§ The Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Roy Hattersley)
With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I should like to make a statement about the fisheries dispute with Iceland.
Royal Naval vessels which have been protecting British trawlers fishing in international waters around Iceland are being withdrawn today.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 overflying 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 has 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 1138 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 end 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 therefore 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 very naturally take full account of the importance of these fisheries to the livelihood of our own trawlermen and the communities in Britain which depend upon them.
Is the Minister aware that my right hon. and hon. Friends would welcome anything that would bring to an end on a fair basis this tragic dispute, which has brought little benefit to Britain and no benefit whatever to the credibility of Her Majesty's Government?
On that basis, I ask the Minister to answer two questions. First, it is essential to make clear the present position of our fishermen. Is it the Government's advice to them that they should or should not continue to fish as they were yesterday, and in the same places?
Second, the industry wants an agreement, and it may be that negotiations require the withdrawal of the Royal Navy, but this should be with a simultaneous 1139 agreement that there will be no further harassment. The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs said last month that a precondition of talks was that harassment should end. Is there any understanding or undertaking to that effect? If there is not, why has the Navy, which has done so very well, been withdrawn? If it is said that it can return if necessary, how far will it be withdrawn and how long will it take to return?
Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that on 12th December I suggested that the Government might invite a distinguished international figure to try to help solve this problem? The right hon. Gentleman brushed that suggestion on one side, saying that the Icelanders did not want that sort of thing. In fact, the Icelanders took the initiative and invited the intervention of Dr. Luns, which appears to have made some progress possible. Would it not have been better if the British Government had taken that initiative many weeks ago?
§ Mr. Hattersley
The right hon. Gentleman has asked a number of questions and I shall try to answer them in detail. I must begin by saying that I am sorry to hear that he regards this incident as doing little for the Government's credibility. On every occasion until today he has endorsed the Government's policy. We are following a pattern identical to that which was followed by the Government of which he was a member two years ago. Criticism may be made of that fact by some of my hon. Friends, but such criticism hardly lies in the mouth of the right hon. Gentleman.
I now turn to the specific questions asked by the right hon. Gentleman. First, he seeks the assurance that there will be no harassment. I must tell him that, in the light of what Dr. Luns told the Secretary of State yesterday, it is our hope and our judgment that there will be no harassment following the withdrawal of the British Navy. If our hope and judgment prove wrong, naval protection will be restored. At this moment ships of the Royal Navy are moving to an area more than 200 miles from the Icelandic coastline, but they will be in a position to return quickly if harassment should continue, or if it should be renewed. I emphasise that it is our hope 1140 and belief that that will not be the case.
As regards the position of the fishing fleet I talked this morning to Mr. Austen Laing, the director-general of the federation. He agreed with me that it is in the interests of the fleet, as well as in the interests of the British Government and NATO, that a negotiated solution should come about. In the light of that, he applauded our renewed attempt to negotiate a settlement. He also understood our obligation to protect the fishing fleet if protection again became necessary. I assured him that that was our position.
§ Mr. James Johnson
Is my right hon. Friend aware that many skippers and their men in Hull and other ports are not happy about the action which has been taken but accept it stoically because they have the assurance that if they are in difficulties the Navy will return to their aid within the alleged limit of 200 miles?
Does my right hon. Friend understand that I welcome the Government's initiative because I do not think it possible to end the deadlock otherwise, and because it is the only way of testing the sincerity of the Icelandic negotiators, and particularly the Icelandic Cabinet? Given that situation, our constituents fish on in Arctic darkness until the Law of the Sea conference takes place months ahead. We must continue to try to reach a solution in some way or other.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Icelandic Government have offered a total allowable catch of approximately 85,000 to 90,000 tons provided that we catch fish other than cod? Is that the position? Has my right hon. Friend explored the possibility of a mediator from a third State? A Scandinavian State might be acceptable. Such a State might not be Norway or Sweden, but I understand on good authority that Finland might be acceptable to the Icelanders.
§ Mr. Hattersley
My hon. Friend has asked me a number of specific questions and I deal first with the catch offer made to us by the Icelanders. No offer has been made other than a total catch of 65,000 tons. At one time that was interpreted as 65,000 tons of cod. The sort of figure to which my hon. Friend has referred has never been put on the table by Iceland. If, as we hope, negotiations begin in the next few days on a total 1141 tonnage, it will be up to the Icelanders to make their proposals and for us to make ours, and for the two nations to arrive at a mutually acceptable figure. I fear that no figure such as that quoted by my hon. Friend has up to now been offered by the Icelandic Government.
As regards my hon. Friend's point about mediation, I can only confirm what I have already said. The Government would welcome mediation if it proved likely to produce a successful settlement, but that is not our judgment. In fact, Dr. Luns has not carried out the réle of a mediator. Despite what has been said, Dr. Luns said specifically in his news conference yesterday that he was not mediating but doing his best to bring the parties together.
§ Mr. Hattersley
The difference is that a mediator would negotiate a figure acceptable to the two parties whereas Dr. Luns' function has been to bring the parties together—that is what we hope—so that they may determine an acceptable figure. There is a total distinction between the two rôles which I would have thought the right hon. Gentleman would recognise.
My hon. Friend made some general comments, and not for the first time they represent reasoned, practical moderation. In putting forward his suggestions, he represents the practical, reasoned moderation of the fishing fleet. I think he also represents the view of the Government.
§ Mr. Grimond
Is the Minister aware that we very much hope that the talks will take place and that they will be successful? Is he also aware that the ultimate solution to these difficulties is an international agreement for the extension of fishing limits and for the conservation of stocks? Will the right hon. Gentleman give the House news of the success or otherwise of the Government's efforts to achieve such a solution? Will he do so when the Law of the Sea Conference or similar negotiations result in some extensions of limits, and ideally an extension up to 200 miles, as well as some agreement on conservation?
§ Mr. Hattersley
The Law of the Sea Conference reconvenes towards the end of March. When the conference reconvenes Her Majesty's Government will be 1142 playing their part in bringing about the sort of solution which the right hon. Gentleman has outlined. We are in a situation in which the conference is temporarily suspended. It may be many months before it comes to an overall conclusion, and until then international matters of this sort have to be conducted in an orderly fashion. That is what we have tried to do during the past three months.
§ Mr. Wall
I welcome the Government's initiative which will go a long way to disprove the propaganda to the effect that Great Britain has bullied the Icelanders. When negotiations begin, will he give his mind to the long-term aspects, and will he consider an exchange of quotas between Great Britain and Iceland when both countries under international law are allowed to extend to 200 miles?
§ Mr. Hattersley
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that this is essentially a longer-term question, in respect not only of the Law of the Sea Conference but also of the EEC common fisheries policy, about which my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is making a speech literally at this moment in Brussels. There are long-term considerations to be borne in mind. If the Prime Minister of Iceland comes to London, as we hope he does in the next few days, we must seek to forge an interim agreement to see us through the period between the present time and the coming into operation of new arrangements that are appropriate to represent the interests of the two fishing communities.
§ Mr. McNamara
Is my right hon. Friend aware that it would be wrong for this House not to place on record our appreciation of the action of the Royal Navy during this difficult period and the degree of restraint it has shown? Does he agree that we should also put on record appreciation of the restraint shown by the British fishing fleet, skippers and men, engaged in difficult, hazardous and dangerous conditions? Is he further aware that many hon. Members deplore the headline in today's Daily Express as most despicable? Will he make clear that Her Majesty's Government have not surrendered on any point?
We must bear in mind in the discussions which are to take place that the vast majority of people in this country have 1143 a lower standard of living than do the people of Iceland, and this particularly applies to our fishermen. Any reduction in catches will have a most adverse effect on employment on Humberside and in other areas, and will hit not only fishermen but also many workers in ancillary industries who depend on fishing. If we can do so much for Chrysler, cannot we do a lot more for fishermen?
§ Mr. Hattersley
The Government are conscious of the problems on Humberside and elsewhere that would be brought about by any unreasonable reduction in catches. It must be said that unemployment in those areas is high whereas unemployment in Iceland is negligible. We have tried to pursue those interests in the last three months.
I agree with my hon. Friend that we are all grateful to the Royal Navy for its conduct in these difficult matters, and I am sure that we all share his view. Certainly my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Royal Navy, who is at present in the House, will wish to tell the Fleet of our appreciation expressed in the House this afternoon. As for the Daily Express, in my view its front page today falls even lower than that paper's own deplorable standards. It is a matter on which I do not wish to dwell.
§ Dr. Reginald Bennett
The Minister has not made clear whether fishermen are to be permitted to continue to fish in areas in which they have been engaged in the last few days or whether they will be ordered to withdraw. Will he make the situation clear?
§ Mr. Hattersley
I think that I have made the situation clear, but let me repeat it in case there is any doubt. Our fishermen will continue to fish in the hope and judgment that within the next few days, although the Royal Navy will not be there, they will not be harassed by Icelandic gunboats. I have already told the House that I have spoken to Mr. Austen Laing, the director-general of the federation, this morning. It was his belief that trawlers should continue to fish, on the assumption I have just made.
§ Mr. Watt
Will the Minister recognise that we on the SNP Benches welcome the statement and wish to say how relieved 1144 we are that no lives have been lost in this unnecessary squabble? Do the Government also recognise the need for there to be an agreement negotiated only for the next six months so that the outcome of the Law of the Sea Conference will not be prejudiced? Do the Government also recognise that there is an urgent need to re-establish good relations with Iceland? Following the Law of the Sea Conference, is it not obvious that we must seek to reach some agreement ton by ton with the Icelanders?
§ Mr. Hattersley
We want to establish—or re-establish, if that is the appropriate verb—good relations with Iceland. In regard to the duration of the agreement, every supplementary question the hon. Gentleman asks me is a plea that I should undermine the interests of the British fishing fleet. That I am not prepared to do.
§ Mr. Stonehouse
The Minister has spoken a good deal about judgment, but is he aware that the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs has been very much at fault on this whole question and that this has lead to the humiliation that we have had to suffer—
§ Mr. Stonehouse
That humiliation could have been avoided if the Minister had been allowed to carry on the negotiations in Iceland months ago and had agreed the 65,000 ton annual figure put forward by the Icelanders. Will the Minister now take the authority to go into the negotiations for a sensible agreement rather than be instructed to carry on with a big-Power mentality, which has done this country absolutely no good during the past three months?
§ Mr. Hattersley
I am anxious not to prejudice the situation in any way since we hope that in the near future the Icelandic Prime Minister will come to Great Britain, when we hope that a successful agreement will emerge. I must tell my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Stonehouse) that the only way the difficulties of the past three months could have been avoided was for the Icelandic Government to be prepared to negotiate with us, which was something they were unwilling to do. It 1145 was the Icelandic Government who broke off negotiations. It was the United Kingdom Government who wanted to negotiate at a time when we were willing to reduce our proposals even further to meet the Icelanders' wishes. Therefore, anybody who objectively examines the facts will see that they do not relate to the history described by my right hon. Friend.
§ Mr. Clegg
Is the Minister aware that the ball is very much in Iceland's court? Is he aware that on television today the Icelandic ambassador was not at all forthcoming on the question of harassment? He said that our fishermen were still open to harassment. He also indicated that the figure of 65,000 tons related to cod, but that there could be an increase in other fish—an impression reinforced by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Johnson), who thought that such an extra quota might be available. Will the Minister ensure that the other quotas are related to white fish and not to the type of fish on which Iceland recently reached agreement with Germany?
§ Mr. Hattersley
The hon. Gentleman will understand that although it is our definite intention robustly to represent the interests of the British fishing industry, he will hardly expect me to reveal our negotiating hand or to say what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister may wish to say to the Icelandic Prime Minister when, as we hope, he comes to Great Britain towards the end of the week. I heard the Icelandic ambassador on television, and indeed I always listen with interest to what he says on the innumerable occasions on which he broadcasts. He said in the past that if the British Navy were to be withdrawn from what the Icelandic Government regard as their waters, a new agreement could be achieved within a few days. Therefore, I hope that that earlier statement by the Icelandic ambassador will prove to be correct and that the statement he made today will prove to be wrong.
§ Mr. Spriggs
I am sure that hon. Members on all sides of the House wish to thank the Minister for his statement. May I ask him one question on the subject of conservation? Will he make it possible for the delegates attending the Law of 1146 the Sea Conference to raise the subject of conservation, which is so relevant when we are dealing with these vital subjects? Does he agree that unless conservation is dealt with, none of the nations will ever agree on fishing limits?
§ Mr. Hattersley
Every statement we have made about fishing has specifically acknowledged the need to conserve cod stocks in the waters around Iceland as part of our general policy to apply the needs of conservation to a world-wide fishing policy. I assure the House that when my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs represents Her Majesty's Government at the renewed Law of the Sea Conference, the principles outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens (Mr. Spriggs) will be high on the priorities we advocate.
§ Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop
How soon does the Minister think the Government can enter into agreement and prevent the confrontation with Iceland over fish stocks being transferred elsewhere? Is he aware that mackerel stocks in the South-West—on which several thousand fishermen in Cornwall, which is a development area, and Devon depend for their livelihood—will be put at hazard if extra fishing operations are transferred to the Western Approaches of the English Channel? Does he agree that in reaching a settlement with Iceland we should not reproduce the same problem elsewhere?
§ Mr. Hattersley
With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, that is a different question. I understand the geographical reasons why he puts it, but it is not a question which relates to today's statement.
§ Mr. Luard
Is it not a fact that there are as many—or more—British fishermen concerned with reserving stocks around our own coasts for British fishing fleets as there are concerned with distant water fishing? Does my right hon. Friend accept that although the forthcoming Law of the Sea Conference is most unlikely to reach overall general agreement about a 200-mile limit, it is the case that a large number of Governments will at that time seek to claim 200-mile zones and that there will be pressing demands for the British Government to do the same, not least from our own fishing fleet? Will 1147 the Minister bear in mind, in his forthcoming negotiations, the difficult situation in which we should find ourselves if we were to be seen to make an abrupt transition, first trying to claim rights in waters far from our own coasts and then immediately trying to reserve our own waters against the distant-water fishing fleets of another country?
§ Mr. Hattersley
I understand the paradox to which my hon. Friend refers. It is a task with which the Government must deal. I believe that it is logically perfectly possible both to express our determination to exercise our traditional right to fish in some distant waters and eventually—when the Law of the Sea Conference meets again and reaches its ultimate conclusion—to follow an orderly pattern of division of the resources of the sea. The real obligation upon us and other countries is to do this in a lawful and orderly way. That is what Her Majesty's Government have tried to do.
§ Mr. Brotherton
While I welcome this initiative on the part of the Government, may I press the Minister a little more on this question of how far the Royal Navy is being withdrawn? May I express the hope that the Navy is being withdrawn only up to the claimed 200-mile limit so that it will be no more than 10 hours' steaming distance away from any incident within the 50-mile limit? May I also ask the right hon. Gentleman to make sure that maximum publicity is given to the fact that it is Britain who has taken the initiative in this matter so that internationally this country may be seen to be doing the right thing by Iceland?
§ Mr. Hattersley
The Royal Navy is being asked to withdraw to a distance 200 miles from the Icelandic coast. That is where it will remain until it is clear whether talks are to take place and whether those talks have been successful. We shall certainly do our best to demonstrate the reasonableness of our position. I believe that our position has been reasonable throughout. Sometimes it has not been represented in British newspapers as reasonably as I believe it ought to have been. I certainly intend to make sure that the gesture which has been made by my right hon. Friend in Brussels, despite considerable provoca- 1148 tion, receives the sort of publicity which it deserves.