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In ‘quick fire’ Commons exchange, new terminology has usual meaning

File photo dated 07/08/13 of the Palace of Westminster, which contains the House of Commons and the House of Lords, in London, as support for House of Lords reform is predicted to increase if peers obstruct or delay Brexit, new research claims. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Monday February 20, 2017. An ICM survey for Change Britain, which campaigns on the terms of Brexit, found 43% of respondents are more likely to back abolition or reform compared to 12% who are less likely in such circumstances. See PA story POLITICS Brexit Poll. Photo credit should read: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

A senior Foreign Office minister answered a question on Gibraltar in the House of Commons this week and underlined the UK's commitment to uphold and defend “...the absolute rights of Gibraltar as a British sovereign Rock."

In doing so, however, Sir Alan Duncan, the Minister for Europe and the Americas, raised eyebrows by using very different terminology to the standard phrases employed by British ministers and diplomats when talking about the Rock and its people.

He referred to “the proper waters” of Gibraltar and spoke of the UK’s hopes for “a very settled position” with Spain on Gibraltar and its British sovereignty.

The exchange was verbal and officials later said privately that Sir Alan had been speaking "off the cuff".

They insisted there was no change in the UK's stance on Gibraltar.

“FCO oral questions is a quick fired exchange between members of Parliament and FCO Ministers,” a Foreign Office spokesman told the Chronicle.

“The particular form of word of words used by the Minister does not imply any change of policy.”

The change of language was unusual in public comments by a UK minister on Gibraltar, particularly given that Sir Alan is no stranger to the Rock and the core issues facing this community.

In his current role, Sir Alan is closely involved in Brexit-related negotiations and has visited here several times as minister.

On Tuesday he was being quizzed by Tory MP Philip Hollobone on incursions into BGTW and what the Foreign Office was doing to remind Spain of its obligations under the international rules-based order.

"Any such incursions in the proper waters of Gibraltar are always responded to by us," Sir Alan told the Commons.

"We watch them closely, but I very much hope that there can be no increase in tension and that we can in the years ahead reach a very settled position between ourselves and Spain on the absolute rights of Gibraltar as a British sovereign Rock."

Sir Alan's reference to "the proper waters of Gibraltar" has never been used before to describe BGTW but is likely a reference to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which allows states to claim up to 12 miles of territorial sea and which the UK, which claims three miles of sea around the Rock, insists applies to Gibraltar.

Also notable was the reference to “a very settled position” on Gibraltar - Sir Alan did not explain what he meant - and the absence of any mention of the UK's double-lock sovereignty commitment and its support for the Gibraltarians' right to self-determination.

Last night, the spokesman for the Foreign Office told the Chronicle there had been no change to the UK government’s policy on Gibraltar.

“We are confident of UK sovereignty over the whole of Gibraltar, including British Gibraltar Territorial Waters, the spokesman said.

“We continue to uphold sovereignty over British Gibraltar Territorial Waters by challenging and protesting all incursions.”

“The Royal Navy challenges all incursions and we back this up by making formal diplomatic protests to Spain.” “Incursions are a violation of sovereignty, not a threat to it.”

“They do not weaken or undermine the legal basis in international law for British sovereignty over Gibraltar, including British Gibraltar Territorial Waters.”

“The UK will never enter into arrangements under which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another State against their freely and democratically expressed wishes.”

“The UK Government also confirms that it will not enter a process of sovereignty negotiations with which Gibraltar is not content.”