HC Deb 24 November 1952 vol 508 cc35-42
The Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries (Sir Thomas Dugdale)

With your leave, Mr. Speaker, I will now make a further statement to the House about the Icelandic fisheries dispute, as I undertook to do on Thursday last.

The sailings of British distant-water trawlers from the port of Grimsby were stopped by the Trawler Officers' Guild, after the landing and sale of the catch of the Icelandic trawler "Jon Forseti." This led to immediate discussions between the representative organisations of the skippers and mates, and trawler owners and the fish merchants of the ports of Grimsby and Hull. The Hull Trawler Officers' Guild separately resolved that sailings of the Hull distant-water fleet should cease as from noon on Saturday last. Almost the entire fleet of some 290 British distant-water trawlers would then have been tied up as the vessels returned to port.

The discussions between the representative organisations in the two ports resulted in a decision on the part of the members of the Grimsby and Hull Fish Merchants' Associations that henceforth they would not purchase any fish landed by Icelandic vessels at Grimsby or Hull while the Icelandic dispute remained unresolved.

The Trawler Officers' Guilds at Grimsby and Hull then decided to return to sea immediately. There has been, in fact, no interruption in sailings from Hull, and that part of the Grimsby fleet which had been lying idle since last Thursday afternoon began to put to sea on Saturday. The British Trawlers' Federation has re-affirmed its readiness to meet representatives of the Icelandic Government to examine fully the state of the fishing grounds off the coast of Iceland and to formulate a scheme acceptable to both countries which will give adequate protection to these fishing grounds. The position now is that there will be no interruption of supplies of British-caught fish at the Humber ports, which account for much the greater part of total supplies. Also landings from other countries than Iceland will continue. There will, however, be no buyers of any Icelandic-caught fish that may be offered at Hull or Grimsby. The immediate effect on supplies of a refusal to handle Icelandic-caught fish cannot be precisely assessed, but should not be severe. In December, 1951, Icelandic-caught supplies represented 10 per cent. of our total landings, and in December, 1950, 3 per cent.

The fish merchants have stated that in reaching their decision they have had regard only to the necessity of ensuring for the future the maximum supplies of first-quality fish at the fishing ports and at reasonable prices to the consumer. Her Majesty's Government are glad to take note of this, and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Food and I have asked representatives of the organisations of trawler-owners and fish merchants to meet us this week so that we may examine with them the implications of the industry's action as regards supplies and prices to the consumer.

The Government greatly regret the situation which has now arisen between the British and Icelandic fishery interests. The principle of conservation is fully accepted by the British fishing industry and by Her Majesty's Government, who have been among the foremost in bringing into being the Overfishing Convention, under which a Permanent Commission representative of all the signatory countries should be created next year.

The core of the dispute is the claim of the Icelandic Government to establish fishery limits without discussion with the other interested parties, and the belief that it is their intention to retain indefinitely restrictions which would have been imposed for a limited period if their sole purpose had been to enable fish stocks to be replenished. The feeling of the British fishing industry is that these fishery limits have been drawn more widely than scientific requirements demand, and Her Majesty's Government are of the opinion that there is justification for that viewpoint.

The British Trawlers' Federation have publicly proposed that there should be a conference which would formulate a scheme acceptable to the fishing interests in both countries. A similar proposal was made to the Icelandic Minister at an earlier stage by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, but it proved abortive. The Federation's proposal was nevertheless communicated this morning to the Icelandic Minister by my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Her Majesty's Government earnestly hope that the Icelandic Government will be ready to co-operate in this way in resolving the dispute and restoring relations between the fishing industries of the two countries.

Mr. G. Brown

Is the Minister aware that this statement seems to many of us to be very complacent in the light of a very serious situation, and will only bear out a good deal of general feeling outside that the Government have been remarkably inactive and passive all through this situation? The statement mentions several times that the trawler owners' federation have proposed something or the other and that the Government have passed it on to the Icelandic Government. Is it not time that the right hon. Gentleman began to take the initiative himself and stopped this being a matter of Grimsby or Hull trawler owners versus Iceland?

May I further ask him whether it is now the fact, as I understood from his statement, that the ban on Iceland-caught fish, which he told me last Thursday he did not want to see imposed, has now been imposed by the trade, and has he nothing more to say about that other than that the Government note it?

May I ask the Minister two other short questions? The statement refers to a 10 per cent. loss of supplies on last year as a result of this action. In view of what happens to winter fish prices when we have full supplies, does not the Minister regard it as very complacent to say that the effect of withdrawing 10 per cent. may not be severe? At the meeting he is having with the Minister of Food next week, will he propose some definite standstill on prices, because if the merchants were to benefit as a result of their own action, the housewives would quite justifiably be very angry indeed?

Finally, is the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs satisfied that this action accords with our international obligations, and that if it is raised by the Icelandic Government we might not be in severe difficulties? Does he think it right that a particular branch of a trade association should be able to do something which the Government do not want done and that the Government should just sit by and note it and say nothing more about it?

Sir T. Dugdale

I should like to dispose at once of the suggestion that there is any complacency on the part of Her Majesty's Government. The Government, through the Foreign Office, have been submitting the facts to the Icelandic Government for a very long time now. The House will recollect that as far back as 26th May, the Minister of State made a lengthy statement which I will not repeat now to the House, explaining exactly the representations which had been made by Her Majesty's Government to the Icelandic Government and warning that Government that the situation was likely to develop in exactly the way in which it has developed.

The Minister of Food and I will take very careful note and watch the price of fish most carefully. That will be one of the subjects we shall be discussing with the representatives of the industry. But it may be of interest to the House to know that today the minimum prices in both the ports of Grimsby and Hull are lower than either at this day last week or this day last year. For instance, the minimum price of cod is lower today at Grimsby than it was a week or a year ago; and so is the price of haddock and plaice at Grimsby today. We will, of course, pay special attention to it.

Regarding the actual percentage of imports, I would refer the House and the right hon. Gentleman to the reply I gave to the right hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Younger) only last week in which is shown the very small proportion of landings from Iceland compared with those from our own trawlers. For instance, during the last 14 weeks which cover the period in question, the landings of white fish at Grimsby were 9 per cent. and the landings at Hull 1 per cent. less than the corresponding period last year.

Sir H. Williams

Would it be in order if I were to move, "That this House do now adjourn," so that we might have a proper debate on this matter?

Mr. Speaker

That would not be in order.

Mr. Hector Hughes

Further to that point, Mr. Speaker. Do you realise that this topic is of more urgent interest and importance to the public than the subject down for discussion today. I would support a Motion, "That this House do now adjourn."

Mr. Speaker

I am afraid that would not enable me to accept the Motion. We have to do all our work, and we frequently have to take the uninteresting subjects before the interesting subjects.

Mr. Younger

Does not the Minister realise that the last thing he said before he sat down will give the impression that he is somewhat complacent about the drop in supplies, although it is very small? Does he appreciate that the figures he has given for the 14-week period include the period when Icelandic fish never does come in in any quantity, and that it comes in during the earlier part of the year, and that the percentage is likely to rise in the winter months and be more severe? Does he realise that it is likely to be proportionately much more severe in Grimsby than the national average?

Is he aware that there is a good deal of resentment, particularly among the fish merchants who took this very unpleasant decision last week, that it should have been left to them, despite the fact that it concerns national supplies to the whole of the country, on the one hand, and our relations with a foreign country, on the other? They feel very strongly that this is a matter that the Government should have taken up.

Sir T. Dugdale

I shall not quote any more figures, although I could give other figures which would show exactly the same thing. There is no sense of complacency on the part of the Government. I would add, so far as international law is concerned, that I am given to understand that nothing has been done by the trawler owners, or anybody else, which conflicts with international law.

Mr. Shinwell

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that occasionally, when a body of workers at the docks refuse to allow imports to be discharged, soldiers are sent down to discharge the vessels? Why in this case are the Government so complacent and why do they take no action?

Sir T. Dugdale

I am trying to say that the Government are not complacent and that I do not think it would be appropriate in this case at all.

Mr. Tilney

Will my right hon. Friend agree that if the Atlantic Community is to be established, disputes such as this show the need for a high court of justice for the North Atlantic Treaty countries to which disputes of this kind might be referred?

Mrs. Braddock

It is very difficult to deal with this position by question and answer. I think it ought to be more fully discussed. I wish to ask the Minister whether he is aware that the fish merchants in Grimsby and Hull are very dissatisfied indeed about the method whereby the decision was taken. They say they were being threatened about what would happen to them later on if they did not refuse to unload or take fish from the Icelandic vessels. In view of that situation, will the Minister look very carefully at the position to see whether he can prove coercion, and if so, will he take the appropriate action immediately in order that the housewives of this country may obtain the fish?

May I ask what steps he intends to take in order to keep the price of fish low in the shops—not at the ports, but in the shops—because fish is the only alternative that housewives have to the very short meat supply.

Sir T. Dugdale

I have already dealt with the price question. So far as the other question is concerned, as I have informed the House, the Minister of Food and I are meeting the representatives of the fish merchants during this week, and we shall discuss the point raised by the hon. Member.

Mr. Grimond

The Minister said that in the opinion of the industry the limits drawn by the Icelandic Government were unnecessarily wide. May I ask whether that is also the opinion of Her Majesty's Government? May I also ask whether, apart from calling for a conference with the Icelandic Government, they have put forward definite proposals to the Icelandic Government for consideration at the conference?

Sir T. Dugdale

I think that the best I can do is to refer the hon. Gentleman to the statement made by the Minister of State on 26th May this year in this House, which exactly meets that point.

Mr. C. S. Taylor

In order that hon. Members on both sides of the House may form a fair appreciation of the factors in this dispute, would my right hon. Friend consider publishing a White Paper giving the reasons for the dispute, together with all the relevant documents, so that we may consider it?

Sir T. Dugdale

I will consider that in consultation with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.

Mr. Speaker

I quite agree with the hon. Lady the Member for Liverpool, Exchange (Mrs. Braddock) that it is a difficult subject to discuss by question and answer. The Prime Minister.