HC Deb 21 May 1973 vol 857 cc53-60
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.

Since 5th September 1972 British trawlers fishing on the high seas have been systematically harassed by Icelandic coastguard vessels. During all that time, in order to assist negotiations British naval vessels have been kept outside the area.

Lately, despite repeated warnings and although negotiations were in progress, the Icelandic Government continued and intensified their harassment and it became clear that they were making a determined effort to drive British vessels from the area by force. A critical situation was reached on 14th May, when there was an unsuccessful attempt to board a trawler and live ammunition was used by a coastguard vessel.

After consultation with the industry the Government concluded that it was no longer possible for British vessels to fish in safety without protection. Naval vessels were therefore ordered into the area on 19th May. They will take only such defensive action as is necessary to protect British trawlers exercising their lawful rights to fish on the high seas.

British naval vessels are, of course, fully entitled in international law to operate freely in this area of the high seas. They will, however, be withdrawn at any time if the Government of Iceland will cease harassment of British trawlers.

It is still the Government's desire to settle this dispute by negotiation. Pending such a settlement, we shall, however, authorise trawlers to catch up to the limit of 170,000 tons indicated by the International Court. We shall also pursue substantive proceedings before the court and shall continue to seek longer-term solutions in the Law of the Sea Conference.

Mr. Crosland

The Government's decision has our full support and has of course been warmly received in all the fishing ports. Both the Government and the industry have been behaving with exemplary patience in the face of growing provocation from the Icelanders. I have great sympathy with the skippers, who eventually got to the point of saying that they would not go back unless they were guaranteed protection.

I should like to put two short questions. First, can the right hon. Gentleman assure us that the Navy will not insist on fishing being carried out in tight boxes? If that were insisted on, it would be very hard to catch the 170,000 tons, a most important point, which the right hon. Gentleman was right to mention. Second, will he use every method at his disposal to make it clear to the United Nations and elsewhere in the world that this decision by the Government is in no way an aggressive decision? It is a defensive decision, taken in the face of aggressive action by another Power. The whole object is to enable our fishing fleet to carry out its proper and peaceful purpose of catching fish for the British people.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his approach to this matter. We will not insist on tight boxes, but the Navy must be able to advise the best way in which protection can be given. Certainly we shall take every opportunity in every international organisation to tell the truth about this matter, which is, as the right hon. Gentleman said, to continue objecting to harassing.

Mr. Mather

While I welcome this move, could my right hon. Friend confirm that it is only through great good luck that British trawlermen have escaped serious injury or loss of life in the last few months? On how many occasions have trawls been cut, and how many shots have been fired by Icelandic gunboats?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I think I should require notice of the latter part of that question, but a very considerable number of trawls have been cut over the period of the last few months, as I have described. Shots have also been fired, sometimes with blank ammunition and on some occasions with real ammunition, and in the past few months there has been a real risk of loss of life.

Mr. James Johnson

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Government announcement at 4 p.m. on Saturday last gave deep satisfaction to all in the fishing fleets, to the fishermen and trawler owners and their wives and families? We will back up the Government in the actions they are taking. Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm, however, that, while the initiative was taken because of the fishermen's ultimatum, the Joint Action Committee is solidly behind the Government, of course, in taking this decision? We all believe that the step taken of sending in the Navy was quite inevitable in view of Iceland's decision.

Lastly—and I say this in no chauvinistic way and in no gunboat attitude, but I speak as a member of a fishing port constituency—my colleagues with a deep interest in the fishing industry and I say in no chauvinistic or gunboat spirit that we hope the Navy will behave not in an aggressive way but in a purely protective fashion for our skippers and their boats.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I think the industry all the way through has understood the reluctance of the Government to put the Navy in. The industry has been very patient and very co-operative, but the moment came when everyone agreed that this was necessary. The Joint Action Committee certainly supports the Navy's action as this is a protective action that we have taken.

Mr. Wall

While I also welcome this statement, would it not be wise to realise that the Icelandic Communist Party will do everything it can to get Iceland out of NATO? Will my right hon. Friend do all he can with our NATO allies to explain the provocation we have had to endure and that we have had eight months of continuous negotiation? Will he seek the co-operation of the German navy, as German trawlers are also subject to harassment in the Icelandic waters?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

We raised this matter in the NATO Alliance this morning. We are in very close touch with the Germans because they are in a somewhat similar plight, but I cannot commit their navy.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that many of us believe that there will be no lasting settlement save through negotiations and an agreed settlement on both sides, but is it not a fact that the Navy is protecting trawlers in a section of the ocean unilaterally annexed by Iceland, according to the International Court of Justice, in breach of international law? Will he indicate our readiness to submit the legality of this action to the International Court on the assumption that both sides accept the outcome?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Yes. We are certainly trying to submit this matter to the International Court. The Icelanders have said that they do not accept its jurisdiction, although the International Court of Justice does have jurisdiction in this matter. A convention has been in force between two willing parties which Iceland registered under the Treaty in 1961.

Mr. Jeffrey Archer

I thank my right hon. Friend on behalf of owners and skippers in my constituency for the speed with which the Navy moved on Thursday after a request had been made by them. The only vital thing to my constituents is the size of the catch. If we are to negotiate, as I hope we will, we should remember that 170,000 tons was the agreement of the International Court, 145,000 tons was the figure we came down to, and that the 117,000 considered by the Icelanders is not sufficient and not worthy of consideration.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

The answer to that question is "Yes, Sir".

Mr. Goronwy Roberts

May I put two short points to the Foreign Secretary? He is, I am sure, aware that this House —and indeed informed world opinion generally—fully endorses the view that our vessels in these waters are there with the full sanction of international law. Following upon the point made by the right hon. Member the Leader of the Liberal Party, what is now in jeopardy is a freely negotiated convention between two countries, freely signed and sustained for a long time, but abrogated unilaterally.

Secondly, will the Government continue to make absolutely clear, particularly to the Icelandic Government, that as soon as this harassment ceases and there is an opportunity to engage in realistic negotiations our naval presence will immediately be removed?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Our vessels are in these waters strictly in accordance with international law and according to the legal agreement between two sovereign Powers. On the second point the right hon. Gentleman has laid his finger on the essential condition, of course. Harassing must stop; then we can think again and negotiate again.

Mr. Heffer

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, despite the attitude adopted by most hon. Members present, it is not universcally welcomed that the Navy should go in? Is he aware that we understand the feelings and desires of the workers and trawler owners in the ports, but the Icelanders have a considerable case which has never been expressed in this House? These people have absolutely nothing except their fishing?

Mr. James Johnson

That is not so.

Mr. Heffer

My hon. Friend says that that is not so, but everyone, to be honest, knows that Iceland depends on its fishing, and if that is taken away these people will have nothing. We must not act, as we have acted in the past, as a imperialist Power using the full weight of our strength against a small nation. Is it not time that we got back to the negotiating table to reach an agreement with these people rather than acting in the way we have done?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

None of us in this House welcomes the fact that the Navy had to be sent in. It almost goes without saying that we were very reluctant to do it, and it took us eight months of suffering harassment before we finally decided that we had no alternative. I remember recalling to the House only a week or so ago that of course we understand that the Icelanders depend on fishing—it is their livelihood—but a negotiated settlement according to the International Court or the terms which we offered would not strike a blow against the Icelanders.

Mr. Goodhart

Is my right hon. Friend aware that no one in this Houses wishes to bully our allies in Iceland? But if, alas, the need for the patrol continues, and if there is difficulty in finding ships for this patrol, can he confirm that the Iceland patrol will have priority over the Beira patrol?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I do not think it will be necessary to make a choice. We have sufficient vessels.

Mr. Donald Stewart

Apart from the views expressed in the House, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he is aware that throughout the country, in many of the fishing ports, there is by no means total support for his policy which some hon. Members pretend or imagine there is? Is he further aware that the spectacle of Great Britain claiming oil 150 miles from our shores is not a good example to set when we are seeking to prevent Iceland from protecting its sole source of income only 50 miles from its shores? Does he appreciate that the case will eventually be won by Iceland and the sooner this gunboat diplomacy comes to an end the better?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I do not know whether there is total support in the country for this policy but on the evidence we have heard in the House today there is quite a lot of support for our action and I would have thought that it was strong majority support.

Mr. Heffer

Some people have not got the courage to stand up.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will tell us how long we are expected to wait, being harassed, without any retaliation whatever. This is one small nation using force for political purposes, and it cannot be tolerated. We are always ready to conciliate and negotiate. I hope that we will be able to resume doing so.

Mr. Cledwyn Hughes

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, while we all regret being at odds with Iceland in this matter, and while we understand the feeling of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer), the David and Goliath argument is not valid in this case because it is David who is behaving illegally? Will the Foreign Secretary consider publishing a White Paper setting out the history of this unhappy disagreement as soon as possible?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I will consider that if the House feels it would be useful.

Miss Quennell

Arising from the remarks of the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe), may I ask my right hon. Friend to clarify the exact circumstances of the territorial waters around Iceland? Is it not right that Iceland claims a 4-mile limit on territorial waters, later extending her 12-mile limit for fishing purposes and that the present 50-mile limit is for fishing purposes and is not here territorial waters?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

My hon. Friend is right on all counts.

Mr. McNamara

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in the past I have been very much against cutlass-rattling but that I have come to the inevitable conclusion that recent incidents which have taken place have reluctantly forced the hand of the Government? Is he further aware that publication of a White Paper as suggested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey (Mr. Cledwyn Hughes) would be widely welcomed because there is a great deal of education to be done in this country too about our dependence upon the fishing industry in this country as they are in Iceland? While we all concede that the Icelandic Government and people have a real, serious and deep interest in this, is it not the case that the people of England, particularly of the fishing ports, have an equally great interest? Will he confirm that all we are looking for is an interim agreement of two and a half years until the whole matter can be settled by all countries concerned at the conference on the law of the sea?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I have always recognised the hon. Gentleman's reluctance, in which I may say he was very wise, to take further action. As he has said, the moment has come when we could not help ourselves. I will seriously consider the proposal for a White Paper. I agree that it would be useful.

Mr. Wilkinson

Will my right hon. Friend undertake never to miss any opportunity to press on our Icelandic friends that, notwithstanding this serious dispute, there are greater interests that unite us, that there are greater dangers in these northern waters than the one they fear at the hands of the British? Can he clarify the statement reported in the Press today that British military aircraft are unwelcome in Iceland?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I will have to get a little more information about the action the Icelanders have taken with regard to British military aircraft. This matter is a peripheral one for us; nevertheless it is something within the NATO Alliance which should not happen between allies.

Mr. Paget

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, contrary to the view of some of my hon. Friends, there are occasions when, greatly daring, it is necessary to raise a small and dissident voice in favour of the rights of the strong against the weak? Is it not time that we did so?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I agree.

Mr. Wellbeloved

Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that, while we would all like to see this dispute settled by the process of free collective bargaining, all sensible opinion in the Labour movement believes that workers both by land and sea are entitled to protection when they go about earning a living for their family and for the prosperity of the nation?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Yes, Sir. Our citizens must be able to go about their lawful occasions without being molested.