Oral Answers to Questions — Law of the Sea (Geneva Conference)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 23rd April 1958.

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Photo of Mr Patrick Wall Mr Patrick Wall , Haltemprice 12:00 am, 23rd April 1958

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs why the British delegation at the Conference on the Sea at Geneva has put forward a proposal for a six-mile territorial limit for fisheries.

Photo of Mr Arthur Henderson Mr Arthur Henderson , Rowley Regis and Tipton

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether he will make a statement on the British proposal that the territorial water limit should be extended from three to six miles.

Photo of Mr William Ormsby-Gore Mr William Ormsby-Gore , Oswestry

As the House will be aware, the Geneva Conference is deeply divided on the subject of territorial limits. It became clear at the Conference that there was no prospect whatever of the adoption of a three-mile limit. The purpose of the United Kingdom proposal of six miles was to secure a solution avoiding the serious damage to United Kingdom interests which would result from the widespread adoption of a twelve-mile limit.

Photo of Mr Patrick Wall Mr Patrick Wall , Haltemprice

While thanking my right hon. Friend for that reply, may I ask him if he can assure the House that the Government will now do all they can to press the American proposal which allows our trawlers to fish in historic areas, as they have done for years past, and to oppose the Canadian proposal which is a twelve-mile limit in which no one is allowed to fish?

Photo of Mr William Ormsby-Gore Mr William Ormsby-Gore , Oswestry

That is the position. Our delegate at Geneva is supporting the American compromise proposal.

Photo of Mr Arthur Henderson Mr Arthur Henderson , Rowley Regis and Tipton

May we have an assurance that Her Majesty's Government will not agree to any unilateral variation by another Government of their present territorial water limits especially when there are established rights, such as fishing rights?

Photo of Mr William Ormsby-Gore Mr William Ormsby-Gore , Oswestry

That is certainly the case. I should like to point out to the House that the fact that we have put forward a compromise, or that we support a compromise, does not mean at the end of the day, if that compromise is not adopted, that we cannot return to insisting on a three-mile limit.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Younger Mr Kenneth Younger , Grimsby

When this Conference comes to a conclusion, will the Government pay particular attention to the need for informing all sections of the industry and the public here about precisely what the position is? The Minister will be aware that there is very deep feeling on this matter, particularly in the fishing ports, and many sections of the industry might well feel like taking action on their own, which may or may not be wise. They require sound information.

Photo of Mr William Ormsby-Gore Mr William Ormsby-Gore , Oswestry

I will certainly bear that in mind.

Photo of Mr Edward Evans Mr Edward Evans , Lowestoft

Is the Minister aware that there is a feeling in the industry and in other quarters that the Government have been a little hasty in proposing this six-mile limit before exhausting all possibilities of retaining the status quo?

Photo of Mr William Ormsby-Gore Mr William Ormsby-Gore , Oswestry

I think that would be a very inaccurate interpretation of events. We really stuck to the three-mile limit as long as we possibly could, and it was only when it was perfectly clear that we could not get sufficient support for that arrangement that we tried for a compromise.

Photo of Mr Joseph Reeves Mr Joseph Reeves , Greenwich

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (1) how much territory he estimates Britain will acquire under the sea, if the articles on the Continental Shelf, proposed by the United Nations International Law Commission for the present Conference on the Law of the Sea at Geneva are adopted;

(2) in view of the British amendment to the articles on the Continental Shelf, prepared by the International Law Commission at the Geneva Conference on the Law of the Sea, what plans have been prepared for proclaiming the relevant areas of the Continental Shelf to be Crown Lands; and what proposals have been studied for their exploitation.

Photo of Sir Isaac Pitman Sir Isaac Pitman , Bath

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to what extent it is his intention to claim exclusive use of the Continental Shelf in the North Sea and English Channel as proposed in Article 68 of the International Law Commission Report at the Geneva Conference, and to lease the oil-drilling rights in such greatly increased British submarine territory; and whether he is satisfied that this does not conflict with the freedom of the seas to shipping in those waters above the Continental Shelf.

Photo of Mr John Tilney Mr John Tilney , Liverpool Wavertree

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs what estimate he has made of the area of seabed over which Great Britain will acquire exclusive rights under the articles dealing with the Continental Shelf at the Geneva Conference on the Law of the Sea; and what authority will be responsible for its development, under the plans which have been drawn up.

Photo of Mr William Ormsby-Gore Mr William Ormsby-Gore , Oswestry

The embodiment of the Geneva Articles in an International Convention would not lead to the acquisition of territory under the sea by the United Kingdom or any other State. The sovereign rights of the coastal State over the Continental Shelf will be limited to those required for the purpose of exploring and exploiting the natural resources of the Shelf. There would be no necessity to "claim" exclusive rights; the rights would be recognised in the Convention.

The rights may be exercised on the Shelf to a depth of 200 metres, or beyond that depth to where the depth of the waters immediately above the Shelf admits of exploitation. The extent is thus not definite. Further, the sharing of the Shelf with neighbouring states would have to be settled by agreement. It is therefore not possible to say over what area of the seabed the United Kingdom would be able to exercise rights.

The draft Articles specifically provide that the rights in the Continental Shelf do not affect the legal status of the waters immediately above the Shelf as high seas. In addition., the exercise of the rights must not result in any unjustifiable interference with navigation, fishing or the conservation of the living resources of the sea.

I understand that, with the possible exception of the Channel Tunnel, the development of the Continental Shelf of the United Kingdom is not a burning question, and so far as I am aware no plans have yet been made to deal with it.

Photo of Sir Isaac Pitman Sir Isaac Pitman , Bath

I should like to ask the Minister of State about this because there are not only our claims but those of France in the English Channel. I understand that a document, No. 21, has been agreed, as to the surroundings of one mile distance from any such drilling operation. It is perfectly clear that the English Channel could and might be completely blocked to shipping by reason of the exploitation of the Continental Shelf in this way. Is not it much better that the Continental Shelf should be free to shipping rather than be exploited in this way?

Photo of Mr William Ormsby-Gore Mr William Ormsby-Gore , Oswestry

I think it will be free to shipping. My hon. Friend has another Question on the Paper on this point, and I think it will be easier to deal with the matter when we reach that Question.

Photo of Mr Henry Usborne Mr Henry Usborne , Birmingham, Yardley

In view of the great difficulty of getting agreement on this problem, would the right hon. Gentleman consider approaching it from the other end; that is to say, seeing if it is possible to get agreement on the ownership of the high seas outside the territorial limits? Obviously, the United Nations ought to own it and licence it out to the nations. Once that were known, it would be very much easier then to get agreement on the limits of national territorial waters. Has the right hon. Gentleman ever considered approaching it from the opposite side?

Photo of Mr William Ormsby-Gore Mr William Ormsby-Gore , Oswestry

We may consider that, but the Conference has been sitting for some time, and I think that on this aspect of the problem there is a possibility of agreement between the countries.

Photo of Mr John Tilney Mr John Tilney , Liverpool Wavertree

Will my right hon. Friend consider, too, the claims of the Colonial Commonwealth in this matter and their continental shelves?

Photo of Mr Edward Evans Mr Edward Evans , Lowestoft

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether he is aware of the growing anxiety of the British fishing industry on the proposals, now before the International Conference on the Law of the Sea now meeting at Geneva, to extend the limits of territorial waters beyond the present boundaries, with the result that British vessels would be debarred from fishing in these waters, and that these proposals, if carried into effect, would have adverse effects upon the trawling industry, especially in northern waters; and if he will instruct the British representatives at the Conference to oppose strongly any extension of the present limits.

Photo of Mr William Ormsby-Gore Mr William Ormsby-Gore , Oswestry

Yes, Sir. I should have thought that the speeches of my right hon. and learned Friend in Geneva would have made it abundantly clear that Her Majesty's Government share the industry's concern, and with this in mind they have been trying to promote a generally acceptable solution at the Conference.

Photo of Mr Edward Evans Mr Edward Evans , Lowestoft

Can the right hon. Gentleman give some indication of the effect of the extension of these fishing limits upon the tonnage and earning capacity of the fishing fleets? Was that taken into consideration when we made the concession?

Photo of Mr William Ormsby-Gore Mr William Ormsby-Gore , Oswestry

That was taken into consideration. I understand that the damage that might be done by the extension of territorial fishing waters to six miles would be nothing like as severe as the damage which would be done if they were extended to twelve miles, which is the danger.

Photo of Sir Isaac Pitman Sir Isaac Pitman , Bath

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to what extent, at the Geneva Conference on the Law of the Sea, the Anglo-Dutch amendment to the proposed articles on the Continental Shelf whereby states shall have the right to tunnel in the seabed, implies the construction of artificial islands from which those tunnels may be entered in extraterritorial waters.

Photo of Mr William Ormsby-Gore Mr William Ormsby-Gore , Oswestry

The amendment referred to by my hon. Friend was intended to refer to tunnelling under the sea from terra firma, and does not imply the construction of artificial islands.

Photo of Sir Isaac Pitman Sir Isaac Pitman , Bath

In this whole question of the seabed and Continental Shelf, has consideration been given to getting the United Nations, or some other non-national body, to control these areas? Is not it deplorable that there should be an expansion of nationalism into areas in which nationalism has never been recognised? Is not that the fundamental problem?

Photo of Mr William Ormsby-Gore Mr William Ormsby-Gore , Oswestry

No. In the question my hon. Friend has raised, it is a matter of tunnelling, for instance in the search for coal under the sea. It was thought unreasonable that one should have to stop tunnelling for coal under the sea because one had reached the territorial limits of the sea. It is that with which this amendment is dealing.

Photo of Sir David Price Sir David Price , Eastleigh

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs which States have notified him that they have already made claims to the Continental Shelf; and how many of them have notified him that they have started to exploit their claims.

Photo of Mr William Ormsby-Gore Mr William Ormsby-Gore , Oswestry

Other States are under no obligation to notify Her Majesty's Government of their claims, and a list of notifications would have no special significance. However, according to the Conference Secretariat at Geneva, twenty-four States have claimed rights in the Continental Shelf. Among them is the United Kingdom, in respect of a number of territories for the international relations of which Her Majesty's Government are responsible. I do not know how many States have begun to exploit their Continental Shelf.

Photo of Mr John Tilney Mr John Tilney , Liverpool Wavertree

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs which nation has the right to exploit the Dogger Bank under the proposals at present being discussed at the Geneva Conference on the Law of the Sea.

Photo of Mr William Ormsby-Gore Mr William Ormsby-Gore , Oswestry

If my hon. Friend is thinking of the fish which inhabit the waters over the Dogger Bank, these waters are part of the high seas, in which the nationals of all States have the right to fish. If my hon. Friend is referring to the Continental Shelf, the Dogger Bank is part of the Continental Shelf of Western Europe. If the States of Western Europe become parties to an international Convention incorporating the Geneva draft Articles, then one or more of them will be entitled to exploit the seabed of the Dogger Bank. Which States would be entitled to do so might have to be the subject of international agreement. In the absence of agreement and unless another boundary line is justified by special circumstances, the boundary will he the median line between the States concerned.

Photo of Mr John Tilney Mr John Tilney , Liverpool Wavertree

When my right hon. Friend comes to discuss the Continental Shelf in relation to the Dogger Bank, will he make certain that, in the event of an attempt being made to extract oil from under the Dogger Bank, there is no danger of pollution of the water, to the detriment of our already harassed fishing industry.

Photo of Mr William Ormsby-Gore Mr William Ormsby-Gore , Oswestry

That seems a very far cry. I have no knowledge of any idea about trying to exploit oil under the Dogger Bank.