HL Deb 04 February 1976 vol 367 cc1308-16

3.50 p.m.


My Lords, with the permission of the House I will 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:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a Statement on the Icelandic fisheries question. As the House will be aware the Icelandic Government stated yesterday that it is unable to accept proposals for fishing limitations by British trawlers which were put to them in the recent London talks. The Icelandic Government has however expressed readiness to resume talks on a short-term agreement. The British Ambassador in Reykjavik has this morning been in touch with Icelandic officials and I authorised him to reply that despite our disappointment we are prepared to explore the prospects of a short-term agreement without prejudice to a longer one. It remains to be seen whether it is possible for the Icelandic Government to make any realistic offer or indeed any offer at all.

"The House should be aware that during the London talks the Icelandic Government was not in a position to negotiate and was even unable to agree to temporary arrangements to cover the five day period during which they were considering the results of the talks. Nevertheless, we shall continue to do our best and British officials are standing by to go to Reykjavik.

"As for the immediate future my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries is now advising the fishing fleet to resume fishing in the normal way in these international waters, for so they still are, as from midnight tonight. If our trawlers are interfered with they will be protected. The Government have also invited the industry for urgent talks about the limitations which we would be prepared voluntarily to impose upon ourselves in order to ensure that the British catch does not endanger the conservation of cod stocks. On two occasions in the past I have offered to accept mediation in this matter and the Icelandic Government has refused. I repeat the offer again today. I am conscious of the concern of our NATO allies and shall ensure that they are fully informed of the facts and of our intentions.

"The record will show that we seek good relations with our Icelandic neighbours and I believe many of them feel the same way about us. But no nation has the right unilaterally to impose measures which are unreasonable in themselves and which strike directly at the livelihood of our people in the fishing industry."

My Lords, that is the end of the Statement.


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord for having repeated the Statement made in another place. This is a very serious situation for the section of the fishing industry concerned and for all whose jobs are in ancillary services. From this Bench we have been exercising restraint while the negotiations were proceeding and we recognise that it has been a difficult situation. But we have more than a suspicion that since the autumn, before the last agreement expired, the Government have not handled this matter with the greatest of skill. I am sure that the noble Lord himself is not in any way to blame, but the Government as a whole appear to have undergone sudden changes of mind, causing doubts and confusion at times among our trawler skippers.

May I ask the noble Lord whether it is the case that the offer which Iceland has now just rejected is rather less than the 65,000 tons quota of cod which they offered last autumn and was turned down by the British Government? Does this not illustrate that the situation has gone from bad to worse? Will the noble Lord also clarify the protection mentioned in the Statement? Will our frigates remain outside the disputed waters and go in only if our trawlers are subjected to warp cutting or other interference?


My Lords, I am sure that we all sympathise with the Government. They are obviously in a very difficult position chiefly owing to the tactics of the Left Wing and, indeed Communist, forces in Iceland who, by playing on popular emotions, want to provoke a situation which could lead to a row with NATO, and consequently to pressure being brought to bear on the Americans to evacuate their base at Keflavik, and to hand over control of the Denmark Strait to the Russian fleet. So it looks as if any reasonable, even if temporary, agreement based on a limitation of catch was rather unlikely, though we must continue to try for one. I am glad to see that discussions for a temporary agreement are now being admitted.

But, after all, the Conference on the Law of the Sea opens in little more than a month from now, and I understand—perhaps the noble Lord will confirm this—that the European Commission is about to place before the Council proposals for a common Community fishery policy, based on the likely assumption that the 200 mile limit will shortly receive general international sanction. Might it not therefore be wise—I am sure the Government recognise this—to play our cards in the present dispute very carefully, avoiding all incidents if humanly possible, and even to accept the necessity of compensating trawler skippers quite often during a period of months, however costly this may prove to be? After all, if the 200 mile limit comes into force shortly, we shall presumably suffer some pecuniary loss, anyhow, whatever the evident merits may be of the Community fishery policy which is now being put forward for consideration by the Ministers.


My Lords, I should like to reply briefly to the two noble Lords who have intervened. In reply to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, who suggested that—if I am not misquoting him—Her Majesty's Government have not handled this matter with the greatest possible skill, I should say that it is not a matter for one Government; it is a matter for two Governments. I come no closer than that; at every point, when we have made concession after concession, we have found that some new snag has arisen on the other side. In those conditions, I do not know what Government, acting unilaterally in making concessions, could hope to come to agreement with another Government acting unilaterally in refusing all concessions.

The noble Lord's next point concerns figures. I wish we had time to deal with this, but I do not want to intrude unduly on the important debate which has been raging already. I would be glad to give a number of figures to the noble Lord who is interested and knowledgeable in these matters. What I will say is this. Whenever we have come anywhere near agreeing to a figure, however low, some new difficulty has been thrown on to the negotiating table; and the reasons are, at least partly, those adduced by the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, in his interjection. It is not for me to criticise the Government of another sovereign country, especially a friend and an ally. But we have found that somehow in these negotiations those to whom we have been talking have been listening not only to us but to disparate voices behind them at home; it has been very difficult indeed to conduct normal negotiation, however strong has been the desire in this country —I repeat, in this country—and with this Government, to attain a reasonable solution.

With regard to the question put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, regarding frigates, the frigates will intervene only when there has been action by the Icelanders which imperils or interferes with the peaceful, legitimate and legal avocations of our fishing fleets. I should like to touch briefly on one or two very important points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn. We are well aware of the importance to NATO—to our friends and allies—of an early solution of this distressing dispute. We have kept our NATO friends fully informed, and we propose to keep on doing so. We believe that we have the understanding of other members of NATO, and indeed we have the support of the Secretary-General of NATO, Dr. Luns, who intervened in good will and good faith to try to help achieve a solution, and we are very grateful to him. We see no reason why that distinguished intervention should not have succeeded—no reason at all.

With regard to the Law of the Sea Conference, it is true that we have made clear for some time now that, with other Governments, we are in favour of an internationally legalised 200 mile exclusive economic zone. What we say to our friends the Icelanders is, "This is on the way. We as a country represented in that Conference are perhaps doing as much as, possibly more than, anybody else to bring it about, sooner rather than later. In the meantime, can we not have an interim arrangement which will take into account the undoubted paramountcy of fishing in the Icelandic economy and also the needs of the very considerable British fishing industry which is important to entire communities in this country?"—communities whose patience and tolerance at a time of great strain is to be commended.

On CFP—Common Fisheries Policy—this is a very large question, and I fully take on board the implications which the noble Lord mentioned. It will be necessary, of course, to marry the decisions of the United Nations Law of the Sea Conference with the adjustments of the Common Fisheries Policy. This, as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, of course knows as well as I do, will in turn mean that we shall need to talk, bilaterally or as a Community, precisely with countries like Iceland, Norway and others about access by third countries. As a Community, I am sure the noble Lord would prefer it that way, that we do not close all the doors on procedures all at once. So every piece of logic, good sense and good feeling, and every expectation of a better future for the Icelandic fishing community and ours, points to there being at least an interim arrangement pending the internationalisation of the law of the sea plus the adjustment of the Common Fisheries Policy of the Community. I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, for the suggestions he made, and I will indeed convey them to my right honourable friend.


My Lords, will the noble Lord agree that there are issues here probably more important than cods? It is the issue of the validity of international law. Weak States have of late been defying international law and getting away with it, and are being encouraged to defy it again. These actions by the Icelanders are in defiance of a decision of the World Court. We have leaned over backwards; we have made concession after concession, and our weakness has but encouraged their intransigence. We are now told that the Navy will protect. May we be told that the Navy will inform the Icelanders that if their gunboats interfere with and endanger our ships on their lawful occasions they will be arrested and, if they resist arrest, sunk? Because unless a strong line of this kind is taken this kind of defiance will go on and on and international law will be worthless.


My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend in what he has to say about the rule of law, which is somewhat in contradistinction to the rather extreme suggestions he made about how to uphold a somewhat tenuous rule of law in these circumstances. There may be sympathy with the feelings of my noble friend, but I would ask him to reflect a little to see whether the solution which he so enthusiastically advances might not in the event be worse than the present disease.


My Lords, does the Minister not think that the moment of appeasement of Iceland has now gone? Can we not think of the trawler men, who are entitled to plough the seas outside the 50-mile limit, being harassed? Does the Minister not think that we ought to put the Navy in to protect our people and tell Iceland that we intend to defend them until such time as the rule of the sea is altered to 200 miles?


My Lords, I hoped I had made clear that if there is further harassment our fishing folk will be protected in what still remains an international stretch of water, so my answer to my noble friend on that score is, "Yes". I would ask him, as I did my other noble friend, to reflect on the far-reaching consequences of creating quite new situations of greater dimension than even this distressing dispute. The noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, has I think suggested to us certain extremely important international implications to our acting hastily and too emotively on this matter. It is not an easy problem. On the one hand, there are certain British interests affecting whole communities of our people. There is the livelihood and indeed the lives of the intrepid men who venture into these waters; there is also the overriding need to sustain the tenuous rule of law throughout the world. Equally, on the other hand, there is need for thoughtfulness and great caution, based not on weakness but, I hope, on wisdom—on seeing fairly far ahead what the implications of certain actions might be. I hope to repeat Statements of this kind to your Lordships' House from time to time and to keep your Lordships fully informed of the progress of these negotiations.


My Lords, apart from the bigger issues which may be behind this, would the noble Lord not agree that perhaps there has been a tactical mistake? He spoke about the negotiating table, but it was not a negotiating table. We had the intolerable situation where the Prime Minister of Iceland came along without the power to negotiate. Was not the tactical mistake to enter into talks with someone on the other side of the table who had not the power even to negotiate? Why did we move away from the traditional course of the position being examined at official level before getting to the point where Prime Ministers meet and are not able to come to a conclusion because one claims not to have the power? If we do that too often and we make gestures, it may well mean that we shall demoralise our own country, quite apart from the people engaged on fishing.


My Lords, before my noble friend intervenes, I hope the House will reflect on the way we have been conducting Statements recently, and particularly today. The purpose of Statements is for the Government to inform the House of events and then for there to be a period to elicit further information, as opposed to carrying on a debate, which I suspect we have been doing. Perhaps if my noble friend would reply to the noble Lord and then—I am sorry; the noble Baroness also wishes to intervene. It is not for me to stand between your Lordships and the noble Baroness, but perhaps my noble friend could deal with those two interventions and then we could move rapidly from cod to horses, because I think that may be for the benefit of the House.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord one question? I am a little out of touch since I left the Lower House and arrived here, but, of course, my part of the world has a great interest in the fishing industry. On this great question of conservation, which the Icelanders are always using as an argument in regard to the general problem, have we had an independent examination of the problem of conservation of fish? It would be interesting if an independent analysis was available, about which we could know, before the Law of the Sea Conference takes place. I am sorry to intervene, but it is because I had fishing interests and because my own knowledge is really out of date that I am asking this question of the noble Lord.


My Lords, may I ask a question seeking genuine information? In order to put the matter in its right perspective, may I ask whether or not my noble friend could give the House information concerning the volume of landings in British ports of fish caught in Icelandic waters during the period of the dispute, as compared with the period a year before? Or, if that information is not available, could he inform the House of the number of British trawlers operating in Icelandic waters during the period of dispute, as compared with the period a year before when there was no dispute?


My Lords, I can give some figures which will help my noble friend and possibly the House. Ten years ago, the deep sea fleet took60 per cent. of the total catch. Today it takes 40 per cent. Ten years ago, 184 traditional distant water trawlers were catching 225,000 tons of cod off Iceland. Now, the figures are 140,000 tons as compared with 225,000 tons and 115 trawlers as compared with 184 ten years ago. Perhaps it would be better if I gave those figures and others indicated in my noble friend's supplementary question in answer to a Question for Written Answer. I will do my best to get the full figures previously referred to.

The noble Lord, Lord Harmar-Nicholls, raised the question of whether we are perhaps in danger of rushing to too high a level in these discussions. We have proceeded by way of meetings by officials over a very long period, moving up to ministerial meetings—and certainly Prime Ministerial meetings—only as something like a last resort. I think that the meeting last week-end was very much an attempt by the British Government to give to this dispute a dimensional importance, and to try to induce at longlast—at that level, if at no other level—a readiness to listen to concessions or suggestions so that a solution can be reached. I think that on reflection the noble Lord will agree that we have not acted other than with great circumspection in this matter of negotiations.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Ward of North Tyneside, asked whether we have an independent assessment of the conservation situation and procedures. We have a very strong and permanent British scientific investigation into this, the results of which are available at any time to the Icelanders. They, too, have their experts. So far, the two sets of experts have found it impossible to agree, but we have suggested that they should come together, pool their ideas and work out together for their respective Governments and industries a conservation programme utilising the best thoughts and knowledge of both sets of experts. That is the best answer I can give to the noble Baroness. No doubt in the continuing negotiations weshall be repeating precisely that kind of proposal.