HC Deb 02 May 1995 vol 259 cc157-8
3. Mr. Llew Smith

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what proposals to put existing British nuclear weapons into disarmament negotiations have been made at the United Nations conference on the non-proliferation treaty in New York. [20078]

Mr. Rifkind

The UK has made significant reductions in its nuclear arsenal and maintains only the minimum deterrent required to guarantee our security. A world in which the nuclear forces of the United States of America and Russia were counted in hundreds rather than thousands of strategic nuclear warheads would be one in which we would respond further to the challenge of the global reduction of nuclear arms.

Mr. Smith

Can the Minister explain why the Government do not fulfil their obligations under article 6 of the non-proliferation treaty and put all British nuclear weapons, including Trident, into the nuclear disarmament negotiations?

Mr. Rifkind

First, that is not a commitment under the non-proliferation treaty and, secondly, it would be a remarkably foolish initiative, which would weaken our essential defence. The hon. Gentleman should be aware that, even if they fulfil all their obligations under the strategic arms reduction talks treaties, in 10 years' time Russia and the United States will each still have more than 3,000 strategic nuclear warheads. Trident will have a maximum of about 300. That is a suitable answer to his question.

Mr. Brazier

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, besides the considerable dangers that he has outlined from the ex-Soviet states, there is also the problem of proliferation in the third world? At least three more states have become nuclear powers in the past 10 years and several other states, including North Korea and a number of the middle eastern countries which form the market for its arms, are close to doing so. Does he further agree that, for Britain to get rid of her remaining minimum nuclear deterrent in the face of potential threats from the third world as well as the possible resuscitation of the Russian threat would be extraordinarily foolish?

Mr. Rifkind

Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. The non-proliferation treaty, which came into force in the early 1970s, has been successful in influencing the level of nuclear weapons possession around the world. There have been relatively few suspected nuclear power states but the world remains a dangerous place. It is impossible to disinvent nuclear weapons technology and that is an important factor to bear in mind as we aspire to a safer world.

Mr. Fatchett

Is it not clear that, on this issue, the Government have not normally offered a positive agenda? They have talked in terms of yesterday's agenda and have mostly indulged in personal attacks on Opposition Members. It is encouraging on this occasion to see the Secretary of State taking a more positive approach. Is it not time for him to tell the country why the Government refuse to limit the number of warheads on Trident? Why have they gone to the negotiations on the non-proliferation treaty in New York without a positive agenda and left the running on this issue, as on so many others, to other countries? Again, Britain has not had a voice. The only voice for Britain on this issue is that of the Labour party, which has put forward a positive programme for nuclear disarmament.

Mr. Rifkind

I note with relish the hon. Gentleman's sensitivity on the fact that when Labour Front-Bench spokesmen and the Leader of the Opposition are reminded of their Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament past they describe it as a personal attack. I should have thought that they would be proud of their past identity rather than so obviously ashamed of it. The hon. Gentleman accuses the Government of having an agenda from the past. It is significant that the Labour party is pronouncing its belief in "no first use" of nuclear weapons just at the time when the Russians have abandoned such a belief. The Labour party and the People's Republic of China are the only two arguing that philosophy.

Mr. Duncan Smith

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the possession of nuclear weapons is in itself no guarantee of safety unless the Government concerned have the necessary ultimate will to use them should the occasion arise? Does he further agree that it is one thing for a party to say that it now agrees with possession and another for it to say that it would use them?

Mr. Rifkind

Indeed, and that is a relevant point. In an interview, the Opposition spokesman on defence was quoted as saying: I am not saying that we will use Trident, I don't think we would. We just need it there as a standing reminder. I do not think that that will terrify a potential nuclear enemy, but it certainly terrifies me.

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