HC Deb 01 April 1976 vol 908 cc1756-64

12.14 a.m.

Mr. Michael Hamilton (Salisbury)

After two days of general debate on defence, I should like to draw the attention of the House to the threat to this country of biological and of chemical warfare, taking them in that order. I readily concede that it would be possible to choose a more palatable subject at this hour of the morning.

We must recognise the threat posed by bacteria deployed in a variey of quite simple weapon systems. Internationally, we have seen the treaty banning biological warfare, but, unfortunately, treaties can be observed or disregarded. We can fold up the blankets over our heads and sleep soundly, if we choose, but this treaty allows for no on-site inspections and reality has a habit of breaking in when least expected.

One of the most sobering facts is the low cost of this type of warfare. It is not the sophisticated or complicated business that some hon. Members might think. If one has access to a brewery, one is already half-way home in the manufacturing process. It is interesting that Pasteur, who pioneered in this field in the last century, devoted much time to the culture of yeast cells and the role of bacteriology in brewing. We have come a long way since his day in our knowledge of the culture of bacteria, as we have in our knowledge of offensive and defensive measures generally.

It is not difficult to disseminate disease germs from a spray tank. Many of us have witnessed crop spraying from the air. It is a relatively simple process. Only yesterday, the Secretary of State for Defence told us that once or twice a week we are visited by Soviet long-range surveillance aircraft. I have no doubt that they are flying 15 miles up. A single aircraft equipped with spray tanks, making use of prevailing winds, could have a major impact on this densely populated island.

Airborne micro-organisms can be neither seen nor smelt. Delivery by one bomber of 10 tons of a biological agent on an unprotected population will affect an area several hundred times greater than would a 1-megaton nuclear bomb.

There are many varieties of disease which lend themselves to military use. None of them is attractive. Anthrax is an example. Its symptoms can sometimes be taken for a common cold, and may take time to appear. A man way wait for three or four days before he feels ill enough to stop work. There is an anti-anthrax serum, but in the absence of treatment it is almost always fatal.

There is plague, which we used to call the Black Death. It came to England in the 14th century. Some of the villages in my constituency are still not fully recovered from population loss after 600 years. It came back again to London in 1665, when 60,000 people died.

Another choice is cholera. With modern methods of treatment the death rate can be as low as 5 per cent., but untreated it can be 50 per cent. There are also viral encephalitis, which attacks the brain, and yellow fever.

I turn to the subject of chemical warfare. This product of science is an equally Ugly Sister. Many chemical agents, invisible and without smell, would be used in the form of airborne particles. No treaty has been signed, and no international progress has been made towards on-site inspections. We have come a long way since the unsophisticated gas attacks of 1915. Chlorine, which was used then, is as obsolete today as the muzzle-loading cannon. Weapons exist which can produce a lethal concentration over a substantial area within seconds.

The House may reasonably ask why I have chosen to debate this rather macabre subect at this hour of the morning. It is because Britain's research in these fields happens to be concentrated in my constituency, at Porton. I have known the place for 10 years and more. I meet the scientists at their work and socially. At Porton there is a twin operation—the Micro-biological Research Establishment, or MRE, and the Chemical Defence Experimental Establishment, or CDEE.

The MRE is housed in one of the largest brick buildings of modern times. It sits there in the open, in the big, wide country of Salisbury Plain. It was built since the war. A research laboratory which handles infective material must take measures for the safety of those who work there and of the local community. Therefore, rigorous safety rules are enforced there. The whole of the ground floor and first floor is supplied with filtered air, and elaborate precautions exist to prevent the escape of harmful material. The place is spotlessly clean. The floors shine and the atmosphere is that of an efficient hospital.

It is here that the scientists and their assistants work. I regard them as modern successors to Pasteur. They work in small teams. In the nature of things, they are highly qualified and highly specialised. For example, before taking on his present job in 1971 the Director of MRE had a distinguished career in cancer research. His predecessor, whom I know, is currently Dean of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Less than a mile away is the other and larger establishment, CDEE. I guess that it employs about 800 people. Here, too, scientists are at work assessing the threat of chemical warfare, considering the dual problems of detection and protection.

I know that the Minister would agree with me that there is no cause to doubt the Soviet Union's capacity to operate offensively in chemical or bacteriological warfare. A fortnight ago we were told that Warsaw Pact forces could be this side of the Rhine within 48 hours, and that the Russians could throw 27 divisions into the first wave of the attack, followed by 60 more divisions within five or six days.

I accept that earlier today a Minister sought to discount this; but, on the other side of the balance, we have to recognise that General Steinhoff, who in 1974 was Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, has gone a long way towards supporting that claim.

Less than a fortnight ago—on 22nd March—a former Commander-in-Chief Allied Forces, Northern Europe—General Sir Walter Walker—gave his views to The Times. I quote only two brief sentences: With their 'meat-grinder' tactics they will crunch their way forward, regardless of casualties, at a speed of 70 miles a day, supported in depth by airborne troops, armed helicopters, air attack, amphibious attack on the flanks, and chemical attack. Their doctrine regards the tactical use of chemical weapons as a normal form of conventional warfare, and in this field they are better militarily equipped and psychologically prepared than any other country in the world. Again, this very week, we read the headline Germ warfare tuition for children. It seems that a new law has been passed by the Hungarian Parliament, and military education, including germ warfare training, is to become a compulsory part of school curricula for all children over 12 years of age. The law comes into force on 1st July.

This is the general background against which I raise this subject this morning. The House might think that, in the face of growing danger, our precautions should increase. Since the safety of the realm is the supreme duty of Government, logic would suggest that the work at Porton should be given a new urgency and a greater emphasis. But no; the White Paper on defence tells us of a major review at Porton and of significant economies to follow. I regard Porton as a modest insurance policy—no more, no less. It is there to mitigate disaster and to protect the civil population.

I accept that when a householder is faced with economic difficulties, he must cut back in his spending. Yes; but if he is prudent, the last thing he should cut back in is his fire insurance policy. Porton has sustained stringent economies in recent years. I do not believe that there is spare capacity there today. If a team of scientists is broken up, their work is irrecoverable. I drive past the gate each time I visit my constituency. I have watched the situation there with anxiety.

I raise the subject in no spirit of criticism tonight. Rather, I ask the Minister for reassurance that the essential work at Porton will not be impaired.

12.28 a.m.

The Uuder-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army (Mr. Robert C. Brown)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Hamilton) for raising this extremely important topic and for the opportunity of expanding on paragraph 87 of the recent defence White Paper.

First, I think it is important to be quite clear about the meaning of this paragraph. It does not say that the threat of chemical and biological warfare has receded or become insignificant, that the protection of our troops is to be reduced, or that research and development at Porton is to cease. It says that the future level of research and development on chemical and biological defence is to be reviewed with the object of making significant economies. It also says that the CDE outstation at Nancekuke, employing under 200 staff, is to be closed.

If the question "what are significant economies?" could be given a precise answer, and if those aspects of research which could be dropped, postponed or put on a care and maintenance footing were known in detail, a review would not be necessary. These matters are not yet known, and much careful consideration is needed, and will be given, before firm conclusions can be drawn. A balance has to be struck between military needs on the one hand and the needs of economy on the other. Another material factor is our contribution to the Alliance in this important area of scientific effort.

I should like to say a few words on one other preparatory point, again to get things in the correct perspective. Research on chemical and biological defence has expanded and contracted in the past in response to the particular conditions of the time, and cannot be exempted from this process today. The biological warfare threat was first seriously studied during the Second World War. The early post-war years saw the founding of the Microbiological Research Establishment in 1947, and its present laboratories were completed in 1951. The level of provision made in the 'fifties and 'sixties for chemical and biological defence is no longer appropriate in relation to other competing demands for scarce resources.

The decision to review the situation is not a sudden realisation. The process of review and adjustment has in fact been going on for a decade. To pick up the story in 1971, it was then decided that MRE should continue with CDE under Ministry of Defence rather than civil control. MRE has since then, with every encouragement from the Ministry of Defence, increased the proportion of its effort devoted to purely civil needs. About one-third of its effort is on civil projects, on a repayment basis. I hope to give further future encouragement to this and other civil aspects.

The Government believe in supporting all effective measures to remove the threat of biological and chemical warfare. The Biological Weapons Convention of 1972 was the result of a British initiative. It came into effect in March 1975, when the three Depositary Powers—the Soviet Union, the United States and the United Kingdom—lodged their instruments of ratification.

The Convention requires all States party to it not to possess or acquire biological weapons and to prevent their being developed by non-governmental agencies in territory under their jurisdiction. The latter part of this obligation was fulfilled by the Biological Weapons Act 1974. This country has never possessed biological weapons; nor has it had any intention to acquire them. However, we have always made it clear within the terms of the Convention that, because not all countries are parties to the Convention and because the Convention makes no provision for verification, the Government intend to devote some research effort to detection and protection. This remains our position.

Turning to international controls on chemical warfare, efforts continue in the search for an adequately verifiable ban on chemical weapons. Meanwhile, the only real chemical weapons agreement reached to date is the Geneva Gas Protocol of 1925. By this Protocol the parties—which include the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, China and France—each undertake not to be the first to use chemical weapons against other parties to the Protocol.

The United Kingdom does not possess an offensive retaliatory chemical weapons capability. It recognises, however, that the threat of chemical warfare exists. Warsaw Pact armies are known to be equipped for chemical warfare and to train in the use of protective devices. Accordingly, the United Kingdom takes extensive military measures of a defensive and protective nature to ensure that our troops are fully effective in a chemical war environment. These include the provision of detectors, protective clothing and protection of vehicles. Indeed, when the current cycle of re-equipment is completed, British forces should be among the best equipped in the world in this respect. Because of this and because of the useful exchanges of information which take place with the United States and other NATO Allies we can contemplate development work being reduced for some years to come. We intend, however, to maintain a level of scientific effort that will make a positive contribution to our Allies.

In speaking of the review of work at MRE I have referred so far only to its defence work. The expansion of MRE's civil programme is a success story. Its facility, recently opened, for investigation of dangerous diseases such as Lassa Fever is the only one of its kind outside the United States. I can assure the House therefore that the future of the unique facilities at MRE and of its highly skilled staff, to whom the hon. Gentleman rightly paid tribute and who have made such a valuable contribution to the civil sector in the past, will receive the most deliberate and careful consideration in consultation with all the relevant non-defence interests.

Turning to Nancekuke, I have been asked how it is that a firm decision on Nancekuke has been possible when so much remains to be considered at Porton. The answer lies in the content of the work there. The main activities that we now need to continue are the production of chemicals in experimental quantities for research at Porton and the manufacture of riot control agents. Both of these activities are to be transferred elsewhere, most probably to Porton. In 1973 the Nugent Committee on Defence Lands identified Nancekuke as a "key" area in the Nature Conservation Review and asked that the Ministry of Defence should keep its need for continued occupancy of the site under examination.

This was confirmed to be the Ministry of Defence position as recently as February this year. The cessation of defence activities on the site is no doubt welcome to the House as a further step in the direction of implementing the Nugent Committee's recommendations. Since I have a personal, across-the-board responsibility for the implementation of the Nugent Committee recommendations, I am pleased to be able to cite this as a further evidence of the Government's commitment to Nugent.

MRE and CDE together employ about 1.200 staff, over 1,000 of whom are at Porton. They are a loyal and dedicated staff, who have built up an enviable reputation throughout the world. They will be fully consulted on proposals and plans to adjust to the levels of capability now justified for defence purposes. Non-mobile staff at Nancekuke will be offered work where possible within reasonable travelling distance, and some will be offered transfers with the work. Assistance with housing at new locations will be provided where possible. Mobile staff will be offered jobs elsewhere or transferred with their jobs. Some redundancy of non-mobile staff will, I regret to say, inevitably arise, but every effort will be made to contain it and all possible steps will be taken to prevent hardship.

I hope that what I have said tonight demonstrates that MRE and CDE, already having responded very flexibly to the changing post-war needs for biological and chemical defence, must, because of the current need for economy in 1978–79 and onwards, achieve a major adjustment in their response to defence and civil needs. The review that the defence White Paper announced is the means by which this is to be brought about. I am convinced that it will result eventually in arrangements that will take the interests of the staff fully into account and aim to make the best use in the defence and national interest of Porton's expertise and facilities.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes to One o'clock.