HL Deb 28 October 2002 vol 640 cc1-5

2.36 p.m.

Lord Blaker

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their policy relating to the forthcoming referendum in Gibraltar on the proposal for shared sovereignty.

The Minister for Trade (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, we have always been clear that there will be no change in the sovereignty of Gibraltar unless the people of Gibraltar agree to it, and that, if we can reach agreement with Spain on a comprehensive settlement, the whole package will be put to the people of Gibraltar in a referendum and they will decide.

The referendum now being organised by the Government of Gibraltar is a local initiative in which Her Majesty's Government are not involved. There will be no proposals on the table on which to vote. The question that the referendum will not answer is how to ensure a better future for Gibraltar.

Lord Blaker

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that reply. In the last referendum on sovereignty in Gibraltar, was there not almost a 100 per cent vote against any transfer of sovereignty? In view of the fact that, since then, Spain has pursued a consistent policy of making life difficult for the Gibraltarians, which will not have endeared Spain to them, was it not a serious blunder on the part of the Government—for the first time on the part of any United Kingdom government—to agree to the transfer of some parts of sovereignty?

If the vote in the referendum next week goes against the government proposals, will not the right course be for the Government to kick the issue into the long grass? Should they not persuade Spain that, in its own interest, the right course is for Spain to concentrate on persuading the people of Gibraltar that Spain is in favour of them and that it will help rather than harass them?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, let us be under no illusions. Everyone knows that the referendum will produce an overwhelming "no" vote. As the noble Lord pointed out, the last referendum on whether to accept Spanish sovereignty produced a "no" vote of some 99.2 per cent. On every occasion that we have discussed this matter in your Lordships' House, I have stressed that Spain must make any package of proposals attractive to the people of Gibraltar because of the clear undertaking by Her Majesty's Government that there will, indeed, be a referendum.

The noble Lord concentrated only on the issue of sovereignty. But my right honourable friend's Statement in another place on 12th July indicated a very broad set of principles: not only issues about sovereignty but about more internal self-government; the retention of British traditions, customs and way of life; the retention of British nationality; and of the freedom to retain institutions that the people of Gibraltar might want. If the referendum goes against us, then of course we shall have to consult again our colleagues in Spain. My right honourable friend last met his opposite number on 27th September and a further bilateral meeting is planned in due course.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, first, I thank my noble friend for her reassurance that under no circumstances will any sovereignty over Gibraltar be handed to Spain without the consent of the people of Gibraltar. Secondly, will she tell the House what Her Majesty's Government are doing in the meantime to try to prevent the Spaniards making the lives of Gibraltarians a misery through interference with frontier crossings, through their refusal to recognise the Gibraltarians' international telephone code and through forcing calls to be rerouted through Spain?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I reassure the House that Her Majesty's Government stand by the 1969 constitutional commitment not to enter into arrangements under which the sovereignty of the people of Gibraltar would pass to another state against their freely and democratically expressed wishes. That is an absolute undertaking. I reiterate it, as I have done on a number of occasions.

My noble friend may be interested to know that border delays have somewhat improved in recent weeks. I asked for an indication of that, knowing that I was to answer this Question in your Lordships' House this afternoon. I understand that delays in both directions have improved in recent weeks. However, my noble friend is right that there remain serious concerns over various telecommunications problems with Gibraltar. We are addressing those with the Government of Spain. But I am bound to say to my noble friend that it is only through engaging with Spain that we can improve on these issues. By turning our face away, we shall not help the people of Gibraltar.

Lord Howe of Aberavon

My Lords, does the Minister accept that I certainly endorse the legitimacy of negotiations on this topic? Does she recall that, not all that long ago, the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, Mr Caruana, himself recognised that one cannot expect to engage the Spanish in a process of dialogue in which they are not free even to raise the issue of sovereignty? Does she also remember the advice that I gave in an article about 12 months ago in which I said that only when the parties have been working together for some time on all the practical issues might they be willing to start considering proposals on the sharing of the powerfully mystical concept of sovereignty? Does she understand that that has been difficult not only because of the sustained inability of the Spaniards to recognise the changes that they need to make but also because of the recklessness—if I may use that word— with which Her Majesty's Government have been prepared to throw sovereignty on to the table in the way that they have.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I have enormous respect for the views of the noble and learned Lord on the matter; he has been a most helpful source of wisdom in trying to find a way forward. When I have met with Mr Peter Caruana during the past five to five-and-a-half years, I have found him to be an able Minister for whom I have a great deal of respect. Having said that, the Government were not reckless in discussing the issue of sovereignty. The Spanish Government were bound to want to discuss it, and to have entered discussions without considering the issue would frankly have been disingenuous.

However, the noble and learned Lord is right to say that it is only when we can get people to work together that we can move forward. That is why we tried so hard to engage the Government of Gibraltar in the talks. Dialogue is not a threat but an opportunity for the Gibraltarians as both architects and builders of their future. The invitation to the Chief Minister to attend the Brussels process meetings remains open.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, the Minister speaks of a better future for the Gibraltarians. Is she aware that immediately after the forthcoming referendum—which, as she suggests, will probably reject by 100 per cent the current deal made over their heads—the Gibraltarians will produce positive ideas about how to advance a good future for Gibraltar? Those will involve all three parties instead of trying to bypass one of them. Will she undertake seriously to consider those proposals and encourage the Government to back them to produce some success instead of the present failure?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, perhaps I may correct the noble Lord on one point. He does not often make verbal slips, but this point is important: there is no deal. A set of principles has been agreed. No proposals flow from those principles. That was the point that I stressed in my Answer. Should the Gibraltarians make proposals suitable for discussion, I am sure that my right honourable friend will consider them constructively and want to discuss them with Spain. However, the dialogue must include the Government of Spain, who must also be persuaded that any such proposals are realistic.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, while recognising that, as has been said, the Government of Spain are obliged to seek to win the hearts and minds of the people of Gibraltar, are not the people of Gibraltar equally obliged to recognise the realities of the 21st century and the advantages for the peoples of Gibraltar, Spain and the United Kingdom in negotiating shared sovereignty within the European Union?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, let me put it this way. I would stress to the people of Gibraltar that a settlement would offer them an enormous prize: greater freedom, greater prosperity, more jobs, a better quality of life and a settled longterm future. Those things have been denied to them for a long time; I hope that they will recognise that it is in their interests to pursue them.