HC Deb 01 February 1983 vol 36 cc130-2
5. Mr. Renton

asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether he will set out in detail the arrangements regarding the use of cruise missiles referred to in the answer of 14 December, Official Report, c. 124; and whether, in the light of developments in the negotiations for multilateral disarmament, he will review these arrangements.

7. Mr. Penhaligon

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the precise method of dual-key control for cruise missiles.

Mr. Heseltine

The use by United States forces of bases in this country in an emergency—including those bases to which cruise missiles will be deployed in the absence of concrete results from the arms control negotiations in Geneva—would be a matter for joint decision between the two Governments in the light of circumstances at the time. The Government have satisfied themselves that these arrangements, which have existed for nearly 30 years and have been supported by successive Governments, remain fully effective.

Mr. Renton

I thank my right hon. Friend for his full answer, but does he agree that while the vast majority of British people want us to have an independent nuclear deterrent, they are anxious at the prospect of such a deterrent, based on British soil, not being under sovereign British control? Will he therefore make the public as fully aware of the facts as possible and deal with this anxiety throughout the year with all his usual diplomacy?

Mr. Heseltine

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. I hope that I have made it absolutely clear that the bases from which nuclear weapons could be deployed would not be used except by the joint decision of the American and British Governments. The decision would be taken in the light of circumstances—

Mr. Cryer

"In the light of circumstances" can mean anything.

Mr. Heseltine

—prevailing at the time.

Mr. Cryer

What about consultation?

Mr. Heseltine

There is no reference to consultation in the decision-taking process. Mr. Speaker, although the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) did not ask the original question, I accept, and everyone understands, that this is a matter of massive national interest. If it will help the House I shall read briefly from the arrangements that exist between this country and the United States. They were the arrangements that were discussed earlier between Mr. Attlee and Mr. Truman and later between Mr. Churchill and Mr. Truman. The communiqué was issued in January 1952 in the following terms: Under arrangements made for the common defence, the United States has the use of certain bases in the United Kingdom. We reaffirm the understanding that the use of these bases in an emergency would be a matter for joint decision by Her Majesty's Government and the United States Government in the light of circumstances at the time.

Mr. Penhaligon

Whatever the merits of the arrangements that the Secretary of State has just read to the House, why does he not believe that dual control would be better?

Mr. Heseltine

It is not a matter of dogma or theology. The offer was discussed between the United States and the countries of Europe when the decisions to deploy cruise and Pershing misslies were taken. The offer of a dual key was available. The Governments of Europe took their respective views. I can speak specifically only for the way in which this Government took their decision. Our view was that in the light of the experience of the arrangements to which I have referred, over a significant period of time and under Governments of both parties, there was no case for the additional strain on the defence budget that would have been imposed by buying the cruise platform systems when they would be fully protected under the arrangements that were on offer.

The House will of course appreciate that the arrangements that I have read out are precisely the arrangements that apply to the use by the United States of bases for the Poseidon submarine and the F-111 bombers. The agreements are reviewed and reaffirmed when a British Prime Minister or a President of the United States first takes office. These agreements were last reaffirmed by President Reagan and previously by the Prime Minister when she was first elected to No. 10 three and a half years ago.

Mr. Alan Clark

Are not the arrangements that were formulated some 30 years ago for sub-sonic aircraft and free-fall bombs wholly inappropriate for dispersed missiles with electronic triggers and targeting? The sooner my right hon. Friend starts making arrangements to return control of the missiles to Britons answerable to the Crown and the House, the better.

Mr. Heseltine

I understand fully the depth of feeling that exists on this issue. It might help my hon. Friend to understand that the arrangements governing the use of the bases would come into effect much sooner than the decisions to use weapons in the context in which my hon. Friend describes the rather delicate electronic machinery for firing the weapons.

The decisions to use the bases would be at a much earlier and therefore much more important stage of the process in that context.

Mr. Denzil Davies

Does the Secretary of State not get the point that the agreement reached a long time ago was about bases and not about the cruise missile, which is wholly different from the original weapons? If this missile were fired, which God forbid, Britain could then expect massive nuclear retaliation. Does the Secretary of State not owe it to the British people to have proper physical control over the firing of the missile?

Mr. Heseltine

The right hon. Gentleman will realise that there has always been an understanding that the Soviets could conceivably use Great Britain as a target. We are anxious about the number of Soviet weapons systems targeted on Western Europe today, and that is why we consider it necessary to have the deterrent effect of the dispersal of the cruise and Pershing missiles.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We shall return to this question later.