HC Deb 17 May 1995 vol 260 cc300-7 1.28 pm
Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

I regret that the Minister is not yet in his place. The genesis of my interest in Gibraltar to a large extent goes back to an invitation that I received, along with a number of other parliamentarians including my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Mr. Young), to its national day in the autumn. I was profoundly moved by the national identity of the Gibaltarian people and the fact that they wish to continue their association with the United Kingdom.

The style and temper of my remarks may not be shared by all hon. Members, but I know that many will agree with the message that I want to convey to the Minister, because they share my outrage at the conduct of Spain in harassing and frustrating people on the Gibraltarian-Spanish border.

Many hon. Members will share my dismay at the apparent indifference and weakness of the Foreign Office, and to some extent of the Prime Minister, when it comes to promoting the interests of the Gibraltarian people in their various councils and deliberations both bilaterally with Spain and in the European Union.

The most recent event that I want to raise is the use by Spain of the so-called Schengen agreement as an excuse further to frustrate people travelling to and from Gibraltar by imposing renewed and inordinate border controls from 27 March. Incidentally, it must be said that the Gibraltarian Government drew the attention of the Foreign Office to the ramifications of the agreement, even when it was in draft form, as early as September 1991, so I would have expected and hoped that the interests of Gibraltar would, or should, have been taken into account subsequently when such matters were being discussed in the European Union.

Until now, I have referred only to the Gibraltarian people, but the wrongdoing by Spain is not confined to them. It is as relevant to people from Grantham or Grampian, and to people in Huntingdon or Sedgefield. British people who spend their holidays in Spain or reside there want free access to and from Gibraltar yet they and the Gibraltarian people are being frustrated.

What on earth is the Foreign Office doing? What on earth is it for? There cannot be any country in the world that would have tolerated its nationals being stitched up for so many weeks without there being one hell of a row both in the press and in Parliament, and without the Foreign Office demonstrating that such action by another state is intolerable.

Mr. David Young (Bolton, South-East)

Is not the policy of the present Spanish Government a continuation of the closed-gate policy followed by the former fascist Government of Spain in order to bring Gibraltar into submission? Does my hon. Friend agree that Spain's policy towards Gibraltar is virtually the same as the Argentine policy towards the Falklands, the only difference being that the Falklanders have been able to rely on the support of the British Government, whereas the Gibraltarians have not?

Mr. Mackinlay

My hon. Friend makes a number of points with which I agree and which need to be emphasised. What sort of foreign policy is it that leads to our being seen to be weak and craven when our nationals are being stitched up? That sends all the wrong signals around the world, and certainly does not reassure people engaged in delicate negotiations for accommodation and agreement in Northern Ireland. It also sends the wrong signals across the Atlantic, both to the Argentine Government and to the Council of the Falkland Islands. Weakness over Gibraltar has ramifications that affect our foreign policy generally.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Mackinlay

I shall be delighted to give way to the hon. Member for the Northern line, but then I must move on.

Mr. Marshall

The hon. Gentleman will realise that he has much support on both sides of the House, but as Spain and Gibraltar both have socialist Governments has the matter ever been raised in the Socialist International, and if so with what effect?

Mr. Mackinlay

Again, that is a good point, although probably not the most relevant. I believe that all channels should be used. I, as the Member of Parliament for Thurrock, am using the constitutional channel available to me by raising the matter on the Floor of the House of Commons. This is the Parliament of the people of Gibraltar too, although they have their own legislature. There is a democratic deficit because they are not represented either here or in the European Union, so it is up to people such as the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) and me to raise the matter here.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)


Mr. Mackinlay

I shall give way, but this must be the last time.

Mr. Colvin

Yes, Gibraltar is part of the European Union; that is an important point to reiterate. As for the debate about Schengen and the external frontier, Spain cannot regard the border crossing between Spain and Gibraltar as part of the external frontier of the European Union, because Gibraltar is within the EU.

Mr. Mackinlay

That is absolutely right. It must be made clear that under the European treaties the Gibraltarian people and people from the United Kingdom living or travelling in Spain have rights of free mobility. The Foreign Office should jealously guard those rights, yet there is no evidence that it is doing so. That is the great charge that must be levelled against the Foreign Office today.

I am also disappointed in Her Majesty's Government because rather than meeting problems head on, they use innuendo to detract from the Gibraltarian Government's stewardship of the colony. This morning, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs was shown a memorandum—I understand that it has not been made public, but it was made available to members of the Committee. The right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) referred to that document as a scathing attack on the Gibraltarian Government. As a matter of justice, its contents should be made publicly available so that the Gibraltar Government can respond and give their own version.

The whole affair illustrates the way in which the Foreign Office says one thing one day to one set of people but a different thing on a different day to another. Of course there are numerous problems with the governance and the economy of Gibraltar. Obviously, the economy is in a delicate state as a result of our accelerated withdrawal from the naval base. Two thirds of the economy was directly dependent on the base. Consequently, we have a moral and economic obligation to buttress that Government and that economy. The Foreign Office is not helping that cause; it is not recognising its duty to protect and promote the interests of British subjects who wish to move in and out of Gibraltar.

On 20 December 1994, the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside initiated a debate, to which another Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. Goodlad), replied. He went through the routine speech, reading from a brief that described the additional border controls late last year as "intrusive" and "unacceptable". He said that we have made repeated strong protests to the Spanish Government in the last few weeks … There must be no question of their"— that is, the controls— being reimposed … the present level of checks is a disgrace and it is important that they cease permanently. That is the sort of thing that Foreign Office Ministers routinely say when—prompted, it must be said, by Back Benchers—they come to the Dispatch Box. Their words have little or no substance, so I shall pay careful attention not only to the Minister of State's words but to his body language too, because so far Ministers have given no demonstration of real outrage or anger about Gibraltar.

We have let the people of Gibraltar down badly. We have had many opportunities to protect their interests, especially when Spain's accession to the European Union was being discussed. We ducked the issue then. Maastricht provided another opportunity. It is now time that the Foreign Office showed some anger.

The right hon. Member for Eddisbury further said in the same debate: We have asked the Spanish authorities to substantiate their allegations about Gibraltar as a money-laundering centre and to provide examples where co-operation has been refused. To date we have received nothing."—[Official Report, 20 December 1994; Vol. 251, c. 1532–35.] Has substantiation been received yet? If so, will the Minister tell us what it is and publish it so that the Government of Gibraltar may have the opportunity to rebut it?

In the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs this morning, my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) asked whether it was considered that the most recent turning of the screw against Gibraltar was in some part due to the United Kingdom supporting Canada in the recent fishing dispute. The Minister was somewhat ambivalent in his reply, but I assume that our embassy officials in Madrid buy El Pais, the principal newspaper there, which made it clear that Spain intended to hit back at the United Kingdom for supporting our Commonwealth partner during the recent fishing dispute.

I was visited by a courteous man from the Spanish embassy yesterday, who confirmed that the newspaper article reflected in substance the view of the Spanish Foreign Ministry. The headline of the El Pais article on 15 May stated that Spain was to put sanctions on Gibraltar and the UK for not helping in the struggle against contraband. The article stated that the time has come for the UK to pay, and it is going to pay in Gibraltar. The article quoted the Spanish Foreign Minister, Javier Solana, as promising to send Britain the bill for its lack of co-operation in the struggle against contraband, and for Britain's lack of support in the dispute with Canada over Greenland halibut. Mr. Solana has yet to decide how much the bill will be.

We know that Spain is contemplating additional sanctions against Gibraltar in about four weeks' time after its municipal elections. For that reason—if for no other—it is time that we drew a line and said that we are not going to tolerate this any further.

Mr. Colvin

Additional sanctions have been imposed against Canadian passport holders living in Spain who wish to travel into Gibraltar. It is difficult enough for a British passport holder, but it is twice as hard for a Canadian citizen to get into Gibraltar.

Mr. Mackinlay

I am pleased that I gave way, as I did not know that. The House of Commons needs to know that such nonsense is going on. I find it difficult to describe my dismay at the fact that there is not a much bigger row going on about the behaviour of the Spanish authorities. Where else in the world would such a situation prevail?

The British press have failed. They are often preoccupied with unimportant matters, but the freedom of British subjects should be as important to them as it should be to the Foreign Office. The Minister's stewardship is extremely weak. We have a patrician and pathetic Foreign Secretary who is prepared to do some of the apparently "big things", but when it comes to looking after a relatively small group of British subjects he ducks it. He is prepared to make perfunctory noises of irritation and outrage which are not backed up by action.

Great harm is being done to our relations with Spain, because Spain feels that it can try to wear down the British Government and make them uninterested in protecting the right of the Gibraltarian people to remain British. We should have had a statement in the House of Commons initiated by the Foreign Secretary about this matter many weeks ago. It should not be up to Back Benchers to raise the matter. The Foreign Secretary should be thumping the Dispatch Box and saying that we will not tolerate it. Previously, the House has had to depend on the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside to raise the matter. When will the Foreign Office be proactive in promoting the interests of the Gibraltarian people?

The Foreign Office is prepared to insinuate that the Government of Gibraltar are less than diligent in trying to reduce smuggling, money-laundering and so on. However, the British Government are ultimately the police authority for Gibraltar, and not Chief Minister Bossano. The police are under the authority of the Governor and—ultimately—the Foreign Secretary. A financial services commission has been put in place that ultimately will be the responsibility of the Foreign Office, yet I understand that we are requiring the local legislature to introduce financial services legislation the powers of which exceed the legislation required of other countries in the European Union.

If there is a problem regarding speedboats working out of Gibraltar and smuggling between Morocco and the Spanish mainland, what on earth do we have the Royal Navy for? I should like to see the Royal Navy return to Gibraltar. There would, incidentally, be an economic spin-off. Some of what is left of the Royal Navy should be deployed in Gibraltar to help police to control smuggling in the area. What else is the Navy for? It is unreasonable to expect the Gibraltar Government to create a mini-flotilla to stop the contraband smuggling which clearly goes on, although the scale is exaggerated in relation to the involvement of Gibraltar. It is an excuse used by Spain to turn the screws on Gibraltar, and it provides a diversion from the Foreign Office's inactivity.

1.46 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. David Davis)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) on his good fortune in securing the debate, and I thank him for raising this important issue. It was a pity that he did not measure up to the importance of the occasion with the accuracy and understanding it deserves.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the dispute between Canada and Spain. When we started dealing with that dispute, there was much ignorant comment from the Opposition about our tactics. Those tactics delivered a good outcome, and were publicly supported by the Canadian Government at a later date. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman's criticisms today were equally badly informed.

The delays at the Spain-Gibraltar frontier are intolerable and unjustifiable. I shall describe to the House in more detail how they came about, and I shall give some detail on what we have done to deal with the situation. Spain has attempted to justify the delays on the grounds of the Schengen convention, but I will show that that justification is wholly fallacious.

The recent delays for cross-border traffic are, sadly, not the first time that the Spaniards have tried to impede traffic at the Gibraltar frontier. Last October, they imposed a regime of secondary checks. Spain justified the checks on the ground that Gibraltar was not a member of the EC common customs territory. The checks produced delays of up to nine hours for vehicles crossing the border, and two to three hours for those crossing on foot.

The House may well remember the Spanish tactics on that occasion. Documentation was minutely checked, and members of the civil guard demanded to see spare spectacles, breakdown tools, sunglasses, fan-belts and even surgical gloves. Drivers who could not produce the required equipment were fined, and their cars impounded until the fine was paid. On some days, the civil guard relaxed its checks, checking documentation only or waving some cars through without checks. Spain claimed at the time that the checks were justified as an attempt to put an end to the problem of drug smuggling, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

I agree that there is a problem. We have our own concerns about it, which we have raised in private discussions with the Government of Gibraltar. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary took up that matter and wider questions with Mr. Bossano on Monday evening, but this is neither the time nor the place to debate those issues. The important point is that none of them justifies Spanish attempts to impede overland traffic. The illicit traffic is done by sea in fast launches, carrying drugs from Morocco to Spain. There is no evidence of such smuggling by land; no evidence that the Spain-Gibraltar land frontier plays a role in that trade; and no evidence that controls at the land frontier have an impact on smugglers' activities. Causing delays at the land border can only damage Gibraltar's economic base.

Mr. Colvin

My hon. Friend is not quite right; there is evidence of drug smuggling through the land frontier, but it is from Spain into Gibraltar.

Mr. Davis

I thank my hon. Friend. I should be interested to see that evidence.

We protested to Spain about the delays and I summoned the Spanish ambassador. The jargon in my profession is that we had a full and frank discussion. The problem was eventually resolved through dialogue. In advance of talks between Foreign Ministers in December under the auspices of the Brussels process, the blockages were lifted. It appears, however, that the Spaniards have returned to their previous tactics of squeezing Gibraltar, now using Schengen rather than customs checks as an excuse. That tactic will not succeed. It did not succeed in December and it will not be allowed to succeed now.

As the House already knows, the Schengen convention came into force on 26 March in seven European Union member states: France; Germany; the Benelux countries; Spain; and Portugal. The United Kingdom is not a party to the convention and has no intention of becoming one for reasons of which hon. Members are fully aware. On 27 March at 14:30, Spanish police began systematic passport checks on vehicle traffic and pedestrians both entering and leaving Gibraltar, causing a substantial build-up of vehicles on the Gibraltar side of the border. As yet there is no hard evidence of discrimination between Schengen and non-Schengen European nationals—discrimination between Spanish and Gibraltarians—which would be illegal, and we are monitoring the position carefully in case that arises.

Spain claims that the extra checks required by the Schengen convention cause those delays, but Schengen can be no excuse. Spain must provide adequate resources to carry out its checks without causing undue delays to European Union citizens. That has happened elsewhere in Spain, where there are no significant delays as a result of Schengen. In an extraordinary move, on 7 April the civil governor of Cadiz even went so far as to predict additional delays caused by the implementation of the Schengen convention over the Easter period, but he took no steps to increase staffing at the frontier to deal with the problem. He also announced that the Gibraltar frontier was an external frontier of Europe. That is nonsense. Gibraltar is part of the European Union.

Mr. David Young

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Davis

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall not do so as I am short of time.

At one point, there were teething problems with the introduction of the Schengen convention elsewhere in Europe. For example, there were queues at the German-Polish border. But those problems were nothing compared with the problem in Gibraltar. The House will realise how damaging those delays can be for Gibraltar, the economy of which depends to a considerable extent on tourists and day trippers. Delays to traffic now are frequently of one or two hours, and have been of four hours or more. Delays on 19 April were reportedly the longest since the border was reopened in 1985. Sometimes delays are shorter and sometimes the traffic even flows smoothly, but the overall effect on business and business confidence is thoroughly negative.

The Government have already made their position extremely clear to Spain. We do not dispute that Spain has a right to maintain frontier controls to ensure that non-European Union nationals remain subject to immigration controls. The Prime Minister has frequently made it clear that we shall retain our right to impose such frontier controls and we have no problem with Spain doing so. But for European Union nationals, those controls should not amount to more than a light passport or identity card check to confirm that they are indeed European Union nationals. There is no need whatever for that to generate delays. The controls at the Gibraltar frontier go well beyond any such checks. They are as unacceptable because of the extreme delays that they cause.

Mr. David Young

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Davis

No, I have only a few minutes left. The hon. Member for Thurrock spoke for four or five minutes longer than I expected.

We do not accept that the present delays at the Gibraltar frontier can be justified by the Schengen agreement. When the civil governor of Cadiz predicted problems over Easter, he implied that Spain would knowingly understaff the Gibraltar border posts. That is unacceptable. I do not know whether that policy was co-ordinated with Madrid. I have no evidence as yet that it was, and I hope that it was not to be taken seriously as an expression of Spanish Government policy. Part of the view from Cadiz appears to be that the Spain-Gibraltar frontier is an external frontier of Europe. As hon. Members know, Gibraltar is an integral part of the European Union and it must be treated as such. Article 227(4) of the European Community treaty extends the application of the treaty to Gibraltar. It states: the provisions of this treaty shall apply to European Territories for whose external relations a member state is responsible. The Schengen convention is an agreement between certain member states of the European Union but it is not a European Union agreement. It cannot supersede the rights of UK citizens, including Gibraltarians, under EC law. There should be no discrimination between Schengen and non-Schengen EU nationals at the border. We are closely monitoring the position to observe that.

Like many hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Thurrock, I saw yesterday's press reports suggesting that the Spanish Government were planning to introduce sanctions against Gibraltar for refusing to crack down against the Rock's multi-million pound tobacco and drug smuggling industry". It is not entirely clear what those sanctions are supposed to entail but press reports suggest that they include a partial naval blockade of the Rock, virtual paralysis of the land frontier and fiscal penalties for the many Gibraltarians who commute to Spain". As the House will understand, I have a habit of not believing everything that I read in the press. Although those reports supposedly quote authoritative sources in Madrid, I have no firm evidence that they represent the latest Spanish Government view. Let me leave the House in no doubt that, if there is any truth in press reports of Spanish intentions, I condemn them. It beggars belief that one European Union member state could even contemplate what amounts to a military blockade and sealing off its frontier with another member state. Those are the politics of the 18th century, not the 20th. I hope that that is the stuff of press speculation, and nothing more.

As the House would expect, the Government have acted promptly. We have stood up for the rights of Gibraltarians. I raised the matter with my Spanish counterpart when he was in London only a week or so ago and our ambassador in Madrid has protested to the Spanish Foreign Ministry. Our representations have had some success: the problem has not escalated further as it threatened to do in early April. I regret to report, however, that I can give little further positive news at this point.

Spain's formal response was to attempt to justify the unjustifiable. If there is no early improvement, we shall make further representations as necessary. As well as monitoring Spanish actions at the frontier, we have taken the matter up with the Schengen states and the European Commission and the Schengen secretariat and presidency. Those approaches have drawn attention to the nature and consequences of Spanish border controls.

We have made it clear to every one of Spain's Schengen partners that Spain's behaviour is unacceptable and discredits Spain. It also discredits the Schengen experiment. The Spanish action of choking the Gibraltar border is unacceptable—Schengen is no excuse. We have protested and the House has my assurance that we will continue to press our case until normal traffic at the border is restored.