HC Deb 18 April 1957 vol 568 cc2103-13

12 noon.

Mr. George Jeger (Goole)

In the limited time that has been allotted to the subject I want to raise—the difficulties at the land frontier between Spain and Gibraltar—I do not propose to go into the history of the present troubles there. I think that if I briefly gave the background to the situation that has arisen over the last three years it would perhaps enable the Under-Secretary of State to deal with the matter more fully.

It should be stated that the present position with regard to the frontier visas and regulations has deteriorated over the last three years. Originally, there was a reciprocal agreement between the Spanish and British Governments which extended the validity of visas from three months to one year, for any number of journeys.

After Her Majesty the Queen had paid a visit to Gibraltar—which was much resented by the Spanish Government and the Spanish frontier authorities—the Spanish Government closed their consulate in Gibraltar, and made all sorts of difficulties for Gibraltarians wishing to cross the frontier into Spain. They also imposed regulations so that the visas were valid only for three visits within three months. In practice, of course, the people of Gibraltar could renew their visas on payment of a fee, and, although it was inconvenient and expensive, that did not prevent them from visiting Spain as often as they wanted to.

A new agreement was arrived at recently, and an arrangement was made for a yearly validity of the visa. This pleased the people of Gibraltar, who welcomed it as an improvement in Gibraltar-Spanish relations. After two weeks of these new regulations, the visa was not honoured at the frontier of La Linea—the frontier we are discussing this morning; the land frontier between Gibraltar and Spain. It was generally felt, in Gibraltar, that there was gross discrimination against them, because there were no such restrictions at any Spanish frontier other than that with Gibraltar. They had one fortnight only of the new regulations being observed. After that, the old regulations superseded them. Representations were made, I think by the Foreign Office, and a relaxation was arrived at whereby the old three-monthly, three-visit visa again came into force.

The people of Gibraltar feel that they are being made to suffer in a manner not experienced by any other visitor to Spain. The only frontier post where these regulations obtain is that at La Linea. Those facts were brought out quite clearly in Answers which I received to Questions, particularly on 25th March, when the hon. Gentleman himself replied to the effect that there were unfortunate incidents at the Gibraltar frontier; that the old arrangement was altered, and that, after representations, a new visa would be valid …for three entries and exits per quarter at the Gibraltar frontier and for an unlimited number of entries and exits at all other frontiers."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th March, 1957; Vol. 567, c. 79.] There is, therefore, no evading the issue of visa discrimination against Gibraltar.

I understand that the Spanish authorities argued that the facilities at La Linea were not adequate to deal with the traffic. That, of course, is absurd. Anybody who has been there, as I have, and to other Spanish frontiers, knows that the La Linea facilities are better than at any other Spanish frontier post, and the amount of traffic with which it has to cope is not so great that it cannot easily be dealt with. Further, no such problem arose before 1954. Since 1954, we have had to deal with a succession of pinpricks, restrictions and unfortunate, unpleasant incidents, all of which have been imposed by the Spanish authorities only at this land frontier.

The Spanish authorities are now saying that Algeciras is the proper frontier point for that district, and, indeed, the Joint Under-Secretary himself told me, on 1st April, that the approved frontier post for this area is at Algeciras. But Algeciras is not a frontier post. It is a seaport, and, consequently, cannot in any way be regarded as a frontier post. There is a much more important principle at stake than the question of whether one frontier post or another port should be used. The principle is that of discrimination against British subjects who are resident in Gibraltar as compared with British subjects who are residents elsewhere.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State denied that there was any discrimination against British subjects. He said that the discrimination was against the frontier, but I do not think that it can be denied that when a tourist arrives with a British passport issued in Britain he is treated at the La Linea frontier very differently from the way in which a Gilbraltarian with a British passport is treated at that very same frontier. Furthermore, the discrimination and the regulations are obviously designed to work against the Gibraltarians. The Gibraltarian wishes to go into Spain more frequently than a tourist who would be making, possibly, only one holiday visit a year into that country.

The people of Gibraltar live in a very close, confined community. It is a very small Colony, and the only frontier is that with Spain. They go into Spain on business, for medical reasons, to visit their families—for many of the people of Gibraltar have married into Spanish families—for pleasure, and for various other reasons. There is a constant stream of taxis, buses and lorries going backwards and forwards, and the new frontier regulations look like putting many of those people out of business.

Who can we blame for this? Gibraltar is a British Colony, and, of course, comes under the Secretary of State for the Colonies, but in this connection I am happy to say that we cannot blame that Minister. We can, however, blame the Foreign Office. The Foreign Office is being condemned in correspondence I have had from responsible Gibraltarian citizens—and here I quote some of their remarks—for being "weak", "complacent", "conciliatory", "practising appeasement", and "pursuing a policy of 'don't let us annoy Spain', and 'don't let us disturb British trade with Spain'".

That is what is being said by the Gibraltarians. When I raised this matter with the Foreign Secretary himself, he told me that … we have procured some slight alleviations. He quoted one such alleviation as the rate at which currency could be exchanged …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th February, 1957; Vol. 565. c. 1222.] I am informed by people in Gibraltar that this alleviation of the currency exchange rate is of no benefit at all to them. It benefits only the Spanish importers of fruit and vegetables who now get more pesetas for their £s, and there is no change whatever in the prices of those commodities on sale in Gibraltar.

The answers to the various Questions which I have been putting for some time on this matter have been evasive and uneasy. As an example of one of them, I would quote from the Secretary of State himself who, on 27th February, said: … the position regarding Spanish restrictions on intercourse between Gibraltar and Spain remains essentially as stated in my reply to the hon. Member of 6th June last."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th February, 1957; Vol. 565, c. 1221.] That was after a period of eight months and the situation remained the same there was no progress at all in eight months.

I have had replies from all three Ministers attached to the Foreign Office —the Secretary of State, the Minister of State and the Joint Under-Secretary of State. Therefore, none of them can "pass the buck" to any of the others, or repudiate his own responsibility.

What is the effect of all this on the Gibraltarians themselves? I have quoted some of their remarks about the behaviour of the Foreign Office in this matter, but what are their own feelings? I must confess that they are feeling bitter. They feel that their interests are being ignored by the mother country. They are feeling cynical because the value of their loyalty is nil and their loyalty is being taken for granted. They have said to me, "We are not a Cyprus. We are 100 per cent. loyal to Britain, and there is not a single voice in Gibraltar which has ever been raised for the ceding of Gibraltar to Spain."

The Gibraltarians feel deeply humiliated. Their treatment at the frontier, the imposition of these restrictions and the sneering arrogance of some of the Spanish frontier officials give them a feeling of deep humiliation. They are feeling terribly hurt because they is no understanding of their problems here in Britain or sympathy expressed with them by the Foreign Office. Moreover, they are feeling uncertain about the future, for if these measures of discrimination are allowed to be practised now without any serious protests by Her Majesty's Government, they are apprehensive of further discrimination which may be introduced in the future once the Spanish authorities feel that they can get away with what they are doing without arousing any protest from Britain.

All this is being conducted in an atmosphere of Spanish propaganda, which is pumped into Gibraltar by the radio and by the Press, that eventually Britain intends to hand Gibraltar back to Spain. That is the keynote of Spanish propaganda, and who can doubt that it is sowing a few seeds of doubt in the minds of hitherto loyal Gibraltarians when nothing is done by the Government about it.

A factor which is contributing towards this uncertainty is the delay which has occurred in the establishment of Gibraltar's own radio station which could relay news from Britain to the Gibraltarians efficiently and properly. At present, most of them have to listen to the Spanish radio because there is not an efficient British radio working in the Colony. The Government know of this. This matter has been raised time after time in Questions, in Adjournment debates and in other ways.

I should like to know what the Foreign Office is doing and what it proposes to do to alleviate the position of Gibraltar. I suggest that the Government should take the initiative in reopening talks with the Spanish on this issue. There are various ways in which the matter could be raised. Spain depends to a large extent upon her trade with Britain, and particularly upon the holiday traffic which, from this time of the year until the autumn, will flood into Spain, which is an attractive and cheap country for holiday purposes, which has an abundance of sunshine and is becoming more and more popular with tourists.

Now that our relations with America are on a more friendly basis, American influence could be enlisted, for America has great influence at the moment in Spain where she has bases and a number of Service men quartered. But I think all discussions with the Spanish authorities should be based upon two fundamental principles. First, there should be no discrimination against British subjects wherever they are resident, in Britain or Gibraltar, Secondly, the arrangements made between Britain and Spain should be reciprocal.

As a basis for the discussions, I suggest that visas should be valid for a reasonable period—say, one year—for unlimited visits between Gibraltar and Spain. If it is found necessary, as it has been in the past, to operate some sort of frontier control so that the Spanish Government could control the number of people who go across the frontier—they do not want people to live in Spain and work in Gibraltar without a control —they could operate the kind of system that they had before, whereby people were not allowed to stay in Spain overnight without getting a permit from the Frontier Delegate. That worked quite well before 1934 and there is no reason why it should not be reintroduced.

Alternatively, they could issue visas valid for, say, 12 visits a year, which would be a reasonable number, subject to the visas being renewable when those 12 visits were exhausted. That would provide a reasonable basis for a settlement of the frontier problem, and I think the present time is one which would be suitable for the reopening of these discussions.

One can only judge by small straws that one sees floating in the wind, but I think there has recently been a sign of a change of attitude on the part of the Spanish Government. Let us take, for example, the recent visit of Her Majesty the Queen to Portugal. This was boycotted by the Spanish Press, which did not mention the visit at all. On the other hand, the more recent visit of Her Majesty to Paris was given great prominence in the Spanish Press, and that indicates, although perhaps in an indirect manner, a change of attitude towards Britain by the Spanish authorities.

Something must be done by Her Majesty's Government soon. The morale of the loyal, worthy people in Gibraltar is crumbling. It is not yet crumbling very much, but the Gibraltarians are dismayed by the absence at the Foreign Office of any sympathy with or understanding of the problems they have to face. They are becoming increasingly dismayed at the way in which the frontier restrictions are hitting them, and nothing is being done about it.

I appeal to Her Majesty's Government, through the Foreign Office, to take some action immediately, to offer some words of comfort and sympathy to the people of Gibraltar and to utter words of firmness and decision to the Spanish authorities, for we must establish one matter definitely We must make it plain that we intend to remain in Gibraltar, that Gibraltar is British and shall remain British—because if we do not establish that point I think the best thing we can do is to get out of Gibraltar quickly before the position deteriorates and the Gibraltarians are put into an even worse position than they are today.

12.19 p.m.

Mr. Barnett Janner (Leicester, North-West)

The House is indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Goole (Mr. G. Jeger) for having today brought this matter to its notice in such a comprehensive and, if I may say so with respect, admirable manner. I do not propose to detain the House long, but it should be known that my lion. Friend is far from being the only hon. Member who feels about the situation as he does. I should like it to go on record, as far as I am concerned, anyhow, that my view on this issue has been very similar to his; and I know that other hon. Members have felt very deeply about the matter, too.

It is very unfortunate that this loyal section of our people in Gibraltar, who are undoubtedly extremely anxious to feel part and parcel of the British people in the fullest sense of the term, as, indeed, they are, should find themselves, as my hon. Friend has said, humiliated by the fact that what is natural for them, that is, crossing the border into Spain, which has been going on for many years, is now being restricted. Quite obviously, this is bound to create a sort of claustrophobic feeling among the inhabitants of that very small Colony. Where are they to go? Why should they be prevented from, as it were, crossing the road? After all, it amounts to little more than crossing the road; it is as though the people of a small town in our own country had a barrier around them and were allowed to go about only when their neighbours on the other side of the barrier chose to let them through.

This is a very serious matter. It means that these loyal subjects who, in spite of everything—here, I do not quite agree with my hon. Friend—would, I believe, fight for British control being retained in Gibraltar, though perhaps with heavier hearts—

Mr. G. Jeger

I hope that I did not give the impression that any of the Gibraltarians are feeling that they would like to go over to Spain except as visitors.

Mr. Janner

I did not mean that.

Mr. Jeger

They certainly do not want Gibraltar to be handed over to Spain. In my closing remarks, I emphasised that, in my view, we should make it quite clear that Gibraltar remains British, or else we should make it clear that we are not going to play with the problem and we should give it back to Spain. We should do one or the other.

Mr. Janner

Far be it from me for a moment to imply that my hon. Friend believes that they will have a change of heart. But it might be with heavier hearts that they would remain. They would, perhaps, feel more like step-children rather than children of the mother country, but, nevertheless, they feel a very strong, unbreakable bond between the rest of the British people and themselves.

Why do not the Government take a further stand? My hon. Friend has given us reasons for thinking that that stand would probably not be resisted. I cannot see why it should be resisted by the Spaniards. It should be put in plain terms that the people of Gibraltar want to go into Spain from time to time and that they are being treated as a kind of second or third-class human being—not as second or third-class citizens, because they are obviously not citizens of Spain —and the Spanish Government should be reminded that to take this attitude is quite contrary to the general trend now, particularly when visas are coming to be regarded as more or less unnecessary generally.

The matter has been raised a number of times. I hope that the Minister will say today that he proposes to do something, and do it quickly. I am sure that the friends I have in Gibraltar, who complain to me from time to time about these incidents, would feel very relieved if such a statement were made. It would result in a better understanding not only between ourselves and the Gibraltarians, but also a better understanding between the Gibraltarians and their close neighbours in Spain.

12.25 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Ian Harvey)

I am much obliged to the hon. Member for Goole (Mr. G. Jeger) and to the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West (Mr. Janner) for raising this matter in objective terms and, if I may say so, for not having spent a great deal of time going into some of the detailed incidents which have occurred, which, although important, we can well dispense with in the discussion.

It is important to recognise that the recent difficulties which have occurred on the frontier—let us at once admit that there have been difficulties—have not affected only Gibraltarians. The most recent difficulties we have had on the frontier have arisen since the new visa arrangements came in and were entirely connected with visitors from the United Kingdom who had gone to Gibraltar and wished to go into Spain. The incidents occurred at the La Linea frontier post.

For the benefit of the House, I should say that this new visa arrangement came in in 1956. The arrangement is that visas are valid for 12 months. At the Gibraltar frontier they allow for three entries and exits per quarter, which is the same as before, and for other frontiers an unlimited number of exits and entries. That is, as the hon. Member for Goole said, a discrimination. It is a discrimination directed against a frontier.

The argument about the La Linea frontier is this. The Spanish say that it is a police post and is not equipped for normal frontier traffic. It is argued that the official frontier port is Algeciras. It must be obvious to anyone who knows the area that Algeciras is most inconvenient for Gibraltarians, and I believe that there is some reason to doubt the logic of the arguments which have been advanced. At the same time, before I come to say what action has been taken, I should observe—the House will accept this—that the frontier arrangements which any country maintains are fundamentally its own affair, and that we should be lacking in reasonableness if we did not accept that.

The Spanish Government have said—this is very much to the point—that they wish these difficulties to be treated by them with good will. And, in view of the considerable importance which we know they attach to the tourist traffic, it is clear that good will should be exercised. No one wishes to embark upon holiday travel in adverse circumstances.

Her Majesty's Government cannot accept as logical the argument about the La Linea frontier post, and they do not accept the arrangements at Algeciras as a satisfactory alternative. I want to express at once my total agreement with the views put by both hon. Members on the subject of Gibraltar. I can give the complete assurance of Her Majesty's Government that, we recognise and appreciate the loyalty of the people of Gibraltar. It is no intention of ours that there should be any change in the position with regard to them, and it is as well that the Government of Spain should exactly understand our attitude on that matter.

We have, in fact, presented a Note to the Spanish Ambassador on 16th April accepting the assurances given that the Government of Spain wish to treat this matter in a spirit of good will, but indicating that we believe that these travel difficulties ought to be overcome. In the circumstances, we hope that consideration will shortly be given, in the terms of our Note, to further examination of the problems that exist on that frontier.

I am obliged to the hon. Member for Goole for raising this matter, for it has given me an opportunity of informing the House of the action we have taken. I am obliged to him, too, because I think it is desirable that the Spanish Government should recognise that we are anxious to maintain the friendliest relations with them and to ensure that the very considerable travel facilities that exist and are used by many people from this country should be maintained.

At the same time, we also have a very clear regard for the interests of the people of Gibraltar, for whom we are directly responsible. In the light of that, we hope very much that the note that we have presented will be given the consideration which is due to it and that better arrangements and a more satisfactory state of affairs may be the outcome.

Mr. Jeger

May I ask the hon. Gentleman, therefore, to take steps to ensure that in future the Minister of State does not reply to Questions in the manner which he did on 10th April, when he said: The new arrangements now appear to be working satisfactorily."?—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th April, 1957; Vol. 568, c. 1132.] Is the hon. Gentleman aware that that caused considerable dismay in Gibraltar?

Mr. Harvey

Some of these points have come more closely to our attention since that occasion. We have had, obviously, to consider the matter in some detail with those on the spot. Reports are not always authentic. We have to examine them and to make quite certain that all the details given to us are accurate. That has been done and, therefore, we have sent the Note to which I have referred.