Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



  20. "Jack Straw: Yes, of course it would and that would be the end of it." Please can you confirm that statement represents the British Government's position?
  (Mr Straw) Yes. I am surprised anybody should think other. What I was being asked previously was that by some piece of magic if at the end of this process there was a referendum and the people of Gibraltar said "no" that I would be able to airbrush out the history of what had happened before and somehow by some kind of Harry Potter process to ensure that all the copies of the joint declaration, and the fact that I had been present at the negotiations, was somehow excised from the collective memory. That was literally what I was being asked. I cannot do that but of course it would follow that there would be a joint declaration, then there would be further negotiations, then there would be what amounted to a draft treaty or the abstract of a draft treaty, and other matters as well which together would be the matter for consideration by the people of Gibraltar in a referendum. If we have said, as we have said continually, that they will in practice have the final say on this in a referendum, if it is then put to them and they say "no", as I said that is the end of the matter. It may be down the track there will be further negotiations but it would take many years before that happened. That is the real world in which we live. I do not quite understand why people are so excited about this. It would only be in circumstances in which we did not actually commit ourselves to giving the people of Gibraltar a right to say "yes" or "no" that there could be any other answer to that question.

  Sir John Stanley: Thank you very much, Foreign Secretary, for confirming that a referendum answer "no" means off the table as far as the British Government is concerned. Thank you.

Mr Illsley

  21. Foreign Secretary, the Spanish daily El Mundo, 1 May, carried the report stating that if the talks are not successful Spain will use all the means in its power to "frustrate the development of a colony which will not for long be able to maintain a status which is unjustifiable in the European context". If the talks do fail, are we in danger of leaving the whole situation of our relations between ourselves and Spain, Spain and Gibraltar, ourselves and Gibraltar in a much worse situation than when these talks began?
  (Mr Straw) No, you cannot possibly say that. I do not accept that for a moment. I am no more responsible for what is said in the Spanish press than what is said in the British press. We live in democracies and part of that is free press. That is that. We were absolutely right to enter into these negotiations. The consequence of the negotiations that they have already produced is some people can argue about the degree of benefit but, for example, some easing of the delays on the border, there ought to be a greater easing of delays. I say, also, as it were, through you, Chairman, that one of the points we have been able to make in these negotiations, perhaps more powerfully than British Governments have in the past, precisely because we are involved in the negotiations, is that it is incumbent upon the Government of Spain and also I would say on the Parliament of Spain to recognise that there are deep suspicions amongst the people of Gibraltar about Spain, I know there are deep suspicions the other way, which we are trying to allay but I am talking here about suspicions by the people of Gibraltar, about the way they feel they have been treated. It is incumbent on Spain if they want down the track a rapprochement with the people of Gibraltar to recognise that gratuitously making for delays across the border or, for example, a matter of some frustration to me, offering quite a large number of phone numbers and then frankly not delivering those, is something which is bound not to improve levels of confidence by the Gibraltarians in Spain. I just add, also, however, that on the other side, I think it is incumbent upon the Government and people of Gibraltar to recognise that the complaints that Spain has had in the past are not all without foundation and there has to be a dialogue both ways.

  22. I think we are looking at a case here. If there is an agreement and it is rejected by a referendum of the people of Gibraltar, and it is an agreement between ourselves and Spain which will exist, the people of Gibraltar will still be subject to harassment from the Spanish if there was an agreement which they did not accept. If the agreement fails, there is no agreement between ourselves and Spain, and assuming there is some truth, if any, in that press report, the people of Gibraltar are still going to get hassled by the Spanish because of worsening relations. Bearing in mind the people of Gibraltar are used to this but what about the prospects for the European Union where Spain has in the past blocked European Union Directives because they will not agree to them covering Gibraltar? As you know yourself, you have negotiated some of them, this is holding up the European Union.
  (Mr Straw) Mr Illsley, there are certain realities here which we are trying to deal with. It is a straight forward reality that the Government of Spain has had it in its power to block a whole series of EU instruments, which is where I first encountered this issue as the Home Secretary five years ago. They have that opportunity to do so. Moreover, I have to say, whether we like it or not, that the other 13 countries inside the European Union regard this as a bilateral dispute between the United Kingdom and Spain, do not want to take sides, do not want this dispute to affect them. There is little prospect, ever, of us getting the support—and this has been true of previous British governments—of other EU members. The whole purpose of these negotiations was and remains to try and sort out and normalise the relationship between Spain and the United Kingdom above all for the benefit of the people of Gibraltar. Now personally I happen to believe, yes, we have some clear red lines and so do the Spanish Government, it is in nobody's interest for either us to cross our red lines or the Spanish to cross theirs because that produces what amounts to an undeliverable, unstable agreement but if we can deal with that I believe that the kind of components of an agreement which we have in mind would bring very significant benefits to the people of Gibraltar. My very great regret is that the Government of Gibraltar has not been present in these negotiations notwithstanding the fact—let me make this absolutely clear—that the initial demand of the Government of Gibraltar was for what has been described as two flags three voices, which was originally resisted by Spain. I negotiated with Spain, they agreed two flags and three voices in every particular and that was then turned down again by the Government of Gibraltar when they imposed further conditions on their participation which had not been there in the first place. One of the conditions was that there should be some kind of complete veto over the final outcome of any negotiations between three parties. Well, you cannot have a negotiation on that basis. Mr Illsley, of course, the idea of these negotiations is that we produce better circumstances for the people of Gibraltar. I still hope and believe that we may be able to do that but I cannot guarantee that. One of the difficulties in this has been that the Government of Gibraltar has, as I have indicated, been unwilling to take part in the negotiations.

Andrew Mackinlay

  23. Soon after you became Home Secretary I put questions to you about the European franchise. I always remember, it is ingrained in my mind, your reply was "could not and would not" or it might have been "would not and could not". It was two sided in saying "no, this was a ridiculous idea". The inference was what a stupid idea and anyway we could not do it, so I felt rather smug when the European Court said you should do it.
  (Mr Straw) Okay.

  24. Then we have Baroness Symons and a whole catalogue of Foreign Office Ministers saying "Well, we still have to get an amendment to the Treaty". Then we achieved, certainly under the plethora of European Foreign Ministers you have had, we have had five I think since Labour came to office, we got Minister Vaz who then said "no" but ultimately if Spain had got a veto we would not implement it in time for the next European elections. Then there was some wobbling on that and we had it confirmed whatever happens, come hell or high water, we do not have to get the Treaty amendment but it will be in franchise. I get a bit jumpy, frankly. Can you give us a categoric assurance that the people of Gibraltar will be franchised as has been the commitment of a whole plethora of Foreign Ministers under this Government, that it will be enacted?
  (Mr Straw) I can give you an assurance that is our intention. I cannot give you an absolutely categoric assurance because it does require domestic legislation and, as you may have spotted, that is not in my gift.

  25. No.
  (Mr Straw) It is called parliamentary democracy and also neither is Parliamentary time in my gift. We are committed. Mr Mackinlay, I remember the exchange on this matter and this was in the context of the now celebrated European Parliament Elections Bill, which was rejected six times, as I recall, by the House of Lords, and had to be subject to the Parliament Act, the one which introduced a system of proportional representation to such wide approbation. That was our position. As you know the matter went to the European Court of Human Rights. We have always accepted the authority of the European Court of Human Rights. I took one view, they took a different view, their view is the one which prevails so that is why we are here. Fine. Also, frankly, it makes it a lot easier because there is no question of negotiation with Spain.

  26. That is where we are.
  (Mr Straw) That is where we are. I want to do it. The Electoral Commission currently have the responsibility to advise, for example, on which constituency is most appropriate and matters like that.

  27. Thurrock will do nicely.
  (Mr Straw) It is part of East Anglia. There are only 16,000—

  28. I know. I am being flippant.
  (Mr Straw) I know you are. There are fewer voters in Gibraltar than there are in a couple of wards in Thurrock and they are small wards. That is an issue of whether it is attached to, say, I guess the most obvious one would be the South West Region but it is a matter for the Electoral Commission. We do want to go ahead, yes.

  29. What did concern me and surprise me—because I have a high regard for our colleague, Minister Hain—was in the Chamber he referred to the pension scam, "scam", not disagreement or controversy but "scam". That has never been retracted. Now, first of all, everyone was amazed, gobsmacked, when they heard it because they were wondering what this was. When you scratch the surface you find it is a disagreement about whether or not certain payments are lawful. There are plenty of disagreements in the European Union. I wonder if you can confirm, firstly, it is not a scam and, secondly, that this is a matter which has to be pursued, pursued politically between governments and the European Union? It is a controversy, it is a matter which has not been prosecuted by the Commission.
  (Mr Straw) There is something more to this though and it may be worth spelling this out, Mr Mackinlay. I think a common definition of a scam would be something which is opaque, not transparent and also potentially unlawful. I am afraid to say that both apply to the pensions situation in Gibraltar. The short story here—it is much more complicated than this—is there were people from Spain, Spanish citizens as well as Gibraltarian citizens working in Gibraltar, they had a single entitlement to a single set of pension rules. Then, subsequently, the rules were changed by the creation of a little confection, the result of which is that Gibraltarians who are in receipt of these pensions get a bigger pension than those in Spain. That is potentially unlawful under European legislation which applies to Gibraltar as much as it applies to anywhere else. That will in due course be a matter for the Commission and be subject to proceedings by them. Meanwhile, because there is a potential liability of £80 million—that is a lot of money for a territory of 30,000 people—which the Gibraltarian Government will try to impose on us, we have had to say to the Gibraltarian Government "This is your responsibility" and make it clear it is. "£80 million, your responsibility. We are not sure you are on good grounds but what is more we want to find out whether you are on good grounds, could we see the accounts? Could we see the basis on which this arrangement is made?" My officials have been backwards and forwards to the Government of Gibraltar trying to get them to be transparent with us and so far the Government of Gibraltar have failed to be so. One of Mr Caruana's claims is that since he was elected to power in 1996 he has cleaned up a lot of completely unacceptable practices in Gibraltar. That is true to a point but it begs the question, also, about the nature of those unacceptable practices which were going on before 1996 which were consistently being denied. One of the things they have done, I understand—there is a whole series of companies run by the Government of Gibraltar on which ministers used to sit—I gather that ministers no longer sit on these companies but these companies are still a very opaque set of front organisations by which it appears to us, because we cannot get at the full circumstances, some of these arrangements are made opaque. That is the problem. Would that they had transparent arrangements which they would make available to us as the sovereign government. It is a similar position, I may say, in respect of official statistics. I have had a lengthy explanation about why the Government of Gibraltar is still not publishing an annual abstract of statistics. Right? I got on to this when, Chairman—

  30. I was going to ask you about that.
  (Mr Straw) Please do. I got on to that because I am interested in official statistics, always have been, I have a Statesman's Year Book on my desk and I wanted to look up GDP and other figures for Gibraltar and I discovered that the most recent figures in the up-to-date version of the Statesman's Year Book were 1995. Then I started to ask questions. I said "Could someone go and get me the annual abstract of statistics" like you can get them from any other country, OECD, EU country, not forthcoming. Then I raised this by polite letter to Mr Caruana, still nothing forthcoming. I raised it with him when I saw him on my visit. I am afraid to say I got a bombastic reply from him. Now I have had a lengthy explanation with a promise that this will be forthcoming in due course. The answer is it is the clearest responsibility on governments which subscribe to standards of transparency to provide proper abstracts of statistics that make them public.

  31. If you look at the transcript tomorrow you will see I asked about a specific thing and the Foreign Secretary went on to two other things, one of which we have heard for the first time Going back to the so-called scam, I listened very carefully to what you have said, it is a disagreement about the interpretation. They believe it is lawful and it has never been challenged. On the business of the accumulated thing, I understand Her Majesty's Government from that point is saying "Look, the meter is running on this, if somebody does have to pick up the bill, it is a large sum of money". I understand that point, Foreign Secretary, but on the actual language of Minister Hain, and the actual substance, it is a disagreement as to what is lawful.
  (Mr Straw) I am sorry to say it is more than that.

  32. All right.
  (Mr Straw) I sought to explain that. It has been challenged. It has been challenged loads of times. The difficulty is getting to the bottom of this arrangement. I am afraid to say the Government of Gibraltar have not been forthcoming. We are the sovereign government. We are, as it were, the party which will be in the dock in the European Court of Justice on this. I think we are quite entitled to expect complete answers when we raise this with them.

  33. You have never asked them—when I say "you" I do not mean you personally, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and your predecessors, including the Conservatives—to put on the Statute Book through the House Assembly that they will pick up the bill?
  (Mr Straw) I cannot answer that.

  34. I will tell you you have not, you have not because the Foreign Office interfered in Gibraltar politics largely because they thought if they pressed what they thought would be a favourable administration it might embarrass it in a Gibraltar General Election.
  (Mr Straw) Have we done that?
  (Mr Bevan) I know successive governments have raised this issue with the Government of Gibraltar, at least as far back as 1996. Successive governments have made clear that if the contingent liability does become actual they will hold the Government of Gibraltar responsible for payment.

  35. You have never done that publicly, have you, until recently? Have you?
  (Mr Straw) We try and have negotiations with overseas territories in private. This has become a larger issue.

  36. Coincidentally at this time. Coincidentally. The second point you raised—I had never heard it before—about the state companies, you did not stop for breath, you moved from that thing I asked you about—
  (Mr Straw) That is part of the opaqueness, Mr Mackinlay.

  37. I never used the word "opaque".
  (Mr Straw) No, I did.

  38. I do not know if any Members of the Committee have heard that before.
  (Mr Straw) I have not been asked this question before in the Committee.

  39. The third point you made was the question of the statistics.
  (Mr Straw) Yes.

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