HL Deb 28 April 1960 vol 223 cc205-8

4.10 p.m.


My Lords, with your permission, I should like to make a statement that my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food made in another place a moment ago. I will use his own words:

"I should like to make a statement on the outcome of the Second United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea. The House will already be aware that at the Conference the proposal put forward by the Canadian and United States Delegations on the breadth of the territorial sea and on fishery limits failed by a single vote to secure the necessary two-thirds majority. By this narrow margin a great opportunity has been lost of establishing a rule of law in this very difficult sphere. I am sure the House will share my own great disappointment that the efforts of the fifty-four nations who voted for the only possible compromise, failed when success was so nearly within our grasp. We must now consider with like-minded nations the situation resulting from the failure of the Conference.

"We recognised from the outset that agreement could only be reached if there was a genuine readiness to compromise, and for our part we made every effort to meet the desires and aspirations of other countries. The proposal put forward by Canada and the United States would have recognised a 6-mile territorial sea, and a 12-mile exclusive fishery limit, subject only to a 10-year period of phasing out for established fishing rights. Even this proposal was subject to qualifications which would have further safeguarded the interests of those States who are specially dependent on the fisheries off their coasts. But we supported it, as did many other countries from the Commonwealth, Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America.

"I have made clear throughout that this proposal would have entailed great sacrifices by our own fishing industry. But the industry were ready to make these heavy sacrifices for the sake of a lasting settlement. I would like to pay a very sincere tribute to the loyal support and encouragement which all sections of the industry gave me throughout the whole of the negotiations.

"In the absence of an international agreement, the Government maintain their former position on the breadth of the territorial sea and fishery limits. We will now have to examine the implications of the new situation with which we are confronted. We are well aware of the problems that will face our fishing industry, in particular the distant water fleets. To function efficiently, the industry must be able to plan for a long period ahead, and it is now faced with continued uncertainty. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and I shall be discussing these very difficult problems with the industry as soon as possible.

"During the Conference we declared our readiness to negotiate an agreement with Iceland that would have given her more favourable treatment than the general terms of the Canadian-United States proposal. I also said that we would be willing to accept independent arbitration on this point. I am sorry that these offers had no response. We remain ready, however, to negotiate with the Icelandic Government but we do not recognise their unilateral claim for a 12-mile fishery limit, and our naval vessels will continue to give assistance to our fishermen. But as an earnest of our good will and our readiness to negotiate, our naval vessels will for the time being patrol only beyond 12 miles from Iceland."


My Lords, we are much obliged for this statement. I am sure that the whole House must be exceedingly disappointed at the outcome of the Conference. We so often criticise that I think we ought to express our appreciation of the extent to which the Government went in an endeavour to obtain a compromise on this very difficult matter, one which has been discussed during the whole of my Parliamentary life. I think that the further offer to make a separate arrangement with Iceland, about which I had not known, also deserves our appreciation; and I feel that it is a very great pity, both in the interests of the economic needs of the general population and of avoiding actual conflict on these matters, that Iceland has not been more forthcoming. Like many of your Lordships, I have friends in Iceland and I am bound to say to them, as I am sure noble Lords will, that it is exceedingly disappointing. I do hope that they will think again.


My Lords, may I from these Benches offer our sympathy and congratulations to the Government upon what they have tried to do, and also express our sorrow that the negotiations failed by so narrow a margin. I hope that the matter will not be allowed to rest here, and that those concerned will not be discouraged. This matter was passed by so small a margin that I venture to think it may have shocked those who were instrumental in bringing it about. I hope that the Government will bear in mind that they have a great opportunity in this matter, and that they will proceed further and try to have this decision reversed.


My Lords, perhaps I should declare an interest in this subject. I have no financial interest in any fishing business, but I am a Scotsman, and all my life I have seen, with deep regret, the depredations on the fishing waters around Scotland, owing to the lack of power of our own Government to control them. Therefore I have an especially deep reason for regretting the failure of these proposals. I express my condolences to Her Majesty's Government, and beg them to try to get something on foot again as soon as possible. In conclusion, I regret the final part of the statement which says that we are going to continue the protection of our fishermen. I have great sympathy with their position in this matter, and think that it is a very tricky and dangerous operation on their part; but I am sorry to see that part of the statement and wish that Her Majesty's Government could have felt able to avoid it by coming to some agreement.


My Lords, I appreciate most of what the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, has said, but when our fishermen are at sea they surely have the right to look to their own country to give them protection, if it is not being afforded by the people in whose territorial waters they are. Therefore I hope that the noble Earl will not be moved by the noble Lord's expression of regret.


My Lords, I am very grateful for both the statements made by the noble Viscount the Leader of the Opposition. I entirely concur with his last remarks. I know that my right honourable friend will be grateful to know about the disappointment we all feel about the failure of this Conference by so narrow a margin.