HL Deb 13 November 1973 vol 346 cc579-86

3.35 p.m.


My Lords, I should like, by leave of the House and in the hope that it is convenient to your Lordships, to repeat a Statement which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister about the fisheries dispute with Iceland. The Statement is as follows: "During my discussions, with the Icelandic Prime Minister on October 15 and 16 we worked out a basis for an interim settlement of the fisheries dispute. This has now been embodied in an exchange of Notes which I am glad to be able to tell the House were signed in Reykjavik at 2.45 to-day. The agreement will last for two years and will be without prejudice to the legal rights of either Government in relation to the substantive dispute. It is based on an estimated annual catch of about 130,000 tons by British vessels in the disputed area, but no actual catch limit is incorporated. The main provisions are for reductions in the number of British trawlers fishing in the disputed area and restrictions on the areas in which they will operate. The fleet of fresher trawlers will be reduced, by comparison with the number notified as fishing in 1971, by 15 of the largest trawlers and 15 other trawlers, so that it will consist of not more than 68 trawlers of 180 feet or more in length and not more than 71 trawlers of less than that length. No British freezer or factory trawlers will fish in the area.

"The area restrictions provide broadly that one-sixth of the disputed area will be closed to British trawlers at any one time. In addition there will be certain agreed conservation areas and areas reserved for Icelandic small boats.

"An agreed list of vessels which may fish under the terms of the interim agreement has been drawn up, if any vessel is discovered fishing contrary to the terms of the agreement the Icelandic Coastguards will have the right to stop it, but will summon the nearest British support vessel in order to establish the facts. Any trawler found to have violated the terms of the agreement will be crossed off the list.

"I am very glad that we are now reaching a negotiated interim settlement. We are giving up areas which, though small, have traditionally provided significant catches, and excluding some vessels which have hitherto fished off Iceland. A substantial British trawler fleet will, however, be able to operate freely without fear of harassment in the major part of the disputed area. The agreement will put an end to an unhappy and dangerous situation which was damaging our relationship with a NATO ally. It will mean that the Royal Navy and the tugs will no longer be called upon to provide protection, an arduous task which has been performed with skill, determination and forbearance.

"The fishing industry welcome the agreement, for the prospect which it gives of a return to more normal conditions, and I am grateful for the co-operation they have given us throughout the dispute. I recognise the hazards which the skippers and the crews have had to face. They have demonstrated their ability to cope with difficult circumstances and will now. I am sure, show the same qualities in their efforts to keep up supplies to the consumer. In the longer term, new developments in fishing technology open up the prospect of fishing unexploited stocks on new grounds and the Government is helping the industry with the exploration of these areas.

"With this agreement, we have, I believe, made a new basis for the friendly co-operation which should characterise our relationship with Iceland, and we have made good provision for the needs of the fishing industry during the period while wider international arrangements are being worked out."

My Lords, that is the end of the Statement.


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement made in another place. Obviously, some questions arise from it, but first of all I should like to say, on behalf of my noble friends, that we are delighted that agreement has been reached. Indeed this agreement, as was said in the Icelandic Parliament yesterday and even within our own country, might have been reached a long time ago, without the trouble we have had, if we had gone for the figure which was suggested at that time without starting at 170,000 tons and working our way down. A great deal of expense and anxiety might also have been saved.

The noble Baroness said that this agreement will last for two years. Do I understand that it will operate despite what may happen at the Law of the Sea Conference in 1974? The noble Baroness also said that the agreement will mean a reduction of some 30 trawlers, 15 distant and 15 of the smaller variety. This represents employment for some hundreds of men. While the noble Baroness says that the industry, despite the sacrifice involved, are accepting the agreement, I hope that some protective measures have been taken, or are about to be taken, to safeguard the employment of these people. I find the Statement difficult to understand regarding the catch. The noble Baroness says that the agreement is based on an estimated annual catch of about 130,000 tons by British vessels in the disputed area, but no actual catch limit is incorporated. I find this extremely difficult to understand. Is it 130,000 tons, or can it be more? Or might it be less? It seems to me difficult to understand that the agreed figure is 130,000 tons but that no actual catch limit is incorporated. The Statement also says that no British freezer or factory trawlers will fish in the area. What does this change represent? Have there been many, if any, British freezers or factory trawlers operating in this area before, or is the agreement saying in fact that as there has not been in the past we will take steps to see that there will not be any operating in the future?

While we are going to have some conservation areas, it seems perfectly clear that the British fishing fleet are not going to be allowed to fish in a considerable part of them. That I recognise as part of the bargain. Then the Statement goes on to say that certain areas are reserved for Icelandic small boats. I should like more information about this. The fishing industry has told both the noble Baroness and myself on many occasions that this type of area can be exploited with detriment to the rest of the people who fish in Icelandic waters. Obviously if 30 trawlers are to be removed from this area it will be necessary to find other areas in which to fish. The noble Baroness says that new developments in fishing technology open up prospects of fishing unexploited stocks and new grounds, and that the Government are helping with the exploration of them. Perhaps the noble Baroness could give your Lordships a little information in this respect. We will not go into techniques because that would be asking too much, but what new areas are being surveyed at the present time to provide alternative fishing grounds for the fleet which will be prevented from going to Iceland? Also does the agreement mean that the British vessels which were threatened with arrest if they entered Icelandic waters again are now free to go back, and that they are completely protected from any further action by the Government of Iceland?

3.44 p.m.


My Lords, we on these Benches are most relieved to hear the Statement of the noble Baroness. I should like to think that the interim settlement will soon become a permanent one. I also hope that the majority of 54 to 6 which was reached in the Icelandic Parliament will auger well for the future. As the whole of this dispute was brought about on account of a shortage of fish, are the Government intending to spend more money, perhaps through the White Fish Authority, on the research and production of fish in artificial circumstances, such as inland lochs and voes? Perhaps the noble Baroness will advise us on this matter.


My Lords, I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Hoy, and the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, have welcomed this agreement, which has taken a very long time to achieve. I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Hoy, that it is not a question of suddenly reducing from the International Court's award of 170.000 tons straight down to the estimated 130.000 tons. This is an extremely complicated agreement: it involves a package on a large number of matters. The noble Lord asked, since this agreement is going to last for two years, what will happen if a different agreement is reached at the Law of the Sea Conference. The Law of the Sea Conference is not due to meet until 1974 and many people feel that it may not reach an agreement at that time. Were it to reach an agreement, either in 1974 or 1975, then both Iceland and ourselves could discuss the situation.

On the question of the 30 trawlers, the freshers, which we have agreed will not fish from within 12 and 50 miles, happily they have areas in which they can fish at this moment. We do not think it will make any alterations in employment because fish is in large demand at this time. The noble Lord quite rightly asked how it is that, while the agreement talks of an estimated catch of about 130,000 tons, there is no catch limit incorporated. This is because, as he will know well, it is difficult to estimate absolutely accurately how many fish can be caught in certain areas in certain circumstances. It is estimated that the package taken as a whole could result in a catch of about 130,000 tons of fish. In answer to his question, that must mean either less or more.

He then asked about the freezers and factory ships. We have no factory ships and never have had any. We have had about 25 freezers which have fished at various times off Iceland, and we have agreed that one of them should return to these waters. On the details of the conservation and small boat areas, we hope to publish a Command Paper on Friday, November 16, which will give the details and also a map. On the unexploited stocks, to give one example, there are experiments going on off the North West of Ireland. On the question of the arrest of those who may have fished between 12 and 50 miles up till now, as we understand it there is a moratorium on them. The noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, asked about the White Fish Authority. They are deeply involved in any new experiments in fish farming in this country, for example; but the details of any new expenditure are not suitable in this Statement.


My Lords, one other question. The noble Baroness said, "as we understand it" these trawlers have been put into a moratorium. I hope that the Icelanders understand that. This is even more important than the British understanding it. I should be grateful if the noble Baroness would clear up this point. Would the noble Baroness say whether agreement was reached in this respect? Obviously it was a point that was bound to arise in the course of discussions and negotiations. I am certain that the British Government did not make this arrangement leaving these people unattended to. Perhaps the noble Baroness could be more specific about the decisions reached regarding these problems.


My Lords, we have discussed this matter with the Icelandic Government. It is not incorporated as part of the agreement but I am confident that it will present no difficulty.


My Lords, will the noble Baroness be frank with your Lordships' House and admit that concessions that have been made by Her Majesty's Government are quite different from their original intentions when for a considerable time they resisted the demands of the Icelandic Government? Would the noble Baroness also reply to this question: to what extent have Her Majesty's Government been influenced by our so-called NATO allies? Are there any of the NATO allies who have been adversely affected, or are likely to be adversely affected, by the concessions that Her Majesty's Government have made?


My Lords, on the first point, so far as the British concessions are concerned, instead of accepting the 170,000 tons awarded us by the International Court of Justice, and in order to give Iceland preferential rights as a coastal State and as a nation very dependent on fishing, we have agreed a package arrangement which will allow us to catch about 130,000 tons; this figure is a reduction from the 145,000 tons which we suggested in the last conferences in May. But as the noble Lord will have noticed, and as I have said already, there is no actual catch limit and therefore the Icelandic Government have accepted a concession; also that only one area, instead of two out of the six, should be closed. So far as our NATO allies are concerned, the Federal Republic of Germany has still to complete her particular negotiations with Iceland. We have kept in touch ail along and she considers now that her negotiations must, by the nature of their fishing pattern, which is quite different from the British, be of a rather different character.


My Lords, as one who went to Iceland not long ago to talk at the 50th anniversary of the Anglo-Icelandic Friendship Society and found the Icelanders unwilling to move a single inch, and as one who, through my colleagues in the other place, knows the fishermen of Britain and their determination, may I congratulate Her Majesty's Government and the Icelandic Government on the compromise that they have arrived at, and may I say a special word of congratulation to Her Majesty's Ambassador in Reykjavik who has borne the heat and burden of the day?


My Lords, I very much thank the noble Lord, Lord MaybrayKing, for his tribute to Her Majesty's Ambassador in Reykjavik. He has had a very difficult time but has loyally and carefully not only put forward our views and represented them, but also interpreted to us the many difficulties which have, from a political point of view, confronted the Icelandic Government. We are very glad indeed that we have reached agreement with the Icelanders on this question, and we shall, I hope, have Anglo-Icelandic co-operation again.


My Lords, before we leave the Statement, and at the end of a dispute which has now, thank goodness, been settled—true at some cost to the British—may I ask the Leader of the House, following the words of the noble Lord, Lord Maybray-King, whether he will convey to the Minister of State our admiration for the tenacity with which she upheld our British point of view, and our admiration for the travels backwards and forwards which she made to Iceland? Further, is the noble Baroness aware that, I am sure on all sides of the House, there is great pleasure that a Minister in this House has made a substantial contribution to the settlement which has been announced to-day?

3.54 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure it would be the wish of the whole House that I should do that, and it is particularly fortunate that the noble Baroness to whom that tribute has been verbally addressed should be sitting on the Front Bench to hear it herself.