Gibraltar’s voice in Westminster

Lindsay Hoyle MP, President of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Gibraltar, gives the inside scoop on the APPG’s values, form and function.

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From an early stage in my political career I have had an acute interest in Gibraltar and its relationship with Madrid and London. Not least because my father, Lord Hoyle, is a Freeman of Gibraltar. He worked closely with the Joe Bossano, former Gibraltar Socialist Labour Party (GSLP) Chief Minister, Peter Caruana, the former Gibraltar Social Democrats (GSD) Chief Minister, and the union movement in Gibraltar. The legacy of this work remains.

Yet, it was after one of my first “advice surgeries” in Chorley that I realised there were problems ahead. A number of constituents had been holidaying in Gibraltar and planned to travel north across La Linea and into Spain.

This was not to be. My elderly constituents fell foul of the wanton disruption by Spanish border officials. The constituents had crossed over from Gibraltar, at which point the Spanish government decided to close the border in response to a visit by a British warship. My elderly constituents were left without shelter and food for nearly 12 hours; they couldn’t enter Spain and they couldn’t return to Gibraltar.

I felt deeply angered by the actions of our supposed European partner, and so sent a letter off to the Spanish Ambassador to London. If I was shocked by the decision to hold elderly people in a border hinterland, then I was astounded by the terse three-line response I received back, which stated that this is what “we” should expect as long as “we” continue to pursue outdated colonial desires and occupy a piece of Spain illegally.

This set the backdrop for my involvement with the APPG for Gibraltar.

However, we must go back a little further to get the real context. Last year marked the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Utrecht, when Spain formally ceded Gibraltar to Britain in perpetuity under Article X of the 1713 treaty, following the war of the Spanish Succession.

The Treaty gave "the full and entire propriety of the town and castle of Gibraltar, together with the port, fortifications, and forts there unto belonging... forever, without any exception or impediment whatsoever".

In 1967, we then saw a referendum in Gibraltar, which called on both Spain and the UK to take into account the "interests" of the people. 12,138 of the 12,237 Gibraltarian voters chose "voluntarily to retain their links with the UK".

The Gibraltar Constitution Order, published in 1969, further established the territory’s right to sovereignty by stating that "Her Majesty's government will never enter into negotiations under which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another state against their democratically expressed wishes."

Most recently, in the 2002 sovereignty referendum, voters overwhelmingly rejected a plan to share sovereignty over Gibraltar between the UK and Spain. Gibraltar believes the right of self determination was given to it by the UK in 1960, and that the UN Charter enshrines the right to self-determination of all peoples.

So this brings us to the present day. The people of Gibraltar wish to remain part of the United Kingdom, a decision that is theirs to make - not the politicians in London or Madrid.

It became apparent that there was a need for a strong cross-party body in Westminster to speak up for the people of Gibraltar. Despite having the South West of England’s MEP representing Gibraltar in the European Parliament, there was no voice in Westminster.

With over 500 All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) dedicated to subjects from aerospace to agriculture, zoos to Zoroastrians, there is no shortage of support for specific interest groups in Parliament. But how does the All Party Group for Gibraltar differ?

Put quite simply, the group aims “to represent the views of the people of Gibraltar in Parliament and work with the government of Gibraltar, political parties and interest groups”. And it does. I believe that amongst the morass of APPGs meeting every week in parliament, the group is one of the most effective.

Today the group boasts members on all sides of the House of Commons and House of Lords – the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and the Scottish National Party (SNP) all pl­ay an active part.

The group meets regularly and is becoming even more proactive in responding to events on the ground. Questions are tabled in both houses, and recently the group Chairman Jim Dobbin MP held a Westminster Hall debate to highlight growing concerns over border delays.

Indeed in November, 12 members of the group attended the debate to hold Foreign Office Minister Mark Simmonds to account for the government’s response to the increase in recent Spanish aggression, which escalated throughout March.

For instance, waiting times for vehicles entering Gibraltar between the 17th and  22nd  of March has varied from zero to sixty minutes, with vehicle wait times on Tuesday the 18th March reaching up to two hours. In the same week we saw 33 incursions into British Gibraltar territorial waters (BGTW), the most significant of which occurred when Spanish navy’s patrol boat Vencedora sailed along Gibraltar’s eastside coastline and declared itself to be in Spanish waters.

British parliamentarians regularly visit Gibraltar to show their support while, in the other direction, we invited Gibraltarian MPs to attend the Commons chamber for PMQs on 12th February 2014. They were able to thank some of the parliamentarians who had supported Gibraltar during the debate, including the well-supported Chairman of the Gibraltar APPG, Jim Dobbin MP.

At the end of August, the Chief Minister Fabian Picardo and his Deputy met with David Cameron at 10 Downing Street – a meeting which demonstrated the strength of the Prime Minister’s concern for Gibraltar and recognised support of the APPG.

In October, the Chief Minister also met with Labour Leader Ed Miliband and secured full support from London. Labour’s shadow Defence Minister, Vernon Coaker, also visited to show his support.

As Albert Poggio, Gibraltar’s UK Representative to London concluded: “In the face of Spain’s heavy-handed intimidation, the government of Gibraltar has enjoyed the full support of members of both the UK House of Commons and the House of Lords.”

The government is clearly aware of diplomatic sensitivities, however. Over recent months it has heeded calls from the APPG and the Gibraltar government to show commitment to Gibraltar as a naval base.

Last month HMS Astute, the Royal Navy’s most advanced nuclear powered submarine, arrived in Gibraltar’s Naval Base on her maiden operational tasking. This was welcomed by the people of the Rock, who have a proud history of supporting our armed forces.

Of course, aside from security and border policing, there are other approaches to the APPG’s work, most notably our work with Gibraltar’s trade unions.

Historically, the trade union movement has played a significant role in developing and enhancing Gibraltar’s socioeconomic environment. Indeed Unite is involved in a series of campaigns on the Rock demanding better pay for its members, improved terms and conditions and a greater focus on health and safety. Unions have also been strongly focused on fighting for the rights of migrant workers.

We cannot forget that the actions of the government in Spain are hugely damaging to Spanish workers who travel into Gibraltar for their jobs. With this in mind, the group wishes to see international cooperation and solidarity for all workers.

Because of this, representatives from Unite Gibraltar, the Spanish trade unions and Gibraltarian employers have been requested to attend our next APPG meeting to outline the issues and develop a debate. 

Ultimately, the APPG is committed to ensuring the voice of Gibraltar is heard in Westminster and the best way for us to do this is to continue to push Gibraltar to the top of the agenda at the Foreign Office and Downing Street on a cross party basis.

Lindsay Hoyle is President of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Gibraltar, Member of Parliament for Chorley