HC Deb 25 November 1975 vol 901 cc666-70
The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. William Rodgers)

With permission, I will now answer Questions Nos. 14 and 31.

Yesterday, in reply to a Private Notice Question from the hon. Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall), I said that protection measures for our trawlers fishing off Iceland would be amongst questions to be discussed at a meeting with representatives of the industry later in the day. In the light of these discussions, the Government have now decided to provide naval protection, and an announcement to this effect was issued by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at 11.30 this morning. A copy is in the Library. HMS "Leopard" should be arriving at the fishing grounds about now and further Royal Navy ships are being deployed. RAF flights will continue as necessary.

Today's decision follows months of abortive negotiation with the Icelandic Government. Last year the International Court of Justice ruled that even Iceland's 50-mile zone was not enforceable against British fishermen. But Her Majesty's Government have repeatedly stated their willingness to show flexibility on the amount of fish caught, on conservation areas and on a number of other matters, as was once again made clear to the Icelandic Foreign Minister in a message last weekend. Her Majesty's Government remain ready to resume negotiations at any time.

The Government have taken the decision to provide naval protection regretfully and with reluctance. We had hoped that such action could be avoided. But, in the absence of any sign from the Icelandic Government that they were willing to talk, we had no alternative to providing the means whereby British trawlers can exercise their legitimate right to fish in international waters.

Mr. Wall

Is the Minister aware that his statement will be greatly welcomed by the trawler fleets? Is it not surprising that the announcement was made at 11.30 a.m. and not first to the House? Will the right hon. Gentleman make clear to the Icelandic Government that this is purely a defensive measure and that there will be no escalation unless there is aggression from Icelandic gunboats? Will the Minister give the House the assurance that commanding officers of Her Majesty's ships will be given clear orders as to their responsibilities?

Mr. Rodgers

To the second and third of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary questions the answer is "Yes". On the first, no discourtesy to the House was intended, but, as I think the House will be aware—it was so aware at Question Time yesterday—we have been anxious that the skippers should remain on the fishing grounds, and an early announcement was necessary to ensure that they did.

Mr. Brorherton

Is the Minister aware that his statement will be greeted with great satisfaction on the south bank of the Humber, although it is a week too late? Now that the Minister realises the responsibilities of Her Majesty's Government to our fishermen who are going about their lawful occasions on the high seas, might I ask him whether the captains of the ships involved will be inhibited in their actions to protect our fishing fleet? Secondly, will the Minister assure the House that ships of the Royal Navy will remain on station for as long as necessary to protect our fishing fleet?

Mr. Rodgers

I think that the hon. Gentleman will regret his opening, ungenerous remarks. The answer to his two supplementary questions is "Yes".

Mr. McNamara

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the decision of Her Majesty's Government to protect our constituents who work on the fishing fleets will be greatly welcomed by their families on Humberside who have displayed considerable concern about the safety of their men? Nevertheless, they, like the whole House, will regret the necessity for taking this action. Will my hon. Friend say what further diplomatic moves the Government intend to take to try to bring this terrible confrontation to an end, and whether we shall use any of the international organisations to which we belong to facilitate talks so that both sides can reach an honourable settlement?

Mr. Rodgers

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who fairly summed up the nature of this decision. We believed that it was necessary and we took it, but we regret that these events have occurred. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs made plain, as he did in his statement to the House last Thursday, that we should welcome a reopening of negotiations any time, anywhere.

Mr. Grimond

Is the Minister aware that whenever there is trouble in Icelandic waters it results in added pressure upon other fishing grounds? Will he give an undertaking that there will be adequate fishery protection on other fishing grounds? Secondly, will he bear in mind that the fishing community is more than ever determined that the utmost speed should be shown in extending our limits and protecting our waters?

Mr. Rodgers

Yes, we are all fully aware of the second point made by the right hon. Gentleman. As for the first, we shall continue to do what we can to protect British fishermen wherever they are.

Mr. Clegg

May I simply thank the Minister for the action he has taken? Many families in Fleetwood will be sleeping soundly tonight after hearing that news. In all fishing ports there is a desire to reach agreement on conservation. Our future, just as much as the future of Iceland, lies in conservation.

Mr. Rodgers

Everyone who is involved in this difficult decision will appreciate the hon. Gentleman's opening remarks. I welcome his wish to see these matters settled by negotiation as soon as possible.

Mr. Prescott

Does my right hon. Friend realise that this military intervention and conflict are about a difference in catch allowance to the value of only £6 million? Is he not concerned that he is establishing a precedent of military protection at a time when trawlers are looking for new grounds within 200 miles in areas to which 40 countries have claimed a right, and that we may be establishing the principle of military protection in the United States and 40 other countries?

Mr. Rodgers:

No. Although I respect my hon. Friend's views, I think that on this occasion he does not reflect those of the great majority of hon. Members or of those affected outside. This step has been taken with regret—in sorrow, not in anger. I hope that it will not establish a precedent involving the use of naval forces rather than negotiations in solving international disputes of this kind.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

Will the Government, through the International Court, claim damages for the severance of trawl cables carried out in international waters? This is surely the minimum that the Government should do for their own citizens.

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether the orders given to the captains of the naval vessels protecting our fishing fleet are significantly different from those they received from the Conservative Government in the last dispute, or whether they are the same?

Mr. Rodgers

I think that it would be wise for me to say that they are not significantly different but not to discuss more fully in the House now the operational characteristics of our decision. I do not know the answer to the hon. Gentleman's first question, but I will look into it.

Mr. Watt

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, while we are all busy watching cod-fishing off Iceland, vast over-fishing is going on just off the Clyde, where a large number of boats are scooping up the last fish in the North-East Atlantic? When will the Government recognise that only an early extension of our own limits to 200 miles will solve the conservation problem in the North Sea?

Mr. Rodgers

The important thing to remember is that on this issue we have wanted, and still want, international agreement by negotiation. That is where the Government rest. They have made a reluctant decision. Now I hope there will be a response and that we shall be able to settle this matter in an adult way round the conference table.

Mr. Younger

We warmly welcome the Government's decision to send in the Royal Navy to protect our fishermen in their legitimate activities in following their trade. Will the right hon. Gentleman, in consultation with the Foreign Secretary, take the greatest trouble to get across to our friends and allies throughout the world that what we are doing is supporting international law which is to allow honest fishermen to carry out their normal business in accordance with international law?

Mr. Rodgers

I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman has said and am happy to endorse it. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, who is present, has taken note of the precise terms expressed by the hon. Gentleman.