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I welcome the opportunity provided by my hon. Friend the Member for Melton (Mr. Latham) to discuss Gibraltar. It is certainly good to know that many hon. Members are interested in and concerned about Gibraltar. I appreciated listening to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. McQuarrie), who has considerable knowledge of Gibraltar.
The visit to Gibraltar in early October by the delegation from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association was particularly welcome and gave three hon. Members the chance to see something of the people of Gibraltar, who are such close friends of ours, and to see at first hand the situation there.
It is some time since we had such a discussion, and the timing of this debate is particularly good. It is almost eight months since my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal informed the House on 14 April of the conclusion in Lisbon of the Anglo-Spanish agreement on Gibraltar. At that time hopes were high, and we looked forward to the early restoration of direct communications between Gibraltar and Spain.
The long delay over implementing the agreement is disappointing. However, the House as a whole has, I know, admired the patience and fortitude with which the people of Gibraltar have lived with a closed frontier and all the inconveniences which that causes. They have prospered as a community in difficult circumstances. That is in itself a testament to their resourcefulness and skills.
The ties between ourselves and the Gibraltarians are close. There is no doubt about their strength and durability. I stress that there is absolutely no need for concern about sovereignty. My hon. Friend made an excellent speech on the importance of our ties with Gibraltar. I emphasise that the British commitment is crystal clear. As my hon. Friend said, it is as solid as the Rock itself, and it is enshrined in the preamble to Gibraltar's constitution, which states:
Her Majesty's Government will never enter into arrangements under which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another state against their freely and democratically expressed wishes.
That commitment is reaffirmed in the statement made in Lisbon on 10 April. I was anxious to respond immediately on that singularly important point.
My hon. Friend mentioned the subject of defence. There is no doubting the strategic importance of Gibraltar. It commands the entrance to the Mediterranean through which all seaborne reinforcements and supplies of the southern flank of NATO in time of tension or war would have to pass. In peace-time, the facilities of Gibraltar enable the Alliance to keep the Straits under continual surveillance: one-third of NATO's oil supplies and some 2,000 ships a month pass through.
My hon. Friend raised a number of specialist points about the naval base and airfield defences at Gibraltar. I will, of course, draw his views to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. I can, however, assure him that the defences of Gibraltar are kept under regular review. He will, of course, be aware that proposals regarding specific weapons systems cannot be considered in isolation from our expenditure on defence as a whole. I should tell my hon. Friend—this is something that he probably knows—that there are no plans to install Rapier.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the port at Gibraltar. The review of the port was commissioned by the Gibraltar Government from consultants. It is to consider the prospects for Gibraltar as a commercial port. I understand that the review will be completed early in 1981. The British Government of course welcome the idea that Gibraltar's commercial port should be developed. We shall study the report with interest when it is made available. However, we do not think that it will be available until 1981.
My hon. Friend the Member for Melton mentioned the important Lisbon agreement. It is much to be regretted that the agreement has not been implemented and that the frontier remains closed. Sr Perez Llorca, the new Spanish Foreign Minister, reaffirmed his Government's commitment to that agreement when he met my right hon. and noble Friend in late September. At this stage I cannot give any indication of a likely date. All is ready on the British and Gibraltarian side—indeed, it has all been ready since June. The British gates will remain open, as they have always been. It is now up to the Spanish Government. I hope that they will realise that it is in Spain's interest, as well as in Gibraltar's and Britain's, that communications should be restored and confidence built up.
The Lisbon agreement was to start negotiations aimed at overcoming all the differences between the British and Spanish Governments on Gibraltar and to re-establish direct communications in the region. We shall certainly not start negotiations while the frontiers are closed.
My hon. Friend mentioned sovereignty. At the beginning of my speech I sought to give him the total reassurance that he requires. The agreement is aimed at overcoming all the differences between Britain and Spain on Gibraltar. One of the differences is the Spanish claim to Gibraltar, and it will not go away through shutting our eyes to it. What matters is the commitment to the people of Gibraltar. The British Government believe that this is the key. There can be no sovereignty change without the agreement of the people of Gibraltar. That is firmly enshrined in the Lisbon agreement.
My hon. Friends the Members for Melton and for Aberdeenshire, East spoke of a number of other matters. Spain's possible accession to the European Community was mentioned.
The Government support Spain's accession to the European Community. This is a matter of importance to Britain and all Europe as well as to Spain. I stress that we have made no formal link with the lifting of restrictions on Gibraltar. Restrictions should go and the border be reopened long before Spain joins the Community.
Both my hon. Friends raised important questions about citizenship. It would not be right for me to pre-empt the legislation, but let me try to clarify a complicated subject. The Government are well aware of the strong feelings in Gibraltar over the nationality issue. We have kept in close touch with opinion there. A detailed memorandum from leading Gibraltarians was recently received by my right hon. and noble Friend. It has been forwarded to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and will be carefully considered by him before a Bill is laid. It should be understood that the present rights of access to the United Kingdom for Gibraltarians will not be affected by the proposed new nationality legislation.
Gibraltar is part of the territory of the European Community. As United Kingdom nationals for European Community purposes—I use the technical term—Gibraltarians have free access to this country and all other Community countries to seek and take up work; and the families of workers already there may join them. I stress that this right will not be affected by the new British nationality legislation. I can assure my hon. Friends that there is no question of Spanish nationals having easier access to the United Kingdom than Gibraltarians.
The arrangements announced in Gibraltar by the then Commonwealth Secretary on 23 May 1968 have been substantially continued by successive Governments. They, too, will be unaffected by the new nationality Bill. Lord Thomson of Monifieth, the then Commonwealth Secretary, made clear in 1968 that these administrative arrangements were made in the context of Spanish restrictions, and the policy of successive Governments on this matter has not changed. We stand by that position.
My hon. Friend asked whether my noble Friend the Secretary of State or my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal might consider visiting Gibraltar. I shall draw that suggestion to the attention of my noble Friend, but I should remind my hon. Friend that my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal visited Gibraltar in July last year. If we thought that it would be a good idea, I am sure that it would be carefully considered.
I hope that I have covered the main points that my hon. Friend raised in this important debate. There is no doubting the strong and important links that exist between Gibraltar and this country.