HC Deb 16 February 1999 vol 325 cc717-9
3. Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey)

When he expects to make an announcement on the outcome of his review of Britain's dependent territories. [69422]

4. Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester)

What plans he has to visit the island of St. Helena to discuss his White Paper on British dependent territories. [69423]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook)

I intend to publish the White Paper on overseas territories during the week commencing 15 March. The White Paper will provide a comprehensive review of Britain's relations with its overseas territories, including their relationship with the Foreign Office, their financial regulation and protection of their rich environmental heritage.

In preparing the White Paper, we have consulted closely with the Government of St. Helena and the other overseas territories. We believe that they will broadly welcome our proposals.

Mr. Colvin

Will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that no overseas territory is causing more concern to Parliament at present than Gibraltar? What will his review say about the future sovereignty of Gibraltar? Will he take the opportunity of the publication of the review to say what he will do about the Spanish proposals for joint sovereignty which, at the moment, are sitting in his pending tray? If those proposals are clearly rejected—as they should be, if he is to follow the wishes of the people of Gibraltar and, I believe, of this House—what alternative proposals will he put on the table?

Mr. Cook

The Spanish Foreign Minister's proposal was tabled at a meeting of the Brussels process. The Brussels process was, of course, agreed to by the previous Conservative Government, and committed Britain to discuss once a year with Spain the issue of the sovereignty of Gibraltar. When the Spanish Foreign Minister tabled proposals on the transfer of sovereignty in 1985, the Conservative Government left them lying on the table not for 15 months, but for eight years. At that meeting of the Brussels process, I undertook to give a reply at the next meeting. However, I said at the time that there would be no compromise on sovereignty against the wishes of the people of Gibraltar. That was our position at the last meeting—it will be our position at the next meeting as well.

Mr. Russell

I welcome the Foreign Secretary's statement this afternoon that the White Paper will be published next month, but does he agree that we now need speed in bringing St. Helena back into the British family, from which it was ejected in 1981—against its wishes—by the previous Government? Can we have an assurance that, before the millennium, St. Helena will be back in the British family?

Mr. Cook

I can give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that we will publish the White Paper in the week commencing 15 March. He will understand that I cannot anticipate what may be in the contents of that White Paper. I look forward to answering a question on the same subject come that day.

Mr. Phil Sawford (Kettering)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the progress that the Government are making on the White Paper. Those of us who have constituents from St. Helena are well aware of the complexity of the issue, and of the problems of the island—high unemployment, a lack of opportunity and a heavy reliance on budgetary aid. Will he assure us that he will give sympathetic consideration in the review to the wish of the people of St. Helena for full British citizenship?

Mr. Cook

I can assure my hon. Friend that the issue has been pressed upon us by the Government of St. Helena—and by the Governments of some other overseas territories—and that we are well aware of the real concern. I entirely share my hon. Friend's other point of concern about the economy of St. Helena, which is one of the two overseas territories in receipt of overseas aid from Britain. It requires such assistance, and we are continuing to commit ourselves to make sure that we achieve economic reconstruction within St. Helena.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Will the overseas territories review address the democratic deficit in the overseas territories, whose Parliament is this place and whose Foreign Secretary is my right hon. Friend, but for whom there is no access to Westminster? Should not the Government follow the Parliaments of France, the Netherlands and Spain—as well as the US Congress—which give representation in the main legislature to overseas territories? Is it not time that a Labour Government addressed themselves to enfranchising these people?

Mr. Cook

There is not universal demand from the overseas territories for such representation, primarily because we have much stronger decentralisation for their government than is practised in France, which retains some central control; but I assure my hon. Friend that the people continue to have direct access to myself and my Ministers, and one of the proposals in the White Paper is to provide a better structure for more regular dialogue.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)

When, in January 1997, the Spanish Foreign Minister proposed joint sovereignty for Gibraltar, within days, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the then Foreign Secretary, said: The idea is a non-starter. The simple point is that Gibraltar people want to remain British citizens. And that is the end of the matter. Will the Foreign Secretary repeat his predecessor's words?

Mr. Cook

The fact is that no proposals were tabled in January 1997. There was an oral discussion between the two Foreign Ministers, as there has been between me and Mr. Matutes on six occasions in the past year. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is imagining any U-turn, weakening or retreat in the British position. As I have said to the Spanish Foreign Minister and to the House, the Government's position is that there can be no compromise on sovereignty against the wishes of the Gibraltar people. Their views on the matter are sovereign. We stand firmly by the commitment given by a previous Labour Government in 1969—that the people of Gibraltar will freely and democratically decide whether there should be any transfer of sovereignty.

The only people to whom the right hon. and learned Gentleman is giving comfort by imagining that there is a U-turn are the Government of Spain. If he really wants to convince them that Britain is firm, it is about time that he said that there is no sign of weakening by the Government, who are backed by a united, not a divided Parliament.