HC Deb 19 November 1959 vol 613 cc1473-84

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. E. Wakefield.]

9.55 p.m.

Mr. A. Fenner Brockway (Eton and Slough)

On 10th November, my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Wade) and I put Questions to the Prime Minister about the projected nuclear test by the French Government in the Sahara. The exchange of opinion between Members on both sides, including members of both Front Benches, occupies three columns of the OFFICIAL REPORT for that day. On the following day, and a week later, on 18th November, Questions were put to the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. In view of the interest shown in those exchanges, I make no apology for raising this matter on the Adjournment tonight, particularly as I said at the end of Questions on 10th November that I would seek to do so.

During the exchanges, three distinct issues were raised. The first was the effect of the projected French test on the hopes that tests would be suspended throughout the world. Some of us from the very beginning urged that France should have been drawn into the Geneva talks. She indicated that she proposed to proceed with tests, and it seemed to us desirable, particularly from the point of view of the prestige of France, that from the very beginning she should participate in these discussions; because unless there is agreement with France, there can be no suspension of tests in the world.

On 10th November, General de Gaulle indicated that France would be prepared to accept the decision of the Geneva Conference for the suspension of tests only if Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States of America agreed to the destruction of all their nuclear stocks. It would be most admirable if they would do so, but I am afraid that it is very unlikely that that desirable end will be brought about. It is, therefore, likely, whatever decisions may be reached at Geneva, that France will go on with her tests. If she goes on with her tests, undoubtedly other countries will seek to produce nuclear weapons as well. We are already aware that there are 12 countries which, within a decade, could produce atomic and hydrogen bombs. It is impossible to believe, whatever decisions are reached at Geneva, that the Governments of the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union and the United States of America would suspend their tests if other countries maintain them.

During the exchange of opinion on the three days that Questions were put, it was strongly urged from this side of the House that the Government of the United Kingdom should make representations to France to agree not to proceed with this projected test. We had an acknowledgment from the Government that no pressure had been exerted upon France to that end. All that the Government were prepared to say was that they hoped—and they expressed it in the terms of their resolution at the United Nations—that France would be prepared to accept a decision reached at Geneva.

The second issue involved in the Sahara test concerns the danger to health among the surrounding peoples. Upon that matter, the Prime Minister, in reply to me, said: The Federal Prime Minister, Alhaji Abubakar, and three of his colleagues came to England in September to explain to me Nigerian anxieties about the proposed tests.

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. E. Wakefield.]

Mr. Brockway

I hope that the information I was able to give them, together with what they heard and saw on a visit to Harwell and the arrangements we are making to help monitor radioactivity in Nigeria, will have helped to allay some of these anxieties."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th November, 1959; Vol. 613, c. 201.] Some of their anxieties were allayed by their visit and by their conversations here. Nevertheless, scientists differ about the effects of these tests.

There is some suggestion this week that the test will not be a subterranean test. I should like to hear from the representative of the Government whether he has any information upon that matter. Even if it is a subterranean test, there are scientists who hold that the thin dust of the Sahara sand could well be carried by the prevailing winds to the countries of West Africa. In addition, underground tests in the Sahara may well affect the water which flows below the desert and which reaches the surface sometimes many hundreds of miles away. Therefore, we would be a little uncertain if we accepted the view of some scientists and rejected the view of other scientists on this matter. It would be a courageous scientist who said that there was absolutely no danger in these tests.

The third issue which arises is the attitude of the African peoples and the African Governments. They take the view that they are not responsible for the thrusting upon the world of this instrument of human annihilation. They take the view that they are not responsible for the division of the world into the two great Power blocs which are now arming against each other, including nuclear weapons. They say that, as they have no responsibility for this disastrous development of science in the world, their continent at least should be kept free from the results of this destructive competition. It is a little ironical that Europe, which boasts of its civilisation, should be taking to the African Continent this contribution of nuclear destruction in this day and age.

There is no doubt about the attitude of the African peoples. The nine independent Governments of Africa—all the Governments except the Union of South Africa—have condemned this proposal to have a nuclear test upon African soil. In addition, there has been a conference, which met first at Accra and afterwards at Tunis, representing the major national democratic movements throughout that continent. That conference, representing the peoples' movements in North, Central, West, East and South Africa, unanimously protested against these nuclear tests invading their continent.

A few days ago I was at Accra, in Ghana, where I met two young Englishmen, a young Frenchwoman, a young American, Ghanaians and others who are proposing to go to the Sahara Desert and, by their presence, protest against this bomb. In this country they are isolated people and most of the public would regard them as fanatics. When they reach Africa they are heroes, they are of the people, they are no longer isolated individuals. My experience indicated how strong is the feeling in West Africa.

It is stated that the African Governments belonging to the French community do not accept the view of other African peoples and Governments. The dicision was taken at a conference of the French community at Madagascar. My information from those who were present is that the decision was a very incidental part of the discussions. We have seen, since that decision in Madagascar, how the Mali Federation, one of the most prominent members of the French community, representing the French Sudan as well as Mali itself, has expressed opposition to this nuclear test and how, in all these French communities, the peoples are showing their opposition to the attitude expressed by their leaders on that occasion.

In addition, we have to face the fact that the Arab people in Morocco, Tunis, Libya and Egypt, the Arab peoples of Algeria, so far as they can express themselves, and of the Sahara and the Sudan have all displayed their intense opposition to this proposal that nuclear weapons should be tested upon their land.

My appeal to the House and to the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs is to understand the significance of this issue. In this century the relationship between the peoples of Africa and the peoples of Europe will be one of the decisive issues in whether we pass forward to a co-operative and a harmonious world. It is irony that this country, Europe and France, should have any responsibility today for a contribution to Africa which is not education, which is not civilisation, which is not culture, which is not to develop African lives to higher standards of achievement, but a contribution of death and destruction.

I hope that, as a result of this appeal, the Government will be prepared to exercise all their influence upon the Government of France to withdraw this proposal that this test should be made upon African soil.

10.9 p.m.

Mr. Peter Smithers (Winchester)

The hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway), in his opening remarks, pointed out that there were 12 countries which might be in a position to manufacture nuclear weapons for themselves and, if necessary, to explode them. I think that that is to put an alarmist countenance upon the whole scene. It may be that, theoretically, there are 12 countries which could do just that, but I do not believe for one moment that there are 12 countries which would be willing to devote a vast amount of their resources to that unproductive purpose.

I do not admit that any hon. Member of this House goes beyond me in my desire to see a cessation of tests, to see nuclear disarmament and, indeed, general disarmament. The fact is, however, that we are here dealing with two bodies of opinion which we cannot control, which we can only influence. One of those is African opinion and the other is French opinion.

I cannot believe that speeches such as that made by the hon. Gentleman in this House tonight are of a character likely to encourage the French to accept our point of view. All experience is that in circumstances of this kind attacks on the policy of another State on what it regards as its own internal affairs, however much the affairs may impinge on those of others, have precisely the opposite effect of what the hon. Gentleman would desire. Therefore, I think his speech tonight in that respect is probably damaging to the cause he seeks to support.

As regards African opinion, I was pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman begin his speech by saying that he thought many of the fears of Nigerians in this matter were groundless.

Mr. Brockway

I did not say they were groundless; I said that they had been allayed somewhat, but I went on to say that scientists differ on this matter.

Mr. Smithers

That is precisely the point I was coming to. I also have read the pronouncements of the scientists on the subject, and he would be a rash man, and, I would say, an irresponsible man, who led Nigerians to believe that there was any substantial danger to them from this source. Therefore, I say that in respect of that other body of opinion which we are in a position to influence, the speech of the hon. Gentleman will also have had a damaging rather than a reassuring effect.

I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that these matters are best left to the wisdom and judgment of those who have training in diplomacy, who are much better able to handle these matters by confidential and private discussion, rather than by public debate of this kind, and I must say that I deplore his speech in the House tonight.

10.12 p.m.

Mr. Laurence Pavitt (Willesden, West)

I rise to support my hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway). I am rather disturbed at the comments of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Winchester (Mr. Smithers), because he seems to be complacent about the possibility of other countries following the change that is occurring on France coming into the list of Powers testing nuclear weapons. I am also disturbed that he should think our relationship with France may be disturbed when we express an honest and clear and neutral opinion on something which has such a profound effect upon everybody in this country, in France, and, indeed, throughout the rest of the world.

I have listened with great care to the Minister on the Front Bench opposite answering probing questions on this subject during the last two or three weeks, and I am extremely disturbed that there has not been some initiative from this country to show that we are at least prepared to act as a good neighbour of France on this matter In trying to allay the fear of ordinary people here and throughout the world, one of the main excuses that has been given is the rather old one. In fact, it is nearly as old as the joke in Punch about the curate's egg being good in parts, namely, that the bomb is only a little one, rather like the housemaid's mistake. The constant reiteration that it is quite safe does not relieve the great uncertainty about scientific opinion on these matters throughout the world.

In recent years I have sat on a number of committees concerned with radiation hazards and it has amazed me that after half a century of the use of X-rays we find, in 1959, a fresh body of knowledge coming to light; so much so that fresh methods of using radiation in hospitals and in factories are being put forward.

In today's issue of The Guardian there is a statement about fall-out particles having a new genetic effect upon cells. It seems to me, therefore, that at this time anything which will stop further tests is all to the good. It is a thing to which the Government Front Bench are committed, and it is not being hindered by the constant pressure being put on the Government, particularly by hon. Members on this side of the House.

I am very concerned that the echo of the explosion in the Sahara will be heard in such places as China. China is one of the great emerging countries. She has 600 million people. If she is bombed with an atomic bomb she can afford to lose 500 million people—and she has not yet nearly started industrially. I can assure hon. Members that China has the financial resources to do this and can follow the lead given by European countries.

I appeal for a return to the moral values for which France is famous. She is famous for what she has given to civilisation in things other than power prestige. We would do a great service by asking her that now she has achieved possession of the weapon she should say, "In the name of humanity we will hold back and refuse to exert this power in the hope that we shall help the great Powers who are trying to reach agreement at Geneva on disarmament and ridding the world of these abominable weapons."

10.17 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Robert Allan)

The hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway) spoke with emotion about the feelings of the people of West Africa. I assure him and the House that we have taken the anxieties expressed, particularly by the West African Territories for which we are responsible, very seriously indeed.

When the Nigerian delegation, led by its Prime Minister, came to this country, it met and had discussions with the Secretary of State for the Colonies and our Prime Minister. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was so impressed by the anxiety expressed by the members of the delegation that he arranged for them to have frank and full discussions with Sir William Penney and other leading experts on the question of the fall-out from explosions.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of State said to the United Nations last week: I should like to make it very clear that we in Britain fully recognise the sincerity and corncern of the peoples and Governments in Africa. Ministers, including my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary, and officials have taken steps to ensure that the French were aware of the feelings of the West African Territories for which we are responsible. They were given a full account of the discussions which took place during the visit of the Nigerian Prime Minister here. They were also given the reports of the debates in the Nigerian Parliament on this subject.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned three issues. I think they can be combined under two headings: first, the question of testing atomic weapons at all, and, secondly, the question of testing them in Africa. As my right hon. and learned Friend pointed out in Questions yesterday the Moroccan objection was not to tests but to tests in Africa, and since much of the discussion is based on the Moroccan initiative in the United Nations, it is that aspect of it which I should like to discuss first tonight.

It is very important to remember that the French test is to be of an atomic and not a hydrogen weapon. The hon. Gentleman kept on talking about a nuclear explosion. It is not a thermonuclear explosion at all. Although the hon. Member for Willesden, West (Mr. Pavitt) indicated that the size did not matter, it does matter terribly from the point of view of fall-out. It is quite wrong to think of the possible effects of this test as in any way being related to the thermo-nuclear explosions, or, at any rate, the particular one which took place in the Pacific.

The French delegate to the United Nations has said that the yield of the French test will be less than one-thousandth part of the total yield already produced by the nuclear tests made by other countries. I know that what I am about to say covers old ground, but it is terribly important to remind the House and those who are interested of the different types of radiation to which man is subjected.

The hon. Gentleman said, in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Smithers), that scientists differ. They do to a certain extent, but they do not differ on the figures I am about to give, or at least there is very general agreement. Man is subjected first of all to cosmic rays, which vary with the position the individual is in on this earth. These rays give an annual dose of about 28 units at sea level and rise to 42 units at a height of 5,000 ft. Man is also subjected to radiation from the earth and from his body. This, too, varies greatly—as much as ten times from place to place. Its average intensity—and I am talking in terms of averages so that I cannot be considered extravagant—is about 70 units a year.

Then there is the man-made radiation—X-ray and so on. In the United States, the average dose from this has been estimated to be more than 100 units a year. The dose which I get from the watch which I am now wearing is about one unit per year. Over and above these natural and man-made radiations, there is the additional radiation resulting from nuclear explosions. It has been calculated that those carried out between 1945 and the beginning of 1958 will result in an addition of about two units to the genetically significant dose on the average over thirty years. I repeat these figures: 100 units from natural radiation; anything up to 100 units from man-made radiation; plus two units from nuclear tests.

Against this total the French test is likely to add one two-thousandth part of one unit to the general level of radiation. This, I am told, is about the same as the increase in cosmic radiation to which the hon. Gentleman himself would be subjected were he to move one step up and be on the bench behind him. On the same lines, I am told that the increase in radiation resulting from all the tests up to the beginning of 1958 is not more than the hon. Gentleman would get by leaving Slough and spending six days in a granite district. I think that Slough is probably limestone or clay; granite has that very much greater radiation.

I give the House this rather graphic comparison, not with any intention of treating this matter with levity, but to seek to put it in a different perspective. It cannot be reasonably maintained that this test will create a general health hazard.

Mr. Brockway

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that it is not only a matter of the danger to health. The opposition of the African people is to the fact that this test should be imposed upon their continent. That is the basis of their objections.

Mr. Allan

It may be, but it was not the basis of the Moroccan resolution in the United Nations from which all this discussion has stemmed, because the Moroccan delegate himself said at the United Nations that he objected not to tests but to tests in Africa.

I must admit that I have dealt only with the general health aspect, but for the African Territories the local effect is of prime importance. The main thing here is the remoteness of the French test site. It is more than 900 miles from the nearest dependent British territory. As M. Jules Moch pointed out, within 120 kilometres of the Russian and American test areas there are towns like Rabtsovsk and Las Vegas, with populations of 100,000. At a comparable distance from the French site, there is only one small oasis. Within 1,000 kilometres of the American and Russian sites, there are populations of 10 million in such centres as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Tomsk and Stalinsk. Within the radius of the French site, there is only one centre of population, and that has 19,000 inhabitants.

Moreover, at the proposed site the prevalent winds throughout the year, except for a short period in summer, blow eastward over a region virtually uninhabited for hundreds of miles. It has been calculated that even if the wind were blowing towards Nigeria, and I have said that it will not be, the maximum additional dose of radioactivity that an individual would receive in the year after the explosion would be two units. As I have said, a wrist watch gives one unit.

It was these facts and figures about the nature and the site of the proposed French test which, coupled with our own experience in these matters, enabled my right hon. Friend to make his statement in New York about the infinitesimal risk to health which the French test would involve. I have gone into this at some length, because it is of great importance that these facts and figures are given as much publicity as possible. They should go far to reassure those living in North and West Africa.

I want briefly to turn to the other main question mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. The other day, in New York, my right hon. Friend outlined the efforts which we have made to secure a satisfactory agreement at Geneva for the ending of nuclear tests, under international control. He stressed the importance which we attach to that agreement, not only for itself, but even more as the first step down the road towards real disarmament under effective control. He reiterated our hope—and we still believe that it is the right policy—that when such an agreement is reached other countries, including France, will accede to it.

That is why the resolution which we and the Italians tabled in the Political Committee not only requested France to take full account of the debate but expressed the hope that the French Government would associate themselves with the arrangement which might be worked out at Geneva. That is why our resolution is not only realistic but, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary pointed out yesterday, constructive as well.

I do not want to deny the sincerity or minimise the strength of the feelings which the proposed French test has aroused in certain parts of Africa. But what I most earnestly want to do is to dispel false fears and allay needless anxieties. If what I have said will help to achieve that, then this Adjournment debate, although perhaps not as satisfactory as the hon. Member would have had it, will at least have been worth while.

The Question having been proposed at Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.