HC Deb 15 December 1994 vol 251 cc1222-39 1.56 am
Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

I wish to put on record my gratitude to Madam Speaker for arranging for at least an airing of this matter in the Consolidated Fund Bill debate. I had hoped that the Government would raise it in Government time, at a slightly more popular hour, but perhaps it is more fitting that it should go through the House in the dead of night.

I am disappointed with the way in which the extension of the mutual defence agreement has been handled and I want to mention some of the features of the debate—or non-debate—about it. Had the Government had their way, the agreement would have passed us by without any debate. It was laid formally on the Table on 21 October and, under the Ponsonby rules, would have been left there for 21 working days and then ratified without debate in the House.

Although the draft agreement laid by the Government was brief, half-way down the front page it said that the agreement had already passed through the American Congress on 23 May 1994. A number of hon. Members have already questioned why the matter has been delayed in Britain until now. The explanation lies somewhere between cock-up and contempt. The cock-up part of the explanation is, I am told, that the agreement was lost somewhere within the Foreign Office. Fairly late in the proceedings it was hastily retrieved from the other side of the Atlantic.

I should also point out that, among the other points of difference in the way in which the matter was processed, was the fact that when the agreement went through Congress it had been laid before both the Congress and the Senate for 60 days. That certainly has not been the case in the United Kingdom Parliament.

The agreement expires at the end of this month. As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, we do not have much longer to wait before this part of this Session of Parliament finishes. It would be extremely embarrassing, although not fatal for its renewal, if the agreement were not signed before it expired and had to be re-signed as a renegotiated agreement. However, that has not happened. I picked the matter up only on the last day on which, under the Ponsonby rules, the agreement was formally to lie to on the Table.

I had an interesting time trying to get copies of the original agreement. I found that it was much easier to get access to it through sources in the United States. For the record, we ought to recognise what the agreement sets out. The formal title is: An agreement for the co-operation in the uses of atomic energy for atomic energy for mutual defence purposes. It commits both the United States and the United Kingdom to communicate and exchange information and transfer materials and equipment to the other party for their mutual defence and security. There is specific focus on the nuclear arms programme. The agreement refers to the exchange of information, which would include classified information, sensitive nuclear technology and controlled nuclear information, as is jointly determined to be necessary". It covers the "development of defence plans", the training of personnel in the employment of atomic weapons and defence against them, other military applications of atomic energy … the development of delivery systems compatible with those atomic weapons and research, development and design of military reactors". There is fairly comprehensive coverage of the areas in which exchange of information and personnel will take place. It is difficult, though, to find out the implications of the agreement. In fact, it has been extremely difficult and well nigh impossible in some cases, for Parliament to find out anything about it since it was originally signed in 1958.

I was intrigued by the use of the Ponsonby rule. Perhaps I can clarify how and why it has been used. The Minister replied to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith) on 30 November, simply formally recording that the 1994 amendment was laid before Parliament on 21 October and that the Ponsonby rule required it to remain there for 21 days before it could be ratified.

The normal procedure under the Ponsonby rule is that if there is an objection, the matter is brought before the House. The briefing note given to Members of Parliament about the matter clarifies that that is not an obligation but a custom. It also says: There is no presumption that Parliament will debate every treaty laid under the Ponsonby rule, but once Parliament has been presented with the text of an important or controversial treaty, it is difficult in practice for the Leader of the House to resist a debate on it. Indeed, Ponsonby's original announcement included the promise that 'If there is a formal demand for discussion forwarded through the usual channels from the Opposition or any other party, time will be found for the discussion of the treaty in question.' Consequently, it may be said that any controversial treaty which requires ratification is as likely to be debated in the House of Commons as in other comparable Parliaments. I hope that I will make it clear that that is not what happens. Parliament is systematically deceived and has been so ever since the first signing of the agreement. The systematic and consistent refusals by the Leader of the House to hold a full debate before Parliament in Government time are part of a process which goes back almost 40 years.

The letter from the Leader of the House states: Neither the 1958 agreement itself nor the amendment now under consideration involves any financial commitment by the UK or entails any obligation to purchase goods or services from the United States. The servicing, maintenance, operation and decommissioning costs of the Trident programme are determined by separate agreements. Strictly speaking, it may be accurate to describe the situation that way, but it is also economical with the truth. The way in which the matter has been dealt with in the American Congress reveals a markedly different picture of the practical and financial implications of the agreement into which the UK entered all those years ago.

I am grateful to others who have raised the issue in the past—particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), in a debate on 21 December 1981. In it he said: I am deeply embarrassed by the possibility that plutonium provided by the British civil nuclear power programme might be contributing to that weapons drive. He was referring to the rapid expansion of the American nuclear weapons programme in the 1980s, and added: That contribution will remain real whether the plutonium that we send is used directly for one of the 14,000 nuclear warheads or merely used indirectly to start the Clinch River fast breeder, and thereby to free stocks of plutonium for the weapons programme that would otherwise have been used to start the fast breeder reactor."—[Official Report, 21 December 1981; Vol. 15, c. 733–4.] The years since then have produced a realisation that the agreement provided significant, core underpinning of precisely that expansion of the American nuclear weapons programme. There is substantial evidence that there has been crossover from the civil plutonium produced in the UK to the American nuclear weapons programme.

My hon. Friend received limited answers. I was shocked to have had it confirmed by the Library that the signing of the original agreement was never formally announced to Parliament. In the United States, the agreement's terms and implications were the subject of four months of detailed formal hearings by Congress. Yet the UK Parliament was denied any access to the agreement or any scrutiny or discussion of its implications. That is a dreadful indictment of Parliament's role in determining the ethical if not legal acceptability of agreements and treaties which the UK enters into. The public and Parliament were deceived over the signing of both the original agreement and its extension now.

The House was never told either that there were additional details of the agreement which have never been acknowledged by the Government. On 28 November 1979, one of the congressional records—a message from Jimmy Carter, the then President of the United States, to the Congress of the United States—simply said: I am pleased to transmit to the Congress the text of an amendment to the agreement between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for co-operation on the uses of atomic energy for mutual defence purposes of 3 July 1958, as amended … The joint classified and unclassified memorandums, which provide summary analysis of the amendment, are also enclosed. Those documents were supplied to the US Congress. Under the American Freedom of Information Act, it has been possible to get access to that annexe.

My excitement about the annexe quickly dissipated when I discovered that, although people have access to it, this comes in a form that is described as "sanitised"—and it certainly is. The document is entitled The technical annexe to the agreement between the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of the United States of America for co-operation on the use of atomic energy and mutual defence purposes of July 3rd 1958". The title is followed by nine pages, all of which are blank apart from three, which have just titles at the top.

I am not complaining that the full details of the technical annexe are not available. What concerns me is that the British Government have never even admitted that such an annexe exists. The information about it has systematically been kept from Parliament and there has been no discussion about the implications it might have for the governance and defence of the United Kingdom.

The Leader of the House, when he wrote to me, said that this was not a matter which should concern us because it was a "nil-cost" agreement. I was fascinated to discover, though, that there are substantial costs. It is a matter of how the costs are dealt with rather then whether they exist. I am especially indebted to Greenpeace which has done a phenomenal amount of work in bringing this information to light in the United Kingdom—information which has been more readily available in the United States.

It is worth putting the transactions on record and then looking at the resultant costs. It is true that the agreement does not oblige the United Kingdom to purchase goods from the United States, but in that sense, it is a bit like a hire purchase agreement. It costs nothing to sign a hire purchase agreement; it is only when one starts to acquire goods under it that the costs begin. As a result of the American Freedom of Information Act, I was able to clarify that, between 1959 and 1978, the UK Government spent a total of 6.6 million on materials purchased under the agreement. The annual cost was $350,000 dollars. In addition, it is acknowledged that there is to be built into the account the costs of staff in London and Washington who are dedicated to handling material and information transfers. There are at least 10 such staff simply doing the administration. There is also the cost of visits to US facilities to obtain information which has to be accounted for.

I am sorry to go into acronyms at this stage, but there are two areas to which specific costs relate. One is the jowogs—the joint working groups. These are groups of scientists and experts who work on a variety of detailed technical exchanges in relation to the nuclear defence programme. As I understand it, there are at least 40 such jowogs in operation. They cover such subjects as neutron sources, high explosives for nuclear weapons, computational methods and procedures, metallurgy of weapons materials—that is, plutonium research—non-nuclear components, non-metallic materials, weapons physics, tritium technology, the spread of nuclear contamination, the joint use of test facilities, procedures and techniques for the manufacture, inspection, testing and acceptance of materials and weapons assemblies, existing and proposed Polaris warheads, the Polaris joint re-entry system working group, the strategic weapon test group and the joint United States-United Kingdom financial management working group. If there are no financial implications, it seems somewhat bizarre to set up a financial management working group.

We have also acquired equipment. We have acquired a series of items over the past 10 years which includes components such as velocity sensing devices, tritium gas reservoirs, timers, specially designed hardware items, structural components, by-product and unfabricated special nuclear materials such as plutonium, normal or depleted uranium and thorium, testing and handling equipment for nuclear weapons, swapped nuclear test debris samples and components used in the fusing, firing and making safe of British nuclear weapons—including switches, relays, cables, printed circuits, batteries and irradiated vacuum tubes. Those items have all been exchanged under the agreement.

I was fascinated to know how and why those exchanges would take place at nil cost. The description suggests the sort of homely exchange that takes place on the porch at the end of a long sunny evening, when people are just swapping tales. The practicalities of the agreement, however, are far removed from that. They relate to practical exchanges of information, resources and hardware that are essential parts of the nuclear weapons programmes of both America and the United Kingdom.

The details of how the agreement was to be financed were never presented to the House. Some were set out in a book by John Simpson, who is neither a relative of mine nor a newscaster, but who was a special adviser to the Palme commission and a member of the UN secretary-general's expert group on conventional disarmament. In "The Independent Nuclear State", he wrote: It was planned that the Atomic Energy Commission would create a $200 million revolving fund to finance the Anglo-American trade in fissile materials, though the precise mechanism envisaged remains somewhat obscure. There is a strong suggestion that the money was initially to be lent to Britain, which would then use it to pay for some or all of the enriched uranium and tritium purchased from the AEC prior to 1964. Receipts for this transaction would then be used to purchase plutonium produced in Britain. This procedure would have the effect of making the transaction a virtually cost-free exercise for the United Kingdom Government. The exercise may be cost-free in a strict accounting sense, but it is a version of the Asil Nadir approach to accounting for exchanges, which I find extremely dubious. Again, though, the House was never told that such a fund was being set up by the United States to allow the United Kingdom to purchase materials, and to have the plutonium purchased back in what would appear to be a nil-cost transaction.

If that sum existed in 1964, does it still exist now? Will the Minister tell us whether it has moved with the retail prices index? If so, we are talking about a sum that must now be in the region of $1 billion—not insignificant in anyone's accounting terms.

I also wondered about the sort of materials which were involved in the exchange. I am grateful to the United States Natural Resources Defence Council, which managed to establish the current volume of exchange—the "shopping basket"—between the United Kingdom and the United States, through to 30 December 1994. The United States estimated that the following quantities would be exchanged in each calendar year: 500 kg of normal or depleted uranium, 100 kg of thorium, 200 g each of other source, by-product and unfabricated special nuclear materials. In addition, there would be an exchange of "test equipment". The one item that was deleted by-the American vetting system was the specific details of the amount of plutonium that was part of the exchange. Clearly, however, plutonium was the other component of that exchange.

For a long time, the Government attempted to say that the plutonium was part of the nuclear weapons programme and that there was no prospect of any plutonium produced in civil nuclear reactors being part of a weapons programme, either directly or indirectly. However, on 4 July this year my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent asked a written question to which the then Minister of State for Defence Procurement replied: The 1962 test confirmed the technical feasibility of constructing a nuclear explosive device using reactor-grade plutonium. This fact was declassified by the United States in 1977. There are, though, significant technical difficulties which would complicate the manufacture and storage of any weapon based on reactor-grade plutonium. In a second written answer, my hon. Friend was told: The assurance given in 1964 by the United States Government to the United Kingdom Government, that plutonium produced in the United Kingdom civil reactors and supplied to the United States under the 1958 agreement would not be used for weapons purposes, remains valid."—[Official Report, 4 July 1994; Vol. 246, c. 82–3.] These seem to be completely contradictory statements.

The United States admitted on 27 June this year that it had used civil plutonium in a nuclear explosion. What we do not know is how many other nuclear explosions were conducted using civil plutonium. We know only that it is now accepted that that happens and that the UK objections are technical rather than ethical. I must say that I think that the ethical aspect is much more important than the technical one because it raises important questions about the integrity of the United Kingdom's civil nuclear programme and that of any commitments that we make about the use of plutonium in the production of nuclear weapons.

We also know from our own UK sources that the United Kingdom has produced some 80,000 kg of plutonium—enough to make 20,000 nuclear bombs. However, we have no account of the plutonium transfers between the United Kingdom and the United States. We have no knowledge of how many of those transfers involved civil nuclear materials, or how much of that plutonium was used in the American nuclear weapons programme.

Many hon. Members have become increasingly disturbed about the dishonesty of the United Kingdom's approach to signing, conducting and sustaining an agreement which may well have a destabilising rather than stabilising effect on global and international relations.

I remind the House of a comment made on 13 May 1986 by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). He said: The biggest cover-up of all, for which I shall never forgive those responsible, was that throughout the period when I was Minister, plutonium from our atoms-for-peace reactors was going to America to make bombs and warheads that would return to American bases here. That view has been confirmed by Ministers in this Government. I was cross-examined about it at the Sizewell inquiry, and only recently has it been admitted that the atoms-for-peace power stations are in reality bomb factories for the United States"—[Official Report, 13 May 1986; Vol. 97, c. 612.] The scale of that bomb-making process has never been admitted. The only estimate that I could come across was in the technical annexe to the book by John Simpson, in which the author said that the initial view of the United States was that it would acquire a maximum of 6,500 kg of plutonium from Britain to support its nuclear programme. The House has never been given any confirmation of how much plutonium the United Kingdom has supplied to the United States as part of the agreement. I now formally ask the Minister to tell the House what congressional committees have almost certainly been told in the United States. The House has a right to know what scale of plutonium exchanges this country has been involved in as a result of the obligations entered into as part of the agreement.

Some enormous implications follow from the way in which the agreement has been signed, conducted, sustained—and now, possibly, renewed. The first implication relates to the non-proliferation treaty, and the conference on its extension that will begin in April next year.

Many of us have long argued that Britain is in breach of articles I and VI of the non-proliferation treaty. The Trident programme is almost certainly an act of nuclear proliferation. Everyone outside the United Kingdom acknowledges the fact that the massive increase in the nuclear warheads available to this country puts us in breach of those articles. Also, specifically, the agreement appears to put us in breach of article I.

It is worth reminding the House what article I says: Each nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly". Yet that is precisely what the agreement sets out to do.

The agreement also puts us in breach of article VI, which reminds us of our further obligations: Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament". For the past 25 years of the non-proliferation treaty, the United Kingdom Government have not participated in any nuclear arms reductions whatever. In fact we are now one of the few countries that appear to be moving in the opposite direction.

Will the Minister explain how he sees the renewal of the agreement as consistent either with the existing NPT or with the extension negotiations that will take place in a few months' time? And how does he see it as consistent with the agreement, or accord, recently signed at the Budapest summit? The Budapest document contains a simple statement on the principles governing non-proliferation: The participating states strongly believe that the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and missiles to deliver them poses a threat to international peace, security and stability, and hereby affirm their commitment to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons". Yet the list of exchanges which have taken place under the agreement, and the intention to continue that agreement for a further 10 years, sets the United Kingdom off on a practical path that will render both of those agreements worthless. They will not even be worth the paper that they are written on because the practical consequences of our agreement is to disregard our wider international agreements. The Government attempt to do so in ways that systematically deceive the House, the country and the international community.

The agreement also has some phenomenally dangerous and destabilising implications for the prospects of the signing of a comprehensive test ban treaty. Non-nuclear weapon states, which are being asked to subscribe to a treaty that will effectively exclude them from ever being nuclear weapons states, are already asking what the nuclear club will do in return. It is no longer acceptable for the nuclear powers to say, "We will act as a stabilising force and we will protect you," because the wars across the globe have made it clear that no such deterrent or stabilising force is particularly credible at the moment.

Many of the non-nuclear states, or the "maybe" nuclear states, are looking much more seriously at the argument that we have been using for a long time. They are saying, "If it's okay for you to have nuclear weapons, it should be okay for us. If you don't want us to go down that path, the quid pro quo must be that if we don't secure and obtain nuclear weapons, you have to stop testing."

One of the big issues in that dialogue is the extent to which the nuclear states have a technical capability now which no longer requires us to physically test nuclear weapons. That testing can be carried out by computer modelling in ways that allow for the refinements and upgrading of our weapons systems to improve—and I use "improve" in parenthesis—and increase their effectiveness and the diversity of ways in which they can be used. That, in itself, is an act of proliferation. Seen through the eyes of the non-nuclear world, it is not a stand-still situation. However, this agreement is the bedrock on which we can continue acts of selective proliferation for ourselves while we seek to deny others access to the nuclear club.

It has been a serious error of judgment and a serious dereliction of duty for the Government to think that they could simply ratify an extension of such an agreement without giving the House an opportunity, in Government time, to raise fundamental questions about the ethics, advisability and acceptability—in global terms—of moving along that path. Given the opportunity, the House may have wanted to say that it is time to let the agreement lapse. If the world required a gesture from the United Kingdom, one of the most important suggestions that we could have made is that we would cease to be involved in this bilateral exchange of high-level nuclear information.

The agreement also raises questions, as a process, about ways in which the Government might use the Ponsonby rule, to ratify other treaties which would have equally profound effects on the governance of this country, and the place of this country internationally, and which would pass through the House without Parliament having the right to debate, disagree or even register an opinion on the implications of some of those proposals.

I end with several fairly simple questions that I would like the Minister to answer. Will he arrange an open debate, in Government time, on the set of implications contained in any proposal to renew and extend the agreement? Will he supply to Parliament and to the Select Committees on Defence and Foreign Affairs the information that has been supplied to similar committees in the United States Congress and Senate? Will he set out the detailed costs of all aspects of the 1958 agreement, including the administrative costs, and also the barter and loan arrangements that have been built into it?

Will the Minister set out the details of all the jowogs and eivrs that currently exist? The eivrs are the official visits and consequent reports. I should like him to do that so that Parliament is again treated to information in precisely the same terms available to the American Congress, and to the American people under their Freedom of Information Act.

Will the Minister explain how the signing of an extension to the agreement will contribute, first, to the Budapest summit commitments that the Government entered into—specifically in terms of preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons; secondly, to the implementation of article 1 of the non-proliferation treaty; and, thirdly, to making progress and offering reassurances to other states in relation to the signing of a CTBT?

Will the Minister explain also whether the bottom line realities of the agreement that he proposes to have renewed are that, without the agreement, Britain does not have an independent nuclear deterrent but that, with the agreement, we have a policy that gives us no independence? What we have is an umbilical link between the United States and the United Kingdom, in which this country and the House have become the nuclear lackeys of the American nuclear arms programme.

The agreement is essential to the underpinning of the £30 billion costs of the nuclear arms programme with which this country is saddled. It is part of the process which underpins our nuclear servitude and the nuclear instability that threatens the planet. This is a dreadfully high price to pay for nuclear dependence and a dreadful price that the country and Parliament has had to pay for its systematic deception for almost 40 years.

2.36 am
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) on his perseverance in trying to obtain this debate and on what he has just said. I echo his requests for information from the Government.

Over the years that I have been a Member of the House, the Consolidated Fund debate has been a useful way for hon. Members who wish to uncover what the Government want to hide to pry a little into what is going on. If this is to be the last Consolidated Fund debate that keeps us up all night, I hope that, when we exchange it for time which might be much more convenient on a Wednesday morning, it will be just as easy for people such as my hon. Friend to prod and pry into matters that the Government want to keep secret.

Although I am pleased that my hon. Friend has obtained this debate, it is an absolute disgrace that we have to debate this matter in such a way. If the treaty is important, and if it is the key to the whole of the Government's strategy of nuclear deterrence, why is a Minister not prepared to stand at the Dispatch Box and set out why we should have the treaty and its benefits? Instead of trying to smuggle it through without debate, if it is so central to the Government's policy, they should have been prepared to say, "These are the benefits to the United Kingdom. As a result of the treaty, we really have an independent nuclear deterrent."

Although it is an abomination, at least the Government should be prepared to set out why they want such a position and what the benefits to the United Kingdom are. They should say how, as a result of the treaty, even if we have political disagreements with the United States, it will still be contractually bound to supply us the with things that we need to keep the nuclear deterrent independent. A Minister should tell us proudly what the benefits are, instead of having to be dragged to the House to answer questions.

I should have thought that the Minister would set out clearly what the cost to the United Kingdom will be. It is one of the fundamental principles of Parliament that we should be given information about costs, and that the Government should set out to justify them. Again, it is extremely difficult to find out what the costs are. The Leader of the House has suggested that the arrangement has no cost implications, but he does not put a very convincing case—obviously there are cost implications.

What are the safety implications of the arrangement? We know that materials are to be transferred. I think that the Minister owes the House an assurance that the transfer of fissile material between the two countries carries no safety implications at all.

The Minister must assure us that the arrangement contains nothing that has breached, or will breach, the nuclear non-proliferation treaty in any way. We are extremely keen for other country's nuclear industries to be inspected and regulated to ensure that they are not likely to breach the treaty or pose an international threat. It is fundamental that the British Government try to show—if they can—that we have not breached the treaty.

The Government should set out reasons why the agreement does not make it more difficult for us to renegotiate the non-proliferation treaty. It is in everyone's best interests to renew the treaty and get it to work effectively. While they are making other countries give cast-iron undertakings, the Government should be prepared to say that they have not breached the treaty and that the agreement will not weaken our negotiating position. The Government have not made such a statement and I hope that the Minister will at least attempt to produce that information in his reply to the debate.

It is sad that the Government treat the arrangements with so much secrecy. Much more information is available in the United States. I accept that the Government do not want to put details about the design of a nuclear triggerhead before the Parliament, but I do not understand why most of the information in the arrangement cannot be revealed to the House.

When we want to establish an effective deterrent, we tell people what we have and what we are capable of doing with it. If we do not inform people of our capabilities, the implication is that we probably do not have anything to act as a deterrent. That has been the case with most nuclear deterrents in recent years. It is quite clear that the Polaris submarines are not functioning effectively and that their whole deterrent effect has crumbled. That is why the Government want to pretend—it is the emperor's new clothes syndrome—that things are operating well when they are not. The Minister should tell the House whether the agreement is operational and whether all the details are in place, but I understand why he is not prepared to do that.

The Government must set out the answers to key questions. Are we still dependent on the United States for the design of the triggers for the nuclear weapons? Are they being designed at Sandina; if so, is it specified in the arrangements and how does that fit in with the nuclear non-proliferation treaty? Will we be able to say during the treaty negotiations that there has been no transfer of information and nuclear capabilities, which I understand is in breach of the non-proliferation treaty?

What will our officials say during treaty negotiations? Can they prove that we are not dependent on the transfer of the trigger design? Can they prove that there is no collaboration and no transfer of fissile material between the two countries? Unless we are prepared to be open and above board about our dealings with the United States in negotiations on the non-proliferation treaty, I do not see how we can expect other countries to assure us that they are not transferring information or trying to develop their own nuclear systems. It is fundamental that the Government can convince not only the House but the world that we have not been in breach of the non-proliferation treaty and that we will have no difficulty in signing up to future sections of it.

We must set out the details, for which my hon. Friend asked, of all the collaborations. What the British and United States Governments have been doing—and whether what they have been doing has been in any way a breach of the treaty—must be set out clearly in the record. I also suggest that the cost must also be set out clearly.

I want to leave plenty of time for the Minister to respond to the debate, because the main complaint from Opposition Members is about the Government's unwillingness to put forward their case. I make a final plea for openness about the negotiations. The Government ought to be proud to tell us what they are doing. The Opposition may be critical—I certainly am—of the Government's approach, but the Government ought not to be ashamed of what they are doing if they believe in the nuclear deterrent. If they believe in it, they should be prepared to put it forward as a positive policy. They should tell us the benefits and the costs, and they should certainly be able to guarantee to the House that the agreement will not make the non-proliferation treaty more difficult to negotiate and will not lead to the world becoming a less safe place.

I shall certainly listen with considerable interest to what the Minister says, although I do not accept that that will be an adequate response in one of the key areas of Government policy. We ought to have a proper debate in Government time in which a Minister sets out what he claims to be the benefits of the agreement.

2.46 am
Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) on his ingenuity and persistence in obtaining this debate, which is important because it may be—I hope that it will not be—the only opportunity that the House has to discuss the agreement. I cannot identify myself with everything that my hon. Friend said, not least because of his criticism of poor old Ponsonby, whose rules we are the victims of tonight. In his day, Ponsonby was a man after my hon. Friend's heart—and my heart—and he introduced the rules precisely to extend openness. If we find the rules restrictive this morning, it is because the need for open government has moved on since 1924.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) that it is quite unacceptable that the agreement should be debated at such an hour and in such circumstances. If we believe in openness in government, it must be necessary to have a proper debate in Government time with the full text of the agreement in front of us. That, of course, is what my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) has requested from the Government. We do not regard this debate as a substitute for that, nor do we regard it as fulfilling the terms of my hon. Friend's request to the Foreign Secretary, expressed in his letter of 13 December.

The debate focuses on one article of the agreement, although I welcome the fact that it has strayed more widely. We shall continue to press for a real debate. In doing so, we are not expressing our determination to object to the agreement or to its ratification in an amended form. That is a reasonable inference, although we cannot be sure, because of the obscurity with which the agreement has so far been treated, that the agreement has played an essential part in maintaining Britain's nuclear weapons system. We are insisting that there is an opportunity for scrutiny, and not one that is focused on or confined to article III of the agreement.

Although I have no means of knowing whether the explanation offered by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South is correct, it is worthy of note that there was a five-month delay between the agreement being reached and its being laid before Parliament. That may mean that the Government find themselves in difficulty; if so, it is, sadly, a problem of their making. Our desire for proper parliamentary scrutiny of the agreement cannot be constrained by difficulties of the Government's own making.

My hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham, South and for Denton and Reddish drew attention to the non-proliferation treaty; the conference on its extension will, I hope, take place next year. It is essential that we devise an extended non-proliferation regime that commands the means and the legitimacy for it to fulfil its objectives. Those objectives have been put on the record by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South, who reminded us of the full text of article VI of the treaty, which expresses the objective of nuclear disarmament. The Government and Opposition support that objective, as we do the treaty.

The division of the world into nuclear and non-nuclear weapons states, under the terms of the existing non-proliferation treaty, was only possible as a temporary expediency. The business-as-usual-attitude towards its ratification is a slightly disturbing sign of what the Government's real attitude may be to that treaty. My hon. Friend for Nottingham, South is right that the agreement is open-ended, particularly its exchange of information clauses. It would be useful to be given a thorough explanation of why the treaty requires amendment and what circumstances led to the drafting of article II of the revised agreement. We have been told in a parliamentary answer that the terms of that article have been operating in practice for some time, but it is important to know the circumstances that led to that necessity.

My hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham, South and for Denton and Reddish asked some perfectly proper questions. For example, has the agreement allowed for the exchange of information about warhead design or the exchange of advice or information relevant to that design? Has information on trigger systems—on fusing and firing systems for nuclear weapons—been passed to us as a result of the agreement? It would be perfectly proper if it had, because it is covered by the terms of the agreement. It seems right and sensible at this juncture, as we are considering more openness about and verification of nuclear proliferation, that the Government should at least be clear about that exchange of information.

Under the terms of the agreement, both parties to it may have passed information arising out of weapons tests to each other. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South asked the perfectly fair question whether that is reconcilable with the test ban treaty. If it is, how much stronger would the Government's position be if they made that clear? It is in our national strategic interest that that point is made plain. If there is no difficulty in reconciling that agreement and the obligations entered into under the test ban treaty—that may be the case—it is in our national interests that that is made clear. That would strengthen the hand of our negotiators at the treaty conferences next year, which will deal with the extension of the test ban treaty and the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

My hon. Friends are right to draw attention to the terms of article I of the non-proliferation treaty, which used the word "indirectly". The agreement makes it clear that nuclear weapons "as such" and information about weapons "as such" cannot be exchanged under the terms of the agreement. Is there any possibility of a breach of the non-proliferation treaty because of "indirect" exchanges of information about or relating to nuclear weapons systems? If, since 1970, when the NPT obligations were entered into along with the agreement that runs side by side with them, there has been no problem of reconciliation, how much stronger our position would be in convincing the non-nuclear weapons states of our good intentions and in creating additional legitimacy for our negotiating positions if that could be demonstrated. By not having a debate to clarify these matters, we have a missed opportunity from the Government's point of view. It would be helpful to have an assurance tonight that no action will be taken under the agreement in future that would contradict the terms of the test ban treaty.

Article III is the basis of the important point to which my hon. Friends have drawn attention: was weapons grade plutonium handed to the United States under the terms of the agreement? It would be proper, within the terms of the agreement, if that had taken place. If there were such an exchange, unless the material was subject to the special exemption clause for civil use—that is provided for in the agreement—it must be presumed that the exchange was for the purposes of defence planning and military uses. Under the terms of the agreement, unless there is a special exemption for civil use, all other uses of article 3 bis must be presumed to be for defence and military uses.

The original terms of article V are as follows: Except … as may be agreed for civil uses, … the information communicated or exchanged, or the materials or equipment transferred, by either Party pursuant to this Agreement shall be used by the recipient party exclusively for the preparation or implementation of defense plans in the mutual interests of the two countries. So the argument that exchanges may have been for civil uses is one of exception. The normal exchanges of information and material that are provided for under the agreement are and must be for the preparation or implementation of defence plans in the mutual interests of the two countries. That is extremely important, and it is only right that my hon. Friends wish the Minister to take up the matter.

Amendments are proposed under the terms of the revised agreement. There is a slight but significant change in the wording that is provided for in the third article of the revised agreement. What is the purpose of the amended wording? Does it carry any significance? What is the need to distinguish between "arranging" for something and "providing" for something? We have become used to the terminology of "provision" in other areas of the Government's activities. Is it implied that the terms of the agreement as proposed to be revised would allow other parties than the Government performing the functions or exchanging the materials that are provided for in this part of the agreement?

It causes us concern that the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority was a party named in the agreement, and the Government, in making the agreement, were making the agreement on behalf of what was in 1958 the Atomic Energy Authority, and which has now become two Government organisations—British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. and the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority. It would be useful, if that curiously worded amendment is being tabled, to have some explanation of why that was necessary.

Are the terms of the agreement, as proposed to be amended, capable of allowing for direct bilateral exchange between those agencies of the Government and the United States of America? Are the provisions of the agreement exercisable by British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. and by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority? What part might that play in any privatisation proposals for those agencies, and in the present format that those agencies now have? "Arrange for" rather than "provide" could imply a loosening of terms, precisely to allow companies and enterprises that are not part of the Government to exercise powers under the agreement. That is an important point, and the Government should clarify it.

We are moving, necessarily, to an era of greater openness in defence matters. Indeed, if we, the nuclear weapons states—Britain is one and, for some time, will remain one—do not exercise openness in our doings and dealings, we shall never convince the non-nuclear states to remain so. That is an argument that was made firmly by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish, and in that regard I associate myself equally strongly with his remarks.

The control of proliferation is at the heart of our own security needs and the existence of scrutiny and verification is essential, now that the technologies of war and peace are so similar. To debate those issues openly—to have a frank exchange on what is implied by the obscure terms of those agreements—is not only right in terms of parliamentary accountability but a necessity for our future security, and it is in our national strategic interest.

3.1 am

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. David Davis)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) on obtaining the debate, if not on the time at which he obtained it—we would all sometimes like to debate in the daytime.

It might be helpful to begin with several points of clarification for the benefit of the hon. Members for Nottingham, South, for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) and for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cousins). I fear that they are labouring under several misapprehensions, with regard both to the nature of the 1958 Anglo-United States mutual defence agreement and to the procedures under which the 1994 amendment has been laid before the House, and under which it will, in due course, be ratified.

The hon. Gentlemen who raised the matter appear to allege that the Government have not followed the procedures by proceeding with ratification before the House has had a chance to debate the issues. I do not believe that that is so.

I begin by discussing the procedure by which the agreement has been laid before the House—the Ponsonby rule. I noted that the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central spoke favourably about Mr. Ponsonby. Hon. Members will be aware that the Ponsonby rule, which dates back to 1924, is a convention of the House and does not impose any legal obligation on the Government. The rule states—I quote from page 215 of the 21st edition of "Erskine May": when a Treaty requires ratification, the Government does not usually proceed until a period of 21 days has elapsed from the date on which the text of the Treaty was laid before Parliament by Her Majesty's Command. This practice is subject to modification, if necessary, when urgent or other important considerations arise. There have certainly been occasions on which the Government have proceeded with ratification of an agreement before those 21 days have elapsed. For the agreement in question, the period of 21 days elapsed on 1 December, as I think that the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central noted.

Under the Ponsonby rule, there is no obligation on the Government to wait those 21 days, but, as we have done in this case, we would always seek to do so unless there were pressing reasons to the contrary.

Nor does the Ponsonby rule oblige the Government to hold a debate before a treaty is ratified. The procedure is obviously different when ratification of a treaty entails new UK legislation or the amendment of existing legislation. That is, of course, a different matter, but it does not apply here.

There has also been a suggestion that the 1958 agreement entails a financial obligation on the part of the UK, and therefore that the House is entitled to a debate before ratification. That is a red herring.

The Ponsonby rule does not refer to financial commitments; nor, and in this case more importantly, does the 1958 agreement entail any explicit financial commitment by the UK. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has been misinformed on both counts, and I shall elaborate. But to summarise this point, we could therefore have completed the ratification procedure already. As I have just said, we are not even obliged to wait for the 21 days.

Nevertheless, I can confirm that, out of respect for the House, we have deferred the exchange of notes which will constitute ratification until after the debate. I hope that the House will accept that the Government have behaved entirely properly in the matter.

I come now to the substance of the 1958 agreement.

Mr. Simpson

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Davis

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall not give way because I want to make an intricate argument. He made some complex points which I want to try to answer this evening.

I come now to the substance of the 1958 United Kingdom-United States mutual defence agreement and the objections that the hon. Member for Nottingham, South has to it. He originally raised his objection to the ratification of the 1994 amendment during business questions on 1 December. He argued then that the House should have the opportunity to debate the amendment because, unless ratification were stopped, the Government would be committed to a bill of some £20 billion to the United States for the servicing, maintenance, operation and decommissioning costs of the Trident programme.

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is misinformed on that point. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has since informed the hon. Gentleman, neither the 1958 mutual defence agreement nor the amendments now under consideration involved any financial commitment by the UK. Neither the agreement nor the amendments commit the UK to purchase any goods or services from the United States. It certainly is not an agreement that commits the UK to pay the operating costs of Trident.

The hon. Gentleman referred to a number of costs. As far as I am aware, the sort of costs that he talked about are mostly covered under the defence estimates votes as a different issue altogether.

It might be of assistance to the House if I were to explain what the 1958 agreement is for and why we are renewing it. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for repeating in part what I am sure he will already know from reading the text of the amendments, Cm 2686, which was laid before the House on 21 October.

The background to the 1958 agreement is to be found in the United States Atomic Energy Act of 1946, the so-called McMahon Act, which prevented the United States from sharing atomic energy information with other states. Although a new Atomic Energy Act was passed in 1954, which permitted full exchanges of information on civil aspects of atomic energy and even limited exchanges on military uses, in order to facilitate a full nuclear relationship with the UK, the United States Administration considered it necessary to enter into a formal agreement for co-operation on the uses of atomic energy for mutual defence purposes, the so-called mutual defence agreement.

In view of the United States Atomic Energy Act, which would otherwise limit severely the scope of our bilateral co-operation, the agreement has to have legal force in the United States. But the nature of the agreement is such that it does not require legislation for the UK; hence the procedure for ratification to which I already referred.

The amendments that have been laid before the House amend the one element of the agreement, article III bis, which requires regular renewal and adds a new paragraph to article VI.

If I may leave my text for a second, the hon. Gentleman referred to article II. Speaking from memory, that deals with the accounting arrangements that have been common practice in the past and are important in these days of nuclear smuggling. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman if I am wrong about that.

Article III bis concerns the two-way exchanges of special nuclear materials and other products. It requires periodic amendment to ensure its continuing relevance and validity.

The new paragraph F of article VI, which is set out in full in Cm 2686, includes strengthened obligations on both parties to follow adequate materials control and accountancy procedures in respect of nuclear materials transferred under the agreement. It also provides for consultation between the United Kingdom and the United States on these arrangements.

Both we and the United States already operate rigorous and effective materials control and accountancy arrangements, but we believe that it is correct that we should acknowledge explicitly the existence of those arrangements in the text of the agreement. Given the recent international concern about the need for rigorous materials control and accountancy procedures, I am sure that the House will welcome the explicit acknowledgement of our arrangements in the mutual defence agreement.

I think that it is clear why the hon. Gentleman sought a debate on the amendments to the mutual defence agreement. His intention became apparent towards the end of his speech. He challenged the very existence of our nuclear deterrent programme and the basis of our bilateral co-operation on nuclear matters with the United States of America. The House will not be surprised to learn that we are not prepared to accept those challenges. We intend that Trident will provide a minimum strategic nuclear deterrent for the United Kingdom. Our strategic deterrent provides the ultimate guarantee of our national security and contributes to NATO's strategy of war prevention.

The hon. Gentleman said something in his speech that was, in fact, wrong. I am sure that he did not mean to mislead the House, so I shall correct what he said. He implied that there had been no reduction—indeed, he implied that there had been an increase—in the UK's level of nuclear capability during the past few years. The fact is that we have eliminated our maritime tactical nuclear capability, we have reduced the number of nuclear bombs carried by aircraft and announced that they will not be replaced when they are withdrawn from service, and we have decided that Trident will carry fewer warheads than originally envisaged—thereby keeping the available explosive power to a level similar to that which existed previously. The overall effect is to reduce the total explosive power available by about 25 per cent., which is quite a significant change.

The other matter raised by the hon. Gentleman related to our attitude to the comprehensive test ban treaty. We are committed to negotiating an effective, verifiable and affordable CTBT. The agreement does not inhibit that commitment. We believe that there are good prospects for achieving an effective treaty. I am afraid that I missed a very small part of the hon. Gentleman's comments, but I understand that he referred to the alternative, so-called non-testing methods of ensuring the viability of nuclear weapons. For as long as the United States moratorium on testing continues, we are committed to not doing any further tests of our own. We are looking at the non-testing systems.

Mr. Simpson

Will the hon. Gentleman give way on a point of clarification?

Mr. Davis

Yes, if it is a point of clarification.

Mr. Simpson

Is the Minister saying that the joint working group dealing with co-operation on computer modelling is no longer working? United States records list that group as being operative. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that it is now subject to the moratorium?

Mr. Davis

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall not be drawn into the detail of these matters. I shall consider his point after the debate and if I can give him an answer, I will. However, I cannot make an outright promise to do so.

It is now widely accepted—although perhaps not by the hon. Gentleman—that, during the cold war, NATO's nuclear forces were essential in ensuring that major conflict never occurred. They removed any rational basis for an adversary believing that a war could be fought in Europe and won. So we should not think lightly of dismantling a stable and secure framework for maintaining peace. Risks and uncertainties still exist. We are forging new relationships with Russia and the other countries of the old Warsaw pact. That process will be helped by the stability provided by NATO's strategy for peace and security, including its minimum nuclear deterrent.

However, we cannot be sure that the positive trends that we have witnessed are irreversible. Other risks may develop. We cannot afford to wait for potential threats to become real before we respond, given the time lead and lag in such decisions. Our deterrent is, and will remain, operationally independent and under the absolute control of the British Government. We have undertaken that the system will be operated in defence of NATO, but have reserved the right to use it independently should supreme national interests so require.

Therefore, we believe that our independent nuclear deterrent remains our ultimate guarantee of national security as well as a fundamental element of the defence of the alliance of which we are proud to be part. We will not accept that that should be put into question by a procedural objection to the agreement that forms the basis of our nuclear defence co-operation with the United States of America. I should emphasise that we are not alone in that perception. Our allies continue to reaffirm that European security and stability are enhanced by the continued possession of nuclear forces by the United Kingdom and France. I am sure that the House will wish to reflect on those fundamentals, and not on the misinformed and misguided attacks of the hon. Member for Nottingham, South on the mutual defence agreement.

Mr. Bennett

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It seems discourteous of the Minister, with 15 minutes of the debate left, not to allow interventions. It suggests that he is frightened to answer the questions. It is particularly discourteous that he has not answered all the questions that we raised about the non-proliferation treaty. I simply think that you ought to—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows full well that that is not a point of order for the Chair. It is a matter for the Minister.

Back to
Forward to