HC Deb 07 June 1976 vol 912 cc936-47
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Anthony Crosland)

I will, with permission, Mr. Speaker, make a statement on the settlement of the fisheries dispute which I reached with the Icelandic Foreign Minister in Oslo last week. Copies of the agreement are available in the Vote Office.

Since my predecessor, now Prime Minister, last made a statement to the House on this dispute on 4th February, much has changed. The Law of the Sea Conference has met again and, while no final agreement was reached, the trend towards 200-mile limits is now clearly irreversible. Thirteen countries have already declared such limits. Canada, the United States, Norway, and other countries have publicly announced their intention to extend to 200 miles, and Britain is inviting the EEC to do the same at an early date.

It was against this background, of an inexorable world-wide move towards 200-mile limits, a move from which Britain and the EEC cannot long remain exempt, that the Government had to decide whether once more to seek an agreement with Iceland—an agreement that would inevitably be on the lines of the one that I concluded last week.

What were the alternatives? There was in fact only one. That was to continue to pursue the cod war, with the certainty of dangerous escalation, with international and especially NATO opinion moving sharply against us, at a mounting cost in terms of naval protection, with our moral position steadily eroding as nation after nation accepted the principle of 200 miles, until, after only a few months, Britain and the EEC ourselves accepted 200 miles. At that moment any claim on waters off Iceland would disappear; meanwhile, we should have lost good will on a massive scale, and our bargaining position with the Community over the common fisheries policy would have been seriously complicated.

No informed observer has argued for this option, and that includes many of those trawler owners and others who have been so vociferous in their public condemnation of this agreement.

It has been clear for some time to all Thinking people, even if not to the more backward sections of the trawling industry, that in a world of 200-mile limits the industry must face a major adaptation. The content of the catch will change dramatically. The distant water fleet will decline, the inshore and near-water fleets will expand. The painful changes which now face the Humber ports and Fleetwood, of which I am only too conscious, for obvious reasons, and of which I warned my constituents before going to Oslo, would have had to occur anyway, whether I had signed this agreement or not. I can assure the House that the Government are deeply conscious of the financial and employment aspects of these changes.

I should like to express my thanks to Mr. Knut Frydenlund, the Norwegian Foreign Minister, for his invaluable help in making possible the contacts which led to this agreement, and also to the NATO Secretary General for his efforts in the same direction. I should like above all to express the appreciation of the House to all those who took part in the dangerous operation of protecting our trawler-men, and especially to the trawler-men themselves for their courage, restraint and understanding during the dispute.

Mr. Speaker, recriminations about the past will do no good to anyone. They will not save a single job on Humberside or in Fleetwood. This agreement has been as passionately denounced in Reykjavik as it has on Humberside. I regard it as a concession only to common sense. There is no point in yearning for the unattainable.

We must now concentrate on the future. This is the first step in a long process of adaptation which the British fishing industry, like other fishing industries, will have to face in this new world of 200-mile limits. The next steps will be an urgent study by the Government of what help they can give towards the restructuring of the industry, the revision of the common fisheries policy, and a decision by the EEC on its own 200-mile limits. The British Government will now at once pursue the necessary consultations, both with the industries at home and with our partners abroad.

I am certain that with help from the Government and the EEC, while relying also on its own resilience and initiative, the British fishing industry will emerge from these changes a different but still a vital and prosperous industry.

Mr. Pym

We have heard what is a very grave statement for the fishing industry. It admitted that Government policy over the last year and more has been informed by a disregard of what the Foreign Secretary himself described as the "inexorable move" to the 200-mile limit. I do not think that anything has changed much in the last few months. If the Government never were going to go through with their policy, why did they embark upon it in the first place?

I should like on behalf of my right hon. Friends and the House to endorse what the Foreign Secretary said about our appreciation of what the Navy did and of what the trawlermen stood up to in the recent confrontation.

This temporary agreement is markedly worse than would have been attainable earlier. Was not 65,000 tons proposed for the catch, and will this package not mean less than half that amount? The repercussions of the agreement will be dramatic for our whole fishing industry. Having led the industry into this cul-de-sac the Government are now shown to have prepared no plans to help the thousands who will lose their jobs or the trawler owners.

Do the Government realise the implications and dangers that now exist for our inshore fleet? How is the large investment in our trawlers and in all the people whose jobs depend on them now to be used? It seems extraordinary that the Government should have arrived at this agreement with no contingency plans having been prepared.

The right hon. Gentleman said that there would be an urgent study by the Government. That should have been carried out already. We on the Conservative Benches have been pressing for a full year the urgent and vital necessity of revising the common fisheries policy in the wholly new circumstances of 200-mile limits. The Minister of Agriculture admitted a year ago that it was urgent to revise the common fisheries policy, and that has not yet happened.

I regret that the statement does nothing to end the uncertainty about the future that inevitably exists in the industry. Does the Secretary of State accept the necessity not to yield anything on the 50-mile limit which his Minister proposed to the EEC a few weeks ago during the renegotiation of the CFP?

Mr. Crosland

The Minister of Agriculture will make a complete statement shortly on the general implications of this agreement and other changes for the industry. On the question of the tactics and strategy in the dispute, which the right hon. Gentleman has just fundamentally criticised, I took the precaution this morning of reading in Hansard all the exchanges which have occurred after every ministerial statement on this subject in the past 12 months, and I found that not once did the Opposition Front Bench challenge the policy that we were pursuing. On the more general point, I do not accept any criticism on fisheries policy from a party that signed the Treaty of Accession without saying one word about the CFP.

Mr. James Johnson

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the anger, dismay and disgust felt by Humberside people, particularly the City Council of Hull and the fishing families, who feel they have been badly let down? Will he confirm that Hull, Fleetwood and his own port could each lose 20 vessels, and that 500 men on deck and double or treble that number on shore could be put on the dole? Are we not now the only country in Europe which will allow an alien Power to board our vessels on the international high seas? Will my right hon. Friend amplify what he said about giving money for the structure of the industry as a whole and say what steps he is taking, first, to alter the CFP and, secondly, and even more important, to get the EEC quickly to extend limits to 200 miles?

Mr. Crosland

I have listened to my hon. Friend on radio and television in the last few days repeatedly using very strong language—which I have intensely disliked—about this agreement. I sit for a fishing port and I know precisely the likely consequences of the agreement in Hull and Grimsby. They will not be of the severity that my hon. Friend has described. I had to ask myself, both as a Minister and as someone sitting for a fishing constituency, whether there was an alternative course that would be better for Hull and Grimsby. After what my hon. Friend can imagine was the most anxious thought, I came firmly to the conclusion that this agreement would best serve the interests of our constituents.

Mr. Powell

In the world of 200-mile limits which the Secretary of State mentioned, does he recognise that for this country, within the EEC, there will be no 200-mile limit? Is it not the case that the near-impossible position in which the Secretary of State found himself is fundamentally due to the intolerable deal dealt to him and this country by the terms on which we initially entered and the terms on which we confirmed our membership of the Community?

Mr. Crosland

I go a very long distance with the right hon. Gentleman in what he has said. There is no doubt that the top priority now, whatever the history of this matter—and I do not dissent from much of what the right hon. Gentleman said—is to revise the CFP and salvage everything we can from the grievous error made by the Conservative Party in 1972.

Mr. Prescott

Is my right hon. Friend aware that some of us have predicted this outcome for some time, but that we believe he has got the best possible deal out of the mess he inherited? Will he make clear that the hysterical claims that 9,000 men will be unemployed are not true, and are geared to compensation requirements rather than job effect? Will my right hon. Friend ensure that any aid given to the industry is geared to the provision of jobs and towards maximising the number of trawlers in the short period to September, rather than the minimum of the 24/48 trawler formula envisaged by the industry? If aid is given by the Government, will my right hon. Friend call a conference of all concerned —local authorities as well as the industry—to see how the aid can be used during the fundamental change which will occur in areas like Humberside, which have higher unemployment than most development areas in this country?

Mr. Crosland

I note what my hon. Friend says. It is true that he has been completely consistent on this matter over the past 12 months. The trawler owners have given figures of 60 trawlers being laid up and 9,000 jobs being lost, but I can find no foundation in fact for supposing that the number will be on that scale of magnitude.

Mr. David Steel

I do not wish to join in the denunciation of this agreement, but will the Secretary of State, as a member of the Cabinet, explain why it agreed to embark on the policy of the cod war if it was not prepared to see it through? Is he aware that all the so-called changes in his statement have been wholly predictable all along?

Mr. Crosland

It has never been true in human history that a country which embarks on a war expects to see it continued indefinitely.

Mr. Thompson

Ought not this concession to common sense and morality to have been made months ago and ought not the Government to have been preparing for it months ago? Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government will take as tough a line in the negotiations with the Common Market over the CFP as they have hitherto taken with Iceland?

Mr. Crosland

On the hon. Gentleman's second point, I can give him the confirmation he seeks. On his first point, a great number of changes have occurred since the initial decision.

Mr. McNamara

Is not the truth of the situation that the Government have not had a policy for fishing since they have been in power? [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I do not need any "Hear, hears" from the Opposition. They never had a policy when they negotiated the whole blinking thing anyway. Have not Ministers paid little attention to warnings from hon. Members from Humberside and elsewhere about the need for a policy for the restructuring of the industry, no matter what the outcome of the Icelandic adventure, and is it not true that that nothing has been done? Is the criticism to be levelled at the Government not the climb-down over Iceland but the complete failure to deal with the employment problem on Humberside and the restructuring of the industry, which has been urged from the Government Back Benches for the past two years?

Mr. Crosland

A great deal of work has been done on the future of the indus- try in the light of the many new circumstances now in operation. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture hopes to make a statement shortly on the wider question.

Mr. Rippon

Will not the right hon. Gentleman withdraw his remarks about the Treaty of Accession not making provision for the renegotiation of the CFP? Did not the whole agreement turn on the fact that there would have to be both an international conference and a review by the Community, and was this not specifically provided for? Will the right hon. Gentleman also confirm that in the so-called renegotiations the Government of which he was a member did not challenge the agreement on fisheries policy?

Mr. Crosland

I have checked these facts. The last statement on fisheries in the Treaty of Accession discussions conducted by the Conservative Government was in December 1971. That Government were in power until 1974 and therefore had more than two years in which to do something about it. As far as our renegotiation is concerned, it was made clear at a very early stage and has been made clear all through that one of the top priorities, to which the Government attach great importance, is the revision of the CFP.

Mr. Brotherton

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the great anger in my constituency and his over this settlement? Does he realise that my constituents and his who are concerned in the deep-water trawling industry, including the trawlermen, the skippers and the owners, will greatly resent his remark about the backward sections of the industry? The right hon. Gentleman has said that unemployment figures such as 9,000 are greatly exaggerated, but will he tell the House how many people he thinks will be put out of work because of this settlement, especially at the Findus factory, where many hundreds of his constituents and mine work?

Will the right hon. Gentleman justify to the House the waste of time and money involved in the Royal Navy embarking on the cod war, which the Government did not have the will to see through to the end? [Interruption.] Those with the loud voices on the Government Benches do not realise that we supported the then Foreign Secretary in his policy towards the Icelandic cod war because we thought that the Government would see it through to an honourable end.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman having betrayed his constituents, will he now do the honourable thing and resign?

Mr. Crosland

As regards unemployment at Findus and other food-processing factories, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have seen statements in the Grimsby Evening Telegraph three days ago from Findus. Birds Eye, Ross and all the other processing factories that they expect no unemployment in their factories as a result of the agreement.

The hon. Gentleman has said that some of my remarks will be resented. I may say that I strongly resent many of the remarks that the hon. Gentleman has been making. I do not doubt for a moment that they will occasion plaudits, and may even win votes in his constituency, but occasionally it is the duty of a Member to tell his constituents the truth, however brutal that may be.

Several hon. Membersrose

Mr. Speaker

Order. If there are short questions I hope that I shall be able to call all those who have been seeking to catch my eye throughout this time. I then want to move on to the point of order raised by the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop).

Mr. Alexander Fletcher

Does the right hon. Gentleman consider that the method employed in resolving the Icelandic dispute—namely, the licensing of the number of entitled trawlers that may operate on any one day—might be applied to resolving the difficulties within the common fisheries policy when the 200-mile limit is extended to the EEC? Does he agree that that would have far more effect than an option of 50, 100 and 200 miles, which would be quite impossible for member States?

Mr. Crosland

I agree. I think that this is the only satisfactory method of monitoring these matters. We have found consistently in the past that quotas were unsatisfactory. I strongly accept what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Mr. Dalyell

I ask a rather parochial question from the East Coast of Scotland, where there seems to be a general acceptance that the Foreign Secretary has done the best that could be done in the circumstances. What will he say to owners and others who say "For heaven's sake, something has now to be done to protect our inshore waters, and particularly against Russian trawlers"?

Mr. Crosland

I should say that that will be a major part of the revision of the common fisheries policy. As soon as the EEC, with British support—indeed, under British urging—declares a 200-mile limit, the question of access to the 200 miles by non-EEC countries will become a matter of major importance. The matter of the Russian trawlers which my hon. Friend has mentioned will become an urgent matter.

Mr. Clegg

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the bitterness in the port of Fleetwood matches that in Humberside? Does he accept that one of the factors in this situation is that those who have broken international law and others who have jumped the gun in international law have again won the victory, and that this is a sad day? Is he aware that the problems of the fishing industry can be solved if his right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will do something quickly in the short term and make it clear to the Common Market that the British fishing industry is a major British political matter and not a second-rate industry? Will his right hon. Friend make it clear that we are tired of being treated as Cinderellas?

Mr. Crosland

I very strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman's concluding remarks. I have made it clear in no uncertain terms to my Common Market colleagues that I share his view of the importance of the British fishing industry. I am strongly aware of the position in Fleetwood, which is basically in a much more difficult position than Grimsby or Hull in terms of the dependence of the town on the one industry. That will be very much in the mind of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he comes to make his statement on the future of the industry.

Mr. Buchan

I add my welcome and congratulations to my right, hon. Friend on taking what was a difficult and, in some ways, courageous decision. Does he agree that it means that three matters are now paramount? First, does he agree that there is a new situation as regards renegotiation of the common fisheries policy, and that that should be used for the toughest possible posture in relation to limits? Secondly, does he realise that the real priority in terms of money is not compensation but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) said, the men whose livelihoods are now lost as a result of the agreement? Thirdly, does my right hon. Friend accept that as a matter of urgency money must now be spent on developing on a commercial basis experimental fishing in deep waters off the West Coast of Britain?

Mr. Crosland

I agree completely with my hon. Friend's first two points. In considering in detail the financial help that may be available, I ask the House to wait until my right hon. Friend has made a fuller statement.

Mr. Younger

Will the right hon. Gentleman go a little further in what he said about the Royal Navy? Is he aware that this has been not merely a question of courage and devotion to duty, which we always expect and get from the Royal Navy, but an example of one of the most skilful pieces of seamanship that this wonderful force could ever show? Will he send a message from the House to Vice-Admiral Sir Anthony Troup expressing our tremendous admiration for what the Royal Navy has done?

Mr. Crosland

I absolutely accept what the hon. Gentleman has said. I am obliged to him for his suggestion. I think that every word he said will be echoed by everyone who has had fairly close acquaintance with the difficulties which the Royal Navy ships have been facing.

Mr. Douglas-Mann

Despite the distress that the agreement will have caused, is my right hon. Friend aware that it will be welcomed in many ports as an escape from the untenable moral position in which this country found itself and will be supported by every strand of opinion throughout the country with scarcely a dissenting voice?

I support what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) about the dangers of overfishing inshore waters. I ask my right hon. Friends to take steps to ensure that over-fishing by British trawlers is avoided as well as overfishing by foreign trawlers, so that we do not create a situation in which we find ourselves in Iceland's position of having our fish stocks exhausted.

Mr. Crosland

I can assure my hon. Friend that I am obliged for his opening remarks. When my right hon. Friend comes to make a statement about the future of the industry, the whole issue of overfishing and conservation, which is critical to the future of all fishing industries, not only to the British fishing industry, will play a prominent part.

Mr. Jessel

Why have the Government throughout the whole of this dispute appeared to be almost entirely concerned with the industries, whether British or Icelandic, which are producers and which have organised themselves but, as far as I can recall, had nothing to say about the interests of the great majority of our fellow citizens—namely, the consumers of fish who provide the fishermen with their livelihoods? What will be the effect of the agreement on the price of fish, on the quantity available and on quality?

Mr. Crosland

There will certainly be an increase in the price of cod in particular as a result of the agreement, just as there was an increase in the price of cod when the Conservative Government finished the last cod war with a settlement that was not regarded as satisfactory by the industry. Earlier it was asked "If you start a cod war, why don't you finish it?" However, the Conservative Government did not finish the cod war during their period of office.

Yes, there will be some effect on the price of cod in particular, but it is not the view of the fish processors that the effect will be very marked. The hon. Member for Louth (Mr. Brotherton) will probably have noticed that one of the large processors in my constituency has said that the effect will be less than the effect of the devaluation which has occurred in the past six months.

Mr. Stonehouse

Will the right hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.] I apologise that I was somewhat delayed on my way to the House, thereby missing the statement of the Foreign Secretary, but I have read the agreement. Bearing in mind that the agreement is only for six months, will the right hon. Gentleman undertake to commence discussions with the Icelandic authorities well before the expiration of this period, so that there could be agreement on the new agreement well before the end of six months and so that we do not get ourselves into a position of having yet another cod war at the end of six months?

Mr. Crosland

Another cod war at the end of six months is the last thing that I should have thought anyone would want, on either side of the House. As regards starting the negotiations quickly, the negotiations will be undertaken by the EEC, as the agreement makes plain, and we have made it clear to the EEC that there is a great need for hurry in this matter to avoid an awkward gap at the end of the six-month period.