HC Deb 26 January 1971 vol 810 cc507-16

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Goodhew.]

12.43 a.m.

Mr. Patrick Wolrige-Gordon (Aberdeenshire, East)

I am grateful that the House has gone on to the Adjournment at an earlier hour this morning than we might have expected a little earlier. I hope that that will help the Government to look favourably on the request for which this debate has been sought.

This is a story of a modern Treasure Island, except that the pirates tend to wear bowler hats and striped shirts and the treasure is not diamonds and rubies, but crayfish. The island is called Tristan da Cunha. It is administered by the Governor of St. Helena on behalf of the Foreign Office, and I am grateful that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, a distinguished Minister from the Foreign Office, will be replying to the debate.

I should like to start by dealing with the rôle of the Foreign Office in this matter. From 1961 onwards, it started a series of agreements between the Governor of St. Helena and a company called the South Atlantic Isles Development Group about the exploitation of the crayfish grounds off Tristan da Cunha. In this matter the South Atlantic Isles Development Group was the successor to a South African company which had had somewhat similar rights since 1948 but which had gone into liquidation, although I understand that many of the directors and the personnel of the two companies are the same. Nevertheless, under this fresh series of agreements, various obligations were imposed upon the company, such as an obligation to rebuild the factory following the islanders' return in 1963 after the volcanic disturbances in 1961, which we all remember, in return for a cash agreement and exclusive fishing rights.

I should have thought that the Foreign Office would have been extremely pleased at its success in effectively obtaining the services of a commercial enterprise of this kind prepared to undertake developments and to contribute in that way to the well-being and welfare of Tristan da Cunha and its inhabitants. But not so. The Foreign Office has been extremely shy of letting the details of these agreements be known.

When I first became interested in the matter, I asked for a copy of the contract, in a letter dated 2nd August, 1970. In a reply dated 10th September, I was told that these were not "public" documents—an interesting word which, to me, means that they were at least not secret documents—and I was sent only a copy of clause 2 paragraphs (1) and (2) of the main agreement which had been made in 1963 and a copy of clause 1 of the supplemental agreement, which, I was told, constituted the substance of the agreements which had been entered into.

Those clauses said nothing about the real heart of any agreement in my experience, namely, the financial details. However, fortunately for lovers of the whole truth, the financial details in the contract and supplemental agreements had to be lodged with the court in South Africa as a result of the court action taken against my constituent's fishing boat "The Golden Promise" at the instance of the South Atlantic Isles Development Company. Consequently, it has become much easier to see why the Foreign Office has been so shy about the details of the agreements. In fact, it has been taken for a monumental ride.

I shall not go into that further at this stage. I have the figures for those who want them, but I am much more concerned—this is the reason why I am raising the whole matter tonight—about my constituent Andrew Buchan and his family, who own the fishing vessel "The Golden Promise". Early in 1970, my constituents were contacted by another South African company, Delfi Produkte, with a view to their going fishing outwith South African territorial waters. It is not uncommon for fishing boats from my part of the world to travel very far to prosecute their trade. It was then suggested that the skipper of this boat might go fishing between three and 12 miles off Tristan da Cunha, and he was shown a letter dated 17th April, 1970, signed by a Mr. E. H. Robins of the Foreign Office, enclosing a copy of an ordinance No. 3 dated 1967 which specifically controlled fishing up to three miles off Tristan da Cunha but not beyond three miles.

So off he went. When he arrived he got a rough reception. Although Mr. Robins' letter, written in 1970, specifically stated that there was no other ordinance regulating fishing within territorital waters, this was not true. There had been another ordinance the following year which had put the limits and the controls thereof out not to three miles but to 12 miles. Mr. Robins' letter had been written in April. If he and the Foreign Office had been accurate, then I doubt whether my constituent would ever have put himself in the unfortunate position in which he finds himself today. In fact, I am certain he would not. Although the Foreign Office corrected its mistake on 29th May, some six weeks later, by that time "The Golden Promise" was in South Africa.

The ship had been at sea for only a week when the first letter was written, and it would have been extremely simple to have turned back once they had received this most important news. As it was, they went ahead and the ordinance of 1967, which encouraged them to go ahead, only confirmed their decision to go to Tristan since it made it so specifically clear that a licence to fish was needed only up to three miles. So "The Golden Promise" arrived in Tristan on 25th June. It had a very cool reception from the Administrator, who was, of course, only doing his duty.

On 26th June there came this extraordinary episode of a telegram from the Foreign Office to that Administrator—or rather the acting Administrator—saying inter alia that the owners of "The Golden Promise" would prefer her to return to Scotland immediately. This was such a lie that it may be untactful to repeat it, except as an indication of the line the Foreign Office was to pursue from then on, throughout this whole affair, namely to that he should give up and go home, with only one deviation. That was to suggest that Mr. Gaggins, the chairman of the South Atlantic Isles Development Group, might be persuaded to share his exclusive concession with "The Golden Promise". However, at that point their efforts at diplomacy in this direction had failed completely and "The Golden Promise", after one abortive sortie to Tristan, had no option but to return to Cape Town, where she has been ever since.

The vital question is, what happens to my constituents and the ship now? My constituents are more or less ruined. Mr. Buchan had to sell his new home. Understandably, he feels quite bitter that he had been allowed to get in so bad, while the Foreign Office appears to be interested only in a South African business man, and the ex-Administrator on Tristan, who is now that South African business man's righthand man. Mr. Buchan's only remaining asset is, I believe, his boat, "The Golden Promise", fully equipped to participate in the valuable cray-fishing development at Tristan, and the only chance for him and his family to return from ruin is to participate in that fishery.

I know quite well that the Foreign Office does not like that suggestion because it is highly compromised by the agreements. In the important agreement of 1963, paragraph 2 of clause 2 contains an undertaking by the Governor that he will not grant to any other person, firm or company any concession or any other facilities in respect of fishing rights. A later clause, clause 12, suggests that the Governor may terminate the agreement, if the company does not comply with its obligations, provided that he first lets the company know what remedy it can make.

The document completely ties the Foreign Office in its own swaddling clothes, and the later ordinances are not much better. However, in those later ordinances there is definitely a slightly different note. The 1967 ordinance, in paragraph 4(1), says that the Governor may grant to any person, on such terms and conditions and for such areas within Tristan da Cunha as he may, in his discretion, decide, a licence or licences to take and process fish for export. But even this is hedged by paragraph 4(2) enabling the Governor to grant an exclusive licence.

Nevertheless, it is plain that the question of licences is still within the powers of the Governor. That, at least, is something, because we are, after all, discussing what is still a British possession.

The question arises: could the South Atlantic Isles Development Group afford to allow the British Government to give "The Golden Promise" a helping hand? I think that it could not only afford it but it is in its own interests, and, of course, it is absolutely essential for my constituents.

The Foreign Office makes much of the benefit to Tristan da Cunha of the benevolence of this company, because it is benevolence, in the sense that there was nothing in the agreements to force the company to do the splendid things which I shall shortly describe, beyond paying the royalties on its profits, which largely meet the cost of administering this tiny population. Otherwise the company has provided such benefits as electricity for the island, available only during factory hours; a harbour, which is a beach with two small breakwaters, usable only by dinghies, which have to be beached before another can enter; a hospital, which is a corrugated hut; and an island store.

When one realises that this company gets the exclusive return on all investment in Tristan, my own surprise is that it has done so little. I fear that the Foreign Office may have a Victorian idea of modern convenience, especially as it admits the knowledge, which is plain to anybody who knows the shellfishing industry, that the company is making enormous profits —so enormous, in fact, that it had a new boat costing 300,000 rand sailing on its maiden voyage this week, has another new boat ready next month, and has yet another building in Durban at the moment, in addition to the two at work now.

Why cannot "The Golden Promise" be included in this operation in a British possession which is being most gainfully exploited by a foreign company. The company's new boats are 250 gross registered tonnage, so they are big boats. The directors admit that they are working within the three-mile limit. "The Golden Promise" would fish between the three-mile and the twelve-mile limit, so that it would not affect the stocks, as crayfish breed only in shallow waters. It would not affect the stocks caught tradtionally by the islanders or, of course, by the licensee. It would fish only between the three- and the twelve-mile limit as in April, 1970, it understood that it could. Thereby it has the only chance open to it to get as near as fishing boats can, back on the path of financial rectitude, and to give these unfortunate constituents of mine a chance to make their recovery.

I beg the Minister to consider their desperate case favourably. If my hon. Friend will not grant my request, may I ask him to tell me how he sees their future? They cannot get work and they are extremely vulnerable. I believe that the Government have a responsibility to help our own people abroad, or of course at home, which they will rightly not lay down.

1.0 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Anthony Kershaw)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen-shire, East (Mr. Wolrige-Gordon) for raising this important matter tonight. I expected him to do so, because he has such a good reputation in the House for looking after the interests of his constituents that I knew that if any one of them were in trouble he would soon be on his feet here on his behalf. I knew also that the fact that the Buchans, his constituents, were in trouble far away in South Africa would only make him the more diligent on their behalf.

I am grateful also because it gives me the chance to do what I can to clear up some unfortunate misunderstandings. The first is this. My hon. Friend complains that his constituents were misled into believing that they were free to fish off Tristan da Cunha, but what I think happened was this. On 20th March, 1970, a firm of solicitors inquired of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in general or, as the firm described it, hypothetical terms, whether a British flag ship was entitled to fish within the territorial waters off Tristan da Cunha. They did not mention names. As a matter of fact, to this day I have only my hon. Friend's assurance that this letter referred to his constituents. In particular, they did not refer to any waters other than territorial waters.

On 17th April, 1970 the Foreign and Commonwealth Office replied by sending them a copy of the ordinance relating to fishing in territorial waters. They replied in fact to the question they were asked, and to no other. The ordinance makes clear that to export fish from territorial waters requires a licence.

My hon. Friend complains that his clients were misled, but I cannot accept that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was at fault. It knew nothing of his constituents, and had been asked only one hypothetical question, which it had answered correctly.

Furthermore, whatever inferences the Buchans may have drawn, by 17th April, when the letter was written, they had already, on 31st March, signed an agreement to charter "The Golden Promise" and, so far as I know, had left Scotland for Tristan da Cunha. Clearly the letter of 17th April can have had no influence on their judgment.

On 1st May, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had a further letter from the solicitors concerned asking, amongst other things, about fishing for export in an area from three to 12 miles from Tristan da Cunha. They were told on 29th May, as my hon. Friend has said, that it was not allowed without a licence. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office still knew nothing about the Buchans or "The Golden Promise", but on 12th June "The Golden Promise" at last swam into our ken.

A telephone call from Fraserburgh, which I am given to understand, but I do not know for certain, was either from a firm of solicitors, or possibly from Mr. Buchan senior, who I believe was still in Scotland at that date, told us that "The Golden Promise" was on its way to fish at Tristan da Cunha and that it was now realised that it was not allowed to do this. Could we therefore, the speaker asked, make an exception? The Foreign and Commonwealth Office had to say "No", whereupon the speaker said that "The Golden Promise" would return to Scotland.

That was duly telegraphed to the acting Administrator of Tristan da Cunha, and this seems to be the origin of the episode to which my hon. Friend has made reference and to which he takes such exception, but again I must disclaim any responsibility on behalf of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

There are one or two general points which time does not allow me to develop in full but which I feel I ought to mention quickly. Perhaps I should say in passing that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is not shy about the agreement which it has entered into with the concessionaires, but that agreement is, after all, a commercial agreement between the South Atlantic Islands Development Corporation and the Governor of St. Helena. It is true that the present concessionaries have a monopoly. Might I say also, in passing, that they are not South African. It is a Bermudan company and most of the personalities concerned are British. It is true that the present concessionaires are making good money. But I must add that before their time no one ever made the fishing pay. They all went broke one after another. No other fishing interests—until "The Golden Promise" hove in sight—have shown the slightest interest in this fishing.

Crayfish are the only natural resource of the Island of Tristan da Cunha. The revenue from it, as my hon. Friend mentioned, pays for almost all the cost of the administration. It is vital, therefore, that it is not over-fished and that it is exploited efficiently. Competition between several fishers on those grounds would surely result in over-fishing, as it has in other crayfish grounds in the area of South Africa. The concessionaires are bound by their undertaking not to over-fish. They are also in pursuit of greater scientific knowledge than we have at present about the crayfish in that remote part of the world, undertaking scientific studies and appointing a full-time officer for that purpose, so as to preserve the stocks of crayfish which are so valuable to the island.

The islanders themselves freely negotiate their prices, and I am told that they are well satisfied with the arrangement. For example, in recent correspondence I am told that during the first fortnight of November last, during which there were six fishing days, four fishermen earned a total of £358 for lobster caught, exclusive of their daily pay and overtime, and all their gear was supplied by the concessionaires. For such reasons and for others which my hon. Friend has mentioned, the islanders are not prepared to welcome new fishermen. I understand that the facilities which have been installed on the island by the proceeds from the crayfish industry are not exactly what we should expect in this country, but nevertheless they are a start.

The Governor of St. Helena, having given a sole concession, cannot without bad faith revoke it. To sum up the position, I must unfortunately make it clear beyond any doubt that "The Golden Promise" will not be given a licence to fish off Tristan da Cunha.

Lastly, I come to what we can now do for the Buchans and their friend. Owing to my hon. Friend's good offices, the Consul-General in Cape Town has contacted them—they did not recently contact him—and he has told them that he will do his best to put them in touch with interests who may be able to give employment to "The Golden Promise", or to the Buchans and their colleague, Mr. Sutherland, individually. Whilst I understand their reluctance to be parted for even a short time from that boat, I understand nevertheless that for individual employment there is really no problem for these skilled and expert fishermen.

Unfortunately, they have, up to now, refused to entertain any proposition. They say that Her Majesty's Government are responsible for their plight and must remedy it. I am afraid that I must say to them that, despite the able and devoted advocacy of their case by my hon. Friend, Her Majesty's Government are not responsible for their misfortunes and that they would be well advised now to listen to the advice of Her Majesty's Consul-General in Cape Town and to take such steps as are open to them to improve their position.

I am sorry not to be able to give my hon. Friend, who has pursued this question most closely and diligently, a more satisfactory reply, but I am afraid that the facts are compelling upon me, and I have to speak as I have spoken.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes past One o'clock.