HC Deb 30 November 1972 vol 847 cc636-43
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Sir Alec Douglas-Home)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I wish to make a statement.

My noble Friend, the Minister of State, met Icelandic Ministers in Reykjavik on 27th and 28th November in a further attempt to reach an interim settlement on the fisheries dispute. I am very sorry to have to inform the House that our efforts were unsuccessful.

Since our earlier discussions in July the International Court of Justice has given an interim order under which Iceland is not to enforce her regulations against British vessels outside the 12-mile limit and we should reduce our catch to a maximum of 170,000 tons a year, and our policy is based on this order. However, in order to reach an interim agreement we did not insist on catching 170,000 tons and we were prepared to consider any reasonable method of limitation.

The proposal which, with the support of the British fishing industry, my noble Friend put to the Icelandic Government was based on a report made by British and Icelandic officials in October. This suggested a negotiating bracket between 17 per cent. and 25 per cent. below the British catch of 1971. We suggested that one-third of the waters round Iceland should be closed to British vessels at any one time. We also accepted Icelandic conservation areas and recognised that there might be a need for special arrangements for areas containing fixed gear. Our industry was also prepared to give an assurance on the future composition or tonnage of the fishing fleet. We offered to negotiate on the midpoint of the bracket proposed by officials—namely a catch of 163,000 tons—about 21 per cent. below the 1971 figure.

The Icelandic Government proposed that half the area should be closed at any one time. They also wanted further extensive areas to be reserved for the smaller Icelandic vessels and pressed for the exclusion of all our freezers, as well as trawlers over 180 ft. in length or 750–800 tons in size. This would have excluded our most modern vessels and constituted a damaging precedent. We estimated that the total effect of these restrictions would be to cut our catch by at least 60–70 per cent.

In an attempt to bridge the gap, we suggested a different approach in the form of a 10 per cent. reduction in the actual fishing effort—the number of days fishing—by British vessels in the disputed waters. We estimated that this would have resulted in a 25 per cent. reduction in the catch, giving us perhaps 158,000 tons, compared with 208,000 tons in 1971. However the Icelandic Government was not prepared at this stage to accept this suggestion as a basis for further negotiation and suggested no alternative.

My noble Friend offered to extend her stay but the Icelandic Government did not consider we could take matters further at this stage. I hope, however, that when they have considered our latest proposals further they will recognise that they meet their twin requirements of conservation and coastal state preference. This method would still preserve the livelihood of our own fishermen. For our part we are ready to resume negotiations at any time. Meanwhile we will continue the proceedings before the International Court.

We continued to keep in touch with the Federal German Government throughout these negotiations.

Mr. Crosland

The right hon. Gentleman's statement is very sad for my constituency and all the other fishing ports. It is clear from it, and from what we knew already, that the Icelandic proposals were preposterous, and not meant to be taken seriously, and that it was the Icelandic Government, and they alone, who were responsible for breaking off the talks.

I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman four questions. First, did the Minister of State have the slightest indication when she returned that the Icelandic Government had any serious intention of continuing the negotiations during the winter?

Secondly, as British trawlermen are fishing in the grounds with the full backing of international law and of the International Court of Justice, will the Government strengthen as necessary the naval presence in the area, particularly to avoid incidents of harassment? As I have told the House more than once, one of these days many lives will be lost if such harassment goes on.

Thirdly, will the Government also make it clear to the Icelandic Government that if British trawlermen's lives are lost due to the closure of Iceland ports and fjords to British trawlers, the responsibility will be that of the Icelandic Government, and theirs alone?

Fourthly, will the right hon. Gentleman tell us a little more—he just referred to it in his last sentence—of what is meant by the newspaper reports this morning about the actions of the West German Government?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

My noble Friend the Minister of State deliberately kept open the possibility of more negotiations, because everyone realises how serious would be the consequences of a cod war on the industry. I shall have the opportunity in the NATO Council next week to see the Foreign Minister of Iceland, and I shall take advantage of it. But I must say that the Minister of State returned with very little hope that the discussions could be resumed in a meaningful way.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about a naval presence. Yes, naval ships will be on station as required.

The responsibility for any loss of life or damage is that of the Icelandic Government.

As to the Federal German Government's actions, we have kept in touch with the Federal German Government all the time on the negotiations. I should like a little more notice before answering the right hon. Gentleman's question about the Federal German attitude as reported in the newspapers.

Mr. Wall

I very much regret the breakdown in the talks. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that each time the two Governments have met Britain has made concessions, and will he make it clear now that we have no more to give, that we have gone as far as we can? Will he also say quite clearly that if there is any more harassment of British trawlers on the high seas the Royal Navy will move in to protect them, and will he co-ordinate this protection with the West Germans?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I do not see how we could make any more concessions. But my hon. Friend will understand—certainly the industry does; we are in touch with it every day—how important it is that we should reach a settlement if at all possible, because the alternative of a cod war is terrible.

I have made it plain to the Icelandic Government that the Royal Navy must protect our fishermen if they are interfered with. That is quite clear, and I hope that it will be understood by the Icelandic Government.

Mr. Grimond

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that it would strengthen the hands of those of us who have to argue our case, which seems to be good, with the Icelandic Government if he could state the reason in equity why we can apparently claim the oil under the sea far beyond the existing limits, but they cannot claim the fish? There must be some good reason, but at present I do not see what it is.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Nor do I. As to the relationship between fish in the sea and oil under it, perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will put down a Question.

Mr. W. H. K. Baker

Will my right hon. Friend accept that the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall) represents the views of many hon. Members, not least myself? Will he assure the House that all possible efforts will be made to bring about a solution of the problem with Iceland, because otherwise it will have vast implications not only for the deep-water fleet but for all other sections of the British fishing industry?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Yes, Sir. I accept that.

In answer to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond), I will go a little further now. The difference is in the international law as applied to the law of the sea and to the law of minerals under the sea.

Mr. James Johnson

Are not the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary and all those of us who are Members for fishing ports faced with a savage dilemma? If there is any possibility of keeping the door open, it would not be sensible to send in the fleet between the 50-mile and 20-mile limit. But if Mr. Josefsson, the Fisheries Minister, and his three Communist colleagues in a Cabinet of seven make any chance of future talks nugatory, he must tell the House and all those Members representing fishing ports quite clearly that he will not hesitate to send in our vessels to support our constituents, whether skippers or deck hands, who may get into difficulties.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

We have a legal right to fish up to 12 miles. I must not go into the internal politics of Iceland. That would be improper. But where we have a right to fish, we must protect our fishermen if there is any interference.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

Will my right hon. Friend keep in mind that it is disturbing to note the new form of negotiation? Our nation could stand firm on an international court ruling. We were safe, and knew where we were. Now we enter into negotiations and give concessions which are the new starting point for other talks. What happened to the procedures that used to exist, under which we did not go into negotiations until behind the scenes we have a clear idea that the other people were prepared to negotiate, instead of weakening the stand and position from which we have to operate?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

My hon. Friend is not right, because we have had the interim judgment of the court, which restrains the Icelandic Government from interfering with the rights of British fishermen between the 12-mile limit and the 50-mile limit. It was also said that we should contain our catch within the limits of 170,000 tons. That we have done. We have kept scrupulously to the interim judgment. The final judgment will come in January.

Mr. Peart

Will the right hon. Gentleman resist the blandishments of the former Leader of the Liberal Party, the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond)? There is a major distinction between oil and fish. As the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary rightly said, we have an international agreement. It is not Britain who has broken it. More than that, there is to be a conference on the law of the sea. I believe that the Government will have the support of the Opposition in a desire to achieve a peaceful solution, but we must protect our seamen.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. We are trying to secure an interim arrangement pending the decision of the law of the sea conference in 1973. Between friendly nations and allies, this should not be very difficult on a modified basis of catch. We are trying to co-operate in this way.

Dame Irene Ward

I support my right hon. Friend in all the efforts being made. Is he aware of the very bad position that will result for the port of Tyne? Already the industry there has fallen considerably. Will my right hon. Friend get in touch with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to find out what will be the effect on the ports and the employment of those who have been engaged in the fishing industry in them? It is very important that everyone should know what will happen to the ports if we cannot obtain a proper and satisfactory agreement on the lines that my right hon. Friend indicated. I should like to know how my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry can help the ports that are under great pressure because of the current difficulties.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I shall certainly keep in touch with my right hon. Friend on the future of the ports. The catch in Icelandic waters has been good in the past year. The best solution to the problem facing my hon. Friend and all of us is to achieve a negotiated settlement, because a cod war would hit the ports very hard. It would hit everyone very hard.

Mr. Ronald King Murray

In the present situation of stalemate, which we hope will be temporary, will the Government impress on the Government of Iceland that, while the conservation of fish is important, the conservation of human life, whether British or Icelandic, is more important? Will the Government seek in the meantime, without prejudice to the issue of fishery limits, a working agreement during the winter on humanitarian grounds for the safety of those involved, whether British or Icelandic?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

We shall seek this and will try to avoid all damage and any loss of life.

Mr. Laurance Reed

Does my right hon. Friend recall the previous dispute with Iceland when, for 12 years, the Foreign Office stuck to a particular line and it was discovered at the end of the day that international community support for that view had evaporated? In view of past experience, what account is my right hon. Friend now taking of the fact that there is now a large body of opinion in the world which supports the view that the Continental Shelf and the waters overlying it should be treated as a single organic unit, precisely because oil has been discovered in it?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I well remember the 1962 agreement because I negotiated it. I have every reason to remember it. If we are to have any alteration in the law of the sea in relation to the Continental Shelf it ought to be done at the law of the sea conference in 1973 and not by unilateral action on the part of any country.

Mr. Wolrige-Gordon

Is it possible to clarify the future position a little further? If one of our ships had to take shelter off the Icelandic coast or, even more unfortunately, if it were wrecked and the crew removed to the police station, can my right hon. Friend say what the position would be then?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

It would be better not to anticipate hypothetical situations. The Navy will do its duty towards any ship that is in difficulties as best it can. If it would help the House I might put in the Library a copy of the Icelandic proposals and of our proposals so that hon. Members can be well acquainted with them.