HL Deb 11 March 1999 vol 598 cc349-52

3.16 p.m.

Lord Merrivale asked Her Majesty's Government:

What Gibraltar Government proposals or options they are considering to strengthen the constitutional status of Gibraltar as a British territory.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, Gibraltar is a United Kingdom overseas territory whose constitutional relationship to the UK is defined under the Gibraltar Constitution Order 1969. That status is secure and unquestionable. The Government of Gibraltar have expressed interest in exploring changes to the constitution. We have held exploratory, technical discussions with representatives of the Government of Gibraltar but have received no formal proposals. We have made clear that we are willing to listen to ideas that are realistic and compatible with the Treaty of Utrecht, and other international obligations.

Lord Merrivale

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Answer. However, can she say when it is expected that final proposals or options will be received from the Gibraltar Government and ultimately acted upon? Further, does the Minister agree that a strengthening of Gibraltar's constitutional status as a British territory would be realistic and compatible with the Treaty of Utrecht, while affecting Spain's capability of harassment and defamation?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I cannot tell the noble Lord when the Government of Gibraltar may see fit to table formal proposals in this respect. As I said, there have been some informal proposals, and some technical discussions about them have taken place. However, no formal proposals have been put on the table. Of course, we are willing to listen to any ideas put forward by the Government of Gibraltar, but they must be consistent with the Treaty of Utrecht and with our international obligations. I believe that the position of Gibraltar as an overseas territory is a strong one, given what was said in the 1969 preamble. But it is a unique position because of the existence of the Treaty of Utrecht.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, given the very strong links that were expressed in the treaty between Gibraltar and the United Kingdom and the interests of the 25, 000 citizens of Gibraltar, will the Minister also consider the interests of the 400, 000 British citizens currently resident in Spain and seek to ask the Prime Ministers when they meet shortly to try to find good answers to the strained relations between Spain and Gibraltar?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, of course we would like to see those strained relations improved. In his discussions, I believe that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has been able to improve the situation, especially around the border area. As the noble Baroness indicated, there will be a summit meeting between the two Prime Ministers in April, when we hope that the situation will be improved.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one excellent way of improving the status of Gibraltar would be to give citizens of Gibraltar some form of representation in the United Kingdom Parliament, following the precedent which has worked so well for so long in the United States? Has that proposal been discussed informally or formally with the Gibraltar Government? Have Her Majesty's Government considered that and is it on the table for future consideration?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government will discuss sensible suggestions that are brought forward by the Government of Gibraltar to strengthen their position. I hope that when we are able to discuss the White Paper, which will be published next week, which the Government have prepared on the positions of the overseas territories, it will contain some further indications of ways of strengthening links with overseas territories, not specifically with Gibraltar but right across the board. However, I stress that we cannot do just as we wish in relation to Gibraltar. The Treaty of Utrecht exists, and it contains an important provision which I know causes a great deal of difficulty but which nevertheless is enshrined in international law.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

My Lords, will the Minister pay tribute to the Governor of Gibraltar, Sir Richard Luce—I spent a day and a night there recently—and the work he is doing to find a solution to the real problems which exist on the Spanish/Gibraltar border at the moment? Is not the fact of the matter that the Spaniards have an infinite capacity to delay traffic, either pedestrian or car traffic, at the La Linea/Gibraltar border? This situation did not exist at the time the Treaty of Utrecht was written and it therefore requires an imaginative solution to bring the sides together. No one suffers more from this inconvenience than the Gibraltarians themselves.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, of course I am happy to pay tribute to the Governor of Gibraltar. His is not an easy job and it certainly has not been easy over the past few weeks. The noble Lord is, of course, right that some of the traffic delays have been quite intolerable. At some stages over the past few weeks there have been delays lasting several hours. I am happy to say that at the moment, as a result of the interventions of both my right honourable friends, the delays are less than they were. They are about an hour now. I believe that that is still unacceptable and is still inconsistent with the light customs check which would be perfectly acceptable. The delays continue to cause great anxiety. Of course we hope that the meeting that is now scheduled to take place between the two Prime Ministers will address this and other important constitutional issues with regard to Gibraltar.

Lord Monson

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the inhabitants of the Canary Islands, which are semi-detached from the European Union, can vote in elections for the European Parliament, as can the inhabitants of Guadaloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean, the inhabitants of Reunion in the Indian Ocean and the inhabitants of French Polynesia and New Caledonia in the Pacific, more than 11, 000 miles away from Brussels? Why cannot the people of Gibraltar be given the same rights?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, as luck would have it, the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, tabled a similar Question for Written Answer recently. I could certainly give the noble Lord a long list of those dependent territories that are linked with European Union states which are able to exercise votes. There are different constitutional relationships. Some of these overseas territories fall into the category of départements outre-mer of the French and therefore they are treated as part of mainland France for those reasons. There are a number of different relationships among some of the territories which are linked to Spain itself. That is another interesting point. It all depends on the constitutional basis of the overseas territories, their rights and their citizens' rights with regard to European elections.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the Government's repeated failure to reject the present Spanish proposals for joint sovereignty and their refusal to introduce emergency legislation to extend the European Parliament franchise to Gibraltarians in accordance with the European Court of Human Rights judgment sends a mixed message to the people of Gibraltar about this Government's commitment to their interests, their future and their constitutional status?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am afraid that I must remind the noble Lord that when his party was in power it adopted a similar position to that of Her Majesty's Government. For example, as regards the European Court—

Noble Lords


Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I shall answer the noble Lord if he will allow me to do so. The Opposition when in government contested that case on exactly the same grounds as Her Majesty's Government have done. When I previously answered questions on this matter in your Lordships' House I said that we were taking up this issue. Since then it has been taken up by Sir Stephen Wall in Brussels and amendments have been tabled to the 1976 Act. What has happened is exactly what I told your Lordships would happen. We are also lobbying the other European partner countries to encourage them to support what they should support, which is the ECHR judgment.

On the other point about the Spanish proposals, the Opposition, when in government, signed up to the Brussels process in 1984. That process accepts that issues of sovereignty can be discussed. That is the basis on which Her Majesty's Government are proceeding. If the noble Lord did his homework—I know he is assiduous on these points—he would discover that his party, when in office, held the same position as the Government on both those points.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords—

Noble Lords

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