HC Deb 24 June 1974 vol 875 cc989-1001
Mr. Arthur Latham (by Private Notice)

asked the Prime Minister if he will make a statement on the Government's policy concerning further British nuclear tests.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

Yes, Sir. As the House knows all aspects of our defence expenditure are under review, including strategic nuclear weapons, which are, of course, committed to NATO.

The previous Government had made arrangements for a test necessary to maintain the effectiveness of our nuclear deterrent, and the experiment took place a few weeks ago.

The experiment was conducted fully within the framework of the provisions of the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 and the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968. Et was also fully in accordance with the policy of the previous Labour Government, on which I would refer the House to the answers which I gave on 18th November 1965. It is equally in accordance with the policy in the Labour Party manifesto, based on multilateral disarmament, and does not involve any breach of the party programme as laid down in our successive conferences during the three years of Opposition.

No further British tests are due to take place in the near future, and certainly not before the defence review is completed and a report made to the House.

Mr. Latham

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will have noted the expressions of delight on the faces of some Conservative Members over what is a serious issue, whatever view one takes of nuclear policy. Is he aware that there is great concern among many hon. Members on this issue? Why did we have to wait to hear about it from Press reports? Why was there no statement from the Government or a statement to his House? Why was it so secret? Was that for military reasons, or were there political considerations?

Will my right hon. Friend urge the Leader of the House to provide time for a debate on the subject in the very near future, and, in view of the secrecy, will he underline most emphatically the assurance I understood him to give, that there will be no further tests of this kind until the review has taken place, and that the House will have a chance of debating the results of that review before the Government proceed to act upon it? Does my right hon. Friend not think it right that the House should have a chance of voting on these issues? Does he agree that this was unfortunate timing in view of the discussions between the United States and the USSR which might possibly lead to a ban on all underground tests?

Finally, how does my right hon. Friend reconcile the fact that the test took place in secrecy and without the knowledge of the House with "Labour's Programme 1973" which said: France seems intent on making the enormous economic effort required to develop its nuclear force. We have long ago stated our firm conviction that this is not a road along which Britain could or should continue. I agree with that. Why does not my right hon. Friend?

The Prime Minister

First, there is no ministerial responsibility for the expression on Conservative Members' faces. My hon. Friend asked why no announcement had been made, and he repeated the question at the end of his very helpful and fair-minded supplementary question. Of the tests made during the Conservative Government's time before 1964, three were made without any announcement in the House. Apart from those, the practice has been that until the evaluation of the results of the test are complete no statement is made in the House.

My hon. Friend referred very fairly to talks going on between the United States and the USSR, and, of course, we are being kept closely in touch with those. Those talks are with a view to doing what many of us have long pressed, to reduce the threshold for underground explosions which are not contrary to the partial test-ban treaty. Many people in the West, certainly in this country and in our party, hope that the threshold will be reduced. What has happened is not in the remotest degree anywhere near the lowest possible threshold which may come out of the US-USSR discussions.

My hon. Friend referred to France and to the French tests, on which we have expressed our concern, and which took place in the atmosphere contrary to the test-ban agreement. The difference, as I said at the beginning of my statement, is that our strategic weapons are committed to NATO. I give my hon. Friend the assurance contained in my original statement, that no further British tests are due to take place in the near future and certainly not before the defence review is complete and the report made to the House. Of course, the House will want to debate that report, and I shall mention that, in view of the question of time, to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who heard what my hon. Friend suggested.

Mr. Goodhart

Many of us would have been dismayed if the Prime Minister had allowed our most powerful weapons system to lose its effectiveness. Has he any plans in the near future for trying to amend our nuclear agreement with the United States?

The Prime Minister

Neither dismay nor pleasure by the hon. Member or anyone else would have altered the situation which took place. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence said on 21st May this year that in our defence review all options were remaining open. To have decided not to proceed with the test would have closed one option which is open.

Mr. Frank Allaun

Will the Prime Minister now undertake to halt the so-called improvements to the Polaris missile at a cost of £100 million? Does he agree that this is a suicide weapon which if released would result in instant retaliation and the wiping-out of our country? Is he more influenced by a handful of brass hats than he is by the Labour Party conference and the TUC conference, which decided last year that nuclear bases in Britain, whether American or British, should be wound up?

The Prime Minister

The first part of my hon. Friend's question is a matter for the defence review together with a number of other considerations. My hon. Friend gave an estimate of the cost of certain aspects of the nuclear programme. I understand that my hon. Friend has produced a pamphlet on these matters, and I look forward to reading it. I think that the figure he gave there, however, about the annual cost of the nuclear programme was £39 million out of a total expenditure of £3,600 million. I am not underrating the importance of £39 million, but it should not be overrated either.

As for the Labour Party conference, if my hon. Friend is talking about the resolution carried on the Thursday of the conference last year, I said earlier that nothing that has happened is contrary to the Labour Party programme because I think that the resolution he has in mind was not carried by the necessary two-thirds' majority required under Clause 5(1) of the constitution, as is necessary to qualify for inclusion in the party programme. As for the policy of the party and the manifesto, we seek multilateral nuclear disarmament.

Mr. Russell Johnston

May I refer the Prime Minister back to the first part of the Private Notice Question? Surely it is an inadequate answer to say that he did not make a statement about this important political matter simply because of a technical question of precedent, a question of what the previous Conservative Government did before 1964? May I remind him that the Labour Party for a long time has been committed to the abolition of the independent British nuclear deterrent? We on the Liberal bench certainly oppose the proliferation of British nuclear tests, which we do not regard as contributing to Britain's security. Indeed, we believe that they constitute a threat of a general proliferation of nuclear weapons.

The Prime Minister

What was done did not follow the precedent entirely of the Conservative Government before 1964. The precedent was that on the occasion of the last test nine years ago, when the Labour Government announced it in the House after a period, when the evaluation was complete. It was the 1965 precedent that I was following. As far as I recall, there was no criticism in the House then.

The hon. Gentleman says that the Liberals are not in favour of the proliferation or continuation of nuclear tests. These matters must come up in the defence review, which will be reported to the House, as will the whole question of the deployment of the strategic nuclear deterrent exclusively within NATO.

Mr. Palmer

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that there are some of us on the Labour benches who eagerly look forward to the day when all nuclear weapons and all nuclear testing will be abolished by international agreement? But in the meantime, provided this country has nuclear weapons, is it not necessary that they should be tested from time to time to see that they are made effective?

The Prime Minister

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. What he has said is what we said in the manifesto at the General Election, that we look forward to—and successive Governments in this country have worked for—an extension of control over tests, underground as well as in the atmosphere. We look forward to a total non-proliferation. It was the Labour Government who initiated the non-proliferation treaty so far as this country was concerned, and it was the Conservative Government who initiated the partial test ban treaty. All of us—certainly all of us on this side of the House—are committed to this. We want to see the end of this horror weapon. As a step towards that, we want to see the end of proliferation to countries not possessing that weapon today. Our own position, and the question of tests, will arise in the defence review, which the House will have adequate opportunity to debate.

Mr. Blaker

Is the Prime Minister aware that in the Atlantic Declaration, which was signed in Ottawa last week by all the Foreign Ministers of the NATO Powers, a handsome tribute was paid to the value of the British nuclear deterrent? That being so, would it not be foolish of the Government to fail to do whatever is necessary to keep it up to date?

The Prime Minister

I am aware of the text of that declaration. It is coming up at Brussels, where I shall be tomorrow and on Wednesday. I believe that the declaration said that two nations within NATO, besides the United States, have the nuclear capacity, and I think that it pointed out, or implied, that in one case—ours—the weapons are committed to NATO, and that in the case of the French that is not so.

As the hon. Gentleman asked me whether I was aware of something, I would add that I have become aware, on checking up, that the question I last answered on the occasion of the previous test nine years ago was put by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Gwilym Roberts

Never mind the question of a two-thirds majority. Does my right hon. Friend accept that today's announcement will be met with sadness by the great majority of the Labour and trade union movement, and that it will also be a matter of sadness for millions of ordinary people throughout the world who are looking to a Labour Government in this country to give a lead in world disarmament?

The Prime Minister

I think that the sadness will be shared by everyone in this country that these ghastly weapons still exist. We take the view today, as we did in Opposition and as we did in the previous Government, that it is the duty of all of us to work for total abolition of the nuclear weapon by international agreement, multilateral agreement, and that meanwhile the priority must be to try to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.

Mr. Heath

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that he has no need whatever to apologise for taking action which is so clearly in the national interest, or to obfuscate the issue in the constitutional complexities of his party's organisation or the confusion of his party conferences' resolutions? What he has to do is to state that he will look after the national interest, particularly with a weapon which is not only committed to NATO but is, as the right hon. Gentleman so often refuses to reveal, available to us as a nation in the event of national emergency. [Interruption.] The noises of approval from this side of the House are, of course, because we welcome the fact that the Prime Minister is continuing the policy of the previous Government, as well as the policy of his own Government from 1964 to 1970.

Is it not possible to deduce from the last paragraph of the Prime Minister's statement that the test has proved to be successful? However, should that deduction not be right, will the right hon. Gentleman give an undertaking that if any further tests should be required, in accordance with the findings of those involved—on whose advice he, like me, depends very largely—he will not hesitate to authorise whatever else is required to be put into action to ensure that the nuclear weapon remains effective?

The Prime Minister

I was not apologising. I was stating the facts. It is the case that, so far as we are concerned, the nuclear strategic weapon is committed to NATO. That was what we did when we were in office in 1964, after some irrelevant claims by the Conservative Party, both in Government and in Opposition, that it was available to this country in emergency. We made it clear then—I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman has altered this—that should NATO collapse, should there be no NATO, we would have to take our own decisions. But as long as NATO exists the nuclear strategic weapon is committed to NATO. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman agrees that that is so.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to successful tests, or otherwise. Our test in September 1965, which was of certain limited mechanisms, was due to the failure of a test undertaken by the Conservative Government during the 1964 election. [Interruption.] We must get history right here. I had to explain to the House in 1965 that we undertook the test of September 1965 because of the failure of the previous test.

We are always grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's tender comments about our party conference, as they prove once again that the right hon. Gentleman knows nothing about the mechanism of a democratic party, as we do. The rulers of the right hon. Gentleman's party in the House and in the country are appointed by him, which is why it is in such a mess these days. We have con stitutional rules which we apply. I was only commenting, as it was suggested that there had been a resolution contrary to what has just happened, that that was not part of the party programme under the constitution.

Mr. Heath

As the Prime Minister has asked for my agreement with his own statement, I should place on record that I do not accept his interpretation. As far as the Nassau Agreement is concerned, there is no limitation that the nuclear weapon is available to us only in a national emergency provided, first, that NATO has collapsed. That is the right hon. Gentleman's self-imposed condition and it is not a national view. The right hon. Gentleman said in 1964 that he was going to renegotiate the Nassau Agreement. Of course, he has never done so and the nuclear strategic weapon is available in a national emergency to any Government.

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman seems to have forgotten some of the events of 1964–65 and what took place after his party left office. We made it clear that the nuclear weapon was specifically committed to NATO except in the circumstance of the collapse of NATO. If the right hon. Gentleman during his period of Government altered that, I think that he should have told the House.

Mr. Wellbeloved

Will my right hon. Friend take comfort from the fact that the overwhelming majority of informed opinion in the House and in the country that is dedicated to the defence of freedom and the maintenance of peace notes with crowing confidence this clear demonstration of the Government's determination to maintain a credible defence capability in the United Kingdom?

The Prime Minister

I have explained exactly the circumstances in which the experiment took place and the necessity for it. I have said, and I repeat, that the whole of our defence policy is being considered and that a report will be made to the House. As my right hon. Friend has said, all the options remain open. Not to have gone on with this test at this time would have meant closing an option.

Mr. Wall

Is it not a fact that the Soviet Union has introduced three new nuclear ICBM systems this year alone, and with that background would it not be criminally irresponsible for any British Government not to bring Britain's deterrent up to date? If the British Government did not do so, would we not be dependent for nuclear defence on the Americans and the French?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman referred to developments in the Soviet Union. It is a fact that the Soviet Union has recently greatly increased its capabilities in this respect. That is why we attach so much importance to the success of the SALT talks between the USSR and the United States. We were intimately concerned in the origination of those talks and both Governments have kept in close contact with the SALT talks and also with regard to any talks that may take place in the next few days about underground testing.

Mr. Loughlin

Will my right hon. Friend give an absolute assurance that both he and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence knew that this test was taking place before it took place, and will he make it clear whether specific permission was granted for it to take place? Is it not true that we objected to the underground tests that took place under the Indian Government? Are not the Labour Government in some danger at least of applying double standards in this matter?

The Prime Minister

The answer is "Yes" to the first part of my hon. Friend's question. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and I were aware of the test before it took place and afterwards. Second, we have expressed our concern about the Indian tests because they appear on the face of it—and I am not saying more than that—to be contrary to the Non-Proliferation Agreement which the Labour Government played a leading part in securing. [HON. MEMBERS: "The Indians did not sign it."] The Indians did not sign it, but Britain, as one of the sponsors and authors of the Non-Proliferation Agreement, is right in expressing concern when anyone goes outside it.

Mr. Hugh Fraser

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the test has been successful? Secondly, will he confirm that through this test the credibility of the Polaris can be retained for several years?

The Prime Minister

As far as success is concerned, more time is required for the sort of evaluation which took place following previous tests. The right hon. Gentleman has had some experience of these matters as a Defence Minister. The signs so far are that the test was successful and that it will not be necessary to repeat it because of failure. That is unlike the September 1965 test which was based on an earlier failure. My answer to the right hon. Gentleman's second question is that which I have already given several times—namely, we are examining all these matters and this test, far from closing the options, has kept one option open.

Mr. Cryer

Will my right hon. Friend accept that the trade union and Labour movement will be deeply shocked if any further tests take place under a Labour Government? Further, does he accept that the trade union and Labour movement expect a Labour Government to give a lead to the countries of the world and especially to countries such as India? Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that this Government will not depend on nuclear weaponry and their immoral associated purposes? Will my right hon. Friend say that the Government intend to give a lead to the world by repudiating any further tests?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend was setting out what he believed to be the views of the Labour movement despite the implications suggested by Opposition hon. Members. I think that the position is clear in our manifesto on which my hon. Friend and I and all of my right hon. and hon. Friends fought the election. We all hope, on both sides of the House, to end these weapons by international agreement. Meanwhile, before that occurs, we hope to limit among the major powers who hold these weapons and to stop proliferation.

I have already answered a question about the test. I understand the strength of my hon. Friend's feelings, but I believe that when he stops to think about this matter he will not feel able to assert that the fact that the experiment took place in any way holds back our efforts for multilateral nuclear disarmament.


Mr. Arthur Latham

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recall that I gave you notice of my intention to make an application under Standing Order No. 9. I am sure that in what I have to say I shall not suffer the embarrassment of cheers from hon. Members opposite. In connection with that application, I had a lengthy and detailed procedural submission which I had proposed to submit to you. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has gone a considerable way to dissuading me from pursuing my application, but some difficulties remain which you might be able to clear up from the Chair.

I have been undertaking some research, and I gather that out of some 97 applications for debates under Standing Order No. 9 since October 1971, some six or seven only have been allowed. I understand that perhaps two successful applications were from backbenchers while the rest were made by Front Bench spokesmen. I am sure that you were right in your rulings, although others may have disagreed with you at the time.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made a statement which may well defuse the necessity of asking for an emergency debate. I apologise if I am a little slow in this matter, but I want to read with great care my right hon. Friend's words in the OFFICIAL REPORT, which may not, however, be available tomorrow in view of the present situation in the printing industry. But I think my right hon. Friend said that there will be no more bangs of this kind until the House has discussed the matter. I think that you would have said, if you had had to consider an application for a debate today, that as the explosion had already occurred, the application must fall. I tried to get from the Prime Minister an assurance that there would not be a further test until the House had discussed the matter. I am not sure, until I have read the OFFICIAL REPORT, whether I got that assurance. You and I do not know, for example, what my right hon. Friend would define as the "near future".

There is little prospect that the Opposition will seek a debate on this subject because, as we know, many hon. Members opposite positively relish nuclear sabre rattling. I have made a request, which I know is supported by many of my hon. Friends, that the Government should provide an opportunity for a debate.

In the last Parliament, 189 Members of the House signed a letter, which I delivered to the French Embassy, protesting against the French series of tests. The feeling in the House about this issue is very strong, whatever the merits. If neither the Opposition nor the Government will grant facility for a debate in which at least 189 Members would be very strongly interested, then the only person to whom we can then appeal is you.

My question therefore is this: if I do not proceed with my application under Standing Order No. 9 today, shall I be prejudiced within the terms of Standing Order No. 9, as you understand it, from making an application subsequently if I am not satisfied with the Prime Minister's words in HANSARD, if there are other developments, or if we find that neither the Opposition nor the Government will provide us with a debate? I am not asking you to agree in advance that you will grant a debate, but at least to agree that you would entertain such an application at a subsequent date rather than now, and to say that my not making an application now does not mean that I prejudice my opportunity for so doing at a later date.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman's point of order has been very interesting and exploratory. There are all sorts of tempting suggestions in it but I have no intention of going up any of these side paths. I shall judge each case on its merits.

Mr. Onslow

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. There will be many occasions when the House finds it difficult to understand what the Prime Minister means. There is always an opportunity for an hon. Member to put down an early day motion and seek a debate on that.

Mr. Arthur Latham

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The point made by the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) helps me to make it clear that when one seeks a debate—and this is why I ask for the guidance of the Chair for a substantial number of back benchers—it is not merely a question of seeking opportunity for an exchange of views or of putting names on a piece of paper, but an opportunity physically to decide in the House on an issue about which so many hon. Members feel so passionately.

Mr. Atkinson

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it a fact that, in the period mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington (Mr. Latham), you have granted Standing Order No. 9 debates to only two back benchers?

Mr. Speaker

I have no intention of saying anything about previous applications without notice. I certainly cannot remember off the cuff. The hon. Member for Paddington (Mr. Latham) was on a serious point. It emphasises one of the difficulties which the chair has in administering Standing Order No. 9. If the chance of a Standing Order No. 9 debate is an excuse for the Government not to find time or for the Opposition not to choose the subject for a Supply Day, that is an easy way out for the usual channels. A Standing Order No. 9 application is useful to them in such circumstances. However, I have never accepted that view, and I regard such applications as being matters to be considered in the proper way according to the Standing Order. I consider each case on its merits.

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