HC Deb 28 April 1958 vol 587 cc24-6
35. Mr. Younger

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs if he will make a statement on the policy of Her Majesty's Government regarding territorial waters and fishing rights following the conclusion of the Geneva Conference on the Law of the Sea.

36. Mr. Hector Hughes

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs if he is aware of the inconvenience and loss caused to the fishing industry by the present uncertainty as to the extent, variety and positions of territorial sea limits; and if he will arrange to issue a White Paper setting out in tabular form separately the existing territorial sea limits which have been claimed by each of the various nations now represented in Geneva at the Conference on the Law of the Sea, the claims made by each of such nations to extension of those limits, and the claims allowed by each of those nations.

Commander Noble

No proposal before the Geneva Conference relating to the breadth of territorial waters and to exclusive fishing zones outside the territorial waters has secured the necessary two-thirds majority. The position is, therefore, that the only generally recognised rule in international law is that the breadth of territorial waters is three miles and that all waters outside that limit are high seas.

Claims to exclusive fishing outside the limits of territorial waters are not recognised by international law. In the absence of any international agreement on the subject to which they are a party, Her Majesty's Government reserve all their rights to the freedom of the high seas.

Early this morning the Conference adopted a Resolution inviting the United Nations General Assembly to consider calling a new conference to consider questions left unsettled at Geneva. If the General Assembly acts on this Resolution Her Majesty's Government hope that it will then be possible to reach a generally acceptable conclusion.

During the discussions at Geneva my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General and the Legal Adviser to the Foreign Office put on record the position as I have just described it. I think that position is quite clear, and it has not seemed necessary to make a further statement.

I do not think that it would be appropriate to lay a White Paper setting out the various claims to territorial waters, but I propose to place in the Library of the House a table, prepared by the Conference Secretariat, showing the limits claimed as at the opening of the Geneva Conference.

Her Majesty's Government fully share the grave concern of the fishing industry about the situation resulting from the absence of any decision on territorial waters at Geneva and its possible effects on the economy of this country as a whole. We have been and we are doing everything we can to safeguard the interests of the deep sea fishing industry.

Mr. Younger

While thanking the Minister of State for that statement, may I ask whether I can take it that the Government are fully aware of what a very serious breakdown this is in international co-operation and what a great hindrance it may be to the acceptance in future of the international forum as the place to settle matters which are of such close concern to particular interests in different countries? Are the Government taking every possible step to see that some kind of general agreement is reached and that in the meantime no unilateral action is taken? In view of the fact that most of the countries concerned are our N.A.T.O. allies, may we take it that every means will be used to prevent unilateral action by any of them pending the Conference and the General Assembly debate to which the Minister has referred?

Commander Noble

I certainly agree that we are extremely sorry that this important Conference was unable to reach agreement. As for the future, it was shown that other Governments share our views because the Australian Resolution, which was laid before the Conferrence yesterday but eventually not voted on, showed that many countries believe that, pending further consideration, States should refrain from making any claims to alter the status quo with regard to fishing. Canada, who herself had proposed at the Conference a twelve-miles fishing limit, supported this Resolution. Her Majesty's Government will certainly do anything they possibly can to prevent unilateral action from being taken.

Mr. Wall

Will my right hon. and gallant Friend make it quite clear that in the present circumstances there is no legal justification in international law for unilateral action to increase the fishing limits? Will he make representations to the Icelandic Government, since there have been reports that unilateral action by Iceland is intended? Is he aware that such action would be bound to have an effect on this country and to lead to the possibility of a trade war between the two countries which would do harm to both?

Commander Noble

In reply to the first part of my hon. Friend's supplementary question, I think that I made that clear in my Answer. In reply to the second part, Her Majesty's Ambassador has today urged the Icelandic Government not to take any precipitate action over her fishing limits.

Mr. Edward Evans

In the event of the Icelandic Government taking drastic action, as they have threatened to do, in extending their territorial waters for fishing to twelve miles from headland to headland, will any British vessel which is fishing in the present recognised areas he protected?

Commander Noble

As the House knows, the Admiralty operate fishery protection vessels. Happily, the question raised by the hon. Member has not so far arisen, and we hope that it will not arise.