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Icelandic Fisheries

Volume 901: debated on Thursday 20 March 1975

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With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement about recent negotiations with the Government of Iceland.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and I visited Reykjavik from 15th to 17th November for a third round of negotiations with Icelandic Ministers. On arrival we were told that the Icelandic coastguards had cut the warps of two British trawlers fishing in international waters. I made an immediate formal protest to the Icelandic Foreign Minister and told him that further molestation of the British fishing fleet could only result in the end of our discussions. No further incidents occurred until after our talks had ended on the morning of 17th November.

Both during the informal talks which took place on Sunday 16th November and the formal negotiations on the following day, I made five proposals. Those proposals were in response to informal suggestions made to British officials when they visited Iceland 10 days earlier—namely, suggestions that Iceland might be prepared to put forward an annual catch figure of 65,000 tons to replace the indicative total of 130,000 tons which appeared in the agreement which expired on 13th November.

I suggested that the new agreement should specify a figure which was an absolute limit on the British catch rather than an indicative total. I proposed that in order to preserve the stock of young fish we should increase the mesh size of British nets to that which the Government of Iceland are soon to require their trawler fleet to use. I offered our good offices in future negotiations with the EEC, and I invited the Icelandic fishing industry to enter into discussions with its British counterparts about landing rights in British ports.

I proposed a British total annual catch of 110,000 tons per year for the duration of the new agreement. But I made it clear that if the Government of Iceland made a further offer in excess of the 65,000 tons I was ready to advance towards a mutually acceptable total. The Icelandic Foreign Minister told me that he had no mandate to improve on the offer of 65,000 tons.

I told the Icelandic Foreign Minister, and the Prime Minister of Iceland who invited me to meet him during the negotiations, that the only wish of Her Majesty's Government was to preserve the legitimate interests of the British fishing industry whose right to fish in the disputed waters had been upheld by the International Court of Justice. I emphasised that the figure of 110,000 tons was not a total to which I was irrevocably committed and that I accepted that requirements of conservation obliged all countries fishing in the North Atlantic to accept a reduction in their catch.

Yesterday, together with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, I saw representatives of the fishing industry. They endorsed the position taken up by the Government during the negotiations and recommended that we should, at this stage, protect the fishing fleet with unarmed civilian protection vessels. They accepted the Government's view that, whilst adequate protection must be provided for British trawlers, Britain should do nothing that could be represented as an escalation of the dispute.

Her Majesty's Government stand ready to continue the negotiations and hope that the Government of Iceland will soon share our view that further progress is possible.

It is a very sad situation that the proper rights of our own people appear to be in conflict with our international friendships. Is the Minister aware that the Opposition entirely support the line he is taking in protecting the interests of British fishermen? We very much hope that the negotiations will succeed.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the insane policy on which we seem to be embarking is putting at risk the lives of men on our trawlers and that we are bound to reverse that policy when we renegotiate the fishing policy of the EEC? To that extent would it not be better to concede Iceland's case, seek an opportunity to ask for exclusive fishing rights with the EEC, and "do an Iceland" on the EEC? Would not the situation be better served by our calling together all the EEC Ministers, together with those of Norway and Iceland, to discuss conservation and exploitation within the 200-mile limit that we shall adopt next year?

My hon. Friend is asking Her Majesty's Government to do a number of things, all of which seem to me to be unacceptable. First, he wishes us to anticipate the outcome of the Law of the Sea Conference. That conference may in the end result in the course sug- gested by my right hon. Friend, but it would be wrong to anticipate changes in international law and to apply them unilaterally.

Secondly, my hon. Friend asks us to make assumptions about the common fisheries policy of the EEC. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and I see it as our principal duty to change the policy in such a way that it will protect the interests of the British fishing fleet. We cannot anticipate any change or pretend that change has already happened. The simple task of the British Government is to support the interests—and that means the employment opportunities—of the men who sail in our fishing fleets and those who support them on the dockside. I hope that my hon. Friend will join with us in supporting their interests.

Much of what the Minister has said, so far as it goes, will be welcomed by those living on the south bank of the Humber. Is he aware, however, that this morning the trawl of a British trawler was cut as the ship was going about its lawful occasions in international waters? Will he assure the House that in view of such action he will undertake to despatch immediately Royal Navy frigates, not necessarily to take action but to show the fishing community that the Government are interested in protecting it and to ensure that British seamen and fishermen are not molested on the high seas when they go about their lawful occasions?

I cannot give that asurance, nor would it be right for me to do so. When representatives of the industry spoke to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food yesterday they endorsed the Government's view that our first step must be to find out whether the civilian protection vessels can adequately meet the interests of the fishing fleet. The civilian protection vessels have only just arrived and are now demonstrating their capabilities. To accelerate and escalate the dispute in the way in which the hon. Gentleman has suggested would not serve the interests of the fishing fleet but would postpone the day when we could reach an amicable agreement with Iceland. Despite provocation, our basic aim must be to reach an amicable agreement with Iceland.

The deep-sea fishing fleet in Hull lies within my constituency. Both management and men are satisfied at present with the way in which Her Majesty's Government are handling this matter in most difficult circumstances. I should like to quote the view of the leader of the Transport and General Workers' Union, who stigmatised the Icelandic behaviour as obstructive. Indeed, I have put his view politely.

However, in view of the many factors involved, is my right hon. Friend aware that the skippers and deckhands on the trawlers wish to avoid any provocative action, although at the same time, if they encounter danger on the high seas when they are working and plying their lawful livelihood of catching fish under international law, they ask that Her Majesty's Government should come to their support and give them help in times of emergency?

I am deeply grateful for the first comments of my hon. Friend. I am conscious of the implication of his question which he was too polite to put directly—namely, that it is easier for us to be calm in the House of Commons than it is for fishermen to be calm in the North Atlantic during a force 6 gale. I take my hon. Friend's point well. I hope the industry understands that we are ready to provide it with whatever protection and support it needs. However, it is not in the interests of the industry that we should provide that support in a precipitous or panic-stricken way. Therefore, although I hope that the industry accepts our assurance that support will be provided, I hope it will endorse our judgment that we must go moderately about this matter.

Is it not clear that by taking the law into its own hands Iceland has succeeded in grinding down the British catch in these waters to levels which we would not otherwise have contemplated on conservation or other grounds? Is it not also clear that neither the previous administration nor the present administration have yet discovered the means to counteract that?

No, that is simply untrue. The proposals which we put to the Government of Iceland were certainly geared to our judgment about the necessities of conservation and not to crude bar- gaining which the right hon. Gentleman seems to think characterised our behaviour. We simply want to come to an agreement with Iceland which will enable both Governments to continue fishing economically and with honour. At the same time we want to preserve the fish stocks for future generations. That is our purpose and intention. We shall continue to pursue that policy.

Why do Her Majesty's Government insist on going to the negotiating table with such a weak hand? Will the Minister now recognise the right of Iceland to look after its own fishpond and its country's best interests? Is it not time that we similarly extended our limits so that we could go to the negotiating table with Iceland and say "So much herring for so much cod"?

I have been asked that question so many times by representatives of the Scottish National Party that I think the time has now come to warn them of the implications of what they suggest. If we all established a 200-mile economic zone and if the independence of Scotland, for which the SNP stands, was also established, many Scottish fishermen would be prevented from fishing off the South West Coast of England. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will advocate that in Glasgow.

Is the Minister aware that what most fishermen will be concerned about is the Government's ability to respond quickly to save life if Icelandic action escalates further? Is he also aware that this dispute affects all the fishing nations, not only Britain and Iceland, and that other fishing nations must decide whether they are prepared to declare themselves on the side of law and order at sea and back that with far greater urgency in negotiating more realistic fishing limits than has been shown so far or whether they are prepared to see continued unilateral declarations by one country after another, including Great Britain?

I share the hon. Gentleman's view that we must make orderly speed towards the resolution of questions which muse be decided at the Law of the Sea Conference. On that matter both he and the Government exactly agree. At present our problem is to deal with a country which has anticipated the decisions. It is our hope that countries which believe that international law should be organised in an orderly fashion will support us in what we are trying to do. We are trying to negotiate. We do not want to impose our will on a friendly nation and a fellow member of NATO. We wish to negotiate a settlement which is mutually acceptable to Iceland and Great Britain.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that we all applaud the fact that the Government are not prepared to listen to the belligerent statements by some Opposition Members who want to send gunboats to solve the matter? Is he equally aware that many of us believe that the Icelanders, whose basic industry is fishing, must have an extremely understanding attitude adopted towards them by the other nations? My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) sailed for 10 years as a seaman in the Atlantic and on many occasions experienced gales of the force which my right hon. Friend mentioned. [Interruption.] I hear an hon. Member ask "What has that got to do with it?" In my view, my hon. Friend should be heard as somebody who represents seamen in this House.

I listened to what my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) said, and I understand the force and experience with which he said it. Moreover, I accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) at the beginning of his question. Iceland, dependent generally on fishing for its entire economy, has special problems which we acknowledge and are prepared to meet in terms of both substantial reduction in our catch, which we proposed, and of the concessions that we are prepared to make concerning conservation. No matter how great Iceland's problems, it is not possible for us to help her solve them if she will not co-operate with us. That is the situation in which I found myself on Monday.

Will the Minister inform his hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) that at least in my constituency several thousand jobs are at stake and he might give some thought to these matters as well as to those which he suggested? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that no one connected with his negotiations will underestimate his difficulties? Equally, is he aware that the fishermen and their families in Fleetwood are living in a state of the utmost tension and want the Royal Navy to be present in the fishing areas despite what other sections of the industry may say?

Will the Minister spell out today in simple terms what action the Icelanders will have to take before the Navy goes in to stop them? If he can deal with this point satisfactorily, our fishermen may be reassured. However, the right hon. Gentleman is well aware that messages are coming back from the fishing grounds to the effect that our fishermen will not stay there without naval protection.

I shall answer the third point raised in the hon. Gentleman's question, because his first two points were statements. Clearly it is not possible for me to describe in detail the various levels of escalation which might involve eventually the participation of the Royal Navy in the dispute. That would be provocative and would lead to the course which I described and which I am anxious to avoid.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join with me in pointing out to the families in Fleetwood, Hull and Grimsby that Her Majesty's Government have two obligations and that we shall try to fulfil them both. The first obligation is to preserve the situation in which talks can open and negotiations can continue. That is certainly in the interests of the families in Fleetwood, Hull and Grimsby.

The second obligation is to make sure that the trawler fleet is adequately protected. At this minute the belief of the fleet's liaison committee is that protection is best left to the civilian vessels. If those civilian vessels prove inadequate, we shall have to revise our opinion. That has not yet been proved. Therefore, we must give those civilian vessels time to work out their duties.