HL Deb 29 April 1963 vol 249 cc25-31

3.51 p.m.


My Lords, before we proceed to the next Amendment perhaps your Lordships would like me to repeat the statement on the Law of the Sea which has just been made in another place by my right honourable friend the Lord Privy Seal.

"In recent years, international fishery problems have increased substantially in gravity and in complexity. The most serious are those of access to fishing grounds and of access to markets. These are aggravated as fishing fleets increase in size, speed and catching power.

"Many of the international agreements regarding fisheries, and our related legislation, are very old and many of their provisions are consequently obsolete. There is, therefore, an urgent need to examine the whole complex of fishery problems afresh.

"At the Law of the Sea Conferences of 1958 and 1960 Her Majesty's Government gave their full support to attempts to reach international agreement on the extent of the territorial seas and fisheries jurisdiction. These attempts to settle one aspect of the problem in isolation, however, failed.

"Again, at the time of the Brussels negotiations, Her Majesty's Government made clear their interest in the settlement of common fishery problems on a European basis. Although the negotiations were not concluded, our objective remains to secure a reasonable livelihood for fishermen and stable markets in Western Europe.

"Her Majesty's Government believe that these questions and the special problems of fisheries must be looked at as a whole and can best be settled by discussion. We are, therefore, inviting those countries affected, the members of the European Free Trade Association and the European Economic Community, Iceland, the Irish Republic and Spain to a conference in the autumn. We propose that this conference should consider the questions of trade in fish and access to fishing grounds. We hope by this means to arrive at an equitable settlement on a European basis which will have regard to the interests of all sections of the fishing industry. During these discussions, we shall bear in mind the interests of Commonwealth countries and will consult them where their interests are affected.

"These fishing problems have been aggravated in recent years by the progressive restriction of areas of the high seas on which nations of the world can exercise their right of fishing. In particular, the countries off whose coast lie many of the principal fishing grounds in the Northern Atlantic area have claimed an extension of their fishery jurisdiction.

"These extensions, which have imposed heavy sacrifices on the British deep-sea fishing fleets, have obliged Her Majesty's Government to consider whether the interests of the United Kingdom fishing industry, taken as a whole, can be reconciled with the continuation of the traditional three-mile limit around the coasts of the United Kingdom. While giving full weight to the legitimate interests of our friends and allies, our conclusion is that in the present state of international law we would no longer be justified in denying to British fishermen some extension of their exclusive rights to their own coastal waters.

"In order, therefore, to regain our freedom of action regarding the extent of our fishery limits in the light of the discussions I have already described, we have decided to give notice of our intention to terminate our participation in the North Sea Fisheries Convention of 1882 with effect from May 15, 1964; and also the Fisheries Regulations of 1843 made under the Anglo-French Fishery Convention of 1839, with effect from June 24, 1964. These notices were given on April 26. From June 24, 1964, we shall then be free to take such action as we consider desirable.

"Her Majesty's Government hope that this initiative will enable the countries concerned to achieve a satisfactory settlement of these complex problems."


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Earl for giving us this statement. I think your Lordships' House as a whole will agree that it is high time something of this kind was done to try to come to an agreement which would satisfactorily remedy the grievances which have arisen, not through us, but through the steps taken by other countries. So, in general, we support this statement, but I should like to ask the noble Earl two questions. First, who, exactly, are the countries with some European territory? Are they all included in the association mentioned—for example, is Russia included? Second, I should like to know whether it is because of existing sea law that more than twelve months' notice has been given, and whether we ought not to have been able—unless the present agreements to which we are subject forbid it—to proceed at once if there is failure of the conference?


My Lords, in answer to the noble Earl's first question, I would say that Russia is not included. I think I read out the list of those whom we had invited, and they are: the EFTA and E.E.C. countries, Iceland, the Irish Republic and Spain. With regard to the noble Earl's second question, about the length of notice, I think we have to give a term of notice in regard to both these matters, the 1882 Convention and the 1843 Agreement with France. But the dates at which they expire, as the House will have noticed, will be after the Conference which we are hoping to have in the autumn, if it is not too protracted, and which will have included these deliberations; and the Conference, of course, will take place in the knowledge that we shall be free after the spring of next year to take what action we think right. But we should, as I know the noble Earl will agree, all much prefer to get an agreed settlement at the Conference.


My Lords, as the noble Earl knows that I have been concerned about this subject since the 1930s, may I ask him whether the Moray Firth, which is a very special case, and the Minch, will receive special consideration from Her Majesty's Government? Secondly, may I ask whether the Republic of Ireland will be sharing with us in these conversations and be hand in hand with us, because they have an interest just as important as our own?


The Republic of Ireland is one of the countries which are invited; and the Ministry of Agriculture and the Scottish Office always pay special attention to fishermen in the areas which my noble friend mentioned. My noble friend the Leader of the House is not quite sure whether I made clear the position of France. France is being invited to the Conference as one of the E.E.C. countries, and I specially mentioned the notice we have given to terminate the separate agreement that was made with France in 1843 as a result of a previous decision of 1839.


My Lords, I appreciate the position vis-à-vis those who are parties to the Convention and who have kept the Convention loyally, as we have, but what is our position with regard to the countries, who may or may not have been members of that Convention, who have extended their limits to six and even twelve miles? Are we bound not to take any reciprocal action—I must not say retaliatory action—in respect of those countries?


No, I do not think we are bound not to do so, and we particularly reserved our position with regard to the Faroes and Greenland; but, of course, we should all much prefer to get a settlement by agreement, and I think we must try to do that.


My Lords, as, quite rightly, the time has arrived when this matter should be discussed in a friendly way round the table, why has Russia not been invited—


My Lords, I have given only the countries who have been invited and who are most nearly concerned. I do not know that I could answer the negative question of why neither Russia nor any of the other United Nations countries which took part in the Geneva Conference, which was a failure, have not been invited. The answer, in fact, is that this is not a world conference or a United Nations conference, which we have tried before; this is simply a West European Conference.


My Lords, this is, of course, a matter which concerns all countries who are interested in fishing. Would it not be desirable to get them all at this Conference? While congratulating the Government on the initiative they are taking in this matter, may I ask whether they have sounded the feeling? Have they good reason to believe that the countries who are to be invited will accept, or are they taking a chance?


My Lords, we have not got all the answers yet, but I have reason to believe that some of them, at least, will accept. With regard to the larger question, I may say that, as the noble Lord knows, we had these two conferences which were under the authority of the United Nations, attended by representatives of all the countries in the world which are interested in fishing. I think this new departure is more limited only because it might have a greater chance of success.


My Lords, the question which my noble Leader asked about the period of notice was not quite answered by the noble Earl—whether the twelve months' notice was necessary—but in a way the answer was not unsatisfactory, in that he linked it with the Conference which is to be held. That Conference will perhaps be a somewhat prolonged one, particularly if the negotiations show any signs of being successful, and it therefore was reasonable that we should not appear to hold a tight time limit over the deliberations of such a Conference.

Having regard to the attempts which have been made in the past to reach agreement with some of the countries which are invited and which have extended their own limits, presumably the Government are going into the Conference with some idea of what they suggest this country should do if agreement does not result. Might I ask in that connection—and this follows on what the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, has asked in relation to the Moray Firth—whether the Government are contemplating, for instance, just a straightforward extension of the present three-mile limit, following each little point of the coast all the way round, or would they do what I understand other countries have done: take whatever limit it is going to be, whether three miles, four miles, six miles or twelve miles, from extremi- ties? From that point of view the question my noble friend Lady Summer-skill has asked is not without importance, because one of the countries which is making inroads into our fishing fields is Russia.


On the first question about the time limit, I think I have made it clear that by next June we shall be free to take what action we think right. I think it is better merely to say that and hope we shall get agreement at the Conference, rather than adopt a tone which might seem to be threatening. In his second supplementary the noble Lord put forward a number of possible proposals which might be discussed at the Conference, and I should prefer not to go into the possible agenda other than that general statement which I made, which was: We propose that this Conference should consider the questions of trade in fish and access to the fishing grounds. On that basis we want to see what the possible field for agreement here is and find how we are best likely to get agreement which may be acceptable to everybody.


My Lords, I agree it is reasonable that we should not go into the Conference with a whole series of proposals saying "Do this or else we will do that". May I put it this way: that none of the suggestions I have made will necessarily be excluded from the Government's consideration if the Conference should unfortunately not succeed in reaching agreement?


Yes, I think SO.


My Lords, does the noble Earl remember that almost the first proposal made by Russia to all her allies at the conclusion of the war was that all countries should establish a twelve-mile limit, a proposal which I always hoped would be accepted, so that we should find one thing to agree with the Russians about? Will the noble Earl remember that and perhaps reconsider it?


My Lords, I do not think the two questions necessarily go together. We hoped to get an agreement at the Geneva Conference with the Committee of the United Nations which discussed the matter, and we were very disappointed that we did not; and, of course, Russia is a member of the United Nations.