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25 Nov 2002 : Column 133—continued

10.29 pm

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): I congratulate the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) on securing the debate. I also welcome my hon. Friend the Minister for Europe to his new position.

The hon. Member for Romford is right. It is important that we calmly reflect on what has happened. No one can forget the 98 per cent. XNo" vote in Gibraltar. That was listened to in London and it must be listened to in Madrid; the Spanish Government have to reflect on the vote.

It is right to pay tribute to the people of Gibraltar. They used their democratic vote to express their democratic wish. It was good to see the Government and Opposition in Gibraltar coming together, along with Albert Poggio, Gibraltar's representative in London, who played an integral part in ensuring a fair and democratic vote. They and all the people of Gibraltar deserve our congratulations.

Surely we are at a new beginning. The vote should mark the end of the Brussels agreement. We need new discussions with Spain on border queues and the rights and security of air travel for the people of Europe and Gibraltar. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take up the mantle and rise to the challenge. It lies with him to ensure that the aspirations of the people of Gibraltar are realised so that they get proper representation and an end to the wrongs done against them.

It is important that a clear message go out to Europe and Madrid: let us stop the bully-boy tactics. Surely Madrid realises that people do not expect to be hit with a stick. What people will say is, XNo, we don't want more of this", and they will stand up for themselves. What better way of ensuring that the small population of Gibraltar—it has 30,000 people—has its agenda known throughout the world than by those people fighting for their democratic rights? We must ensure that the House respects that, as I am sure hon. Members will, and we must move on to a better Gibraltar.

The people of Gibraltar should have the right to consider integrating with the United Kingdom or having a new constitution so that they can move away from the old colonial governor with the feathers who walks up and down Main street. There is a new hope and a new challenge, and the people of Gibraltar deserve that. It is a new beginning for them. We should ensure that the House listens to and respects their voice.

We need to move on. I know that the Minister will take up the new challenge. The hopes of many people rest on his shoulders and he will not shy away from that responsibility. I am sure that he will rightly say that he will meet the Government of Gibraltar as soon as possible and listen to their views, which are important. The sooner the meeting takes place, the better it will be. It is important that we put the people of Gibraltar first, and we look to the Minister to give them comfort.

10.34 pm

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Denis MacShane): This has been the most remarkable Adjournment debate that I have experienced at this time of night in my short life as an MP and my even shorter life as a Minister. I congratulate the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) on his powerful speech. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) on his contribution. I hope that, at the end of this debate, hon. Members will agree that I am a friend of Gibraltar—

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): Who speaks slowly.

Mr. MacShane: My hon. Friend the Deputy Chief Whip told me to choose my words with care and said, XIt's Denis against 40 Conservative MPs"—[Hon. Members: XAnd some Labour MPs."] Indeed, but they are all my friends—we are at one on this issue.

There are not quite as many people in the Chamber as the 18,000 who voted in the referendum in Gibraltar a couple of weeks ago, but there are remarkably more Conservative Back Benchers present now than there were for the debate on Iraq. I had prepared part of my speech on the assumption that in the six days of debate on the Queen's Speech Opposition Front Benchers would call a debate on foreign policy, and would raise their deep concerns about Gibraltar. Instead, the subject has been put before the House late at night in an Adjournment debate. That is certainly a tribute to the hon. Member for Romford, but whether it provides a true analysis of the interest that Conservative Front Benchers take in the issue I leave to the judgment of the people of Gibraltar.

The presence in the Chamber of hon. Members from nearly all parties is a clear sign of their genuine concern for the people of Gibraltar and their future. We all share the concern that there should be a better future for the people of Gibraltar. It is precisely that desire—[Laughter.] The Opposition are laughing with me. I can take them when they are laughing at me; I can take them when they are jeering or shouting me down. However, I ask the assembled ranks of the Opposition to calm down and let me make my own speech—

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): In my own time.

Mr. MacShane: Indeed. The desire to secure a stable and prosperous future for the people of Gibraltar continues to drive the Government's policy, but the current situation, with the continuation of the 300-year-old dispute, does not yet offer hope of that better future. The hon. Member for Romford, in his powerful and eloquent speech, said that the Gibraltarians were British in perpetuity. If he reads the treaty of Utrecht, whether in the original Latin or Spanish, he will find that the Spanish ceded Gibraltar in perpetuity to the British Crown, so that is not an issue. We want to see what the House can do to try to improve the quality of life for all Gibraltarians—the people who voted in the referendum—who deserve a future free of the worries that they have had throughout my lifetime about border delays, restrictions on air services, telecommunications and so on. The assumption that the House can at a stroke remove those problems may not be justified. We need to shape an opportunity that will promote better economic development for Gibraltar and the surrounding region to enable Gibraltar fully to realise its potential. With that process in mind, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary decided to relaunch the Brussels process talks in July last year.

I am very happy so far in my new job as Minister for Europe. I should like to stay in it. I want to do right by the people of Gibraltar. I seek no promotion to the Cabinet.

In taking their decision to relaunch the Brussels talks in July last year, my right hon. Friends were recognising, as Margaret Thatcher did almost 18 years ago to this day, that the only way to secure a more prosperous future for Gibraltar was through a negotiated resolution of the dispute with Spain on all issues, including sovereignty. That was the position of the former Prime Minister, Baroness Thatcher. The hon. Member for Romford seemed to think that we should bury the former Prime Minister and drive a stake through the Brussels process, which was her initiative. I am not confident enough, and I do not have the mandate at the Dispatch Box, to be so cruel or unkind to the former Prime Minister, Mrs. Thatcher.

From the start, we have been absolutely clear that this Government would stick by the pledge given by the Labour Government of Harold Wilson in 1969—that there would be no change in sovereignty without the consent of the people of Gibraltar. Let me say it again: no change in sovereignty without the consent of the people of Gibraltar. Hence, if we could reach agreement with Spain—please notice the two conditionals, Xif" and Xcould"—on a comprehensive settlement, the whole package would be put to the people of Gibraltar in a referendum and they would decide. That is a cast-iron assurance to the people of Gibraltar, and I do not know how I can make it any plainer to my hon. Friends or to the hon. Gentleman.

We were also clear from the start that we wanted the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, Peter Caruana, to be involved in the process so that the Gibraltarians could help shape it. That invitation remains open. As hon. Members are aware, three Brussels process meetings took place—in July 2001, November 2001 and February 2002—and were fully reported to the House. A further meeting was due to take place in July this year, but, due to Cabinet changes in Spain, it did not take place. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, conscious of his undertaking to keep Members informed of progress at every stage, therefore made a statement to the House on 12 July in which he reported on where we had got to in the talks and on Her Majesty's Government's policy towards Gibraltar.

As hon. Members will, I hope, recall, that statement set out a number of principles that we believe should underpin a lasting settlement, on which we had reached broad agreement with Spain. Those included the principle of joint sovereignty, which has been the focus of so much attention since, as this debate has shown. Other principles were included, too—that Gibraltar should have more internal self-government; that it should retain its British traditions, its customs and its way of life; that Gibraltarians should retain their right to British nationality; that Gibraltar should be free to retain its institutions; and that Gibraltar could—again, the conditional—choose to participate fully in the EU single market and other arrangements.

The statement also set out some important Xred lines" on the need for a permanent settlement, and on the need for current arrangements for the British military facilities to continue. It made clear again that any agreement must be acceptable to the people of Gibraltar in a referendum. It was absolutely clear throughout the statement that no agreement had actually been reached, and that there would be no such agreement unless Spain met the conditions—the Xred lines", as we would call them—in full. There were therefore no proposals to put to the people of Gibraltar, and that remains the position. That statement is a matter of public record.

The hon. Member for Romford attended the Gibraltar referendum on 7 November and saw it at first hand. He made a powerful speech about it, but I want to tackle the suggestion that we sought to dismiss the idea of the referendum out of hand or ignore it. I do not ignore any expression of the people's will, whether it is made in a Countryside Alliance march or any other mass mobilisation, demonstration or referendum.

The principle of the consent of the people of Gibraltar is central to our approach. Our commitment is firm that if we reach agreement on a comprehensive settlement the whole package will be put to the people of Gibraltar in a referendum and they will decide on it. I again give that cast-iron pledge from the Dispatch Box. No proposals were on the table on 7 November and even the most pro-Gibraltarian Member would agree that the result of the referendum was what we expected.

However, we are not deaf or stupid, and we have listened to the views expressed by Gibraltarians on 7 November and in the run-up to the referendum, just as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary listened when he visited the Rock in May. We shall also reflect on the report published by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, which has not been mentioned. I hope that before long those on the Opposition Front Bench will table a substantive motion or give up a whole Opposition day to foreign affairs policy, so that the whole House can debate this issue and the other great issues that divide it.

On Gibraltar, my cast-iron assurance is there: there will be no change in sovereignty without a referendum of the people of Gibraltar.

Question put and agreed to.

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