HC Deb 22 March 1973 vol 853 cc704-21

5.21 p.m.

Sir Geoffrey de Freitas (Kettering)

I am raising the fisheries dispute under the Pay, Allowances etc., Vote of the Royal Navy because I am worried that the Government may use the Navy, instead of relying on tugs, negotiation and our clear rights in international law. It is tempting to act tough and show the world that our trawlers will not be pushed around. On Monday, the hon. Member for Haltem-price (Mr. Wall) suggested that in certain circumstances there should be "a naval demonstration". After all, the argument runs, we have the largest Navy in Europe so why should we be pushed around?

Iceland is a tiny country of only 200,000 people. I am only one of 600 hon. Members, but I represent far more than half that number of people. I like Iceland and I like Icelanders. I have enjoyed their hopsitality, even when it involved my having only three hours' sleep in three days.

My constituents in Northamptonshire live in the heart of England and the fish they catch are those which they catch from the river bank. There are no trawlers registered in Kettering. On the face of it my constituents, unlike the constituents of my hon. Friends the Members for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. James Johnson) and Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), are involved in this dispute only because they eat fish caught in these waters just as their ancestors have eaten fish caught in these waters for 300 years. But they have also another concern in this dispute. On the whole, they are a law-abiding people and they recognise the importance of obeying the law, whether it is our own domestic law or the international law of the sea. I have much sympathy with Iceland, but I have even greater sympathy with the rule of law.

Dr. E. D. Brown, Reader in International Law in London, has recently published a study of the legal aspects of the dispute. He points out that the most important provision of the Exchange of Notes which ended the cod war of 1961 was in paragraph 4 of the Icelandic Note. It referred to the extension of fisheries jurisdiction and read as follows: … in case of a dispute in relation to such extension, the matter shall, at the request of either party, be referred to the International Court of Justice. A year ago in February 1972 the Althing—the Icelandic Parliament— resolved that the 1961 Notes were "no longer applicable" because of a fundamental change of circumstances. Everyone who has studied international law, even in the most modest way, knows that every treaty is deemed to include a rebus sic stantibus clause permitting termination of a treaty in the event of a fundamental change of circumstances. But it is very difficult for any lawyer to agree that there has been a "fundamental change of circumstances" as defined in Article 62 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. In any event, consultation and negotiation are always required when a Government seek to invoke this clause.

In this case, the obligation to consult and negotiate is even stronger because Iceland is seeking to avoid her agreement to refer disputes to the International Court. In some ways the weakest point in Iceland's case is that there is international machinery established for dealing with fishing conservation problems.

In 1959, the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Convention set up a commission with power to recommend conservation measures on the basis of scientific advice. The United Kingdom has agreed to limit her annual catch to 170,000 metric tons, compared with the 210,000 tons which we took from these waters in 1971.

In August 1972 the International Court of Justice acceded to the British request and indicated certain interim measures of protection. The order made by the Court did not prejudice the Court's power to find eventually that it had no jurisdiction, but last month the Court confirmed, with only one dissenting judgment, that it had jurisdiction. It is a very serious matter when a State ignores the considered suggestions of the judicial organ of the United Nations, and that is what Iceland has done.

Because of the very nature of international law it is constantly beset by problems based on the confusion between what the law is and what the law may become. Of course, international law changes. There are many illustrations of this. Since the developing countries have taken a more active part in world affairs, there have been great changes in what States claim as their territorial waters. I have a special interest in one developing country in East Africa and another in West Africa. Ghana now claims 100 miles for fishery conservation and Kenya, in certain circumstances, claims 200 miles. I heard on the radio this morning that Pakistan had also extended its claim to territorial waters. In the past decade there have been great movements of this kind.

In 1960, of all the countries in the world 43 per cent. claimed three miles and 22 per cent. claimed 12 miles. By 1972–12 years later—the figures were almost reversed and 47 per cent. of the countries claimed 12 miles, and 25 per cent. claimed three miles.

For many centuries three miles was almost universally recognised. There were very few exceptions. Spain always claimed six miles because three miles was originally the range of cannon and the Spaniards maintained that their cannon were twice as good as anyone else's and claimed six miles. It is interesting that we have got to the position of the majority having a 12-mile limit, which is about the limit of human vision.

It is likely that the law of the sea will be changed. On this very day in New York at the United Nations there is a preliminary conference arranging for the big International Conference on the Law of the Sea which is to be held at the end of this year. I think that there will be changes, and it is understandable that there should be.

It is impossible to ignore the strength of Iceland's feelings about the Continental Shelf. I quote from an Icelandic Government publication—and I do not see how the world can ignore this argument for ever—which reads as follows: It is unrealistic that foreigners can be prevented from pumping oil from the continental shelf but that they cannot in the same manner be prevented from destroying other resources which are based on the same sea-bed.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

We have all heard this argument made by the Icelandic Government, but is not the point that we have exploited the North Sea as a result of international agreement? But what has happened here has been through unilateral action.

Sir G. de Freitas

I agree with my hon. Friend and if he had listened to my argument he would have heard me expressly cover that point. I was supporting what the Court had said and I was rebuking the Icelanders for disobeying international law but I was looking to the future. It is no good thinking that we shall be able to dictate the law of the sea for ever. Big changes are coming largely because countries such as ourselves have claimed that the continental sea-bed is to be divided up, as the North Sea has been in respect of oil. I am sure that there is nothing between my hon. Friend's argument and mine on this point. I am merely recording the fact that the sort of argument which I have quoted is well worth listening to. However, it is not the law today, and the legal rights of the United Kingdom must be determined by the law as it is and not by what it may become.

In international law as in domestic law it is the weak who benefit most in the long run from the rule of law. Therefore, I am greatly surprised that Iceland should break the law and refuse to accept the jurisdiction of the International Court.

I ask the Government to make it clear that they support the rule of law and will not give way to the temptation to be tough. I ask the Government to assert in the International Court our legal right to fish where we have fished for 300 years and to fish in accordance with internationally agreed fishery conventions, as we are now doing in limiting our catches. But looking ahead I believe that there is a possibility that international law may be changed to the advantage of Iceland. If so we in this country will have to obey the new law.

It is often argued that our civilisation could be brought down by the godless. I am not so sure about that. I believe that the dangers are much more that it will be brought down by the lawless— people who do not keep to the law. That is as true internationally as it is nationally. I am reluctant to vote this money for the Navy until I receive from the Government the assurance for which I have asked.

5.34 p.m.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

The House is grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Sir G. de Freitas) for having raised this important subject. The fishing dispute affects the interests of our constituents as consumers or fishermen and in the catching of fish it affects the safety of our fishermen—which, of course, is an issue of great importance. But it is even more important as an issue which relates to the way in which nations conduct themselves in the good management of the world's affairs.

The reason I intervened in my right hon. Friend's speech was not that we differ in our views, or that I had not followed the trend of his argument. I intervened in an attempt to make clear that the argument by the Icelandic Government to which he drew attention is so often dealt with not so much by comparisons involving exploitation of the North Sea and the unilateral action of the Icelandic Government in seeking to abrogate agreements, as by drawing attention to an even more important issue which is at stake and which I shall attempt to explain.

There can be two types of international blackmail. The first involves the use of the big stick wielded by a great Power to deal with a Smaller Power to the effect: "Do this or that— or else!". The other type of blackmail is that used by a small Power which uses its very weakness as a weapon to tease, to tantalise, to goad a great Power into action and then to accuse the other power of bullying. Her Majesty's Government, with the support on this occasion of Her Majesty's Opposition, have been careful in the past about the use of the Navy in these disputes. It would have been easy to send in the Navy if the fishing industry had wanted that to happen—and incidentally the Icelandic people have been fortunate in never having to maintain a large navy.

But what would have happened had our Navy gone in? What could they have done? When the moment arrives when there is a possibility that one of our constituents—a fisherman or whoever it may be—may suffer injury or death from a dispute of this nature, as almost happened last Sunday afternoon, the pressure for the Navy to go in becomes great. What is the logic behind such a move? What can the Navy do which tugs cannot do? The moment we begin to use the Navy in retaliation by the use of gunfire, boarding parties and all the rest of it, we put ourselves in exactly the same blackmail position as that to which I referred a little earlier.

It is in our interests and ultimately in the interests of the Icelandic people, that we must turn to the International Court and seek to obtain agreements on these matters. I suppose if the Navy were to go in our fishermen could fish in "boxes", but certainly the fishermen would not like that, particularly those with sidewinders who go out for specialised catches. We could have restricted the area in which the trawling fleet operated and arranged for our frigates to sail quickly round the fishing fleet, but though that might have kept off the Icelanders, those trawlers would not have caught much fish. The reason the fishermen try to catch fish is to feed our people and to make a profit for themselves. If it were possible to make a profit elsewhere and still feed our people, we would not have kept our fleet there for a very long time.

We all commend the courage of the men in the fishing fleets—the crews, engineers, skippers, all of whom have suffered tremendous provocation in terrible weather. They must be congratulated on having kept their cool. There were occasions involving tremendous frustration when they asked the Navy to go in, but the majority of the men have kept calm and thus have put us in a situation in which we can hope for successful negotiations.

When we attend the International Conference on the Law of the Sea we must make it clear that these great resources do not exist for the benefit of only countries which happen to have long coastlines— such as the United States, Iceland, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, India, Pakistan and many South American countries. Obviously these countries, particularly the under-developed countries, have an interest in using the resources of their part of the ocean bed, but the world also has a common humanity interest in the proper use and exploitation of all resources not only of the land, but of the ocean bed.

We, as a people and a Government, should be in a position to say that we have not used our force, that we have not acted as the bully boys, but have attempted to reason, even where our vital interest were being affected. We should tell the other countries of the world, land-locked or with sea coasts, to consider well and wisely the implications of allowing countries to extend willy-nilly their sea limits.

It is often thought that all we are talking about is a small industry based upon towns in the far regions of the country—Hull, Grimsby, Fleetwood, Aberdeen, Lowestoft and other such places. But there is more at stake than the mere employment of our constituents as fishermen in the fishing industry. There are in our areas great opportunities for employment in the spin-off not only in shipbuilding, ship-repairing and the processing of fish, but in the freezing plants which supply continuous employment to many women in the frozen food industry based, for example, on Humberside and other fishing ports which would not be there but for the capital investment. It is not only the employment of 10,000 or 15,000 people in fishing, distribution, shipbuilding and ship-repairing which is at stake, but the whole question of the food of this country.

I am sure that if the Navy had been called in it would have acquitted itself well. I am glad that so far, because of the patience shown by so many people concerned in these difficult matters, it has not been necessary.

5.42 p.m.

Mr. Jeffrey Archer (Louth)

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Ket-tering (Sir G. de Freitas) on the ingenious way in which he got within the Consolidated Fund Bill an issue on which so many of us feel very strongly. I privately confess that he must have been nearer to the problem when he was the hon. Member for Lincoln. Nevertheless, I congratulate him on giving us this opportunity to represent our views to the Minister.

I am sure that I have the agreement of hon. Members on both sides that this is in no way a party issue. The right hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland) and his hon. Friends the Members for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) and Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. James Johnson) and myself have worked in unison for our aims and there has never been any question of a party issue involved. It would be a sad day indeed if the two sides were ever divided over matters relating to our fishermen.

My constituency borders on Grimsby, so I have among my constituents many owners and skippers of trawlers who feel strongly about this issue. The owners have made it very clear that they have no desire for the Navy to come in at this time. They have said that the Government's move with the tugs is what they wanted and how they would like matters to continue. Nevertheless, they have some feelings they would like aired, one of which has already been mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman.

We have a tendency to be the one nation that always keeps to the rules, whether it be with a bigger nation going for us or a smaller nation telling us how wrong we are. We always keep to the rules. The man in the street, who greatly admires the attitude of the British people towards fair play, finds it a little tough that at every level it is the English, the Irish and the Scots who go right down the middle and make sure that the rules are kept. It is admirable that we have done it again.

I join the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North in praising the skippers and those who work in our ships. We in this House cannot know the provocation that they have come under in the last few weeks. I often think, with the many sub- jects that we discuss in this House, how different our views would be if we had been present the day before when a situation arose. This problem has been going on for some time. When incidents have not been happening, there has been the fear of them taking place every day. I am delighted that we are to have talks. The more talking that can be done and the more we can get a civilised attitude to this matter, the better.

Many owners and skippers agree with what the right hon. Member for Grimsby mentioned in his supplementary to the Private Notice Question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall) last week: that Notes can take a long time to pass from hand to hand. It is all very well to make a complaint on Monday morning, a few hours after an incident has happened, and not receive a reply for five days, when another note is sent, but by that time everybody has forgotten what it was about.

I hope that the Minister appreciates that when shootings over bows or other incidents occur we want instant action, if only talking action. We do not want to sit in our rooms for five days waiting for a reply to come back from the Icelandic embassy.

The right hon. Member for Kettering pointed out that we have been fishing in these waters for 300 years. We have kept to the international rules. I suspect that in the rules of fishing our record is far prouder than that of most European nations. I believe that is why our fishermen now feel even more strongly about what has happened in the past few weeks.

We do not want the Navy there, but we want it to know that if, in the final analysis, it is needed we shall expect it to do its duty without hesitation. I hope that the situation does not arise, but if we have to call in the Navy I hope that it will be aware of and will do its duty.

I call upon the Minister to bear in mind that we are very serious about this subject. We do not want him to drift away from the debate afterwards and to say, "I hope it sorts itself out at Foreign Office level." We want all Ministers to be aware that we shall badger them until this situation is sorted out. I hope that my hon. Friend will treat the matter with the energy and enthusiasm that it deserves.

5.48 p.m.

Mr. James Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, West)

It is usual in this place to thank the right hon. or hon. Member who initiates a debate of this nature. I do so wholeheartedly because not only hon. Members representing fishing ports but the whole industry should thank him.

This debate has ranged wide in the geographical sense and I should like to take up two points mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Sir G. de Freitas) before saying why I am speaking again today. The Minister may be sick and tired of me, but he did not give me an answer last night. That is why I am speaking again today.

My right hon. Friend has done his homework very well. I wish to touch on two points that he mentioned. The first point is that there are such things as North-East and North-West Atlantic conferences and North-East and North-West Atlantic agreements and the like. The Icelanders, along with the Green-landers, the Danes, the Canadians, the Portuguese, ourselves, and others, are members of the North-West Atlantic conference. But Iceland is also a member of the North-East Atlantic Conference —like the North-West Conference, it has 14 members—along with the Norwegians and many others, including Communist States. What is amazing is that the Icelanders can go to the North-West Conference and agree to a limitation of catch with sister fishing States. If there is one area in which there are truly sisters and brothers it is on the high seas, where we all depend upon one another for hospital ships and anything else. So this small but very old nation, which has a very intelligent people and has produced some fine international statesmen, can agree to a limitation of catch at the North-West Conference, but cannot do so at the North-East Conference. This is an appalling contradiction.

My right hon. Friend also mentioned the sea bed. It is a nonsense to compare the fish swimming in the ocean with any metals, oil or gas in the geological substrata. Tens of thousands of tons of the fish which are caught began in Greenland. They float or swim towards the west and north-west capes of Iceland. What I do not understand is why the Icelanders should then wish to have a monopoly, to collar all those mobile fish, which cannot be compared to static geological deposits, which have been below the Continental platform, lying 50 to 70 miles outside their high-water mark, for thousands of millions of years. These are two complete contradictions in the case.

But I do not wish to argue against the Icelanders tonight. I want to say why I am speaking now after having taken part in the Navy debate yesterday. Last night, the Under-Secretary of State—I am relying on my memory—said that he did not think that I would expect to be told the deployment of the frigates. They lie outside the 50-mile limit, and since they are paid for by the taxpayers, we expect that they will go to the aid of those Hull and Fleetwood taxpayers who are plying their lawful business.

The Under-Secretary also said that he was sure that, if he gave these figures to me—I thank him for the compliment—I would not leak them. Many politicians do leak things like details of party meetings—and they do so outside the House as well. But he added that he believed that the negotiations would succeed—

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy (Mr. Antony Buck)

I hoped.

Mr. Johnson

I turn now to the Hull Daily Mail, which also circulates on the south bank of the Humber. As Winston Churchill said, jaw-jaw is better than war-war. This newspaper, under the heading "Iceland Peace Bid May Come In April", said: New talks aimed at finding an interim arrangement for ending the six-months-old Cod War could begin in Reykjavik about the middle of next month. We all hope that these talks will succeed, but I wonder whether they will.

As I said last night, I do not speak for a naval dockyard, but I do speak for a fish dock. I want to talk as I would expect the fishermen to talk if they were here. I am not of a legalistic turn of mind and do not have the gift of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kettering for talking about international conferences and international law.

I want to quote a report on the tape yesterday of what the Foreign Secretary said. This shows the note of caution in all this. This is why I accept what the hon. Member for Louth (Mr. Jeffrey Archer) said, that this is our Navy and we expect it to look after our people in danger on the high seas. The Foreign Secretary emphasised that these discussions would not be negotiations: They are designed to pave the way for ministerial talks, which I hope will be renewed very soon. Like the Minister, I am cautiously optimistic. With all my heart I hope that they go well, but the Secretary of State was a little jocular. He said: We have not landed our cod yet. I like to have my cod on the bank beside me. He is right. Our fish have not yet been landed.

If and when talks begin, we should see that our men are no longer harassed, that there is no more warp cutting. These incidents must end. Our Navy must ensure, and our Government must make it clear in these talks, that the status quo is maintained over the next few weeks. I hope that the discussions go on for the next few months, until the international conference in Santiago next year.

Having listened to owners and people like Captain Tom Neilson of the Skippers' Guild in Hull and David Shen-ton on behalf of the deckhands, I know that they do not wish the Navy to go in at this moment in these circumstances. Thus, when I heard my neighbour, the hon. Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall) last night, I was shaken by his talk of manoeuvres within the 50-mile limit. I accept that the limit is an invisible line on the ocean which we do not accept, but it would be more than provocative, now, in these conditions, to go inside the 50-mile line.

I do not mind our ships going in later if shots are fired. If one of the tugs engaged in peace-keeping operations gets into difficulties or a vessel goes down after a collison, that is a totally different matter. Owners and skippers accept this, as do the hon. Members who try to be articulate on their behalf.

I do not accept the owners' attitude— Austin Lang is here speaking on behalf of the full committee of owners, skippers and men—that if our ships went in this would concede the case and put everything into the Icelanders' laps. I do not believe that. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Kettering said, in the international field things are not quite so simple. People know our past history as the world's greatest naval Power. They know our record on the high seas and they know that it is unblemished. If the Navy went in legitimately to defend our fishermen, I do not think that would be looked upon as aggression or as a big, bold, bad wolf acting against Iceland whose population is smaller than that of Sunderland. They would not think that the third largest navy in the world was taking action against a small nation.

We do not concede the case. It is in the International Court and, as my right hon. Friend has said, on two occasions we have come out of that Court clean. As someone who knows a little about Africa, it seemed significant to me that the one judge who dissented on both occasions—on whether the Court was competent to judge on this matter and whether the Icelanders should go to the International Court at the Hague—was a judge from Senegal.

Sir G. de Freitas

I am afraid my hon. Friend is wrong. It was a Mexican judge.

Mr. Johnson

In one case it was a Mexican and in the other case it was a judge from Senegal. I will check this later. Some of these States are judges in their own court. One nation has moved to a 200-mile limit, never mind a 50-mile limit. With our past record in international affairs we could stand up in any court, and we can do so next year at Santiago. The debates, discussions and decisions there will be about much bigger issues than whether we go down 25 per cent. from a catch of 200,000 tons.

I shall not go into over-fishing curbs and whether we shall be able to catch the same amount of fish in 10 years' time, but I point out that many other nations, black nations such as Senegal and Somalia and big, powerful white nations such as the USA and Canada, also want to increase their limits. Some of the big nations would be on the side of the small ones and the small developing nations, which need fish badly for protein, because they have not millions of cattle on their land surface. There will be a most unusual line up then in the International Conference. We may find ourselves sitting beside Communist States such as Poland which, although landlocked, has one of the biggest fishing fleets on the high seas. These are some of the wider issues to which I know the Government are turning their minds. The Minister and his colleagues must look very carefully at our case.

We pay for our Navy and vote this money for it to do its legitimate work. If our fishermen are in difficulties next month or in six months time, I hope that Her Majesty's Government will not hesitate to go to the aid and support of our men fishing in these dangerous and difficult Arctic waters.

6.5 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy (Mr. Antony Buck)

I wish to add to the thanks expressed by other hon. Members to the right hon. Member for Kettering (Sir G. de Freitas) for giving us the opportunity to debate this important question. I am marginally inhibited from replying to the debate because it is on the Navy Vote and the wider issues referring to Santiago and so forth are the concern of my right hon. Friends, but I shall do my best on those aspects.

This matter was provoked to some extent by what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall). I am sorry that he is not in his place. I suppose he would have been given notice, but I am not in a position to protect him as I did not know that what he said would be referred to.

Sir G. de Freitas

All I said was that at Question Time on Monday the hon. Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall) referred to a naval demonstration. It did not occur to me for a moment that he would not be present at this debate.

Mr. Buck

That is a matter between the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend.

I express gratitude to the right hon. Gentleman for enabling the House to consider this matter, which we have done, as in the debate yesterday, in a non-partisan way. Hon. Members have made valuable and constructive contributions and have not spoken on a party basis. I shall try to deal with as many points as I can.

One which was rather different from the generality was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Louth (Mr. Jeffrey Archer), whose deep concern about these matters relevant to his constituency interests are well known to the House. He said that he wanted a quick reaction to any particular incident. I can assure him that there is no sitting back and waiting to make a protest if an incident takes place. In one particular incident, I have been told, there was a telephone call straight away by our ambassador to the appropriate Minister. This certainly is the sort of reaction one likes to see and I can assure my hon. Friend on that. [An HON. MEMBER: "Big deal."] My hon. Friend asked a serious question and I am giving him the assurance that response is as speedy as it can be. What more could hon. Members suggest could be done than to make a speedy response?

The House will not expect me to rehearse again at length the Government's general policy in this dispute. It has been stated with complete clarity in recent weeks by my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. But we are invited tonight, technically I think, to look particularly at the question of support for our trawlers. That is the way in which, ingeniously, it has been focused by the right hon. Member for Kettering. It is not possible to deal with this question without placing it briefly in the wider policy context within which support, naval or civilian, stands to be considered.

It is basic to our position that this is a dispute which should be solved by negotiation rather than by force. This is the point which has been made by hon. Members on both sides of the House. We, of course, believe in the rule of law. We have said that we are prepared to accept genuine conservation measures and to take account of Iceland's special position as a coastal State overwhelmingly dependent upon fisheries. We have, in negotiation, been prepared to accept interim arrangements which would significantly reduce our fishing. We have taken this reasonable attitude throughout.

We started proceedings in the International Court of Justice, as we were entitled to do, under the 1961 agreement. This is mentioned in the very interesting article to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. As the House has been reminded, on 17th August 1972 the Court made an interim order whereby it was provided that we should limit our catch to 170,000 tons and it was ordered that Iceland should not enforce her regulations while the Court considered the dispute. Both sides were called upon to do nothing which would aggravate the situation pending a solution of the dispute.

Early last month the Court ruled that it had jurisdiction, notwithstanding Iceland's refusal to recognise that fact. The right hon. Gentleman has rightly drawn attention to the importance of obeying these orders of the International Court. I can only reiterate that it has been one of the cornerstones of our policy throughout the dispute both to observe the restraints which have been asked for by the International Court and to pursue our case before the forum in which we and Iceland explicitly agreed in 1961 such disputes should be resolved.

We are trying to negotiate. We are very conscious of the International Court's order not to take any action to aggravate the dispute. In the circumstances, the last thing that we wish to do is to escalate the dispute unnecessarily by inaugurating a naval confrontation. I think that that is the assurance for which the right hon. Gentleman asked. But, as hon. Members have pointed out, there are other aspects of the dispute. Regrettably Iceland has not followed the order of the International Court, as we know only too well. In attempting to enforce her regulations she has caused a succession of very dangerous incidents on the fishing grounds. But she has not prevented us from making very good catches although there is no question of our going beyond that which the Court has indicated to be appropriate.

I add to the tributes which have rightly been paid from both sides of the House to the restraint and the skill of our fishermen in the face of very severe provocation. The Government's policy has always been to take, in consultation with the representatives of the industry, the appropriate steps to provide support and reassurance for our fishermen within this general policy of restraint.

I now deal with the specific matter raised by the right hon. Gentleman, which concerns support. Since last September there have been two civilian support vessels on station in the disputed waters to provide medical, meteorological and other assistance required for the safety of our trawlers. The recent reinforcement of those vessels by the tugs is designed to provide the trawlermen with more active support in the face of growing Icelandic harassment.

Mr. McNamara

I realise that the vessels are chartered by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, but is the hon. Gentleman in a position to tell the House what is the Government's intention about finding more tugs of this type in the regrettable event of the negotiations breaking down and our needing more of them to protect our fleet?

Mr. Buck

The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to point out that this is not strictly a matter for me. But no doubt he will have observed the exchanges in the House recently about this matter. There are difficulties due to the fact that this type of vessel is in short supply internationally. But as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs said, we are looking into the availability of other craft, should they become necessary. We are doing what we can to see what is available. We have not any Royal Navy tugs appropriate for this rôle, but we do not rule out the possibility of using naval vessels if it should become necessary, though we should hesitate to use them since they might be regarded as a minor escalation of the dispute.

By manoeuvring and positioning, the tugs can make it very much more difficult for Icelandic coast guard vessels to interfere with fishing. I understand from private conversations with hon. Members who have constituency interests that the tugs are having a fairly successful time. My right hon. Friend has said that we are looking into the possibility of providing more vessels of this type, and I assure the right hon. Member for Kettering that the deployment of these vessels is strictly legal.

Turning to the Navy's position, it has been agreed between the Government and representatives of the industry that the moment has not come when the Navy should be deployed. I am glad that that has been indicated as being the correct view by those whose constituencies are immediately concerned with the personnel involved here.

It is hardly necessary for me to repeat the many assurances which have been given, but I do so gladly in view of what the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. James Johnson) said. Naval forces are assigned specifically to fishery protection duties around Iceland. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for saying that he does not expect me to divulge the exact deployment of naval craft in the area.

No one should doubt our ability and our will to intervene if we have to in the last resort. But I share the hope that this will not come about. The Navy is already helping in other ways. We are examining with the industry what counter-measures can best be employed to prevent warp cutting, and again it would not be sensible to give details in public. But we are continuing our studies in co-operation with the trawlermen to try to help in every way.

I come now to the Law of the Sea Conference. As Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy, I should be in some difficulty in trying to go into depth about it. It is a matter that we take very seriously. We regard it as the appropriate forum in which a medium- to long-term solution of these difficult problems might be reached. We hope that eventually Iceland will come to the same view.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs informed the House yesterday that the discussions are now under way in Reykjavik designed to pave the way for ministerial talks. As has been said from both sides of the House, we hope profoundly that the preliminary talks and any others which may follow will be successful.

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