HL Deb 08 July 1976 vol 372 cc1303-8

3.10 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 are preparing enabling legislation to establish a 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone for the United Kingdom in accordance with the agreement in principle already reached at the United Nations Law of the Sea Conference.


My Lords, we have called on our Community partners to make a joint declaration of intent to extend fishing limits to 200 miles at an early date. Implementation of such a decision would require changes in our law and the necessary proposals will be laid before Parliament at the appropriate time. Naturally, the necessary contingent work is in hand.


My Lords, I am grateful for that statement and also for the information that the Government are making preparations. But are the Government aware that several maritime countries are proposing to introduce the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone after the Conference session in New York starting next month. and that the United States has already passed domestic legislation for that purpose? As this is a crucial matter for British interests, and especially for the fishing industry, will the Government guarantee that there will be no question of Britain's being left behind because we are not completely ready to join the others?


My Lords, I can give that assurance. As I indicated in my first Answer, the work is in hand. As to the actions of other countries, some are making declarations of intent on the fishing content of the EEZ and others are going a little beyond that. So far as the Community is concerned, I do not think that any Member, apart from France, has so far made a declaration of intent on the EEZ.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that encouraging information. When he says that work is in process, could he give us some idea as to what has actually been decided ?—because the Answer, if promising, is rather vague.


My Lords, we shall of course be discussing with our partners in the Community, as we have been doing. Also, I anticipate that at the meeting of the European Council of Ministers this matter, which is of paramount importance to this country, will be very carefully discussed. We have every reason to think that our partners will be forthcoming and practically sympathetic to what is obviously a question of national importance to our people. I can give no date as to when the work which is now in hand will emanate in a formal document, a draft statement or a regulation. But I can repeat the assurance that we shall, of course, place such a document, when it is ready and necessary to be tabled, before both Houses of Parliament.


My Lords, are the Government aware that in the case of France it is a good deal more than a declaration of intent, and that the French Parliament last week passed into law an annexation of sovereign rights over the seabed, that which lies under it and the water above it, for full exploitation out to 200 miles?


My Lords, this is the way the French have chosen to take action in this field. But what they have done does not, in itself, extend the limits of their jurisdiction.


My Lords, since the noble Lord used the word " paramount" in referring to the importance of the Council meeting, can he tell us whether our action is dependent upon a decision by the Council or whether we shall take action in any event, whatever the Council of Ministers decides or fails to decide?


My Lords, the noble Earl is now attempting to extend unduly the limit of the diplomatic zone. It is a little early to anticipate that we shall need to move unilaterally in this matter. We are convinced that the advantage to this country, and indeed to the other Members of the EEC, would lie in acting together.


My Lords, will the noble Lord be good enough to expand a little on the meaning of the phrase " declaration of intent ", which in this context is not very familiar to all of us? What is the effect of such a declaration? Does it mean simply that something will be done in future, or does it have some effect in international law and, if so, what ?


My Lords, without advice I am not competent to say whether it has any effect on international law. But I understand that a declaration of intent in this field is an indication by a Government of what they intend to do in regard to certain matters, which appear to be broadly in consensus at the United Nations Law of the Sea Conference. Some nations believe that the process towards the 200-mile economic zone limit is pretty well irreversible. We take the view that within that field an extension of the fisheries limit to 200 miles is irreversible. So that as fisheries are the most urgent matter in this area with which we as a country are concerned, we have concentrated on making a declaration of intent that we are looking to an extension of our fisheries limit to 200 miles, preparing the necessary national law—which, in any case, will be necessary—and also stating that we want to do this in concert with our partners in the European Community.


My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that, when we talk about an Exclusive Economic Zone, fisheries, though important, are absolutely trivial in value as compared with the mineral and oil rights involved ? What we are proposing is something more than doubling our present territory. Have Her Majesty's Government considered how they will defend these enormously valuable rights when, quite obviously, they are totally incapable of doing so at the moment ?


My Lords, it would take a little time to cover the whole of the ground which the noble Lord has traversed. What we are saying is that the economic situation of this country in regard to fishing entitles us to indicate, to make a declaration of intent, that we are preparing the necessary legislation to give effect to an expanded zone in relation to fishing, and to do this in concert with our friends and allies in the Community. The other economic resources within the EEZ will no doubt in due course be a subject for consideration, consultation and co-operation between us and our friends in the Community.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the fishermen of the South-West are equally anxious about getting the median line agreed with France? Can the noble Lord tell me whether that is coming forward to the point where, when it is combined with what is proposed in the original Question, we shall be able to stop the Soviet fishing fleet from " hoovering " dry the Channel breeding grounds?


Yes, my Lords. That kind of adjustment between us and France, and indeed other countries, is in the process of being resolved. It will take a little time, but that, too, is in hand. Apart from France there are other third countries, such as Norway and the countries of Northern Europe, including the Low Countries, with whom we shall need to settle bilaterally certain aspects of the matter. We also need to have early effective talks and decisions on the Common Fisheries Policy. I rather think that the question of median lines comes within that policy, and I will look into that aspect.


My Lords, could the noble Lord help us on one further point. When the noble Lord said that the application of the Exclusive Economic Zone to our other economic interests in the areas in question would have to be discussed in clue course with our partners in the EEC, did he mean that the median line between our share of the offshore and the Faroes will be discussed after agreement has been reached with our Common Market partners on the EEZ generally ?


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for putting his question in that way. These matters are still pari passu. The difference arises in the urgency with which we approach certain aspects of the ingredients, if I may so put it, of the Exclusive Economic Zone. Clearly, a fairly early decision on fisheries, in concert with our partners in the Community, is urgent. In the meantime, questions which the noble Lord, Lord Clifford of Chudleigh, and others have raised about other aspects of the Exclusive Economic Zone are being studied and the necessary preparation made, but without perhaps the same chronological urgency as applies to our fishing industry.

There is a second point upon which I am glad of the opportunity to make an observation. The noble Earl is quite right to refer to offshore disputes—I would call them needs for adjustment—relating, for instance, to potential oil resources. On that point, upon which the noble Earl is both knowledgeable and very interested, I can assure him that the procedures for arbitration have been agreed between this country and France and that they are proceeding with exemplary international rectitude.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that in putting the Question I had in mind the other very important British interests as well as the fishing industry, but that I agree with him that the fishing industry is the most urgent problem? Also, will the noble Lord inform his noble friend Lord Paget of Northampton that the matters which he has raised are to be the subject of a debate next week on an Unstarred Question?


My Lords, in the meantime, will the noble Lord bear in mind that if it may take a long time to obtain international agreement and to prepare our own sovereign laws on this matter, it may also take many years to rebuild and increase our naval and fishery protection vessels and our maritime air force which will be essential if we are to protect and police the areas which become our responsibility?


My Lords, I agree entirely with what the noble Lord has just said.