HL Deb 14 January 1976 vol 367 cc130-3

2.43 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will make a Statement on the dispute with Iceland about fisheries.

The LORD PRIVY SEAL (Lord Shepherd)

My Lords, Icelandic coastguard vessels continue to attempt to harass the British trawlers fishing off Iceland, and protection for the trawlers continues to be provided by British frigates and tugs. Three collisions and one near collision have occurred between Icelandic coastguard vessels and British frigates since Christmas. Her Majesty's Government wish to solve the fisheries problem with Iceland by negotiation. British Ministers have repeatedly made clear to the Icelandic Government, publicly and privately, that Her Majesty's Government are willing to resume negotiations anywhere and at any time.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord the Leader of the House for making that statement. I am sure that the House will welcome the good offices of Dr. Luns, who enjoys the confidence of all members of NATO, and we wish him success in his mission, which appears to be a fact finding mission. In order to try to find an end to this unfortunate dispute, and if negotiations do not proceed because of the Icelandic objection, are the Government willing to accept mediation based on an independent scientific appraisal of the annual amount of cod which can be caught in these waters without harming stocks? Is the noble Lord aware of our admiration for the Royal Navy in the way in which they have carried out a very difficult and delicate task, and also of our appreciation of the valuable help which the RAF Nimrods have given?


My Lords, I am sure that the whole House would join with the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, in expressing appreciation of the very great skill and courage of the captains and crews of British frigates and tugs now operating off Iceland in most terrible weather. It is very much owing to their skill that a serious accident has not yet occurred because of the activities of the Icelandic gunboats. In regard to the visit of Dr. Luns to Iceland, to the best of our knowledge this is a fact finding visit at the request of the Icelandic Government. The British Government will be very pleased to receive Dr. Luns in London and to consider with him whether there is a possibility, as we would hope, for continuing or again starting negotiations. In regard to mediation, we have never turned our back upon it. We are therefore open to any suggestion of mediation.

In regard to the fact finding scientific examination for conservation, the British Government have always attached great importance to the need for conservation, and we recognise the genuine fears of the Icelandic Government concerning fish off their coast. There is a disagreement be- tween the official scientific advice available to Iceland and to Britain, but I think it would be possible, if we can get talks going again, for all this to be dealt with in a proper and long-term manner.


My Lords, will my noble friend agree that the quite justifiable consideration of the need for conservation of fish in those waters is something different and distinct from the claim made by Iceland for a substantial extension of its territorial waters?


Yes, my Lords, we very much regret the unilateral act of Iceland in extending its fishing limits, but I think one has to recognise that there is a genuine feeling within Iceland that fish is its primary raw material and that it would wish to seek to conserve it. One accepts that. We take the view, which the International Court in The Hague has confirmed, that we have a right to fish in those areas, and that is the reason why we have had to send our ships to protect our seamen in their lawful operations.


My Lords, is the Minister aware that there was a Smile limit of territorial waters, then it was extended to 50, and then it was extended to 200? Where is it going to stop? If the Icelanders are going to claim the whole of the North Sea right down to England, if they extend it by 1,500 miles, we cannot put a boat out. I agree with the Government entirely that we have to establish our international rights until international law is settled as to territorial waters, in order to protect our trawlers fishing over the 50-mile limit around Iceland.


My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend. Fortunately, 200 miles from Iceland does not yet, so far as I know, threaten Scotland.


My Lords, can the noble Lord tell us how soon it is Her Majesty's Government's intention to introduce the 200-mile limit ourselves?


My Lords, we would not wish unilaterally to extend our boundaries. We believe that this is a matter for international negotiation. As the noble Lord must be aware, there is the International Conference on the Law of the Sea, which I believe is being re-convened in March, and it must surely be everybody's hope that this Conference will be a success and that we can get international agreement.


My Lords, is there not a matter of principle here rather more fundamental than this? Too often rights to use illegal means for asserting what appear to be legitimate objectives—by hijackers, by the IRA and by the Government of Iceland—are being asserted. At what point do we say to the Government of Iceland, "If you behave with this disregard of the law and interfere with the legitimate purposes of our ships, you will be sunk "?


My Lords, this is 1975—


It is not, my Lords.


My Lords, this is the first time that the noble Lord has been able to score off me in 1976. However, this is 1976 and we must have a different approach to solving international problems. One should take comfort from the fact that since 9th December, due to the success of the Royal Navy in guarding our trawlers, no trawler has lost its fishing gear as a result of operations by Icelandic gunboats.


My Lords, is the Leader of the House aware that Iceland has many friends in this country but that all its many friends cannot accept the right of Iceland unilaterally to fix this fishing limit?


Yes, my Lords, and I hope that Iceland will feel that we still have a deep sense of friendship towards that country, as I believe Iceland, apart from this dispute, holds for this country. We should also remember that we are still partners in NATO.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that many people will very much welcome his temperate but clear statement of the case in international law in this matter, since this has been largely obscured by other arguments, particularly from the Icelandic side?