HC Deb 17 December 1973 vol 866 cc1016-28

6.28 p.m.

Mr. Brynmor John (Pontypridd)

I beg to move, in page 3, line 12, at beginning insert: '(1) This Act shall bind the Crown'. I shall at the outset briefly review the progress of the Bill and its terminology. To obtain any international treaty at all is a difficult problem, and in terms of chemical warfare and biological warfare the two matters have to be separated. It was thought at the earlier period when this matter came up for consideration—and this view has not been weakened by the Minister's letter written to me on 13th December—that the reason biological weapon procedures were able to be progressed related to the difficulty of delivery. But any international treaty is met with some degree of suspicion because in international affairs there is a generalised climate of suspicion.

Both in the treaty to which the United Kingdom assented and in this Bill there is a great vagueness, which is the price of any agreement that is difficult to enforce and which contains shadowy lines. By Article IV of the treaty the signatory States undertook to enact, according to their own constitutional processes, a treaty to give efficacy to these provisions within the territory of the State concerned.

During the debate that led to the treaty certain assurances were given on behalf of the British Government, and those assurances were repeated in Committee. The United Kingdom gave a solemn undertaking that we had never produced or possessed biological weapons and that we would never do so, but when we are enacting legislation in this House, we must look at the matter in terms of what people outside the House will think when they examine our domestic legislation.

We understand that many Governments will have a vested interest in trying to suggest that the provisions of legislation are not being properly enacted or observed by the United Kingdom. It suits the convenience of many countries to pay lip service to disarmament but to take measures that effectively bar steps to disarmament. We see from the Bill that it bans any person from developing, producing, stockpiling, acquiring, or retaining biological weapons, but that it does not bind the Crown. This was made clear by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department in an answer in Committee. He said: The Bill does not bind the Crown specifically, but the hon. Member will recall the undertaking on Second Reading that there is no intention of contravening the Bill in any way in any Government establishment."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee E, 11th December 1973, c. 34.] If that is the case, there is no reason why the binding of the Crown should be left out of the Bill.

6.30 p.m.

If it is really the Government's intention under no circumstances to produce or to stockpile these weapons, it is easy for them to include a provision in the Bill saying, as we say in our amendment, that this Act shall bind the Crown. Although we have speculated about the private development of such weapons, the letter which I received this morning from the Minister makes it clear that the main producer of these weapons is the Crown—any Government. Therefore, to exclude the Crown from the list of bodies bound by this Act is fatally to weaken it. It will indicate to the person looking from outside that Britain is prepared to pay pious lip-service to the idea of international disarmament but that in the one crucial area where the Government could declare firmly their intentions by saying, "We, as a Government, will not do this", they stop short and say, "We must not bind the Crown. We shall give an undertaking, but we shall not bind ourselves by legislation."

That is not good enough. It is not good enough to reassure other nations at a time when we hope to progress to chemical warfare disarmament. It will not reassure those of our countrymen who are concerned about the Government's involvement in the manufacture of these agents of destruction and disease. It will not reassure the person in another country who is looking for a half-excuse for failing to abide by the treaty himself. Therefore, I believe that the non-inclusion of the Crown as being bound by the treaty will make a great difference unless the Government accept the amendment.

The second reason that I adduce in support of the amendment is that I am not sure whether the Government have carried out the terms of Article IV of the convention in the way in which they have drafted the Bill. I quote from Article IV because it is important. It says: Each State Party to this Convention shall, in accordance with its constitutional processes"— that is, this Bill— take any necessary measures to prohibit and prevent the development … of (biological) agents, toxins … within the territory of such State, under its jurisdiction or under its control anywhere. Mention is made time and time again in the convention of "the State". If the State—in this case the British Government—is to say in its own constitutional processes that it will ban the production, and so on, of these weapons by private citizens but will not bind itself, as a State, to give up their production, development and stockpiling, I beg leave to doubt whether the Government are carrying out the terms of the convention. If they are doing so according to the letter of the convention, they are certainly not doing so in accordance with its spirit.

The Government can transform the doubt that we have and the attitude which others are likely to take of the Government's adherence to the treaty through this Bill by adopting the amendment. I hope that the Minister will consider it sympathetically.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Lane)

I have considered this matter carefully and sympathetically since it was raised in Standing Committee last week and especially since the Opposition tabled this amendment.

I hope that the Opposition will accept that the Government are as concerned as they are that our acceptance of the convention and its implications leading up to this Bill is watertight in the sense that we intend fully to honour all our undertakings as a Government in subscribing to the convention.

I believe that the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) exaggerated the doubts and suspicions which might arise elsewhere when he said that if these words were not written into the Bill it would fatally weaken the credibility of this country in this context and that some people might allege that the British Government were merely paying lip-service to it. However, I see the spirit in which the hon. Gentleman moved the amendment. I must advise the House against accepting it, but I hope that I can reassure the Opposition and any others in this House or outside who may have doubts.

On behalf of this country we as a Government have already undertaken in Article I of the convention never in any circumstances to develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire or retain these various agents or toxins, first, and the various weapons, equipment, or means of delivery, second. That is written as plainly as it could be in Article I, and that is the convention to which we have subscribed as a Government on behalf of this country.

The undertaking is clear from the convention, and it is not necessary to write it in further in the Bill. But there is a further and second disadvantage. It is that the Bill basically is creating a new criminal offence of developing, stockpiling, and so on, these various weapons. I ask the House to consider, if the criminal offence is also theoretically to be committed by a Government, what will be the penalty for a Government trying to enforce the law against themselves. Apart from the reason that the words are unnecessary because of our adherence to the convention, if we accepted them we should land ourselves in a complete nonsense for the reasons that I have just given.

I said on Second Reading, and I repeat today, that we shall make sure that no Government establishment involved in this work infringes the Bill in any way. Again as I said on Second Reading, the Government do not produce or stockpile biological or toxic weapons and have no intention of doing so. In other words, nothing that is going on or that may go on in the future at Porton in any way constitutes, or will constitute, a breach of the convention.

As the hon. Member for Pontypool reminded us, in Article IV we were obliged to carry out our obligations under the convention through our constitutional processes; that is, to take any necessary measures to prohibit and prevent the development, production, stockpiling, acquisition or retention of the agents, toxins, weapons, equipment and means of delivery specified in Article I …". In our view, it is not necessary nor is it in accordance with our normal constitutional processes to bind the Crown in this instance.

There is the further point which was raised when the hon. Member for Pontypridd mentioned the problem at the end of the Committee stage, and it relates to Crown liability and civil law. Since the enactment of Section 2 of the Crown Proceedings Act 1947 the Crown is no longer exempt from liability for civil wrongs, and this liability is determined by the general rules of the law of tort. Nothing in the Bill makes the Crown any less liable for damages which might be caused by activities in a Government establishment. I hope that that further assurance will set at rest any doubts on that aspect of the Crown's involvement.

In view of that explanation and my repeated undertakings and assurances, I hope that the House will agree not to press the amendment. We believe that not only is it unnecessary but possibly it would cause confusion.

Mr. John

Generally I must confess that I am not convinced by the Minister's explanation. We regard the Bill as a step forward. The point which I have tried to make is that it is not as great a step forward as it might have been, because of the Government's reluctance to bind the Crown. The Minister does not deny that it is possible to bind the Crown and that to do so would be efficacious, subject to the amendment of the penalty clauses.

Although the Government are not bound, Service men are under certain penalties in the Army Act and in the Navy Discipline Act. Clause 5 makes it clear that a Service man might well be punished for what his Government can legitimately order him to do. That seems fundamental and complete nonsense. The Minister is right to say that an assurance is given. He has given an assurance in terms as clear as he is able to use. Although he gave an undertaking about weapons, he has not given an undertaking regarding the research which is necessary to continue to produce biological agents and the weapons which transmit such agents. They can be conventional weapons. There is no need with present technology to have to develop special weapons for the transmission of biological agents in so far as they can be reliably transmitted.

I regret that there is not more commitment by Britain to the treaty. However, in view of what the Minister has said and because I recognise that the Bill represents a step forward, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

6.42 p.m.

Mr. E. S. Bishop (Newark)

The Opposition welcome the Bill. We have done our best in Committee and at other stages to assist the Government to produce a Bill which we think will be less vague and at the same time consistent with the convention which the Government seek to ratify. It must be appreciated that the Bill is a step on the road to disarmament, and that a milestone came from the Geneva Protocol of 1925. Now, nearly 50 years later, we have progressed towards this measure. We welcome it, but we feel that the Bill is rather vague.

The Opposition moved various amendments in Committee and we were promised replies. Due to the business of the House being changed today, we may now hope for some replies on Third Reading. I recognise that the Minister has sent the promised letters. However, we have not yet had time to study them. It would be helpful if he could clarify the position by putting his replies on the record.

This is an important Bill. It seeks to ratify the convention, which seeks to prohibit the production, stockpiling, acquisition and retention of weapons which are detailed in the measure. The value of the measure enacted by the Powers and signatories to the convention—and I understand that there were 110—is that each should have confidence that the measures which it has agreed and the steps being taken by each Power give an international assurance that biological weapons have been banned and their manufacture and use prohibited.

The impression given by the Bill is one of vagueness. It appears to be a statement of intent. However, let me emphasise that we welcome a statement of intent, such as it is. As my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) said, the Bill is drawn up in rather vague terms. We have sought to strengthen it by amendments wherever possible.

There is confusion about the terms relating to biological agents. We are told that they mean microbial or other biological agents, or toxins That is rather vague. We hoped that the Minister would accept a restriction. That would be in line with the World Health Organisation's report on biological and chemical weapons, published in 1969. That theme was taken up by several hon. Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Pontypridd and West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell). The Opposition feel that there are some dangers in the vagueness with which the definition is couched.

There is the problem of quantities and specifications which are to be included. Bacteriological substances, the genetic code and the problems of the pharmaceutical industry must also be considered. We feel that there is need for clarification. I recognise that the Minister said in Committee that he felt a little uneasy about that matter. He said: If, through any blinding flash of light, we can see a better form of words that would be more satisfactory and widely understood, we could consider putting it in at a later stage."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee E, 11th December 1973, c.7.] It seems that there has not been any blinding flash of light. In fact, there has been little light outside to illuminate our views or the Minister's possible help. We should welcome the Minister's telling us whether he has again considered the matter. Further, it would be helpful if he were to suggest any ways in which our fears may be overcome.

Some hon. Members have been concerned about single- and dual-purpose materials. The House and the country are entitled to further clarification. We are not concerned only with stopping the wrong use of biological weapons, namely, weapons which in that context would be designed for hostile purposes; we are anxious to protect those who are concerned in research and development and those who wish to continue to produce substances that are necessary for peaceful civilian purposes. Without a more specific definition a danger is posed. it may be easier to define the single-purpose substances which are for hostile or peaceful uses. There is doubt about dual-purpose materials such as tear gas, phosgene, and a wide range of bacteriological substances and chemicals. We want to prohibit one and not the other. We want to prohibit production for hostile purposes. We do not wish not to restrict or hinder production for peaceful purposes.

The question arises, who is to judge what is right and what is wrong? It was suggested that the Minister might bring in the impartial and expert resources of the Scientific Research Council. The Minister did not agree. He felt that other research councils may be appropriate for the occasion. Many hon. Members feel that there is a need for an impartial and expert advisory body outside the Government. That is important not only to Britain but to other signatories to the convention. There is no point in being party to a convention or treaty if it is not possible to be satisfied that the other signatories and others who say that they support the convention or treaty are not equally bound by it. We must have confidence in its purpose and effectiveness.

Parliament has the right to know what is going on. We feel that there should be an annual report to Parliament on the working of the measure and the problems and possibilities that are involved. We should be able to debate the measure fully. It is an important aspect of our defence.

I shall not on this occasion make more than a passing reference to Porton. The fact that it is open to hon. Members to visit the establishment and inquire into what is being done there provides some satisfaction, but that does not go far enough.

On the matter of seeking expert and impartial advice, it is not that we distrust civil servants and those who advise Government Departments; it is merely that there is a need for impartiality. We must be satisfied that the Government are not judge and jury in their own case.

Reference is made to the possibility of taking action against any who offend against the code laid down in the Bill. We are told that it will be for the courts to decide whether an offence has been committed. That is all very well, but if Parliament does not know what the measure means one wonders how the courts will be able to decide what Parliament had in mind and whether anyone has offended against the measure.

In the letter which the Minister has kindly sent to us since the completion of the Committee stage he has said that if the measure is not clear the situation will be helped by sending out an administrative circular. But we know that circulars and notes of that sort are not part of the measure, and therefore the courts will have to go by what the measure says.

More important than the courts being informed is the need and, indeed, the right of the public and all those involved in research to know at the earliest stage what is right and wrong. Apart from the fact that those who offend against the measure may be punished, as provided for by the Bill, there is the important factor that we want to prevent research and development into and production of certain gases and biological weapons. All those involved in the production of chemicals, drugs, and so on, have a right to know whether they are offending against the measure.

We are also concerned about the absence of any verification procedure. It seems to be left to the various Governments to decide whether people under their control in their own States are, as the convention puts it, keeping within the confines of the convention. We need some assurance that the verification procedures which have been agreed internationally—that is, if they have been agreed—are adequate to ensure that signatories to the treaty are keeping to the internationally agreed code of conduct.

The Bill is a little more forthcoming about the action to be taken when it is alleged that an offence has been committed, but this is rather late in the day, and I believe that the House is entitled to know more about the matters to which I have referred today and to which my hon. Friends referred in Committee.

The Minister claims that the Bill is tied to the convention—and that is so. The hon. Gentleman may claim that it matches the terms of the convention, but in that case the convention is perhaps a little weak in having to satisfy the lowest common denominator of the international points of view that have been put forward.

The Bill is important. Some may say that in the light of the earlier statement today and the previous measure which the House considered, this Bill is of little importance, but in my view it is of supreme importance, because without international assurances and guarantees of enforcement, nationally, the whole of our population can be endangered. We recognise that in these days of guerrilla warfare, terrorism and hijacking, those concerned in those activities do not sign treaties and are not subject to conventions. There are real dangers. Some substances, in the proper hands, can be used for peaceful purposes, but if used by others they can endanger entire populations in ways which I need not detail. The situation has changed radically in the last few years, and we hope that the Minister will be a little more forthcoming than he has been to date.

We should like an assurance that the Government are pressing ahead with other countries to make sure that it is clearly understood that although the Bill is a welcome step on the road towards disarmament there is still a great deal of work to be done. We hope that the Government will take the initiative, with other countries, to ensure that when they ratify the convention they pass their own legislation to follow up their ratification of the treaty. We look to the Government to take the initiative, so that we may move further along the road towards disarmament. In the meantime, we welcome the Bill as a step forward, vague though it may be, and basically a statement of intent though it may be. We hope that it will be an incentive to more international endeavour to secure disarmament.

6.57 p.m.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

Perhaps I may remind the Minister that he owes some of us a letter on a rather complex issue raised in Committee, namely, the manipulation, or potential manipulation of the genetic code, and I hope that he will tell us that he is looking into the matter.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Mr. Bishop) said that this is an important matter, and so it is, but I hope that we shall not bathe in the comfortable assumption that we have done a complete job, because the truth is the opposite of that. This is about a very small and—dare I say it?—easier part of a real problem. I do not think that we as a Parliament are in a position to congratulate ourselves. We can congratulate ourselves and start feeling easier in our minds only when we have done something about the more urgent and relevant problem of chemical warfare.

International progress on that matter has been deplorably slow. Therefore, any congratulations that may be forthcoming from me will have to wait until the Governments of the world have done something about banning chemical warfare, instead of contenting themselves with dealing with the easier half of the problem.

6.58 p.m.

Mr. Lane

My reply to the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) is that the Government are not claiming more than a moderate step forward, and I hope that that is clear to the House.

I thank hon. Members on both sides of the House for making it possible for us to get the Bill through quickly. I am sorry that I have had to advise both the Committee and the House against accepting any of the constructive amendments moved by the Opposition. I know that my replies have not wholly satisfied hon. Gentlemen opposite, but I hope that it will be possible to make equally rapid progress with the Bill in the other place so that we can go ahead and ratify the convention as quickly as possible.

The hon. Member for Newark (Mr. Bishop) raised two main points. I have tried to cover these in my letter to the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) and perhaps I may summarise what I said.

First, there is the argument about definition. We have considered this carefully. We have not had a blinding flash of inspiration, otherwise we should have put down an amendment, but, thinking the matter over and considering the alternatives, we felt that the right course was to stick to the broad definition which was originally written into the Bill and which is still there, but to embody in the administrative circular which we shall issue to the courts, to the police, and so on, when the measure is on the statute book some more explanatory words which will be on the same sort of lines as the possible alternatives which we have considered, as a definition.

It will be something in this form, that "biological agent" means "any microbial or other biological agent which depends for its effect on multiplication and which would cause disease or death in man, animals or plants". Our considered view is to leave the definition broad in the Bill but to give illustrative guidance in the circular which we shall be issuing.

We considered enforcement and verification in Committee. I do not think that either side of the House is urging that there should be a great paraphernalia of new control spreading over the whole pharmaceutical industry. But we believe that there are quite sufficient supervisions, controls and knowledge over this area of production and research to satisfy all legitimate anxieties about it. I mentioned in Committee the Medicines Act 1968, which provides for ample review of all these activities. We do not believe that we could add anything to the Bill in this context which would increase the prospects of detecting breaches under the Bill. When the Bill becomes law, we shall try to make available all the resources, inside and outside the Government, if there is the slightest suspicion of anything unlawful occurring.

The last point raised by the hon. Member for Newark was, as he put it, that the Government should not be judge and jury in the same case and that there should be a greater independent element in this matter. I can only remind him that it is possible, in the progress of the convention, for our work under it to be raised in the House at any time by any hon. Member who wishes to do that. Written into Article XII of the convention is a commitment to review the work of the convention after five years. That gives us a long-stop opportunity of independent review in any case.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for West Lothian has not received the letter which I sent to him last Thursday. Evidently that has gone astray in the post. I tried to deal clearly in that letter with the hon. Gentleman's point about the manipulation of the genetic code. What I said to the hon. Gentleman was, in brief, that we have no alternative here but to go on trying to preserve the distinction between chemical substances and biological agents, but, as the boundaries of scientific knowledge are extended, we shall obviously have to look at this matter again on an international basis. All we can offer at present is the prospect of making progress in similar agreements in relation to chemical substances whose development cannot be justified for peaceful and related purposes. When that progress has been achieved the position of animo-acids will presumably be put beyond all doubt. That is our hopeful forecast of what it may be possible to achieve.

We are seeing this as only a first step. That is what the convention said in its preamble. It is a first possible step towards the achievement of agreement on effective measures for prohibiting the development, and so on, of chemical weapons. Again I confirm that we shall be giving clear advice to the police and to all others who may be concerned about the administration and enforcement of the Bill. It is clear that we cannot get perfection in the Bill. We recognise that it is not a perfect solution, but it is still a very valuable step to take. We shall continue to take initiatives on general disarmament and to make further progress as quickly as possible.

Mr. Dalyell

Is there real activity by the Government on the question of amino-acids at present?

Mr. Lane

I hope that we are being active. As the hon. Gentleman has raised the matter, I shall look further into it. We shall do our best to keep up the momentum on this whole work.

On that basis and in that spirit, I hope that the House will give the Bill a Third Reading.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

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