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25 Nov 2002 : Column 133continued
Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford): I am delighted to have been granted this debate today, for it is Parliament's first opportunity to reflect on the momentous referendum held in Gibraltar on 7 November. As official observers of that referendum, I and 10 other colleagues from the House were able to witness at first hand the open, fair and democratic manner in which the Government of Gibraltar conducted the entire exercise. From the preparations in the weeks leading up to polling day and the conduct and organisation of the polling stations to the speedy delivery of the result in the early hours of Friday 8 November, the referendum was one that any democratic society could be proud of.
Of course, as we all know, the referendum was not the first of its kind to be held in British territory during the past few years. On 11 September 1997, the people of Scotland voted democratically to establish their own Parliament, with 74 per cent. of them in support. On 18 September of that year, the people of Wales decided democratically to create an Assembly for the Principality, even though by a much closer margin of just over 50 per cent. On 7 May 1998, the people of London voted democratically for a Mayor and an Assembly, with 72 per cent. support. On 22 May 1998, the people of Northern Ireland also chose democratically to create their own Assembly, with 71 per cent. of the vote.
Now, the British people of Gibraltar have conducted their own democratic referendum on a constitutional question: the principle of sharing sovereignty with the Kingdom of Spain. With 99 per cent. of Gibraltarians voting against joint sovereignty, it was by far the most convincing of all the referendums so far.
I am sure that I speak for most Members of Parliament, and for most citizens of this country, in welcoming the Gibraltarians' overwhelming vote to remain British. On an 87 per cent. turnout, 99 per cent. of the vote in favour rejecting joint sovereignty with a foreign power is probably more than one could expect from any town within the United Kingdomwith the possible exception of the patriotic market town of Romford.
Before continuing, I would like to take this opportunity to warmly welcome the Minister to his new portfolio. It is with genuine relief that I and many other hon. Members here today greet that change on the Treasury Bench. In Gibraltar, there is great hope that the Minister will prove to be a true friend to the people of the rock.
In the past year, Gibraltarians have, understandably, felt bruised, let down and betrayed, but now, with a clear result in the referendum and a new Minister in office, I sincerely hope that a line can be drawn under a sad episode in relations between the Government of the United Kingdom and the people of Gibraltar. I urge the Minister to examine the issue carefully especially as we move into a new era of the debate. We must now enter a period of reflection to determine how the policy on Gibraltar will progress.
I hope that in view of the near unanimous vote, the Minister will acknowledge that the referendum result has, once and for all, exploded any claim that Gibraltar's situation resembles that of a divided society. Northern Ireland is a wholly false comparison. I hope also that he will agree that the referendum reflects the freely expressed will of a united community to retain its sovereignty and identity, and that, just like the referendums held in Scotland, Wales, London and Northern Ireland, the wishes of the Gibraltarian people should be respected, accepted and upheld.
I call on all Members of Parliament to recognise that now, in the light of the referendum result, Gibraltar's sovereignty, like the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands, must be regarded as a settled matter. In particular, the Brussels process should be abandoned immediately and the issue of sovereignty firmly removed from that or any other Anglo-Spanish agenda.
Some argue that it does no harm to keep Gibraltar's sovereignty on the agenda in a merely nominal fashionthe Spanish could raise the issue, but we British would have nothing to say on the subject. I utterly reject that dangerous argument. Retaining sovereignty as an agenda item, however nominal, offers hope to Madrid that one day, a British Government will give way. XSit tight and wait for more favourable circumstances," our opposite numbers in Madrid will think. Their hope will be that one day, whether on the 50th or 250th time of asking, a British Foreign Secretary will give way.
Allowing claimants against British interests to foster the hope of securing their prize has been a bane of our foreign policy for nearly a century. While the device has, no doubt, helped relations in the short term, it has stored up trouble in the longer term. The trouble comes when we must either dash the nurtured hopes of a claimant state such as Argentina, or concede under the weight of their expectations.
If retaining sovereignty as a nominal agenda item is mistaken, locking the issue into a so-called process is doubly mistaken. Locked into a process, the issue is passed down from Government to Governmentsome more steadfast than othersuntil one day, almost inevitably, one Government, probably under pressure from the European Union, decide to concede Gibraltar's sovereignty. The people of Gibraltar deserve better treatment than to live under this permanent cloud of uncertainty.
However, on one point, I must congratulate Her Majesty's Governmenton now honouring their pledge to enfranchise the people of Gibraltar in time for the European parliamentary elections in 2004. That is not before time. I understand that the Electoral Commission will be looking into which constituency Gibraltar will join. The incorporation of Gibraltar in a United Kingdom constituency for the European Parliament is a welcome development.
I express the hope that the Government will now also examine the case for another form of integration and allow Gibraltar to elect a Member to this Parliament. It is intolerable that the people of Gibraltar still have no elected voice on a whole range of issues that directly affect them. Why should they not be treated more directly as British subjects by having a place in our sovereign Parliament? I refer not just to foreign affairs and to defence matters, which remain the responsibility of the British Government, but to health care, higher education and many other vital services for which Gibraltarians must come to the United Kingdom. The Minister will be aware that a precedent exists for parliamentary constituencies with small populationsthe Western Isles, for example. Granting the people of Gibraltar their own Member of Parliament would not only bridge the democratic deficit that I have outlined, but would send out the unambiguous message that Gibraltar is and will remain British.
The Minister will also be aware that every other European country has long since incorporated its overseas territories. We, however, retain our overseas territories in colonial limbo, a status that has been given a limited shelf life by the United Nations, that disadvantages those who live under it and encourages the hope among claimant states that they will eventually inherit after decolonisation. Of course, only the people of Gibraltar must decide their future constitutional status, but it is my sincerely held belief that devolved integration offers a remedy to all those defects and more. One thing that it would certainly do is slam the door firmly shut in the face of claimant states. Such action, although resented in the short term, prevents the far more awkward problems that I referred to earlier over nurtured expectations.
Integration also allows territories varying degrees of autonomy to suit the culture and the circumstances of themselves and their mother country. Although the French overseas territories are administered largely from Paris, the Dutch Antilles and Aruba, for example, have considerably more autonomy yet remain part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Equally, the Faroe Islands and Greenland have their own elected Governments while sending Members of Parliament to the Danish Folketing in Copenhagen. European membership and tax status are also no barriers to integration. Spain's Moroccan enclaves, the sovereignty of which she wisely refuses to discuss, both levy no VAT yet remain integral to Spain and inside the European Union. As the Minister must acknowledge, even within the United Kingdom, varying constitutional arrangements are present and are being extended, so why not apply the same logic to Gibraltar?
Never again must the Gibraltarians be forced to hold a referendum to tell their own UK Government what most Britons take for grantedthat they want both themselves and their territory to remain British. They want it to remain British not just for this Parliament, not just until a future UK Government decide to reheat the Brussels process and not just until the Spanish Government decide to put pressure on British Ministers in the course of EU negotiations. They want a Gibraltar that is British in its entirety and in perpetuity.