[John Bercow in the Chair] — Overseas Territories

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:13 pm on 23rd April 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of John Stanley John Stanley Conservative, Tonbridge and Malling 3:13 pm, 23rd April 2009

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but even if there is a slightly lesser degree of delegation in the case of the Cayman Islands, the ultimate responsibility for ensuring that all seven of the British overseas territories that I mentioned are removed from the OECD's "name and shame" list still lies with the British Government.

Does the Minister agree that it is somewhere towards shocking that half the British overseas territories are on the OECD's "name and shame" list for tax havens? If she does agree that that is pretty shocking, will she tell us what steps the Government will take to ensure that not one single British overseas territory will be on the OECD list when it is next published?

I want to talk now about Gibraltar. I have not so far been wholly complimentary about the Foreign Office's performance with respect to the overseas territories, but as—I hope—a reasonably fair-minded sort of guy, I want to say that I think its performance on Gibraltar has, under the present Government, been much better than under the previous Conservative Government. In particular, the Government have brought home the 2006 Cordoba agreement, which was a signal achievement. It involved the solution of a series of issues that had previously been regarded as intractable: the airport issue, the border control issue, the wretched Spanish pensions issue, which had gone on for ever, and the issue of the number of telephone lines from outside that would be allowed into Gibraltar.

In addition, on a matter that, as Members of the House may know, is close to my heart, the Cordoba agreement paved the way to enabling the whole EU to ratify the 1996 Hague convention on the international protection of children. That was an important and significant achievement, but—and I am afraid there is a "but"—there is still one big issue outstanding. I do not mean sovereignty, because that is unresolved and probably will be for the foreseeable future. The remaining big issue is the continuing refusal of the Spanish Government to allow NATO aircraft and naval vessels into Spanish airspace or waters when they are going to and from Gibraltar.

That is an issue that the Foreign Affairs Committee has returned to again and again. In our 2003 report on Gibraltar we urged the ending of those restrictions by the Spanish Government, and we did so again in the report on the overseas territories that we have before us. Our recommendation in that report is clear:

"We recommend that the Government continues making strong representations to Spain and within NATO at the highest level about the unacceptability of Spain's continuing restrictions on direct naval, army and airforce movements or military communications between Spain and Gibraltar."

I am very disappointed by the lack of robustness of the Foreign Office's response to our recommendation, which was:

"We believe the imposition of Spanish restrictions in relation to military movements between Spain and Gibraltar is inappropriate. We therefore support the Committee's recommendation and have made representations to Spain to address the issue. We also work closely with Spain as a NATO ally and will, in this context, continue to engage with Spain to find a constructive solution."

That is truly supine. I dug out some earlier parliamentary questions that I tabled, and the tenor of that response to the Committee's latest report is almost the same as an answer that I got to a question I tabled for the Secretary of State for Defence seven years ago. The answer that I received on 31 October 2002 on the same issue was:

"Discussions between the British and Spanish Government in the context of the Brussels Process aim to resolve all outstanding issues between the United Kingdom and Spain over Gibraltar."—[Hansard, 31 October 2002; Vol. 391, c. 892W.]

Here we are, currently celebrating the 60th anniversary of NATO. The Prime Minister went to the celebrations and made a statement to the House when he came back; yet our Spanish ally is engaged in indefensible restrictions on the movement of NATO aircraft and vessels over its airspace and in its maritime waters. I accept that the issue is not a British one but, at root, a NATO one. I ask the Minister and, through her, going right to the top, the Prime Minister, whether, in the 60th anniversary year of NATO, this is the moment to bring down the full force of NATO's persuasiveness—and particularly that of the United States under its new President—and say, "Let us forget about these ridiculous restrictions, get them removed, and normalise relations between Spain and the rest of NATO with respect to Spanish airspace and maritime waters." Is not now the moment when the strongest possible pressure should be applied by NATO as a whole to the Spanish on this issue?

I want to discuss the Turks and Caicos Islands. I was grateful to Mr. Pope for his generous personal comment at the outset of the debate. I was very glad that the hon. Gentleman and Mr. Keetch were in our trio of Committee members; they both made the most incisive and persistent contributions to unravelling what was going on in the Turks and Caicos, during our visit and subsequently.

All members of the Committee would agree that when we started our inquiry into the overseas territories we did not have any very clear idea—because we were waiting to see what evidence we would receive—which of them we would be able to visit. We were not going to be able to visit them all. They are spread, as the House knows, from the Pacific ocean through the Indian ocean to the Mediterranean, across the Atlantic and into the Caribbean: we would clearly have to pick carefully, given the time available to us, the territories that we would go to, even when we were splitting into three separate groups. It was apparent to us within a matter of weeks of issuing our press notice and calling for memorandums of evidence that a visit to the Turks and Caicos Islands would be among the highest priorities for the Committee in the course of the inquiry.

The memorandums that we received were unprecedented, in my experience on the Committee, with respect to their volume and, sinisterly, in the degree of fear that lay behind them, for those submitting them. Considerable numbers were sent anonymously because people were not prepared to divulge their names. A significant number came from people who were prepared to give their name, but who submitted the memorandum on the basis that it should be entirely private and confidential and would not be published, and that they would not be identified. Only a very few were put to the Committee on the basis that both the terms of the memorandum and the name of the sender could be published. Those appear in our report.