HC Deb 10 January 1989 vol 144 cc679-80
11. Ms. Quin

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence when he last had consultations with his United States counterpart on the deployment of chemical weapons.

Mr. Neubert

My right hon. Friend has regular discussions with his United States counterpart on a wide range of defence issues. However, the United Kingdom has not been approached about the possible deployment of United States chemical weapons in the United Kingdom.

Ms. Quin

Will the Government urge the United States to make a speedy response to the recent Soviet announcement on the elimination of chemical weapons stocks? Will they also urge the United States to come up with a timetable for disposing of its own stocks rather than building them up, as seems to be happening at present?

Mr. Neubert

The hon. Lady should not forget that the Soviet Union has the largest and most sophisticated chemical weapons capability in the world. For 18 years, between 1969 and 1987, the United States observed a moratorium on the production of chemical weapons with no response from the Soviet Union. In fact, it was only 18 months ago that the Soviet Union acknowledged that it had any. The Russians have a long way to go, but I am sure that the United States, like Britain, will be glad of their response.

Mr. Key

Does my hon. Friend agree that the rapid progress being made in talks on chemical weapons has a great deal to do with the Government's initiative in the exchange between scientists at the chemical defence establishment at Porton Down and its Russian equivalent last year?

Mr. Neubert

My hon. Friend is right to point to that sequence of events, but it was disappointing that on our bilateral visit to Shikhany we were refused the opportunity to inspect a building that was clearly part of a chemical weapons complex.

Mr. Ron Brown

Is it not the height of hypocrisy for America to point the finger at Libya when the Americans are continuing to manufacture and to build up stocks of chemical weapons?

Mr. Neubert

The United States is right, as we are, to be concerned about the possibility of Libya acquiring a chemical weapons capability. That regime is a self-proclaimed sponsor of international terrorism and the prospect of it having chemical weapons must be of concern to all of us, including, I hope, the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Latham

Is not the only honourable policy to be followed that which Britain followed many years ago—to destroy all stocks of these abominable weapons as soon as possible? Should not any country thinking of building chemical plants abandon the idea immediately?

Mr. Neubert

My hon. Friend is right to point to Britain's record. We abolished our stocks in the late 1950s. However, the American moratorium met with no response and there is always doubt about the effectiveness of such unilateral measures.

Mr. Heffer

Why do the Government always have a negative response to anything that comes out of the Soviet Union? Is it not clear that Mr. Gorbachev has the generals and others breathing down his neck while he is trying to get rid of weapons of all kinds in order to help Russia's economy? Is it not about time that the Government gave a positive response to what Mr. Gorbachev is doing?

Mr. Neubert

We and the Americans have given a positive welcome to what the Soviets have proposed, but, as I have made clear, they have a long way to go and we shall want some assurance, particularly about verification, before we can be satisfied that their proposal will meet the objectives that we all seek.

Mr. Devlin

Are not consultations urgently needed with the American Defence Secretary on the possibility of chemical weapons falling into the hands of terrorist organisations, particularly as one state seems happy to hand over all types of weapons to terrorists? Should not we be intervening to stop that as soon as possible?

Mr. Neubert

My hon. Friend is right. We have close consultations with the Americans on that issue because the proliferation of such weapons in Third world countries which take a different view is a matter of concern to both our nations. The United Kingdom and the Americans are seeking a comprehensive global and verifiable ban, and that will be the best thing.

Mr. Boyes

I welcome the Minister to his new post, particularly after his six years of silence while I have been a Member of the House. I hope to hear some words of wisdom from him, including an undertaking to ask the United States for a commitment to destroy all the 155 mm shells that they have armed to deliver chemical agents on to the battlefield.

Will the Minister also ask the United States to cancel the sixfold increase in the budget for the manufacture of the Big Eye bomb and to match the Soviet Union in a series of unilateral and bilateral steps to eliminate all the obscene and horrendous chemical weapons by the end of 1989?

Mr. Neubert

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks. It must be for the Americans to dictate the pace and choice of their weapons policy. They are keen to achieve a comprehensive ban. It was President Reagan's initiative that brought about the Paris conference last weekend. Their good faith is not in doubt.