HC Deb 05 December 1957 vol 579 cc607-11
51. Mr. A. Henderson

asked the Prime Minister whether, in view of the danger of radioactive fall-out from crashed aircraft carrying hydrogen bombs, he will take steps to ensure that bombers of the Royal Air Force and the United States Air Force engaged in training flights, as distinct from operational flights in times of emergency, in the United Kingdom do not carry nuclear bombs.

53. Mr. Frank Allaun

asked the Prime Minister what is his estimate of the risk of escape of dangerous radioactive material, without nuclear explosion, in the event of fire following the crashing of an aircraft carrying a nuclear bomb.

The Prime Minister

I explained on Tuesday that there is no danger of the hydrogen bomb exploding in the event of a crash of the aeroplane. In the event of a crash there would be a danger, but of a very limited kind. The risks are certainly not sufficient to justify any action which would seriously reduce the state of readiness of bomber aircraft.

It is on taking off and landing that aircraft accidents most commonly occur. All the special safety precautions which have been devised are available on the spot at these times. A crash elsewhere than at the base is a possible but an improbable contingency.

Mr. Henderson

May I ask the Prime Minister, first, whether his attention has been drawn to a report in the Daily Telegraph recently to the effect that, in addition to the danger from oxidisation, there is a serious danger from alpha-rays, and, secondly, whether it is not a fact that, apart from special exercises, most bombers when taking off do not have their bomb racks loaded with nuclear bombs? Would he not seek to allay public anxiety by confirming that statement?

The Prime Minister

With regard to the first part of the supplementary question, the technical information which I gave is the best that I have been able to obtain, and I sincerely believe that the degree of danger is very limited indeed. I should like to thank the right hon. Gentleman, who has great experience of these matters, for the second part of his supplementary question. It is not to be supposed that all the time there are bombers loaded with nuclear bombs, whether of our own Air Force or of the American Air Force, flying over these islands. These are occasional training flights and patrol flights, and by far the greater part of them are probably taken out to sea.

Mr. Allaun

Can the right hon. Gentleman explain in this connection his very curious statement that special tankers are available to refuel a hydrogen bomber in the air so that it can return to America if unable to land in Britain? Why should it be unable to land in Britain?

The Prime Minister

If the hon. Gentleman had come to this House by any normal method of approach, I think that he could have found the answer to that.

52. Mr. Grimond

asked the Prime Minister to what extent the agreement that nuclear weapons should not be used by United States aeroplanes based on this country without prior consent by Her Majesty's Government applies also to such weapons carried by aeroplanes on patrol over this country or over near-shore waters but not based on this country.

The Prime Minister

The understanding reached by Mr. Attlee and confirmed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) refers to bases in this country and aeroplanes stationed upon them. United States aeroplanes based on other bases do not normally fly over Britain or British territorial waters.

Mr. Grimond

Does this not lead to the rather odd situation in which, apparently, who takes the decision about dropping the bomb depends on which aerodrome the plane has come from? I appreciate that it is difficult to deal with this in question and answer for security reasons and so forth, but has the Prime Minister considered what was said yesterday about the possibility of producing a White Paper to clear up this anomaly? Otherwise, this is extremely disturbing.

The Prime Minister

I do not know why it should be more disturbing. The fact that they are based in this country gives us a say which we should not have in the case of machines based in any country under their own control. I will go further and say that the principle that underlay this agreement of close co-operation, not only of Britain and the United States but of all the allies in the N.A.T.O. countries, makes it clear that some decision of this kind would not be taken rashly or foolishly or except upon general consultation with those concerned. I will look again at the possibility of trying to draw up perhaps a more full account. I have tried to give as full an account as I can in reply to Questions and supplementary questions, and I will see whether now, or perhaps more usefully after the N.A.T.O. meeting, a complete picture can be given.

55. Mr. Swingler

asked the Prime Minister if he will give an assurance that Her Majesty's Government will not consent to the use of thermo-nuclear weapons by British aircraft or aircraft based on British soil without the prior approval of Parliament.

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. I would refer the hon. Gentleman to the replies which I gave on Tuesday.

Mr. Swingler

Cannot the right hon. Gentleman reconsider this? I am asking the Prime Minister what power, if any, is left to Parliament to exercise control over events or control over the armed forces in this field. Should it not be for Parliament to discuss and decide whether, for example, a plane on patrol should carry thermo-nuclear weapons, and is it not a matter for Parliament to decide the conditions under which catastrophic consequences may take place from a decision over which we have no influence?

The Prime Minister

That is not the question on the Order Paper. I think that we must try to look at this in the balanced way. If the deterrent is to fulfil its purpose, it is to prevent the horrors of war coming; it is to deter; but if it is bound up with so many difficult problems before it can ever actually become a deterrent, then it loses that power. We have to try to hold the balance reasonably between too loose a control and too tight a control so that there shall be a deterrent and these terrible things will never happen to the world.

Mr. J. Griffiths

Will the right hon. Gentleman, in conjunction with the Foreign Secretary, give full consideration to the suggestion made yesterday in which the Foreign Secretary promised to consider that we should have very shortly a White Paper or a full statement setting out the agreement and the circumstances in which hydrogen bombs are carried from this country, particularly on patrol flights? Will he give serious consideration to this, which, I think, met with the approval of most hon. Members of this House?

The Prime Minister

I did answer that question at some length in reply to another Question.