HL Deb 30 November 1972 vol 336 cc1424-30

4.0 p.m.


My Lords, if it is for the convenience of the House perhaps I may now repeat the Statement on Icelandic Fisheries which my right honourable friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary is at this moment making in another place.

My Lords, I met Icelandic Ministers in Reykjavik on November 27 and 28 in a further attempt to reach an interim settlement on the fisheries dispute. I am very sorry to have to inform the House that our efforts were unsuccessful.

Since our earlier discussions in July, the International Court of Justice has given an interim order, under which Iceland is not to enforce her regulations against British vessels outside the 12-mile limit, and we should reduce our catch to a maximum of 170,000 tons a year. Our policy is based upon this order. However, to reach an interim agreement we did not insist on catching 170,000 tons, and we were prepared to consider any reasonable method of limitation.

The proposal which, with the support of the British fishing industry, I put to the Icelandic Government, was based on a report made by British and Icelandic officials in October. This suggested a negotiating bracket between 17 per cent. and 25 per cent. below the British catch of 1971. We suggested that one-third of the waters round Iceland should be closed to British vessels at any one time. We also accepted Icelandic conservation areas and recognised that there might be a need for special arrangements for areas containing fixed gear. Our industry was also prepared to give an assurance on the future composition or tonnage of the fishing fleet. We offered to negotiate on the midpoint of the bracket proposed by officials; namely, a catch of 163,000 tons—about 21 per cent. below the 1971 figure.

The Icelandic Government proposed that half the area should be closed at any one time. They also wanted further extensive areas to be reserved for the smaller Icelandic vessels and pressed for the exclusion of all our freezers, as well as trawlers over 180 feet in length or 750 to 800 tons in size. This would have excluded our most modern vessels and constituted a damaging precedent. We estimated that the total effect of these restrictions would be to cut our catch by at least 60 to 70 per cent.

In an attempt to bridge the gap, we suggested a different approach in the form of a 10 per cent. reduction in the actual fishing effort—the number of days fishing—by British vessels in the disputed waters. We estimated that this would have resulted in a 25 per cent. reduction in the catch, giving us perhaps 158,000 tons, compared with 208,000 in 1971. However, the Icelandic Government was not prepared at this stage to accept this suggestion as a basis for further negotiation, and suggested no alternative.

I offered to extend my stay but the Icelandic Government did not consider we could take matters further at this stage. I hope, however, that when they have considered our latest proposals further, they will recognise that they meet their twin requirements of conservation and coastal state preference. This method would still preserve the livelihood of our own fishermen. For our part we are ready to resume negotiations at any time. Meanwhile we will continue the proceedings before the International Court.

We continued to keep in touch with the Federal German Government throughout these negotiations.


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Baroness for repeating this Statement which she drafted to be made by the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary in another place. One or two items arise from it: first, may I ask the noble Baroness to make quite clear what the final negotiating figures were? As I understand it, our final proposal was that we were prepared to sustain a cut of some 25 per cent. in our 1971 catch, while Iceland was insisting on making a cut of 65 per cent. If these are the figures (which I worked out rather quickly) then, quite obviously, I think even to the most biased person they appear to be grossly unfair, and I hope she will make this clear to the Icelandic Government.

With regard to the final offer made by the Government, as I understand it this offer is still being considered by the Icelandic Government and rumour has it that Iceland does not want to prolong these negotiations. Is there in tact any hint that the negotiations may be reopened much more quickly than was anticipated when the noble Baroness left Reykjavik? If they are, may I ask her to convey to Iceland, for whom we all have a great warmth and friendship, that we are not prepared to sacrifice either the livelihoods or the lives of British fishermen merely to retain that friendship.

With regard to the conclusion of the Statement I should like to ask what is meant by the sentence, We continued to keep in touch with the Federal German Government throughout these negotiations". Quite obviously the House knows that Germany has an interest in these grounds, just as we have. But does that sentence in fact mean that not only is Germany being informed about the negotiations, but that through Germany her present partners in the E.E.C. are being kept in touch with these negotiations? If the noble Baroness can tell us what response she may have had from West Germany as a result of these negotiations, and what information she may have collected through West Germany with regard to the E.E.C., I am certain that the House will be grateful.


My Lords, while thanking the noble Baroness the Minister for her Statement, we have two points that we wish to make from these Benches at this stage. First, is there not a danger that, if Iceland insists on preserving the 50-mile limit, there will be such a weight of fishing by all nationalities just outside British territorial waters as will deplete the stock to such an extent that the whole future of fishing just outside our territorial waters may be seriously jeopardised? The second point on which we should like clarification is this. If Iceland is successful in preserving, legally or illegally, a 50-mile limit for fishing, would it also affect her mineral and oil exploration rights in these waters?


My Lords, I wish to thank both noble Lords who have commented on this Statement. In answer to the first question put by the noble Lord, Lord Hoy, he was perfectly correct in thinking that our final offer on what we hoped was a negotiating basis would have amounted to a cut of 25 per cent. in our catch in 1971. We said all along to the Icelanders that one must look at the agreement as a whole and that if we took all four main elements of their proposal it would, on a conservative basis, have amounted to about a 65 per cent. cut in our catch. Therefore of course there is a very wide difference indeed. However, the negotiations were not broken off. The Icelandic Government said that they would like to consider our final offer further, possibly even with a combination of something else which they might suggest. We are therefore hoping that they will communicate with us when they have given more thought to the final offer.

The sentence about the Federal German Government was included because we have kept in close touch with them throughout as their problem is very similar to ours. We both had agreements with Iceland in 1961 and both of us, under those agreements, agreed that where there was a difference of opinion there should be recourse to the International Court. The position at the moment with the European Communities is that they will not bring into operation their special relations provision with Iceland until on this fisheries question there is an agreement which is acceptable to all the existing and acceding States of the Communities.

Turning to the first question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, I should like to say to the noble Lord that of course if we did not dispute this question of Iceland extending her jurisdiction to 50 miles, and if we kept outside the 50 miles, it would certainly have a serious effect upon our other fishermen because, for example, those who fish off the Farces would find that boats from Iceland would come down to fish there and there would be general pressure on all the fishing grounds. On his second question, this particular dispute is concerned only with fishing rights and not with basic mineral deposits on the floor of the sea.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether during this interim period, before the negotiations are, as we hope they will be, resumed, our fishermen will receive protection if they fish within their legal rights?


My Lords, they would receive naval protection if they really needed it. I understand they are having a meeting to-day to discuss the question, and I should like to say how much I appreciated the help that was given to us by our two observers, Mr. Hudson from the British Trawlers Federation and Mr. Shenton representing the Transport and General Workers' Union. Our fishermen have, in the absence of an agreement, an absolute right according to the interim order of the International Court to fish within 50 miles and as long as there is no harassment of our vessels there will be no need for naval protection. I would hope that as we are still in a state of suspended talks, if I may put it that way, there will be no question of harassment of our vessels.


My Lords, may I ask the Minister to take that one step further? In regard to our position vis-à-vis West Germany, do I assume that when these negotiations have been carried out West Germany will in fact accede to an agreement which we feel to be acceptable and will not make a separate agreement? I do not want to cast doubt on the matter, but we are bound to be aware that one other country in Europe did come to a unilateral settlement which has not in any way strengthened our position.


My Lords, the noble Lord has asked a very important question. Until now the Federal Republic of Germany has always been perfectly satis- fied with our negotiating position and so far as I am aware is still so satisfied. I believe that they have asked for consultations with the Icelandic Government before Christmas but I am not aware that any date has been fixed. I hope very much that they would not come to any separate agreement because we are both in a similar position under the 1961 Agreement.


My Lords, the noble Baroness is always most helpful and gives full answers at Question and Statement Time. Is she aware that our difference with Iceland is becoming a matter of such broad impact, as the last supplementary question asked by my noble friend Lord Hoy showed, that it concerns not only fishing rights but fish conservation? As any difference with an ally must also concern general questions of foreign policy, may I ask the noble Baroness to agree that this is a matter which cannot be gone into deeply enough at Statement Time and whether there might not be advantage in the House having a short debate on the subject at an early date, perhaps achieved by means of an Unstarred Question?


So far as I am concerned, my Lords, I should be very glad to have such a debate; but I think I must suggest that the matter be discussed through the usual channels.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Baroness a question on a point of information only? Is there any legal or moral obligation on the Icelandic Government to accept the verdicts of the International Court, because I understand that they are not enforceable? In the event of the Icelandic Government actually refusing to accept the verdict of the International Court in this matter, are there any means at our disposal, as it were to maintain the rule of law in international affairs?


My Lords, it is perfectly true that, despite having said that they supported the International Court, the Icelandic Government do not recognise the Court at the moment on this issue. The Court has to decide two things. It gave us an indication of interim measures, which is not a final ruling but which has I think strong moral force. It has to decide, first, about its own jurisdiction. That decision we would expect at the end of this year or early next year. Secondly, it has, assuming that it has decided that it has jurisdiction in this case, to decide on the substantive issue. If it decided on the substantive issue in our favour and still no notice was taken of its ruling, then I am sure that the noble Lord will know from his experience that there is an Article in the United Nations Charter which provides for a party to a dispute to have recourse to the Security Council.


And the European Parliament.


My Lords, various methods are open to us.