HL Deb 21 May 1973 vol 342 cc1004-9

4.27 p.m.


My Lords, perhaps it will be for the convenience of the House if I may, by leave of the House, repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. The Statement is as follows:

"Since September the 5th, 1972, British trawlers fishing on the high seas have been systematically harassed by Icelandic Coastguard vessels. During all that time in order to assist negotiations British naval vessels have been kept outside the area.

"Lately despite repeated warnings and although negotiations were in progress, the Icelandic Government continued and intensified their harassment and it became clear that they were making a determined effort to drive British vessels from the area by force. A critical situation was reached on the 14th of May when there was an unsuccessful attempt to board a trawler and live ammunition was used by a coastguard vessel. After consultation with the industry, the Government concluded that it was no longer possible for British vessels to fish in safety without protection. Naval vessels were therefore ordered into the area on the 19th of May. They will take only such defensive action as is necessary to protect British trawlers exercising their lawful rights to fish on the high seas.

"British naval vessels are of course fully entitled in international law to operate freely in this area of the high seas. They will however be withdrawn at any time if the Government of Iceland will cease harassment of British trawlers.

"It is still the Government's desire to settle this dispute by negotiation. Pending such a settlement, we shall however authorise trawlers to catch up to the limit of 170,000 tons indicated by the International Court. We shall also pursue substantive proceedings before the Court and shall continue to seek longer term solutions in the Law of the Sea Conference."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement made in another place and also express our regret that the present position has been reached between Iceland and ourselves. Arising from the Statement, I should like to know what has happened since May 16. The Statement says: A critical situation was reached on the 14th of May when there was an unsuccessful attempt to board a trawler and live ammunition was used by a coastguard vessel. Indeed, when I raised this matter with the noble Baroness on May 16, she said that this was not critical and that one would have to look for some other reason for taking action. I am a little surprised to find that she should specify that same action to-day. I should like to know what action has taken place since then which now makes it critical. May I ask her what steps we are taking to consult our partners in this dispute, because it is not only the concern of Great Britain but of many other countries in Europe, and West Germany in particular. I am sure that the House would be grateful to know what steps are being taken.

May I also ask the noble Baroness whether she has any information with regard to the statement made at the weekend on British television by the Icelandic Ambassador, who said that he regretted what we had done because it had prevented us from reaching a compromise? Can the noble Baroness say what compromise was offered to us by His Excellency on behalf of the Government of Iceland? If he has not offered one, perhaps the Foreign Office could find out what it is. There is another question which flows from this decision; that is, the question of British planes in Iceland. Iceland has now taken steps to prevent them landing. I have no doubt that this will cause us some little trouble—not that we could not get over it, but it is bound to create some trouble. On all these questions, I should be grateful if the noble Baroness would tell us what we should like to do.

Finally, the noble Baroness repeated the figure of 170,000 tons. This, of course, is a change over from the negotiating position. This was the figure which was laid down by the International Court; and I think in negotiation we agreed to reduce it to 150,000 tons or 145,000 tons. Would it be right to assume that, provided we can get a suitable compromise, we should be willing to go back to the figure we offered to Iceland when the negotiations were taking place?


My Lords, on the first point, about what has happened since May 16 which has made matters critical, there was always the question as to whether or not one should take preventive action. Consultations took place with the industry who at that time were divided and felt that perhaps it was possible to soldier on. In the end they agreed that, in order that there should be no further harassment or no further critical action, and as a protective measure, they supported the Government in putting in the Navy to act as a protective force to our trawlers. On the second question, we have been closely in touch with West Germany all through the negotiations and ever since putting in the Navy. We also to-day raised this question at NATO, where a meeting was taking place.

If when the Icelandic Ambassador made a statement on television, which I am afraid I did not hear myself, he referred to a compromise, no compromise solution has been put forward or is in the offing from the Icelandic Government. The British proposals, and the Icelandic position, as it is put down in their Paper, are in the Library, and it will be seen that there was no movement at all from the figure of 117,000 tons. So far as British planes are concerned, I understand that this so far affects only flights by Royal Air Force aircraft, and they need clearance through the normal air traffic control channels to land at Keflavik. This does not of course involve civil planes.

On the last question, as the noble Lord rightly said, 170,000 tons was the tonnage awarded by the International Court that we could fish; and, of course, we are greatly reducing our catch from the 207,000 tons of the peak period. In the proposals that we put forward, on which the Iceland Government said that they would give us a reply, we suggested that there should be negotiation within a bracket of 155,000 tons at the top and 117,000 tons at the bottom, which was the Icelandic figure. In order to try to get some movement in this position we suggested 145,000 tons, but no move at all was made.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Baroness this question? She said that the crucial position that caused the Navy to go in—about which I am delighted and for which I have been pressing for some time—was the fact that the trawlermen themselves said: "We have had enough; we are coming out and we are going to fish no more until we get the Navy". Two days later the Navy was put in. I am pleased about it all, and I hope that we shall not get terrified to death that we are taken before the United Nations and termed aggressors.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Blyton, very much for his support in our having to send in naval vessels. I think the House will realise that we delayed as long as we possibly could because we were trying to reach an interim agreement. The Navy will, of course, do their very best, and I am sure successfully, to protect our trawlers.


My Lords, I do not wish to delay the proceedings, in view of the length of business still before the House, but I am a little surprised that the noble Baroness said that she was not aware of the broadcast made by His Excellency the Ambassador of Iceland on British television. I can assure her that I both saw and heard His Excellency make the statement. May I suggest to the noble Baroness that she makes inquiries to find out from the Ambassador what he meant by his offer of compromise, so that not only ourselves but the British public will be able to understand what the compromise in fact meant.


My Lords, I do not think it is surprising that one does not see every programme on television. There is sometimes a certain amount of homework to do. The fact remains that the Icelandic Ambassador came to see my right honourable friend this morning, and there was no suggestion of a compromise then.


My Lords, with all due respect to the noble Baroness—I do not want to be petty about these points—I am not expecting her to sit in and look at television programmes, but I am suggesting that it is a little difficult to understand why the Foreign Office does not do so to find out what is going on.


My Lords, I am sure that the Foreign Office does indeed monitor all things of this kind and had there been anything of substance I would certainly have been told. The noble Lord asked me whether any compromise proposal had been put forward by the Icelanders, and my answer is "No".


My Lords, as I am a Parliamentary delegate from your Lordships' House to the North Atlantic Assembly, I have been extremely disturbed, naturally, with this problem. I should like to ask the noble Baroness to what extent NATO is really being brought into this. She made reference to NATO. It seems to me an extremely serious matter that two countries within the North Atlantic Alliance should be involved in this kind of dispute. One cannot help feeling that there is a difference in the attitude that we are adopting towards Iceland and the attitude that we adopted towards Malta, which also was seriously involved with a problem of NATO defence. It seemed to me that we were prepared to do things with regard to Malta that we are not prepared to do with regard to Iceland. I do not for one moment think that what the Icelanders are doing is necessarily right, but nevertheless it is to them an extremely important matter; it is, after all, the major part of their economy. Would it not be right that we should deal with this matter not unilaterally but rather through he North Atlantic Alliance?


My Lords, there is no direct connection between the NATO alliance and this particular dispute on fishing, but we raised it in the NATO meeting to-day because, as the noble Lord rightly says, it involves two allies. As I think I said on the last occasion we discussed this matter, it seems to us ridiculous that two NATO allies cannot reach an accommodation together. I do not know whether the noble Lord has had an opportunity to read the Icelandic position, and the British proposals, which are in the Library of the House. I think he will realise, looking back over the history of this question, that we have gone very far indeed. We have recognised Iceland's right and the preference of a coastal State, and we have offered very greatly to reduce our catch in her waters. We have also tried to meet many of the points to which she attached importance.