the real reason why the Government are entering into this betrayal of Gibraltar.

Mr. Moore : The hon. Gentleman has made his point, and I shall allow the Government to answer it rather than being drawn in. I hope that my position is clear and will continue to be clear throughout the debate.

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): The hon. Gentleman mentioned self-determination. Precisely what does he mean by that: a referendum or something else?

Mr. Moore : If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will develop my thinking and I hope that that will become clear to him.

The current situation is untenable. Gibraltar has to retain the right to self-determination, and there are bigger prizes that Liberal Democrat Members want to be achieved as well. However, nothing can be achieved without dialogue. Although there is some dialogue, the situation remains a mess. We must ask why matters are not progressing. Some think it is because of the dialogue between the UK and Spain that we are getting further away from, not closer to, a solution.

Liberal Democrat Members have long supported the Brussels negotiation process, and we acknowledge that that partly involves talks about sovereignty. Those talks must lead to a proper, fair and free referendum. We cannot allow a rigged referendum or one that takes place under political duress. That is what the people of Gibraltar fear. For as long as Gibraltarians continue to be denied basic rights such as freedom of movement, proper access to telecommunications and participation in European Parliament elections, they will be very wary of, if not absolutely hostile to, any deal cooked up by the two Governments. Equally, for as long as they are unclear what future constitutional status will be offered to them, they are right to be cynical.

The Foreign Secretary has conceded the need to improve life for Gibraltarians. However, what is not at all clear is the British intention regarding the Rock's

31 Jan 2002 : Column 155WH

constitutional status. The Minister was not specific in his article in The House Magazine of 28 January, nor has he been today. Nor was Baroness Symons in a debate in another place on 12 December. The Government have been offered several opportunities to spell out Gibraltar's possible future constitutional status, but have taken none of them. It is not clear what offer may come to the people of Gibraltar in due course.

Much reference has been made to Northern Ireland. I was born there, but, alas, did not spend much of my life there. I would prefer not to draw that parallel, but rather one that has a great deal of resonance; the constitutional changes on the mainland of the United Kingdom over the past five years. In Scotland, the arguments over the different options for devolution that were available to us were debated and agonised over for a long time before we got anywhere near a referendum in 1997. People still had differences of opinion, but they were absolutely clear about what they were voting on. That possibility does not appear to exist for the people of Gibraltar.

The Government may respond that the Chief Minister has an open invitation to join the talks, and Liberal Democrat Members would certainly urge him to do so. However, if it is to be a meaningful process, the Gibraltar representatives have to have confidence in it. The Government are right to tackle the issue, but wrong to fail to recognise the limitations of the current process. They must persuade the Spanish to develop some confidence-building gestures. They must also make it clear what constitutional options they may consider, and then Gibraltarians can play their part and join the dialogue.

The Minister has shown that we are making some progress with his announcement today that if the Chief Minister does not join the talks, there will be a chance for negotiations before the outcome of those talks is put to a referendum. That will need to be developed further and the people of Gibraltar will have to have their say on it. He was less clear—I fear that this will undermine the whole process—on what status that negotiated agreement will have should the people of Gibraltar reject it.

In the whole process, there is a catalyst necessary to turn the current vicious cycle into a virtuous one; it is trust. There is too little of it at the moment but without it, all the best intentions in the world will come to nought.

4.10 pm

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): I declare an interest; I have visited Gibraltar at the expense of the Gibraltar Government.

The Minister clearly states that he believes in transparency and openness. However, I have a concern, which I hope that he will address when summing up. Transcripts of a private meeting between my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and Mr. Piqué have been made available to certain individuals, but not to anyone

31 Jan 2002 : Column 156WH

with Gibraltar group membership. It seems that some hon. Members have been excluded and omitted. I believe that a Parliamentary Private Secretary has had the notes from the Foreign Office and has been given a list, restricted to a few. The notes have been circulated to some but have not been given to the rest of us here. I do not think that that leads to openness or transparency. It returns us to all the suspicion that started over Gibraltar in the first place.

I wish to move on to some of the points that have been raised about Gibraltar, but I shall give way first, if the Minister wishes to respond.

Peter Hain indicated dissent.

Mr. Hoyle : It is unusual for the Minister to speak from a sedentary position. I am more than willing to give way on this important point. It is not about politics, but about ensuring that Members of Parliament are all treated equally. That is all I am speaking about; nothing else.

Gibraltar plays a major military role to this day and has been involved in every war since the second world war, sharing part of the supply chain. That is because it is 1,000 miles from the UK. Recently, the submarine Tireless, which no one really wanted to discuss, had to be repaired in Gibraltar. Nowhere else was available and it was not safe to bring it back to the UK. That is just one example of the strategic importance of Gibraltar.

Anyone who goes between the straits is monitored. Every ship or submarine that progresses through those straits is known. It is as important militarily now as it was 100 years ago in terms of surveillance tactics, especially for movements up into the Gulf. I make that point seriously, because people should be aware of it.

At the weekend, The Times said that talks were going well and that the Minister might be able to attend them. On Sunday, we read headlines such as, "Gibraltar deal is a betrayal". That is the worry. Unfortunately, we do not have much time to enter that debate. I know that many other hon. Members wish to comment, but some points must be made.

The people of Gibraltar must have their rights. People might want to comment one way or the other, but the bottom line is that if there is to be a referendum, why should it not be extended? Why should we not ask the people of Gibraltar to vote for integration, if that is what they wish? It is a possibility that, as Spain accepts Ceuta and Melilla as integrated parts, we could do the same with Gibraltar. That would resolve the issues for everyone. I would go even further. People say that we cannot touch the treaty of Utrecht, but I say that we cannot have it both ways. The Minister wants joint sovereignty, which would mean altering the treaty of Utrecht. Surely Spain, which I welcome as a newcomer to the democratic process, would also allow and support the rights of the people of Gibraltar to have independence, if that is what they wish.

31 Jan 2002 : Column 157WH

We ought not to shy away from such points; they must be made. We ought to let the people of Gibraltar choose, and I do not think that anyone in this House who believes in democracy should shy away from negotiating on behalf of the people of Gibraltar. That is important.

4.14 pm

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), who made an important but all too brief contribution. It was deeply significant to hear him criticise what appears to be an unpleasant dirty trick, with selected Members being given special briefings by a Parliamentary Private Secretary, presumably on behalf of the Minister. If that is untrue, the Minister will say so in winding up. Despite always being keen to speak and to give his views at any point at any time in any magazine, the Minister has been remarkably silent. He mumbled away and failed to intervene when the hon. Member for Chorley offered him the chance.

That follows a pattern, and I was a little perturbed by the point of order of the hon. Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick), who I am glad to see has returned to the debate. Bearing in mind the remarks of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), I was not alone in inferring that as rather threatening. There was an implication that there is something wrong about Members of this House visiting Gibraltar as guests of its Government to learn more about a territory for which we still have responsibility. I speak as someone who has not visited Gibraltar as a guest of its Government, although I have been there on several occasions at my own expense. I did not like the comment, because it was a Whip's or PPS's nark's intervention and an attempt to threaten Members.

Those who have been here for some time, as you have, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will recall how much debate in the House has benefited from Members visiting Hong Kong. When I was Tom King's PPS, I used to arrange for Members of the House to visit Northern Ireland and, thereafter, as the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) will confirm, there was much more informed debate. They were paid for by the Government of the day and were all-party visits, so I hope that we can knock that point on the head once and for all. It was a nasty and unpleasant point of order.

I will now go back nearly 25 years—more years, I fear, than any other Member in this Chamber can—when, as the youngest Member of Parliament at the time, I spoke from the Opposition Benches in a debate about the accession of Spain and Portugal to what was then the European Community. I spoke vigorously in favour of their accession, and it is easy to forget today that Spain and Portugal were then fledgling democracies. There was a real possibility that they would fall back into military dictatorship, and indeed it was only the courageous intervention of King Juan Carlos that stopped a rather buffoonish military coup, which included a strange colonel with a funny hat waving a gun in front of the Speaker of the Spanish Parliament.

It is easy to forget that we were also under a huge Soviet threat at the time. Communism was sweeping across Europe and there was a large Communist party

31 Jan 2002 : Column 158WH

in Portugal and a significant one in Spain. I believed then, as I do now, that it was important for both countries to become our partners in the European Community. I remember being intervened on by the then right hon. Member for Down, South, the Ulster Unionist J. Enoch Powell, who took the opposite view and believed that it would do further harm to the European Community. We hear those views expressed again now in terms of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and other countries, and it is important that we bring them into our democratic fold.

I say all that because I am delighted at the success of democratic Spain. I have watched in admiration as Spain punches its weight in Europe and the world, as well as in NATO. I speak as a friend and admirer of modern Spain, someone who holidays there regularly and enjoys meeting the Spanish people. However, I do not say that at the expense of the people of Gibraltar, or with the aim of tearing up the treaty of Utrecht.

A statement on Gibraltar was made a few weeks ago on the Floor of the House. The most significant contribution was, as is quite often the case, from the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes). Sadly, he is not with us today. He asked the Foreign Secretary what was the point of conducting negotiations with the Spanish if there was nothing to negotiate. I agree entirely; the negotiations are pointless and, in giving false hope, they are unfair on the Spanish Government and people. This House will not sell out Gibraltar.

Only if agreed principles and an agreed framework are reached in the Brussels talks will the negotiations be of any advantage to Spain, but those principles would be put to the people of Gibraltar and rejected. The Gibraltarians' worry is not that the referendum will not be won—everyone knows that it will be won overwhelmingly—but that Spain will subsequently have a legitimised claim because it will have on the table agreed principles and an agreed framework to negotiate with the British Government. That is the harm and the damage. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) rightly said, that is what it is all about.

I listened carefully to the Minister when he said that it would be damaging to Gibraltar if an agreement were not reached. I listened equally carefully to his response to the significant intervention of the hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan). Threats, coercion and duress were mentioned and it was suggested that the people of Gibraltar should have, as an absolute right, freedom of movement, open telecommunications, open air links and an open airport. Those are the democratic and simple rights of people in any country in the world, but the people of Gibraltar cannot have them unless they do a deal on their sovereignty. The suggestion is that those rights will be available and that life will be more comfortable for the people of Gibraltar, provided the they vote the right way. That is election under duress and it is absolutely wrong.

I listened carefully to the Minister when he said that the lack of an agreement in Gibraltar undermines our own interests. I am not sure why. He then strangely went on to refer to the 500,000 British nationals living in Spain. Is he suggesting that our friend and ally, our partner in the European Union—democratic Spain—will threaten all the Brits living in Marbella, Torremolinos and Fuengirola? Should we be bringing

31 Jan 2002 : Column 159WH

them home, as in the case of Zimbabwe? What an absurd and irrelevant suggestion from the Minister. What single other reason can there be for mentioning the 500,000 British subjects who live in Spain? Will the Minister tell us why?

Peter Hain : Because it is a fact, to which I drew the attention of Members.

Mr. MacKay : That rather confirms my point. It is irrelevant. Endless facts can always be provided, but they are not necessarily relevant. It was suggested that British interests could be undermined if we did not negotiate and, in the next breath, the Minister reminded us of the fact—we all know it is true—that approximately half a million British citizens live in Spain. It was suggested that they might be under duress. That is clearly crazy. What was the point of mentioning it in the same context? It was another red herring.

A further red herring that has been dealt with in part by powerful interventions from the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) and my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) is that strange comparison with Northern Ireland. It was made by the Foreign Secretary during his statement and was shot down by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) and it was made again by the Minister today. Let me take the Minister slowly through the facts. He is keen to have facts.

First, a significant minority of people in Northern Ireland aspire to be part of a united Ireland. That creates genuine tensions and problems. Secondly, for over 30 years, there have been what are described as the troubles in Northern Ireland. A large number of people have been murdered or maimed and a significant number of people have been forced to leave the Province. The situation in Gibraltar bears no similarity at all. Comparisons between Gibraltar and Northern Ireland are wrong. They are a typical muddying of the water by the Foreign Office. Those of us who know a significant amount about Northern Ireland know that there is no point in making any comparisons.

I am anxious that other colleagues can speak too and so I will conclude by giving a word of warning to both the Minister and, perhaps more importantly, the Government Whip, the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Caplin). They should be careful. There is no chance of getting this sort of measure through the House, as they do not have the support of the majority of hon. Members.

4.26 pm

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): As I mentioned on a point of order, I want to pick up on Members of Parliament's access to this important part of the EU. My hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick) touched an important button by raising this. First, Members do go at the invitation and expense of the Gibraltar Government and we have to declare it. There is a special arrangement for overseas territories. I was partly instrumental in that, persuading Tony Newton, who recognised that there was a moral obligation on hon. Members to visit overseas territories and the British Government did not want to pick up the cost.

I have pursued this matter time and time again, including with my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Caplin) when he was Parliamentary Private

31 Jan 2002 : Column 160WH

Secretary to the Leader of the House in the last Parliament. My hon. Friend the Member for Preston and I can go to any part of the EU, at the expense of Parliament, but the one place we cannot visit is Gibraltar, notwithstanding it is an EU issue in itself. My hon. Friend the Member for Hove will remember that we were promised that this issue would be reviewed. I hope that the Minister will at least take that board. It is perverse that I can go to Edinburgh at the expense of this place, and indeed I do, but I cannot go to Gibraltar. I often go to Northern Ireland but we cannot go to this important place where there are British subjects who are disfranchised and who have no access to this House of Commons.

The question is not "integration" but the fact that these people, uniquely, are not represented in their national legislature. Their Prime Minister is our Prime Minister; their Foreign Secretary is our Foreign Secretary; their Defence Secretary is our Defence Secretary. If we go to war they cannot say, "If you don't mind we'll sit this one out." They are committed. It is nonsense that they have no access to the legislature on matters germane to them. In the meantime they are dependent on the surrogacy of hon. Members to protect and promote their interests, which I think is unhealthy. That democratic deficit should be an acute embarrassment to the United Kingdom.

The Minister suggested why there is growing ministerial interest in Gibraltar. The reason predates him. There was little interest in Gibraltar in all the years prior to 1997. The last time that the Foreign Affairs Committee addressed this before Labour came into power then was at the time of Anthony Kershaw. He even predates the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay). It was a long time ago, and there has been no interest—until, that is, at the first European summit after the 1997 election. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary overlooked an important codicil in the negotiations impacting on Gibraltar. There was one hell of a row in the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, which triggered several reports and other hon. Members' growing interest in the matter.

I asked the Foreign Secretary when he was Home Secretary if it would be possible to extend the franchise to the people of Gibraltar in relation to the European Union. His advisers said no. My right hon. Friend said in the House of Commons that it could not, and should not, be done. That illustrates that often people who advise and counsel Ministers are bonkers; they have no idea of the basic tenets of European law. They were subsequently proved wrong. I make a little prediction—I shall refer to it again; it will be in Hansard—that there will be a challenge to the fact that these people are not represented in their national legislature because it conflicts with the standard western European democratic norms and our human rights legislation.

When Baroness Symons was Minister with responsibility for the overseas territories, she introduced a White Paper and in evidence to the Select Committee canvassed the idea that there should be some access for people from overseas territories to petition at the Bar of the House of Commons. But we heard no more about it. The Government have no great interest in these people and there is a continuing, unacceptable denial of their democratic rights.

31 Jan 2002 : Column 161WH

I visited Spain recently—I did not have to declare it—and met Government Ministers and colleagues in the Spanish Parliament. Their expectations are high; like the Minister, I too am concerned about our bilateral relations with Spain. I believe that this Brussels process will all end in tears. Far from advancing our mutual interests and collaboration with our Spanish friends, there will be a massive let down, which will set back so much that is mutually important to us.

Her Majesty's Government and the Spanish Government have overlooked some of the practicalities. The Minister spoke about giving Gibraltar access to the European market. After the royal naval base was withdrawn it suited the United Kingdom of the day not to make a Treasury subvention but to encourage Gibraltar to be self-sufficient. It was argued and promoted in the House that Gibraltar should develop its financial sector and other advantages that would attract business and commerce and make it self-sufficient. I am open to correction, but I cannot see how that can be reconciled with an open market and with Schengen. What will come in its place? Will there be a massive subvention of social security payments to the people of Gibraltar? I know all the arguments about the La Linea region becoming a powerhouse, but that requires much more explanation. There will be a depressing effect on the region; the economy and income of the people of Gibraltar would collapse if there were to be total integration into the European framework.

History should have been different but it was this place that decided what happened. This place created some of the problems of Ireland, but our generation must deal with them and it ain't that simple. There is no magic wand that can be waved to unscramble the fact that we have a special economy—

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that he is addressing the Chair.

Andrew Mackinlay : I am very sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker. There was a reference to Ireland; I do not want to labour that point as it is the difference between an apple and an orange, save for one thing: I predict that the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) is more likely to be elected Pope than the people of Gibraltar are to accept joint sovereignty or sovereignty.

The Minister has been very good, and I hope he will take this opportunity to stop the traducing of Gibraltar in the press by some politicians, often through ignorance. The Foreign Secretary is the law-and-order Minister in Gibraltar and the Treasury oversees the financial sector; any criticism in those areas would be criticisms of them. We must stop journalists, politicians and other people, especially Spanish spokespersons, pretending that there is something rotten in Gibraltar. That is simply not so. There may be things that they do not like, but their criticisms are false. If they had validity, they would be aimed at the Foreign Secretary and others in Whitehall.

I thought about the matter on my way to the House today; indeed, I lay awake last night thinking about it. I remembered a prayer that I was taught: "Lord, give me the courage to change the things that I can, the serenity

31 Jan 2002 : Column 162WH

to accept the things that I cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference." That is what the Minister should say before he goes to bed tonight, because he will not be able to dragoon the people of Gibraltar, who are British citizens and who have the same inalienable rights as his constituents in Neath and mine in Thurrock, into a relationship with Spain that involves joint sovereignty or Spanish sovereignty.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Andrew Mackinlay : I will sit down soon. Mr. Deputy Speaker referred to the winding-up speeches, but this is an unwinding speech.

Mr. Jenkins : I have listened to several Members who seem to believe that the end game is to absorb Gibraltar into Spain; I am not sure whether my hon. Friend believes that. The end game in this round—[Hon. Members: "This round."]—at the behest of a European Committee is to get two members to agree a common accord. That would become the policy of the European Union and is the framework that we must deal with.

Andrew Mackinlay : Our hopes and expectations are not that we will have discord. We would like to have good relationships between Spain, the United Kingdom and this strange jurisdiction, which is unique in the European Union. I am trying to say that it ain't that simple. The Government are extremely naive to think that it is. By embarking on the process, they will fail. They will knock back our bilateral relations with Spain, irritations will continue and Spain will, perhaps, read the signals incorrectly.

My notes refer to the fact that the Minister introduced sterile knocking of the Conservatives. I hope that he will accept that I do not mean that disrespectfully. In a way, both parties are to blame, because they have both sent the wrong signals. The Conservatives sent signals to the Argentine Junta, and we saw what happened: they misread them. The signals that we are sending to Spain about their expectations could be a big mistake.

It is a great tragedy that we did not deal with the issue when Spain wished to join the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. I believe that it was a Conservative Administration at the time. As a condition of entry, we should have tightened up the status of our friends and fellow citizens in Gibraltar.

The Minister said that there are four pillars to what he is trying to achieve for Gibraltar. First, safeguarding the Gibraltarian way of life: I would hope that that would be automatic and "understood." I imagine that he is referring to the Gibraltarians' relationship with the Crown and the symbols of Britishness. Secondly, normalisation of relations with Spain: I have acknowledged that that is a laudable aspiration, but I do not think that it can be achieved.

Thirdly, self-government: it is not as if the good people of Gibraltar lie awake at night thinking that if only they could get rid of the Attorney-General, who is an official member sitting in the Legislature, there would be heaven on earth in Gibraltar, or what joy there would be to have a revamped constitution. Of course, constitutions are important, but that is not a carrot to

31 Jan 2002 : Column 163WH

the people of Gibraltar. I would hope that it was open for them to invite the House of Commons to modernise their constitution at any time. They have full internal self-government at present, and their stewardship of it is extraordinarily good. There should be no imputation that they are negligent in the way that they conduct their affairs. Constitutions should be revisited by this place, but it is not a great carrot to hang in front of people to give them something that they have already.

Finally, sovereignty: the Minister has been at pains to insist that we are not going to surrender sovereignty. The House welcomes that and does not think that, in any event, it would be possible for him to cede sovereignty. However, we need to be clear when the talks are concluded that we are not left with something that falls short of sovereignty, or that does not require primary legislation but has shifted the dice in favour of Spain. That could give the Spanish false hopes that they could attain sovereignty in the not too distant future, and would make us feel that these Britons, who are so important to us strategically, had been betrayed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), who is not in his place, referred to the strategic nature of Gibraltar. My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) reminded us how useful the relationship with Gibraltar was in the Falkland Islands conflict. It is also right to remind us how Spain will not let HMS Invincible go into Gibraltar on a NATO exercise because it might offend Spain: a situation that I find repugnant. Last year, it was too perilous to take the disabled submarine through the bay of Biscay and it was essential to repair it in Gibraltar. Gibraltar will always be important to the United Kingdom's interests, and that must be recognised and reflected in how we respond to the interests of the people of Gibraltar. There must be no cession of sovereignty to Spain, because that would not be a friendly act to Spain in the long term, and it would be a great betrayal of the Gibraltarians, to whom we owe so much.

4.40 pm

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest): It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) who has made some excellent points, not least in his opening remarks about the importance of Members of the House of Commons being able to visit Gibraltar to know what is going on there.

Mr. Hendrick : When the hon. Gentleman referred to my point of order, he gave the impression that there was no way to pay other than through the Government of Gibraltar. Many Members make trips to other countries under their own steam using their own funds. I do not see why that should pose such a great difficulty to the hon. Gentleman, or to anyone else for that matter.

Mrs. Laing : The hon. Gentleman has entirely missed the point. I wonder who told him to say that in the first place. He has, however, strangely echoed the point that I am about to make. I do not need to declare this, but some years ago I went to Gibraltar as a guest of the Government of Gibraltar. I have visited Gibraltar on many other occasions, as my cousin lives there. I spend a lot of time there and my impression of what the people of Gibraltar think about their current predicament comes directly from my cousin, her friends and

31 Jan 2002 : Column 164WH

associates, not from reading articles or being told by representatives of the Government of Gibraltar. That does not alter the fact that it is vital that Members of this House know what is going on there, as Gibraltar has no other voice. The people of Gibraltar are British and they deserve to be listened to as much as any British person living in the British isles or any other part of the world.

Peter Hain indicated assent.

Mrs. Laing : I am glad to see the Minister nodding his assent. The debate is not about 30,000 people living several hundred miles away, but about basic principles of democracy and how the British Government deal with British people wherever they are. It is the thin end of the wedge if the British Government are allowed to deal with British people who happen to live in Gibraltar less respectfully and democratically than British people here or in other parts of the world. If we give in on this point and allow the Government to treat the people of Gibraltar as if they do not matter because there are only 30,000 of them, where does it stop? Where do we draw the line? That is why the debate is so important.

I have heard the Minister speak about Gibraltar on several occasions, and I find myself asking again and again what he means. He likes to use words that might have one meaning in one context, but another meaning in another context. I wonder whether the Government of Spain and their representatives consider that the Minister is using words to mean exactly what he wants us to think he means. Indeed, he says that these words mean what he says they mean, but that is not good enough. They must mean what we all understand them to mean. In other words, everyone—the people of Gibraltar and the Spanish and British Governments—has to use the same language. [Laughter.] Some Labour Members seem to find that amusing, but it is not; it is deadly serious.

The way in which the Government spin and use certain words and phrases is a disgrace. It is time that we pinned the Minister down by making him explain exactly what he means. I shall begin with the word "sovereignty". He has assured us on several occasions, as has the Foreign Secretary, that sovereignty is not at issue and not up for negotiation in the talks. However, the last edition of The Sunday Telegraph said something different, and before anyone says, "You shouldn't believe everything you read in the papers", let me assure the Committee that of course I do not.

Mr. Ivor Caplin (Hove): Certainly not in The Sunday Telegraph.

Mrs. Laing : Nor do I believe everything in The Sunday Telegraph, but which statement is true? Is it true, as the Minister and Foreign Secretary have said in the past, that sovereignty is not up for grabs? Or is it true, as The Sunday Telegraph says, that the Foreign Secretary said that all aspects of Gibraltar's future, including sovereignty, were up for discussion?

Peter Hain : From the beginning, we have always said, as did Baroness Thatcher when she initiated the process, that the issue of sovereignty is on the table. Equally, however, we have made it clear that we are not about to hand Gibraltar over to Spain. That is completely outside

31 Jan 2002 : Column 165WH

the agenda that we are prepared to discuss with the Spanish Government. Our position is nothing new: we have consistently made it clear on the Floor of the House, so it is on the record.

Mrs. Laing : I am pleased to have the Minister's words. Is he saying categorically that The Sunday Telegraph report is wrong?

Peter Hain : I did not read The Sunday Telegraph and I do not have it in front of me. If the hon. Lady passes it to me, I will have a look at it and reply.

Mrs. Laing : I am not saying that what The Sunday Telegraph says should matter; I am simply saying that it states:

That is exactly what the report says.

Peter Hain : There is nothing new about that. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I have repeatedly said—I said it this afternoon—that sovereignty is one of the four pillars that we are discussing. The Conservative Government discussed it as well. The point is that that does not determine the outcome.

Mrs. Laing : I am grateful for the Minister's clear explanation. My understanding was that on previous occasions, in meetings both private and public, he and his right hon. Friend said that there was much to be discussed by the Governments of Spain and Britain, but that the sovereignty of Gibraltar would not be altered. I appreciate that the Minister is saying that my understanding was wrong. It is clear that the issue of sovereignty is up for discussion.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon): Is the Minister not showing exactly the tendency to which my hon. Friend referred, which is to be disingenuous with the use of words? My understanding is that we never allowed the Spanish to discuss sovereignty with us when we were in government.

Mrs. Laing : It is certainly the case, as I have feared, that the Minister's words have not been clear, but I am grateful that in the last couple of minutes, in answer to my questions, he has made it clear that the issue of sovereignty is up for discussion.

Peter Hain : I am sorry, but I do not know whether the hon. Lady understands words when I say them. Sovereignty has always been on the table, defined as part of the Brussels process. That does not imply any particular outcome. I repeat that we will not agree to Gibraltar's being integrated into Spain or to hand Gibraltar over to Spain, and the hon. Lady must not imply that in her request for clarification of what I mean by sovereignty being on the table. Sovereignty was on the table under Baroness Thatcher and has been on the table in every discussion on the issue, but that does not mean that we accept Spain's version of sovereignty—which, as the hon. Lady sees it, is to reincorporate Gibraltar.

Mrs. Laing : I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation. Contrary to what he says, I must question

31 Jan 2002 : Column 166WH

him as I am doing—that is my duty. What the Minister has been saying has been unclear, but he has now clarified it, for which I am grateful.

I find it strange that the Labour Government are praying in aid Baroness Thatcher. It is true that the Brussels process and the negotiations began under her Government, as did many other excellent policies that the Government wish to overturn. It is ridiculously inconsistent for them to argue that because Baroness Thatcher began the process, it must be right. Although I totally agree with that argument, I am extremely surprised that the Minister does. The Minister overlooks a fundamentally important point: Baroness Thatcher and her Government may have begun the process, but they never envisaged that it would come to this and they never suggested that a Conservative Government would give away the sovereignty of the British people in Gibraltar.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): Does my hon. Friend accept that the leader of the Gibraltarians, Chief Minister Peter Caruana, who is one of the most intelligent and articulate men whom I have met and a distinguished barrister, is of the decided opinion that the sovereignty of Gibraltar is in jeopardy as a result of the agreement between the Government and Spain? Should not his views be respected? I respect them.

Mrs. Laing : I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I share his respect for the views of the Chief Minister of Gibraltar. I also respect Mr. Caruana's forensic skills in working out what "sovereignty" means in relation to Gibraltar.

Mr. Bryant : Perhaps the hon. Lady would then explain why it has taken her such a long time to understand the simple statement made in a public communiqué—a copy of which I am holding—by the Spanish Foreign Secretary Mr. Piqué that,

Mrs. Laing : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for enlightening me on the contents of that communiqué.

Mr. Bryant : It is a public communiqué.

Mrs. Laing : I have never seen it.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. Seated interventions are undesirable.

Mrs. Laing : I confess that I do not read every communiqué issued by the Foreign Secretary of Spain, but I realise that that is an important one. If the hon. Gentleman were kind enough to give me a copy, I should be delighted to have one.

It is not that I lack understanding of the word "sovereignty"—I know what I believe it to mean, as doubtless does the hon. Gentleman. I am endeavouring to tie down what the Minister holds it to mean. He has been helpful in answering our questions on that and we have made progress—we make progress on the semantics, the vocabulary and the legal position, but we have not made progress on safeguarding the position of

31 Jan 2002 : Column 167WH

the people of Gibraltar. They should be more concerned after the debate than they were before it about their chances of holding on to sovereignty of their territory.

The second word about which I am concerned because of the vagueness of its meaning is "referendum". We all know that the answer given in a referendum depends on the question. The hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) made this point well earlier. It seems that the Government intend to put before the people of Gibraltar a question not on the principles that matter to them, but merely on the secondary issues that would flow from a bilateral agreement between the British and Spanish Governments, either with or without consultation with Gibraltar. The Minister is muttering again, and I will always give way to him as a matter of courtesy if he wants me to.

Once again, we have a concept of referendum. The Government want the people of Gibraltar—and the people of the United Kingdom—to believe that they will, by way of referendum, be given a say in their future. That is not the case. It is now clear that the matters on which the people of Gibraltar will be consulted are only the secondary matters, not the principles. That would be a bogus and meaningless referendum, which would pull the wool over the eyes of the people of Gibraltar and the United Kingdom.

Mr. Hendrick : Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Laing : No, I have already given way and I must hurry because many other Members want to speak this afternoon.

It was sad to hear the Minister and other Government Members speaking about the problems of border queues, telephone lines and air services in Gibraltar as if they were some kind of natural disaster, like problems with flooding in third world countries. They are not natural disasters or phenomena that happen only in Gibraltar, but issues that have arisen only because of the actions of the Government of Spain. There would not be border queues if the Spanish Government did not create them. There would not be problems with telephone lines or mobile phones if the Spanish Government were not standing in the way of the people of Gibraltar having decent rights in the same way as everyone else in Europe and, indeed, the world. There would not be problems with air services if they were not created by rules laid down by the Spanish Government.

With three rules of a red pen, the Spanish Government could solve the problems tomorrow if they so wanted, but they do not want to. To them, they are important bargaining counters. By giving in and treating those problems as negotiating points, the Government are simply succumbing to bullying. The large country of Spain has bullied the small territory of Gibraltar for decade after decade. If we give into the bullying of the people in Gibraltar, where does it stop? Where do we not give in to bullying of British people? We never have given in to such pressure, and it is a total disgrace that the Minister should be considering giving in to it now.

Mr. Pope : Some of the hon. Lady's comments are a little irresponsible and will inflame matters greatly on

31 Jan 2002 : Column 168WH

the Rock. When the Minister was before the Foreign Affairs Committee only recently, he reiterated the words of the 1969 agreement that there is no possibility of handing over the sovereignty of Gibraltar to another state against the free and democratic wishes of its people. That position has not changed since 1969. It is here in Hansard, and I will show it to the hon. Lady later. Does she accept that point?

Mrs. Laing : I accept that what the hon. Gentleman has said is absolutely true, and his integrity is beyond reproach. However, the people of Gibraltar rightly fear—as we do too on their behalf—that although some kind of sovereignty might be protected on paper, their way of life would be considerably affected by the present proposals that the Government have put forward jointly with the Spanish Government. Although what the hon. Gentleman says is correct to the letter, the actual effect would not be what he and his colleagues on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee might hope.

I am surprised that the Minister is still relying on his argument that an offer has been made to the Chief Minister of Gibraltar to participate in talks. It sounds good, but it is not a genuine offer because, as the Minister knows, the conditions imposed on the Chief Minister make it impossible for him to accept.

I agree with the hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore) that the real parallel in constitutional change is that of devolution in Scotland and Wales. During 1997 and 1998, I campaigned furiously against a Scottish Parliament. A full campaign was held in Scotland and Wales on devolution. The late right hon. Donald Dewar said repeatedly that he wanted to implement the settled will of the Scottish people. I did not agree with that will, I still do not, and I do not suppose I ever will. However, the then Secretary of State for Scotland and the Government were right. They consulted the Scottish people and carried out a referendum that was respected and accepted by all of us.

A fair and honest referendum should be carried out in Gibraltar. The Government of Gibraltar should be more involved in carrying that forward. If British people in Scotland and Wales are treated fairly by this Parliament, so should the British people in Gibraltar.

5.2 pm

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): It is with some amusement that I advise the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) that the prayer to which he referred was originally in Spanish, and comes from St. Teresa of Avila.

One of the most important questions for us to consider is why we should change the current arrangements in Gibraltar. I have long believed that the current situation is a patent anachronism. It owes more to Queen Anne than it does to Queen Elizabeth II, and it owes more to the Franco era than it does to the era of Aznar and Juan Carlos. For that reason alone, it is time

31 Jan 2002 : Column 169WH

for change. The situation must change because the current arrangements lead to a wholly unacceptable series of restrictions for the people of Gibraltar.

Mr. Hoyle : My hon. Friend mentions the anachronism of Gibraltar's colonial status. However, there is a danger that it might have joint colonial status with two masters.

Mr. Bryant : I shall consider whether there should be one, two or however many masters, or mistresses, later. We should not be permanently obsessed about what happened in 1704 or 1713. We should be thinking and talking about the future. Unacceptable restrictions apply to the people of Gibraltar, and we want to ensure that they become a thing of the past. The present situation is injurious to British foreign policy, and it would be a mistake for the Government not to move forward to resolve the situation in the interests of all British people.

The present situation is understandably troubling for the people of Spain, if for no other reason than that they have an onshore-offshore tax haven where thousands of Spanish businesses make their homes. That must be a troubling issue for them, just as we would be troubled if the Isle of Anglesey were to have a completely separate tax status.

Mr. Swire : I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman, with his privileged information on what is really going on in these negotiations, would enlighten us on whether the Chancellor is putting pressure on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for some sort of settlement because of Gibraltar's peculiar tax position, in the wake of a case being launched in the European Court of Justice.

Mr. Bryant : The hon. Gentleman must have mistaken me for a Treasury Minister, which I am not. I have no idea about my right hon. Friend the Chancellor's views on the matter. All I am saying is that it is understandable that the Spanish people are worried by an onshore-offshore tax haven. In years to come the situation on value added tax and other taxes in Gibraltar will change, which is why it is important for the people of Gibraltar that we achieve a resolution in the next few years. Without one, I worry that Gibraltar's economy will falter in three to five years.

I want to demolish a few myths that sadly Government Members, but also Opposition Members, are keen to perpetuate from what I presume to be honest intentions. It has been mentioned several times today that there will be a stitch-up between the two Governments concerned, and that there will be no referendum. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) said earlier that she was worried that the Government were going to propose something that was not a proper referendum and that there would be a stitch-up, but they have stated:

31 Jan 2002 : Column 170WH

Those were my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's words which I am sure that all hon. Members in the Chamber, heard on 28 November 2001.

Like everyone else, if the Government were considering a fait accompli, I would urge them not to because on the whole people do not vote for faits accomplis. Both Government and Opposition Members are keen to see a resolution voted for by the people of Gibraltar, without whom it will be impossible to move forward.

The second myth that I want to demolish is that a referendum will be held under duress. What is a referendum that is or is not held under duress? Hon. Members might bounce up and down saying, "You are going to try to blackmail them. If they do not do what we want, there will be more restrictions." It is clear that there will be a free and open democratic process on the referendum. The Minister has provided us with strong reassurances that if Mr. Caruana refuses to take part in the current talks, there will be a further stage of consultation. The Government are moving in the right direction.

Mr. Tynan : If negotiations take place, as at present, between Britain and Spain, and an agreement is reached that the people of Gibraltar find unacceptable and reject, it would stay on the table, which would be to the detriment of the people of Gibraltar and would mean that they were under duress to accept its conditions.

Mr. Bryant : If such an agreement were to fall, the proposal would be dead. The Governments of Spain and Britain and the people of Gibraltar would want to know what the future held, but we can cross that bridge when we come to it. I hope that the Government will be successful in putting to the people of Gibraltar proposals that they wholeheartedly want to endorse and vote for.

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

Mr. Bryant : No. I want to make progress. Many other hon. Members want to speak and I have already taken several interventions.

Mr. Francois : The hon. Gentleman said that last time.

Mr. Bryant : It is not a personal matter, although I could make it one.

The next myth that I want to abolish is about the separate seat for the Government of Gibraltar. Whether we refer to two flags or three voices or something else, it seems clear that there should be three people sitting at the table. There should not be a stitch-up before the meeting, but open, genuine discussions. I do not think that they should take place in the glare of publicity because, as anyone who has watched the process in Northern Ireland or any diplomatic process knows, the only way that anything significant can be achieved is if talks are in closed camera.

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

Mr. Bryant : I will give way one final time. I am being very generous.

Mr. Rosindell : In view of the very reassuring comments that the hon. Gentleman makes, will he

31 Jan 2002 : Column 171WH

retract what he said to me on Thursday 10 January—that, for all he cared, Gibraltar could be given back to Spain and the Falkland Islands to Argentina?

Mr. Bryant : The hon. Gentleman is trying to make me recall events that happened on the day before my 40th birthday. To make me remember anything that I said during that week would be pushing it.

Mr. Rosindell : Do you deny making those remarks?

Mr. Bryant : The hon. Gentleman should address the Chair, not me directly.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order.

Mr. Bryant : Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I feel strongly that the Spanish Government have made a mistake over many years in their failure to woo the people of Gibraltar. Many hon. Members have referred to ways in which they could start to do that, by sorting out delays at the border, sorting out telephones and regularising the situation concerning sports. There is a further way in which the Spanish Government could do significant wooing, which has similarities to the situation in Ireland. If they renounced their long-term aspiration of sole Spanish sovereignty, which would parallel the situation in the Republic of Ireland, it would go a long way towards reassuring the people of Gibraltar.

Many hon. Members have referred to joint sovereignty. I confess that I find that an attractive proposition. I believe that joint sovereignty in perpetuity, with no suggestion, as there was in the Matutes proposals, that Gibraltar would eventually go to Spain, would be a possibility. It is worth pointing out, however, that joint sovereignty is just a headline. The words mean nothing until questions are examined, such as what to do about passports, driving licences, the economic future of the country, Schengen, and a series of other issues.

My plea is for discussions. I should prefer it if Mr. Caruana were to join them immediately and I hope that the Government will do everything that they can during the next few days to make that possible for him. If he still feels unable to join the discussions, they should proceed none the less and be followed by a specific consultation process with the people and Government of Gibraltar before any further proposals are put to any kind of referendum.

5.13 pm

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon): Having listened to the Minister and other Government Members, I am reminded of the Fats Waller song that starts:

Fans of Fats Waller will remember that it continues:

The fly in this instance is not Spanish, unfortunately, but Gibraltarian. Let us face it, what we have heard this afternoon, and are seeing at the moment, is the heavy pounding of the Government public relations machine, intending to soften up the enemy before the final attack.

31 Jan 2002 : Column 172WH

Whatever the Minister says, there is evidently a strong desire to terminate what the Government see as an embarrassing legacy of our colonial history.

The talks have been going on in one way or another for the past 18 years, but only recently has there been a feeling that there has been a done deal between the Prime Minister and Spanish Prime Minister Aznar. I hope that the Minister will be prepared to enlighten us further on some of those conversations. The Minister has been a little high-handed in some of his comments, given that all we are seeking to do is fulfil our role as Opposition Back Benchers in holding the Executive to account. I suggest that a deal has been done in return for Mr. Aznar's support of the Prime Minister's European Union ventures, not least in the liberalisation of the markets, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) alluded. We shall see.

Unfortunately for the Government, and despite their attempts to depict this as an inevitable step towards modernisation or harmonisation, there is an issue of principle here that sits uncomfortably with their attempt to bounce the Gibraltarians into a deal.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley): Will the hon. Gentleman say on what basis he believes that a deal has been stitched up? Accusations have been flying around for which I have heard no backing and no evidence.

Mr. Swire : I hope to address those points later in my speech. I was simply giving my views, which are widely shared, not least by the Spanish press, including El Pais.

It is worth remembering that the last time Gibraltar voted on the issue in 1967, 12,138 were in favour of continuing ties to Britain and 44 were against—a convincing result—and I suspect that a new vote would look similar. At that time, a British diplomat said:

Despite Spain's welcome move from dictatorship to democracy, I do not believe that much has changed in the intervening 35 years. What certainly has not changed is Spain's continuing bullying and intimidation, and now it seems that that behaviour is to be rewarded. I have always found it somewhat ironic that the Minister, who originally made his name as an outspoken and, it must be said, highly effective critic of the bullying domination by a minority over a majority has now come full circle and is seemingly happy to live with the results of a majority successfully bullying a minority. That is certainly a voyage of self-discovery. I was amazed to hear him admit that part of the reason for the negotiations was because we had not been able to persuade Spain to soften its approach to Gibraltar. That is warped logic.

I went to Gibraltar just before Christmas, after my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram). I declare to the hon. Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick) that it was at my own expense. I talked to journalists, to people who work on the Rock and to those like the police who serve on it. All were of the same opinion: that the Government have already stitched them up. Symbols of their historic links, such as the figure at the entrance to Gibraltar holding the keys and the Union flag flying from the top of the Rock, had already disappeared. Token symbolism, perhaps, to

31 Jan 2002 : Column 173WH

critics, but to the people their removal represented part of the softening-up process—the sense of inevitability that the Government are trying to create, as they are in the domestic population over the question of entry into the euro. Indeed, if this debate is about anything, it is about Europe. Spain continues to block some EU legislation because of its impact on Gibraltar—an irritation to the powers that be in Brussels.

The plans that followed the November meeting between Josep Piqué and the Foreign Secretary will give Gibraltar 100,000 extra phone lines and allow access to health services in Spain. However, that is cosmetic because Gibraltarians are entitled to those anyway. Once again, Spain is contravening EU legislation.

There appears to be embarrassment about how Britain first acquired Gibraltar through the treaty of Utrecht, but little parallel discussion about how Spain acquired its two enclaves in north Africa, Ceuta and Melilla, both of which are claimed by Morocco. I suspect that that is because the Spanish Government do not share this Government's embarrassment about their colonial past.

I agree with the Government that we need to look forward, but we should not ignore the past or the contributions by Gibraltar to Britain's international interest, which have been referred to this afternoon and in so many past debates. Gibraltar is home to many nationalities. Its 30,000 inhabitants descend from the Maltese, Genoese, Moroccans, Indians and British, among others. In two years time, we should be celebrating that such a diverse place has enjoyed a special relationship with the United Kingdom for 300 years. In the intervening period, Gibraltar and those living there must have the right to self-determination, which includes the right to maintain the status quo, if that is what they want.

I am pleased that there have been reports that the Chief Minister is moving towards joining talks if his two preconditions are met, and I hope that they will be. I wholeheartedly agree with him that once the Gibraltarian people have made up their minds in the promised referendum, that should be an end to it. I seek reassurance from the Minister that that will be the case.

The Spanish daily, El Pais, has recently reported that there is to be an unlimited period of co-sovereignty. That flies in the face of what the Government have said, and of what the Foreign Secretary has been publicly telling the House as recently as 14 January. He said, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) mentioned, that no agreement had been reached with the Spanish Government and that that Government have made no such claims. The dispute is not, as a recent article in The Observer argued, as anachronistic as the Schleswig-Holstein question; it is a straightforward one about a people's right to self-determination.

I hope that the new constitution, which the Gibraltar Government are shortly to discuss, can be a new basis on which Gibraltar may be administered in future. It should be an open-handed deal with no backroom stitch ups, and could result in the status quo. If the result is the status quo, that should be the end of the matter, and no agreed principles, framework or joint declaration

31 Jan 2002 : Column 174WH

hammered out by the British and Spanish Governments without Gibraltar's agreement should remain on the table as the joint Anglo-Spanish position.

5.22 pm

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale): In making my brief contribution, I will confine my comments to three key questions that hon. Members need to address.

First, we must consider whether the Government should enter into negotiations with Spain over the sovereignty of Gibraltar at this time. We all know the history and that since the treaty of Utrecht in 1713 Gibraltar has been under British control. It has been under British control for longer than it was under Spanish control. It has already been said that throughout the years, the rock of Gibraltar has been of great strategic importance, and its people have been tremendous allies during two world wars. It has also been said that, at this time, there is no desire from the Gibraltarians for any change to the status quo of sovereignty. In fact, the reverse is true. The fact that sovereignty is again being discussed, coupled with the fear that they could be sold out, has caused great anger to many citizens of Gibraltar.

In recent years, Spain's attitude to Gibraltar has been appalling. Hon. Members will be aware of the anguish and hardship inflicted on Gibraltarians by Franco's action in closing the frontier with Spain. Even after the restoration of democracy in Spain and the re-opening of the frontier in the mid-1970s, there has been a catalogue of social, economic and administrative harassment of Gibraltar by the Spanish authorities. Excessive delays at the frontier crossing, absurd restrictions on issuing telephone numbers and a refusal to recognise Gibraltarians' passports and identity cards are a few examples of the deplorable tactics deployed by Spain in its efforts to disrupt the economic and social well-being of Gibraltar's people.

Despite those obstacles and the fact that it had to regenerate economically following the decline of the naval dockyards, Gibraltar has flourished and its people live in a free, democratic society. The issue of sovereignty built into the Utrecht treaty, the lack of desire for change demonstrated by the people of Gibraltar, a successful economy and the belligerence of the Spanish, all lead one to the view that no change to sovereignty should be agreed, unless there are compelling reasons to do so. I am far from convinced that such reasons exist. Having said that, it is vital that the Government maintain an on-going dialogue with their Spanish counterparts, and attempt to resolve the long-standing issue. Discussions about sovereignty will be an integral part of the process, but I do not accept that such discussions must inevitably lead to a change in sovereignty.

Nevertheless, the Government must make a genuine attempt to heal the running sore that is harming our good relationship with Spain. To allow it to fester is not in the interests of any of the parties involved. It is not in the interests of the European Union or NATO either. Those important institutions have already been adversely affected by the discord between member states, and any escalation of the dispute could seriously undermine their effectiveness. A lack of agreement, co-

31 Jan 2002 : Column 175WH

operation and trust is hampering the economic development of Gibraltar and southern Spain. The entrenched lack of trust, and the disinclination of the Spanish and Gibraltar authorities to co-operate lead me to my second point.

If discussions with Spain on the future of Gibraltar are to bear fruit and a lasting settlement is to be achieved, it is vital that Gibraltar is directly represented by its Chief Minister. It is amazing that talks can take place about Gibraltar while the Chief Minister is absent. I realise that he has been invited, but it seems unlikely that he can accept at the moment. If the Chief Minister participated in the talks and had to withdraw, negotiations on sovereignty would have to cease until the issues that prompted his withdrawal were resolved. The watchword of this House on behalf of the people of Gibraltar must be: no negotiation without representation.

We must avoid at all costs a bilateral agreement between the Spanish and British Governments that could be implemented only if it won the support of the people of Gibraltar in a referendum. The people of Gibraltar would overwhelmingly reject any proposal that was drawn up without the participation of the Gibraltar Government. They would then be in an isolated position, at odds with the British and Spanish Governments. If that were to happen, it would be a breach of the obligation that this country has to protect the best interests of the people of Gibraltar.

My final and most important point is about a promise made to the people of Gibraltar that any agreement with Spain that affects their sovereignty will be put to them in a referendum. That promise will be fulfilled only if a rejection vote in the referendum means that the agreement that led to the referendum being held ceases to exist. That is different from the agreement—or joint declaration, as the Minister called it—not being implemented, but remaining intact. I ask the Minister again to provide an assurance on this fundamental issue. If we are saying that the people of Gibraltar will have an open and honest referendum, we cannot then say that if we do not like the result, we will ignore it.

Mr. Hoyle : My hon. Friend believes that we should respect the right of the people of Gibraltar as expressed in a vote and I agree, but does she agree with me that we should go further than respecting their right to self-determination and allow them to choose between integration and independence?

Geraldine Smith : I agree.

Many dubious comparisons have been made with Northern Ireland. As has already been said, a sizeable minority in Northern Ireland would like to be part of the south of Ireland. Can we imagine the uproar if an agreement were made between the Irish Republic and Britain on the issue of joint sovereignty over Northern Ireland? What if that were put to a referendum in Northern Ireland and rejected by the people, but the Government said that, although they would not implement it, they would leave the joint declaration on the table? The fundamental point is that the Government must respect the wishes of the people of Gibraltar and must accept whatever decision is taken in the referendum. Otherwise, it makes nonsense of democracy.

31 Jan 2002 : Column 176WH

5.31 pm

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): I am conscious of the clock and shall attempt to abide by your strictures, Mr. Deputy Speaker. For the record, let me tell the hon. Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick) that I have never visited Gibraltar, but I have been on holiday to Spain.

The Minister introduced Northern Ireland into the debate. He deliberately drew an analogy, which we must nail stone dead this afternoon. Yet another important difference between Northern Ireland and Gibraltar is that a groundswell of support arose within both traditions for talks to take place in Northern Ireland. Both sides wanted talks with the hope of reaching a compromise agreement.

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

Mr. Francois : No. As one sows, so shall one reap. No such groundswell of support for negotiations exists in Gibraltar. Absolutely none. If there were, the Minister would be writing articles in The Spectator about how much support was in evidence in Gibraltar.

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

Mr. Francois : No, because of the time. The position is not at all analogous and it is disingenuous of the Minister to bring Northern Ireland into the debate.

Mr. Rosindell : Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Francois : Very briefly. [Interruption.]

Mr. Rosindell : I have only a brief comment to make. Is my hon. Friend aware that as our debate continues, "Panorama" in Gibraltar is reporting that hundreds of people are on the streets at this very moment, disgusted at their betrayal by the Labour Government?

Mr. Francois : I thank my hon. Friend for that important information.

What is the Minister attempting to achieve? He is trying to negotiate a joint declaration between the British and Spanish Governments and to place that declaration on the record and before the public in order to give the Spanish a diplomatic foothold on the Rock. In reply to my earlier intervention, the Minister said that any change in the status of Gibraltar might require the agreement of other members of the European Union, perhaps at an intergovernmental conference. That takes us to the heart of the matter.

Why are the Government doing this? Not because the people of Gibraltar want it, but because the Government have a higher ambition in the European Union and they want Spanish votes. I believe that a deal has already been reached between the British and Spanish Governments—in principle at least—and the payoff is expected to come at some future EU conference, or perhaps even an intergovernmental conference. The people of Gibraltar are being sold out by a Labour Government in return for Spanish votes at a future European summit. That is at the heart of this debate and I wish that the Minister would admit it.

31 Jan 2002 : Column 177WH

5.34 pm

Peter Hain : I will not admit it because it is simply not true. It is another of the myths that is being propagated and the scaremongering that I deprecate. It is making the people of Gibraltar suspect all sorts of plots when what we are doing, and this follows a consistent theme throughout my political life, is seeking to protect the democratic and human rights of people on the Rock, as we do for people in the rest of Britain.

The Sunday Telegraph has been quoted in the debate, as has El País. I have not seen either of the articles. I invite hon. Members to read carefully what has been said consistently in the House and what I have said this afternoon. They should be reading Hansard rather than reports in newspapers by unnamed officials speculating about this and that. I am really worried that hon. Members are talking past each other. I said something rather important this afternoon. If there has not been clarification before, there could be a second stage to the negotiations after the discussions with Spain under the Brussels process have concluded.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) referred to a note of an exchange between the Foreign Secretaries of Britain and Spain. I was mystified by that. I can only assume that he is referring to a joint press communiqué that my Parliamentary Private Secretary has passed to me, issued by the Spanish Foreign Minister and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. That communiqué, in answer to a question from you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, was placed in the Library. My hon. Friend should not create mischief by suggesting that something underhand has been done when we have placed the communiqué in the Library. Such irresponsible scaremongering does not add to the quality of the debate.

The hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) asked me a series of questions. No, the Matutes proposals do not lie on the table. We specifically set them aside at the beginning of the Brussels process. They suggested a 50 year reopening clause on any agreement, which is a slippery slope to the Spanish historic claim to full sovereignty over Gibraltar. We will not accept anything like that. He asked me, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley, whether I was in favour of integration. No, I am not. I doubt, although it is a matter for them, whether the people of Gibraltar would be in favour of integration. Integration would mean a similar situation to that enjoyed by 30,000 citizens of the United Kingdom in Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland. If he wants the status of a small town, and the parish council powers that come with that, fine, but I do not think that that is what he really means.

Mr. Francois : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Standing Committee on which I sit is about to divide. I shall dash off to vote and then return. I mean no disrespect to the Minister by leaving.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : I am not sure that that was a point of order.

Peter Hain : I accept the hon. Gentleman's apology.

The hon. Member for West Suffolk asked me whether the joint declaration would remain on the table even if it was rejected in a referendum. It could not be

31 Jan 2002 : Column 178WH

implemented and so to that extent it would not remain on the table. However, we will have produced joint proposals to put to the people of Gibraltar and their Government. Whether they go to a referendum depends on whether the Gibraltar Government want to negotiate on those proposals. We cannot air-brush them away. We will have published them and they will be there.

Mr. Spring : Will the Minister give way?

Peter Hain : I have to reply to a number of other points and if it is possible I will take the intervention later.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the Chief Minister would be given a distinct voice in a single corporate delegation—

Mr. Spring : Composite.

Peter Hain : —composite delegation. The answer is yes, he would. I wrote to the Chief Minister today to explain that, and it was part of our constructive discussions last Friday. We invited the Chief Minister to all Brussels process meetings and would welcome his participation and input. We feel that he could take part under the two flags, three voices formula. He would be a full member of the composite British delegation, which would comprise distinct British and Government of Gibraltar parts led by the Foreign Secretary. The Chief Minister would have a full and separate voice on the British side of the table, with no restriction on the issues on which he could speak. The Spanish would address the Chief Minister and respond to him directly. Having outlined that formula to the Chief Minister as the basis for the Government of Gibraltar's participation several times, most recently when we met him on 25 January, I hope that he will think again. The offer has been there right from the beginning, and I do not think that empty-chairing the negotiations properly protects the interests of Gibraltar.

Andrew Mackinlay : Can the Minister—

Peter Hain : I will not give way. I must reply to the debate, and then I will come back to my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) raised several points and said that Gibraltar had been a British strategic interest for many years. That is true; it remains one, and we have no intention of relinquishing it under any proposal that may emerge from the Brussels process.

The hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore) said that the current situation was untenable. I agree with him entirely, which is why we have embarked on the discussions, and I welcome his argument that the Chief Minister should join the discussions. However, he said that he would reject a rigged referendum under duress, which was an allegation made by the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) as well. I would reject such a referendum, as would Her Majesty's Government. Why are critics of the Government's policy suddenly afraid of a referendum? We have always promised one, and will continue to do so if that is what the Government of Gibraltar want. The people will be able to vote freely and secretly, and the British Government will, of course, abide by the decision.

31 Jan 2002 : Column 179WH

My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), who has taken a close and principled interest in the matter over a long time, said that he thought that the process would all end in tears with Spain. I just say to him, "Watch this space". The discussions are taking place in good faith between London and Madrid—we wish that the Government of Gibraltar were there too—and there is a realistic attitude. I predict that it will not end in tears but that things will move forward. We do not want, in his words, to dragoon the people of Gibraltar into anything, and they will have a free and fair vote.

My hon. Friend asked why we were talking about self-government, because Gibraltarians have got self-government. However, the Government of Gibraltar do not think that they have sufficient self-government, and the Chief Minister has repeatedly said to me that he wants more. That is why a Select Committee of the Gibraltar legislature is due to report shortly on its own ideas for constitutional reform, and I look forward to the report. I understand from the Chief Minister and others that it has been discussing more self-government,

31 Jan 2002 : Column 180WH

and any agreement from the current process could, and probably will, bring greater self-government for Gibraltar. That is a big prize.

The hon. Member for Epping Forest said that the people of Gibraltar are British. Yes, they are and will remain so as far as this Government are concerned, and she will be pleased if we reach an agreement with Spain on a joint declaration to reinforce that point.

Mr. Spring : Will the Minister give way?

Peter Hain : I will in a moment.

The hon. Lady said that the previous Conservative Government had never discussed the issue of sovereignty. I invite her to talk to Lord Garel-Jones, the Minister involved at the time, who will confirm that similar discussions took place. We are not giving in to bullying but trying to produce a situation in which Gibraltar does not have to suffer any bullying from Spain or anyone else.

In conclusion, we are discussing in good faith a better future for the people of Gibraltar, and we will try to achieve it.

 IndexHome Page