HC Deb 04 May 1960 vol 622 cc1056-8
8. Mr. Wall

asked the Civil Lord of the Admiralty what steps are being taken to protect British trawlers fishing on the high seas off Iceland.

9. Mr. Fletcher

asked the Civil Lord of the Admiralty what arrangements are being made, following the breakdown of the Geneva Conference, for protecting British trawlers fishing on the high seas outside territorial waters recognised by Her Majesty's Government.

Mr. C. Ian Orr-Ewing

I would refer my hon. Friend and the hon. Member to the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on 28th April.

Mr. Wall

Would my hon. Friend make it quite clear that if a British trawler is fishing up to the four-mile limit and is interfered with by an Icelandic patrol vessel, she has the protection of Her Majesty's Navy?

Mr. Orr-Ewing

I cannot make that clear. If my hon. Friend refers to the original statement, he will see that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said: 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 will be up to Her Majesty's ships to take the necessary action." —[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th April, 1960; Vol. 622, c. 406] I cannot go further than that at this stage.

Mr. Paget

Does not that suggest an innovation of very great constitutional importance? Is it not a basic constitutional right that our ships when on their lawful occasions on the high seas have a constitutional right to the protection of the Royal Navy, and is it being suggested that that right will be denied and taken away in this sort of off-hand way by a statement of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food?

Mr. Orr-Ewing

We are not taking away any right. In an effort to create good will and to work towards a solution of this very difficult problem, following the Geneva Conference and the breakdown of that Conference despite the most patient and far-reaching desire of this nation to reach a solution, we are patrolling outside the 12-mile limit as an earnest of good will, and I hope that our gesture will be matched by a gesture on the other side.

Mr. Paget

This is as constitutionally serious as suspending habeas corpus.

Mr. G. R. Howard

In view of yesterday's news that a British trawler has been allowed into Reykjavik and the fact that the Icelandic Government have dropped their own prosecutions for fishing offences during the dispute, might we not hope that at the present time there is some sign of a better understanding between Iceland and this country?

Mr. Orr-Ewing

I think that it is encouraging that, for the first time, there has been a move in that direction, and I am sure that the Royal Navy, with its good sense and statesmanship, will continue to try to engender good will as it has done in the past.

Mr. Fletcher

Would not the Minister agree that, while we all regret the breakdown of the Geneva Conference and appreciate the more tolerant attitude shown by Iceland, pending some further conference and clarification it is essential to British interests that the Admiralty should assert its constitutional right to protect British trawlers without the three-mile limit?

Mr. Orr-Ewing

We have made this gesture in an effort to create good will. It is a worth-while gesture and it is encouraging that yesterday we received a gesture on the other side.

Mr. T. Fraser

Is it right that Ministers should say that the commanders of these naval vessels will exercise their discretion if there should be any incident between the three-mile and twelve-mile limit? Have not the commanders of these vessels the right to expect that some advice should be given to them by Her Majesty's Ministers as to what action they should take in the event of there being any trouble within this limit?

Mr. Orr-Ewing

In a case like this it is probably some advantage not to make all these facts publicly known. These are complicated matters of international law, the rights of hot pursuit and so on, and I do not think that they can be dealt with very easily by Question and Answer.