HC Deb 07 May 1973 vol 856 cc36-44
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.

British and Icelandic Ministers met in Reykjavik on 3rd and 4th May.

The meeting was based on talks held by officials on 22nd March, during which it had been agreed to work for an interim arrangement, without prejudice to the legal position of either side. This interim agreement would prevent overfishing, let Iceland increase her share of the catch, provide for a reasonable British catch, and avoid a recurrence of incidents. It would be based primarily on a limitation of the tonnage of fish caught by British vessels, without a corresponding restriction on Icelandic vessels. The Icelandic delegation asked for additional restrictions on the numbers and types of vessels and the areas in which they would operate. It was agreed that these should be considered but that the total effect of the arrangement should not be such as to prevent the British fleet from reaching the agreed catch figure.

At the ministerial talks this agreement was confirmed by both delegations. The British delegation recalled that the International Court of Justice in its Interim Order of 17th August 1972 had indicated a catch limit of 170,000 metric tons. In the interests of reaching a settlement, the delegation proposed an annual catch limit of 155,000 tons. The Icelandic delegation proposed 117,000 tons. It was agreed to work within this range. The British delegation then offered a revised figure of 145,000 tons representing an approximate mid-point between the Icelandic figure and that established by the International Court. The Icelandic delegation refused, however, to make any further offer.

The Icelandic proposals for restrictions on areas and vessels were also discussed. The British delegation put forward specific counter-proposals on all points. In the absence of agreement on the central question of tonnage it was impossible to settle these matters. But Icelandic Ministers have agreed to study the British proposals carefully.

Despite constant and dangerous provocation, the British Government have sought by every means to reduce tension. We shall continue to do so. If the Icelandic Government are determined to attempt to impose their will by force, the British Government will continue to give British vessels such support as may be necessary to enable them to fish in all areas up to the present Icelandic 12-mile limit. But if the Icelandic Government will enter into real negotiations, they will find us ready to work for a settlement.

Mr. Callaghan

I am sure that the House will agree that that is a very reasonable statement of the British position. Any impartial listener to that description of events, assuming that they are not challenged, must assume that the British Government have made all the running on this issue.

Is it not the case that the present tonnage is in excess of 200,000, and is not that the starting figure from which we are steadily moving downwards? Although the International Court proposed 170,000 tons, surely our actual catch last year was higher than that. I ask the right hon. Gentleman what is the actual figure.

While we recognise that Iceland has a particular interest in this matter, as we all have, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to confirm that, nevertheless, there is an agreement? If Britain recognises that that agreement, of 1961, needs to be up-dated and has been out-distanced by time, in the end there will have to be a fresh agreement. Should we not make it clear to Iceland that we intend to work for a renegotiated agreement and cannot accept a fait accompli? I have read many accounts that we are frightened or disturbed about the thought of accusations of being a bully. I hope the fact that some people think that we might be accused of being a bully will not lead us—so far it has not—to give way to blackmail.

This has to be a renegotiated agreement. I hope that the Icelandic Government and people will understand that, whereas both sides of this House recognise their genuine concern and their primary interest, nevertheless we expect them to come to the negotiating table now with relevant counter-proposals which can be considered sensibly.

I make one suggestion and, arising out of it, I ask one further question. Has not the time come for the right hon. Gentleman to take personal charge of these negotiations? That is no reflection on the negotiators who have conducted the discussions so far. But if, as I understand from the vocal threats of some Icelandic Ministers, there is a danger of British trawlers being arrested or of an armed attack, it is the responsibility of the Foreign Secretary to handle the matter.

That leads me to my question. What will be the response to an attack? It is important both that the Icelandic Government should be in no doubt about this and that this House should know. Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that, while we appreciate that he intends to do everything possible to reduce tension—a course of action which we certainly support—we would not support any lack of action if there were an armed attack upon a British trawler to which there was no response? We would expect a response to be made.

We ask that the Foreign Secretary should now take responsibility for these negotiations, that the Icelandic Government should come forward with realistic counter-proposals, and that those concerned with fishing in these waters—we are all concerned with their livelihood as well as with the conservation of fish in those waters—should know exactly from the British Government what protection they can expect in the event of an armed attack.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman. I think that the whole House understands that fishing is the livelihood of Iceland and that therefore we want to make a reasonable agreement which recognises that fact. It is worth stressing that it would be an interim agreement, pending the Conference on the Law of the Sea.

The peak catch was 207,000 tons. The average for the last 10 years has been 185,000 tons. The allocation of the International Court was 170,000 tons. We agreed to come down, if necessary, below that to 145,000 tons, and I think that that is reasonable.

We cannot accept the concept of a fait accompli mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman. If there were an armed attack on a trawler which could not be repelled by the means that we have there now, there would be no alternative but to send in the Navy.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me to take personal charge of the negotiations. I have been in personal charge. I offered to go to the negotiations on 17th April, but it was not convenient to the Icelanders in Reykjavik to negotiate on that day. I offered them last Monday, if they could make progress with the negotiations in Reykjavik, to come to London and I would take charge. No progress was made. There is no point in my taking charge of the negotiations until the Icelanders are ready and willing to begin, at any rate, the process of negotiation. However, I will keep this suggestion in mind and take charge, if necessary. There should be no doubt that we are in daily touch with the industry. If the situation should deteriorate badly, as I said, we would be prepared to send in the Navy, but we want an agreed settlement.

Mr. Wall

My right hon. Friend did not mention reported orders given by the Icelandic Government to capture a British trawler on the high seas. Is he aware that any such action would inevitably be resisted by our seamen? What steps are being taken to ensure that protection is immediately available in that event? If naval protection is available, may I ask my right hon. Friend to ensure that sufficient ships are there so as to mark each of the Icelandic gunboats and make fishing in boxes unnecessary?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

We shall provide what we think is effective protection to enable our fishermen to fish without having the areas in which they can fish unduly restricted. But any protection means that to some extent they must fish in boxes.

The ambassador and my noble Friend the Minister of State made immediate representations about the threat to capture a British trawler. I hope that it was only an idle threat.

Mr. James Johnson

As one who was on the spot during these abortive negotiations, I must tell the House that no Government team could have handled the situation better than that which went to Iceland. Whatever may be said about men or women, or Women's Lib, I believe that the team deserves the thanks of this House, and particularly of the industry in my constituency, for the way in which it stood firm on this issue.

One did not need to be there for more than a few minutes to discover that the Icelandic Government seemed to have no intention, particularly the obdurate Fisheries Minister, Mr. Joseffson. of making a meaningful offer. They began at 117,000 tons and did not shift one iota even to 118,000 tons. I would have settled for 140,000 tons and a three-year agreement pending the Law of the Sea Conference at Santiago. They must advance on this figure if they believe, as we believe, that we must live together in the North-East Atlantic.

Finally, Mr. Joseffson said, I hope we get one soon", meaning the capture of a fishing vessel. Since this can occur only on what we term the international high seas, may I ask the Secretary of State to give a clear and firm assurance to our fishermen in Hull, Fleetwood, and elsewhere that in that deplorable event he will send in the Navy, but, please, in a defensive and protective manner, not agressively?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Yes, Sir. Were the Icelandic Government to be so foolish as to take that kind of action, I cannot see any response other than to send in the Navy to protect our vessels. I profoundly hope that it will not happen, but I must make this clear in my response to the hon. Gentleman.

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for what he said about my noble Friend the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I think that they have conducted these negotiations with every purpose to be reasonable and to find a solution, but there was no response from the other side.

Mr. Jeffrey Archer

Does my right hon. Friend realise that trawler owners and skippers in Louth were extremely disturbed by the terms put forward by the Icelandic Government? In particular, they found the 117,000 tons totally unacceptable. We do not want negotiations to drag on until the figure reaches 117,000 tons.

Secondly, is my right hon. Friend aware that we are worried about the rules on larger ships and freezer ships?

Thirdly, is my right hon. Friend aware that we are worried about selected areas? At the conference, the selected areas were not even mentioned. This led people to believe that the Icelanders were not prepared to give way at all at that meeting. Will my right hon. Friend make it clear to the Icelandic Government that the British can be driven too far?

Finally, may I ask my right hon. Friend to take great note of the combined meeting between the unions and owners which is being held in Hull this afternoon and, if necessary, to make a further statement this week?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I should put it slightly differently. The British Government cannot be driven too far and they have no intention of being driven too far. The whole package has to be right. The tonnage has to be right and the arrangements about the various ships which fish must be right. In other words, the whole package must be right before we can accept it. It is important to emphasise to my hon. Friend that even though there are arrangements about areas in which there may be selective fishing or no fishing, or whatever it may be, and about the size of ships, the catch is the all-important thing on which we have to insist.

Mr. Crosland

What is so deplorable is the virtual refusal to negotiate. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that this not only places the livelihood of all those concerned with the trawling industry in great jeopardy but strikes an extremely serious blow at the standing and prestige of the International Court of Justice, and, indeed, at the belief that we all hold in this year of grace 1973 that civilised nations ought to be able to settle their disputes by negotiation, not by unilateral action?

Secondly, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that if there is an attempt to arrest a British trawler and shots are fired, the British Navy will be required to protect the lives not merely of British fishermen but of Icelandic seamen, because there is no doubt that the response to any such attempt will be violent, given the state of temper in the fishing constituencies? Will he—I am sure he will —assure the House that there is now a clear contingency plan governing the line that the British Government would take to any degree of escalation on the part of the Icelandic Government?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

The answer to the last part of the right hon. Gentleman's question is "Yes, Sir."

It is even worse when the two countries in dispute are NATO allies and cannot come to a negotiated settlement.

Sir G. de Freitas

On the point about international law, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to ensure that Foreign Office statements always emphasise that Iceland, in the 1961 Note, undertook that disagreements would be referred to the International Court? Will he also remind the Icelandic Government at all times that small countries in particular have everything to gain from following and supporting the international rule of law?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Yes, Sir. It so happens that I negotiated the 1961 agreement with them.

Mr. McNamara

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that not only on the south bank of the Humber but on the north bank considerable concern was expressed about the formula concerning vessels, areas, and so on, which eventually arrived at the figure of 145,000 tons and that if there were a limitation on the size of vessels in any future agreement it would have a serious effect on Humber-side and other areas with the development of freezer trawlers? Is he further aware that the majority of people are of the opinion that if we had accepted the original offer the Icelandic Government would probably have dropped it by another 10,000 tons?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I think the hon. Gentleman knows that there were members of the industry with us. Although, of course, they were not committed, we had the advantage of their advice all the time. I think it more sensible to confine oneself to saying at this stage that if there is a package deal— and there is bound to be a package deal —all the other elements must be right in our view. I understand very well the anixety of the industry about any reduction in the size of vessels.

Mr. Wellbeloved

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that a large section of British opinion believes that it would be a little late to decide to send the Navy into the disputed area after an attempt had been made to board a British vessel, with the possible loss of life, or certain injury, to British seamen who undoubtedly would attempt to repel any such boarding of their vessel? Should we not have the Royal Navy patrolling the disputed area now to avoid that terrible eventuality?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I think it best to keep in close touch, in daily touch, with the industry on this matter. Our main purpose must be to preserve for the industry the maximum amount of catch possible and to reduce to the minimum the amount of interference which the Icelanders can do to our fishing vessels. I hope that the House will be willing to leave the matter with us on that basis.