HC Deb 04 February 1976 vol 904 cc1197-203
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. James Callaghan)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement on the Icelandic fisheries question. As the House will be aware, the Icelandic Government stated yesterday that they are unable to accept proposals for fishing limitations by British trawlers which were put to them in the recent London talks. The Icelandic Government have, however, expressed readiness to resume talks on a short-term agreement. The British Ambassador in Reykjavik has this morning been in touch with Icelandic officials and I authorised him to reply that, despite our disappointment, we are prepared to explore the prospects of a short-term agreement without prejudice to a longer one. It remains to be seen whether it is possible for the Icelandic Government to make any realistic offer, or, indeed, any offer at all.

The House should be aware that during the London talks the Icelandic Government were not in a position to negotiate and were even unable to agree to temporary arrangements to cover the five-day period during which they were considering the results of the talks. Nevertheless, we shall continue to do our best and British officials are standing by to go to Reykjavik.

As for the immediate future, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is now advising the fishing fleet to resume fishing in the normal way in these international waters, for so they still are, as from midnight tonight. If our trawlers are interfered with, they will be protected. The Government have also invited the industry for urgent talks about the limitations which we would be prepared voluntarily to impose upon ourselves in order to ensure that the British catch does not endanger the conservation of cod stocks. On two occasions in the past I have offered to accept mediation in this matter and the Icelandic Government have refused. I repeat the offer again today. I am conscious of the concern of our NATO allies and shall ensure that they are fully informed of the facts and of our intentions.

The record will show that we seek good relations with our Icelandic neighbours and I believe that many of them feel the same way about us. But no nation has the right unilaterally to impose measures which are unreasonable in themselves and which strike directly at the livelihood of our people in the fishing industry.

Mr. Tugendhat

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that our first thoughts lie with the British fishermen on the fishing banks off Iceland—these brave men doing a difficult and dangerous task and going about their legal concerns? Does he agree that the first responsibility of the British Government and of all parties in this Parliament is to them? Is he aware that we share his desire for a settlement and that as long as there is any chance of reaching a settlement we shall do nothing which makes that task more difficult? The right hon. Gentleman's remarks about the possibility of a short-term agreement hold out at least some encouragement. Is he aware that, like him, we want good relations with Iceland, one of our NATO allies?

In what circumstances would the right hon. Gentleman feel it appropriate for the Navy to return? Of course, we hope that such circumstances will not arise. Can he tell us where the frigates are now? Could he also hold out some hope to the House that he will devote the same amount of effort in endeavouring to renegotiate the common fisheries policy as he has devoted to some other aspects of Britain's relations with the Common Market?

Mr. Callaghan

I am grateful to the hon. Member for what he said about the British trawler fleet. It has been subjected to considerable harassment and irritation, to put it at its mildest, in the way it has been told to haul its nets and then to start fishing again. A kind of cat-and-mouse game has been played with the fleet, and the fishermen have had to put up with it because we all felt that we should not give those in the Icelandic Government who do not want an agreement any excuse to break off talks. Now the position is different. There are no talks taking place and there is no agreement. Therefore, our fleet is now in what we recognise as international waters, and if it is interfered with the Navy will protect it. That is the simple position and I wish to go no further than that, except to say that two frigates are now about 200 miles from the main coastline and the third is stationed in Scotland but is able to return.

The question of a common fisheries policy is complicated by the Law of the Sea Conference which will start again in March, though I do not know when or how it will conclude. I have no doubt that a common fisheries policy will have to take account of any changed circumstances resulting from agreements at the conference on extending economic zones or fishing limits.

Mr. James Johnson

I compliment my right hon. Friend and his colleagues on the efforts they have made. Is he aware that many people feel that he has leaned over backwards in his attempts to accommodate the Icelanders? Is he aware that there is enormous sadness among those of us who know the Icelanders well and that we hope that an accommodation can somehow be reached? Is he aware that thousands of fishermen and their families are sceptical about the sincerity of some of the members of the Icelandic Cabinet but that we still hope some accommodation will be reached—

Mr. Skinner

You stopped me long before this.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Let it be quite clear that I do not intend to accept interventions of that sort. Perhaps the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Johnson) will appreciate the mood of the House and bring his question to a conclusion.

Mr. Johnson

If there is no agreement and warps are cut, is my right hon. Friend aware that the fishermen, who believe that they are fishing lawfully in international waters, will expect the Navy to go to their aid?

Mr. Callaghan

I note what my hon. Friend says and thank him for it, It is particularly important, when we are dealing with a small nation, that we should not appear to be abusing our position. I can fairly claim that the British Government have put forward every proposal and every conciliatory suggestion. We have made every attempt to come to some agreement. I repeat that I am not certain that the Icelandic Government are in a position to come to an agreement. We shall certainly go on trying to get an agreement and endeavouring not to make things more difficult, in the hope that such an agreement can be reached.

Mr. Watt

Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise the need to negotiate from a position of strength? Is he aware that until we extend our own limits to 200 miles he will not be in such a position? Could he also tell the House how many Icelandic boats are fishing for herring within 200 miles of the Shetland Islands?

Mr. Callaghan

If the hon. Member would like to put the last part of his question to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, I am sure my right hon. Friend will reply to it. On the hon. Member's first point, if there is to be an extension of limits I hope the House will accept that it should be done by agreement and not unilaterally. If we were to have international anarchy in these matters, the result for all of us would be far worse than if we try to negotiate an agreement. The Icelandic Government have taken a unilateral decision which, considering Britain's world-wide interests, it would be very foolish of us to accept.

Mr. McNamara

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the people of Humberside will welcome the firmness of the statement about our vessels being protected when they start fishing again? Is he aware that it would be a considerable advantage to the Government to publish in the Official Report the various options they have presented to the Icelandic Government in order to show the reasonableness of our position?

Is my right hon. Friend aware that we should like to think that we could achieve an agreement with the Icelandic Government in the short term of, say, three to six months? However, he should bear in mind that the spring period into which we are now entering has always been the most lucrative for fishermen and that for that period we would therefore want more than merely one-quarter of the annual catch?

Mr. Callaghan

I note my hon. Friend's point about the bargaining which might be undertaken if it were possible to enter into an agreement. In the absence of an agreement we should behave responsibly. I am sure that we shall get a response from the industry when we invite it to discuss with us what should be an appropriate level of catch. We are as conscious of the need to conserve cod stocks in Iceland's interests as Iceland is itself. I have made this clear continually to the Icelandic Ministers with whom I have dealt.

I shall consider my hon. Friend's point about publishing the options, although the main option that we offered has been publicised already. We said to the Icelandic Government that, if our scientists could not agree with theirs on a total allowable catch to conserve stocks, they should choose a figure and we would take 28 per cent. of what they thought was an allowable total. I do not consider that anything could be fairer than that, but they were unable to accept even that proposal.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

Will the right hon. Gentleman take all possible steps to make sure that the British case is fully explained to our NATO partners and allies in the West as some of them do not appear to appreciate what a just case it is? Does he accept that this is an issue of principle which concerns more than the catching of fish and that the main objective should be to ensure that individual countries are not able to disregard international law and take unilateral action?

Mr. Callaghan

I think I have made the position clear on the last part of the question. On the first part, I shall be meeting all the NATO ambassadors in London in a little over half an hour and I intend to put the position to them. I have already explained it to Dr. Luns, the Secretary General. I think that our actions and our failure to respond to what have undoubtedly been provocations have led to a much greater understanding in NATO of our attitude now than perhaps existed a year ago.

Mr. Luard

I welcome the conciliatory position of the Foreign Secretary on this issue. Does he recognise that there is a substantial section of our industry which is much more concerned with reserving fish stocks within a 200-mile zone of our own to British fishermen than with retaining rights in the waters within 200 miles of Iceland? It may be that we shall wish, like other developed countries, to declare a zone of this kind before it formally becomes international law. As my right hon. Friend indicated a few days ago, this may take a considerable time to achieve. In those circumstances we may wish to make much the same efforts as Iceland is making to introduce conservation measures of our own and to negotiate with other countries to reduce their catches—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman was here earlier when I asked for interventions as far as possible to be brief.

Mr. Callaghan

It is necessary that there should be an agreement about the 200-mile limit, and this we shall negotiate in accordance with international law. It is also necessary that there should be a long-term policy for the British fishing fleet in these changed circumstances. It is to this matter that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is bending his attention, and I am sure that Questions put down to him will elucidate very satisfactory answers.

Mrs. Kellett-Bowman

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the Law of the Sea Conference. I am sure that everyone on the Opposition side supports him when he says that agreement is vital. Is he aware, however, that these conferences can drag on interminably? Will he consider following the example of the United States Senate and bring in a Bill to enable the extension of our own limit to 200 miles on a date such as July 1977, which would give the conference a good chance to come to an agreement before such legislation came into force?

Mr. Callaghan

That is an interesting suggestion, especially since the hon. Member put the date so far forward as the middle of 1977. However, it would have disadvantages in the absence of international agreement. I shall be happy to explain them on another occasion. For the moment, we should work for international agreement. The conference meets in March, but I do not think it will reach agreement then. It might well reach agreement, as I hope, by the end of the summer, and in those circumstances the hon. Lady's suggestion would not need to be taken up.

Several Hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker

Second statement—Mr. Hattersley.