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Volume 405: debated on Tuesday 13 May 2003

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.— [Mr. Ainger.]

9.30 am

I am privileged to have the opportunity to open this important debate on Gibraltar. However, I am ashamed that the debate should be necessary. It is necessary because of the Government's disgraceful mishandling of negotiations with Spain, in their efforts to enhance an Anglo-Spanish alliance with the European Union that would balance the Franco-German axis. They are using the offer of joint sovereignty with Gibraltar as a bargaining chip, but without consultation with, participation by, or a mandate from Gibraltar. Gibraltar is our most loyal colony. It is iniquitous that its people should have to suffer any uncertainty about their future sovereignty.

Gibraltar was ceded to Great Britain under the treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Article 10 of that treaty states that should Britain ever give up sovereignty, Gibraltar would pass to Spain. British policy is based on article 73 of the United Nations charter, which gives paramount importance to the inhabitants of the territory. Gibraltar will therefore remain British for as long as its people so desire. The inhabitants of Gibraltar demonstrated, in a referendum held on 7 November 2002, that an overwhelming 99 per cent. of them do so desire.

Who could forget the wonderful display of Union flags when the people took to the streets to demonstrate the strength of their patriotic desire for the continuation of Gibraltar's present status?

I should like to make a little progress.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), the shadow Foreign Secretary, said:

"You could not have a clearer, democratically expressed view. To proceed, or to pretend to proceed, in the light of this, is to defy reality."

Gibraltar is of immense strategic value to the United Kingdom, as NATO's key communications centre in the western Mediterranean and as a forward base for British troops.

Can the hon. Lady say why a referendum was not given to the people of Hong Kong, given that country's strategic importance to the United Kingdom?

I shall finish what I was saying. Hong Kong island was not on a lease; neither was Kowloon. It was the new territories that were on a lease. Why were not the same arguments made for Hong Kong by the Tory Government?

The basis on which a referendum could have been justified in Hong Kong was entirely different. As a British colony, Gibraltar is a special case.

Gibraltar is of immense strategic importance to the United Kingdom. Even if it had no strategic importance, the emotional ties of the past 300 years—ties of culture, tradition, heritage, history and loyalty to the Crown—bind us together. Gibraltar is family. In the 21st century, we no longer give away our princesses against their will in diplomatic marriages.

For Spain, joint sovereignty over Gibraltar is only a stepping-stone on the way to achieving its long-held ambition of full sovereignty and full access to Gibraltar's military base. Long-term harassment and a campaign of restrictions, such as land border delays and inadequate telephone capacity, have made life unnecessarily difficult for Gibraltar. EU directives that cause a financial burden are imposed, whereas beneficial directives are withheld.

In the recent negotiations, Spain made no effort to redefine its position, so persuaded was it by the Government that Gibraltar could be delivered. However, it could not be delivered—not without the agreement of its people, and that could not have been withheld more clearly. The way forward—the way to improve the relationship between Spain and Gibraltar—depends on Spain changing its attitude and becoming a good neighbour.

As my hon. Friend is discussing the way forward, will she join me in encouraging the Conservative Front-Bench team categorically to state now that Conservative policy is totally to reject the joint sovereignty initiative, which is a deception on the people of Gibraltar and a betrayal of them by the Government?

I thank my hon. Friend for that. He will find that I absolutely endorse what he says in my remarks.

It is nothing short of a diplomatic disgrace that the Government reopened bilateral talks with Spain on the Brussels process without Gibraltar and with the aim of securing joint sovereignty in the wake of Gibraltar's conclusive referendum. The rights of the people of Gibraltar to self-determination were bartered over behind their backs by the British and Spanish Governments. It is not for politicians in London or Madrid to decide the sovereignty of Gibraltar—it is for the people of Gibraltar to do so, and they have made their decision for the rest of the world to see.

If that is true, will the hon. Lady explain why Peter Caruana, Gibraltar's Chief Minister, did not take part in the discussions and left vacant the seat that was available for Gibraltar? It is surely wrong to say that bartering was going on behind Gibraltar's back if it was invited to join the discussions.

It is very clear why Peter Caruana did not take part—he was not given the same status as the other participants. The fact that joint sovereignty was on the agenda precluded him from taking part. The issue was a non-starter for Gibraltar.

The prize simply was not deliverable. If Spain was given the impression that it was, it was misled. Far worse, Gibraltar was betrayed. It was deeply hurtful for Gibraltar to learn that its future had been the subject of covert horse-trading between Britain and Spain, which had been carried out in the interests of enhancing their positions in the EU. However important Britain's relationship with Spain, it is not more important that our historic links and loyalty to Gibraltar.

It is entirely spurious to excuse such behaviour by pretending that it was in the interests of Gibraltar's economy and that it was intended to guarantee Gibraltar and the surrounding area a prosperous future. No one—least of all Gibraltarians—would suggest that Gibraltar's economy has reached its full potential. Of course it can and will be developed further. Since the closure of the royal naval dockyard in 1985, tourism has become increasingly important, and Gibraltar is now a popular holiday destination—not least because it is British. It is also sunny. Commercial ship repairing and financial services render Gibraltar economically self-sufficient. It is not dependent on smuggling, as Spain has sometimes suggested. Happily, there is now full cooperation between the customs services of Spain and Gibraltar. As both countries are in the European Community, there is no incentive to use Gibraltar as a conduit for the illegal trafficking of people or drugs.

I know just how relieved Gibraltarians were to receive the Prime Minister's recent assurance, which he gave in response to a parliamentary question from me, that the future of Gibraltar played no role whatever in his negotiations with José María Aznar in securing Spain's support for the war against Saddam Hussein. The many letters that I have received from people living in Gibraltar—and in this country—illustrated the level of concern that has been generated by those joint sovereignty talks. There is much to do to dispel that concern.

The report of the Foreign Affairs Committee on Gibraltar could not have been more critical of the Government in its findings. It points to a failure to disclose that joint sovereignty with Spain was even under discussion. The report states that:

"Britain's negotiating position with Spain could not have been prejudiced by the British Government disclosing on, or shortly after, the relaunching of the Brussels Process in July 2001 that joint sovereignty over Gibraltar was under discussion as the Spanish Government was already fully involved in those discussions. We further conclude that the refusal of Ministers to make such a disclosure represented a serious failure in their accountability obligations to this Committee and to Parliament."
Gibraltar's referendum has been referred to as "eccentric". The Foreign Affairs Committee concluded that it rejected the Foreign Secretary's view that it is eccentric for the Government of Gibraltar to hold its own referendum. It added:

"We consider that in British Overseas Territories it is of great importance that democratic expressions of view should take place when territories themselves so determine. We recommend that the British Government take full account of the views of the people of Gibraltar as expressed in the referendum held on 7 November."
The Committee points to the failure to seek the endorsement of Gibraltar's Chief Minister. The report states:

"We conclude that the Government was wrong to negotiate joint sovereignty, when it must have known that there was no prospect whatsoever that any agreement on the future of Gibraltar which included joint sovereignty could be made acceptable to the people of Gibraltar, and when the outcome is likely to be the worst of all worlds—the dashing of raised expectations in Spain, and a complete loss of trust in the British Government by the people of Gibraltar."
The Committee recommended that the Government should explain in its response whether previous Governments had, as it appeared from the evidence, made a commitment to the Gibraltar Government to seek the Chief Minister's specific endorsement before entering into any new arrangement affecting Gibraltar at the Brussels process talks. It asked why—if this was indeed the case—the current Government have not decided to renew that commitment?

The Committee pointed to a failure to discern the difference between the legitimate complaints of Gibraltar against Spain, and the unjustified complaints of Spain against Gibraltar. The report states:

"We conclude that it is highly ironic that the British Government has given credence to complaints by Spain about law enforcement and the supervision of financial services in Gibraltar, given that these areas are the responsibility, not of the Gibraltar government, but of the British government and of the Financial Services Commission, appointed by it."
The Committee concluded that there was no parallel to be drawn between Gibraltar's legitimate complaints against Spain, and Spain's unjustified accusations against Gibraltar.

The list is long and shaming. Those were just a few examples from it. There simply is no mandate for talks between Britain and Spain on sharing the sovereignty of Gibraltar. Spain, for its part, could never agree to joint sovereignty in perpetuity. The 1969 Gibraltar constitution prevents the transfer of sovereignty unless or until the people of Gibraltar agree. Those two positions are irreconcilable. The Government must eat large portions of humble pie.

Where do we go from here? Unfortunately, life is not like a video tape; it cannot be rewound, and the parts that we do not like—or wish had never happened—cannot be erased. In real life, we must live with our mistakes and find ways to make amends. Going back is not an option, so we can either stand still or move forward in ways that will benefit everyone. Three-way talks are needed now to re-establish the trust and confidence of the people of Gibraltar and to improve relationships between Spain, Gibraltar and the United Kingdom.

There are plenty of possibilities. How better to start than by finding a workable solution to the unsatisfactory situation on pension contributions? The Gibraltar Government are required to pay full pensions to a large group of people—they happen to be Spanish—who have barely contributed to the Gibraltar pension fund. There are similar anomalies about community care on which work needs to be done. Meaningful discussions to lift land border delays and to improve Gibraltar's telecommunications would be fertile ground in creating good neighbours and improving life on the Rock.

It is the undeniable right of the people of Gibraltar to remain British until they—and only they—decide otherwise. That right must be defended. We enjoy the privilege of Gibraltar's loyalty and they deserve ours in return.

I have received only one request from a Back-Bench Member to take part in this debate. However, I see that a number are trying to catch my eye, so I must alert the House to the normal practice in such 90-minute debates here. We commence the first of the three winding-up speeches at least 30 minutes before conclusion, so general debate will have only 44 minutes from now. I ask every hon. Member to take that into account when making their contribution and when accepting and responding to interventions.

9.46 am

May I start by warmly congratulating the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) on securing this debate? Like all hon. Members, she knows that the way in which this or any Government respond to the deep concerns of the people and Government of Gibraltar about Government policy is of deep concern to many hon. Members. In recent years we have had a number of debates about Gibraltar in which Members from different parties have expressed their concerns, as have I.

I am the chairperson of the United Kingdom branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, although this morning I speak in my capacity as a Member of Parliament. I have a close relationship with fellow members of the Gibraltar branch of the CPA, which is a member of our region within the association. At the British islands and Mediterranean regional meeting at last year's annual CPA conference in Namibia, the members of the region discussed Gibraltar.

Gibraltar's Deputy Chief Minister, who was a member of its delegation, made it clear to delegates at the meeting that it seemed to the people of Gibraltar that the United Kingdom and Spain had clear understandings on the joint sovereignty that they wished to pursue, whatever the views of the people of Gibraltar. In the discussion that took place, delegates from Commonwealth countries in the region spoke in support of the views of the people and Government of Gibraltar, and against the imposition on them of any policy that they did not support.

At the end of the discussion, a statement on Gibraltar was put to the regional delegates, which read:
"It is resolved, that the delegates of the branches of the British Islands and Mediterranean Region meeting in … Namibia, on September 9 2002, affirm their recognition of the right of the people of Gibraltar to self-determination, that they will therefore recognise as definitive the results of the referendum of the people of Gibraltar to be held on November 7 2002 and hope and expect that the Government of the United Kingdom will do likewise."
Nobody voted against that statement: 27 members voted in support of it, and three abstained. The same feeling would exist at any Commonwealth conference, wherever it took place. We shall discuss Gibraltar again at the London CPA conference in two months. We say clearly that we should respect the wishes of the people of any country, the more so when it is a member of the CPA.

The referendum called by the Government of Gibraltar showed massive support for the policy clearly stated by the Chief Minister. Nobody in Gibraltar, Spain or the United Kingdom can doubt the wish of the people of Gibraltar, which is that future developments should be in the interests of their country. It most certainly is not that closer ties with Spain should be imposed on them.

The hon. Member for Upminster outlined the need for talks with Spain. I am not opposed to that, nor are the people of Gibraltar; some things need to be discussed. However, those of us who have long been involved in the affairs of Gibraltar know of the arrogance that Spain has repeatedly displayed towards the views and wishes of the people of Gibraltar. Let us tackle some of those arrogant actions—I have seen how they affect life in Gibraltar.

When will the British Government accept and understand the view that has been clearly stated in debate after debate at the CPA conference? No doubt the Minister for Europe will say that the Government respect the views of the people of Gibraltar. If that were true, it would have been reflected in the Government's attitude to the referendum of 7 November. There was no doubt about the turnout or the result, but the British Government have subsequently made many statements about the roles that Spain and the European Union might play. Perhaps they do have a role, but I suggest that it should be decided in proper negotiation with the Chief Minister and the people of Gibraltar.

The Minister must be aware that the people of Gibraltar have a deep distrust of the Government's intentions because, despite the result of their referendum, they repeatedly hear statements about what Ministers in London wish to happen, although they might not put it like that. I regularly meet members of the Gibraltar branch of the CPA, and they tell me and my colleagues that they are in no doubt of the British Government's clear intention to impose joint sovereignty on them, and they will not accept it.

No, other hon. Members want to take part in the debate.

There is one other country whose people have stated their clear involvement with a country with which they have little in common. That is the Falkland Islands, which also belongs to the CPA. We clearly respect the Falkland Islanders' views. We do not attempt to say to them and their representatives, "You must now enter into a much closer association with the Argentines", because they do not want to do so. When will we say to the people of Gibraltar, "You must decide the level and extent of your country's involvement with Spain"?

Some Members of the House, irrespective of the party that they belong to, have a great ongoing commitment to Gibraltar, for the reasons given by the hon. Member for Upminster in her opening remarks. However, we will not accept any attempt to railroad its people, against their wishes, into a joint sovereignty with Spain which they clearly do not want. With great respect to the Minister, whom I have known for many years, he would be very foolish, as would the Government, if he attempted to impose on Gibraltar or its people actions that do not meet their wishes. Some hon. Members will bitterly oppose any such action.

May I read into the record Chief Minister Peter Caruana's new year message for 2002? He said:

"Both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary—
that is the Foreign Secretary of Britain—

"have recently made clear in parliamentary statements that there would be no change in the sovereignty of Gibraltar against our wishes. I believe that this assurance is totally reliable."

What my hon. Friend says is very interesting. If that is the case, I hope that we shall stop hearing of pressure being put on the people of Gibraltar and the Chief Minister to continue to be involved in negotiations for something that they clearly do not want or support. However, it is certainly not what those of us who have ongoing contact with Gibraltar, its representatives and, above all, its people believe.

9.58 am

I will not detain the Chamber long, but as vice-chairman of the all-party group I want to make a few comments on Gibraltar.

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) on securing the debate. She made many of the points that I would have made and that many of us know back to front. She is right to say that Gibraltar is family, and we owe it a degree of the loyalty that it has given us over many years. I am afraid that the Government have not shown that loyalty, which is very disappointing.

Those of us who have visited Gibraltar, and I was privileged to be in the group that went to the Gibraltar day celebrations last September, would give our eye-teeth for the sort of attendance at and participation in the political process that takes place there. In almost no other country in the world would half the population go to a political rally on a bank holiday to listen to politicians making speeches. Yet, in Gibraltar, 15,000 people turned out to listen to Members of Parliament from this country and politicians from Gibraltar talking about their fears and concerns for Gibraltar's future. It was illuminating that they were not just a bunch of expats—the pink gin-swilling brigade who hark back to past days.

The vast majority of those crowds were people in their teens, at school and university, and in their 20s—the next generation of Gibraltarians. They feel no less passionately about the future of that colony than did their parents and grandparents before them. There is no question of Gibraltar's loyalty to Britain and its desire to remain British diminishing through the generations. Great harm has been done during the past couple of years in particular. My hon. Friend was right to say that we desperately need to re-establish trust and confidence among the people of Gibraltar.

During interventions in my hon. Friend's speech a lot of rubbish was spoken. The situation in Hong Kong was completely different. The island was covered by a lease, but if we had not come to an agreement with the Chinese, the water supply would have been cut off and the island would have been entirely unviable. However much we might have liked to retain a British element in Hong Kong, it was not practicable.

Reference was made to Peter Caruana not being part of the negotiations on Gibraltar. We all know that he was not offered the proper status that should be accorded to the First Minister of Gibraltar. The Government should be ashamed of that token exercise.

Reference was also made to the Brussels process. When Mrs. Thatcher entered into that process, did anyone seriously believe that there was any question of a Conservative Government under her or any other Prime Minister entering negotiations to cede any sovereignty against the will of the people of Gibraltar? The Brussels process was about negotiating with Spain to make the life of the people of Gibraltar easier and to stop Spain frustrating their lives on the Rock with procedure and red tape.

The issue is not only that the British Government are imposing certain actions on the people of Gibraltar, but that a sword of Damocles has been hanging over them. It is always in the background and, although nothing will happen to Gibraltar at this stage, the fact that the Government have technically done a deal in the background means that at some time that sword will fall, and the people of Gibraltar will find themselves sold down the river. That is what really matters at this stage, not whether a treaty may have been signed or a specific deal done with Spain.

I want to finish by asking the Minister some short questions. As my hon. Friend said, despite the Prime Minister's semi-assurance, many people both here and in Gibraltar remain deeply worried about what negotiations may have taken place in the Azores or subsequently. Will the Minister give an absolute undertaking that the subject of Gibraltar did not come up at all during the negotiations in the Azores or subsequently between our Prime Minister and the Prime Minister of Spain?

Will the Minister comment on what military use was made of Gibraltar and its docks during the recent campaign in Iraq? How important will it be in future to secure the base in Gibraltar for any military campaign? Will the Minister reassess the statement by the Foreign Secretary in which he described the decision by the people of Gibraltar to have a referendum—it was an overriding success, and both the turnout and the result were categorical—as eccentric? That was childish in the extreme and it undermined the trust that we should place in the people of Gibraltar.

Can the Minister tell me what has improved for the people of Gibraltar since the Government entered into the so-called negotiations with the Spanish Government? Has the shortage of telephone lines improved? Is it true that the Spanish have made available only 70,000 telephone lines to cover all business and residential needs? The inability to get access to a telephone line is obviously acting as a serious brake on further investment in the country.

What improvements, if any, have been made to the access by the people of Gibraltar to the health care facilities offered by Spain? Also, is it any easier to get across the border? When I was there, the constant hassle involved in getting to and from Gibraltar across the border was absolutely outrageous. Will the Minister comment on the situation that I gather still pertains whereby if planes are unable to land in Gibraltar because of weather conditions, they are not allowed to land in Spain, but have to overfly to Tangier and come back again, which is nonsense? If any of the frustrating tactics by the Spanish Government continue, as I suspect they do and as any recent visitor to Gibraltar will confirm, what action have the British Government taken vigorously to pursue the matter with the EU as a blatant breach of the codes of conduct for member states?

The situation with Gibraltar is grave. It brings the Government into disrepute that we have failed dismally to give assurances to the people of Gibraltar that they can remain British for as long as they wish and that their status will not be undermined by grubby back-room deals. It is time for the Government to come out firmly into the open and to state once and for all that there will be no deals, and that the sovereignty of Gibraltar will remain unimpugned for as many years as the people of Gibraltar wish.

Order. We have only 25 minutes left. If we continue to absorb time at our current pace, someone will fall off the end. I hope that that will not happen. Please bear in mind my advice.

10.6 am

I apologise for the fact that I may have to absent myself for a few minutes because I have a previous engagement. For that reason, and because of what you said, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall be brief. I want to raise a new matter that I hope will interest hon. Members, even if they do not agree with me.

Before I do so, I want to say that I agree with everything that has been said by so many hon. Members in support of Gibraltar. Some of them rehearsed a lot of recent history. An important part of debates in Westminster Hall is the need to return constantly to the subject. We must always be vigilant. The Minister and his successors will always be probed. We will never ease up because we have learned that we must keep an eye on the situation. We need to ensure that the Government are proactive in the interests of Gibraltar. They have not been so in the recent past.

The Prime Minister realised some time ago that negotiating with Spain was a journey to nowhere. That is my reading of the situation. However, rather like King Henry, who sent the knights off, when the Prime Minister realised that he had given the wrong signals, it was too late to pull people back. He certainly realised that there could be no agreement on joint sovereignty, first, because the Spanish could never agree to it in perpetuity and, secondly, because the constitution, which is enshrined in Speaker's House on a piece of rock from Gibraltar, says that "unless or until"—those are the important words—the people of Gibraltar decide otherwise, the constitutional status of the Crown will endure.

The Prime Minister also realised that the move would be bad politics. I do not think that such a change, which would be contrary to the interests and wishes of the people of Gibraltar, could get through the House of Commons. Even if my judgment is wrong, such a change would do incalculable harm to the Labour party and the country because ordinary folk and many Labour supporters feel strongly about the matter.

Having said that the Prime Minister recognises the political realities of the situation, I point out that some people around him do not. Funnily enough, that remark does not relate exclusively to Ministers or Members of Parliament. A number of senior people in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office keep sending the wrong signals to Spain through body language—nods and winks—and through what they say in meetings outside the main summit chamber. I refer in particular to Sir Emyr Jones Parry, who was our permanent representative in NATO at that time, and who is now to be a permanent representative at the United Nations. He has been extraordinarily keen—a zealot if anything—on trying to reach an agreement with Spain. I do not complain about that; I do not even complain about him raising the matter with Ministers in the past. What I do say is that the Minister has to tell Sir Emyr Jones Parry and others in the Foreign Office to back off.

There comes a point where such people have to take political instructions, and the issue must not be raised again. Sir Emyr Jones Parry has repeatedly raised Gibraltar as a NATO issue with his opposite numbers, and that has sent all the wrong signals. It has increased expectations in Spain that cannot be realised, and it would be a disservice if that process were allowed to go on. I hope that the Minister will ensure that the permanent representatives—our diplomats— understand that the issue cannot and should not be raised again, and if they do so, they will be acting contrary to the instructions of the British Government. If they do so and the House finds out about it, there will be one hell of a row.

10.11 am

It is with great sadness that we debate this issue again. I cannot for the life of me understand why the Government cannot get the message that the people of Gibraltar are British, wish to remain British and do not support any negotiation with a foreign power over their future and their sovereignty. I hope that the Minister will be brought to Westminster Hall and the House again and again until the Government understand that they must drop this ridiculous and undemocratic proposal.

Almost 50 years ago—in fact, it is 49 years ago this week—Her Majesty the Queen visited the Rock of Gibraltar. Next year, the people of Gibraltar will celebrate the 300th anniversary of Gibraltar being British territory. I hope that a further royal visit will take place. If anyone deserves recognition for their loyalty, it is the people of Gibraltar. Recently the magazine Panorama, published in Gibraltar, conducted a survey in which 14 per cent. of people said that Gibraltar belonged to the British and 86 per cent. said that it belonged to the Gibraltarians. Nobody believed that it belonged to Spain.

I remind the Minister that last November a referendum took place in which 99 per cent. of the people of Gibraltar voted to remain British and to reject the proposal for joint sovereignty with Spain. I remind him also that the Government have held other referendums in London, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and in each case the views of the people have been respected and upheld. But the referendum in Gibraltar has been ignored by the Government in London. How can that be right or democratic? I understand the views of certain Government Members and what they hope to achieve, but surely they understand that democracy ultimately must prevail. For them to continue to pursue any process, when it is clear in the starkest terms that the people of Gibraltar reject it totally and utterly, cannot be justified in any parliamentary democracy.

Would the hon. Gentleman like to take this opportunity to put on record his thoughts about Chief Minister Peter Caruana's new year message, in which he said that he had total faith in the assurances that were given on sovereignty? Is the Chief Minister gullible or complicit in deceiving the people of Gibraltar? Or does he genuinely recognise the good faith of the Government, who will not deal with the sovereignty issue until it is put to a referendum?

I certainly shall not attempt to speak on behalf of the Chief Minister. However, I met hundreds if not thousands of people when I was in Gibraltar three weeks ago. I addressed the conference of the integration with Britain movement and I also spoke at the dinner for small businesses which was held on the Rock. I did not meet a single Gibraltarian who has any faith or confidence that they are not being sold down the river by the Government. I believe the people of Gibraltar when they say that they feel let down and betrayed by the Government. I did not meet the Chief Minister, but I met the leaders of the four other political parties. They are all deeply concerned at the ambiguity of the Government's position.

I do not doubt that the Minister is an honourable man. He has taken over the job from his predecessor, and he has tried—and succeeded to some extent—to calm troubled waters, but there is still a feeling that the Government want rid of Gibraltar and that they would prefer to make a deal with Spain to get an agreement in which they might gain in some other way, perhaps through the EU.

Order. The practice in this Chamber and the House is to address other hon. Members through the Chair.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Does my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the Chief Minister who, despite the provocations, continues in a highly diplomatic way to hold out an olive branch to the British Government in the hope that some reason will prevail in their dealings with Gibraltar? The Chief Minister's conduct in the circumstances has been wholly admirable.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Peter Caruana has been an outstanding champion of the rights of the people of Gibraltar, and I look forward to his continuing in that role. I honestly believe that the people of Gibraltar are united, and that is shown by the results of the referendum. Let us not forget that Parliament has constitutional power and authority over our overseas territories, of which Gibraltar is one. We have a responsibility to ensure that those people are protected in the same way as we expect our constituents to be protected.

The people of Gibraltar have been scrupulously loyal to this country for hundreds of years. Does my hon. Friend agree that they simply cannot understand why the Government in Britain do not return that loyalty, particularly after an absolutely emphatic referendum result has made it crystal clear that they will never accept joint sovereignty with Spain? They now look to the British Government to accept that and act accordingly, and they are utterly bemused as to why the Government will not do that.

My hon. Friend makes a vital point, which the Government must address. Why on earth are a group of British people who happen not to be part of mainland Britain treated so differently from the rest of us? That certainly does not happen to the people in Spain's territories. Spain wisely refuses to discuss sovereignty over Ceuta and Melilla. Why do the Government in London choose to discuss the sovereignty of Gibraltar with Spain, which sensibly refuses to discuss sovereignty over its territories?

The Netherlands treats its overseas territories equally. Denmark's overseas territories, the Faroe Islands and Greenland, send representatives to the Folketing—the Danish Parliament. Nobody represents the people of Gibraltar in this House apart from those hon. Members—many of whom are here today—who regularly turn up to speak on their behalf. Surely it is time that we allowed the people of Gibraltar to send their own Member to this House. France has overseas territories, which it treats with respect, decency and equality. The British Government choose not to treat Gibraltar and our remaining overseas territories with a similar degree of equality, fairness and decency, and it is time for them to consider such a policy, which would be legitimate.

The Minister will know that the United Nations has put forward three proposals—free association, independence or integration—for the decolonisation of overseas territories. In Gibraltar, independence would be illegal under the treaty of Utrecht and the people do not desire it. Free association is an option worth considering, but so is integration. Integration has been used in territories linked with countries such as Spain, France, the Netherlands and Denmark; why is it not an option for the people of Gibraltar? They should be allowed to decide their own future. If they want to become an equal part of the United Kingdom, they should be given the opportunity to do so.

I appeal to the Minister to take note of everything that has been said by all hon. Members—except for a couple of Government Members who are making ludicrous points that have been addressed time and again.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Can Members contribute to the debate without declaring the fact that they have received a trip to Gibraltar at the expense of the Government of Gibraltar?

It is incumbent on any Member who receives a gift or trip that is not available to all Members of the House to record it in the Register of Members' Interests. Copies of the register are available for Members to refer to.

Order. I hope that hon. Members will return to the topic, bearing in mind the time that is left.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As you have rightly pointed out, all declarations are registered, and I hope that the hon. Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick) will remember that.

In conclusion, we should not repeat this debate every month, and we should conclude the matter. Regardless of the Government's previous views, I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that the people of Gibraltar have made their choice: they want to remain British for good. They do not want their sovereignty to be disputed, discussed, sold down the river or handed over to anybody else. The territory of Gibraltar and the people of Gibraltar are inseparable. It is no good the Government saying, "Oh, the people of Gibraltar have British citizenship and we shall not take that away." That would be no good and the people will not be fooled by it. They want to remain British with their territory, which belongs to them, not to us. The land and the people cannot be separated.

I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to end the uncertainty, the hurt and the Gibraltarians' feeling, which they have had for years, that they are somehow second-class British. He should say once and for all that the people of Gibraltar have made their choice, which is their right in a democracy, and that the United Kingdom Government will respect their wishes and end any discussion with Madrid about the sovereignty of the people of the Rock.

I must alert the House to the fact that our worthy Clerk has just enlightened me on a detail of the Standing Orders of which I was previously unaware. If the cost of accommodation and travel amounts to more than £550, it should be declared as well as registered. The point of order was well made.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have taken advantage of that hospitality, a fact that is recorded in the Register of Members' Interests. I present my apologies because I should have declared it before my earlier contribution.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am in some difficulty because when I went to Gibraltar for the referendum, I paid for my own fare and accommodation precisely because I had foreseen that this nonsense would arise. What I cannot remember—the Clerk has a register here—is how long the registration nonsense lasts, but I think that it is for one year after a trip. It is a charade and we are losing time, but as the matter has been raised, I shall come up to the Chair in a moment to see what I have declared in the register. I realised that this nonsense would happen—

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As I have already stated, I have made a declaration in the register. I should also point out that I have been to Gibraltar on several occasions, with the Gibraltarian Government as my hosts.

10.26 am

It is a delight to have this reunion of old friends—people who are debating this issue for, I think, the sixth time during this Parliament. I congratulate the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) on securing the debate, but I feel somewhat saddened by its tone, which has been one of hyperbole rather than rational political argument. Perhaps that is true on both sides of the argument, but I shall advance no hyperbole of my own this morning. I shall say merely that if some of us on this side of the House appear to be an odd couple of people, we hold our views as firmly as others. Those views should be respected. [Interruption.] I am not going to refer to what the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) just said, not least because I know that, despite his hyperbole, he is a great friend of Spain, which he has often shown in this House and in debates in other arenas.

The hyperbole around whether the Government have betrayed Gibraltar and sold people down the river is unhelpful at a time when there is a genuine attempt to move forward. I hope that we will now eschew hyperbole. I would not want to suggest that the hon. Member for Upminster is a rabid anti-European colonialist who hates Spain, and I hope that she would not want to advance any hyperbole either.

The questions that really remain are should there have been discussions in the first place and should there be any now? I believe passionately that there should be discussions between Spain, Britain and Gibraltar for the simple reason that the world has changed since 1713. Franco has died and Spain is now a member of NATO, which should have dramatically changed the relationship between Britain, Gibraltar and Spain. We are EU allies of a kind who could, if we worked more closely together, achieve a more rational future for Europe.

I believe that it should be possible to achieve a better future for Gibraltar, too—as a result of negotiation, rather than shouting and screaming. The issue of telephone lines has been raised many times, and it is legitimate. The border problems are also a legitimate matter to raise. Most importantly, it would be good if Gibraltar could have a fully operational working airport that might serve the whole of Europe. If we could achieve those changes through negotiation and co-operation between Spain, Britain and Gibraltar, we could create a Gibraltarian economy at the very heart of southern Spain. That would be good for the people of Gibraltar, the people of Spain and Britain, which is why I believe that it was right for Mrs. Thatcher to start discussions under the Brussels process and for this Government to continue them.

I also believe, although I accept that this is not the will of the people of Gibraltar, that joint sovereignty in perpetuity was a real possibility, and it may be again at some future date. I merely note that more than 500,000 Britons—nearly 20 times as many people as live on Gibraltar—live on mainland Spain. They consider themselves fully British and find it perfectly possible to live with a double identity.

If we are to address issues such as hospitals and health service availability to Britons on Gibraltar and on mainland Spain, we should carefully consider the operation of the E111 system in Spain. Many constituents have had problems getting help from the Spanish national health service.

Secondly, I raise the question whether the discussions were the right ones. It is wholly wrong of the hon. Member for Upminster to portray the talks as a covert operation. It was made perfectly plain to the people of Gibraltar that a seat would be available for them if they wanted to take part. There was always the backstop of a referendum, so no change could be brought about to their constitutional situation without consultation and a referendum in which they could make their view clear. Therefore, the assurance that Peter Caruana sought was always there for him. For his own political reasons, however, including, I suspect, elections in Gibraltar, he chose not to take part in the discussions. It was wrong for Gibraltar's representatives to do so, and they cut off their nose to spite their face.

The final question is, what remains to be done? Most importantly, we must improve relations between Britain and Gibraltar, as many Members have said. We must do that on the basis of robust negotiations with Spain to ensure that we achieve improvements in phones and the airport. We must try to build Gibraltar not as a fortress, but as an open city with a distinctive culture at the heart of the local Spanish economy. We must also resolve the voting issue, which is with the Electoral Commission.

One other issue, which has not been mentioned, but which will hit the people of Gibraltar soon, is the availability of BBC services. Until now, many people have received those services through digital satellite, but they will not be available from the end of May, because the BBC will go out unencrypted only in the UK on Astra D, not Astra A. I hope that the people of Gibraltar will still be able to get the BBC.


The hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) said that we should avoid hyperbole, and he just kept within his own strictures. This has been a passionate debate, and his contribution typifies it.

Like many other Members, I congratulate the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) on securing the debate. We have had several such discussions in the Chamber over the past few years, but it has been a while since we have had a chance to discuss what remain serious issues.

The status quo is clearly unsatisfactory: it is bad for Gibraltar, bad for the United Kingdom and bad for Spain. In Gibraltar, where it matters most, the practical difficulties of everyday life are compounded by the existing set-up, as many Members have highlighted. Despite all that, Gibraltar remains firmly opposed to the United Kingdom's plans. Given the recent history, we should not be at all surprised.

It has been an eventful 12 months. This time last year, the demonstrations on the Rock vividly highlighted the strength of feeling about Gibraltar's future. Last July, we had the Foreign Secretary's statement on joint sovereignty and the red lines in discussions with Spain, and we understand that that still represents the Government's position. In November, there was a flurry of activity, including the last Adjournment debate on the issue on the Floor of the House. There has been nothing since, apart from the European Parliament (Representation) Act 2003, although that is, of course, a big qualification. Silence is not something that we normally associate with the Minister, and we look forward to his comments. It is strange that we have entered this period of no developments in the public domain, given the diplomacy of the past two years.

We supported the revival of the Brussels process in July 2001, principally because we believe that no progress can possibly be achieved when people are not talking to one other. We also recognise that for there to be any agreement there must be a discussion of all the issues that are important to all the parties, from the improvement of everyday practicalities to the very future of sovereignty, but we do not and cannot support the way in which the Government have handled the situation. The implementation of the process is flawed and now requires a serious overhaul.

The Foreign Secretary's statement in July 2002 set out a three-stage approach. First, a framework of proposals for a permanent settlement to be laid out in a joint declaration would be agreed. That would be followed by detailed negotiations on a comprehensive package, including a draft treaty. Finally, there would be a referendum. The people of Gibraltar have turned that process on its head, having held a referendum that sent a resounding message to the Government. Some 99 per cent. opposed the principle of joint sovereignty on an 88 per cent. turnout—impressive by anyone's standards. There is not even agreement on the framework that the Government have sought to agree with Spain, so there can be no prospect of agreement with the people of Gibraltar while those basic principles remain in flux.

In the modern world, attitudes to sovereignty have evolved. The United Kingdom comprises different countries that have shared their sovereignty, and the EU will have countries that have pooled theirs. Joint sovereignty need not be a bad thing, and it might be worth considering. However, it must be understood and accepted by the people who are affected. What does joint sovereignty entail?

I will not. How would Spain benefit from that joint sovereignty? Would the United Kingdom retain the vestiges of legal sovereignty while Spain had all the practical advantages of sovereignty? Why the secrecy? Nobody can be expected to explore the concept seriously while the practicalities and principles are barely considered.

In last July's statement, the Foreign Secretary said that it had to be clear to people that there would be a permanence to any joint sovereignty arrangement. What guarantees can he offer, when the very idea of joint sovereignty represents a major step forward of which the Gibraltarians are seriously distrustful? There were other principles that the Foreign Secretary said had been agreed on more self-government and on the retention of British customs and ways of life, and on institutions. It is hard to disagree with any of those, but the details are again lacking and the reality is unclear.

The Government have become mired in a process of their own making. They are distrusted by the people of Gibraltar and cannot even obtain Spain's agreement to their chosen core principles. We are dealing not with some obscure trade deal, but with the future of real people. The Government's discussions should now be with the Gibraltarians, not the Spanish. When the Government made constitutional changes in the UK after 1997, they won support in referendums for the principles of devolution before the details were debated in Parliament. Those principles had been discussed for years and the detail of what was to follow was largely understood as well. Gibraltar has not been afforded the same treatment, and the November referendum delivered a predictable response.

Now is the time to set out a new process, build up trust, prepare more detailed proposals, allow proper discussion and reflection, allow the Gibraltarians full participation in those negotiations and ensure that there is a referendum on the principles of the plans, rather than presenting a fait accompli at the end of the process. All that will take time, but it is the least that the people of Gibraltar deserve.

I am about to conclude. If the prize of resolving the situation in Gibraltar is to be obtained, it will be only with the consent of the people. The Government repeatedly say that they accept that principle, but they must try harder to earn trust and win that consent.

10.39 am

Thank you for your forbearance this morning, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I had the great pleasure of visiting Gibraltar in January, and I am pleased that we have the opportunity to debate this matter. It is certainly timely that we should. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) on raising this important issue, on putting forward an eloquent case and on dealing, in the most dignified way, with some truly fatuous interventions. Her response and that of my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) effectively dealt with the matters raised in those interventions.

I have never read a report more damaging to any Government than that published by the Foreign Affairs Committee last November. What a catalogue of blunders it proved to be. It is a very special Government who manage to obtain the worst of all worlds. When the history of this Government is written, their disgraceful conduct towards the people of Gibraltar will, perhaps, be seen as their most shameful failure.

I applaud the remarks of the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox). We heard a resounding no from the people of Gibraltar to the Government's plan to share their sovereignty with Spain. They have made it absolutely plain that they reject the Government's brow-beating behaviour regarding their democratic rights.

The policy on Gibraltar that the Government have pursued for 18 months lies in ruins. It is almost incredible that they have alienated the people of Gibraltar, led Spain up the garden path and infuriated the people of Britain. That is a mind-boggling triple whammy of sheer incompetence. I hope that we will hear from the Minister some recognition of the Government's cack-handed, bullying policy on Gibraltar. Perhaps he will even apologise.

We must, however, look to the future. We now have the opportunity to put the Brussels process on the foundation that it should always have had. That starts with the Government making an effort to rebuild the Gibraltarians' trust in Britain. I agree with the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) on how that can be done on a number of levels. The Gibraltarians have been spun against and they have had accusations thrown against them. It is not surprising that they do not believe that the Government have their best interests at heart. Indeed, they have very good grounds for believing that the Government see them as a pawn in EU diplomatic activity, rather than as a British territory for whose well-being they are responsible.

The Government must immediately make it plain that they are willing to work with the people of Gibraltar. They must recognise that sovereignty cannot be on the table. Of course, there are difficulties between Spain and Gibraltar. I hope and believe that the Government want those matters to be resolved. However, they have not achieved very much so far. I remember that the Minister's predecessor made much of Spain's offer of new telephone lines. That turned out to be less than it seemed.

The Government should concentrate on those issues where agreement can be reached. We need to sort out the problems of access, communications and free movement between Gibraltar and Spain. Those are the practical issues that must be resolved. A normalisation of relations between Spain and Gibraltar must be our aim, and those issues should be solvable. A solution would benefit not only Gibraltar but the surrounding areas of Spain that are linked to Gibraltar. Gibraltar itself, given its extraordinary economic success story, could be an economic hub for the western Mediterranean. That will never happen while Spain remains fixated on the issue of sovereignty. It is time for us all to move on.

Talks must proceed on the basis of two flags and three voices, not only in a practical sense, but in the right spirit, which is why they have foundered before. All three parties must be fully respected. The full agenda of talks, and the limits within which they are taking place, should be fully and openly disclosed.

The Minister may be well aware of reports in last week's "La Razón" that at the Azores summit a deal was struck on shared sovereignty over Gibraltar. Given the Government's recent written answers on the matter, he can imagine that I read that with some surprise. Can he comment on that? Has any arrangement been made in which Spain is to assume command of the straits of Gibraltar under NATO? Is NATO's article 5 to be extended to Spanish territory on and off the north African coast? Is the right to over-fly Gibraltar to be extended to Spanish war planes? Do the Government plan to allow Spanish planes to use the Gibraltar airfield in those circumstances? If any of the above have to be done, what consultation will there be with the Government of Gibraltar? I hope that the Minister will be able to enlighten us.

In January, I had the great pleasure of visiting Gibraltar with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), the Opposition defence spokesman. While there, we were briefed by the Royal Navy. I had not realised how important are our defence interests there. The world today is tragically marked by terrorist activity, and a safe haven for ships and their personnel is vital, especially if nuclear capability is involved.

The plain fact is that the Royal Navy and the navies of friends such as the US feel comfortable and can find security in Gibraltar. Defence personnel are made very welcome by the Gibraltarians. There is probably no other comparably safe port or anchorage in the Mediterranean. Gibraltar also has the most important communications facilities. We simply cannot jeopardise the efficiency of our defence presence or antagonise the host community—it would be beyond irresponsibility. As for the host community, there can be very few places where followers of the Christian, Jewish and Islamic faiths co-exist so successfully—I saw that with my own eyes.

Gibraltar is not a partisan matter. Some respect the Gibraltarians' democratic rights, but others, including the Government and some Liberal Democrat Members, do not. I hope that they have learned that sovereignty is not up for grabs. The Government and our Spanish friends should stop insulting the Gibraltarians and start engaging with them. Progress can be made only where there is trust, and that trust must be earned. I will be interested to hear how the Government plan to restore that trust, and what they said to the Spanish to encourage them to play their part. I fully accept the point made by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) about Spain being a valuable NATO and EU ally; and Gibraltar has to be dealt with in that spirit.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) said, one way to restore the impaired relations between the Foreign Office and Gibraltar would be for the Government, without hesitation, to throw their weight behind a fitting celebration of 300 years of a British Gibraltar. I know how much the Gibraltarians would appreciate a visit from an appropriate personage. The Royal Mail is not planning to mark the event with a commemorative stamp, which is a great pity; although it is late in the day, the Government could try to persuade it to change its mind. In any case, we will listen with interest to what the Minister has to say on the matter. Plans must have been made. If a Minister—even the Minister for Europe—were to go there to celebrate those 300 years, he might be given a rather friendlier reception than the Foreign Secretary received last year.

Taking up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), who has left the Chamber, I remind the Minister that an incoming Conservative Government would not feel bound by an agreement to surrender Gibraltar's sovereignty which had been reached without the assent of the people of Gibraltar. I hope that the Government will draw a line under the fiasco that has been their policy towards our British cousins on the Rock, and that they will produce a policy based on principle and not expediency.

10.48 am

This has been an excellent debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) on obtaining it. We have heard some good speeches and some partisan knock-about. I have not read the debates on Gibraltar that took place in the 1980s, but hon. Members in my party may have made grave accusations against the Government of the day. We can take that as the small change of parliamentary debates.

Some important and concrete points have been made, but I cannot reply to them all because I do not have much time; I shall write to hon. Members on points that I cannot answer this morning.

Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending talks with the Government of Malta. It was a pleasure to spend time in that valiant island. The US aircraft carrier Iwo Jima was docked in the grand harbour to allow its sailors to enjoy some rest and recreation after their achievements, in Iraq. We should not forget that Spain was the closest and staunchest ally of the United Kingdom and the United States in tackling Saddam Hussein. Downstairs in Westminster Hall, preparations are being made for tomorrow's Victoria Cross and George Cross celebrations. In thinking of Malta, one also thinks of Gibraltar, which was the gateway to a Mediterranean that was not under fascist control in the 1940s. It is important for the whole of Europe to remember that.

Some 300 years ago, a combined fleet of the Netherlands and Great Britain took possession of Gibraltar. It became British in that it was ceded to the Crown in July 1713 under the treaty of Utrecht. It is worth reading—in English translation as the original is, of course, in Spanish and Latin—the last sentence of the treaty:
"And in case it shall hereafter seem meet to the Crown of Great Britain to grant, sell or by any means to alienate therefrom the propriety of the said town of Gibraltar, it is hereby agreed and concluded that the preference of having the sale shall always be given to the Crown of Spain before any others."
That is a solemn treaty from which we cannot resile.

Another solemn agreement was entered into by the former Prime Minister of Great Britain, Lady Thatcher. In article 1(c) of the Brussels agreement, issued after a meeting with the Spanish Foreign Minister in November 1984, her Foreign Secretary agreed on her behalf to:
"The establishment of a negotiating process aimed at overcoming all the differences between them"—
that is, the British and Spanish Governments—
"over Gibraltar and at promoting co-operation on a mutually beneficial basis on economic, cultural, touristic, aviation, military and environmental matters. Both sides accept that the issues of sovereignty will be discussed in that process."
It is not for me to deny commitments made by the noble Lady. Some of my hon. Friends may wish to, but that is the agreement that she solemnly entered into with the Government of Spain.

We have repeatedly affirmed, as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has said, that
"there will be no change in the sovereignty of Gibraltar unless the people of Gibraltar agree to it."—[Official Report, 5 November 2002; Vol. 392, c. 136.]
That is why the Chief Minister, Mr. Peter Caruana, said in his new year's message:
"Both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have recently made clear in parliamentary statements that there would be no change in the sovereignty of Gibraltar against our wishes. I believe that this assurance is totally reliable."
It is regrettable that it is necessary for me, as a Minister, to read that into the record. However, we have heard statements impugning those solemn assurances, and suggestions that solemn agreements entered into by Her Majesty's Government should be torn up.

I want to assure my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), in particular, that since I have been Minister for Europe I have received no suggestion, paper or other document from any official to the effect that there will be any change in the sovereignty of Gibraltar without the agreement of its people. I have the deepest respect for the commitment and service to the Government of the diplomat who was mentioned, and for his integrity and honour. However, Government policy, as set out by the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and myself, is clear and unambiguous. We have to move forward. I have sought not to stoke up any of the fires on the Gibraltar issue, as it is so easy to do.

When the former Prime Minister, Lord Callaghan, met his opposite number, the first Prime Minister of a post-Franco democratic Spain, Adolfo Suárez González, the issue of Gibraltar was raised, and Lord Callaghan said, "There's an old English saying: you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar." That saying exists in Spanish, too. The point is that if, 25 years ago, the Government of Spain had shown a more conciliatory approach to the people of Gibraltar, they would have responded, and the vision so excellently drawn by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) might have been realised. That is to say, Gibraltar would have been at the heart of that part of Europe as a regional hub for economic excellence and tourism with an effective, operational airport.

It is worth noting that the then Chief Minister, Sir Joshua Hassan, came to an agreement in 1987 that would have allowed the problem of Gibraltar's aviation prospects and its airport to be solved, but he was repudiated by the Assembly in Gibraltar. I have no problem with that; that was the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, not the British Government, trying to solve a problem for the people of Gibraltar, but not perhaps meeting the requirements of everyone on the Rock.

There are 30,000 Gibraltarians. They are British and they are friends of ours. Some 20,000 of them are eligible to vote and, as we know, 99 per cent. of them cast their vote in the referendum. Of course one has to take cognisance of that. I appreciated the approach of the hon. Member for Upminster and my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox).

The hon. Lady stated that there is co-operation between Spain and Gibraltar on customs services to tackle smuggling, which is a good point to place on the record. My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting referred to the need for talks with Spain, which is clearly the Government's position. I do not want to re-run the old video, as the hon. Lady put it, but the plain fact is that there was a two-flags, three-voices offer during the talks last year, and it was not taken up. I respect the sense of that decision, but I regret it. Two flags, three voices will always be the way to solve problems between Gibraltar and Spain.

The hon. Members for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) referred to the Azores talks. I can assure them that Gibraltar was not discussed there. Believe it or not, Ministers talk regularly to their opposite numbers in Spain about a whole range of global and European issues, without Gibraltar having to feature. Again, I pay tribute to the leadership shown by Prime Minister Aznar, against much of the public opinion in Spain. He was a very brave leader on the matter of dealing with Saddam Hussein, which was of great importance to the world. Of course, Gibraltar provided an important staging post for British forces en route to Iraq.

On the question of telephone lines, we want Spain to recognise the 00 350 dialling code for Gibraltar. That seems completely sensible and self-evident, but, alas, hon. Members have referred endlessly to sovereignty in the debate. I do not want to stray into other areas, but, in the context of the EU, some of the Members present are not as keen as some of us on sharing sovereignty with our European partners. So, of course, Madrid has the absolute sovereign right to decide what it wants to do about telephone access in its territory. The British Government are supporting the private complaints by GibTel and Gibraltar Nynex Communications to the European Commission on the problem of mobile phone access. We hope that Europe can play a very constructive role on the issue. A second channel has been open since March 21, but delays continue. I regret that because I do not think they are necessary.

The full opening of borders to commercial and personal traffic—many Gibraltarians have houses in Spain—would help to defuse the situation. That would be a welcome step forward by Spain.

We must continue talking. We shall talk to our friends and to British citizens in Gibraltar. We need to tackle these issues constructively through dialogue with Spain and Gibraltar, so we shall continue to seek opportunities to do so. I thank all hon. Members for this useful debate, which has allowed us to put many points on the record.