HL Deb 20 January 1976 vol 367 cc371-6

3.47 p.m.


My Lords, with permission I shall repeat a Statement which has been made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. The Statement is as follows:

" With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House I should like to make a Statement about the fisheries dispute with Iceland.

"Vessels of the Royal Navy which have been protecting British trawlers fishing in international waters around Iceland are being withdrawn today. Flights by Royal Air Force Nimrod aircraft which have been over flying the area have also been suspended. This course of action was determined by the Prime Minister and the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary in Copenhagen yesterday morning and was subsequently confirmed following a full discussion between the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary General of NATO, Dr. Luns, in Brussels last night. The Ministry of Defence have issued the necessary instructions today.

" The decision to go ahead was taken in the light of Dr. Luns' account of the visit he made to Iceland last week and in the expectation that our trawlers will not be harassed by Icelandic coastguard gun boats. It was taken despite the unfortunate complications represented by the Icelandic Government's announcement yesterday of their intention to break off diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom.

" As a result of the full protection and skilful interception measures of our naval vessels no trawler wires have been cut since 3rd January and fishing has continued, despite Icelandic harassment. But it has always been the hope of the British Government that this dispute would be ended by negotiation.

" If, contrary to our hopes, there is further harassment then naval protection will be restored. However, in the light of Dr. Luns' account of his discussions in Reykjavik, we believe that the withdrawal of the frigates and the Nimrods will now create an atmosphere in which talks between Britain and Iceland can proceed. The Prime Minister is sending a message to the Prime Minister of Iceland, Mr. Hallgrimsson, inviting him to come to London as soon as possible.

"Her Majesty's Government remain ready to negotiate an agreement which would recognise Iceland's special dependence on fishing and the need to take adequate measures to conserve the cod stocks. However, Her Majesty's Government will also naturally take full account of the importance of these fisheries to the livelihood of our own trawlermen and the communities in Britain which depend on them."

My Lords, that is the end of the Statement.

3.51 p.m.


My Lords, we thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement that has been made in another place. The asperity of the dispute and its repercussions have unfortunately become out of proportion to the difference in annual catch which was the principal subject of a further agreement between Iceland and Britain, although unilateral extension of limits is still a matter of principle which we deplore and which we deplored during the currency of the last agreement. May I ask the noble Lord in what circumstances the frigates will return? Can our trawlermen count upon their immediate return if harassment starts again or if attempts arc made to cut trawl wires? And will the noble Lord tell us whether there is now a real prospect of negotiation? If not, are the Government considering mediation? It is important to both countries that fish stocks should be preserved and that, if necessary, there should be an independent assessment of what conservation measures are required. I should like to express our gratitude to the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force and to reiterate what I said last week about the outstanding skill and service which they have brought to a difficult and delicate operation.


My Lords, I should like to join the noble Lord in the tribute he has paid to the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force and, indeed, to the intrepid men of the trawler fleet setting out from our ports. As to the conditions under which our forces would return to the area, that would depend upon whether the Icelanders resume harassment and would have to be assessed by our own Ministers in London. As to the conditions for mediation, naturally we hope that we shall achieve a workable compromise with our friends and allies, the Icelanders, on a bilateral basis. If, however, mediation by a third friendly country or organisation commends itself to the Icelanders, certainly we should not object to that method of solving this dispute. I accept entirely the point that the noble Lord has made about the need to consider the best way to conserve fish stocks. We are as concerned as are the Icelanders about this question and certainly we should not rule out of discussion this point or any other point that is germane to the fishing industry in these waters. As to an independent assessment of the extent of the stock and its pace of depletion, the noble Lord knows that there have been certain differences between our experts and theirs. I am sure that part of the negotiations will be to collate all proven facts in the scientific field for the purpose of expediting the conclusion of the negotiations.


My Lords, while thanking the noble Lord for repeating the Statement that has been made in another place, on behalf of my noble friends I should like to welcome this development. We are encouraged to know that negotiations are likely to take place. The sooner this breach between NATO Allies is healed the better, and the negotiating table is clearly the right place to attempt to heal it. The Government have indicated that they are aware of the need to combine a conciliatory attitude with a determination to protect the legitimate interests of British fishermen. I should like to take this opportunity to express appreciation both of the role played by Dr. Luns in his mediation (if that is the correct word) in this dispute and of the way in which the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force have carried out their duties in difficult circumstances.


My Lords, I warmly welcome the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Banks, and in particular what he has said about the importance of NATO in this connection. In doing so, he gracefully referred to the very helpful role which Dr. Luns, as Secretary General of that Organisation, has played in this matter.


My Lords, as one who has many intimate friends in Iceland and who taught as a boy at school our ambassador who is at present in that country, may I welcome the initiative of Her Majesty's Government and plead with my friends in Iceland to accept it in the spirit in which it is offered—in the spirit of the old friendship between Iceland and the British Government.


My Lords, I am sure that our friends and allies in Iceland will pay particular attention to what has been said by a former Speaker of perhaps the second oldest Parliament, theirs probably being the first, in the world.


My Lords, could my noble friend give the House any indication of the reaction of the representatives of the Hull and Grimsby fishermen to the decision to withdraw protection and indicate also whether British trawlers will continue to fish within the 200-mile limit without the overall protection of British frigates?


My Lords, so far the reaction of both sides of this industry has been cautious, reasonable and responsible. It is our expectation that while the negotiations take place fishing will continue in the disputed areas. However, I wish to reaffirm and emphasise that if harassment is resumed, protection for these fishermen will immediately be resumed.


My Lords, while welcoming very much the invitation to the Icelandic Prime Minister, may I ask whether any inquiries were made before the withdrawal of our fleet as to the likelihood of such a personal invitation being accepted? If the invitation were accepted, could the Minister say whether he has any date in mind for these talks to take place? In what is, without doubt, an extremely dangerous situation, speed is very necessary.


My Lords, I could not go into any detail as to what, after his intervention, Dr. Luns reported to the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, but I am sure that the invitation would not have been sent by us without the reasonable expectation that it would be accepted. As to the urgency of the situation, I agree entirely with the noble Baroness, who on a previous occasion played a very distinguished part in achieving, at least temporarily, an accommodation in this very difficult field. We wish to move forward as quickly as possible, and although I could not put a date to the actual start of the negotiations I hope that the waiting period may be counted in days and not weeks.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware—although there is no particular reason why he should be—that for nearly 20 years I represented in another place what I think is the principal fishing port engaged in this dispute, the port of Hull? Is the noble Lord also aware that as a result, while not in any way dissociating myself from what the noble Lord, Lord Maybray-King, has said about conciliation, I am asking him and the Government always to bear in mind the great debt that this nation owes to the deep sea fishermen of Britain both in peace and in war?


Most certainly, my Lords. They are an industry and a race of men who symbolise in their lives and in their industry some of the best qualities of our race. I would equally add that I am perfectly well aware of my noble friend's former distinguished career in another place.


My Lords, I should like to ask the noble Lord whether, during all these negotiations, the trawler owners, representing their fleet and their crews, have been kept fully in the picture. What happens as a result of the action taken by Her Majesty's Government matters so very much to them.


Yes, my Lords. The British Trawlers' Federation—and the unions—has been kept fully informed of all the steps we have taken during this dispute, on this occasion as on previous occasions. The BTF inform us that it shares the view of Her Majesty's Government that a negotiated settlement of this unhappy dispute should be reached as soon as possible. The Federation also shares our hope that the initiative taken by the Foreign Secretary yesterday will lead to this end.