HC Deb 21 November 1973 vol 864 cc1491-524

10.30 a.m.

Resolved, That if the proceedings on the Biological Weapons Bill are not completed at this day's sitting, the Committee do meet on Wednesday next at half-past ten o'clock.—[Mr. Amery.]

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

On a point of order, Mrs. Jeger. I do not want to start by being curmudgeonly, but I must say that it was unsatisfactory to be given such exceedingly short notice of the sitting of the Committee, for other meetings of some importance are taking place. As we have accepted the position on this occasion, what are the proposals for the Committee stage?

The Chairman

I have every sympathy with the hon. Member, but that is not a point of order.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins (Putney)

Further to that point of order, Mrs. Jeger.

The Chairman

As it was not a point of order, I cannot consider the matter further.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

On an entirely separate point of order. Are we to be given better notice in future in respect of a Second Reading Committee, even if we cannot refer to the Committee stage of the Bill?

The Chairman

I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman's remarks will have been recorded, but I can take no action, for it is not a point of order.

10.31 a.m.

The Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Julian Amery)

I beg to move, That the Chairman do now report to the House that the Committee recommend that the Biological Weapons Bill ought to be read a second time. The Bill is concerned with the Biological Weapons Convention. Britain signed that convention on 10th July last year. We are what is called a depositary Power of the convention. Article 4 of the convention obliges us to take measures to prohibit and prevent persons from engaging in activities forbidden by the convention. There are no such provisions in United Kingdom law at present. There is a gap, and the purpose of the Bill is to fill that gap.

It may help the Committee if I first describe the history of the Biological Weapons Convention. Under the Labour Government and the present Government, Britain has played a large part in the story. In 1968, Britain tabled a working paper at the 18-Nation Disarmament Conference in Geneva. Our paper called for the early conclusion of a new convention to ban biological methods of warfare, that is, germ warfare and related activities.

Our purpose was to separate biological warfare from the intractable problem of chemical weapons with which it had previously been linked. The 1925 Geneva protocol had already referred to biological weapons. It prohibited the use in war of gas and analogous substances and devices. It also banned the use of bacteriological methods of warfare. Our proposal in 1968 was not intended to supersede the Geneva protocol, but to supplement it by prohibiting not just the use, but the production and possession of biological agents for hostile purposes.

Mr. Dalyell

The right hon. Gentleman used the phrase "intractable" in relation to chemical warfare. Was he using it in the sense that the problem of chemical warfare was thought in the past to be intractable, or do the Government think that it is still intractable?

Mr. Amery

Over the years there had been little success in dealing with the problem of chemical warfare. We considered, as did the Labour Government, that by hiving off, if I may use the term, biological warfare from chemical warfare, we might move forward. We succeeded in that. Chemical warfare is another subject and can no doubt be discussed on an appropriate occasion, but the attempt to proceed with disarmament measures of biological and chemical warfare combined had proved to have intractable problems and therefore we hived off biological warfare.

In July 1969, we took a further step. We formally tabled a draft convention for the prohibition of biological methods of warfare. It was later published as a White Paper, Cmnd. 4113. Agreement was subsequently reached in Geneva on the text of a convention to prohibit not only biological agents, as in our draft, but toxins. I am advised that toxins are poisonous substances which in their natural form are produced by biological agents, but are not themselves living organisms and therefore cannot reproduce themselves.

Serious negotiations began in 1971 and resulted in the Convention on Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological and Toxin Weapons and Their Destruction—that is rather a mouthful. The convention is commonly referred to as the Biological Weapons Convention, and perhaps the Committee would be well advised to follow that usage. The Convention was opened for signature in London, Moscow, and Washington on 10th July 1972. There were three depositary Powers—the United States, the Soviet Union and Britain—and all three signed on that day. The convention was presented to Parliament in August 1972—Cmnd. 5053.

Its purpose is to ban the possession in all circumstances of biological and toxin weapons. It is directed primarily towards States, but each State which is a party to the convention is obliged to take measures to prohibit and prevent other persons apart from States from engaging in the activities forbidden by the convention— within the territories of such state, under its jurisdiction or under its control anywhere. At present there are no specific provisions in United Kingdom law to satisfy that obligation and until we have made legal provision, we shall not be in a position to ratify the convention. That is why we are considering the Bill today.

The Government consider that ratification is important because the convention will not come into force until it has been signed by 22 States, including the three depositary Powers—ourselves, the Soviet Union and the United States—and without our ratification the convention cannot therefore enter into force. We hope to ratify simultaneously with the other two depositary Powers. This has been the practice with similar measures in the past.

At present 110 States have signed the convention and 30 have ratified it, so we have more than a quorum of 22. There are only three significant omissions from the list of countries which have signed—China, France and Sweden. France has well-known objections to partial disarmament measures. She has, however, passed domestic legislation on the lines of the convention. Sweden attaches importance to progress on a chemical weapons treaty and without such a treaty she refuses to sign the biological weapons treaty. China insists on nothing less than general and complete disarmament.

The Bill is largely self-explanatory. Clause 1 defines the new offences created. It provides for a maximum sentence of life imprisonment and its wording follows that of the convention.

Clause 2 makes the institution of proceedings subject to the consent of the Attorney-General, but it also enables vital steps to be taken to obtain warrants or arrest suspects as a necessary preliminary to any proceedings. It also removes the offence from the jurisdiction of the county courts in Northern Ireland. Clause 3 deals with offences by officers of bodies corporate.

Clause 4 gives the police powers to search premises and to seize suspect material. This provision is important on practical grounds, for it could be difficult for the police to determine on the spot whether material was likely to be covered by the Bill.

Clause 5 excludes the new offence from the jurisdiction of courts martial and restrict trials to civil courts.

Clause 6 extends the Bill to Northern Ireland and permits its extension by Order in Council to other territories in accordance with Article 4 of the Convention. That article provides that a State shall take measures to fulfil its obligations under the convention within the territories of such state, under its jurisdiction or under its control anywhere. I commend the Bill to the Committee. It is a straightforward and I hope uncontroversial measure designed to permit us to fulfil our obligations under an important arms control measure which is of great interest to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Its provisions are largely matters for the Home Office and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will wind up our discussion and try to deal with those matters—and I am sure that he will do so admirably—falling within the jurisdiction of the Home Office rather than the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

I am sure that I speak for the whole Committee when I say that we are glad to be sitting under your chairmanship, Mrs. Jeger. Having had some experience of Committee procedures during the passage of the Housing Finance Act, I look forward to a somewhat smoother passage for this Bill.

10.42 a.m.

Mr. Brynmor John (Pontypridd)

I can set the Minister's mind at rest in that I am sure that the passage of the Bill will not be a repeat of the passage of the Housing Finance Act.

In the past few months there has been an unhappy reminder of what men can do if they have sufficient animosity and ready supplies of arms available. Therefore, it is pleasing, despite the anxiety of the Middle East conflict and the possibility, which is now becoming more remote, of an escalation there, to deal with a Bill which seeks to deny weapons potentially the most horrifying to be used by one man on another. I give the Bill a sincere welcome. We should not divide the Committee against it, but that is not to say that there will not be matters of detail and principle to raise.

I will not criticise the Bill in principle, for I wholly accept the principle, but only where I think the treaty did not go far enough, or is imprecise. It is pleasing to welcome the Bill, because it was one of a significant number of measures taken on the initiative of the Labour Government, to which the Minister has generously paid tribute.

The Labour Government had a good record—Lord Chalfont in particular—in this matter, whether in the form of the non-proliferation treaty, or a ban on the use of the sea bed. The direct efforts of that Government, which I am happy to say have been fully adopted by the present Government, are at last bearing fruit in the Bill.

The Chairman

I am sorry to interrupt, but I must remind hon. Members that the eavesdropping microphones are very sensitive and that whispers are greatly amplified. That makes it difficult for the HANSARD reporter.

Mr. John

I am obliged for that reminder, Mrs. Jeger, which was no doubt intended for recalcitrant Tory Members, who will have plenty to grumble about.

We are now discussing the enshrinement in our law of a weapons treaty. As tong ago as July 1968, even before the written memorandum was submitted, the British representative at the disarmament conference first put forward the suggestion that there might be a division between chemical and biological warfare in order to get some focus on the latter.

That was followed by a working paper in August 1968 which laid down the guidelines for an approach to this subject. It is worth bearing in mind that the suggested approach did not, at that stage, command universal international acceptance, and it is a great tribute to Her Majesty's Government—of both parties—that they have worn down the opposition and belief that the Geneva Protocol is the last word on the subject.

Welcome though the Bill is, it contains a number of weaknesses, most of which are possibly the result of weaknesses in the original treaty and its drafting, but some of which are inherent in the drafting of the Bill itself. I hope that when the Under-Secretary of State replies to the debate he will deal with them.

The first weakness of the treaty, and therefore of the Bill, is in the definition section. The Minister was good enough to give us a definition of what he meant by a "toxin". All that the definition part of Clause 1 does is to reproduce what is said in the convention itself, without attempting to define further what is meant. It is my belief that that may have the effect of encouraging States either to put a restrictive interpretation upon the meaning of the treaty, or to claim an exception to the ban, unless "biological agent" and "toxin" are more closely defined.

In Committee my hon. Friends and I shall seek to insert a better definition of "biological agent" and "toxin" with the commonly accepted intention of making it clear to the world where Britain stands, what view we take of our obligations, and what view we take of the weapons and agents that are included in the Bill. So far as I can see, there is no inhibition against our doing that. Ratification of the treaty to make clear where we stand and what agents we believe should be within the Bill will be a valuable step forward and a further portent of British sincerity in this matter. The World Health Organisation attempted such a definition of biological agents some time ago.

The second weakness in the Bill is also in the treaty. It is in the wording of Clause 1(1)(a) which merely bans the development, production, stockpiling, acquisition or retention of any biological agent or toxin of a type and in a quantity that has no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes". "Prophylactic" clearly deals with immunisation, and so on, against disease. "Protective" is apparently explained in the convention to mean the development of defensive counter-measures such as masks, clothing, and so on, to counteract any possible biological effects.

One of the great omissions from the Bill, certatinly in the view of most commentators who have submitted written commentories upon the treaty, is research work. The reference to protective or other peaceful purposes", together with the omission of the research prohibtion, means that there will be continued research into biological agents and testing in both the laboratory and in the field, and that will be lawful within the definition of this treaty.

This is, therefore, only a partial success, and it points to the further weakness that one can never be sure where defensive measures stop and offensive uses start. The development of biological agents from the point of view of taking defensive measures against them also has within it the capacity to use those biological agents as offensive weapons should the need arise.

The Minister will no doubt say that the treaty also seeks to ban any weapon or delivery system, but, at any rate according to American scientific articles, it is admitted that the United States has conceded that its delivery systems for biological weapons are no different from delivery systems for more conventional weapons. If, therefore, a State were malign enough, it could seek to evade the issue because of the vagueness of the treaty. The treaty as drafted does not go far enough and is too imprecise, and I think that the Government should try to go further and lay it down that no biological agents or toxins shall be developed which are not strictly necessary for prophylactic and protective purposes.

The third weakness, as I think the Minister will readily concede, is that in the present state of international relations no system of verification of the treaty is laid down. Even before the treaty was announced, the United States had made a unilateral renunciation of biological weapons and had turned Fort Detrick into a cancer research laboratory. Britain announced at that time—I think it was in 1969—that she had no biological weapons, and had no intention of acquiring any.

The trouble in international affairs is that doubt and suspicion have always outweighed—and probably always will—the amount of mutual trust existing between nations. The Minister mentioned France and China as non-ratifiers of the treaty. I accept that France has introduced domestic legislation, but the non-ratification by those two countries is a serious gap, particularly in the case of China. It is a serious gap in the international solidarity on this issue, and as that gap exists doubts must occur all round.

In an article in July 1972 in the United States publication Science, and in a further article in the New Scientist in December 1972, doubts were expressed about whether, for example, the United States had lived up to the bald statement that had been made about the renunciation of biological weapons; because after that announcement it was said the Army Institute of Infectious Diseases had received a 50 per cent. increase in its budget for research, the inference being that potential biological agents were being researched in a country that had apparently unilaterally renounced biological weapons.

May I suggest what the Government should do in this debate to allay fears in this country? There is no doubt that Britain is doing research and has research laboratories which have attracted the attention of hon. Members and others from time to time. I appeal to the Government to be as candid as they can be about the effect of the laboratories in Britain and their proposals for what is to be done with them if the Bill becomes law. If the doubts of a country's elected representatives cannot be resolved internally, then our chances of international agreement are weak.

I have dealt with the weaknesses in the treaty and where, in my opinion, it has led to weaknesses in the Bill. I now turn to the Bill itself. I take issue on one point with the Minister. I yield to no one in my abhorrence of the weapons concerned and my support for the measures being introduced, but my reading of Clause 1(3) is not that there should be a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, but that there shall be a fixed penalty of life imprisonment, which is very different. However horrifying any weapon is, and however heinous the crime of creating it, there must be room in any Act of Parliament for flexibility for recognising degrees of guilt.

Let me give an example. Obedience to orders is no defence to a charge of having committed a crime, but we would fall into a great error if we were to suppose that the corporal or sergeant, or whoever carried out orders, was as culpable as the man who devised the evasion and gave the orders. I believe that we should, as we did in the Genocide Act, provide some flexibility.

The Minister will recall that in the Genocide Act there is a clear division when genocide has caused killing and when the offence might potentially have done so. In the former, a sentence of life imprisonment is reserved. In the latter, the sentence is 14 years' imprisonment.

I appeal to the Government to consider this again to see whether there can be greater flexibility in the punishment of those who, on any view of the matter, are morally less responsible than others for the development of these weapons.

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

I do not like to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but it might help to clarify the debate if I make it clear now that the hon. Gentleman is wrong. This is not a fixed penalty. There is flexibility for a shorter term of imprisonment. There is also flexibility for the imposition of fines in addition to, or instead of, imprisonment under Section 7(3) of the Criminal Law Act 1967. I make that clear now but we can return to it later if necessary.

Mr. John

That is a welcome assurance, and I am glad to hear it. My reading of the clause led me to think that there was no flexibility, and I am happy to obtain the Minister's assurance that we might deal with this a little later.

The next point that I should like to make on the drafting of the Bill relates to the body corporate. In view of what the Minister said, what punishment will be visited on a body corporate for an offence under this provision? One can hardly imagine, for example, ICI being sentenced to life imprisonment. Presumably that would be taken care of under the fines provision, and I hope that the penalty will be sufficiently weighty to deter what are serious offences, and for which a company should bear every responsibility. If it is not, I hope that the Minister will consider increasing the monetary penalties to meet the grave nature of the crime.

That said, I return briefly to the treaty. There are two points in the preamble which I regard as of the utmost importance. The first—and this meets the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Tam Dalyell)—is that the ban on biological warfare is said to be a possible first step towards chemical weapons disarmament. I hope that that will follow and that we can soon expect progress on this vital matter, because there is not the watertight compartment between biological and chemical weapons that may be supposed.

For example, the defoliants used by the United States of America in Vietnam have been suggested as possible agents for the deformation of the foetus in a woman. One therefore gets the overlap between chemical and biological weapons, and I hope that the Government will press with the utmost vigour for chemical weapons disarmament.

The second point made in the preamble is equally important, or perhaps even more so. The treaty is a step towards general and complete disarmament. It has been said by some cynics, and it is right that we should refer to this, that the chief spur to international agreement about the use of biological weapons is the unreliability of the weapons and the instability of delivery systems; the fact that they could as easily affect the countries which deliver them as the countries upon which they are launched. I hope that that cynical view will not prevail, but that will happen only when the peoples of the world see their Governments pressing forward towards general and complete disarmament.

Britain had an honourable record in the last decade in this respect, and I look forward to the Government's assurance that they will press with equal vigour and ingenuity to find ways of breaking the horrifying deadlock in international affairs. We have all lived far too long under the shadow of war and, as we saw from the Middle East crisis, even the most limited war can spill over very easily into the threat of world annihilation. We can rest easy only when we have complete and general disarmament, and I hope that the Government will play their full part in the achievement of that laudable aim.

11.2 a.m.

Mr. David Price (Eastleigh)

As my right hon. Friend rightly observed, the object of the Bill is to enable the United Kingdom to ratify the convention. It is to the convention, more than to the Bill, that we should address our attention on Second Reading. I have a number of minor points which I shall reserve for the Committee stage, and I shall keep my comments now to general points.

The purpose of the convention is a noble one to which I am sure every hon. Member subscribes, and to which I hope everybody in the country subscribes. I am particularly attracted by this sentence in the preamble: Determined, for the sake of all mankind, to exclude completely the possibility of bacteriological (biological) agents and toxins being used as weapons. Will the convention, when ratified by the signatory nations, exclude completely the possibility of bacteriological agents and toxins being used as weapons? I am extremely doubtful that it will. That is not to say that I do not welcome the convention—of course I do—but I see no real security in it against the possible use of these weapons by would-be aggressors.

Let us remember—and this is very important—that one does not need to be a super Power to produce these weapons. These weapons differ fundamentally from nuclear weapons, or even large-scale conventional weapons. I go further—I want to put this very seriously—and say that in my judgment any determined terrorist group which puts its mind to the production of such a weapon could do something very nasty indeed without much difficulty.

For instance, it is generally accepted that any brewery which is accustomed to growing its own yeast has the capability to grow anthrax spores. The Committee will recall that Dr. Robert Koch, who in the last century discovered the life-cycle of the anthrax bacillus, did so with remarkably limited equipment. Let me remind the Committee of how these things can be done on a small scale. Dr. Koch had one microscope, some home-made photographic equipment, some kitchen plates for laboratory dishes, and potato slices as the nutrient surfaces on which to grow his bacteria. Incidentally, anthrax, in its pulmonary variety, is, I am assured, almost invariably fatal.

Let us consider the terrorist who wishes to poison the water supply. This is a classical situation and has been the subject of many thrillers. One remembers the work of G. K. Chesterton. What seemed fictional at the turn of the century is by no means fictional today if one considers the activities of terrorist groups around the world.

I am advised that ½ kg of the appropriate salmonella culture has the same toxicity in the waters of a local reservoir as 10 tons of potassium cyanide. I commend to hon. Members, if they think I am being fictional, a reading of the annexe to the World Health Organisation publication "Health Aspects of Chemical and Biological Weapons" under the heading "Sabotage of Water Supplies". One does not have to be a super-Power or even a nation State to do that.

I hope that those two homely examples—and I use the word "homely" advisedly because this can be a cottage industry—make my point that biological weapons are not like nuclear weapons which are the exclusive prerogative of the larger Powers, and therefore they are very much harder to control, to inspect and to protect ourselves against. If I may say in passing to the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) this is a good reason why we should continue the work of the MRE at Porton.

To prove my point that that applies not only to biological weapons but also to chemical weapons which are referred to in the convention, I quote from the answer given by the Director-General at Porton to questions put by the Select Committee on Defence Research in the Session 1968–69. He said: Smaller countries can acquire the capability, even if it is an unsophisticated capability. The basic chemistry involved in many of these agents is open knowledge and all it requires is the intention to work it and the necessary technical experience—which need not be much—to convert this knowhow into a weapon system. The convention is, of course, reflected in the Bill, and there appear to be two factors by which control is to be exercised. The first is the quantitative factor, and the second is the purposive. I shall not bore the Committee by reading out the wording of the convention, but subsections (1) and (2) of Clause 1 are the relevant subsections.

Although quantity, as a guide, has merit, expert opinion is divided on the matter. For example, there is no doubt that the saboteur has plenty of opportunity in cottage industry production. If one is to develop a more serious biological weapon, obviously production has to be scaled up. There is a considerable difference of opinion and I use the United Nations scientific work as my authority on this matter. It is reckoned that to attack a city of 500,000 inhabitants with biological weapons sprayed from the air, which is assumed to be the appropriate method, about 1017 to 1019 pathogens need to be produced. That is pretty formidable. It suggests that fairly large-scale production would be required, probably in a continuous process, certainly supported by extensive freezing plant, because these pathogens quickly become inert at normal temperatures.

On the other hand, there is conflict of evidence. My own experience has been limited to the manufacture of biologically active products for commercial purposes, namely, in the production of industrial enzymes. I assure the Committee that, in relatively small fermentors, one can produce considerable quantities by batch production, although—and this is important—the original cultures were produced under near-laboratory conditions.

Mr. John

Would not the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the weaknesses of the Bill and the convention is the reference to production in a quantity that has no justification". The Bill does not say in whose opinion the quantification and justification must lie. It must obviously lie in the hands of the Government, who can interpret it elastically.

Mr. Price

The hon. Gentleman is on an extremely important point which I suggest goes very much wider than the convention. It is at the heart of disarmament and arms control which, in our present state of international relationship, depends on agreement between nation States and relies for enforcement upon the good will of the individual nation State to self-police itself. Many of us believe that a world régime of greater discipline and authority is called for to deal with these matters.

I think it only fair to my right hon. Friend and the Government, and, indeed, to their predecessors in office, to say that we cannot change the world overnight, although many of us would like to. We have to work within the set-up of the world as we find it. Regrettably, nothing other than the tools of the convention are available to Her Majesty's Government.

I pass to the second factor—that of purpose. I find this extremely difficult, because I disagree with the opening remarks of the hon. Member for Pontypridd. I do not know any of the major bacteria, viruses, or streptococci which are potentially amenable for use as bacteriological weapons, but which are not also necessary for research and production prophylactically. As a result, the question of hostility of purpose is not amenable to technical distinction or description. That is the difficulty.

We must remember that some of the potentially most lethal bacteriological weapons are also those that exist in nature as natural diseases, for example, the bubonic plague. There is the dilemma. No one can object that nations not only research into the bubonic plague but also manufacture vaccines against it.

I believe, therefore, that we are in difficulty here. I quote from our Select Committee report when the Director of M.R.E., Dr. Gordon Smith, said: The question of how much is defence and how much is not is a rather difficult one because so much of what we do for defence reasons is of direct medical or public health interest and you may therefore regard a high proportion of what we do as of civil interest, but we are doing It for military reasons. In other words, I find this distinction, which is in the convention and is therefore reproduced in the Bill, that control should be based on purpose remarkably difficult. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary at the Home Office will explain how legally difficult it is to define an offence as one which depends upon the purpose behind the act rather than the act itself. That is the basic weakness in the whole convention.

May I ask my hon. Friend, when he replies, to comment on some of the articles contained in the convention. Article II deals with the destruction or diversion for peaceful purposes of biological weapons already in the hands of a major Power. May I ask two simple questions.

First, will any country admit to having such weapons and, if not, what is the view of my right hon. Friend as to how many countries have such weapons available?

Secondly, Article VII says, Each State Party to this Convention undertakes to provide or support assistance, in accordance with the United Nations Charter, to any Party to the Convention which so requests, if the Security Council decides that such Party has been exposed to danger as a result of violation of the Convention. Will my right hon. Friend tell us what obligation that puts on the United Kingdom?

One interpretation suggests to me that that goes no further than our current obligation under the charter. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend would tell us whether that gives us a commitment beyond that which we already accept under the United Nations' Charter.

So far as Article IX is concerned, may I follow up what the hon. Member for Pontypridd said and ask whether my right hon. Friend can give us any more information about the probability of getting a similar convention on the prohibition of chemical weapons? When we talk about toxins, we really mean chemical weapons. The division between chemical and biological is almost academic.

Article XII deals with a possible conference and follows upon the matter that I have just raised. What are the prospects?

Article XIII is an escape clause. It says: (2) Each State Party to this Convention shall in exercising its national sovereignty have the right to withdraw from the Convention if it decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of the Convention, have jeopardised the supreme interests of its country. That is, with respect to the learned statesmen who drew up this convention, a complete escape clause for anyone who wishes to use it. It could render the convention nugatory.

In the context of the current war in the Middle-East, one notices the considerable number of absentees amongst the signatories. Whereas, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia and Yemen are signatories, Israel, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Algeria are not. I observe the point, and do not wish to comment further.

I believe that this convention is of value. It is an earnest of good intentions. It will constitute some psychological barrier against the use of biological weapons, but how much of a barrier is an open question about which honest men can disagree. It is a further step in mankind's halting journey from tribal warfare for the securing of the best hunting grounds to some form of world order. That was the point made by the hon. Member for Pontypridd, and one that I am entitled to make, having been a member of the all-party group on world government ever since I have been a Member of this House.

I believe, too, that the convention may have some marginal value as a deterrent, but the real deterrent to the use of biological weapons by the nations of the world remains in their uncertainty and the fear that they may rebound on the attacker every bit as severely as that which the defender suffers. To that extent I must remain, unlike the hon. Member for Pontypridd, a case-hardened cynic.

11.19 a.m.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins (Putney)

I believe that most of us welcome the Bill. However, many of us go along with what has been said by both sides of the Committee, namely, that we ought not to exaggerate what we are doing, or the extent to which we greet the Bill.

In some respects, the isolation or the bringing out of biological weapons from the generality of the past is a disquieting development. Many of us take the view that the original all-embracing character of the Geneva Protocol of 1925 was the right approach to the problem, but there have been scientific developments since then which mean that the range of weapons in this area has markedly increased. It has, therefore, become possible to make the sort of division that we are making in the Bill, and upon which the convention that it seeks to ratify is based.

It is true that what we are seeking to do now is to say that we shall not do that which we have no intention of doing, at the cost of continuing to be able to do something that we know we ought not to do but think we might do. That, I fear, is precisely what the nations of the world are getting together to do in this agreement. It would pay us to see whether it would be possible to persuade the Government that the Bill ought to go rather farther than it does.

There are difficulties in this, because the Bill presently seeks to ratify the convention as it is. It would be possible, if the Government were so minded, to go further than merely ratifying the convention and say that we shall not merely ratify what we have to, but that we shall take further steps as an example to others.

Were the Government minded to do that, would it be possible? The Foreign Office believes that it would, but the trouble here is the Ministry of Defence. I regret that it is not represented here this morning. I have some experience of arguing with Government representatives in various Departments over the years as a supporter of the Committee on Chemical and Biological Warfare. In that capacity I have discovered that when talking to representatives on the Foreign Office, Ministers from either side of the House, or officials of the Department closely concerned, one is talking the same language. One has the sense that they share the concern and alarm about this and would like to reach satisfactory international arrangements in order to get rid of it.

Unfortunately, that does not apply to the Ministry of Defence. One feels that the Ministry of Defence is of the opinion that it should hang on to the biological weapon. That is at the heart of the whole trouble. Basically, that criticism probably applies to Ministries of Defence and Foreign Offices all over the world. There are those who have the weapon and are determined to hold on to it, or to hold on to the possibility of using the weapon in case they are attacked. That is the defence mentality. The Foreign Office mentality sees its duty, quite properly, as that of reaching an agreement, as a result of which these weapons will no longer exist, thereby removing the raison d'être of the Ministry of Defence. One can understand why this inherent conflict exists between Foreign Office and Defence departments.

The Government have the duty of deciding where the interests of this country lie between those two Departments. I am not suggesting that it would be different if the Government changed, but it is convenient to decide that that is the point of the convention and not to go beyond that.

I do not know the Swedish Government's position in this matter. The Swedes are refusing to ratify the convention because, quite rightly, they say that it does not go far enough. It would be possible for the Swedish Government, if they chose, to say that they will ratify the convention but that they will opt out in terms of chemical as well as biological weapons.

It would be possible for a Conservative or a Labour Government to take up that position, too. I hope that when my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, West (Mr. Judd) winds up on this debate he will say that a future Labour Government will not be satisfied with a convention of this sort and that we shall want to go much further and prohibit all chemical and biological weapons even though they are scientifically much more spread than they were originally envisaged under the 1925 Protocol.

The interpretation of the range of the 1925 Protocol has changed over the years. Originally, in 1925, it was intended to be all-embracing, and was interpreted as being so by, for example, Mr. Arthur Henderson. I do not have chapter and verse for that, but it will be generally recognised that that was the case. The chief reason for the breakdown of the concept of the 1925 Protocol as being all-embracing in this area was probably the invention of CS gas.

It is sad that it was this country that decided that CS gas was not to be included in the 1925 Protocol. We said that CS gas was useful, that it could be used usefully in Northern Ireland, and that it could be used as a smoke. It was described as a smoke and excluded from the Geneva Protocol.

That rather simplified statement covers what has happened to undermine the general proposition that the 1925 Protocol was all-embracing and not in need of the sort of interpretation outlined in the Bill. Had we hung on to the idea that the intention of the 1925 Geneva Protocol was to ban everything in this area there would have been no need for the sort of definition that we are deciding upon now. There would have been no need to separate chemical from biological, and so on, nor to say that we can abjure this which we do not think we can use, but not abjure that which we think we might use. It is not a noble position in which to find ourselves, and our rejoicing this morning should be modified.

I hope that we can improve the Bill in Committee. One can increase the range of a Bill in Committee to suit one's desires. It is not only possible to modify a Bill, but clauses can be added to extend the range of a Bill beyond the limits laid down, and I hope that we shall do that.

The 1930 Labour Government made their position clear about the protocol. They said that it prohibited the use in warfare of asphyxiating poisonous and other gases and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices"— which is about as all-embracing as it can be, and that— the use in war of other gases, including lachrymatory gases (i.e. chemical irritants) was also prohibited. That was the interpretation in 1930, and it was unfortunate that that interpretation was changed later, because it seems to me that it was from that point that the gradual interpretive process stemmed.

I said that I had always found the Foreign Office ready to discuss these matters, and I should like to ask the Minister whether the Government's position is that described to the Select Committee on Chemical and Biological Warfare on 4th July 1972, when Mr. Summerhayes of the Foreign Office summarised the British position by saying that Her Majesty's Government wished to see a comprehensive ban on the production and stockpiling of "C" weapons—that is to say, chemical as well as biological weapons. I am not holding Mr. Summerhayes responsible for this, because it is an interpretation of what he is supposed to have said on that occasion, but if it is true—and I believe it is—that the Government's position still is that although we are now ratifying only the treaty on biological weapons their ambition is to have an all-embracing treaty, I hope the Minister will say whether the Government want to extend the intentions and effects of the Bill beyond the point to which it currently goes. If the Minister says that, it might persuade the Committee to take an immediate step rather than leave it until some other occasion.

We should emulate the Canadian Government. They are total in their view on the issue. They say that they have never possessed any biological weapons, nor any chemical weapons other than devices of the type used for crowd or riot control.

Here again we come to the CS exception, even in Canada which takes a more total view of this than some other Governments. They say: Canada does not intend at any time in the future to use chemical weapons in war, or to develop, produce, acquire or stockpile such weapons for use in warfare, unless these weapons should be used against the military forces or the civil population of Canada or its allies. The latter condition is in accordance with the reservations Canada entered at the time of the ratification of the Geneva Protocol". Thus, even Canada, which takes a progressive view on this matter, makes those reservations. As long as countries make such reservations it will be difficult for us to obtain an effective unilateral and enforceable agreement.

I end by echoing the words of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, who said that the question of banning chemical weapons is at the forefront of the agenda for the present session of the conference of the Committee on Disarmament. I earnestly hope that it will be possible to reach an agreement on the subject in the near future.

I should like to think of the proposals before us this morning as an interim agreement—a step on the way. If they are not a step on the way to a total attitude to the whole range of chemical and biological weapons, they could be the opposite, namely, a decision which, by isolating something which we do not and cannot feel, leads us to accept chemical weapons as a part of the armoury of mankind.

It is of vital importance this morning for the Government to state that this is a step towards total prohibition, and does not amount to a release of the alternative chemical weapon which the Government wish to embrace. If the Government are able to say that they hope to move rapidly towards a more prohibitional attitude, the Opposition will not recommend that we divide on Second Reading and will see what can be done to enhance, strengthen and improve the Bill in Committee.

11.34 a.m.

Mr. E. S. Bishop (Newark)

Every time one speaks on a measure such as this one's intended remarks become more and more unnecessary. I therefore have little to say, except to ask one or two questions and to add a word of emphasis.

A Bill such as this, on which there is a large measure of agreement, is often shunted to a Committee and the questioning on underlying important issues may be restricted to those who are able to attend and take part. As hon. Members have said this morning, there are aspects of this issue which cause grave concern.

Reference has been made to the Protocol of 1925 in connection with asphyxiating poisonous and other gases, and bacteriological methods of warfare. That protocol was passed a long time ago. As we are concerned here with a more limited area of possible warfare or danger to mankind, we should like to know what action has been taken on other aspects, so that action which we now propose will be complementary to it.

The Explanatory Memorandum says: The purpose of this Bill is to enable the United Kingdom to ratify the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological … Weapons … (Cmnd. 5053). That suggests that we are concerned only with the minimum necessary to ratify the convention. I hope we shall be told that this is the minimum, and that the Minister will assure us on the matters that have been raised this morning. That is necessary if we are to do justice to the House and to the country in the progress of this important, though noncontroversial measure.

We have been told something about the aspects of legislation concerning the 1925 Protocol to which I have referred, but I should like to know a little more about what action has been taken in these areas to see how complementary they are to this measure.

What exactly is meant by "ratify" in the purely legal sense, and what is the minimum necessary by any signature country for ratification? Here again, one comes to the minimum necessary to ratify, and I hope that we can go a little further on that.

Mr. Amery

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for intervening, but I should like to clarify this matter. It is hoped that after the passage of the Bill the three depositary States—the United States, the Soviet Union and ourselves—can ratify on the same day. Thirty States have ratified, and 22 is the minimum required, plus the three depositaries.

Mr. Bishop

The Minister has probably answered my next question. He said that 110 States were signatories to the convention, but that only 30 had ratified since July 1972. Was the delay in bringing this measure before the House due to certain steps that we had to take before we could give assurances to justify our ratification? What steps are being taken, or what influence is being brought to bear by the Government, to speed up ratification by other countries? That is important if the measure is to mean anything to anyone.

My next question, which was also asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John), refers to penalties. I hope that any fines that are to be imposed relate to the profitability of those who can make vast fortunes out of the exploitation of the things that we want to restrict or ban.

I recognise the enormous steps that have been made over the last few years in science and technology and in research and development with regard to water contamination, defoliation, drugs and chemicals generally, and gases. That is an indispensable part of the progress of mankind, but when paragraph (1) of the Explanatory Memorandum talks about the agents and the substances to which we refer being used for peaceful purposes one comes to the difficult dividing line between research for good purposes and the purposes that we are trying to restrict in this measure. Although we are taking steps to deter research and development of the things that we want to ban, we should be careful not to restrict the development of the things that are necessary for the progress of mankind.

Paragraph (2) refers to weapons, equipment or means of delivery designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict. Various means of delivery can be used. It all depends how it is used whether an iron bar is a good thing or a potential weapon. That is another matter which needs clarifying.

We are concerned not only with dangers arising from other countries using weapons referred to in the convention, but also with hijackers who can hold a community to ransom. It would not be desirable today to talk about the possible dangers of hijackers using biological weapons, acquired or produced for peaceful purposes, for evil intentions. We all know that hijackers do not sign conventions.

That brings me to the problem of detection, and what action the Government have in mind about it. Again, one cannot expect all the answers, because that would be counter-productive. One would like to know whether the Government are aware of the kind of research that goes on from time to time, and in what areas.

I have necessarily restricted my comments because hon. Members on both sides of the Committee have raised these legitimate and important subjects. We should regard the Bill as the minimum to ratify the convention. The Government should be more forthcoming on matters about which hon. Members have expressed anxiety.

Some of us were on the Committee that considered the Atomic Weapons Bill, when we sought more information from the Government but did not receive it. The Government should be warned against giving too little information, because too much secrecy can add unnecessarily to anxieties on this important subject.

11.43 a.m.

Mr. Frank Judd (Portsmouth, West)

I should like to join my hon. Friends who have congratulated the Government on bringing forward the Bill. It has been clear from all the speeches that we applaud its general purpose and want to do everything possible to facilitate its passage.

I am concerned about strengthening its effectiveness in Committee. I thought that the interesting remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Mr. Bishop) illustrated the sort of details with which we shall want to deal in Committee, for most of the work on the Bill will be done in Committee.

I should like to underline some of the observations of my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John). There are four subjects in particular on which we shall require much fuller information from the Government.

The first concerns penalties for bodies corporate and the nature of the monetary penalties which the Government envisage. The second concerns the need for hon. Members to be clear about the definitions of "biological agents" and "toxins". My hon. Friend made the interesting point that we had seen in the context of the Vietnam war the biological implications of the use of chemical weapons.

Thirdly, there is a need to recognise the blurred dividing line between offensive and defensive work and preparations. I should like to know more of the Government's thinking on this subject.

Related to that is my fourth and most important point. We all recognise that research work is continuing in this country. The Opposition wish to emphasise that if the sincerity of the Government and the nation in this legislation is to be established, it is important that the Government should be as forthcoming as they can be about the nature and scope of the research work. I hope that we shall hear more on those four basic points.

My hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Hugh Jenkins) made a committed speech. We all appreciate and respect his dedicated work in disarmament. He drew attention to the problem which must always concern us, that if we endorse a partial move towards disarmament, one of the sad aspects of doing so is that we may appear to be giving moral endorsement to those forms of warfare not covered by the partial disarmament. The relevance and effectiveness of this legislation can ultimately be judged only in terms of how far it advances the cause of general and comprehensive disarmament. We particularly want to see measures as soon as possible towards the comprehensive banning of methods of chemical warfare.

I turn now to the interesting observations of the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. David Price). He opened up the whole nature of the problem. It is most important that we should not limit our evaluation of this or any other legislation regarding disarmament simply to our experience of traditional forms of formal warfare encountered in the past. In the past decade there has been a revolution in the techniques of warfare which few of us would have imagined likely even two decades ago. If we are responsible legislators, we cannot sweep the developments under the carpet: we must face them squarely.

The hon. Member for Eastleigh did a great service to the Committee by emphasising that we were now dealing with an age of terrorist and guerrilla warfare techniques. If the situation were not so macabre, it might be almost funny that after two decades or more in which the super Powers have been locked in the nuclear stalemate and have been totally preoccupied with the dimensions of nuclear warfare, should it be unleashed, there has suddenly vaulted over this stalemate the concept of urban terrorist activity which holds the whole community to ransom. We must recognise that in this respect and in nuclear warfare we are finding that the raw materials from which crude weapons could be made and used by terrorists are all too readily available.

We cannot ignore the fact that the more we concentrate on civil nuclear energy, the more we create the raw materials from which nuclear weapons can be manufactured. In an age of large-scale international crime syndicates, let alone international political organisations, we cannot turn our backs on the dangers involved. That applies equally to biological warfare.

As we prepare for the detailed Standing Committee work, we should bear in mind that if any of us have been tempted in the past to think of disarmament matters as pipe dreams, not in the realm of immediate political priorities, we must change our attitude quickly. As defence spokesman for the Opposition, I can say that we firmly believe that disarmament should be in the front line of a relevant defence policy. We are therefore disappointed that there is not present a Ministry of Defence Minister to speak for the Government on this matter.

We suspect that within the Government's ranks there remains a tendency to see disarmament as a low priority, for the disarmament section of the Foreign Office to be regarded as a group of people doing specialist research in the back rooms, rather than a group who should be in the shop window of what we regard as the national priorities in defence. That situation must be rectified.

We support the Government in general and we assure them that our work in Committee will be constructive. We congratulate them on bringing this legislation forward. I emphasise that the Opposition are encouraged by the limited prospects presented by the Bill because we see it not simply as an isolated and negative piece of legislation connected with one form of warfare, but as a constructive step towards what can in the end be the only relevant form of defence policy for the nation.

11.52 a.m.

Mr. Lane

I am grateful, as is my right hon. Friend, for the constructive discussion that we have had this morning. I am particularly grateful to Opposition Members for making it possible to get the initial stage moving quickly. I am glad that the Bill has had a general welcome, subject to reservations. I wish to echo what has been said about the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mr. David Price) to which I shall refer later.

We shall be delighted if the Bill can be improved. We shall try to be as forthcoming and frank with the Committee as possible, and I will do my best now to respond in that spirit.

I echo what my right hon. Friend said—and this takes up a point made by the Opposition—that we see the Bill as a useful step forward in general disarmament. It is a step in which this country, under both Conservative and Labour Governments, has played a major part, as the hon. Member for Portsmouth, West (Mr. Judd) said, in advancing the cause of general and complete disarmament. The reply to the hon. Member for Newark (Mr. Bishop) is that the Bill is making ratification possible by setting up internal machinery in this country, which is one of the original signatory Powers.

Two of the major themes from our discussion are our future intentions on disarmament and chemical warfare. Some unjustified attempts were made to drive a wedge between the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence. I assure the hon. Member for Portsmouth, West that even if we do not have the support of a Minister from the Ministry of Defence today we have two Parliamentary Private Secretaries who will be faithfully relaying to our colleagues in Ministry of Defence the general spirit of what has been said this morning. We are operating as a team in this matter, as hon. Members will have realised.

On the general matter of disarmament, we have repeatedly made clear—and I am glad to be able to do so again on behalf of the Government—that we are anxious actively and positively to pursue all possible effective measures on arms control and disarmament. Our delegations in New York, Geneva and Vienna have shown by their positive participation in current disarmament negotiations the strength of the Government's intention to carry on the work as rapidly as possible.

In order to reassure those hon. Members who asked questions about the subject, I repeat that we are absolutely committed to a definite eventual prohibition of the development, production and stockpiling of chemical weapons and to effective measures of verification. That aim was implied in our support for United Nations Resolution 2826 of 7th December 1970, which specifically mentioned this objective. I can give that assurance in the terms of one of the clauses in the preamble to the convention.

The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) and other hon. Members asked about the borderline between defence and offence. Questions were asked about future work at Porton and how it may be affected by the Bill. There will continue to be a requirement at Porton for some protective defence work to continue. Most of the work at Porton is entirely open and is published in scientific literature.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh has reminded us that a Select Committee recently conducted an investigation of Porton. An open day was arranged at Porton recently, when the Press and scientists were able to see and discuss the work there. There have since been other visits by the Press, scientists and the public, and I am sure that the Ministry of Defence could easily make arrangement for visits by any members of the Committee who wish to go.

I accept that we are discussing a difficult borderline between defence and offence. The convention was not meant to prevent any State from continuing research work into defensive measures against possible attack. A distinction can be drawn and I assure the Committee that we shall ensure that any Government establishment involved in this work does not infringe the Bill. Hon. Members may wish to return to this subject in Committee, but I wish to make clear now that the Government do not produce or stockpile biological or toxic weapons, and have no intention of doing so.

I hope that I have already at least partly cleared up a misunderstanding about penalties. The penalty of life imprisonment is the maximum. We considered it right that in a matter dealing with life and death—and conceivably death on an enormous scale—the maximum penalty must be severe. I emphasise that life imprisonment is the maximum sentence, but the penalty in any given situation will be a matter for the court and in less grave circumstances it will be up to the court to impose any lesser penalty, either of imprisonment or a fine, as it thinks fit.

I hope that I have made clear the point about directors, managements and secretaries of corporate bodies. There is a flexibility in these provisions and we can return to it in Standing Committee.

Mr. John

Can the hon. Gentleman answer a question about penalties against companies and bodies corporate which, under Clause 3, are liable to a fine?

Mr. Lane

All I can say is that indefinite fines are possible under that clause for bodies corporate, as imprisonment is possible for responsible individuals who manage the company. That is the type of flexibility we have envisaged in the penalty provisions.

There is a difficulty about definition. We have followed in the Bill the definition in the convention itself. If there were a prosecution, that, too, would be something for the court to decide, namely, whether a particular substance in question was a biological agent or toxin as specified in the Bill.

We felt, however, that it would be almost impossible and unwise to try to produce any definitive list of agents or toxins to include at this stage. It could be an exhaustive list and would soon become out of date. However, as my right hon. Friend explained, a biological agent is normally understood to be a micro-organism which causes disease in man, plants or animals, while a toxin is understood to be a poison which, although produced by biological processes, is not capable of reproducing itself in the manner of a biological agent. We may want to come back to this subject in Committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh greatly helped by putting the Bill in perspective and by pointing out the realtities of the situation and of the whole problem. He said that the Bill had quite definite and substantial value as a step forward, subject to all the difficulties that he mentioned and of which we are very conscious.

My hon. Friend asked whether the convention would exclude absolutely the possibility—and here he was reminding us of one of the clauses in the preamble—of bacteriological agents and toxins being used as weapons. I do not believe that we can absolutely exclude it, but we still believe that it is worth taking this step within the limits of which we are all conscious. My hon. Friend rightly said that there was difficulty about drawing a line and he reminded us of the evidence of the director of Porton who said that … so much of what we do for defence reasons is of direct medical or public health interest. … That is, indeed, the case in the evolving work at Porton where more and more it is directly relevant to ordinary peacetime civilian health problems.

Mr. Judd

While we accept this statement, it is a dangerous argument, because there is no reason why that sort of research should not be done completely within a civilian context.

Mr. Lane

I take that point. Equally, I remind the Committee of the trend of work at Porton, much of it very valuable work. We have the situation as it is. Ideally, we might want to set up this sort of research in a different fashion, but we must make practical use of what we have already.

My hon. Friend asked about countries which might not admit to having these weapons. We do not know that there are any biological weapon systems in existence which could be effectively deployed in war. We understand that stocks of agents in the United States of America have been destroyed, but nothing has been said about the possible capabilities of the USSR.

My hon. Friend asked about progress towards chemical weapons disarmament. I have tried to cover that already. He also mentioned a conference and an escape clause arising out of two articles in the convention, and he noted the absence of certain Middle East countries from the list of signatories so far. I cannot say much more about that, because we are circumscribed by the terms of the original treaty. We have based the Bill on the treaty, although I have heard what has been said by several hon. Members about the desirability of going further if we can. We shall return to this and other aspects of the treaty when we get into Standing Committee.

The hon. Member for Putney—I was glad to have his welcome for the Bill—referred particularly to chemical weapons. All I can tell him about Sweden at the moment is that the Swedish Government continue to require defensive research to be continued in their own defence laboratories.

I think that between us my right hon. Friend and I have cleared up what the hon. Member for Newark said about ratification.

As for encouraging other countries to ratify, the British delegation at the Conference of the Committee on Disarmament in Geneva has been doing its best to get further ratifications of the convention. We hope that when the convention is brought into force, for which our own United Kingdom ratification is a vital requirement, more countries will decide that they should act in conformity with our example. We hope that it will give the convention a fair boost forward.

We have thought a good deal about the best machinery for detection and we believe that the general powers of entry, search and seizure, particularly as set out in Clause 4, will in practice work perfectly well. But that, too, is a fair point that we might want to explore in more depth in Standing Committee.

I end by repeating our hope that the Bill will be a useful, if limited, step forward in disarmament. It gives us the opportunity to reassure the Committee, the House and the country that we are greatly in earnest in carrying forward other measures of disarmament in other respects as rapidly as possible. I hope that the Committee will be satisfied with that as a general statement of our intention,

Mrs. Lena Jeger (Chairman) Mr. Hugh Jenkins
Mr. Amery Mr. John
Mr. Jeffrey Archer Mr. Judd
Mr. Bishop Mr. Knox
Mr. Dalyell Mr. Lane
Major-General Jack d'Avigdor-Goldsmid Mr. Madel
Mr. Goodhart Mr. David Price
Mr. Harper Mr. Edwin Wainwright
Mr. Haselhurst Mr. Weatherill

and we look forward to a constructive Committee stage.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Chairman do now report to the House that the Committee recommend that the Biological Weapons Bill ought to be read a second time.—[Mr. Amery.]

Committee rose at nine minutes past Twelve o'clock.