HC Deb 20 March 1985 vol 75 cc852-5
4. Mr. Stephen Ross

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what representations Her Majesty's Government made to the United States Government prior to the resumption of the Geneva arms talks.

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Sir Geoffrey Howe)

Both before and since the beginning of the Geneva talks on 12 March we have maintained close contact with the United States. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I had discussions with President Reagan and Secretary of State Shultz in December and February. Those talks covered all aspects of the issues which will be the subject of the Geneva negotiations.

Mr. Ross

Given Mr. Richard Perle's criticisms of the Foreign Secretary's speech, reported in the newspapers today, will the Foreign Secretary tell us exactly where we now stand on the star wars issue? Did he make any representations about the extra 21 multi-warheaded MX missiles? Is it not time that we called for a freeze by both sides to give the talks a chance to succeed?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

A freeze would not be a useful contribution to the prospect of conclusions on balanced arms control, because it would immobolise the imbalance that currently exists, not least in intermediate range nuclear weapons.

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday, The policy —on star wars— was, and remains, in the four points set out at Camp David and reaffirmed when I was in Washington. My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary was speaking in pursuance of that policy."—[Official Report, 19 March 1985; Vol. 75, c. 779.] The 21 MX missiles are part of the programme of modernisation to which the United States is committed. That is one aspect of the search being undertaken at Geneva for an effective agreement on arms control, including a reduction in nuclear weapons on all sides.

Sir Peter Blaker

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that in his speech last week he supported the American research on the strategic defence initiative, as the Prime Minister has done? Is that not the right course for our Government to take, given that the Soviet Union itself is widely known to be conducting research?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. That is one of the points that I have made clear not only in that speech but on many other occasions, including discussions with representatives of the Soviet Union and her allies. The Soviet Union has for many years been engaged in research in that field, and has moved further towards deployment within the limits of the 1972 treaty. It is essential for the West to match that research and the way in which it is being carried out.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

Will my right hon. and learned Friend repeat and emphasise his misgivings about the strategic defence initiative passing the research stage? Does he agree that if the SDI does not work it will be a gigantic waste of money, and that if it works it will simply encourage the development of the alternative nuclear weapons delivery systems to which Britain and Europe are particularly vulnerable?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I quite understand that point. That is why we have emphasised—it was one of the points agreed at Camp David—that research should certainly proceed. As members of the American Administration have made clear, we cannot know what the research programme that the President and Secretary of State Weinberger have directed will uncover.

It is also clear—another of the Camp David points—that the deployment of SDI-related weapons would be a matter for negotiation in the context of existing treaty obligations.

Dr. M. S. Miller

Does the Secretary of State accept that there is considerable applause on this side of the House—and some from his own side—for his lukewarm attitude to the strategic defence initiative? Will he go a step further and make it clear to President Reagan and to the Americans that star wars is a lot of nonsense and that the enormous amount of money that will be spent on this research would be far better spent in other fields?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I invite the hon. Gentleman to address that serious question on the right basis. Research into defence technology in space has been undertaken by the Soviet Union for many years, and the Soviet Union projects into space more than twice as many objects of that kind as the rest of the world together. It is therefore important for such research to be sustained. It is equally important to stress that the outcome of that research is by no means concluded and that, as the Camp David points made clear, the deployment of SDI-related technology must be a matter for negotiations.

Mr. Ian Lloyd

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the defence of the free world for at least four decades has depended on, now depends on and will in the future depend on the capacity of the free world to maintain and create a superior defence technology? Will he assure us that nothing will be done to prejudice that capacity?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The defence of the world from the prospect of war in the past 40 years has depended on the effectiveness of the nuclear deterrent. It is equally clear, as was set out in one of the four points at Camp David, that the aim of the United States and the West is not to achieve superiority but to maintain balance, which is crucially important, taking into account Soviet development.

Mr. Nellist

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that, parallel to the resumption of the so-called disarmament talks in Geneva, there was a two-day United Nations conference which tried to raise $1.5 billion to save 30 million people in Africa from the effects of starvation? As the major world powers spend £1 million a minute on weapons and armaments, does the Foreign Secretary agree that that problem could have been solved not in two days but in one if the real issue—total disarmament—had been taken up at Geneva?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the importance of the world doing everything that it can to address itself to the problem of starvation, and worse, in Africa. That is a programme in which we have taken a leading part. If he wants to compare that with the other major issue to which he referred, he should take account of the fact that the Soviet Union spends probably twice as large a percentage of its gross national product on arms as, and that her record of giving aid to such countries compares lamentably with that of, the free world.

Mr. Nicholls

Will my right hon. and learned Friend accept that probably the main reason why the Russians came back to the disarmament talks is that they were convinced that the West was prepared to defend itself? Was not the West's lead in star wars technology such that the Russians had no alternative but to come back to the negotiating table?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am sure that one of the factors which has persuaded the Soviet Union of the need to resume the arms control talks, which she had left, has been the continued and effective unity of the North Atlantic Alliance, as demonstrated and sustained by the continued deployment programme of intermediate range weapons in Europe.

Mr. Norman Atkinson

When the Foreign Secretary refers to the imbalance between nuclear weapons possessed by NATO and those possessed by the Soviet Union, and goes on to say that that was the initial discussion at Geneva, is that on the assumption that the true numbers are put on the table for negotiation? If so, why does the Foreign Secretary refuse to confirm to Members of Parliament the exact numbers of nuclear weapons possessed by Britain?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The hon. Gentleman will find that the extent to which the Government and the country have laid open the nature and scale of our weapons, as set out in successive White Papers, compares very favourably with any other country.

Mr. Baldry

Although the negotiations at Geneva are important, disarmament talks are also taking place at Stockholm, and there are talks on the control of chemical weapons. What initiatives are the Government taking on the control of chemical weapons, which are just as frightening as nuclear weapons to mainland Europe?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding us of the importance of achieving a worldwide ban on chemical weapons, such as we seek. Probably the hardest issue is verification. He will know that that is a subject on which the United Kingdom has taken a leading part. We tabled several proposals directed at that problem—in 1983 and 1984—and on 12 March 1985, my hon. Friend the Minister of State presented further proposals to that end in Geneva. My hon. Friend is right to underline the importance of this matter.

Mr. Healey

May I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on the penetrating and comprehensive critique of the star wars programme that he made the other day, and on provoking an alarming outburst of hysteria from the editor of The Times? As President Reagan said that he was ready to consider a ban or moratorium on tests of anti-satellite weapons, whereas the Foreign Secretary said that the future is now, will he now make the negotiation of such a ban the main objective of British policy, and will he seek to extend it to a ban or moratorium on all tests of space systems which are capable of verification by national means?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The right hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the importance of verification, which is a crucial part of any effective disarmament agreement. He is right also to remind the House that in my speech I was commending the statement by the President of the United States in his United Nations address about his willingness to work for agreement in ASAT technology. I respond, as always, with gratitude to the congratulations extended by the right hon. Gentleman, but I remind him that he should read the speech as a whole and understand beyond doubt that the speech was based firmly and squarely upon the existing policy as set out by my right hon. Friend to the President at Camp David.

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