HC Deb 24 July 1953 vol 518 cc847-58

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith.]

3.56 p.m.

Sir Robert Boothby (Aberdeenshire, East)

I have, I am afraid, a story to tell to the House this afternoon which has lasted as long as you, Mr. Speaker, and I have sat in this House. Nothing fresh has happened about it since we entered this House, in my case some 29 years ago. I have, therefore, to confess that this afternoon I shall play an old tune and not a new one.

The depredations of foreign trawlers in the Moray Firth, from which our own trawlers are excluded, have been a continuing scandal for the last 30 or 40 years. Figures issued by the Scottish Home Department show that last year 30 Belgian vessels fished in the closed waters of the Moray Firth 200 times. Meanwhile over 20 British skippers of trawlers were taken to court for fishing in the same waters. The seine-net boats which conduct the inshore white fishing along the coast of the Moray Firth have for years been forced off the grounds by the foreign boats by what I may legitimately call force majeure They dare not go to sea when the foreigners are there. They have often taken out their boats, and had to return because of the operations of these foreign trawlers.

The effect of this upon the fishing villages along the coast of the Moray Firth can be imagined. This is a point which my hon. Friend the Member for Banff (Mr. Duthie) will deal with, as it affects him to an even greater extent. The argument applies also to the Clyde, and to some extent to the Minch. I have here a copy of a letter from Mr. James Barron, the skipper of the motor boat "Quest" at present fishing out of Ayr. It is so fresh and spontaneous, and so obviously what he feels, that I will read a passage from it. It is dated 19th July: At the present moment there are quite a few foreign trawlers fishing in the Clyde, and I may say that they fish with complete disregard for other boats or their gear. It makes your blood boil to see them … In former yearn the waters got a rest over the week-end, and you always looked for a good fishing of hake in the early part of the week; but now, with Danish seine-netters and foreign trawlers-fishing all the week-end the fish gets cleaned up"— I am quoting his words exactly— by the time the home fleet starts fishing on Monday. These words come from the heart. I hope my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs will forgive me if I say that the international fishing policy of successive Governments in this country for many years past has been absolutely crazy. I know he will accept it when I say he has no responsibility personally for this fact.

The greatest problem confronting the white fish industry today is the overfishing of the North Sea. What do the Government do? They sign an international convention which lays down a size of mesh which enables the fattest and most succulent whiting or haddock to swim with glee through the seine nets.

It being Four o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith.]

Sir R. Boothby

If it were applied—which it will not be—it would bring total ruin to the Scottish inshore white fishing industry. At the same time, they refuse to protect the vital spawning grounds, and this is the point I want to get home. Meanwhile, the Norwegian and Icelandic Governments take action to do this very thing—to protect the spawning grounds—which is regarded with hypocritical horror by Her Majesty's Government, but which is, nevertheless, sustained by the International Court at The Hague.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Anthony Nutting)

Not hypocritical.

Sir R. Boothby

Well, then, horror.

On 13th July, the Minister of State, m reply to a Question by me, said: The question whether Her Majesty's Government should apply to the British coast the-base-line methods approved by The Hague Court in the case of Norway remains under consideration."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th July, 1953; Vol. 517, c. 1708.] I want to suggest, with great humility, that it is high time that it stopped remaining under consideration; and, as the Government appear to have such tremendous difficulty in making up their minds, may I—with less humility—tell them what to do?

First, they should close the Moray Firth, and certain other valuable spawning grounds on the west coast of Scotland, to foreign trawlers, as they are closed to British trawlers. That is the first thing to do, and to do unilaterally; and, if they do it, they will be sustained by The Hague Court. Close the Firth to these foreign trawlers dragging their nets over the rocky bottom, and destroying the spawning grounds in these inshore waters. Secondly, and I am prepared to face up to this, in the Moray Firth and The Minch, at certain times of the year, there should be a close season, even for seine-netters, in order to protect the spawning grounds. Nobody could pretend that the seine nets do as much damage as the trawlers; but every country must protect its spawning grounds in the North Sea, if the North Sea fishing is to be saved. The only way to save the North Sea fishing industry is by protecting the spawning grounds; and, if the Norwegians have the guts to do this, why have not we?

4.3 p.m.

Mr. W. S. Duthie (Banff)

I am very glad to be able to follow my hon. Friend the Member for East Aberdeenshire (Sir R. Boothby) in a discussion of this amazing situation, for amazing it is. Indeed, if it were not such a grim one, it would be funny. Here are British trawlers excluded from part of our own territorial waters, and yet the foreigner may come in without let or hindrance and do what he likes.

This is a very serious matter. I was born on the shores of the Moray Firth, and I have seen the entire fish population of that area completely altered. There are no herring, because the spawning beds have been torn to shreds by foreign trawlers, while our own trawlers have been excluded during my whole lifetime. When we were children, we used to have a game which we called "Gunboats and trawlers," and if one could show a handkerchief during the pursuit, one was safe, because it was a foreign flag. This is a grim situation, and the Government must really face up to it. During the last 20 or 30 years, we have built up a small inshore fishing fleet of small vessels which cannot proceed very far out or indeed beyond the Moray Firth.

When spawning is taking place in the spring, in comes the foreigner, sees our vessels working, and sweeps across their gear. I must pay tribute to the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland on the efforts which he made, together with the Foreign Office, to get this matter settled. Here is a claim for £40 which a small inshore fishing vessel is to receive from Belgium on account of the depredations of a Belgian trawler. This is happening all the time; while our own vessels are not allowed to go to sea, the foreigners are in the Firth.

The spawning beds in the Moray Firth are undoubtedly one of the most important in these European waters of ours, and they have to be protected. Why should seine net vessels be allowed in the Firth if trawlers are excluded? The reason is that fish spawn on the rocky bottom. The trawlers can work on both soft and hard bottoms, but the seine-netters cannot. They must work in the open. They are denied access to half the Firth because of the bottom, whereas the trawler can fish over the whole area.

Moreover, our seine net vessels in the North have brought into being a close time, of two days a week—Saturday and Sunday—when they do not fish. That is a happy time for the trawler, because he can clean out the ground all the time, and the good that would otherwise be done by our vessels restraining themselves is lost through the depredations of the trawlers. This international Convention must look seriously at this problem and the Government must urge them so to do. If the Norwegian fjords and the Icelandic territorial waters are recognised as spawning grounds, the Moray Firth is the spawning ground par excellence of European waters.

Trawlers were excluded from the Moray Firth for a period of two years after the war, by international agreement behind the scenes. An order was issued by our Government excluding foreign trawlers, through a request made by the Foreign Office, and trawlers remained out of the Firth for two years. If that can be done for a period it can be done for all time. I hope that the Government will look at this matter again.

4.8 p.m.

Sir David Robertson (Caithness and Sutherland)

In 1889, when the restriction on trawlers using the Moray Firth was brought about, it was of great interest to Britain, particularly for the deep sea fishermen, to fish off the coast of Norway and Iceland. It is these areas where the bulk of the fish have been produced in the last half century or more. That situation no longer prevails. Norway, supported by The Hague Court, has closed all her inshore areas, and Iceland has followed suit, with the consent of no one except her own Government.

They have been forced to do it for the very same reason that my hon. Friend the Member for East Aberdeenshire (Sir R. Boothby) stated—over-fishing. I say to the Government—as I have said so often—that the most important problem facing our fisheries is the protection, not only of the waters of the North Sea and the Atlantic, but all the waters where our vessels fish. This is a common heritage, and I always felt that if a top level conference were held—attended by Ministers, with the power to say yes and no, and not exclusively by civil servants—we might get some progress in this matter.

The Moray Firth is hopelessly overfished. I walked into a Dutch fish merchant's office in Ymuiden and he handed me his quotation card, which offered Moray Firth plaice for sale to British and other European fish merchants. The Moray Firth plaice, which is the finest plaice ever produced, is almost extinct because of over-fishing. This area extends from Duncansby Head, in Caithness, to Rattray Head, in Aberdeenshire.

I have actually seen in recent years Belgian trawlers not only fishing in this area but fishing inside the three-mile limit off Caithness and doing it with complete impunity. Why that can happen I just do not know, and I think that the Government should find out. It may have been good policy for Britain in the past to sacrifice the fishermen of the Northern counties of Scotland for the greater good of the fishing community and the greater good of Britain, but that situation no longer exists.

I want to say very firmly to the Under-Secretary of State, as a representative of the Government which I support, that if this matter is not dealt with quickly it will be taken up by all the Highland Members, by hon. Members who represent fishing constituencies and possibly by all Scottish Members. It will be supported by many English Members, too. This situation must be put right. We can no longer stand for the exploitation of our fishermen. They are the people, and their wives, who send us here, and fishing is still our second industry. We see the labour force engaged year after year in fishing going into bankruptcy. I need not remind the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland that his Department is now trying to recover very large sums of money from loans to fishermen who are unable to repay them, not because of their inefficiency or lack of skill as fishermen, but because they cannot get a living out of these old fishing grounds.

This is a very serious problem. I was a member of a deputation with other hon. Members when we met the Minister, over a year ago. This matter was very fully discussed at that time, but the situation had not developed as it has today. I want to make it plain that the Government have not a stronger supporter than I, but that I have got to the end of my tether, and I am certain that many of my colleagues have.

We can no longer support a situation like this. The Norwegian thing is law and the Icelandic thing has the force of law, even if it is not law. We do not seem to be able to do anything about it, and all that those who represent the fishermen in the Moray Firth can do is to take action in this House. We have been most patient. We stood by and did not ask the Government for anything during the difficult negotiations with Iceland, which have now reached a complete impasse. We are not threatening because we want to threaten or to make things difficult for the Government. On the contrary we want to help, but we have a duty to the people who elected us here and to the people of Britain, to ensure that adequate stocks of fish are maintained, because they are urgently needed. I hope that the Under-Secretary will support the views that we have expressed.

4.14 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Anthony Nutting)

Let me say straight away that the views which my hon. Friends have expressed in this debate with so much deep sincerity will, of course, be carefully noted by Her Majesty's Government in dealing with the problem of the Moray Firth in particular and of fishing in general around our shores. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Sir R. Boothby) spoke about the permanent Commission which has been set up under the Overfishing Convention, and he suggested that certain proposals which have been put before that Commission were not very practical or sensible. I take it that he was not suggesting that we should refer the whole matter of the Moray Firth to the Commission for a solution.

I have myself considered that proposition because at one time it seemed to me to be a possibility, but I am convinced on reflection that such a course would probably only delay a solution of this problem still further since the Commission, before it can function effectively, has to settle an unfortunate argument that has already arisen and is in its early stages as to what precisely is the extent of its mandate, whether it has a mandate to undertake measures in the broadest sense on questions of base lines, territorial waters, and so on, or whether it is limited to the discussion and regulation of such things as net meshes, fishing gear, and so on. Therefore, that course is out, and I take it that my hon. Friend will agree with me.

Let me say straight away in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Sir D. Robertson) that, of course, there can be no question of the Government or the fishing protection authorities in this country tolerating fishing by foreign trawlers inside the three-mile limit. Various allegations have been made at Question time that I and the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries have answered about foreign trawlers fishing inside territorial waters. Frankly, those allegations are usually unfounded and very often exaggerated. Certainly, whenever a foreign trawler is found trespassing inside the British territorial waters action is taken under British law to seize it and to fine those responsible for its operation.

Sir R. Boothby

My hon. Friend must surely realise that if foreign trawlers are allowed into the Moray Firth and British trawlers are prohibited from entering the Moray Firth it is much easier for foreign trawlers to infringe the three-mile limit.

Mr. Nutting

I do not deny that, and I am coming on to the broader question of waters outside the three-mile limit but within the Moray Firth in a moment. My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland said he and other Scottish Members had had an interview with Lord Reading, and that he had promised action would be taken. I think my hon. Friend is, perhaps, reading rather a lot into what my noble Friend said on that occasion. He said the Government would give very urgent consideration to this problem, but he certainly did not undertake that action would be taken in the sense that my hon. Friend suggested, such as to close the Moray Firth.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Aberdeenshire will remember in the foreign affairs debate a day or two ago coming out as a strong advocate of "playing a new tune." Indeed, he referred to that himself today. The Minister of State in his speech in that same debate, before my hon. Friend the Member for East Aberdeenshire spoke, pointed out the unpleasant truth that international relations are not, unfortunately, a field in which one can play solo. One can play a new tune oneself in domestic affairs, but also, in international affairs one has to play in concert with other nations. As my hon. Friends will understand, the Government cannot go it alone, as the Americans say, in these fishery matters any more than we can go it alone in the broader field of international relations, and unfortunately, we cannot, therefore, undertake, as my hon. Friend asked me to do, to take action definitely and specifically in the directions he asks. My answer to him, therefore, cannot be a definite one on this occasion.

As he has said, this matter has been an issue for something like nearly 50 years, though it is not true to say it has been under consideration for all that time. It is true that it has been the subject of continuous pressure and representations by Scottish Members since before any of us here present came into this House. Only some 18 months ago the Government's attitude about the Moray Firth was stated. It is perfectly definite and straightforward. There is no question of reconsideration of the matter. My hon. Friend, no doubt, regards that attitude as wrong, but, at any rate, it was a definite and straightforward attitude.

The attitude of the Government was that they regarded the proposal to draw a base line across the mouth of the Moray Firth, which would incidentally cover something like 72 miles in length, as being quite contrary to international law, and, furthermore, to their obligations under the North Sea Fishery Convention of 1882, of which we are still a signatory. We did not accept the right of any country to draw base lines of over 10 miles in length nor to extend territorial waters beyond three miles. However, some 18 months ago, as my hon. Friend recalls to the House, The Hague Court ruled on the Norwegian fisheries case, and the situation was, as a result, completely changed.

For the first time, the International Court of Justice had ruled that in certain cases—and I stress that point—base lines considerably longer than 10 miles were permissible. This created a completely new situation. Ever since then Her Majesty's Government have been considering the question of the Moray Firth in relation to this change. We are still considering it. I do not think, although it may be exasperating to my hon. Friend, that we can readily be accused of dilatoriness for not having so far reached any firm decision about the Moray Firth because there are many conflicting, considerable and weighty factors involved in considering this matter.

After all, the fact that The Hague Court has endorsed a new Norwegian base line does not itself release us from our international obligations, and still less does it mean that we can "go it alone" and behave as we would like. My hon. Friend stressed the Norwegian case and the decision of The Hague Court in that matter, but he will remember that in the case of Norway there was a very indented coastline, and The Hague Court took that indented coastline very much into account in approving and endorsing the Norwegian base line.

In the case of Norway, the Court took into account that in fact the economy of Northern Norway as, indeed, the economy of many northern and Scandinavian countries is exclusively based and dependent on fishing. It is, of course, true of the Moray Firth fishermen—I entirely agree with my hon. Friends on that—but it is not a fact that the economy of the United Kingdom or even of Scotland is entirely dependent upon fishing.

My hon. Friend waxes very eloquent on the subject of herring but he also waxes eloquent on the subject of whisky, and therefore it is not a question entirely of a fisheries issue. As the hon. Member and the whole House know, because we have had many questions on this subject, the position is further complicated by our dispute over Iceland fishery limits. We did not accept and we have, indeed, hotly contested for a very long time Iceland's right to apply these restrictions, and in particular we have disputed and offered to refer to the International Court of Justice the 60-mile base line drawn across Faxa Bay.

In the case of Norway, the International Court added the rider that base lines must be reasonable in length. We maintain that in the case of Iceland the base line across Faxa Bay is an unreasonable base line.

Sir R. Boothby

But the Moray Firth is reasonable.

Mr. Nutting

My hon. Friend would hold that view and, no doubt, many other Scottish Members, too, but it is arguable whether the International Court would support them in that contention. I put it no higher than that this is another factor which has to be borne in mind.

Further, my hon. Friend will also realise that if we are to try to get a solution to the Icelandic fisheries problem, where a base line 60 miles in length is in dispute, it would hardly be very profitable or very reasonable for Her Majesty's Government to apply a base line of 72 miles in length across the Moray Firth.

Sir R. Boothby

We should then start all square.

Mr. Nutting

But it would hardly add to the weight of our representations, and still less to the convictions with which I, at any rate, could argue it.

I agree that it might not be of particular interest or importance to all Scottish fishermen if we were to get a modification of the Icelandic fishery limit, but I ask my hon. Friend to believe me when I say that there is no question of hypocrisy or hypocritical horror about the representations and protests that we have made about the Icelandic case. It is of considerable interest to English fishermen, at any rate, even though it may not be of considerable interest to Scottish fishermen, that we should get a modification of the Icelandic restrictions.

What is more, these fishery restrictions, as my hon. Friend knows well, are very contagious, and we do not know where they will end and how much Scottish fishing interests—even though they may not be particularly affected in the case of Iceland—may ultimately be affected by the spread of these restrictive tendencies. That is a factor which has to be borne in mind.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Aberdeenshire spoke of the depredation of the spawning grounds by foreign trawlers. I am not expert in these matters, but I am advised that it is arguable whether the foreign trawlers coming into the Moray Firth really harm the spawning grounds any more than, or to any considerably greater extent than do the seine-netters. I know my hon. Friend the Member for Banff (Mr. Duthie) disagrees with that point of view, but that is the advice that I have.

Mr. Duthie

I disagree profoundly, because the opinion of those along the coast who have lived their lives there, and know, is that the fish spawn in the hard and the hard is the place where the trawlers can operate. There must have been depredations, because the fish population has entirely altered since the beginning of the century, and there is nothing else to account for it except the depredations of the trawlers.

Mr. Nutting

That is my hon. Friend's view. My advice is to the contrary, but, naturally, what he says will be taken into account.

Even if it were merely a matter of British fishing interests—in that I include Scottish fishing interests—there are, as I have made plain, many complicated and conflicting considerations to be weighed up. But there are other matters to consider. Political, strategic and other questions are involved. Britain, as a great maritime and naval power, is clearly interested in preventing, rather than encouraging, the progressive reduction in the area of the high seas and the progressive increase in the area of territorial waters. I am told that some South American countries claim up to 50 miles as a territorial limit.

Sir R. Boothby

Quite right.

Mr. Nutting

I profoundly disagree with my hon. Friend. It is in the interests of the United Kingdom, as a maritime and naval power, to reduce, rather than to encourage, the tendency all the time to increase the area of territorial waters. All these matters are being considered by the International Law Commission set up by the United Nations, and we hope that its recommendation will add a little sanity and reason to the matter.

In conclusion, I would only say that I have great sympathy with the views expressed by my hon. Friends in the interests of Scottish trawler men and inshore fishermen who, naturally, feel aggrieved at the situation. Scottish trawler men perhaps feel aggrieved at the apparent discrimination against them whereby they are not allowed to fish. I regret I cannot be more definite, but what my hon. Friends have said will be borne in mind.

The Question having been proposed at Four o'Clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Half-past Four o'Clock.