HL Deb 18 April 2002 vol 633 cc1067-70

Baroness Cox asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their policy with regard to the future of Gibraltar.

The Minister for Trade (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, talks under the Brussels process are continuing. Our aim remains a comprehensive agreement covering all outstanding issues, including co-operation and sovereignty, by the summer. We firmly believe that that represents the best way to build a secure, stable and prosperous future for Gibraltar.

I remind your Lordships that there will be no changes on the constitutional position of Gibraltar without the consent of the people of Gibraltar in a referendum.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, which is part reassuring and part disturbing. Is she aware of the recent petition to Her Majesty the Queen, delivered by the women of Gibraltar with more than 15,000 signatures, and the recent demonstrations in Gibraltar with more than 20,000 people expressing their overwhelming wish that the vast majority of the people of Gibraltar should remain British citizens, but also their concern about the agreement to which the Minister referred?

Will she indicate whether there is any danger that the making of such agreements might violate the Gibraltar Constitution Order which guaranteed that Her Majesty's Government would never enter into any arrangements against the freely and democratically expressed wishes of the people of Gibraltar? In the event of such agreements being voted against by the people of Gibraltar, will those arrangements be dissolved?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am aware of the petition to which the noble Baroness referred and of the demonstrations which took place in Gibraltar. Together with my colleague the Minister for Europe, I met trade union representatives and I am very aware of the strength of feeling about the issue.

However, I reiterate that there will be no change in the constitutional position without the express agreement of the people of Gibraltar. The noble Baroness seems to think that there is doubt about that, so perhaps I may remind her of what my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said on 20th March: There can and will be no change to the constitutional position of Gibraltar without the consent of the people of Gibraltar". Mr Caruana, the Chief Minister, said in his New Year message: Both the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have made it clear in parliamentary Statements that there will be no change in the sovereignty of Gibraltar against our wishes". He went on to say very tellingly: I believe that assurance is totally reliable".

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, will my noble friend assure the House that if the proposed deal is rejected in a referendum by the people of Gibraltar, it will be taken off the table?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, as the Foreign Secretary stated, if the proposals emerging from the Brussels process are not accepted, they cannot evaporate—we cannot deny that they represent this Government's opinion on the best way forward. What we can say categorically is that if they are rejected by the people of Gibraltar, they cannot be implemented. They remain simply matters of agreement on a possible way forward between ourselves and the Spanish Government, but they cannot be implemented without the express agreement of the people of Gibraltar.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, there is some ambiguity in what the Minister is saying. I understand that the Foreign Secretary has made it clear that if the people of Gibraltar turn the deal down—as, of course, they will—the whole matter lapses. However, the Minister appears to be saying no, it will continue and somehow go on the back-burner and leave Gibraltar in a constant situation of doubt and unsettlement. Which is it: is the Foreign Secretary right or is the Minister right?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, to the best of my knowledge, both the Foreign Secretary and I are right because to the best of my knowledge I have reiterated the view expressed by the Foreign Secretary. I believe that the noble Lord will find that that is consistent with what my right honourable friend the Minister for Europe said in dealing with these questions in another place earlier this week. It is clear that if the proposals are rejected by the people of Gibraltar, they cannot be implemented.

Lord Watson of Richmond

My Lords, does the Minister agree with the sentiment expressed wisely in this House when the subject of Gibraltar last arose at Question Time: that for there to be a sensible conclusion on Gibraltar, there must be solid, strong evidence of good faith and good will on the part of the Spanish Government? That was one month ago. Has there been any such solid evidence in the time that has elapsed?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I believe that there has to a certain extent. I am sure that many examples will be claimed of misunderstandings and difficulties, but one of the best examples of progress has been the issue surrounding border delays. There have been considerable improvements in the delays which ranged from 30 to 90 minutes for people trying to enter Gibraltar. Those delays have been cut considerably to an average of 10 minutes. That is a result of putting in two channels in order to enter Gibraltar. I fully realise that others will adduce other arguments, but that is a piece of good evidence.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass

My Lords—

Lord Thomas of Swynnerton

My Lords—

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, may we hear from the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Swynnerton?

Lord Thomas of Swynnerton

My Lords, recognising that the Government believe that Gibraltar is a problem to be solved rather than a redoubt to be defended, would not the Minister believe that the idea of a joint sovereignty between Britain and Spain a very positive suggestion for the future?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the fact that there is an issue to be solved around Gibraltar has been recognised not only by Her Majesty's Government but also by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, who I am sorry to see is not in his place, and by others in the previous administration who worked to try to achieve a reasonable resolution of the issue.

I do not want to anticipate what will emerge from the discussions which my right honourable friends are having with their Spanish counterparts, but obviously the issue of joint sovereignty is likely to be one that has taken up a good deal of time in discussion. Whether it emerges in the final proposals, we shall have to wait and see.

Lord Radice

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the Government are trying to reach a sensible agreement with Spain that is based on the long-term interests of the Gibraltarians? As my noble friend said, if an agreement is reached, it will be put to the Gibraltarians in a referendum. That being so, is not the sensible course for parliamentarians not to make a hasty judgment but to take a balanced long-term view on what the agreement produces?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, my noble friend has been most sensible, as was the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, when we previously discussed the matter. The noble and learned Lord from the other side of the House, and with a great deal of experience, made a similar point. The fact is that if one is putting proposals in a referendum, common sense dictates that they must be sufficiently attractive to those whom one is asking to vote upon them in order for one to have any chance of the issue going forward.

The noble Lord, Lord Howell, says, "No, they are all going to disagree before we even start". I believe that that is a sad and negative view to take at this stage.

Noble Lords

Next Question!

Lord Swinfen

My Lords

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, we are into the ninth minute and it is not fair to other noble Lords who have tabled Questions.

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