HL Deb 05 June 1973 vol 343 cc13-21

3.4 p.m.


My Lords, with permission. I should like to make a Statement on the Icelandic Fisheries Dispute.

The very serious incident on May 26, when the trawler "Everton" was badly damaged by gunfire from the Icelandic coastguard vessel "Aegir", is another and even more extreme example of the Icelandic Government's deliberate use of force against unarmed trawlers fishing in international waters.

Naval protection has been very successful in preventing Icelandic harassment of British trawlers so long as the trawlers fish reasonably close together. This does not mean fishing in tight boxes "which were found necessary in 1958 to 1960.

On May 29 the United Kingdom Mission in New York circulated a letter to Members of the United Nations Security Council which drew their attention to the grave nature of the "Everton" incident and gave a concise summary of the British position. On the same day the Icelandic Permanent Representative in New York also circulated a letter to the Security Council stating his Government's position. I am arranging for these two documents to be placed in the Library of the House.

The Head of the United Kingdom Delegation to NATO, Sir Edward Peck, informed the NATO Council on May 21 of Her Majesty's Government's decision to afford British trawlers naval protection. On May 29, the Icelandic Permanent Representative requested the NATO Council to arrange for the immediate withdrawal of the Royal Navy. The Council has asked the Secretary-General, Dr. Luns, to use his good offices to secure an early resumption of negotiations between the British and Icelandic Governments.

The Norwegian Government have also offered their good offices. Her Majesty's Government welcome both these suggestions, but I regret to say that there has been no positive response from the Icelandic Government.

The British Government, in the NATO Council and elsewhere, have made it clear that we will gladly withdraw the Royal Navy from the disputed area at any time, if the Icelandic Government will cease their harassment of British trawlers. We are ready. as always, to resume negotiations. This unhappy dispute between friends and NATO allies can be resolved in no other way.


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Baroness for making that Statement. Quite obviously, a Statement of this importance calls for some questions. As I understand it, the complaint is with regard to the conservation of fish, and an article in the Guardian this morning deals with this matter. Is it not a fact that Britain's record in this respect is among the leaders in the world, and so far as I know is only equalled by that of Soviet Russia, whom we have always found willing partners in dealing with conservation. On this point, I should like to ask the noble Baroness what information the Government have through the Fisheries Council about Iceland's own conduct in this respect. I should also like to know what proof there is that the British fishing industry is catching immature fish, because obviously all fish landings are supervised, and if this is the case there must be some record.

On the use of gunboats, is it not a fact that the only gunboats that have fired live shells have been those belonging to Iceland, and that our own Navy has not yet fired a shot in anger? We can only hope that they will never be asked to do so. I should also like to know whether the Government have any information about the country which is prepared to sell two gunboats to the Iceland Government. If they are partners in the Warsaw Pact, then this is a complete contradiction of their policy decision, which was opposed to Iceland's extension of her limits to 50 miles. Finally, I would ask the noble Baroness what action has been taken with regard to our own fishing industry, so that a trawler will not get outside the protection range of the British Navy, because while one would deplore a return to the old "box" fishing arrangements that were arranged previously, we obviously must have a fishing fleet which is fishing in an area in which they can receive the protection which the Navy provides.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Baroness for making the Statement, and I have little to add to the pertinent questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Hoy. I would only say that I, too, hope that we shall be able to settle this unfortunate dispute settled by negotiation, and I am pleased to hear that the British Government are doing their best towards this end at the present time.


My Lords, it may be convenient to the House if I answer those questions now. First of all, in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Hoy, the British record on conservation is very good indeed. We have been a leading member, as I am sure the noble Lord knows, of the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission. The strength of the Icelandic case on conservation is very weak. In an interim agreement we were ready to accept certain additional' conservation measures but, of course, the proposed limitation on our British catch would not mean anything if it was accompanied by what I understand is to be an equal or greater increase in the Icelandic catch this would make nonsense of the idea of conservation. I would only say on the question of conservation, which is all-important, that if Iceland is really interested in it, one may reasonably ask why she has decided not to ratify the recommendation under which the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission would have acquired the power to limit total catch and total fishing effort.

The noble Lord, Lord Hoy, is perfectly correct. The Icelandic gunboats are the only ones to fire live shells, and they are the ones who could be described in fact as "aggressors". The noble Lord asked about the new gunboats from Eastern Europe. I do not yet know which country intends to supply these ships, but it is perfectly true that no Eastern European country accepts a unilateral claim for the extension of fishery limits beyond 12 nautical miles. Therefore it would seem very odd if they were to support the Icelandic Government in his way.

So far as trying to ensure that trawlers do not stray outside the area of naval protection, I understand that the industry has made it perfectly clear to all the boats that if they want the protection of the Navy they must work within a certain, and quite large, area. I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, for what he said about negotiations. I will only say again that we are always ready to resume them, but it is our duty to protect our trawlers on the high seas.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend to say what action has been taken concerning the expulsion of Mr. Elliot from the British Embassy in Reykjavik? Is Mr. Elliot being replaced?


My Lords, the request for the withdrawal of Mr. Elliot, who went to Iceland as information officer, seemed to us extremely unreasonable and very curious. I can only say that this action must have been taken in the heat of the moment. I am glad to say that he is being replaced this week.


My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Baroness would allow me to put some further questions which are subsidiary to those of my noble friend Lord Hoy. Can the Government now tell us whether they intend to publish the White Paper for which we on this side of the House pressed during a recent debate on the matter and, if so, will they please put more in it rather than less? Might I further ask: is there not some danger that we may be forging ahead into a perilous situation "in a good cause" in this matter? I am not only thinking of the two gunboats from Eastern Europe: I wonder whether the Government have noticed that the Russians now firmly support the Icelandic claim in their propaganda—and they do not use the term "fishing rights" but speak of "territorial waters" up to 50 miles. What is the Government's reaction to the apparent Icelandic intention to expel the NATO forces from Keflavik, in Iceland, and possibly even to leave NATO itself? Do the Government believe that Iceland may mean what she says? Lastly, I should like to ask: is there not a danger that, as has happened 'before in our history, we may be forced into an unfortunate and even humiliating retreat by the pressure not only of the United Nations, which has voted 108 to 0 in favour of something equivalent to the Icelandic position, but also by the pressure of our own Allies in NATO?


My Lords, we intend to publish the White Paper, and I will take note of what the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, says about trying to put more into it; but of course there has to be a cut-off rate when publication is imminent.

Secondly, on the question of Russian support for Iceland, as I understand it she is not in favour of the extension from 12 miles to 50 miles. Iceland claims territorial waters of four miles, but the waters we are now discussing are international waters, open to everybody. The Icelandic Prime Minister, in relation to NATO, stated on behalf of his newly elected Government in July, 1971, that although Iceland would continue to be in NATO in present circumstances… his Government would …instigate discussions with the United States Government about the departure of Defence forces by stages, and the aim would be to complete this during the lifetime of the present Parliament which is due to end in June, 1975. Noble Lords will note that this date was long before we had any dispute on the fisheries question.

On the last point, I would say that we consider that the question of the extension of fishery limits should be discussed at the Law of the Sea Conference, and a consensus should be achieved by all nations. If each nation tries to push its limits out without negotiation then indeed it will lead to anarchy on the high seas.


My Lords, I do not want to prolong this discussion, but it is a serious problem. May I therefore ask the noble Baroness: is it not a fact that we are bound by this decision, as was Iceland, until the Law of the Sea Conference in 1974 and that we still stand by our pledge in this respect, whatever anybody else might do? May I also ask whether it is not a fact that there is some dispute as to whether Russia has agreed to a 50-mile territorial limit? Is it not also a fact that, despite all the advances of fishing limits in the 1960s, Russia, to her credit, never extended her 3-mile limit so far as Britain was concerned? We have to keep that in mind. May I also ask—because this is of supreme importance—about the rumours in the Press to the effect that Iceland may be negotiating with Western Germany on the drawing up of a bilateral agreement, leaving us out. I am sure that if the noble Baroness has any information about this, the House will be glad to hear it.

Finally, Iceland seems to be able to make her case in Britain; indeed, even the B.B.C. will make provision for the case to be made. I am not objecting to this, but 1 should like to know how the British case is being presented in Iceland—because we have conformed to the rules, we have adhered to the law and we have not broken any agreements. I should like to know if this fact is being made clear to the people of Iceland, for whom I have great warmth and affection. I should like an assurance that our case is not going by default.


My Lords, on the first point, it is true that all the countries in Europe and in the North Atlantic have in fact kept to the 12-mile extension of fisheries, except for Iceland. She is the only one in fact to have sought to extend her limits. Quite apart from the Law of the Sea Conference, which may take some time—and of course fisheries are only one item among the many important subjects which will be discussed there in 1974—the fact is that we still have our case before the International Court of Justice, which is the highest international court of the United Nations and which has accepted jurisdiction and is expected to deliver a final judgment within a year.

On West Germany, at a very much earlier stage we suggested to Iceland that we should negotiate with the West Germans and Iceland, but the West Germans, like us, have a separate agreement with Iceland and I understand that they are shortly (though no date has been fixed) to resume the negotiations which were broken off earlier. So far as the Icelandic case is concerned, I quite agree with the noble Lord that it is extraordinary that in Iceland some quite untrue stories have been circulated about the aggression of the Royal Navy, and similar matters. It was for this reason that we sent Mr. Michael Elliot to act as information officer attached to the Embassy, and we are replacing him. We are doing the best we can to make sure that our case is heard.


My Lords, there is such a lack of information on this subject that I wonder whether the noble Baroness would allow me to put one more question. Is it not the case that more than 30 nations in the world have claimed fishing limits beyond 12 miles and that Britain has not protested against any of these claims except that by Iceland?


My Lords, it is a fact that about 30 countries, mostly in South America have extended their limits beyond 12 miles; and we have protested in every single case.


My Lords, before we leave the question of Iceland may I ask another question? This is purely for information and it arises out of an answer which the noble Baroness gave to an earlier question from my noble friend Lord Kennet, with whose fears about this policy I have every understanding and sympathy. Will the noble Baroness say why, if our case rests, as she has said, on the fact that everything outside territorial waters represents international waters—in other words, the high seas—we have agreed in certain cases to withdraw the Navy from what she calls "the disputed area"?


My Lords, we have not withdrawn the Navy: we have just put them in.


My Lords, that is a very sharp answer but it is not the answer to my question. The noble Baroness said that in certain circumstances we would withdraw the Royal Navy from "the disputed area". If this area is the high seas—in other words, international waters—why have we given any such undertaking?


Because, my Lords, we had no wish to send the British Navy in; indeed, this dispute has gone on for eight and a half months and the British Navy has always had the right to go within the 50 miles. The only reason we have suggested that we would withdraw naval ships, provided the Icelanders would stop harassing our own unarmed fishing fleet, is because we think that would be the best chance to get back to an atmosphere where we can have a useful and real negotiation.


My Lords, may I ask whether the noble Baroness accepts with equanimity the possibility of a delay of 12 months in the delivery of the judgment of the International Court? Is it conceivable that the deliberations are so recondite that they need all that time?


My Lords, I Was giving myself a long period in case it did not come earlier. I have every hope that it will be a little earlier.


My Lords, would the noble Baroness tolerate one more question from these Benches? Is the noble Baroness aware that what she has said to us will be of great help because she has given us a number of facts—and hard facts are very valuable indeed—as to what we have been doing in the international field to try to get somebody into action to help solve this problem? May I repeat a question that I have previously asked: in anything that we say could the maximum emphasis be laid on the International Court angle of this question, because in international opinion this has always been presented as a case of Britain versus Iceland, whereas it is Iceland versus the International Court.


That is perfectly true my Lords. I might just remind your Lordships that in 1961 we had an agreement with Iceland by which we agreed that if any extension of the fishing limits was desired, if we could not agree together we would go to the International Court, Iceland, despite this agreement, has now repudiated the International Court.