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Volume 14: debated on Tuesday 8 December 1981

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asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether, pursuant to the Minister of State's announcement on 23 November, he will make a statement on the initial results so far of his discussions with the Gibraltar Government and others about the rundown of the naval dockyard and restrictions on the opening hours of the Royal Air Force airfield; and whether any early ministerial visit to Gibraltar is planned.

Consultations were held from 24 to 26 November between United Kingdom officials and Gibraltar Ministers and officials led by the Chief Minister, Sir Joshua Hassan. A communiqué was issued at the end of the talks, and I am arranging for a copy to be placed in the Library of the House.

No ministerial visit to Gibraltar is planned for the moment, but the Chief Minister and the Governor are expected to visit the United Kingdom next week.

Is my hon. Friend aware that closing down the dockyard without alternative provision and restricting the use of the vital air strip is not an honourable way in which to treat some of Her Majesty's most devoted and loyal subjects? Will he go forthwith to Gibraltar, meet the local people there, and reassure them that this is not simply a Foreign Office ploy to force them once again into the arms of Spain?

There would not be any point in my going to Gibraltar when Sir Joshua Hassan is about to come here, although I would be prepared to go to Gibraltar at an appropriate time if that seemed likely to be useful. My hon. Friend has overstated what is intended. We have reiterated to the Chief Minister and to the people of Gibraltar the British Government's policy of supporting and sustaining Gibraltar, which originated when the border was closed by General Franco. With regard to the air strip, we have stated what we should like to see done. That would exclude few civilian flights. We are prepared to discuss with the Government of Gibraltar what should be done.

Is the Minister not aware that that reply is simply not good enough? Is it not his duty to go to Gibraltar? I am perfectly aware that Sir Joshua is coming to this country, but the talks should take place, as his hon. Friend said, in Gibraltar. Should he not have the courage to talk to the people who work in the docks because, apart from anything else, for 270 years the people of Gibraltar have been British and want to remain so?

I entirely endorse the tribute that the right hon. Gentleman paid, by implication, to the people of Gibraltar. I cannot say more than that I am happy to consider going to Gibraltar at the appropriate time. Now is not the appropriate time, because Sir Joshua Hassan has asked to come here.

When my hon. Friend has discussions with the Government of Gibraltar, will he make it clear that if there is a possibility of the refitting of frigates ceasing by 1983, the naval base facilities will continue? Is he aware that the information that was conveyed by the civil servants who went to Gibraltar created chaos and consternation among the people of Gibraltar about the number of jobs that will be lost and the possibility of the dockyard being closed? Is he further aware that the dockyard is the mainstay of the economy of Gibraltar? Without it Gibraltar would fail and those supporters in the House would not be prepared to tolerate that.

Consideration will be given to further naval work for the dockyard up to 1984. We are now examining the possibility of commercialisation of the dockyard, and the Gibraltar Government regard the prospects of a successful commercialisation as reasonable. The naval base will remain open and there will be an Army presence there, as there has been up to now.

Will the Minister tell the House what the Government are prepared to do to support and sustain people who are likely to lose their jobs in the Gibraltar dockyard and on the air strip? Will the Government say that, despite the cuts in defence appropriations, they will ensure that the people of Gibraltar, who are British citizens—even though it will cost them £50 to register—will be guaranteed jobs, and that jobs will be provided by the Government?

The Government have repeated that our "support and sustain" policy continues. We are examining with the Gibraltar Government the possibilities of commercialisation of the dockyard. The Gibraltar Government have asked my right hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development for help in various studies relating to tourism, the setting up of financial resources, and so on. I have no doubt that he will regard that request favourably. It is not possible for us to keep open the dockyard facilities for naval purposes in Gibraltar when we do not need them and at a time when, to our regret, we are having to close down Chatham and run down Portsmouth.