HC Deb 28 April 1960 vol 622 cc401-7
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John Hare)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I should like to make a statement on the outcome of the second United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea.

The House will already be aware that at the Conference the proposal put forward by the Canadian and United States delegations on the breadth of the territorial sea and on fishery limits failed by a single vote to secure the necessary two-thirds majority. By this narrow margin a great opportunity has been lost of establishing a rule of law in this very difficult sphere. I am sure that the House will share my own great disappointment that the efforts of the 54 nations which voted for the only possible compromise failed when success was so nearly within our grasp. We must now consider with like-minded nations the situation resulting from the failure of the Conference.

We recognised from the outset that agreement could be reached only if there was a genuine readiness to compromise and, for our part, we made every effort to meet the desires and aspirations of other countries. The proposal put forward by Canada and the United States would have recognised a 6-mile territorial sea, and a 12-mile exclusive fishery limit, subject only to a 10-year period of phasing out for established fishing rights. Even this proposal was subject to qualifications which would have further safeguarded the interests of those states which are specially dependent on the fisheries off their coasts. But we supported it, as did many other countries from the Commonwealth, Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America.

I have made clear throughout that this proposal would have entailed great sacrifices by our own fishing industry. But the industry was ready to make these heavy sacrifices for the sake of a lasting settlement. I would like to pay a very sincere tribute to the loyal support and encouragement which all sections of the industry gave me throughout the whole of the negotiations.

In the absence of an international agreement, the Government maintain their former position on the breadth of the territorial sea and fishery limits. We will now have to examine the implications of the new situation with which we are confronted. We are well aware of the problems that will face our fishing industry, in particular the distant-water fleets. To function efficiently, the industry must be able to plan for a long period ahead, and it is now faced with continued uncertainty. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and I shall be discussing these very difficult problems with the industry as soon as possible.

During the Conference we declared our readiness to negotiate an agreement with Iceland that would have given her far more favourable treatment than the general terms of the Canadian-United States proposal. I also said that we would be willing to accept independent arbitration on this point. I am sorry that these offers had no response.

We remain ready, however, to negotiate with the Icelandic Government, but we do not recognise their unilateral claim for a 12-mile fishery limit and our naval vessels will continue to give assistance to our fishermen. But, as an earnest of our good will and our readiness to negotiate, our naval vessels will, for the time being, patrol only beyond 12 miles from Iceland.

Mr. Peart

The Opposition are sorry that nothing constructive emerged from this Conference. In view of the failure to accept a compromise which Britain was prepared to accept, will the Government immediately consult other Commonwealth countries, such as Canada, which played a very important part in this Conference?

Secondly, when the right hon. Gentleman says that he will consult the industry as soon as possible, what does he mean? The industry should be consulted immediately in view of the urgency and also the uncertainty caused to our fishing interests throughout our sea ports. I agree that it is right and proper that we should give our fishermen every protection consistent with international law. After all, they have behaved with great restraint. They are in a very hazardous occupation. They are a great part of our national life. We welcome the fact that the Government will ensure that there will be patrols up to 12 miles from Iceland.

Thirdly, will the right hon. Gentleman continue to press upon the Icelandic Government the fact that Britain is still prepared to negotiate?

Mr. Hare

I said that we must now consider with like-minded nations the situation resulting from the failure of the Conference. Certainly, our friends in the Commonwealth would be some of the first we would consult with on this point.

As I think I made clear in my statement, we have already offered to make special arrangements with Iceland. We were prepared to accept arbitration. Those offers still hold good, but it takes two to make a bargain.

Mr. G. R. Howard

I think that most hon. Members would agree that my right hon. Friend has done a very good job in Geneva and that he has put the position of the fishing industry very well. Can he give us some further information as to why the Icelandic Government have turned down the offer of arbitration?

Mr. Hare

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. I think that it is very unwise to give reasons why other Governments do things. I am particularly anxious not to say anything which might stop the possibility of an agreement, and I think that the House will be with me on this. I have said clearly in my statement that I hope we can get together, and I hope that the House will forgive me if I do not comment on the question that ray hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. G. R. Howard) asked.

Mr. Hoy

First, I should like to thank the Minister for the expeditious way in which he has presented his report. Will he ask the Fleck Committee to follow suit? That might help to solve some of the problems in the industry.

Secondly, in view of the failure of this Conference, which we all deplore, would it not be a very good idea if the right hon. Gentleman were to take action now, perhaps not so much with Canada and America, but with European countries, including the six countries which form the European Economic Community, the seven countries of the Outer Seven, all of which are in Europe and all of which have supported the 6 to 12-mile proposal at Geneva, and those fishing in the North Sea waters? Along these lines, perhaps, the right hon. Gentleman might be able to arrive at a settlement which would give satisfaction to all the countries of Europe.

I am perturbed about the last part of the right hon. Gentleman's statement, in which he says that as an earnest of our good will and our readiness to negotiate, our naval vessels will, for the time being, patrol only beyond 12 miles from Iceland". That calls for further explanation. Does it mean that the trawlers will go inside the 12-mile limit, say, up to the old 4-mile limit, which was recognised, and that the naval vessels will have to patrol outside that area so that protection will not be given to the vessels inside the area? This calls for a little more elucidation. There are other questions which I should like to ask, but I will leave them for our meeting with the Minister.

Mr. Hare

Throughout the whole of the Conference I was in the closest possible touch with our European neighbours and I shall continue to keep in touch with them on the problems which will face us as a result of the breakdown of the Conference.

I understand that today the trawler owners are having a meeting at which they will decide whether or not they will return to Icelandic waters. What they will decide is, of course, entirely up to them, because the Government do not recognise anything except the 3-mile limit. I hope that it is clear from what I have said that our naval vessels, for the time being, will not patrol within 12 miles. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] Because we have made it quite clear that we think this is an earnest of our good will and that we hope to make an agreement with Iceland. I hope that it is also clear that in so saying we do not prejudice in any way our future freedom to take such action as we think right.

Lady Tweedsmuir

If the Government stand by the former official limit outside Iceland should they not, therefore, until a possible agreement is reached, try to send naval vessels as protection, at any rate up to four miles, otherwise the position of the fishermen will be very ambiguous? If the Government stand on the original 4-mile limit, and recognise it in law, should not they provide the protection necessary?

On a completely different point, will my right hon. Friend say what is the position now of the voluntarily negotiated Faroes Agreement? Will that go on and if so, for how long?

Mr. Hare

The fishing industry will decide where it is going within the waters off Iceland. I understand that its decision as to actually where it goes will be taken today. I think that it would be wrong for me to say what will be the instructions of the trawler owners to their skippers. I want, however, to repeat that as an earnest of our good will we are temporarily confining the patrolling of our vessels to outside the 12-mile limit in the hope that we shall reach agreement with our Icelandic neighbours.

In reply to my hon. Friend's second point, the Faroe Islands Agreement runs until the middle of 1961. Then it will be due for revision.

Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas

Does the Minister appreciate that the view expressed that the proposals which the Government were prepared to accept were very generous is not exclusively shared on the other side of the House? It is also shared on this side of the House.

Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that we are all extremely concerned about the question of fishing within the 12-mile limit? Is it the case—it looks a little doubtful at the moment—that the Government are trying to persuade the trawlers in any way to go outside the 12-mile limit at present? What will be the position if, in fact, some trawl within the 12-mile limit? If a trawler goes within the 12 miles it may be seized by the Icelandic Government. What action will be taken by naval patrol vessels outside the 12-mile limit? May we have an answer to that question, as we are all very much concerned about it?

Mr. Hare

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for the first part of his supplementary question. I am glad that he thinks that it was generous. On what he said later, I would make this comment: the Government cannot persuade or order the trawler industry to do this or that. As an indication of that, I would remind him of what our fishing industry did as a gesture of its own at the Conference, when it withdrew entirely of its own free will from Icelandic waters. What the industry's decision will be I cannot tell at the moment, but I shall know as a result of this afternoon's meeting. It is for the industry to decide.

The action of Her Majesty's ships will be decided on the spot. Naturally, if our vessels are seen by Her Majesty's ships to be molested by Icelandic gunboats, it would be up to Her Majesty's ships to take the necessary action.

Mr. Grimond

When the right hon. Gentleman discusses this matter with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, will he bear in mind that there is some anxiety lest the restriction to certain outside waters means there are more trawlers on the ground round our coast, with consequent depredations of stocks of fish?

Mr. Hare

The hon. Gentleman, I think, realises how greatly concerned my right hon. Friend and I are about this whole question of conservation. These are matters which we keep constantly in mind when we have discussions with our friends in the fishing industry.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. There must be some limit to this discussion. There is no Question before the House.

Mr. Hoy

May I, Mr. Speaker, ask whether the Leader of the House can say something about a debate?

Mr. Speaker

Order. No doubt, on the appropriate occasion, that question can be asked.

Mr. Hector Hughes

On a point of order. I represent a fishing constituency, Sir. Surely I can be given an opportunity of asking a question.

Mr. Speaker

It is a matter of great distress to me. There are lawyers interested and fishermen interested and I should like, if I thought it accorded with my duty, to allow everyone who had a question to ask it. But there is no Question before the House and there must be some limit to this form of irregular discussion.