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Volume 752: debated on Monday 10 March 2014

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

My Lords, I am enormously relieved that the House is not adjourning, because I wish to say something about that small country, Gibraltar. Today is Commonwealth Day, a suitable occasion to discuss one of our members with long-standing and continuing problems as a result of the bullying and illegal tactics of its neighbour, Spain.

I am a member of the Anglo-Gibraltar parliamentary group and I have been visiting Gibraltar for over 60 years. In September last year, I attended with other parliamentarians the Gibraltar National Day in Casemates Square. It was an occasion of great enthusiasm, with a vast number of union jacks waved by the crowd who packed the square. At one side, there was an enormous television screen and we had a video speech from the Prime Minister. He pledged that Gibraltar was British and would always be so. I left Gibraltar feeling that our Government were in every way totally behind this small outpost of Britishness. His speech sent a powerful message to Spain.

The Prime Minister was right to do so. As the House knows, Gibraltar has been British for centuries. It also sits at a strategically important point as the gateway between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. It is important to NATO, the EU and wider global interests. Members of the Gibraltar Regiment serve alongside other British troops and also take part in peacekeeping operations authorised by NATO, the EU and the UN. It is the only UK overseas territory to be part of the EU and its membership dates from the moment when the UK joined the EU. It is important to remember that its unique status is defined by Article 355 of the Treaty of Accession. Further, since the implementation of the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, Gibraltarians are, in the same way as other British and Spanish nationals, European citizens.

On 20 January this year, I listened to a Question on Gibraltar responded to by the Minister at the FCO, the Minister here this evening. Her answers showed action by the Government in various ways, such as speaking to the Spanish ambassador, the Spanish Minister for Europe, the Deputy Prime Minister, and our Prime Minister to the Spanish Prime Minister. Putting it bluntly, raising the subject of Gibraltar with Spanish Ministers is great as far as it goes, but where, so far, has it got Gibraltar? During her answers, the Minister said:

“However, our strategy at this stage is very clear: to de-escalate the situation and to try to resolve these matters through diplomatic and political routes”.—[Official Report, 20/1/14; col. 450.]

I pose the question to the Minister—with what success?

I am also somewhat concerned about the use of the word “de-escalate”. I understood the British policy over Gibraltar is to maintain the status quo. The word “de-escalate” means to me a degree of stepping back and may so be understood by Spain. I hope the Minister can reassure me that she did not mean to step back but really intends to preserve the status quo.

According to a Written Answer by an FCO Minister in the other place, Mr Lidington, on 4 March, there had been 496 incursions by Spanish state vessels into Gibraltar territorial waters during 2013 but 77 this year up to 28 February, of which 53 were by the Guardia Civil. There appears to be no let-up as a result of the diplomatic and political efforts of the UK Government.

Last week, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the other place held a meeting in Gibraltar at which the Minister gave evidence. I look forward to reading the report of that committee. If I may respectfully say so, the Foreign Affairs Committee is to be congratulated on going to Gibraltar and seeing on the ground for itself what is happening. I do not know when a Minister of this Government last went to Gibraltar or how often a Minister has been there during the nearly four years of this Government, but it would seem to me that a Minister’s visit to Gibraltar would send a powerful signal to the Spanish Government, who are plainly not yet receiving the message that this Government take the Gibraltar issue truly seriously. The speech of the Prime Minister last September was excellent, but that was given from 10 Downing Street. Regular visits to Gibraltar by Ministers would give an even more powerful message that the Spain-Gibraltar issue was taken genuinely seriously by our Government. We have to demonstrate publicly to Spain and the rest of the EU that it is high on the Government’s agenda, or it will not be taken as an important issue across Europe.

The Chief Minister of Gibraltar in his briefing to me says that the UK is not effective in the diplomatic action it has taken. He recognises the increasingly robust use of language by Ministers, but is understandably frustrated by the present situation. He raises the point that Spain continues to say that relations with Britain are excellent despite Gibraltar. Ought not that assertion be challenged? Not only has the situation not improved on the ground, also the ad hoc talks have not been resumed so no discussions are taking place.

There are a number of obvious issues where Gibraltar is being threatened and damaged by the unlawful and unfair behaviour of Spain, and I will refer to four. The incursions of Spanish state ships, particularly, it would seem to me, those of the Guardia Civil, present the real possibility of an altercation that gets out of hand with consequences. On 5 March, there were in one day nine incursions into British Gibraltar waters, seven of which were by the Guardia Civil and on 6 March again nine incursions, four from the Guardia Civil, one from the Spanish navy and on both days several from the maritime agency.

I am told that the response of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to these incursions is made weeks after the event, whereas one inadvertent incursion of a British ship into Spanish waters was the subject of a complaint by Spain within a few hours—six hours, I believe. Surely we should equal the swift response of Spain. If we do not, there is a real danger that our protests may not be taken seriously if they are so low key.

One of the most important issues is the interruption of free movement within the EU by the obstructions at the Spanish-Gibraltar frontier, obviously under instruction via Cadiz and Madrid. This affects tourists, those who live in Spain and work in Gibraltar and those doing business on both sides of the border. The tourist industry of Gibraltar has been badly affected and I understand that there has been a 44% reduction in visitors and a 26% reduction in the number of non-Gibraltarian cars crossing the frontier. The average waiting time this year for pedestrians is between one hour and an hour and a half. Pedestrians crossing the border into Spain are met by crack Spanish anti-terrorist officers armed with machine guns, for goodness’ sake, for ordinary pedestrians. Vehicles crossing with five available lanes took at the beginning of March an average of 93 minutes, and up to 110 minutes, to cross, and since then an average of 70 minutes to get across.

This is a serious and continuing breach of the right of free movement provided across the whole of the European Union. It is a state of affairs which is entirely unacceptable and should be so seen by all the member states. La Linea and other local areas of southern Spain are also being damaged. There are approximately 10,000 Spanish workers in Gibraltar. There could be more, but I gather that the mayor of La Linea has been told that her town has to suffer for the greater good of Spain.

The third issue is aviation. In 2006 there was a Trilateral Forum for Dialogue which created the Cordoba agreement. This agreement included Gibraltar Airport within the EU law on civil aviation. Spain is now seeking to exclude Gibraltar Airport from the automatic application of EU law. Four measures are affected. The European Parliament is debating the Motions. At the moment, four Spanish amendments are being debated there. Perhaps the most important concerns the EU air passenger rights regulation. The European Parliament debated that first measure last month and voted the Gibraltar exclusion clause out of the legislation. The matter now goes to the European Council. It is crucial that the United Kingdom gets the maximum support to defeat the Spanish efforts. Ordinary people should be enjoying Gibraltar Airport as nationals of the European Union.

The fourth issue is bunkering. The Spanish have now created bunkering facilities and shore facilities at Algeciras and are apparently suggesting that they will prosecute and fine anyone who goes into bunkering facilities in Gibraltar waters. Understandably, this is affecting ship owners who do not want to go in for the expensive and costly procedures that might arise, even though this is clearly unlawful. It is also surely anti-competitive and will have a hugely negative effect on Gibraltar.

The EU Commission sent a team of experts to Gibraltar last September. I understand that the EU Commission wrote to the Spanish Government setting out the findings of the experts and detailing the findings and observations of the delays at the border. It also made recommendations to Spain. Have our Government seen the letter? May we know the recommendations? May we know the response of Spain, how it can be monitored and what further examination can be expected by the EU and the UK?

My last question to the Minister is: how far are our Government seeking support from other members of the EU to put pressure on the Spanish Government over these unacceptable infringements of EU law?

My Lords, I am deeply saddened that in Spain, just as in Argentina, prime ministers and presidents alike in deep economic and, therefore, political, trouble seek by diversionary tactics to raise with their electorates alleged threats by foreigners. Indeed, over this weekend, a very senior European foreign affairs figure, with no interest in either the United Kingdom or Spain, told me that it is possible to correlate exactly Spain’s recently renewed activities against Gibraltar with the emergence of the corruption scandals in the Spanish Government not long ago—the two correlate.

Therefore, just as the President of Argentina routinely issues daft and pathetic threats against the Falklands, so in recent years the Prime Minister of Spain has authorised deliberate incursions into Gibraltarian waters, as outlined by the noble and learned Baroness in her commanding speech and the figures that she gave, while political amnesia leads him to forget the ambiguity that Spain actually has two much contested exclaves of its own just across the Straits of Gibraltar on the north African coast at Ceuta and Melilla, surrounded by Morocco. Spain carries out these incursions—these interruptions into the lawful behaviour of people on Gibraltar—in a concerted campaign against the United Kingdom, one of its allies and a fellow NATO member. Indeed, in Spain people are today making bits of kit that go into the Eurofighter and are sent to Lancashire to be assembled there. That is an extraordinary reflection on Spain. I ask my noble friend the Minister: please, what kind of ally is Spain?

Only last week, on Wednesday 5 March, as the noble and learned Baroness has already referred to, in the Foreign Affairs Committee in another place I heard the First Minister of Gibraltar outline what he terms Spain’s “bullying tactics”, ranging from all those lengthy border delays to the breaking and entry into a British diplomatic bag at the frontier on one occasion—in the old days a gunboat would have been sent to deal with that kind of thing—to much more shocking incursions into territorial waters. The worst was on 18 February 2014 by a Spanish state vessel which sailed into British Gibraltar waters and disrupted an important Royal Navy exercise involving some of our special forces personnel from the Royal Navy Submarine Parachute Assistance Group—a disgraceful act. This must stop. I would like to ask my noble friend the Minister: on that occasion was the Spanish ambassador immediately summoned to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and, if not, why not?

By comparison, over the past 15 years, Royal Naval vessels have entered into, or passed through, the waters claimed by Spain around its two north African exclaves, to which I have already referred, on precisely two occasions. The first was by invitation back in 1999, when HMS “Herald” paid a port visit to the Spanish exclave of Melilla in north Africa just across the Straits of Gibraltar. The second was when, in August 2013, HMS “Montrose” exercised its lawful right of passage through the Straits of Gibraltar off Ceuta en route to the eastern Mediterranean. The score of incursions is several thousand to one, as far as I can see from the figures that the noble and learned Baroness gave. This is no beating about the diplomatic bush from me. It seems to me that in this respect we behave impeccably whereas the Spanish behave disgracefully.

Why does the United Kingdom not raise the Gibraltar issue at the next NATO council, for I think these Spanish claims and incursions are the only current examples of belligerence by one NATO member against another in the whole list of 28 member nations, setting aside the long-running saga that followed the Turkish invasion of Cyprus?

Gibraltar’s population wished by an overwhelming majority in the last referendum in 2002 to maintain the status quo. That population of 30,000 is approximately 10 times the size of the population of the Falklands, who feel exactly the same. Therefore, I welcome the apparent strong support of Her Majesty’s Government for the status quo. I just wish that Spain and the Argentine would—I borrow a phrase—grow up and get over it all soon and that their leaders would pay proper and effective attention to their own economies and the appalling unemployment, with the social unrest that follows, that both countries are experiencing, rather than trying to disrupt endlessly the life of a friendly neighbour. What a shocking accusation I am about to make: that is very un-European behaviour.

I am so pleased that the noble and learned Baroness has raised the issue of Gibraltar because I am appalled at the behaviour of Spain in relation to it. I declare an interest: I have been to Gibraltar many times; I am a friend of Gibraltar; and I have the freedom of Gibraltar. I am always puzzled as to why our Government do not take a firmer attitude. I want to outline two or three things that are troubling Gibraltar.

One has been referred to by the noble and learned Baroness in relation to the EU air passenger rights. The Spanish Government unilaterally abandoned the trilateral forum for dialogue and are seeking to exclude Gibraltar airport from the application of European law. It is absolutely essential that any EU citizen going to Gibraltar has the same rights as when they use airports anywhere else within Europe. Why should Gibraltar be different? I emphasise what has been asked of the Minister because it is going to be debated by the European Council in June: what are we doing to lobby other people in Europe before that meeting to ensure that they support us in making sure that they remove the exclusion of Gibraltar? That is essential. Are we taking steps? I would be pleased to hear from the Minister when she replies on that matter.

The second matter that I want to talk about affects Gibraltar and us: it is the world’s leading remote gambling jurisdiction. There are 26 licence orders in Gibraltar and I wish to emphasise the effect that they have on the economy. They provide 3,000 jobs and account for 25% of the economy. We are not discussing, and I do not want to go into any detail about, the Gambling (Licensing and Advertising) Bill. Nevertheless, it could have a disastrous effect upon Gibraltar. It also would not be good for this country as regards remote gambling because many more licences would be applied for. Many people in this country would be affected, and Gibraltar would not be strengthened but weakened. While it could cause us problems here, it would be an absolute disaster for Gibraltar.

I return to another matter that has been raised: the problem at the borders. Delays of up to an hour continue, and longer delays are common, and they have an effect on the economy of Gibraltar. It also affects the thousands of Spanish workers who cross over to and work in Gibraltar. They experience these difficulties daily because of the attitude. What is going to be done about it? Anyone who has been to Gibraltar will know about the number of British citizens residing in Spain who go over the border to shop in Gibraltar—the noble and learned Baroness remarked on that. They come to the supermarkets there but are being prevented from doing so. What are we doing in relation to that?

I move on to the other matter that has been raised about the incursions into British territorial waters. I shall read to noble Lords a Written Question to which I received a reply about the important naval exercise. I asked Her Majesty’s Government,

“what response they have received from the government of Spain about the disruption of the Royal Navy parachute exercise in British territorial waters off Gibraltar”,

on 18 February. The Answer I received from the Minister who is replying tonight was:

“The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs … raised his concerns about illegal incursions”—

I emphasise, “illegal incursions”—

“by Spanish State vessels into British Gibraltar Territorial Waters with the Spanish Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs … on 20 February. We continue to protest formally all illegal incursions”.—[Official Report, 6/3/14; col. WA 331.]

Those concerns were raised on 20 February. These incursions are still occurring. What are we doing about them? As has been said, the UK and Spain are both allies but, sooner or later, there will be an incident in which lives will be lost. I emphasise that.

My time is up but I ask the Minister to say whether, in the light of the reply to my Written Question, what we are doing about these incursions because they are still going on. Surely we have a right to protect not only our interests but the interests of Gibraltar and Gibraltarians who want to remain British.

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Baroness for tabling this debate and for her speech in which all her experience was brought to bear in a characteristically incisive and robust style. I should make it clear at the outset that I am not an expert on Gibraltar, but last year, as the serious damage done by the level of Spanish border checks became clear, one aspect of the situation reminded me of somewhere that I know well at the other end of the Mediterranean, on the island of Cyprus. In both cases, a historic legacy is causing monumental problems for citizens today, and they are not receiving adequate support from the institutions that ought to be protecting them. The people of Gibraltar are UK citizens and have been for 300 years, and while the bilateral relationship between the UK and Spain is paramount, Gibraltarians have another citizenship as members of the European Union, and it is that issue on which I wish to focus my remarks.

It is an irony that while the EU has become increasingly active in the diplomatic field as a result of the creation of the External Action Service, it has not been sufficiently active in resolving tensions within the EU itself, as Cyprus and Gibraltar graphically demonstrate. To be slightly tongue in cheek, I wonder whether there ought to be an internal action service. A recent report on enlargement from the House of Lords EU Select Committee noted that, when countries join the Union without prior resolution of bilateral disputes, it results in the import of those disputes into the everyday decision-making of the EU. We see that constantly with regard to Gibraltar and Cyprus, and I fear that Serbia and Kosovo may be coming down the track.

There is an inconsistency at the heart of the Commission’s approach to these situations. On the one hand, it quite rightly does not get involved in sovereignty disputes but, on the other, it does not always uphold EU legislation in a neutral way. Despite the agreement made in Cordoba in 2006, for example, recent EU passenger rights legislation excluded Gibraltar. The result of this would have been that not only Gibraltarians but any EU citizen passing through the airport would not have benefited from the passenger rights. The European Parliament has subsequently accepted an amendment tabled by Liberal Democrat MEP Graham Watson, which remedied this situation. The matter is now coming to the Council and I hope that the Minister can say today that the Government will fight hard to keep the amendment in.

On Wednesday of this week there will be further votes at the European Parliament plenary session on the same set of issues—only this time it is about the safer skies initiative on air traffic control. Amendments tabled by the Spanish centre right party at the transport committee have succeeded in removing Gibraltar from this legislation, which is disgraceful. We now have to hope that the Parliament will overcome that and put Gibraltar back in. I would like an assurance from the Minister that the Government are doing everything they can.

I believe that the Commission needs to take its responsibilities much more seriously. After years of problems with Spanish authorities carrying out border checks, the escalation of the problem last autumn has meant that the Commission cannot continue to turn a blind eye to it. I am surprised that the conclusion of its investigation was that no EU law had been breached. It seems a strange interpretation of free movement; perhaps future visits should be unannounced and incognito so that the real picture emerges. It was disgraceful that neither the Commission nor the Spanish Government were prepared to publish the conclusions that had been reached. It took an official access-to-documents request by Sir Graham Watson to ascertain that the Commission had described the intensity of the border checks as “unjustifiable”. Therefore, I ask the Minister to outline what steps the British Government are taking with the Commission to ensure that the rights of the citizens of Gibraltar will be upheld.

What we really need is a lasting settlement to stop these incursions, and there is one other potential course of action regarding the border which the Minister might consider. Is it possible to create a legal position whereby Gibraltar, alone from the rest of the UK, could join the Schengen agreement? If this could be done for Gibraltar, then the border crossings could be removed. It has been done—in reverse, so to speak—in that there are islands which are part of France but which have been excluded from Schengen. As both Britain and Spain are members of NATO, I, too, would be interested in hearing whether the incursions of the navy into Gibraltarian waters have been discussed.

European Commission President Barroso recently said:

“Free movement of people is a fundamental principle of Europe, a fundamental principle of the treaties, indeed one of the core elements that distinguish our Union ... the principle of free movement exists and … is applicable throughout the Union, without discrimination, because we don’t want citizens of first class and citizens of second class in Europe”.

He is quite right to say that, but he now has to act on that with regard to Gibraltar.

My Lords, I had the very great privilege of being Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Gibraltar in the late 1990s. I thank my noble and learned friend Lady Butler-Sloss for introducing this important debate and at this time.

Of course we all want good relations with Spain. Bilateral relations are important. They are partners in the European Union and our partners in NATO. There is one other responsibility that we also share: we are both former imperial nations and we both inherited responsibilities to certain territories which have decided that they wish to keep their link with their former imperial power. In the case of Spain, it is Melilla and Ceuta; in the case of Britain, examples are the Falklands, Bermuda and Gibraltar. Spain needs to understand and respect that fact.

I believe that relations between the Spanish Government and Gibraltar and our country are worse than at any time since Franco was in power. That is damaging to our relations with Spain and is in sharp contrast to the behaviour of the previous Spanish Government, who had a very sensible policy on regional co-operation in that area. This Spanish Government have a record of incursions, border harassment, ending the negotiating process, undermining Gibraltar’s participation in EU directives, generating an atmosphere of hatred in Andalucía towards Gibraltarians, false accusations of smuggling, money-laundering and so on, and behaving more like Francoists than democrats. Why do they do this? As the noble Lord, Lord Patten, rightly said, we have seen this elsewhere, in the Argentine. It is simply a diversion from their economy, from the corruption cases that they have, from youth unemployment of over 50% and from the separatist movements in their country. If they wanted to win over the Gibraltarians, they would not exactly be bullying them in the way they are doing at present. Who suffers? It is not just Gibraltarians but all the Spaniards in that region. Gibraltar has withstood this pressure enormously well, with a growth rate last year of 8%, but it is asking an awful lot of it.

The British Government’s words of support have been robust but their deeds do not match their words. My experience as a former governor and following a recent visit in the autumn is that we give the wrong signals to Spain. Spain thinks that by bullying it can erode our position in Gibraltar. Psychologically, for a long time our Government—it does not matter of what colour—have felt that they should be timid for fear of upsetting the Spanish. I am not convinced that this Government are giving the kind of defence support that has been asked for by successive governors and commanders of British forces. I understand, for example, that some two or three years ago a fisheries protection vessel was asked for but not given. I understand that the British Government have increased the number of crews to support the patrol ships to enable them to be more active, but I ask the Minister whether we are now able to defend the British Gibraltar territorial waters day and night, every week, if we need to. Will the Minister assure the House that we are providing the naval resources that are required to uphold our sovereignty? It is absolutely crucial for the people of Gibraltar to know this.

Secondly, on the border—others have referred to this—it is important to have a report from the Minister about the progress that has been made by the European monitoring commission. We know that the Gibraltar Government have immediately acted on one recommendation—to tighten up on tobacco regulation. The Spanish Government were asked to end random inspections of vehicles on the border and to introduce risk profiling, making more space for the faster flow of traffic. What progress has been made in the past six months? If none has been made, will the Government ask the Commission to make a return visit to take follow-up action?

On the diplomatic side, we must be more robust and immediately respond and protest when incursions are made. On fishing, I am glad to note that the Gibraltar Government have introduced new legislation to do with conservation and proper regulation. On the question of dialogue, the Foreign Secretary quite rightly proposed ad hoc talks. What is the Spanish reaction? I have heard nothing from Spain on this issue.

Others have made many references to the European Union. We must fight our corner in terms of efforts by Spain to exclude Gibraltar from EU directives such as those on aviation.

In short, first, we must defend the Gibraltarians by giving full support to our governor, Sir James Dutton, and our excellent Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo; secondly, we must make sure that Spain understands our determination; and, thirdly, we must work to persuade the Spanish Government that, by returning to the previous policy of regional co-operation, the Spanish people, as well as the Gibraltarians, will benefit and Anglo-Spanish relations will improve.

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to be able to join in this debate, so brilliantly and comprehensively opened by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss.

For those of us who have campaigned on behalf of Gibraltar in your Lordships’ House over the years—and I am thinking nostalgically of the late Lord Boyd-Carpenter, Lord Bethell and Lord Merrivale in particular—as well as others who have participated in the debate this evening, it is always good to have an injection of new blood, as it were, and the noble and learned Baroness speaks with great authority from her personal experience and involvement in Gibraltar.

I am a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Gibraltar Group, and I am also president of the Friends of Gibraltar, which operates outside Parliament. However, I am also a member of the all-party group for Spain, and I find nothing incompatible about that, as I have many friends in Spain and go there often. I suspect that that is true of others here this evening and it is certainly true of many of my friends in Gibraltar, many of whom have close links with Spain and some of whom also have homes in Spain.

Given that the people of Gibraltar have made their views clear in the referendum, and given that the British Government have made it equally clear that they will not do anything against the wishes of the people of Gibraltar, it seems perverse of the Spanish Government to take actions now that further antagonise Gibraltarians, rather than seek to win hearts and minds. That is why I welcome the initiative coming from the people of Gibraltar, together with their neighbours in the campo. They have formed a cross-frontier group composed of business representatives and union activists from both sides of the border. I understand that its visit to Brussels at the end of February to protest at the illegal and disproportionate queues at the frontier had considerable impact on Members of the European Parliament, Commissioners and other Commission officials as well as the media.

Can the Minister comment on this development and the ways in which the group can continue to present evidence to relevant groups and commission bodies? Is this being encouraged by our Government? Can she say how this ties in with the recent visits made by the Chief Minister to both Brussels and Strasbourg? He, as ever, was assiduous and articulate in making the best possible case for Gibraltar. Most of all, can she tell us about the follow-up to the visit made by the European Union team of experts last September, which has already been referred to by every person speaking in the debate? The team inspected the problem on the spot, made recommendations to ease the border restrictions and, since then, nothing has been heard. Is there any evidence that Spain has complied with the recommendations? How is it being monitored—by the European Union itself, or HMG? What more can the Government do in this respect? The noble Lord, Lord Luce, spelt out the course of action that the British Government could take on this and many other issues far better than I can. Indeed, the many other issues affecting Gibraltar have also been covered very well in this debate, so I will not repeat them.

The present impasse on the border is a sad, unnecessary and incomprehensible state of affairs that has gone on for far too long. I can only hope that the patience of the good people of Gibraltar will last. I have a feeling that it will and that they will continue to prosper in spite of that impasse.

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, for introducing the debate tonight. Whether we like it or not, Spain’s insistence on its rights over Gibraltarian territory is not new and is not likely to change. Before Christmas, as many noble Lords have indicated, there was a significant increase in the volume of noise emitted by Spain in relation to its ongoing claim over the island of Gibraltar.

Ever since the treaty of Utrecht in 1713 Gibraltar has been associated with the UK, but Spain has never given up its rights over the land. Since that time tensions between the UK and Spain over Gibraltar have blown hot and cold. However, what has become clear, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Patten, is that there seems to be a direct correlation between Spain’s appetite to turn up the heat on its claim over the island that seems to coincide directly with difficult situations for the Spanish Government domestically. Seeking an outside distraction is the oldest trick in the book when the Government are up against difficulties.

The difficulties are evident. In January, official Spanish statistics confirmed that the country’s unemployment rate has risen to above 26%, with the total number of unemployed now at 5.9 million. With austerity measures continuing and corruption scandals being exposed, in addition to a move to restrict abortion, it is no wonder that Spain’s ruling Partido Popular has lost its lead in the opinion polls to the Spanish socialists. Maybe that is what this is all about. This sabre rattling is not the way to resolve international conflicts, nor does it detract from its internal problems. It should be made absolutely clear that Spain cannot advance its position on sovereignty by unlawful incursions, breaking diplomatic conventions and other aggressive methods and manoeuvres. The UK should respect the rights of the 30,000 Gibraltarians who time and again—and most recently in referendums in 1967 and 2002—have maintained their preference for retaining their particular relationship with the UK.

In 2000, a political declaration of unity was signed by all living present and past members of the Gibraltar Parliament. In essence, the declaration stated that the people of Gibraltar would never compromise, give up or trade their sovereignty or their right to self-determination. It said that Gibraltar wanted good, neighbourly European relations with Spain; it belonged to the people of Gibraltar; and it was neither Spain’s to claim nor Britain’s to give away. Unilateral threats are not the way to sort out problems. Spain is aware of the sensitivities of an issue such as Gibraltar where there is an historic claim to land adjacent to another country. Ceuta and Melilla, which have been mentioned before, are enclaves that Spain has in the north of Morocco over which Morocco claims sovereignty rights. Is it not interesting that there is a striking similarity between Spain’s relationship with Ceuta and Melilla and the UK’s with Gibraltar? Both are military and naval bases dominated by fortified mountains, and both contain populations which are racially mixed but united in their fervent loyalty to a Crown and country whose capital lies hundreds of miles away.

However, keeping a strong relationship with Spain is imperative. Spain is one of our strongest allies, both in the EU and in NATO. One million British people live there and 14 million citizens from the UK visit the country every year. I know from my time in the European Parliament that Spain was an ally on which we could rely on a number of crucial issues of common interest in the European Union.

The UK must not be bullied. Illegal incursions into British Gibraltar territorial waters are not uncommon and have been increasing of late—almost 500 in 2013 and more than 77 so far this year. Can the Minister state whether the Spanish ambassador has been summoned to account for its incursions into Gibraltar waters this year? Can she indicate the last time a UK Minister had direct contact with a Spanish Minister on this issue? When was the last time a Minister visited Gibraltar in an official capacity? Can the Minister elaborate on whether there are any signs of a positive response from the Spanish Government?

Shadow Minister for Europe, Gareth Thomas, and my noble friend Lord West have recently asked the Foreign Secretary whether he would consider reinforcing the Gibraltar garrison, in particular its maritime security capability. Can the Minister give an indication as to whether this has been done?

Can the Minister update the House on the latest situation with delays at the border, including whether Spain has responded to the recommendations of the Commission? We do not know what the recommendations are. Have the UK Government had any luck in persuading the Commission to share the correspondence it has had with the Spanish Government on this issue?

The Spanish Government pulled out of the trilateral forum in 2011. Does the Minister see any sign of the Spanish accepting the need to return once again to the use of that sensible diplomatic channel for discussions? Can she explain what the Spanish Government’s response is to the reiteration of the proposals by the Secretary of State for ad hoc talks involving all relevant parties?

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, for securing this debate and for the comprehensive way in which she outlined the many challenges that the Government of Gibraltar face. I shall try to deal with some of her specific questions. I also thank all noble Lords for their contributions, especially the noble Lord, Lord Luce, whose expertise and opinion on this matter I hugely respect.

Recent months have seen a number of further unhelpful moves by Spain to advance its claims towards Gibraltar, in particular incursions into British Gibraltar territorial waters and the introduction of unreasonable and illegal delays at the border. However, the position of the British Government is unequivocal: Gibraltar and its waters are sovereign British territory. They will remain so for as long as the people of Gibraltar wish them to be and we will continue to respond robustly, taking whatever action is necessary, to safeguard Gibraltar, its people and its economy.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, for her outline of the situation. Our position on the sovereignty of Gibraltar is clear and unchanged: we will protect the right of the people of Gibraltar to determine their political future. The UK will never enter into arrangements under which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another state against their wishes. Furthermore, the UK will not enter into any process of sovereignty negotiations with which Gibraltar is not content. I hope those comments are clear and unequivocal.

Gibraltar’s constitution reflects the principle that all peoples have the right of self-determination. The realisation of this right must be promoted and respected in conformity with the provisions of the charter of the United Nations and any other applicable international treaties. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Luce, that the British Government are confident of UK sovereignty over the whole of Gibraltar, including British Gibraltar territorial waters.

The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and other noble Lords asked what action had been taken and whether it could have been stronger. We have taken robust action. The Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have called their Spanish counterparts and we have summoned the Spanish ambassador on a number of occasions. We have made our concerns very clear and have acted in close concert with the Government of Gibraltar. We are strongly committed to a diplomatic solution and we do not believe that tit-for-tat escalation is in anyone’s interest. For example, incursions by the Guardia Civil which involved photography, filming and the circling of ships have been provocative actions and the United Kingdom has raised these at the highest level with the Spanish Government. Indeed, the Prime Minister raised the issue, for example, of border delays with President Barroso in August last year which led to the Commission sending a border monitoring mission in September. The Prime Minister again raised our concerns with Barroso in December last year.

A number of noble Lords, including my noble friend Lady Scott, asked about EU aviation legislation. We cannot accept a return to the pre-2006 practice of suspending Gibraltar Airport from EU aviation measures. We have raised this with the Spanish Government and the European Commission. We believe that the EU treaties are clear that Gibraltar should be included in EU aviation legislation. We have made our position on this clear to the Spanish Government and the Commission. Officials are working with UK MEPs’ offices to ensure that amendments in upcoming EU aviation legislation that would seek to suspend the application to Gibraltar Airport are properly responded to.

The noble Lord, Lord Luce, asked about the position of the Royal Navy. Under the Gibraltar constitution, the Royal Gibraltar Police is tasked with the enforcement of Gibraltar law in British Gibraltar territorial waters. The main tasks of the Royal Navy Gibraltar Squadron are to protect visiting warships and to uphold British sovereignty against unlawful incursions by other state vessels such as the Spanish Guardia Civil. We believe that differences with Spain concerning the water should be resolved by diplomatic and political means, not naval confrontation. Continued escalation is in no one’s interest, but what I say in terms of de-escalation in no way steps back from our commitment.

I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but perhaps I may pass on one piece of experience from my time. There was a serious fishing dispute and a large number of incursions were being made. The situation drifted and got worse and worse. It was only when at the last moment a Spanish vessel was detained and 14 Spanish people on board were arrested that the dispute was brought to an end. All I am asking for is the robust defence of our sovereignty in those waters.

The noble Lord makes an incredibly important point. In response to the increased number of maritime incursions, the Ministry of Defence has deployed additional personnel to Gibraltar to enhance the response capability and resilience of the Royal Navy Gibraltar Squadron. Royal Navy ships will continue to visit Gibraltar regularly in relation to operational and training activities, reflecting its utility as a permanent joint operating base. All elements of the situation, including the maritime security capability available to the Royal Navy Gibraltar Squadron, are kept under review. Should it be necessary, the Ministry of Defence will provide additional assets to the squadron and augment our broader maritime posture as necessary. That issue was also raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan.

My noble friend Lady Hooper is right to say that the border delays are unacceptable and damaging to both the Government of Gibraltar and, indeed, to Spain. The Commission’s letter to Spain following its border mission last September made clear that the intensity of Spanish checks was unjustified. The Commission made recommendations to both sides to improve the flow of people and traffic, and we remain confident that Spain has acted and continues to act unlawfully. We are providing evidence of that to the Commission. The Commission undertook to review the situation after six months following its border mission, and the review will take place at the end of this month. We are providing evidence of continuing border delays in preparation for that review.

My noble friend Lord Patten specifically asked about the issue of the opening of a diplomatic bag. We did indeed summon the Spanish ambassador and subsequently received assurances that it would not happen again, and to date it has not. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, asked about ministerial visits, as did a number of other noble Lords. There have been several ministerial visits to Gibraltar since 2010, the last one having been made in December last year by the Minister for the Armed Forces, and of course their Royal Highnesses the Earl and Countess of Wessex paid a highly successful visit in 2012. Those visits will continue.

I hear what my noble friend Lord Patten had to say in his description of Spain’s behaviour, but as the noble Baroness on the Front Bench opposite also said, Spain is of course still a valued partner in both NATO and the EU. It is in the interests of both our countries and indeed in the interests of Gibraltar for that co-operation to continue. Spain says that it has an excellent relationship with the UK, but it is difficult to see how Spain’s escalation of the dispute over Gibraltar is not going to impact on the wider bilateral relationship. That is a point that we have made to Spain on numerous occasions and we will continue to pursue solutions at this stage through political and diplomatic means.

However, there should be no doubt of our commitment to the people of Gibraltar. Their wishes and their rights are paramount and we will continue to stand up for them. To achieve a solution it is our long-term aim, shared by the Government of Gibraltar, to return to the trilateral forum referred to by the noble Baroness, from which the current Spanish Government withdrew on taking office in December 2011. In the interim we have reiterated to the Spanish Government the Foreign Secretary’s proposal which he made in April 2012 to hold ad hoc talks involving all the relevant parties. We welcome the interest that was shown in that proposal and urge all parties to meet around the negotiating table and engage in constructive dialogue.

We have heard in the debate about a number of politically motivated actions taken by Spain to try to pressurise Britain and Gibraltar. We have also heard that the Government have taken robust action in response, and we will continue to do so. But we are also committed to trying to tackle the underlying tensions through a process of dialogue that will give the people of Gibraltar a voice. As we enter negotiations it is particularly important that all sides are seen to be taking positive action. We welcomed the decision by the European Commission to send a border monitoring mission to Gibraltar in September last year, but these missions will be successful only if the follow-up work, such as implementation of the recommendations that were made by the mission, is done in the same way that the Government of Gibraltar are doing.

At the heart of this issue is the right of the people of Gibraltar to determine their own future. The current constitution of Gibraltar already includes the assurance that the UK will never enter into arrangements under which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another state against their wishes. Furthermore, this Government have repeated the assurances given by the previous Government that the UK will not enter into a process of sovereignty negotiations with which Gibraltar is not content. For as long as the people of Gibraltar wish to retain British sovereignty, we will continue to work with their elected representatives to ensure that they can pursue their legitimate interests unhindered by unreasonable and illegal actions by any nation, but of course most recently by Spain. However, it is also clear that co-operation between Gibraltar and Spain offers many benefits to people on both sides of the border. Fostering that co-operation remains in everyone’s interests, and with the support of the Government of Gibraltar, remains our long-term aim too.

Before the Minister sits down, will she agree to take away the question of bunkering, with which she has not dealt? Unfortunately, for lack of time, I did not really explain it, but the threat by Spain is to fine and punish by prosecution any of the big four groups that have their bunker supplies in Gibraltar waters. Spain is not of course suggesting fining in Algeciras, where they also have facilities, but is saying that it will fine and prosecute any of those that get their bunkering supplies in Gibraltar. What are the Government going to do about that? If we are not careful, we are going to put off the four major companies from using the bunker facilities in Gibraltar.

I will certainly take that back. I will write to the noble and learned Baroness and put a copy of the letter in the Library.

Sitting suspended.