HC Deb 20 May 1953 vol 515 cc2077-82

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:

53. Miss Ward

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs if he will make a further statement on the negotiations with Iceland.

At the end of Questions:

Mr. Selwyn Lloyd

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I wish to answer Question No. 53.

Her Majesty's Government have throughout been convinced that a continuation of the dispute over the new fishery limits drawn by the Icelandic Government in their regulations of 19th March, 1952, could do nothing but harm to the interests of both countries.

Even before the introduction of the Icelandic Government's regulations, Her Majesty's Government sought to prevent the development of just such a dispute as has arisen. In January, 1952, they warned the Icelandic Government that failure to negotiate an ad hoc line to take account both of British fishing interests and of the need for conservation measures would cause deep resentment both among the British trawler owners and fishermen and would risk provoking retaliatory action. The regulations were nevertheless introduced by the Icelandic Government. Since then, Her Majesty's Government have made repeated attempts to achieve a solution of the dispute which would satisfy both parties.

In an exchange of Notes between 2nd May and 18th June of last year, Her Majesty's Government sought to persuade the Icelandic Government to agree to some modifications of the new limits, which would take into account the longstanding interests of the British fishing industry. The Icelandic Government refused, however, to consider any modifications.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary then proposed in October of last year that there should be talks between the fishing industries of the two countries without any restriction of subject. The Icelandic Government, however, refused to allow changes in their fishery limits to be so discussed. Conversations between my right hon. Friend and the Icelandic Minister of Fisheries were held in December last, but failed to find any basis for agreement upon a solution of the dispute.

Since the Icelandic Government had justified their regulations by reference to the need for conserving stocks, Her Majesty's Government proposed on 10th December, 1952, that the dispute should be treated as a conservation issue to be dealt with preferably in a technical body such as the Permanent Commission, under the 1946 Overfishing Convention. Thereupon the Icelandic Government said that they were not willing to treat the issue as one of conservation and were not prepared to abide by any recommendation made by the Permanent Commission.

Her Majesty's Government then considered a reference of these issues to the International Court at The Hague. To refer the whole dispute would be likely to involve lengthy delays. However, as my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs informed the House on 29th April, we proposed that one clear-cut issue capable of quick decision, namely, the baseline drawn across Faxa Bay, should be referred to the Court. On 18th February the Icelandic Government replied that they were ready to consider Her Majesty's Government's proposal only on condition that they received a definite guarantee that the British fishing industry's ban on landings of Icelandic fish in this country would be lifted as soon as agreement on the terms of reference to the Court had been reached.

At a meeting on 25th March between the British fishing industry and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, accompanied by my hon. Friends the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the industry refused to give an undertaking about lifting their ban, and insisted that the matter should be settled by the Permanent Commission set up under the Overfishing Convention.

Her Majesty's Government thereupon explained to the Icelandic Government that they were not in a position to give the desired undertaking on behalf of the industry. In a further note of 24th April the Icelandic Government felt unable to add anything to the reply which they had made on 19th February. Her Majesty's Government can only regard this as equivalent to a refusal of their proposal, and have so informed the Icelandic Government. It has further been made clear to them that Her Majesty's Government regret that they are unable to offer any further suggestions for a settlement of the dispute. They are of course willing to consider at any time any constructive proposals which may be put forward by the Icelandic Government with a view to resolving a situation which threatens to impair the traditional friendly relations between the two countries, which are now united by common membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

I would add that Her Majesty's Government have themselves taken the initiative in raising in the Permanent Commission under the Overfishing Convention the question of conservation of fish stocks in the neighbourhood of Iceland. At the first meeting of the Commission early this month all member countries, including, of course, Iceland, agreed that the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea should be asked to study the fisheries in northern waters generally, including those in the neighbourhood of Iceland, and to give the Commission their advice. While this action does not bear directly upon the dispute, I hope, none the less, that it will prove a useful and helpful step in this unfortunate situation.

Miss Ward

Can my right hon. and learned Friend say where he thinks we go from here in this matter?

Mr. Lloyd

I am sure my hon. Friend will realise that whereas Her Majesty's Government have put forward suggestion after suggestion, we had hoped that now Iceland would consider in this interval some opportunity of putting forward constructive suggestions of their own.

Mr. G. Brown

Is it not absolutely intolerable that since the Government pro- posed reference to the International Court, and since the Icelandic Government were prepared to accept the proposal if the status quo were restored, Her Majesty's Government have merely said that since the trawler owners will not accept it, we can do no more? Do not the Government think that they have some obligations in this matter?

Mr. Lloyd

It is quite beyond the power of this Government or any other Government by Act of Parliament to force fishermen to go to sea.

Mr. Brown

Surely the right hon. and learned Gentleman is aware that at no stage have the Government been in command of this. Is it not true that they have merely acted as a post-box between the trawler owners of Grimsby and Hull and the Icelandic Government? Why do not the Government take steps to bring the position to a head, and is not reference to the International Court the right way of going ahead with it?

Mr. Lloyd

Far from the suggestion that the Government have only acted as a post-box being true, I would point out that it is not only the trawler owners who are concerned, but the skippers and the people who go to sea. It is also a question of the fish merchants and the housewives. One other factor in the situation is that there have been very large quantities of fish landed in this country during this period which British fishermen have had some difficulty in disposing of. However, the position of the Government is that we would have liked this question to go to the International Court on the issue of the Faxa Bay baseline, but we are not prepared to introduce legislation to compel trawler owners, skippers or fish merchants to take off the ban.

Mr. T. Williams

In view of all the circumstances, ought we not to go direct to the International Court? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman tell us whether or not the Icelandic Government have yet ratified and are applying the Convention on over-fishing passed by the body to which he referred in 1946?

Mr. Lloyd

So far as the question of reference to the International Court is concerned, we cannot take it there by ourselves because the Icelandic Gov- ernment have not signed the requisite clause. We can only go by agreement. With regard to the question of the whole dispute going to the International Court, I would remind the right hon. Gentleman that even in the Norwegian case where both parties were agreed to go, the proceedings took nearly two and a half years. In this case, I think they would take even longer, and, therefore, we wish to find a quicker and simpler solution than that. With regard to the question of conservation, it is true that the Icelandic Government are parties to the Convention.

Mr. Boothby

In view of the prevailing conditions, will not the Government give renewed and urgent consideration to the question of protecting the Moray Firth from the depredations of foreign trawlers, including Icelandic trawlers, because meanwhile it is unilateral action on the other side, and we are taking no steps to protect our own spawning grounds?

Mr. Lloyd

I quite agree that my hon. Friend has introduced a very relevant factor, but we do not want to be driven into a position where we have to compete in restrictions of this sort.

Mr. G. Brown

Does not that make it all the more important that we should persuade the owners to stop holding up the reference of this point to the International court? It is the only way in which we shall get out of the difficulty without retaliatory action of that kind.

Mr. Lloyd

The right hon. Gentleman is suggesting that the Government should seek to persuade the trawler owners. He must have noticed that in my statement I said that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary met the trawler owners and the representatives of the other interests concerned. As far as persuasion is concerned, that has certainly been done, but we are not prepared to coerce them.

Mr. Woodburn

Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman say, in view of the fact that the Icelandic Government say that it concerns the conservation of fish, whether the banned part is being fished by Icelandic trawlermen whereas our fishermen are banned?

Mr. Lloyd

They are also banning their own trawlermen. There is the question of building up an inshore fishing industry within the screen of this regulation. Before this dispute arose we pointed out to the Icelandic Government that this is exactly the situation which would arise if we did not try to reach agreement between ourselves.