HC Deb 31 May 1961 vol 641 cc257-60
Mr. Hector Hughes (by Private Notice)

asked the Lord Privy Seal where and when a ship belonging to the Danish Government fired on and damaged the Aberdeen fishing vessel "Red Crusader", what physical and material damage respectively was sustained by the officers, crew and ship, what steps he has taken and proposes to take in the matter, and where the ship now is with her officers and crew.

The Lord Privy Seal (Mr. Edward Heath)

According to the preliminary reports we have now received—and I must emphasise to the House that they are preliminary reports—a Danish frigate arrested the Aberdeen trawler "Red Crusader" late at night on 29th May, for allegedly fishing within an area off the Faroe Islands from which British vessels are excluded under the Anglo-Danish Fisheries Agreement of 1959.

A boarding party—it is understood of one officer and one rating—from the Danish frigate was placed on board the "Red Crusader" and her skipper was ordered to proceed to Thorshavn. After proceeding some distance towards Thorshavn the skipper headed his vessel towards Scotland and refused to obey orders from the Danish frigate to make for Thorshavn.

The Danish vessel then fired blanks, followed by a warning shot across her bows and, later, solid shot. I understand that the trawler's radar scanner was damaged by small arms fire, that her bows were holed and that a pump was damaged. The trawler's officers and crew sustained no injuries.

On receipt of reports of the incident the Admiralty despatched two fishery protection vessels to investigate. They made contact with the "Red Crusader" and with the Danish frigate at 2.30 p.m. G.M.T. on 30th May and held a consultation with the commander of the Danish frigate and the skipper of the "Red Crusader". The Danish boarding party were then returned to the Danish frigate. It is understood the "Red Crusader" is at present making for Aberdeen, where she is expected later this afternoon.

The Danish Ambassador left an Aide-Memoire with the Foreign Office yesterday evening setting out the Danish Government's view of the incident.

I will consider what further steps should be taken when I have received a full report of the incident after the "Red Crusader" arrives at Aberdeen.

Mr. Hughes

Does the Minister realise that the civilised world will deplore this resort to violence by a nation which belongs to N.A.T.O. and to the United Nations? Does he realise, also, that this incident registers the abject failure of the Government to tackle and to solve the problems arising from the present dispute about territorial waters? Will he take steps to summon a conference of the relevant nations to be held in Scotland, a conference of the northern maritime nations of Europe most concerned in this and most involved, in order seriously to tackle and to solve these outstanding problems? What is the right hon. Gentleman doing about seeking compensation for the owners, the officers and the crew of the vessel which was damaged?

Mr. Heath

The House will agree that this is a most unhappy incident. We always want disputes of this kind to be dealt with peaceably on the spot if possible. There is no dispute over this particular limit at the moment. I am afraid that whatever final arrangements may be arrived at about territorial waters and fishing limits there is always the danger of an incident of some kind, because of the belief that the limit has been infringed.

Regarding compensation and matters of that kind, we must await the full report when the ship gets to Aberdeen.

Mr. Healey

While the Lord Privy Seal may agree that this incident qualifies for the description attached yesterday by the Prime Minister to another incident which we were then discussing, would he agree that it is inexcusable and unjustifiable, even if the complaint of the Danish Government against the trawler was justified, that it should have pursued this course of firing three shots at least at a British trawler? Will the Lord Privy Seal make clear whether the shots were fired on what the Danes consider their territorial waters, or whether the shots were fired on the high seas?

Mr. Heath

I have tried to give all the facts available to us at the moment. I prefer not to give any judgment on them until we have had an explanation.

Mr. Hoy

Is not the Lord Privy Seal aware that this is only one of a series of incidents in which British trawlers have been involved and that the British trawler industry asserts that the Danish protection vessels at the Faroes wilfully interfere with British vessels even outside the limits?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is a court case proceeding now in which an appeal has had to be taken by Scottish trawler owners, of which the Secretary of State for Scotland is aware? In view of these incidents, can the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that at least adequate protection will be afforded to British vessels which are fishing in waters legally recognised by other countries?

Mr. Heath

It is true that we have known of previous isolated incidents I will discuss the question of protection with the First Lord.

Sir G. Nicholson

Will my right hon. Friend endeavour to see that the Government, the House, and the country view this incident in proper perspective so that nothing clouds our relations with nations with which we have had the warmest friendship and old ties?

Mr. Heath

I am anxious that relations should not be impaired. That is why I would prefer to get further facts before saying anything more.

Mr. Gaitskell

How does the right hon. Gentleman propose to proceed when he has the further facts? Is it not obvious that there ought to be some sensible way of settling disputes of this sort without resorting to armed force between ourselves and Denmark?

Mr. Heath

There is machinery for dealing with these disputes. In this case it is rather difficult to give judgment without hearing the explanation of the skipper, as well as the Danish explanation, which we already have.

Mr. Hector Hughes

If, as stated by the Lord Privy Seal, there is no outstanding dispute with regard to territorial questions, does it not make the action of the Danish gunboat all the more outrageous? Will he pursue this matter on those lines?

Mr. Heath

No, Sir, because this was a dispute about the infringement of the existing arrangements.