HC Deb 13 November 1973 vol 864 cc249-56
The Prime Minister (Mr. Edward Heath)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I should like to make a statement on the Icelandic fisheries.

I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition if there has been any delay in his receipt of the statement. I know that he did not have very much notice. He knows the reason for the delay, which the note which I have just received confirms.

During my discussions with the Icelandic Prime Minister on 15th and 16th October, we worked out a basis for an interim settlement of the fisheries dispute. This has now been embodied in an exchange of notes, which I am glad to be able to tell the House was signed in Reykjavik at 2.45 p.m. today, of which I have just had confirmation.

The agreement will last for two years and will be without prejudice to the legal rights of either Government in relation to the substantive dispute. It is based on an estimated annual catch of about 130,000 tons by British vessels in the disputed area, but no actual catch limit is incorporated. The main provision are for reductions in the number of British trawlers fishing in the disputed area and restrictions on the areas in which they will operate. The fleet of fresher trawlers will be reduced, by comparison with the number notified as fishing in 1971, by 15 of the largest trawlers and 15 other trawlers, so that it will consist of not more than 68 trawlers of 180 feet or more in length and not more than 71 trawlers of less than that length. No British freezer or factory trawlers will fish in the area.

The area restrictions provide, broadly, that one-sixth of the disputed area will be closed to British trawlers at any one time. In addition there will be certain agreed conservation areas and areas reserved for Icelandic small boats.

An agreed list of vessels which may fish under the terms of the interim agreement has been drawn up. If any vessel is discovered fishing contrary to the terms of the agreement, the Icelandic coastguard will have the right to stop it, but will summon the nearest British support vessel in order to establish the facts. Any trawler found to have violated the terms of the agreement will be crossed off the list.

I am very glad that we have now reached a negotiated interim settlement. We are giving up areas which, though small, have traditionally provided significant catches, and are excluding some vessels which have hitherto fished off Iceland. A substantial British trawler fleet will, however, be able to operate freely, without fear of harassment, in the major part of the disputed area. The agreement will put an end to an unhappy and dangerous situation which was damaging our relationship with a NATO ally. It will mean that the Royal Navy and the tugs will no longer be called upon to provide protection, an arduous task which has been performed with skill, determination and forbearance.

The fishing industry welcomes the agreement for the prospect which it gives of a return to more normal conditions, and I am grateful for the co-operation it has given us throughout the dispute. I recognise the hazards which the skippers and crews have had to face. They have demonstrated their ability to cope with difficult circumstances and will now, I am sure, show the same qualities in their efforts to keep up supplies to the consumer. In the longer term, new developments in fishing technology open up the prospect of fishing unexploited stocks on new grounds, and the Government are helping the industry with the exploration of these areas.

With this agreement, we have, I believe, laid a new basis for the friendly co-operation which should characterise our relationship with Iceland, and we have made good provision for the needs of the fishing industry during the period in which wider international arrangements are being worked out.

Mr. Harold Wilson

The right hon. Gentleman should have been making a statement today on his economic crash programme instead of making it outside the House and refusing to submit himself to questions.

We welcome the Prime Minister's announcement of an interim settlement of the dispute, although we shall, of course, wish to consider, especially in conjunction with those of my hon. Friends who represent fishing areas, the exact meaning of the detailed terms which have been negotiated, with great difficulty, as we all understand.

The Prime Minister referred to it as an interim agreement. Is it the Government's policy to try to reach something definitive in the Conference on the Law of the Sea governing these questions, and does our case still stand at the World Court?

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the welcome which he has given to the agreement. I must, however, correct him on one point. I have made no statement outside the House on other matters today.

Our position at the World Court remains exactly as it is, and the agreement is without prejudice to the case of either country in this matter. This is an interim agreement covering two years from the moment of signature this afternoon, in the expectation that the Conference on the Law of the Sea will be able to reach firm conclusions. We all know the difficulties facing a conference on the law of the sea, but both Governments hope that it will have been possible by the expiration of this agreement to reach agreement on the law of the sea and that that will then govern the situation.

Mr. Wall

I welcome the end of this dispute between friends, and I recognise that the agreement is a great tribute to the initiative of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and to the courage of the Icelandic Prime Minister. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the agreement maintains the freedom of the seas, and will he acknowledge also that it has been achieved with the agreement of and at considerable sacrifice by the British fishing industry?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir; I am glad to pay my tribute to the work of the Prime Minister of Iceland, both in the two-day conference which we had in London, and, since he returned to Iceland, in securing implementation of the agreement through his own Cabinet and through the Althing which then discussed it.

As regards the law on freedom of the sea, I do not think that anything is affected by the terms of the agreement which we have made. I have already referred to the arrangements which the British fishing industry has been prepared to accept in order to put an end to the dangerous situation which has existed. We fully recognise what has been done. The agreement has been accepted because it makes the industry's conditions for fishing far less hazardous than they have been in the past, and the industry recognises also that, as a result of further exploration by the Government, it will have opportunities in fresh areas which will be opened up. Looking forward to the time when the law of the sea is settled at the conference, we shall by then, I think, need to have done considerable development in other fishing areas, for the advantage of our own fishing industry.

Mr. James Johnson

I welcome the statement, and I bear in mind that the Prime Minister has played a decisive part in the settlement. It would be churlish not to acknowledge that. Nevertheless, is he aware that the whole industry has made most unpalatable concessions so as to arrive at a settlement? However, the settlement is acceptable to us and the fishing ports.

In the light of that situation, will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance to the fishing industry that the Government of the day will do all that they possibly can to help the fleets in the next two years in their stocktaking? In looking ahead and planning the future of the industry, particularly in new grounds such as the South Atlantic, we shall need help with research and the financing of our ships to discover whether and when we can go there.

The Prime Minister

The Government will give all the help they can to the fishing industry in the development of new areas. I should not like to commit myself specifically to the South Atlantic at this moment. That is an area to which consideration has been given, but there may be other areas which are more favourable to us.

I have already expressed my gratitude to the fishing industry for the close co-operation which it has shown. As I think the hon. Gentleman knows, all through the two-day talks which I had with the Prime Minister of Iceland the fishing industry was in the closest contact with us and we were able to discuss each aspect of the package which was finally settled.

Mr. Wolrige-Gordon

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the settlement and the British trawling industry on its acceptance of it. Does my right hon. Friend note that the reaction of the Scottish Trawlers Federation on the Faroese settlement has been nothing like so favourable? Will he undertake, in view of the recent developments, a very careful review of what is now going on in our waters within 50 miles of the coast?

The Prime Minister

I am prepared to consider that matter. I think that we already have all the information, and we acknowledge only up to the 12 miles limit. At present the 50 miles off-shore in our own waters is covered by what we regard to be the law of the sea in the judgment given for us by the International Court, which bore out that position.

Mr. Pardoe

While I welcome the agreement, have the Government made an estimate of the actual value of the catch which we shall lose as a result of the agreement? What estimate have the Government made of the impact on our balance of payments?

The Prime Minister

It is difficult to estimate the catch which we shall lose. First, the analysis of what can be fished in the area open to us is covered by the new approach. We shall have a target of 130,000 tons but not a catch limit. If our fishermen find in the course of fishing these areas that they are above 130,000 tons, that would be all the better for us. The other factor which we must take into account is that what is open to us around the whole of Iceland for the coming year, 1974, will be substantially less than what we have had in the fishing year 1973. It is not possible to make the sort of calculations about which the hon. Gentleman has asked. Supplies of fish depend to a certain extent on how rapidly our fishermen are able to develop new areas which we hope to explore and on which we have information, and the other stocks which come in from other fishermen.

Mr. W. H. K. Baker

I sincerely congratulate my right hon. Friend on the agreement which he has been able to reach. Will he consider the draft agreement and the similar sort of terms which are in being for the settlement of the Faroe dispute? The Scottish Trawlers Federation is by no means satisfied with that. I hope that a better remedy can be found.

The Prime Minister

I have already given an assurance that I will personally consider the matter and communicate with my hon. Friends.

Mr. Heffer

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that most hon. Members will be pleased with the agreement? However, many hon. Members will feel that the agreement should have been reached much earlier instead of there being a certain amount of gunboat diplomacy. Who precisely will police the agreement, and what will happen if there is a dispute arising out of the agreement?

The Prime Minister

I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he has said. It is true that we would have liked to reach an agreement long before now which would have avoided the Navy or the tugs having to play any part, but that did not prove possible. I am delighted that the Prime Minister of Iceland has found it possible to reach an agreement.

On policing, as I mentioned in my statement, if an Icelandic boat believes a British trawler is fishing in one of the areas in which fishing is excluded, either for conservation or for agreement reasons, it will summon the nearest British fisheries protection vessel. Together they will discuss whether our trawler was in breach of the agreement. If it is agreed that the trawler is in breach of the agreement there is no question of proceedings in an Icelandic court. The boat will no longer be on the list of boats which can fish in waters off Iceland. That was the basis of the approach for working out that sort of problem. We have confidence from the fact that during the previous agreement in the 1960s a similar process was used. That worked satisfactorily. There was no case of its being breached or a problem arising as to whether or not a boat was in the area.

Mr. Jeffrey Archer

My constituents will be thankful that this matter has now been settled. For them the most important factor is the 130,000 tons. We are conscious that there have been long and protracted negotiations. We realise that every effort has been made. We hope that both sides have now reached a settlement.

The Prime Minister

I thank my hon. Friend for what he has said. The industry feels that a catch of about 130,000 tons without a catch limit suits it best in the present circumstances and avoids all the hazards to which it has been subjected during the past 18 months.

Mr. McNamara

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the members of my union who supply the crews for these vessels will welcome the agreement? Further, is he aware that they will be looking as well at the longer term as well as the short term of two years? Whilst they will welcome the Prime Minister's statement about possible help to the fishing industry, they would feel that it would be of more positive help to have a clear indication of what Her Majesty's Government's policy will be and the proposals that they will be putting forward for fishing limits at the International Law of the Sea Conference? Will the right hon. Gentleman consider publishing a White Paper on the fishing aspects of the conference as soon as possible?

The Prime Minister

We are very conscious of the need to look at the longer-term position with the industry—namely, to the time when we can hope that the International Law of the Sea Conference will have concluded successfully and we then have to fish under the conditions agreed to at the conference. As far as the proposals and the conference are concerned, it is early yet to make any statement about them in debate or in the form of a White Paper. I shall bear in mind what the hon. Gentleman says.