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Gibraltar Waters: Unlawful Fishing

Volume 591: debated on Tuesday 30 June 1998

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2.45 p.m.

What action is being taken to prevent unlawful fishing in Gibraltar waters.

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government recognise the seriousness of the problem. The Governor has made clear that the Royal Gibraltar Police has his full support, and that of Her Majesty's Government, in any measures needed to enforce the law in Gibraltar waters.

Our Ambassador in Madrid protested to the Spanish authorities following an incident which occurred on 13th March. Since then, the number of Spanish fishing vessels entering Gibraltar waters has decreased. They are now moving on when the Royal Gibraltar Police instruct them to do so.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for that Answer. It is a relief to know that a serious view is being taken, especially as there have been over 200 incidents of Spanish illegal fishing over the past 12 months. Will my noble friend ensure that this serious view is maintained as the response by Spanish fishermen to Gibraltar police boats is often extremely threatening? I should like also to ask my noble friend to maintain an interest in the matter as there are two species of dolphin which thrive in Gibraltar waters that are not likely to live very securely if such incidents continue.

My Lords, I acknowledge the environmental points that my noble friend raises. Of course, Gibraltar has no commercial fishing. On environmental grounds, it enacted in 1991 a local law banning fishing by net or rake. The Government of Gibraltar continue to seek a solution through dialogue at local level between the Gibraltar environmental organisations and the representatives of Spanish fishermen.

However, perhaps I may seek to put my noble friend's mind at rest a little further. I asked this morning for monthly breakdown figures as regards how many incursions there have been since the 13th March incident to which I referred earlier. I can tell the House that there were 73 in March, 26 in April, 12 in May, but only three in June. Therefore, I believe that the action so far taken has been effective.

My Lords, can the Minister affirm that all necessary naval support is available to support the Gibraltar police in enforcing the law in British waters?

My Lords, support is, of course, given. Our ambassador in Madrid has made the situation very clear. I believe that the very pressing need identified by my noble friend in his original Question has to a very large extent been met by the fall in the number of incursions, as I was able to tell him in my answer to his supplementary question. Therefore, we have so far been successful in tackling the problem in the way that the Government of Gibraltar and Her Majesty's Government have been able to do.

My Lords, can the Minister assure the House that there is sufficiently close co-operation between the Gibraltarian and Spanish authorities in combatting the very extensive trade in smuggling drugs and people across the Strait of Gibraltar?

My Lords, the drugs trade and the illicit trade in people are always a problem. We try to obtain co-operation through a number of different fora to combat these problems. We shall continue to press for co-operation in this area.

My Lords, will the Government consider that a better way to get the message over to the Spanish authorities might be if the Government here were to reconsider their hostility to giving votes in European elections to the people of Gibraltar, as we demanded during the passage of the European Parliamentary Elections Bill last week?

My Lords, I remember that debate rather well because I sat through it. I remember that the noble Lord said this was an overwhelming case; so overwhelming in fact that when his party was in government it did nothing about it. Last week my noble friend Lord Williams explained that to do what the noble Lord suggests would put us in breach of EC law. The only legally secure way to extend the European Parliament franchise to Gibraltar is to amend the 1976 EC Act on direct elections. This would require the unanimous agreement of all member states. We do not believe that would be forthcoming.

My Lords, is this not the latest in a long series of incidents caused by the previous government allowing our waters and those of Gibraltar to be opened up to all the Community's fishermen at the time of the accession of Spain and Portugal to the European Union?

My Lords, it is remarkable how the enthusiasm of the party opposite to put things right is much more evident now than it was when it had the opportunity to do so. Spain does not recognise British territorial waters around Gibraltar because they were not explicitly mentioned in the Treaty of Utrecht. Whatever I wish to lay at the door of the party opposite, I do not think I can manage to go that far back!

My Lords, we are all grateful for the fact that Her Britannic Majesty's Ambassador has protested to the authorities in Madrid—I hope in the strongest terms—about the illegal fishing. Will the noble Baroness ensure that the British ambassador in Madrid goes back to the authorities and protests in the strongest possible terms about the harassment that occurs regularly to Spaniards, Gibraltarians, and indeed many tourists, entering and leaving the Rock of Gibraltar?

My Lords, Spain has the right to carry out customs checks because Gibraltar is outside the Community customs territory. It also has the right to carry out a light passport check, but we continue to urge Spain to ensure that such checks are proportionate to the need. We are pleased that the situation has recently improved, but we take any delays seriously. I can assure the noble Earl that we raise them frequently with the Spanish authorities.