HC Deb 13 July 1972 vol 840 cc1850-4
Mr. McNamara

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the breakdown of talks with the Government of Iceland over their intention to extend its fishing limits to 50 miles.

The Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Joseph Godber)

Her Majesty's Government deeply regret that it proved impossible to reach agreement on an interim arrangement at the talks in Reykjavik this week.

These talks were a continuation of ministerial talks held in London in May and June. At every stage we have made genuine efforts to meet Icelandic concern about the conservation of fish stocks.

e have also been willing to recognise a degree of preferential treatment to Iceland as the coastal State. We have put forward a number of proposals designed to limit the catch of British trawlers without asking for a corresponding limitation from Icelandic vessels. Indeed, the final offer made this week could have had the effect of reducing the British catch by up to 30 per cent. of the 1971 figure. I am sorry to say that even this proved unacceptable.

The first proposal made by the Icelandic Government this week would have had the effect of reducing our catch by about 80 per cent. No British Government could tolerate such a proposal.

At the final stage of the discussions the Icelandic Government suggested that they might be able to put forward further proposals which would be less restrictive but which included the right to exclusive fishing for Icelandic vessels in certain areas and full enforcement powers. They were not, however, willing to agree to our suggestion that experts should proceed to an immediate examination of even this proposal.

We remain ready to consider any further definite Icelandic proposals for interim arrangements, but meanwhile we have reserved all our rights in the area outside the present 12-mile limit. We also propose to make an immediate application to the International Court for an indication of interim measures to be observed by both parties pending a definitive solution of this dispute.

Mr. McNamara

I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for that reply and for showing how reasonable the British Government have been in their approach to this difficult problem. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware of the distress and dismay caused by this threat in all constituencies with fishing interests. This applies especially to Hull, which has seriously high and continuing unemployment. If we obtain an interim injunction, will the British Government enforce our rights within the present agreed limits, or shall we have a repetition of the cod war? Have we sufficient ships to protect our trawlers? Do the Government intend introducing sanctions against Iceland, and are our allies co-operating in this—or is Keflavik airport the price that the Icelandic Government pay to keep the American market so that they can with impunity ignore the claims of the British fishing fleet?

Mr. Godber

I recognise the seriousness of this matter for the British fishing industry in Hull and in our other ports. But at this stage I have indicated that we are in the process of making our application to the International Court. We must await the outcome of that. I note what the hon. Gentleman says about the protection of British fishing interests. This is very much in our minds. But I prefer not to make any definitive statement about that until we see the outcome of these proposals.

Mr. James Johnson

Is the Minister of State aware that I believe that I speak for hon. Members on both sides of the House who represent fishing ports when I say that it is to be hoped that the right hon. Gentleman will stand firm on this? We compliment him on what he has done so far. Is he aware of repercussions from other nations and that others, like Norway, may follow this example if we do not enter the EEC? Will he consider urgently the possibility of calling a conference of nations which fish in the North-East Atlantic—there are 14 besides Iceland—with a view to discussing any combined action that we can take in this matter? What talks is he having with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence? He will know that skippers and deck-hands intend to fish after 1st September even if this deadlock continues. Therefore, he must ensure that these men are protected when they are fishing inside the 50-mile limit.

Mr. Godber

I agree about the very serious nature of this matter for the fishing ports, and I have indicated our attitude. As regards other nations concerned, we are in close touch with some of them. I have noted the hon. Gentleman's proposal about a conference, and I shall consider that carefully. We believe that the action that we are taking at the moment is the best way to help to bring matters forward.

Dame Irene Ward

How long does my right hon. Friend think it will be before our application is considered by the International Court at The Hague? This is very important for all our fishing interests, which have to plan for the future.

Mr. Godber

I recognise that. As this is an interim application, I understand that it will be considered by the court before the end of this month. We hope to get its decision fairly shortly thereafter.

Mr. Peart

While we regret that it is impossible to reach agreement, we recognise that this could have serious employment effects in all the fishing areas in this country. While we do not want a cod war, I hope that the Government will continue to insist that we must have access to our traditional fishing grounds. Although there has been a breakdown and we wait for a conference on this matter, I hope that we shall still press for negotiations with the Icelandic Government and that we shall continue to talk.

Mr. Godber

It is because of our insistence on the rights of British fishermen to these grounds that the negotiations have broken down. But it is our desire to continue discussions, if only the Icelanders are willing to put forward proposals or to agree to consider proposals which will enable us to reach a reasonable solution.

Mr. Hastings

Does my right hon. Friend suspect that the Icelanders may have learned their tactics from Mr. Bobby Fischer, and will my right hon. Friend consider as a counter-move sending a message of congratulation to Mr. Spassky on winning the first game?

Mr. Grimond

When the Minister of State is discussing this matter further with his colleagues and with other nations, will he also see whether some estimate can be made of the likely effect on other fishing areas if the 50-mile limit is enforced, and will he discuss with other nations whether steps are necessary to prevent the over-fishing of other areas if trawlers are excluded from the 50-mile area round Iceland?

Mr. Godber

All these factors are very much in our minds, and that is why we have to resist firmly the Icelandic Government's proposal. It must have far-reaching effects not only in this area but in many others. That is precisely why we cannot give way to this extreme proposal from Iceland.

Mr. Crosland

I am sorry that the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary did not make this statement himself in order to emphasise to the Icelandic Government the extreme importance that we attach to this matter. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that no one wants to see a resumption of the cod war, which no one can win, but that those right hon. and hon. Members who represent fishing ports are not prepared to see our distant-water fleet ruined by decisions of the Icelanders? It is difficult to discuss these matters in public, but will the right hon. Gentleman consider urgently the possibility of calling a meeting of representatives of the trawler-owners and trade unions and hon. Members who represent fishing ports in order to go through all the measures that we might take to induce the Icelanders to a more reasonable frame of mind?

Mr. Godber

I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman's first comment was altogether necessary. In this Government we are united. On this matter I have the full support of my right hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary. Dealing with the right hon. Gentleman's main point, the calling of such a conference would be a little premature. We want to try to proceed with effective negotiations, and we have made clear to the Icelanders that we are willing to continue. Meanwhile, we must exercise our rights and call in aid the 1961 agreement, which has definite proposals. That is why we have taken the matter to the International Court.