HL Deb 23 May 2002 vol 635 cc882-5

3.22 p.m.

Lord Moynihan

asked Her Majesty's Government:

In what sense the recent talks about the future of Gibraltar between the Prime Minister and his Spanish counterpart, Jose Maria Aznar, were in the words of the Prime Minister's official spokesman "an interim staging post rather than make or break".

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, in the sense that the exchanges about Gibraltar continue. The discussion on 20th May was positive and constructive. The two Prime Ministers agreed that the talks in the Brussels process should continue. A further formal Brussels process meeting is being arranged for late June or early July.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, does the Minister accept that, if the Government believe that the status quo is not an option, the people of Gibraltar must first be persuaded of that, before any agreements or declarations in principle can be made by the United Kingdom and Spain? Does she also accept that, unless the people of Gibraltar support an agreement on joint sovereignty, there can be no basis for such an agreement?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the two governments are discussing a range of options. It will, of course, be a matter for the people of Gibraltar to decide. That has been made clear, and it is in the 1969 constitution, which Her Majesty's Government have upheld rigorously. It has been made clear in the statements made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary.

Anything that, in any way, proposes changes to the sovereignty of Gibraltar will be put before the people of Gibraltar. Everybody understands that considerable work will have to be put into the total agreement, if anyone is to vote for such arrangements.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, does the Minister accept that it must be a long-term process and that confidence-building is needed to persuade the people of Gibraltar that it is in their long-term interest to have closer integration with Spain? We must make it clear that the Spanish Government are willing to offer the sort of concessions to the people of Gibraltar that they have failed to offer for the past 20 years. We must expect that the negotiations will, necessarily, take time and should not he rushed.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, if we reach an agreement—like the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, I see it as very much a question of "if"—it must then be worked up into a detailed package that could be put to the people of Gibraltar in a referendum. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, is right to say that it will take some time to do that. We would, of course, invite the Government of Gibraltar to join us and Spain in working up such a package, if we reach an initial agreement.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, in the event that an agreement is reached and the people of Gibraltar reject it, will the agreement between the British Government and the Spanish Government remain in place, without being implemented, or will it fall?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, there would still he an agreement between the Government of the United Kingdom and the Government of Spain. However, it would be only a political agreement—if I can put it that way—with a small "p" and a small "a".

The important point is that such an agreement would not be legally binding, in the sense that it could not be worked up into a treaty, and we would not sign or ratify a treaty until, of course, the whole matter had been put before the people of Gibraltar. I hope that that clarifies the matter.

Lord Boardman

My Lords, by a "political agreement", does the Minister mean one that is not binding?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, it could not be implemented. In that sense, it could not be legally binding if the people of Gibraltar voted against it.

Lord Monson

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Gibraltarians have never harmed Spain in any way and that there is no justification for the way in which Spain has treated Gibraltar and its citizens?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I certainly agree that there have been regrettable incidents, in which Spain has behaved in a less than altogether fair way towards the people of Gibraltar. We have discussed those incidents several times, including the refusal to give telephone numbers to the people of Gibraltar and the considerable difficulties over, for example, delays at the border. It is to obviate such difficulties that Her Majesty's Government have been in discussion with Spain to try to find a better way forward and a better future for the people of Gibraltar.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, is it correct that, since 11th September, it has been discovered that the depots, bases and signalling facilities at Gibraltar are much more relevant to the battle against global terrorism and to the security of this island than was previously believed? Will the Minister explain the worries of the Secretary of State for Defence about the prospect of joint sovereignty?

In the light of those serious worries, would it not be sensible to let the rather mishandled talks fail and turn to negotiations that concentrate on practical matters, such as the harassment of the people of Gibraltar? We should identify a constructive approach that will carry the people of Gibraltar forward with it on the lines suggested by my noble friend Lord Tebbit.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, without going into intelligence matters, I can say that I agree with the noble Lord that our base in Gibraltar is important. It was before 11th September, and it still is. That is why my right honourable friend Peter Hain told the House of Commons that, we will retain our full control over the military base on the Rock, which is of key strategic importance to us".—[Official Report, Commons, 16/4/02; col. 451.] My right honourable friend said that on 16th April, well before the letter dated 26th April from my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence, to which, I think, the noble Lord is referring.

The noble Lord knows that I will not comment on a leaked letter, and I invite him to consider the fact that one preceded the other. My right honourable friend the Minister of State for Europe had already made it clear that we would maintain full control, in a military sense, over the Rock.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, perhaps I may ask a question to which my noble friend will have to answer "No". Is it not true that, if we were to ask the people of the United Kingdom what they thought on the issue of Gibraltar, they may come up with an answer which the people of Gibraltar might not necessarily like?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, that would very much depend on which people in the United Kingdom one asked. I sometimes believe that if we asked Members of your Lordships' House that might not necessarily be so.

I find it slightly disappointing that sometimes in answering these questions, as I have on many occasions, I have the feeling that some Members in your Lordships' House would rather the negotiations failed. That cannot be in the interests of the people of Gibraltar. Just as it was right to establish the Brussels process in 1984 under the party opposite, it is right to do everything we can to make these discussions a success.