Government of Gibraltar
Press Office

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Press Release

No: 275/2003
Date: 18 December 2003

Chief Minister's Speech at the Ceremonail Opening of the House of Assembly

 

Text of the

Chief Minister’s speech

at the

Ceremonial Opening

of the

House of Assembly

On

Thursday 18 December 2003

 

Your Excellency, welcome to this your first Ceremonial Opening of a House of Assembly in Gibraltar. I welcome also Lady Richards and other distinguished guests.

 

Mr Speaker, congratulations on your reconfirmation in office by this House just a few moments ago. We all, I am sure, look forward to you continuing to dispense your effective brand of parliamentary summary justice. In your capacity as Mayor, Tercentenary year promises to be a busy one for you, which I hope you will enjoy.

 

During Tercentenary year Gibraltar will rightly commemorate and celebrate 300 years of our British Sovereignty, of our relationship with the UK and of the many and much valued historical, political, cultural and institutional fruits of that relationship. I am sure that the whole House shares my delight at the announced visit by Her Royal Highness, the Princess Royal. Much as we would have liked a visit by Her Majesty the Queen, the Princess Royal is very welcome and I am sure, will be made to feel so by the people of Gibraltar. Gibraltar is part of Her Majesty’s Realm, and it is therefore wholly inappropriate and improper for foreigners to interfere with or to protest at such a visit.

 

I believe that this House should formally participate in the Tercentenary celebrations, and, therefore I intend to convene a special meeting of the House on 4th August 2004 for a Special Tercentenary ceremonial meeting. Early next year I will consult with Mr Speaker and with the Leader of the Opposition on the format and content of that meeting, which Government intends should include the passing of Tercentenary freedom of the City motions, upon which I will also consult with the Opposition.

 

I detect a growing, and I believe justified view that our parliamentary procedures have been outgrown by the vibrant and extensively self governing community over which this House presides. I believe that our parliamentary procedures should better reflect the present day democratic reality, maturity and needs of Gibraltar. And so, I hope that Hon Members opposite will accept Government’s invitation to activate a cross party select Committee of this House to conduct a review of the manner in which we carry out our work with a view to its modernisation and to making early recommendations to the whole House.

 

Although I am assured that the number of people who where unable to vote at the recent elections due to not being included in the Register of electors, is no more than usual at all elections, I believe that we should modernise our electoral system to make it easier for citizens to ensure that they are included in the register. I personally favour the UK system of an "open register" which ensures that once a voter is on the register he remains there for life. An open register enables citizens to check and get on to the register and to change their details at any time between elections, rather than our present system of organising a new register for every election. The Government will be introducing legislation into the House to reform the present system in time for our next general election.

 

Your Excellency, the Government believes that it is the right of every colonial people to enjoy progressive Constitutional advancement to deliver the maximum possible level of self Government and to achieve a modern, non colonial status. Gibraltar is not an exception to that on account of the fact that our neighbour persists with its anachronistic Sovereignty claim, or for any other reason.

 

During the next few days, I shall be formally submitting our Constitutional Reform proposals to Her Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom. As your Excellency knows, these proposals were elaborated by a cross party select Committee of this House after a wide process of public consultation, participation and debate. They were unanimously adopted by this House, constituted, in terms of political parties and policies, exactly as it is now. The proposals therefore enjoy the support of both Her Majesty’s Government in Gibraltar and of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition in Gibraltar. That support will be reconfirmed by a motion to that effect that I intend to move during our forthcoming first meeting. We therefore trust that the proposals will be afforded the consideration and seriousness that reflects those inescapable democratic facts and the impeccable democratic credentials and provenance of the proposals themselves.

 

There are, as your Excellency knows, Constitutional advancement initiatives taking place in other Overseas Territories as well. Indeed, the Overseas territories White Paper encourages them. This has caused HMG to recently make some statements of apparent general application in relation to Constitutional change in the Overseas Territories.

 

We believe that our proposals are squarely within those parameters. They do not seek a position where the UK has responsibility without power. They do seek however that those powers should be reflected in the Constitution in terms that are not colonial in nature and which reflect the purposes for which they must rightly exist.

 

We share the views of Her Majesty’s Government in the UK that it has the right to expect high standards of probity and governance in the Overseas Territories. We regard our standards of probity and governance to be at least as high as those in the UK. And this not because the UK expects or demands it, but because the people of Gibraltar expect it, demand it and deserve it and because, like elected politicians in the UK, it is our conviction. In a mature democracy such as ours, the people, in exercise of their democratic rights, are the most appropriate arbiters of standards of Government. And the people of Gibraltar are no less able to do so, that their counterparts in the UK.

 

We also share the view of HMG in the UK that it is important to ensure the independence of the civil service, the judiciary and the police, in the very same measure and manner as it is important to do so in the UK itself and in all democratic countries. And so in the non – colonial climate that we would wish to exist these institutions in Gibraltar should be appropriately independent of everyone, including the UK Government and the Governor, and not just independent of the democratically elected local Government. Independence and colonialism must not be confused with each other.

 

The point that I am making is that the vitally important task of ensuring the independence of these bodies does not require colonial mechanisms, because the same vitally important independence is achieved elsewhere (for example, in the UK itself) by democratic means that are not colonial in nature. The independence of these institutions can be achieved by colonial or by non – colonial means. We favour non – colonial mechanisms for these important purposes in Gibraltar as well.

 

The UK also emphasises its responsibility to ensure that Overseas Territories comply with international obligations. We acknowledge this, but the issue is not that simple. I have, in the past, at similar ceremonial occasions, questioned the practice of extending international obligations to Overseas Territories without their agreement and then demanding compliance because they have become international obligations. Indeed, I believe that it is possible to question the UK’s legal right to do so. Often, these obligations are not in the interests of the Territory and place unaffordable financial strain on it or place huge constraints on its economic and social development. Sometimes the international measure serves the UK’s own domestic policy interests at the expense of the interests of the Overseas Territories. I believe that it is morally wrong to impose these things on the Overseas Territories and very probably legally indefensible, given among other things the nature of the UK’s obligations to the Territories under the Charter of the United Nations. We have first hand experience of this in the areas of the European Taxation of Savings Directive and the Mutual Legal Assistance Convention, amongst others.

 

And then, if the UK wants to exercise that which it regards as its right to contract international obligations on behalf of the Territories and to police compliance with them in the name of its constitutional responsibility for international affairs, is there not an obvious moral and legal corollary to that, namely an obligation on UK’s part to ensure the protection of our international rights. And so I ask, why do we still have a telephone number shortage as a result of Spanish disrespect for our international rights? Why must we be excluded from European Single and Open skies regimes (with UK consent)? Why do we still suffer restrictions in air services to Gibraltar and problems with diverted flights? Why have our tax reform proposals still not been approved? Why are Gibraltar’s EU rights in practice only justiciable when a Gibraltar plaintiff is able to initiate the Court proceedings? Why are the Gibraltar Government’s concerns in relation to the proposed new EU Treaty not taken up by the UK in the negotiating process, so that our EU interests are placed on a sure footing, and not left open to argument and to the vagaries of Qualified Majority voting or unprecedented EU Commission legal action against Spain. If our future obligation to participate in certain measures is in future to be automatic", then why is the corresponding right to participate in some such measures left for a "case by case" consideration?

 

HMG uses the phrase mutual or shared responsibilities and obligations. We acknowledge that that must be so. But it cuts both ways. Just as UK rightly looks to us to discharge our responsibilities and obligations to the UK, so too we are entitled to look, in the same measure, to the UK to discharge its responsibilities and obligations to us. In the case of Gibraltar, most objective observers would rightly conclude (as the Foreign Affairs Committee has done) that Gibraltar’s compliance record in respect of its responsibilities to UK, is better than the UK’s compliance record of its responsibilities towards Gibraltar.

 

Your Excellency, I conclude with one further thought. At the recent Overseas Territories Council, Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell again pointed out to the Territories that, (except in the case of Gibraltar) they enjoyed the right to independence which they were free to exercise if they did not like the terms upon which they could retain a relationship with the UK. That was not a new message. However, precisely because the UK denies that choice to Gibraltar, the UK must be open to Constitutional models for Gibraltar which it might not be willing to contemplate for other Overseas Territories, because otherwise, unlike the other territories, we must remain inevitably stuck in a colonial status for all time that cannot be right. I am sure that it is not necessary for me to remind HMG that the Treaty of Utrecht (whatever may or may not be its current impact) does not require Gibraltar to remain in a colonial status.

 

It is in this context, and in the context of our desire for enduring British sovereignty and Constitutional links with the UK, that we present our Constitutional Reform proposals.

 

Your Excellency, I think that your Governorship has got off to an excellent start and I believe that the people of Gibraltar share that view. I have much enjoyed working with you since your arrival here and I look forward to continuing to do so during the next 4 years.