HC Deb 11 February 1965 vol 706 cc697-706

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mrs. Harriet Slater.]

10.48 p.m.

Mr. Martin McLaren (Bristol, North-West)

We had some exchanges about Gibraltar at Question Time today, and it is purely a coincidence that I was given this Adjournment on the same day as that on which Colonial Office Questions were being answered. We now have an opportunity to revert to the subject at a little more, but not much more, leisure.

We have noticed that the hon. Lady the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies is going to Gibraltar tomorrow, and no doubt all the flags will be flying in her honour. I visited Gibraltar in December, in company with my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Lagden), and the hon. Members for Bristol, Central (Mr. Palmer) and Burnley (Mr. Dan Jones). We saw for ourselves the situation on the frontier of Spain, since when I regret to say that, by all accounts, it has got worse. I do not pretend that there is anything new about the situation; there was trouble there in 1954, but I am informed that it was not as bad as it is now.

I will not describe the nature of the difficulties on the frontier, because it is a state of affairs which is familiar to the House. We are glad to hear of the visit to Gibraltar of the senior economic adviser to the Colonial Office and we look forward soon to hearing about his recommendations.

I think we would all say to the Government that we hope that they will deal generously with Gibraltar over grants and loans to help her build up a prosperous island economy, as she may have to at this difficult time, and we in this House would cheerfully grant the necessary supply. There is undoubtedly much that can be done to help Gibraltar to expand her tourist and shipping industries, but we must recognise that the whole quality and enjoyment of life in Gibraltar will remain seriously impaired as long as the frontier restrictions last.

The key to the whole problem lies surely in the study of Anglo-Spanish relations, and it is worth asking, because it is relevant to Gibraltar's difficulties, why those relations should have deteriorated. Gibraltar, being a Crown Colony, conducts no foreign relations of its own. Its foreign policy is conducted by Her Majesty's Government, and that is why it is right for the matter to be debated here.

I do not think that the recent proceedings in the United Nations about Gibraltar were particularly helpful. The object of such proceedings is supposed to be to see whether colonial peoples are being oppressed, but what happened in this instance was that representatives of Gibraltar stated in New York that they were entirely contented with their status and desired no change. The United Nations merely provided an opportunity and a public platform to Spain to resurrect her claims.

Then there was a second episode—I think it was rather earlier in time than the United Nations episode, and I refer to this not in anger but more in sorrow—and that was when on 17th June last year there was a debate in this House on foreign affairs and when the present Prime Minister took the opportunity to make some rather disparaging references to the Spanish Government and to General Franco, saying of him that he looked forward to a change which could not now be long delayed and complaining that drawings and details of frigates were being sold to a Fascist Government for a few million pounds.

The reaction of the Spanish Government to that was both swift and certain. On 1st July the Spanish Minister of Marine said: I am not prepared to accept the interference of the Hon. Mr. Wilson in the internal affairs of a country such as Spain which maintains the most friendly and normal relations with Great Britain. I hope to be able to maintain our cordial collaboration with the British Admiralty, but political prudence makes it advisable for us to break off a transaction which has been the subject, on the part of the Hon. Mr. Wilson, of a misplaced and unjustified intervention. As a result of that we lost, what I am not concerned with this evening, the contract for Spanish frigates.

Mr. Arthur Palmer (Bristol, Central)

Knowing that the hon. Gentleman is usually fair in these matters and having had the pleasure of being with him in Gibraltar, may I say that I cannot think that he is seriously suggesting that these difficulties started from the time to which he is referring? We were assured in Gibraltar that they went back in time to the Queen's visit many years ago.

Mr. McLaren

The hon. Gentleman may have heard me say already that these difficulties started in 1954 and I went on to say that they have never been so bad as they are today.

Later, even the Spanish Minister's hope which he had expressed of maintaining his cordial collaboration with the British Admiralty was dashed when, suddenly, the British Government cancelled the naval exercises which had been planned between the British and Spanish fleets. My information is that the British naval authorities who had been planning the exercises with the Spaniards were not even consulted about the likely consequences or the probable reaction of the Spanish Navy or people to their cancellation. Our naval authorities were just informed that the exercises were off.

It is small wonder, in these circumstances, that relationships between Britain and Spain became worse, and this in turn led Spain to put increasing pressure on Gibraltar. For that situation, the Government must bear a large part of the blame.

The question is: what should be done now? In various quarters in Gibraltar, suggestions have been made that the time has come when counter-measures should be taken, not that it can ever be pleasant to make any such suggestions. One proposal is that air traffic between this country and Malaga should be discouraged so as to build up traffic at the airfield in Gibraltar. A second suggestion is that restrictions should be imposed on the immigration to this country of Spanish subjects seeking employment. This afternoon, the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) suggested that the Government might consider discouraging travel by British subjects for holiday purposes to Spain. Yet another suggestion is that we should require that any imports to this country from Southern Spain should be routed through Gibraltar so that the economy there would benefit. What do the Government think of those suggestions, and what other possible proposals have they in mind?

Over a century ago, another man born in Gibraltar, Don Pacifico, had his rights infringed abroad, and his case was the subject of a debate in this House on 25th June, 1850. Lord Palmerston, then Prime Minister, made a speech about him, and I shall quote the words with which he ended because, although conditions have entirely changed, the principles to which he referred are as applicable now as they were then. He asked whether it was not true that as the Roman in days of old held himself free from indignity when he could say, Civis Romanus sum', so also a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England will protect him against injustice and wrong. Those who live in Gibraltar today are British subjects and, like us, they are citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies. They are in trouble today, and they are looking to the Government here in London and to this House to protect them. We expect the Government to tell us what they propose to do to come to their assistance.

11.0 p.m.

The Minister of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Walter Padley)

Before I reply to the points made by the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. McLaren), may I say that I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House would like to pay tribute to the work of the present Governor of Gibraltar. General Sir Dudley Ward, whose term of office will be coming to an end in the summer, and at the same time to congratulate his distinguished successor, General Sir Gerald Lathbury, whose appointment was announced today. On that, at least, I am sure that we can all agree.

The Government are very conscious of the concern among hon. Members on both sides of the House about the situation in Gibraltar. Since 1704, there have been numerous attempts by Spain to challenge Britain's position there, but there has never been a more unreasonable and unnecessary campaign against the Rock than that instituted by the Spanish authorities the day after the adoption by the United Nations Committee of 24 on 16th October last year of a consensus on Gibraltar. It invited the United Kingdom and Spain without delay to undertake conversations in order to find a negotiated solution to disagreement over the question of Gibraltar.

The British representative on the Committee made it quite clear that we could not agree to any discussion of our sovereignty over Gibraltar. This sovereignty is indisputable and rests not only upon the basis of freely negotiated treaties, but also on the freely expressed wishes of the inhabitants of Gibraltar. Our representative told the United Nations Committee that on the question of the future of the Colony we would be guided, as the Charter of the United Nations requires, by what we regard as the paramount interests of the inhabitants of Gibraltar.

Despite this reservation, we took careful note of the consensus adopted by the Committee. As we have told the Spanish Government, we would normally have been willing to consider proposals by it for discussions of ways in which good relations could be maintained and causes of friction eliminated, but any such discussions were made impossible by Spain's own action in embarking on a campaign of restrictions against Gibraltar.

This afternoon the Opposition suggested that the Government had brought these restrictions upon themselves—and even the hon. Gentleman, in a more moderate way, repeated the charge tonight—because of the alleged cancellation of the order for the building of British frigates in Spain and the cancellation of the "Spanex" exercise. In fact, there was no order for frigates. The decision not to hold the "Spanex" exercise is equally irrelevant.

Measures against Gibraltar were threatened by the Spanish representative in the United Nations Committee of 24 during the discussions last September, when the Tories were in power. We should also remember that similar restrictions were imposed in 1954, at the time of the visit by the Queen to Gibraltar, and restrictions continued for six long years despite the existence of successive Tory Governments. Let us for once not seek to make cheap party points out of the plight of these British subjects in Gibraltar.

It is worth while placing on record the nature of the restrictions. Vehicles travelling in either direction have been subjected to long delays at the Spanish customs post at La Linea. The Spaniards claim that these delays are necessary in order to prevent smuggling, but in fact they have resulted from a deliberately imposed time for clearing the documents relating to each vehicle. There has been no pretence at searching the vehicles themselves, although unusual duties have, on occasion, been imposed on all sorts of goods taken across the frontier. In one instance, someone going for a picnic paid duty on a package of sandwiches on his way into Spain and further duty on those he had not eaten on his way back to Gibraltar.

On 23rd November, without any prior consultation with the Gibraltar authorities, the Spaniards started to close the frontier gates at La Linea one hour earlier than had previously been usual and since the New Year a number of new restrictions have been imposed on transit of the frontier. The normal import of goods from Spain has been restricted. Driving licences issued in Gibraltar have been held to be invalid in Spain. Foreign nationals resident in the Campo area were told that they could no longer use their passports in order to cross the frontier for work in Gibraltar. Many of these unfortunate people have moved into Gibraltar where the Government have helped them to find accommodation so that they can carry on with their jobs. These tactics have inevitably caused much inconvenience to large numbers of intending travellers. They have also affected many Spaniards on the other side of the frontier.

Nor have disabled persons and invalids escaped this unnecessary and arbitrary behaviour. Persons crossing the frontier for hospital treatment at La Linea have often been subject to painful and humiliating delays and the Spanish authorities have even seen fit to cut off supplies of oxygen required by hospitals in Gibraltar. Tourists of other nationalities have been equally subjected to this extraordinary display of bad manners and incivility.

If the Spanish authorities had hoped that by these means they could break the spirit of the people of Gibraltar, they have made a grave miscalculation. The people of Gibraltar have made it quite clear that they are not prepared to yield to pressure of this kind.

As the House is aware, Her Majesty's Ambassador in Madrid, on various occasions in November and December, made representations to the Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs about the situation at the frontier. When these representations had clearly failed, Her Majestys' Government, on 11th January, addressed a formal Note of protest about the restrictions to the Spanish Government. The Spanish Government replied to this protest by a brief reiteration of a request they had already made in an earlier Note for conversations about Gibraltar. In reply, Her Majesty's Government, in a further Note of 22nd January, restated their position with regard to these conversations. This was also made clear at the United Nations, where our permanent representative addressed a letter to the Secretary-General asking him to circulate the text of our two Notes to all members of the organisation.

It may be that the Spanish Government are genuinely concerned about developments in Gibraltar and, in particular, about the constitutional changes introduced by the previous Government last August. Lawyers can always argue about the precise meaning of a new constitution, but if the Spanish Government considered that the situation posed a threat to any legitimate Spanish interest their proper course would have been to have taken the matter up with us in private. Instead, they chose to prevent any holding of the conversations called for by the Committee of 24 by the immediate imposition of the frontier restrictions.

No Government can be expected to agree to negotiations under duress and the Spanish Government should know us well enough by now to realise that this is certainly not a British habit. It has been suggested in various quarters that we might institute certain measures to counter the Spanish campaign against Gibraltar. I do not really think that hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West, who initiated this debate, would wish us to engage in the same sort of petty harassment and obstructionism as the Spanish authorities have decided to indulge in.

Let me, however, say that we intend to take all necessary measures to keep open all normal means of communication with Gibraltar itself. There have been reports in the Press of attempted interference by Spanish customs launches with ships carrying foodstuffs into Gibraltar. I am happy to be able to inform the House that there have been no more than a few isolated incidents of this sort, not involving British ships, some weeks ago. But we shall, of course, take all necessary measures to protect British shipping should the need arise.

It is worth while recalling that Britain played a notable part in sustaining 2 million people in Berlin; and having carried that operation through, it would not be beyond the capacity of Britain to sustain the 26,000 of our fellow citizens of the British Commonwealth in Gibraltar.

However, I hope that matters will not come to that, and for the moment I prefer to concentrate on the positive side of what we are doing to give practical assistance to the people of Gibraltar. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies informed the House this afternoon, she is herself flying to Gibraltar tomorrow to see the situation at first hand and to report upon it to the Government.

Mr. Nigel Fisher (Surbiton)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Padley

My time is so short that it is not practical to give way.

The economy of Gibraltar has been built up over the years on a basis of interdependence with neighbouring territories and particularly with the adjacent Campo area of Spain. If the restrictions are continued, adjustments will clearly have to be made in the economy of the Colony in order to give it greater selfsufficience. The senior economic adviser to the Colonial Office has already been sent to Gibraltar to advise the Government on appropriate measures to this end, and that in part meets the point made by the hon. Gentleman.

As soon as his report is available to the Gibraltar Government, they will be in a position to consider the problem in greater detail and to determine its needs. Once these are established, Gibraltar can rely on Her Majesty's Government to consider urgently and with the utmost sympathy what help we can give.

Other ways in which assistance can be provided from the United Kingdom are already being studied, but we would not wish to be drawn either into taking or announcing piecemeal and random measures. We would prefer to wait until we have full details from the Gibraltar Government of their requirements. We shall then be in a better position to decide on the best steps to take.

The message, therefore, that I hope will go out from this House tonight is that if the restrictions are removed Her Majesty's Government will be ready to consider proposals for discussions with Spain. But we stand four-square by the people of Gibraltar in their present difficulties, and we do not intend to be bullied into giving up any British interests.

Mr. Fisher

I wanted to interrupt the hon. Gentleman to say that, as he knows, this is a matter of some concern in the country as well in the House, and, through him, to ask the hon. Lady the Under-Secretary of State to confirm that on her return from Gibraltar she will make a statement to the House, together with her recommendations for future action by Her Majesty's Government. As the hon. Lady knows, her right hon. Friend will not be reached for Questions for about 6 or 7 weeks, and I think that it would be the wish of the House and of the country to hear her observations at first hand when she returns, and her recommendations for action by the Government.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mrs. Eirene White)

The hon. Gentleman will realise that I shall be reporting to my right hon. Friend, and any statement that is made will have to be a matter of arrangement.

Mr. Dan Jones (Burnley)

Might I extract from my hon. Friend the assurance that if these frictions continue on this frontier the Government will seriously consider economic reprisals against Spain?

Mr. Padley

Her Majesty's Government consider that the task, certainly in the existing circumstances, is to sustain Gibraltar. We do not, as a matter of policy, wish to be drawn into retaliatory action of the kind that we denounce when practised by Spain. In the present circumstances, our policy will be to devise means of sustaining our fellow citizens in Gibraltar.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes past Eleven o'clock.