HL Deb 14 September 1972 vol 335 cc482-7

3.43 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question, by Private Notice, for a Statement on the fisheries dispute with Iceland.


My Lords, I informed the House on July 13 that it had proved impossible to reach agreement on an interim arrangement at the Ministerial talks which had then just taken place in Reykjavik. Since then there have been no negotiations with Iceland on the fisheries dispute, but a number of other important developments have taken place.

On July 14 the Icelandic Government issued new fisheries regulations purporting to bring into effect their claimed 50-mile limit as from September 1. Therefore on July 19 we applied to the International Court of Justice for an order of provisional measures until the main case was considered. This Order was granted on August 17. The Court asked Iceland to refrain from interference with our fishermen or from enforcing their regulations of July 14. We were asked to ensure that our trawlers did not take more than 170,000 tons of fish annually from the area around Iceland outside 12 miles. The Court enjoined both parties to avoid aggravating or extending the dispute and to ensure that no action be taken which could prejudice the rights of either party in relation to the substance of the dispute.

We repeated our intention to observe the Court Order and so informed the Icelandic Government on August 28. We also said that we should be glad to discuss the position with them at the earliest mutually convenient date. The Icelandic Government replied on August 30 that they did not accept the jurisdiction of the Court. However, they offered to continue efforts to reach a solution. We are now urgently considering the basis on which further talks with Iceland might be held, and have been in close consultation with the Federal German Government about this. We hope that these talks will take place in the very near future.

At the same time I must express to the House our concern at the incidents which have taken place during the last 10 days involving interference with our trawlers by Icelandic protection vessels. In four of those incidents the Icelanders have caused damage and loss to the fishing gear of our trawlers, and have done so by dangerous manoeuvring which might well have resulted in collisions involving much more serious damage and possibly injury or even loss of life. We have left the Icelandic Government in no doubt of the serious view we take of this physical interference with British vessels on the high seas and have reserved our right to claim compensation. We have urged the Icelandic Government to instruct their protection vessels to desist from any such further actions and have made it clear that incidents such as I have described do not improve the prospects for negotiations.


My Lords. I should like first to express the thanks of your Lordships' House to the noble Baroness for the Statement. May I ask whether she is aware that the concern she has expressed about physical interference with our vessels—and indeed the cutting and sinking of the trawls—is a concern which I am sure is shared by every Member of this House? As this action could have taken place only on the instructions of the Icelandic Government, what justification have the Icelandic Government given for taking this action, not only in view of the ruling of the Court, but at the same time that they are asking to have talks? Obviously, one wants an explanation of that. Arising from the action they have taken, I am bound to ask what steps we have taken to maintain and organise the ordinary supply services which are so essential for our vessels fishing in this area?

Even if Iceland on this occasion refused to accept the jurisdiction of the International Court, a position distinctly different from that which she took up on a previous occasion, she offered, in the letter of August 30, an opportunity for further talks. I should like to know what action has been taken by Her Majesty's Government since then, what consultation they have had with the Federal Government of Germany and is it intended that the talks should be on a tripartite basis or a bilateral basis? I do not want to press the noble Baroness too far, but it would be helpful if she could tell us on what lines these talks will take place, and where does she hope that the talks will take place.


My Lords, on the first very important point we had an agreement with the Icelandic Government in 1961, when the limits were 12 miles. It was agreed that if any change was needed and we were in dispute recourse should be had to the International Court. Iceland now claims that she does not recognise the jurisdiction of the International Court. She gives as the reason for these incidents the fact that British trawlers are fishing, in accordance with their undoubted rights as reinforced by the International Court, up to 12 miles around Iceland. On the question of supply ships, the trawlers are fishing mainly on the North-West coast and the South-East coast, and we have two supply ships. The supply ship which has been most involved and most in the public eye is the "Miranda". I take the opportunity to pay public tribute to the captain of the "Miranda" for the magnificent assistance and wise advice he has always given. So far as talks are concerned, our officials went to Bonn this week and we hope to have tripartite talks very soon with possibly an announcement this week.


My Lords, may I endorse the concern expressed on both sides of the House about these incidents and echo the tribute which the noble Baroness has paid to the skipper of the "Miranda"? Is it not possible to impress on the Icelandic Government, either through the United Nations or through the Court itself, the seriousness of not abiding by a Court order, properly made?—because this strikes at the fundamentals of the rule of law, and the day will come when Iceland herself will require the protection of the Court. Is it not possible that through one of these international organisations we can bring this point forcibly to the attention of the Icelandic Government.


My Lords, we are in fact preparing an application to the International Court for an order calling upon Iceland to desist from harassment of our vessels. The Icelandic Ambassador came to see me about two days ago, and our Ambassador in Reykjavik made protests on this matter to the Foreign Minister of Iceland. Our object is that our vessels should be able to fish without molestation and after agreement between us.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in this unfortunate dispute with Iceland, which has been going on as a running battle for the last twenty years, some of us felt considerable doubt about whether the extension of territorial waters to 12 miles was a reality and could in fact be commanded by the sovereignty of the country concerned. But we agreed to it for the sake of peace and to get agreement. Is she aware that an extension to 50 miles is totally unrealistic and that it is absolutely beyond the power of the country concerned to maintain sovereignty within that area? Is my noble friend further aware that she would have the backing of the whole country behind her in trying to bring Iceland to common sense by their making an agreement here in line with the decision of the International Court?


My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend is correct, because if the Icelandic Government is concerned about the basis of the conservation of the fish stocks, we offered a straight limitation of the catch of the British fleet which also gave certain preference to Iceland as the coastal State.


My Lords, may I press the matter a little further? The noble Baroness will be aware that Belgium has reached a unilateral agreement with Iceland in connection with these fishing grounds. Is it the intention of Her Majesty's Government to call in Belgium for consultation on this issue? Have Her Majesty's Government indicated to Belgium that by reaching this agreement they have ipso facto recognised the 50-mile limit?


My Lords, the Belgium Agreement is entirely a bilateral one between Belgium and Iceland and they are not at all involved in our talks, because the International Court gave judgment in favour of both Western Germany and ourselves.


My Lords, did the International Court request the Icelandic Government also to limit the catch of their trawlers in the disputed area? Should we be right in thinking that the Icelandic Government would have recognised the right of the Court to give such an instruction or make such a recommendation?


My Lords, the International Court did not ask Iceland to restrict her catch. It asked us to restrict pour catch, but it asked Iceland not to enforce the regulations and not to do anything which might interfere with the right of British trawlers and the trawlers of the Federal Government of Germany from fishing up to the 12-mile limit.


My Lords, since the ships of the Russian Navy have been allowed to shadow ships of the Royal Navy now for a number of years, can the noble Baroness state what are the reasons why the Royal Navy has been prevented from shadowing the ships of the Icelandic Navy?


My Lords, we have always thought that it was in the best interests of our fishermen that they should be able to fish with an agreement and not under naval protection. We very much hope that we shall not be forced to provide naval protection.


My Lords, in reference to the last Answer by the noble Baroness, failing an agreement with the Icelandic Government, which we all hope will be brought about, it may become the duty of Her Majesty's Government to use the resources of the British Navy in order to give effect to the judgment of the International Court. Might it not be a good thing for that to be made plain to the Icelandic Government?


My Lords, I think we have made it plain all along. If we are forced to use naval protection, that will of course create an entirely different situation. At the moment we are trying by every diplomatic means in our power to see that these incidents are avoided so that we can very soon resume talks.


My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that if one is in a foreign country for some time one notices the temptation to represent this as a somewhat discreditable quarrel between Britain and Iceland? Does the noble Baroness, as I think she does, accept the great importance of basing our case in international argument on the fact that the Icelanders are disobeying the request of the International Court, and putting it on that wider basis?


My Lords, we are indeed doing that, and that is why we made an application to the International Court for interim measures until the final decision was made.


My Lords, we have many broad acres of the Local Government Bill still lying ahead of us, and an important Statement is about to be made by my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor, and I think we should move on.

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