HC Deb 23 November 1995 vol 267 cc810-48
The President of the Board of Trade and Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Ian Lang)

I have it in Command from the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty having been informed of the purport of the Chemical Weapons Bill has consented to place her Prerogative, so far as it is affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.

Order for Second Reading read.

4.5 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Phillip Oppenheim)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill will enable the United Kingdom to implement the requirements of the chemical weapons convention. I think that it will be warmly welcomed by right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House.

The provisions of the Bill will enable the UK to fulfil all its convention obligations. We have done our best to respond to comments and concerns expressed during a quite lengthy consultation period.

The convention was signed in 1993 after 20 years of difficult and tortuous negotiation. It is unique in the history of arms control. It is the first treaty to provide for a verifiable worldwide ban on an entire class of weapons of mass destruction. I am pleased to say that the UK has played an active part in support of the treaty throughout the negotiations. The treaty holds the promise of ridding the world of chemical weapons. The Government take it extremely seriously and support it fully. In total, 159 states have signed the convention. We hope that many others will sign in the near future.

The convention enters force six months after 65 countries have ratified it. So far, 42 have done so. It is estimated that the convention is unlikely to enter into force until the second half of next year. Two key signatories—the United States and the Russian Federation—have yet to ratify. As they hold 90 per cent. of the world's stockpile of chemical weapons, we hope sincerely that rapid UK ratification will help to encourage these two states to ratify the convention.

I shall outline briefly the requirements of the convention. First—

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton and Wallington)

Will my hon. Friend be telling the House later why two large powers with a formidable capacity in this context seem reluctant to sign and ratify as quickly as they should?

Mr. Oppenheim

To be honest, I was not intending to do so. My hon. Friend might care to raise that issue if he is called to speak.

The convention prohibits the acquisition, development, production, stockpiling, transfer and use of chemical weapons. It requires their destruction. It bans military preparations and—

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

It so happens that I am a member of the central Asian group, which has recently seen the Prime Minister of Kazakhstan, who happens to be in London. Would it not be sensible to have a discussion with the Kazakh leadership? The Kazakhs are involved with chemical weapons, as they are with nuclear weapons. Would it not be sensible, while their Prime Minister is in London, to have a frank discussion about this urgent matter? The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Forman) has raised a vital issue.

Mr. Oppenheim

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that our doors are open to the Kazakhs if they wish to have discussions. The hon. Gentleman has raised a fair point. It is the Russian Federation, however, that is the main keeper of chemical weapons in that area. The hon. Gentleman is right to say, of course, that there are weapons of mass destruction in Kazakhstan.

The convention bans military preparations for the use of chemical weapons and requires the destruction of all existing stocks of chemical weapons as well as the destruction of production facilities.

The chemical weapons convention provides a powerful verification regime. It is unprecedented in its scope and extent. Its effective operation will provide the assurance that the threat from chemical weapons has, as far as possible, been removed.

Two of the provisions of the convention are particularly important. First, declarations are required periodically from companies and other bodies using chemicals of concern. The requirements relating to the chemicals are graded according to the threat that they pose. Secondly, but perhaps most important, inspections will be undertaken by an international inspectorate based in The Hague. There will be two types of inspection: routine inspections to check the accuracy of declarations and "challenge inspections", which will be undertaken at short notice at any site where there are grounds to suspect that it is in breach of the convention. "Challenge inspections" can be required by any state that is party to the convention.

Mr. Dalyell

I ask for clarification on the Minister's first point—the commercial use and the so-called dual-purpose problem, which Dr. Julian Perry Robinson and others have explained to the officials, and doubtless those officials understand very well. Is the industry satisfied, or is it still worried?

Mr. Oppenheim

We consulted the industry pretty widely, and it was involved during the negotiation of the convention, so it has been involved in consultations over a long period. My understanding is that it is now as satisfied as it can be with the provisions. If the hon. Gentleman is talking primarily about using some of the very dangerous chemicals for legitimate research purposes, he will find, if he bears with me, that the provisions for that are reasonable; but if he disagrees at the end of my speech, I will come back to it when I reply at the end of the debate.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Oppenheim

Will the hon. Gentleman just allow me to make a little progress? If he is still dissatisfied with my performance, I will allow him to come in later.

I shall talk briefly about the new international body that will be set up in The Hague: the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The main function of its staff will be inspection and verification. A preparatory commission is already working in The Hague on the detailed arrangements for the implementation. The United Kingdom is playing an active part in that work and will continue to do so.

Just as important as the international inspection authority is the UK national authority, because each state that is party to the convention is required to designate a "national authority" as a focal point for the implementation of the convention in that state. We intend that the Department of Trade and Industry will be the national authority for the United Kingdom. The DTI will be responsible for collecting information from industry and others affected by the convention, processing it and presenting it to the OPCW. It will help inspected sites to deal with the inspection process and will monitor compliance with the convention.

I wish to talk about the consultation process, which has been extensive. The DTI issued a discussion document in January, and the Bill was issued in July for consultation. We believe that, in an area such as this, extensive consultation with industry, with academia and research bodies is absolutely essential and we have taken on board many of the comments that have been made, so far as we can within the limits of the convention. Industry has been involved throughout the implementation of the convention and during its negotiation. My understanding—I have no indication to the contrary—is that industry and academia fully support the convention. They, as much as we, want to remove the threat of chemical weapons, and they have been extremely helpful in helping us to put in place the tool to do it. They deserve our thanks for that.

A number of concerns have arisen as a result of the consultation process. I shall deal briefly with the way in which we tried to deal with those concerns. There is no question but that the controls required by the convention will affect industry. There is no getting away from that. The Government have kept in close touch with representatives, particularly of the chemical industry, during the negotiation of the convention, and we continue to work with industry to ensure that, in complying with the convention, burdens on business and legitimate research establishments—universities, and so on—are kept to the minimum.

Compliance costs assessments originally suggested that the costs to industry would be as high as £8 million. However, since then the Department of Trade and Industry has done a great deal of work in trying to simplify the complicated forms originally put forward as a result of the convention and we believe that that will significantly reduce the work load and make it far easier for people to complete the forms without in any way compromising the convention itself. We are working further on that and we expect that that will result in further cost savings. I pay tribute to the civil servants who have worked on that. They have done an exemplary job in trying to simplify what were originally incredibly difficult and complicated forms.

Mr. Dalyell

I am sure that the Minister's tribute to the civil service is justified. With regard to the legitimate research establishments, does the Minister intend to say anything about the future of Porton Down? I would like to deploy a case that Porton Down should be retained, above all in order to monitor the innovative developments in the chemical field, not least in their military applications.

Mr. Oppenheim

The hon. Gentleman is right. Porton Down will play an extremely valuable role in aiding and assisting the DTI and advising it on some of the chemicals. We envisage Porton Down having an active role in that. I hope that I can reassure the hon. Gentleman on that point.

A second point raised, particularly by industry, was the difficult issue of commercial confidentiality. That has already been dealt with through strict rules laid down in the convention and the legislation insists that those rules are strictly maintained. The Bill makes provision for giving statutory protection to information collected as a result of either the Act or the convention.

One final issue raised some concern during consultation. I hope that I can clear the air by making it crystal clear that I intend that the DTI national authority should issue an annual report about its activities and the operation of the convention. That will help to make its work more transparent and enhance proper parliamentary scrutiny. It is my intention that it should issue an annual report.

Clauses 1 to 3 prohibit chemical weapons. They implement the prohibition on chemical weapons contained in article I of the convention.

Clauses 4 to 10 set out procedures for the identification and, if necessary, the seizure and destruction of chemical weapons. Because chemicals that may be used in the production of chemical weapons may also have peaceful uses, the clauses set out the procedure through which it can be established whether the object is a chemical weapon.

Clause 4 enables the Secretary of State to obtain information about suspicious objects through the issue of notices. Where it is believed that the object is a chemical weapon, clause 5 enables and authorised person to enter premises to remove or immobilise it. If, after a period, it is still believed that the object is a chemical weapon, clauses 6 and 7 provide for the destruction of the object. Limited provision is made for compensation in clause 8. Clause 9 creates offences relating to the destruction of chemical weapons, such as giving false information. Clause 10 contains definitions relating to the destruction itself.

Clauses 11 to 18 set out procedures for the destruction of any facility which may be identified as a chemical weapons production facility. They implement the obligation in article V of the convention not to construct any new chemical weapons production facilities and set out procedures for their destruction or alteration. Clause 11 prohibits anyone from making a facility for producing chemical weapons. Clause 12 enables the Secretary of State to obtain information about suspicious facilities.

Where a facility is believed to be a chemicals weapons production facility according to the definition contained in the convention, clauses 13 to 15 enable the Secretary of State to require it to be destroyed through the issue of a notice on the relevant person. If the notice is not complied with or no relevant person can be found, the Secretary of State may himself arrange for the destruction of the facility.

Clause 16 enables any person to apply to the court for compensation in certain circumstances if they have suffered a loss as a result of the destruction of the facility. Clause 17 creates offences and clause 18 contains definitions relating to the destruction process.

Clauses 19 and 20 provide for the chemicals contained in schedule 1 to the convention to be controlled through the issue of licences. That arrangement will enable the United Kingdom to implement the controls required in part VI of the verification annexe to the convention, which include limiting the overall quantity in the United Kingdom of the most dangerous chemicals to one tonne.

Mr. Dalyell

A brief from the Royal Society of Chemistry, which I think that the Department has received, raises the urgent question of research. The society argues that clauses 19 and 20 would implement the Schedule-1 regime by requiring anyone who would use, produce or possess a Schedule-1 chemical for a permitted purpose (such as pharmacological research) first to obtain a licence from the Government, no matter how small the quantity. Substances that are supertoxic sometimes make super-precise research tools, being valued and used because of it. Here, then, is an instance where the Bill could place significant constraints"— this is the point that I want to make— on scientific research, even though research is not an activity expressly covered by the Convention. I think that that must be answered, although I do not know whether the Royal Society of Chemistry is right.

Mr. Oppenheim

I am in the rather strange, if not perverse, position of being a Minister responsible for deregulation in my Department, while arguing for a higher level of regulation than the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell).

I shall do my best to explain. I did receive a fax from the Royal Society of Chemistry—by accident, as it happens: it came through on the wrong fax machine—which raised the issue. I appreciate the society's concern, which I think has some legitimacy. We are happy to talk to the society; but let me explain, as best I can, why we have adopted this course.

The convention makes it crystal clear that when it comes to the most dangerous chemicals—incredibly toxic chemicals—we are limited to one tonne in the United Kingdom, regardless of whether the chemicals are used by Government, industry or academia. We think that the best way of ensuring that we remain within the bounds of the convention that we have signed is to introduce a licensing regime for those most toxic chemicals. I see no honest alternative, although I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern and that of the Royal Society of Chemistry. That is the best answer that I can give the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Adam Ingrain (East Kilbride)

I am sure that the Minister did not want to give the impression that the Royal Society of Chemistry had withheld a document from him. The document that he said came through on the wrong fax machine was probably made widely available to those with an interest in the subject. I am sure that the Minister did not intend to cast such a slur on the society.

Mr. Oppenheim

Although we have had extensive consultations with the society—which I must say were extremely valuable and helpful—to the best of my knowledge no one in the Department received the fax. It would have been nice to see a copy, although we knew the nature of the society's concerns. Perhaps a fax was sent, and went astray in the same way as mine. Let me make it clear, however, that we have had very good relations with the society, which has been extremely helpful both in the drafting of the legislation and during the negotiation phase. We shall always listen to any legitimate concerns that it may have.

Clause 21 of the Bill enables the Secretary of State to obtain information when he suspects that an offence under the Act has been or is about to be committed. The convention requires the UK to make declarations to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons of its activities in regard to certain chemicals. Clauses 22 and 23 enable the Secretary of State to obtain the necessary information so that those declarations can be made.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Oppenheim

I would prefer to continue until the end of my speech. If the hon. Gentleman has a specific query, he can attempt to catch Madam Speaker's eye; alternatively, I will let him intervene in my winding-up speech. I have already given way many times, and I think that I shall have to push on now.

The convention establishes a system of inspections as part of the regime of verifying the prohibition on chemical weapons. The inspections will be undertaken by teams of international inspectors. Clauses 24 to 28 make provision for those inspections to be undertaken in the UK. Clause 25 enables the Secretary of State to authorise inspection teams to exercise those rights; clause 26 creates various offences relating to inspections. Clause 27 confers on the inspection team the privileges and immunities that are required by the convention. Clause 28 enables the Secretary of State to reimburse in relation to the inspected site any expenses that have been incurred during the inspection. Clauses 29 to 31 contain provisions relating to offences, such as powers to enable investigation where an offence is suspected.

Clause 32 provides statutory protection for information that is provided under the Act or the convention. That will be of particular interest to businesses that are concerned about the protection of confidential business information. Clauses 33 to 38 contain a variety of provisions, including provisions that service personnel who commit any of the more serious offences connected to this matter should be tried in a civil court rather than by court martial. A power to amend the Act consequent upon any amendment to the convention is also contained in these clauses. Clause 36 provides that the Bill binds the Crown, subject to certain qualifications. That is in line with the Government's policy on Crown application.

I know that a number of hon. Members want to speak in the debate. If there are any further concerns, I shall do my best to address them in my winding-up speech. It is uncharacteristic for me to be heard in such relative silence during a performance at the Dispatch Box. I wonder if that is a sign of the new consensus. I commend the Bill to the House.

4.25 pm
Mr. Adam Ingrain (East Kilbride)

I make it clear from the outset that the Labour party welcomes the Bill. In many ways it is almost the end of a long road for those who have been campaigning for international control and regulation of chemical weapons. The journey is not yet over because, as the Minister says, 65 nations are still required to sign the convention before it can come into force.

As the Minister said, 42 of the original 159 signatories have ratified the convention to date, and 12 others are completing the necessary legislative process. He also said that it is anticipated that the 65th instrument of ratification will be deposited before the middle of next year or thereabouts, and that the convention will come into force 180 days after the 65 signatory states have ratified the convention and deposited their instruments of ratification with the UN Secretary-General.

I share the Minister's sincere and genuine wish to see the United State and the Russian Federation sign at an early date because they are important in ensuring that other nation states comply with the convention. However, the convention is important not just to the US and to the Russian Federation but to the United Kingdom, which has historically played a positive role in the development and promotion of such international treaties. Therefore, it is obviously important that we become one of the 65 signatory states.

As the Chemical Industries Association said in its briefing for the debate, if the UK fails to be one of the 65 signatory states, that will have a serious effect upon the trade relations of the many UK companies that trade in chemicals. Chemicals are the UK's No. 1 manufacturing export earner, generating a trade surplus in 1994 of some £4.5 billion. In the light of Tuesday's disastrous trade deficit figures, further damage to our manufacturing base will be unacceptable, probably even to the Government and, I suppose, to the Minister, who was heard in silence. There are sound reasons for helping the Bill reach the statute book, but I shall come to some modifications that are still required.

Another important reason why the chemical weapons convention should receive full ratification is that that would have a positive effect and would stimulate the control and elimination of biological weapons. The biological weapons convention of 1972 lacks the necessary verification and compliance procedures to make it effective. When the chemical weapons convention is in force, it will provide a working example to the ad hoc group that is engaged in drafting a possible compliance and verification regime in that area. Ratification of the convention would also have positive implications for other forms of arms control and non-proliferation agreements. For those reasons, the Opposition welcome the Bill. I am sure that the Bill is welcomed by all parties and all hon. Members for the same reasons.

The Scottish National party is always going on about environmental issues—I am perhaps being slightly parochial—and complains about Scotland being a nuclear dustbin. However, I note that the Scottish nationalists have not bothered to turn up for this debate on a major concern not just within the United Kingdom, but internationally. I hope that the SNP supports the Bill, even if it has not done so by its presence. The Opposition support the Bill and I am sure that it will receive the full support of all hon. Members.

The Minister pointed out that the Government signed the convention at the earliest possible date, on 13 January 1993. Nearly three years have elapsed before the introduction of the required legislation. Clearly, the Government were doing something, but they were not taking decisive action. The Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence were strongly in favour of introducing the Bill, but for some reason the Department of Trade and Industry has been dragging its feet and has resisted early implementation.

The Foreign Office nearly won the battle in 1993 to put the measure on the statute book at an early date. The Gracious Speech for that year stated: My Government will work for the effective implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention".—[Official Report, 18 November 1993; Vol. 233, c. 7.] Yet no legislation was forthcoming.

In 1994, the Department of Trade and Industry managed to downgrade the commitment, but at least a broad reference remained in the Gracious Speech, which stated: Preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction remains an important priority."—[Official Report, 16 November 1994; Vol. 250, c. 4.] However, that priority did not go as far as bringing forward legislation on chemical weapons.

Only in late January 1995 did anything appear—a DTI document entitled "Industry and the Chemical Weapons Convention", which sought the views of users and producers of chemicals. On 19 July, as the Minister said, the Government published the draft Bill, together with a further consultation paper. I do not object to the consultative process, but there was a significant gap between January 1993 and July 1995. Despite that interesting gap, the draft Bill was not well received and, as a result, underwent significant modification on the basis of representations received from industry and experts.

As a result of the representations made, the Bill has grown from 27 to 38 clauses. Even now, some people still question whether the Bill truly conforms with all aspects of the convention. The Minister will also be aware that the delay in publishing the Bill resulted in criticism from the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

Mr. Oppenheim

The hon. Gentleman said that there is some doubt as to whether the Bill fulfils every aspect of the convention. Could he be more specific about which points cause concern and let us know?

Mr. Ingrain

I shall deal with that question later, and I am sure that other hon. Members will deal with some of those issues.

I have heard that part of the reason for the delay was the insistence of the previous President of the Board of Trade, the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine). His antipathy to any form of regulation of industry, even in weapons control, determined the delay in the publication of the Bill.

The Minister said that it was unusual for him to introduce the Bill because he was known as a deregulator, yet here he is arguing for regulation. Perhaps the Minister has given us the key to why the Department of Trade and Industry delayed the measure, and that is why I believe there is some substance to the argument that the former President of the Board of Trade refused to allow the Bill to come forward while he was in charge of the Department. In refusing, he ignored the international community; he ignored the experts on arms control and chemical weapons; and he ignored the wishes of the British people, who want to see those weapons of mass destruction disposed of once and for all, and removed from the international stage. He even appeared to ignore the wishes of his ministerial colleagues in the Foreign Office and in the Ministry of Defence. In doing so, he has embarrassed the United Kingdom at international level because we shall ratify the convention long after many of our European partners.

The European Parliament passed a resolution on 17 November which specifically expressed deep concern that the United Kingdom had not yet ratified the convention. There is something wrong when this country, which was one of the earliest signatories and has long had a reputation of campaigning on this front, was so late introducing the Bill. It gives new meaning to the concept of just-in-time management. If the Government had fallen and we were in an election period now, it is possible that we would not have been one of the 65 nation states. That would have been a serious problem for British trading relations.

The Bill has been delayed long enough and the Opposition do not want to cause it any further unnecessary delay. It is important, however, that what we produce from our deliberations is the best possible legislation, and I hope that the Government will be positively responsive to those who are urging that the Bill needs more transparency and accountability measures.

Before moving on to those points in detail, I should like to deal with Department of Trade and Industry as the national authority responsible for the monitoring and implementation of the convention. One of the key elements of the convention document is the need for each signatory state to establish a national authority. That is contained within section VII.4 of the convention. It could be argued that what was required was a stand-alone agency reporting to Parliament through the Department of Trade and Industry. Such an agency would, of itself, have immediately improved the transparency and accountability of the monitoring process.

Will the Minister tell the House whether the Government have considered at any time the establishment of a separate agency and, if not, why not? Will the Minister explain why the words "national authority" do not appear in the Bill? It is probably too late in the day to seek substantial amendment to establish such an agency.

Mr. Oppenheim

We believe that the Department of Trade and Industry is the best organisation to carry this out. If the hon. Gentleman thinks this through seriously, he will see that there are significant national security implications, which would cause problems if the body were to be totally independent. The best assurance of the effectiveness of the body is that, ultimately, it will be responsible to Parliament and Parliament will be the final arbiter. That is the best guarantee of the independence of the body. I think that we have made the best decision, bearing in mind the security implications that must be considered by anyone in government. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that we are wrong, that is fine. We think that we are right. We want to go ahead with the Bill. The hon. Gentleman can give a commitment that if his party is elected, it will change things.

I want to make one further gentle point to the hon. Gentleman. The consultation document was issued last January—almost a year ago. The draft legislation was issued in July. I have no record of any senior Opposition Member or Front-Bench spokesman writing to us, contacting us or coming to us saying that there should be a totally independent body rather than the Department of Trade and Industry. We all want to get the Bill through as quickly as possible. I should have thought that, if this were a serious concern, the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues would have taken advantage of the lengthy consultation period.

Mr. Ingram

The Minister has extended my point a wee bit. I did not use the phrase "totally independent body". I used the phrase "stand-alone body". I have no objection to it being a next steps agency. That could have been set up quite easily. It would then have had a management structure and reporting mechanisms, which would have been helpful to the monitoring in a whole range of ways. Please do not put words into my mouth; I did not argue for an independent body. As I have said, it is probably too late in the day for us to seek the establishment of such a national authority.

If the process that the Government set in force does not work or does not seem to be in the best interests of national security or in the national or public interest, an incoming Labour Government would consider the best method of monitoring. Any Government would do that. If something does not work, it needs to be fixed.

I am not criticising the civil servants, but we shall end up with seven anonymous members of staff working in the Department of Trade and Industry. That hardly adds up to a genuine attempt by the Government to implement the full spirit of the convention's articles.

Leaving aside that criticism, there are other ways of ensuring that what the Department of Trade and Industry does as a United Kingdom national authority is properly monitored. The Department will be charged with ensuring full compliance of this legislation within the United Kingdom. It will have the responsibility of guarding against any wrongdoing on the part of producers and users of specified chemicals, but that raises the question of who guards the guards. How will we ensure that the public interest is properly protected?

One of the main changes that people have campaigned for since the first and second draft of the Bill were published is a commitment from the Government to produce an annual report. Why wait until the last moment, when we are dealing with the Bill in Parliament, to make that commitment? After all the time that we have had to consider the legislation, why has the Minister waited until tonight to announce that there will be an annual report? He has not specified what the annual report will contain. Will he give us some details?

The public and Parliament should be told for each reporting period the number of companies providing information, the number of chemicals of concern, the details of the chemicals involved, the quantities of chemicals involved and the compliance of companies, that is, how good or otherwise is the information provided by them. The report should detail the number of prosecutions for violations, the number of routine inspections of premises, the number of challenge inspections and an audit of the outcome of inspection of premises. Rather than simply saying that he will produce an annual report, the Minister should specify exactly what the report will contain.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

Give him a chance.

Mr. Ingram:

The Government have had almost three years. That is chance enough to consider the issues. The points that I have raised have been argued not only by the Opposition but by those who have given advice to the Department.

Mr. Gapes

My hon. Friend talks about who guards the guards. I draw his attention to clauses 22 and 23, on which I would have questioned the Minister if I had had the opportunity. Is it not true that those clauses include some draconian powers, including the power to impose imprisonment for two years, serious fines and various other punishments? While those powers may be necessary, it is important that we avoid abuses, such as those that are being investigated by the Scott inquiry, and the use of public interest immunity certificates in ways that could affect innocent people in academic research establishments or industry doing nothing wrong. They could be put into a difficult position by some civil servant or Minister who does not want proper accountability. Can we have an assurance from the Minister on that? Will my hon. Friend comment on the issue?

Mr. Ingram

That is a good point. I was going to comment on that. My hon. Friend has made his own point very well. No Opposition Member would dissent from his analysis of those two clauses. My hon. Friend will recall that the Minister asked me earlier to suggest changes if we thought that anything in the Bill needed to be changed. We are already suggesting changes. We shall see in the Minister's reply whether he is responsive to those suggestions.

Further to my point about greater accountability and transparency in relation to the annual report, I contend that procedures should be put in place to allow Parliament the opportunity to scrutinise the work of the DTI as the national authority. Once it has ratified the convention, the United Kingdom will be required to produce a confidential annual report to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague. I see no reason why the document should not be screened for commercial confidentiality and then presented for consideration to an appropriate scrutiny Committee of the House, such as the Trade and Industry Select Committee. That could be done at the same time as publication of the annual report, to which the Minister referred earlier. Such scrutiny by the House would not place national security at risk. It would show that the United Kingdom was acting in the best way possible to ensure that the convention was properly applied and monitored within the confines of our territory.

Another way of improving transparency would be to set up an advisory body outside the DTI to offer advice on the implementation of the legislation. Such a body would provide a better point of contact for industry, academics and concerned members of the public than civil servants buried away in the deep recesses of the DTI. Such a body already exists for pesticide control. The Advisory Committee on Pesticides is an independent body, the remit of which is to advise Ministers on a range of topics related to pesticide use within the framework of the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985.

In its fifth report in the 1994–95 Session of Parliament, the Agriculture Select Committee commented favourably on the working of the Advisory Committee on Pesticides. If it is deemed necessary to have such a committee to oversee pesticide use, there is an even greater case for setting up a similar committee to oversee the production and use of potentially dangerous chemicals.

As I understand it, advisory bodies exist to work alongside the Chemical and Biological Defence Establishment at Porton Down. Will the Minister give consideration to building on the role of those advisory bodies and setting up a similar advisory structure to interface with the DTI as the national authority?

I should like to examine the role of the CBDE a little further. As my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) says, the work of Porton Down is vital to the nation. We have been involved in chemical defence since 1916. For the past four years, the CBDE at Porton has published an excellent annual report about its anti-chemical protection work. Article X.4 of the convention requires that each state party provide information about the nature of its protective work against chemical warfare. The article says: For the purposes of increasing the transparency of national programmes related to protective purposes, each State Party shall provide annually to the Technical Secretariat information on its programme". I should like the Minister to elaborate on the envisaged relationship between the CBDE and the Department of Trade and Industry on the implementation of the legislation. As others have said, the establishment at Porton Down is a national asset. It should be used effectively. Will the Minister describe the nature of the advice that the Government will seek from that valuable source in monitoring the DTI's role?

I draw the Minister's attention to the recent annual report of Porton Down. It refers to issues of concern in hazard assessment relating to chemicals and disclosures by scientists in the former Soviet Union—Dr. Mirzayanov and Dr. Uglev. The first disclosure related to a Soviet nerve agent declared as VX. They said that the former Soviet Union had developed and weaponised in binary form a close analogue of VX, code-numbered compound 33. The compound had the same empirical formula as VX, but differed in the substituents around the central phosphorus atom. Historical data on the compound suggest that its properties are broadly comparable to those of VX. The precursors required for its production should fall within the generic structures in the schedules of controlled chemicals in the annexe to the chemical weapons convention.

The second and third disclosures were more disturbing. They related to the development of two novel organophosphorus nerve agents. One was described as being five to eight times more effective than VX as a battlefield agent. The other, an analogue of the second, was said to have been developed as a binary weapon which could be made from industrially available precursors not listed in the chemical weapons convention schedules. I should be grateful if the Minister would confirm that the anxiety raised in the Porton Down annual report has been taken into account and say whether those chemicals are included in the schedule of the Bill that we are considering tonight.

The matter to which I have referred is just one aspect of a detailed report. It highlights the importance of the work undertaken at Porton Down. It also makes the case for comprehensive annual reports rather than merely something to assuage the criticisms of the Government because of the Minister's non-response to the request for an annual report.

On another point of detail, the Bill gives the Secretary of State significant powers to make regulations to enable his Department to ensure that it complies with the convention. We need to examine how the regulation process will work in practice. Fears have been raised with me by the scientific community about the issue of licences for the use of certain chemicals. Whole families of chemicals—thousands of different compounds—are covered by schedule 1. It is extremely likely that many of them will be regularly used in small quantities in research laboratories. That point has been raised in interventions. Will individual researchers have to apply for a licence each time they use a listed substance? I am not presenting an argument for or against, but I think that it is important that we reach an understanding on how people in research will be expected to respond to the legislation. Will it be the case instead that a research establishment or company will be able to obtain a blanket licence to cover all occasions on which certain chemicals are used? Clarification would be helpful.

There is another concern. How will the appeal procedure work if an organisation or individual fails to obtain a licence for the use or development of a particular chemical substance? A clarification of that issue today would set at rest some of the doubts prevailing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) mentioned clause 23, which states: The Secretary of State may make regulations requiring persons of any description specified in the regulations to inform him that they are of such a description. Although that is a wonderful piece of parliamentary draftsmanship, it needs clarification. Will the Minister explain how it will work in practice? How will individuals and especially small companies, in the research sector primarily, become aware of the legislation? That point is particularly important since the Government have given no sign that they are intending to set up an outside body to act as a contact point between themselves and individuals.

Like my hon. Friends, I am concerned that those all-embracing regulations that the Bill empowers the Secretary of State to make will be introduced via a negative statutory instrument, as specified in clause 23. Surely, given the extent of the powers that will be vested in the Secretary of State as a result of that clause, it would be more appropriate if the relevant regulations were subject to affirmative procedure.

I have touched on the need for greater transparency and accountability in the UK implementation of the convention. Another concern is export controls. The Bill bans the transfer of chemical weapons or substances that will be used to manufacture chemical weapons. The result of that is that exporters of substances of potential use in warfare need to show that such substances will not be used for war purposes. I shall paint a scenario that is not unrealistic.

A major UK chemical manufacturer has gone out into the market place and obtained a large order abroad for his goods. Fulfilling that order will be good news for the company and the balance of payments. The substances concerned can be used for the manufacture of chemical weapons, but there is no real proof that they will be. The DTI could be under very strong pressure not to press the issue further by undertaking stringent checks on the end use of the substances. The Foreign Office may know very little about it.

That scenario is not unrealistic. The Scott inquiry has already shown that such tensions can and do arise. In theory, the UK chemical weapons national authority would ensure that such events never occurred, but the powers of the national authority are vested in the DTI, the very body that has the responsibility to promote exports.

I have already pointed out that relations between the Foreign Office and the DTI can be far from good, as the delay and confusion in bringing forward the Bill has shown. Such poor relations were clearly shown in the Scott inquiry as well, as was pointed out in Monday's edition of The Independent in an article which dealt with a letter from a previous Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. The article went on to say: A rift had developed between the Foreign Office, which wanted to maintain an embargo not just on arms but also machine tools, which could be adapted for use in the manufacture of arms, and the DTI, which feared that the machine tool ban would wreck British trade relations with Iraq. If we substitute "chemicals with warfare potential" for "machine tools", my point is clearly made.

Will the Minister furnish the House with a detailed description of the links between the DTI, the Foreign Office and Customs and Excise with regard to the way in which they will deal with the export of chemicals as a result of the Bill? Who will have the final say in resolving such conflicts—the DTI, the DTI's national authority, the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence or some other Government agency?

We must ensure that the circumstances which led to the Scott inquiry are not repeated when potentially dangerous chemicals are concerned. Clear guidelines need to be drawn up to ensure that the chemical weapons convention is not subverted by decision or default.

We do not want to obstruct the UK ratification of the chemical weapons convention. We deplore the delay that has occurred so far because of Government inaction and hesitancy. Nor, however, do we want to wave the Bill through if improvements can be made—even at this late stage. The experience of the chemical weapons convention will be drawn on when other forms of arms control are introduced in future—not least with regard to biological weapons.

We firmly believe that the Bill can be significantly improved by increasing the accountability and transparency of the UK national authority. That would have beneficial consequences for international relations and arms control. That point of view is of course supported by the Royal Society of Chemistry and other experts.

I shall listen carefully to the Minister's winding-up speech. I hope that he will address the points that I have raised regarding the need for a free-standing advisory body, and deal with the details raised, not only by myself but by my hon. Friends in interventions, on the appeal mechanism, on licence applications, and on other matters. I shall also listen with interest to how the Minister intends to avoid a repeat of the Iraqi machine tools scandal in which his Government are so inextricably linked. We await the report with interest.

4.55 pm
Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

I guess that it is probably too much to hope that the Bill will get very much publicity or arouse much interest, but to me the Bill is one of the most vital of this Session. I am sorry that the Under-Secretary is not listening at the minute to what I want to say—now I think that I have his attention. The only comment that I would make about the Bill is that it is better late than never.

I am a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, as is the hon. Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram). He and I were both signatories to the recommendations of that Committee, which said that the Bill should have been introduced in the last Session. That was my view and it still is. I would have much preferred the Foreign Office to sponsor the Bill rather than the Department of Trade and Industry, and I much regret the delays—which I know have been due to the DTI—in spite of the chivvying that the Select Committee gave the Foreign Office. We always knew that it would be a DTI Bill. Britain should have been at the very forefront of ratifying the convention and bringing such a Bill forward.

I hope that the predictions are true that we will be among the first 65 nations to ratify the convention. If we are not, it would mean, as the Select Committee said: few, if any, United Kingdom nationals would be employed as Inspectors or in the Technical Secretariat, at any rate in the first instance". It is hugely important that whatever is done with regard to the verification is done by the best possible and best-informed officials; therefore, I cannot but stress the urgency of doing everything possible for the world community to control as best we can the existence and the spread of chemical and biological weaponry.

Chemical and biological weapons are hideous enough when used by military forces, when troops are usually trained in dealing with their hazards. What concerns me even more is the possibility of even more hideous implications if those dreadful weapons get into the hands of terrorists. Strikes could be made against totally unprepared and innocent civilians. There are many thousands of civilians in Iraq and Iran who have learned to their cost and pain the horrible implications of those weapons. Those weapons have rightly been described as poor men's nuclear weapons, and so they are.

We have at last been presented with the Chemical Weapons Bill. I suppose that it could be described as the world community's best effort so far to control chemical weapons. In my view, it should be given our absolutely unequivocal support. I say again, however, that the main problems with the Bill will be in verifying the existence of these weapons and the components that go into manufacturing them.

I have heard it said in the Pentagon, in Washington, that the total control of chemical weapons is impossible to achieve. I believe that that is true. We should recognise, however, that this is the world community's best effort so far to control such devices, and we must be satisfied that it is the best possible compromise to date.

I hope that the Minister will tell us that there will be no complacency about our having got this far. It is essential that efforts continue to be made to tighten those aspects where proper control cannot be achieved, as the Pentagon has said. We must close those loopholes as quickly as possible. It is vital that intrusive challenge inspections are carried out and are not hindered around the world in order to do our best to have as few of those loopholes as possible.

I am concerned about those delays, and I hope that the Minister will tell us what their effect and that of the consultation will be on industry. I should tell the House that I am a director of a company in the chemical industry. I have never been told that it has been involved in nuclear weapons, but I suspect that what I am now going to say will not be very welcome to the chemical industry as a whole. I hope that in preparing this legislation and in undertaking consultation no short cuts have been taken at all—I do not care who is hurt by that—in getting the best possible level of verification and control of these weapons.

As I said, I regard the menace and the threat from chemical weapons in the hands of terrorists as one of the most crucial and worrying things that confronts us in the world today. Therefore, I would be absolutely opposed to short cuts being taken and to our creating more loopholes in the verification than we need have done. I hope that when the Minister comes to respond he will tell us that no short cuts have been taken and that we are confronted with a control system that has the fewest possible loopholes. If that is not the case, we proceed at our peril.

5.3 pm

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

As one who has been interested in chemical weapons issues for three decades, I welcome the Bill, and in particular the degree to which the Department of Trade and Industry has consulted on and reflected the views of those of us who were worried that, above all, it did not have sufficient powers. My judgment is that the Bill can discharge Britain's obligations under the convention, perhaps with the comparatively small exception of the important component of transparency.

What is missing is perhaps a small item, but it is part of a bigger issue—a statutory annual report. I welcome what we could call the change of heart decision to have an annual report, but I must ask the Minister whether it is to be statutory. The Minister and his officials, as well as Members of Parliament, appreciate that it is an important part of the argument. I hope that he will say in his winding-up speech whether it is to be statutory.

How, in fact, is the House of Commons going to hold the authorities to account? If there is an annual report, the truth is that those who might be critical can give it to their expert friends. That in itself is a good discipline. I emphasise, however, that the annual report's nature, statutory or otherwise, is absolutely crucial.

There remains an industry problem, and that is why I intervened during the Minister's speech. The dual uses of chemicals-—military and non-military—are intertwined. We should hear more in Committee about the problems of commercial secrecy because it is a rather delicate issue. It is vital that the treaty should keep abreast of scientific and technological change and innovation. One example is the new Russian development of Novichoks, an agent of GP.

I want to be clear about Porton Down. I know that the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), who may speak later, represents Porton. I hope that he will agree that the issue of Porton is very important to the nation and has implications beyond his constituency and that he will therefore excuse me for referring to it. Intertwined with the future of chemical warfare disarmament is the future of the Porton Down establishment, which is a most valuable national asset, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram) said.

Britain got rid of its chemical weapons in the 1950s so Porton today is, frankly, protective. It exists to ensure that Britain's defences against chemical and biological weapons keep up with new threats and new opportunities, including ones that stem from scientific discovery and technological development. By that same token, Porton has much to contribute to the well-being of the chemical weapons convention. The Bill does not reflect that as clearly as it could.

For example, unless the DTI, which is charged with implementing the convention in the United Kingdom, can count on Porton's assistance, it is likely to be ignorant of how new science and technology are or ought to be affecting its work. It will be in no position to push the treaty's international authority into any adaptation made necessary by technical change—amending the lists of the controlled chemicals and introducing novel inspection techniques—which will certainly be necessary. Yet where is the assurance that Porton, which today is one element of a next steps agency, will in future be able to provide such crucial help to protect this whole enterprise from obsolescence? It is in the recollection of the Department of Health that I went on a delegation with some colleagues to discuss the future of Porton last year; I realise that this is a multi-Department problem.

Porton, frankly, does not have a very good image. I am bound to say in parentheses that it is part of my particular history. I got into trouble in a celebrated privilege case back in 1967 for having talked too freely to Mr. Lawrence Marks of The Observer—not that I thought that I was doing anything wrong; I did not realise that the Select Committee report which had been printed had not gone through the sidelining process. I also add parenthetically that I learnt later from the late Sir Harry Legge-Bourke that, in fact, officials at the Ministry of Defence to whom I had been an extreme nuisance on other matters, such as Aldabra atoll and variable geometry aircraft, thought that technically I was in the wrong; there was, therefore, an opportunity to suggest to certain hon. Members that they might raise it as a privilege case. Those events occurred a long time ago. I mention them because I might be considered an automatic critic of Porton Down: on the contrary, I think that it is rather important to the nation.

If one were speculating about the most likely venue for clandestine chemical weapons work in the United Kingdom, Porton Down could hardly fail to be near the top of the list. Its association with implementing the convention might seem to call the work of the implementers into disrepute. That is why we must introduce a transparency mechanism that would display the real beneficial and indispensable nature of Porton Down's involvement.

For that reason also, we must give serious thought to adding certain requirements to the Bill. There must be an obligation on the Secretary of State—possibly aided by an advisory board, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride suggested—to lay before Parliament each year a report on the operation of the convention in the United Kingdom, including an account of efforts made to stay abreast of all relevant areas of technical change.

Paragraph 4 of article X of the treaty requires that there be an annual report on programmes related to protected purposes, but I cannot find any such requirement in the Bill. Where are the powers that would enable the Secretary of State to provide that report? It may be easy for the Minister to assure us on that point during his winding-up speech. Like my hon. Friends, I do not want Britain to incur penalties for late accession to the convention. Therefore, I shall be as helpful as I can during the Committee stage, provided that Ministers participate fully in the process.

I have two other concerns. First, when discussing the future of Porton Down, it is necessary to reach some conclusion about international problems—particularly the situation in Iraq. Madam Deputy Speaker, if I stray too far on that subject I am sure that you will remind me that I am to raise the issue of sanctions against Libya and Iraq on the Adjournment on Wednesday night. That is probably the more appropriate time to discuss such matters.

Tonight, I simply refer to the fact that various media circles have recently reported allegations that chemical weapons or materials are present on the vessels that sank during the military operations in January and February 1991 in the Shatt al-Arab and along Iraq's gulf coastline. The Iraqis insist that their vessels which sank at that time carried no chemical weapons or materials. They are ready to co-operate with the United Nations if it wishes to salvage the sunken vessels in order to ascertain their contents, and they are willing to provide the facilities required for such an operation.

I visited Baghdad two years ago—not everyone approved of my trip)—and I believe that sanctions should be lifted. But that is by the by. Whatever views we have about Iraq, we must appreciate the importance of a monitoring system—and our monitoring system is Porton Down.

I am also concerned about the unanswered question in the brief from the Royal Society of Chemistry. We have not addressed the impact of the legislation on scientific research. I interrupted the Minister to discuss clauses 19 and 20, but it is not immediately clear from the available data whether research chemists, bio-chemists and associated scientists will suffer seriously as a result of the regime. The requirement to obtain a Government permit before embarking on a particular laboratory synthesis or other study will be strange to many scientists.

The Bill leaves the question of appeals against disallowed licenses to the secondary legislation—or, more particularly, to an order made by statutory instrument, which is subject only to annulment by Parliament. The list of chemicals in schedule 1 to the Bill is not as short as it looks. The list contains only 12 entries, but five of them are generic, not specific, so as to prevent would-be violaters from designing molecules around the chemicals ban. Those five families encompass many thousands of different chemicals.

It is important for Britain to sign the convention as soon as possible. If we are not quick about it—I think that we should probably sign the convention before Christmas— our scientists, who are among the best qualified on the planet, may be excluded from jobs in this area. That would be a great pity for Britain and for other countries too, because I suspect that we are as good as, if not better than, anyone else in this field. Secondly, we must be very clear about the Bill's on-going impact on industry.

I accept that the dual-purpose problem may evolve in unexpected forms. Therefore, it is important to ensure the establishment of a proper monitoring system. I do not pretend for a moment that the House of Commons is qualified to conduct that monitoring; but hon. Members have a duty to ensure that a statutory annual report is produced which may then be passed on to those who know far more about the matter.

I pay tribute to the advice that I have received over the years from Dr. Julian Perry Robinson, who has assisted many hon. Members, regardless of their political persuasion. I also thank Dr. Stephen Benn of the Royal Society of Chemistry. It is very important that all the relevant information is available to those working in the field. They may or may not be potential critics, but at least we shall all know what is going on.

5.16 pm
Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

I begin by declaring several interests to the House. First, I am very pleased to see that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the Member for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim), is in charge of the Chemical Weapons Bill. I had the great pleasure of teaching him his A-levels some years ago. I got on my bike and left the Front Bench, but I am delighted to see him there today and I congratulate him on his achievement in putting the Bill together. I hope that it will enjoy a speedy passage through the House.

Secondly, I reiterate what is already recorded in the Register of Members' Interest: I am connected with a company called Hortichem, which helps our lettuces to grow better and ensures that our top fruit is better than the French varieties. The company is involved entirely with horticultural chemicals and I have done my best to ascertain that it has nothing whatever to do with the schedules that appear at the back of the Bill. However, I declare my interest to the House just in case.

Thirdly, I have enormous pride in declaring my interest as the Member of Parliament representing Porton Down and both establishments there. Today we are discussing only the Chemical and Biological Defence Establishment, which employs 620 wonderful people. They form part of this country's important scientific base and they have helped to put us at the forefront of the field internationally. We should also mention the support staff, without whom the facility could not operate. They are crucial members of my constituency community and I am proud to represent them.

When I became the Member of Parliament for Salisbury in 1983 my predecessor, Sir Michael Hamilton, destroyed his files, leaving me only two: one on Stonehenge, and one on Porton Down and the reorganisation that the Porton Down communities had endured over the past 30 years.

I welcome the support that the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) gave to Porton Down. He asked what would safeguard Porton Down, and I can best answer that question by reminding him of the 620 employees at Porton Down who are indispensable to the future well-being of our nation's defence and to that of the international community. During the past 12 years, they have taken the trouble to educate their Member of Parliament pretty thoroughly about operations at Porton Down. I thank the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Health for allowing me the degree of access to that facility that I have enjoyed over the years.

The Bill was introduced jointly by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence. My right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) was absolutely right. The Bill has much wider significance than might at first appear, and I share his view that it is one of the most important Bills before the House this Session.

The staff at the Chemical and Biological Defence Establishment at Porton Down welcome the Chemical Weapons Convention as an important part in the web of measures which includes export controls and chemical defence equipment designed to deter the use of chemical weapons worldwide.

The mission of the CBDE has already been described by a number of Members, but the context within which the Bill is now before the House is not so widely appreciated. The threat of chemical and biological weapons is not a specific issue involving a number of chemical substances in the schedule to a particular Bill; it is a spectrum ranging from the classic warfare agents that we have heard about, such as first world war mustard gases, nerve agents and cyanide, through agricultural and pharmaceutical chemicals to bioregulators, toxins and biological agents such as bacteria, rickettsia and viruses— the designer molecules about which we have been hearing. So Porton Down has a huge amount of work, not only looking forward, but also looking backwards, as the hon. Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram) well knows.

It was no accident that the Gulf war benefited considerably from the work of the CBDE. The Defence Select Committee recently produced a report on Gulf war syndrome. In all the froth that flows from such reports, perhaps we lost sight of the fact that we totally endorsed the Ministry of Defence in providing NAPS—nerve agent pre-treatment sets—tablets and inoculations and that any quarrel we had concerned the methodology and after-care involved. That work was carried out at the CBDE. The scientists there were right to do what they did, and without that work we would have been worse placed.

It is a supreme irony that however well equipped and trained a nation's troops are and wherever in the world they are fighting, they can be wiped out by a whiff of a chemical or biological agent. That is why chemical defence is so important; it is all part of deterrence.

The work at Porton Down is probably as important as any other part of the nation's deterrence, including its nuclear capability, and the Government recognise that. I refer the House to the comments of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence in his excellent speech to the Tri-Service conference earlier this month: Our concept of security in 2010 will undoubtedly be broader than that which dominated our thinking and posture for the 45 years which followed the end of World War II. As Sir Michael Howard memorably described it, we are emerging from the rigidities of the Cold War. We will see, and have to respond to, a much more diverse range of challenges: terrorism; weapons proliferation, including weapons of mass destruction; competition over natural resources; religious and ethnic disputes; drugs; organised crime; and refugees. We also saw quite recently in Japan the terror that the threat of chemical weapons can create on a major city's underground transport system. I have every confidence that our nation will have planned for such a civil event should it happen in Britain. I suspect that that is not the case in some other countries. Such issues now mean that the Secretary of State for Defence has wider responsibilities. Perhaps we should also hear from the Home Office during the passage of the Bill.

A number of Members have referred to what the CBDE has or has not done. It is important to remember that its connection with the Bill goes back a long way. The CBDE has been working closely with the Ministry of Defence proliferation and arms control secretariat and in co-operation with the Foreign and Commonwealth office to support the preparatory commission for the Organisation of the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international body established to implement the convention. The CBDE has sent technical representatives from Porton Down to the experts group and specialist task forces in The Hague working on establishing the structure of the OPCW and developing the technical and administrative requirements in preparation for the convention's entry into force. In other words, my constituents have been at the base of the entire international effort. It is indeed the world's best effort and many of my constituents have helped to make it possible.

My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister appears to have come under fire from the Opposition Front Bench. That is rather unfair. Page 7 of the annual report of the CBDE for 1994–95, to which a number of Members have referred, makes it pretty clear that the CBDE has encountered some difficulty in moving forward sufficiently fast. It states: CBDE has now completed collation of the information needed for the UK declaration of former chemical weapons related activities required by the CWC. Preparation of declarations of present activities has commenced. These activities include details of the United Kingdom Single Small Scale Facility sited at CBDE where small quantities of chemical weapons agents to be used for permitted purposes may be prepared and details of destruction of old CW munitions which are occasionally found at various UK sites as well as on the Range at CBDE.". The CBDE has made a major effort to prepare for the legislation and it is not accurate to blame my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, a former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, for the delay. It means simply that we have been doing our homework better than other nations might have done and that was correct.

It is important that MOD units around the country and their facilities are fully prepared for the challenge inspections that are planned under the legislation. Accordingly, the CBDE has taken part in the United Kingdom series of practice challenge inspections. It has also provided lecturers to assist in the Dutch-sponsored pilot training courses for inspectors and national authority personnel from all over the world.

The CBDE has developed, produced and had certified a toxic material transport container which will make an important practical contribution to the safe transport of samples taken by OPCW inspectors. In the aftermath of the Sarin attack in Tokyo, I recall seeing on television people carrying extraordinary jars of substances. I am delighted that the CBDE has taken matters further.

Airlines have strict rules governing the transport of hazardous materials and the new container has been designed to provide compliance with all existing packaging criteria. It has now been granted a certificate of packaging issued on behalf of the Department of Transport, the Civil Aviation Authority and the Health and Safety Executive. A container with small samples was taken from London Heathrow to Washington Dulles on 15 February this year in co-operation with the US Army Edgewood research development and engineering center.

A number of Opposition Members referred to Iraq and of course the international effort there depended almost entirely on the work at Porton Down. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Linlithgow for recognising the importance of that work.

As for the continuing question of hazard assessment, I should underline to my hon. Friend the Minister how important it is that we do not stop now. We are at the start of a process that will continue into the future.

Reference has been made to the Soviet disclosures of the nerve agent VX. The hon. Member for East Kilbride was absolutely right to refer to that and other disclosures. If I may pre-empt my hon. Friend the Minister, the answer to his question is quite simple. It is exactly why the CBDE argues that it must continue to research those products. That means looking backwards as well as forwards.

It is ironic that the chemical substances originally used and stockpiled in large numbers in the first world war— and still stockpiled in large numbers, particularly in Russia—were produced because they had a stable existence and a long storage life. Now that we can make designer products very quickly, the most popular chemicals are the very ones that were previously rejected. The CBDE is going back in time to look at things rejected in the 1950s and 1960s, to make sure that we have not missed a single trick in Britain's effort to ensure a slowing, if not cessation, of a wicked trade.

I read the compliance cost assessment produced by my hon. Friend's Department, for which I am grateful to him, but was alarmed by the cost to British industry. I was relieved when I read the details and realised that we are talking about a small number of firms and small commitments by them. Nevertheless, compliance is a burden on British industry and my hon. Friend the Minister should not for one moment blush at being a deregulation Minister who finds himself imposing regulations. Perhaps the firms have been operating under the wrong regulations and that while we have been too obsessed with implementing ridiculous regulations from Brussels all these years, our eye has not been on the ball. Let us abolish a few more regulations from Brussels and make sure that we enforce by regulation things that matter. I urge my hon. Friend not to be embarrassed. He was never embarrassed even when I was teaching him A-level economics, so I do not imagine that he is embarrassed now. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale said, we must get it absolutely right and not waste any effort in ensuring security and safety.

One point that worries me about the compliance cost assessment appears in paragraph 20, which deals with the small business litmus test and mentions thresholds below which declarations and inspections are not required. I seek an explanation and an assurance because it seems strange that whereas medium and large firms will, rightly, have to go to a great deal of trouble, small firms will not have to bother. I find that extraordinary and ask my hon. Friend to re-examine that aspect. I suspect that we shall need to be reassured.

The same point applies to academia. As a former member of the Medical Research Council, I yield to none in my admiration for British science. I entirely understand the arguments made by the academic community, but it should recognise that it is also a target for terrorism as much as anything else and is a source of potential materials for terrorism. The scientific community should wish for the tightest security possible and records of substances, and I am sure that it will. I wish the Bill well and assure my hon. Friend the Minister that it has my strong support.

5.32 pm
Mr. Nick Harvey (North Devon)

I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in the debate because, like the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), I think that this is one of the most important pieces of legislation that will come before Parliament this Session. I welcome the Bill but share the view of hon. Members who said that it is rather belated. It is none the less welcome that the Government recognise the contribution that the treaty can make to global security. Its ratification is essential. No right hon. or hon. Member can doubt the Bill's validity and we must progress it as quickly as we can. If we fail to pass this primary legislation promptly and by the time the treaty is in force there would be unfortunate consequences throughout the country, as the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) said. There is much of merit in the Bill and I join other hon. Members on both sides of the House in urging that we get on with the job.

There are problems with the Bill as it stands which may cause difficulties in its practical implementation. It would be a shame not to use the limited opportunities at our disposal to address those concerns. Right hon. and hon. Members spoke of how the Bill will impinge on the activities of the scientific community. Clauses 19 and 20 require anyone using, producing or possessing schedule-1 chemicals to obtain a licence first, and I would like to hear how that would work in practice. I presume that the Department of Trade and Industry, as the national authority, will issue licences—but who will decide what is or is not acceptable research? Will there be any form of appeal against licence refusal? Who will advise the DTI? Those questions have no obvious answers in the Bill, but perhaps the Government have replies ready. Many Bills in recent years have given various Secretaries of State sweeping powers. In this instance, hon. Members have not been circulated with the customary tomes of explanatory notes saying how the Bill's powers will be used in practice.

I welcome the fact that the national authority will be given sufficient powers to monitor the data reporting scheme for schedule 2 and 3 chemicals. That system will work well given full co-operation by the industry. There are further powers to implement a full-blown national compliance monitoring system if that is deemed necessary. That would apply to all areas of chemical-related activity, whether or not they are governmental. That measure seems somewhat draconian but presumably it will be used sparingly. The system will rely on close co-operation, which is just as well given that the Bill envisages only seven additional departmental staff in the DTI—presumably in the newly established secretariat. One assumes that other DTI staff will be redeployed on that task.

The hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) rightly referred to as draconian, if they were used inappropriately, some of the powers in clauses 22 and 23. Clause 23 seems to give the Secretary of State the power to make regulations that will require persons to identify themselves to him if it is likely that the Secretary of State will need information from them. That is like the police requiring criminals to make themselves known. If the Secretary of State is unable to identify the persons in question and their activities, there will be a problem. We cannot be sure that persons will know about the legislation and the requirement to make themselves known.

We should be wary of establishing a system that might result in too cosy a relationship between the industry and the DTI as the national authority, if that brought any risk of endangering our international credibility. It is not clear from the Bill how the DTI's strategies for prevention, accountability, parliamentary involvement and statutory independence will work. The solution must be measures to ensure transparency and accountability. I welcome the Minister's announcement today that there will be an annual report, but share the concern of the hon. Member for Linlithgow that it should be statutory. I would like that requirement in the Bill. We accept the sincerity of the Minister's assurances, but there will come a time when he is long gone and forgotten from his current post. It would be preferable to see in the Bill a procedure for ensuring that annual reporting continues indefinitely. The Australian solution for fulfilling the terms of the treaty is to prescribe that an annual report be laid before each House of Parliament.

Transparency in protecting against chemical weapons is specifically covered by the convention. Although one recognises the necessity for continuing research in anti-chemical protection such as clothing alarms and antidotes, such research may conceal illegal weapons activity, so each country must present its annual report to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Britain's present research, as the hon. Member for Salisbury explained, is undertaken at Porton Down, which already produces an annual report. Will that report continue in its current form? What will be the relationship between Porton Down's report, that which will be made annually to the OPCW and the report to which the Minister referred at the start of his speech? Who will take responsibility for producing the annual report to the OPCW? Does the Minister believe that the Porton Down report will form the basis and that it will be enough to satisfy the treaty's requirements?

As many hon. Members have said, Porton Down will continue to play an important role in satisfying Britain's obligations when the treaty comes into force. It is crucial to ensure that this country is kept abreast of technological development in the chemical industry so that new and potentially dangerous chemicals or new ways of using existing chemicals can be brought under the remit of the treaty. We cannot rely solely on the OPCW to monitor those developments. Porton Down seems to be the only organisation capable of taking on that responsibility. The DTI appeared to recognise that in the discussion document it produced earlier this year when it called on Porton Down to monitor scientific developments.

At that time, Porton Down was a free-standing next steps agency, with a director general who was accountable to Parliament. It now has a managing director and is simply one of several components of the Defence Research Agency that operates as a trading fund. How will it effect Porton Down's role in the future when the treaty comes into force? We hope that it will continue to monitor technical changes in the chemical industry as effectively for the purposes of bringing new technology under the terms of the treaty as it will presumably monitor technical change for its military and business customers. We can hope, but we cannot be sure because of the uncertainty about the accountability of Porton Down to Parliament. The only way to guarantee that a blind eye is not turned to potential abuse is to enact statutory legislation to ensure transparency and accountability. It should not be too difficult to adapt the existing advisory committees at Porton Down to the requirements of the treaty.

The fact that, unlike in many other countries the Government here propose to operate the national authority from within the recesses of the DTI, may be seen as exacerbating the problems of transparency. There seems little doubt that a stand-alone agency would have been more easily held to account and its activities could have been more easily scrutinised. If the DTI is to publish an annual report, I hope that it will be regularly debated in Parliament so that the transparency is ensured.

There is a need for an advisory board. Organisations that carry out similar functions in other sectors of industry have advisory boards, and I should be interested to hear the Minister's response to the questions that have been asked on that subject. If, as the Bill progresses, further measures are considered which tackle the problem of transparency and accountability, the Bill will be able to do the job asked of it. We shall co-operate with other hon. Members to ensure that the Bill's passage through the House is as swift as possible.

5.42 pm
Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)

I can probably claim to be as concerned at an early stage with the need for a chemical weapons treaty as anyone in the House as I am one of Parliament's representatives in the North Atlantic Assembly. Since 1982, the assembly's Science and Technical Committee has been pressing hard for the introduction of a chemical weapons treaty and two of its reports were written by the right hon. Member for Honiton.

The successful negotiation of the chemical weapons convention is a remarkable achievement—perhaps some of us do not underline that enough. The convention is the most ambitious multilateral arms control agreement ever. It seeks a global ban on an entire class of weaponry and will require verification in one of the world's most pervasive industrial sectors.

The entry into force of the convention now seems assured as it has received support from the United Nations and, generally, throughout the world. But there is a need, which has not been emphasised in the debate, to persuade those nations that may covertly possess chemical weapons to join the convention. It may be appropriate for us to examine harshly parties that do not join the convention.

One of the key implementation problems is to ensure that the convention is signed. It is particularly important for nations that are believed to possess chemical weapons to be brought into the convention. Some nations that are unhappy about what they see as excessively intrusive verification may be reluctant to sign the convention. For example, some Arab nations have suggested on several occasions that they would be reluctant to sign a chemical weapons agreement unless Israel dismantled its nuclear weapons capability. There are various difficulties involved in gaining world acceptance of the convention. That is why I am asking my hon. Friend the Minister whether any consideration has been given to what steps may be taken—even half steps such as trading sanctions—against those who are apparently unwilling to sign the convention once it is in force. The nations that sign the chemical weapons convention should consider that issue. I hope that my hon. Friend is pressing for the relevant sites in this country to be declared as soon as possible, to enable the preparatory commission to determine the scale of the resources needed by the international Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. We should urge all signatories to do that, so that we can proceed quickly.

Many people may think that chemical weapons are a modern problem, but that is not so. Chemical warfare dates back to antiquity. In the Peloponnesian war in 431 BC, Spartan forces used giant bellows filled with pitch, charcoal and sulphur to blow choking smoke into the besieged cities of Platea and Delium. Several centuries later, the Byzantine empire developed what was known as Greek fire, which was a flame-throwing device that produced sulphur dioxide—a binding and choking smoke. In 1456, the defenders of Belgrade used a gas containing arsenic against the Turks. An Australian observer at the time described the effect as murderous and said that the weapon should never be used against Christians. The use of shells containing chloride gas was considered in the American civil war.

When we consider the history of banning, we see that as early as 1899, efforts were made at the first Hague conference to discuss arms limitation and the settlement of international disputes.

Mr. Dalyell

Did the right hon. Gentleman say that there was an Australian observer in 1456?

Sir Peter Emery

I do apologise—I meant to say an Austrian observer. I do not know whether I slipped up or the hon. Gentleman misheard me, but 1456 was a little before the wallabies.

As early as 1899, the Russians proposed a ban on projectiles containing asphyxiating and deleterious gases. The United States opposed it, and it is interesting to consider its reason for doing so. The Americans opposed the ban in the belief that gas was probably a more humane means of warfare than bullets and shells and might be a weapon to achieve decisive results. As a result, the Russian proposal was not adopted.

The widespread use of chemical weapons in the first world war led to the only existing protocol on chemical weapons, created in 1925 in Geneva. It has a long title: the "Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases and all Analogous Liquids, Materials or Devices and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare". That is still an international treaty, but unfortunately it fell short of banning chemical weapons. It represents an international legal position on the first use of chemical weapons, but it does not outlaw the development, production or stockpiling of chemical weapons. The treaty and the Bill that we are now discussing achieve that end. Several agents were developed at the end of the last war, notably nerve agents in Germany and the even more lethal nerve gases in the United Kingdom.

It was in 1980, at the Geneva conference on disarmament, when negotiations began to produce a more effective arms control agreement governing chemical weapons. It was during the 1980s that many of us—some in the House, some in the North Atlantic Assembly and some in the United Nations—were pressing for efforts to be made to produce a bilateral chemical arms control agreement. It was the United States and the Soviet Union that achieved such an agreement. In 1989, the Soviet Union announced that it would begin destroying its stocks without waiting for a treaty to be signed. The United States then decided to halt production of binary chemical weapons. In the same year, in Paris, 149 nations pledged not to use chemical agents in warfare and called for their eventual elimination.

It is interesting, even before the treaty is in operation, that in 1990 the United States and the Soviet Union reached an agreement on chemical weapons under which they would begin to destroy 80 per cent. of their stocks immediately and would reduce remaining stocks to 1 or 2 per cent. of the existing total after the signing of the convention. There are occasions when the Soviets and the Americans are blamed for whatever, but in this instance it is unfair not to give them some credit.

There are certain problems when it comes to the need in haste to adopt the convention. I understand that we shall consider the Bill on Report, followed by Third Reading, the week after next. I am glad that the Government have responded to those who are urging that we should act quickly. What steps have my hon. Friend the Minister and his Department taken to try to prepare a list of scientists and British civil servants, or business people, who might work in The Hague under the preparatory convention? I agree entirely with Opposition Members and my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling), who have urged that there should be a British input into the proposed administration. I understand that it is estimated that between 700 and 2,500 persons will be involved. The number will depend on the number of signatories and on the number of sites that will have to be inspected or may be inspected.

No one has talked about money, but we must ensure that there is proper finance, so that the administration at The Hague can inspect fully and properly without having to worry about finance. It should be remembered that the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna has had no increase in funding for seven years, which has led to considerable worries about the way in which it can carry out its operations. I do not want to see the same situation at The Hague.

Successful negotiation of the chemical weapons convention will be a milestone in the history of arms control. The steps that we are now taking move us forward and make us part of an historical achievement. I am delighted that we are making progress.

5.54 pm
Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

I thank the right hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) for his interesting history lesson. His slip of the tongue enables me to refer to Australia, which is opposed to chemical weapons and to French nuclear tests in the Pacific, as we should be. The right hon. Gentleman presented me with an opportunity to make that point.

The Minister may have had his tongue in his cheek when he referred to "rapid ratification" by the Government. We should be asking why there has been such delay in introducing the Bill. It is long overdue. The text of the convention was agreed in late 1992. We should examine the reasons for delayed ratification. The Deputy Prime Minister, the then President of the Board of Trade, dragged his feet. Deregulation and privatisation of the Post Office was deemed more important by the right hon. Gentleman than a major international treaty to ban chemical weapons world wide. That is a clear example that members of the Tory party have become little Englanders.

It is vital that the United Kingdom should be among the first 65 to ratify the convention, not least because that will safeguard the jobs of Britons who have already secured employment with the international organisation at The Hague. Early ratification will also give us good standing in the decision-making processes that are being established. It will show additionally that we are keen on controlling chemical weapons.

The convention will come into force 180 days after 65 countries have ratified it. As the Minister said, we look to the United States and the Russian Federation to ratify it. Once the United Kingdom has ratified the convention, we shall be in a better position to urge those two major powers to respond quickly. That is why early ratification is important. The United Kingdom would have been seen as keener if we had ratified the convention earlier. The Government should be criticised for their tardiness.

I have taken a special interest in chemical weapons for many years. It is an interest that was given renewed vigour after the terrible bombing of Halabja by Saddam Hussein in 1988. Soon after that bombing, I went with my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) to meet the right hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave), who was then Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, to press for the Government, who had international obligations, to act immediately. History records that no action was forthcoming. That is to the eternal shame of the nation. We remained a full trading partner with Iraq. We did not even impose sanctions. As the Scott inquiry has already revealed, export control guidelines were being slackened. It was a shameful episode as Ministers turned a blind eye to murder by means of chemical weapons.

Under the convention, we shall be obliged not to assist any country to acquire a chemical weapons capability. That means that we need a proper export control regime. The current procedure is a farce because it is subject to the whim of political masters. The Scott inquiry has highlighted nooks and crannies that tell us how the Government view trade with obnoxious regimes. I hope that it will report during the Session. The Government should give an assurance that if the inquiry makes recommendations for changes in the law, they will implement them. There should be no ifs, buts or maybe this or that. It is clear that the export regime needs to be overhauled, and the sooner the better. Transparency must be introduced. That which the Government tell Parliament is the United Kingdom's policy must be seen to be implemented. It must not be subverted by Ministers or anyone else.

There must be transparency and accountability in the approach of the Department of Trade and Industry to the convention. As things stand, little information would be in the public domain on what the DTI was doing to ensure compliance with the convention. The DTI can refuse to disclose the nature of its activities, on the ground that that would jeopardise the commercial confidentiality of the companies providing information. The international co-ordinating body, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons at The Hague, cannot make public any information provided to it by the DTI as a national authority. That must be changed, and I shall say a bit more about it in a minute.

Transparency is also needed in the activities of Porton Down, which has been referred to today. I have expressed my outrage at some of the activities there in the past. That is not to say, however, that some of them do not deserve support; I would never want to throw the baby out with the bath water. Porton Down's expertise in physical protection, such as gas masks and suits, is unparalleled, as are the capabilities of its analytical laboratories. My distaste relates primarily to medical counter-measures that require animal tests, especially when many of them could be carried out using alternatives to animals. Truly defensive work could easily be distorted into a potentially offensive capability. Other countries may take the same road using that excuse. I would like to see a tightening of procedures against that get-out.

The Government should consider giving an idea of the quantity of any chemical that is produced at Porton Down, even bearing in mind the 1 tonne limit to which the Minister referred. Under the convention, a certain level of transparency would be required in any case. After all, would we be willing to ratify a treaty that allowed the Iraqis to hide Salman Pak, their Porton Down, behind closed doors? The United Nations special commission on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction has complained to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about British companies supplying the Salman Pak and Ad Dwar plants in Iraq. In their Scott mire, the Government just want to forget about it, but at its kindest the United Kingdom's role could be described as ambiguous on supporting Iraq's chemical weapons capability.

It is valuable to look at the Bill in a slightly wider context. It will almost certainly be the model for this country's implementation of any verification regime agreed for the biological weapons convention, which, although agreed more than 20 years ago, currently has no verification arrangements. Despite the other faults—some of which I have mentioned—of its political masters, Britain has been quietly in the forefront on that issue. I welcome that and pay tribute to the Government.

There will be another international meeting on biological weapons next week in Geneva. I hope that when arrangements are finished in the coming years, there will be proper co-ordination between the two verification regimes. I raise that issue now, because it could have implications for the proposed legislation in the relatively near future. There could be some overlap between verification of biological and chemical weapons. It is important to ensure that we do not have a situation where verification does not take place because each regime leaves it to the other. That is an important point and it should be taken on board.

Before talking about the specifics for strengthening the Bill, I want to look at an obligation that is not in it, but which is important. Article X of the convention obliges each party to make arrangements to provide resources in one form or another for future assistance to any party attacked with chemical weapons. Before the Bill completes its passage through the House, may we have an idea of how much we might contribute to a voluntary assistance fund, which, I understand, is to be established? May we have an assurance from the Government that, in any investigation of alleged use of chemical weapons, British expertise will be placed at the disposal of the international organisation without charge, because experience of bureaucracy shows that financial questions impede prompt action? There would be no blank cheque; the costs of such investigations are relatively small, but the benefits of speedy action would be enormous. Nothing less than that can remove the moral stain that remains on this country for its inaction over Halabja.

The Minister referred to "challenge inspections" in the convention. That is important during peacetime. It is important that inspections should take place when allegations are made that chemical weapons are being used during wars between different countries, but they should also happen when it is alleged that a regime has used such weapons against its own people, as in Halabja. Swift investigation is vital. The organisation must be given all the power and authority to do that, should the need arise.

Sir Peter Emery

How does the hon. Gentleman see that applying where the nation had not signed the convention?

Mr. Cohen

That is a genuine point, and it is one of considerable difficulty. We must get all nations to sign the convention at the outset, and the ones that do not must come under continuing pressure. Even when a nation has not signed the convention, the international organisation should put pressure on it for inspections to take place. If that does not occur, the world will draw its own conclusions and should act accordingly.

On the specific aspects of the Bill, I am pleased that the Minister has agreed that an annual report should be presented to Parliament on the activities carried out by this country in implementing the convention. The report should contain the maximum information, taking into account the commercial confidentiality limitation, to which the Government have referred. The Government should not use commercial confidentiality as an excuse to provide very little information to the House. As in Australia, there could be an indication of the activity taking place under the convention, taking into account the restraints of commercial confidentiality.

I believe that there should be an advisory body for the Secretary of State on the implementation of the convention. Its members could be appointed by the Secretary of State, with its expenses paid out of the Consolidated Fund. It would be best to have one or two statutory bodies, but we can consider that matter in Committee.

I am thinking of tabling two specific amendments in Committee. One relates to clause 23, to which my hon. Friends the Members for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) and for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram) on the Front Bench, and the hon. Member for North Devon (Mr. Harvey) have referred. There are flaws in its wording—let alone anything else—as well as in the powers contained in it. Clause 23(6) should be changed, so that there are positive procedures in the House and in the other place rather than the negative resolution contained in the clause. The regulations will provide the Secretary of State with tremendous powers, which I acknowledge may well be needed. In the main, those powers are likely to be exercised in secret. The accountability to Parliament in the making of those powers should be by positive, not negative, resolution.

I want to add a new paragraph after clause 26(1)(c) to make it an offence knowingly to make a false or misleading statement to any member of the inspection team, the in-country escort or the observer during an inspection. The reason is simple. During an inspection, it is vital that the correct information is presented to the inspection team. Unamended, the Bill would not make giving false or misleading statements an offence. Wilful obstruction covers only physical obstruction. False or deliberately misleading statements should be a punishable offence, otherwise a huge loophole opens up. Showing those subject to inspection a copy of the Act would impress upon them the need to tell the truth and assist inspection to the fullest extent.

The last time that we had legislation to ratify an arms control measure—the conventional forces in Europe treaty—there was a similar gap. I raised the issue then, but pressure of time prevented the legislation from being amended. I hope that if I were to move such an amendment later, it would be included this time.

The Bill, which ratifies an important treaty, is late. Sadly, the Government have not shown that they recognise its significance. However, it will make the world a much safer place and it is welcome. I wish the Bill a speedy passage.

6.10 pm
Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

I warmly welcome the Bill. I endorse the remarks of the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) who, like me, is a member of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, which called early last year for the speedy implementation of legislation in the previous parliamentary Session.

Mr. Jopling

The hon. Gentleman would wish to be accurate: the Select Committee's report was published this March.

Mr. Gapes

I thank the right hon. Gentleman. I meant the last parliamentary year; we are now in the new parliamentary year.

I was so concerned about the matter that I tabled an early-day motion, which received wide support from all parties, and I successfully secured an Adjournment debate on 24 April, in which I had the opportunity to press the Minister for Science and Technology, the hon. Member for Esher (Mr. Taylor), on why the President of the Board of Trade had not introduced legislation. I concur with the remarks made by hon. Members on both sides of the House about the inordinate delay and why it took three years for the DTI to propose legislation.

We have been told today that legislation is now being introduced rapidly. The problem is that there is not much time between its introduction today and its enactment, which must be in the near future to ensure that Britain is among the first 65 countries to implement the convention and to ensure that we are in at the very beginning. That will have to be borne in mind in Committee.

Mr. Oppenheim

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Bill was published in July, so he has had plenty of time to consider it.

Mr. Gapes

The Bill was published in draft form in July. I understand that a revised version was published in the last few weeks. Therefore, the House was not presented with the legislation in July. The Queen's Speech referred to the matter only last week and it is now being pushed through quickly because 42 countries have already implemented the convention and yet more are in the pipeline.

It crossed my mind in July and August that 20 or 30 countries might soon implement the convention, causing the Government to rush legislation through in October in the clear-up period at the end of the last parliamentary year. Fortunately, that did not happen, so we may have a chance properly to scrutinise the Bill.

Many points have already been made but I wish simply to highlight two issues. The first, to which reference has been made, is the problem caused by the DTI being the national authority for the legislation. I have no problem with that in principle, but I am concerned that within the Department staff may not have the necessary expertise to cope with the complexities of properly enforcing the legislation. The danger might be that we have too few people, but with draconian powers, and as a result proper consideration is not given to the needs of the industry or the academic world. I hope that the Minister will assure us that full resources will be given.

One of the benefits of disarmament—the peace dividend—should be that far more resources are given to inspection, verification, implementation and monitoring of disarmament legislation. It is important that that is adequate. For reasons that we understand, the DTI has the lead role in this, but it is important to ensure that resources freed up by the disarmament process are used for verification and implementation of disarmament agreements. We should not skimp on that. It is important that proper resources are given for the full implementation of the treaty in Britain.

Associated with that is a second problem— transparency. Reference has already been made to an advisory board. It would help those in the DTI who must deal with the matter if there were an advisory board of experts, academics, people from industry, people who had some knowledge and perhaps retired military people as well—people who could consider some of the wider aspects. The board should be put on a statutory basis so that it could produce information and reports that could be more widely considered if necessary.

Linked to that is a matter to which reference has already been made. I welcome the Minister's statement on the publication of an annual report. In the interests of trust and wider confidence, however, it is essential that we do something similar to that done in Australia, where the first annual report of the director of safeguards and the director of the chemical weapons convention office has already been published and tabled for debate by the two Houses of the Australian Parliament. I cannot see any problem in Britain doing the same and I hope that, to that end, amendments will be tabled in Committee so that the Bill can be amended before its Third Reading.

The right hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) referred to the need to take action against countries that stay out of the regime. That is important. As the DTI is taking the lead role, that raises the matter of the successor regime to COCOM, the co-ordinating committee of western nations on technology transfers. I hope that some form of international sanctions, in terms of trade, exports and the transfer of technology, will also be considered so that countries that choose not to join the convention will know that there is a penalty in terms of economic co-operation and development.

The issue may be complex because some countries will not join a chemical weapons convention in principle due to their attitude to neighbouring countries and the non-nuclear proliferation treaty, but failure to join would be a terrible mistake. All countries have an obligation to join. The convention has been signed by 159 or 160 countries, but there are 184 or 185 members of the United Nations. It is important that we keep up the pressure on member and non-member states of the United Nations. For example, Taiwan is not recognised as an international state, but nevertheless it is an important international country and it has a significant chemical industry. We should ensure that such countries are part of the process.

The implementation of the convention will be of great importance for the future of the world. The world has struggled for many years to secure what may happen when it is enforced: the achievement of a verified international treaty allowing challenge inspections and enabling international organisations to introduce confidence and co-operation in the future.

We were given a history lesson on chemical weapons. My knowledge does not go back to the ancient Greeks, but I believe that enormous efforts have been made in this century. Reference was made to the Geneva discussions of the 1920s, but efforts were also made in the 1980s. At that time we thought that progress would be made, but the United States adopted a very difficult attitude to what it regarded as intrusion into its chemical industry. We have now come through that: the combination of Mr. Gorbachev's achievements in the ending of the cold war and universal recognition that the threats are real offer us the prospect of securing an international treaty.

I am pleased that the Government have introduced the Bill. I am sure that it will be received positively in all quarters. It is important to get it absolutely right, however, and I therefore hope that the Government will take account of the points made today by hon. Members on both sides of the House when the later stages of the Bill are considered.

6.20 pm
Mr. Ingrain

With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker. I shall not speak for long because the Minister raised many points earlier and I feel that the House will benefit from what he says in reply. This has been an important and informative debate; all who have participated will probably leave the Chamber with more knowledge than they had initially. The same will apply outside the House.

The Minister said that the Royal Society of Chemistry had not provided him with an important briefing document. I have checked with the society, which confirmed that two copies of the document were given to his Department yesterday. I hope that that will be placed on the record, and I am sure that the Minister will correct any omission by his Department. The society should not be criticised.

I do not intend to deal with all the points that have been made, but the Minister asked for suggestions on how the Bill could be improved. We are trying to ensure its fairly speedy passage, but that does not mean that we should ignore the need for amendment. The Minister has been asked specific questions about the way in which the annual report will be presented to Parliament—for instance, will that be statutory? He has also been asked a number of questions about the way in which the regulations will be handled—will they be dealt with by the affirmative or negative resolution procedure?—and about the need for an advisory body, among other related matters. All those issues would require amendments to the Bill.

I am prepared to talk to the Minister with the aim of ensuring that the amendments are suitable, and that the Bill is eventually worded in the best possible way. The Minister said that he had not been contacted by an Opposition spokesman during the lengthy period since the Bill's first appearance, or since Britain signed the convention three years ago; I am now making an offer to him. If he wants co-operation on the amendments necessary to deal with the important points that have been raised today, I shall be happy to co-operate with him.

I congratulate every hon. Member who has spoken: some sound and cogent points have been made. I also thank the Royal Society of Chemistry, which has helped many hon. Members. It is clear that the authoritative document produced by Julian Perry Robinson has struck a chord with many people, and I hope that it will help the Minister to improve the Bill so that it can assist us all in dealing with a critical issue.

6.24 pm
Mr. Oppenheim

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is clear that, in general, the Bill enjoys the whole-hearted support of hon. Members on both sides of the House. That was demonstrated by the enlightening and helpful speeches that we have heard.

I also appreciated the spirit of the comments made by the hon. Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram). In the same spirit, I shall not respond in detail to his comments about British manufacturing industry. He paid tribute to the chemical industry for having notched up a large manufacturing surplus; I could name other industries that have been transformed in the past 15 years, but, in deference to the spirit of consensus that is so uncharacteristic of my performances at the Dispatch Box, I shall not do so. Instead, I shall do my best to respond to the serious issues that have been raised.

First, have we been late in presenting the legislation? The convention is extremely complex, and the Department of Trade and Industry has—rightly— consulted widely. We have had to ensure that the convention is implemented effectively and fully; we have also had the conflicting duty of trying to minimise the burdens on business. I think that hon. Members on both 239912 O sides of the House recognise that necessity, and that we have achieved our aim without imposing any short cuts. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) commented on that. The convention is complex, and we must translate it into a complex Bill; we consider it better to get the legislation right than to rush it.

The comments of the hon. Member for East Kilbride struck me as a little unfair. On the one hand, he said that we had been slow in presenting the Bill to Parliament, but on the other he said that we were rushing things. In fact, we have taken our time. We began the consultation process a year ago, and about three months ago we issued draft legislation. That has not always happened. I feel that there has been a reasonable amount of time for suggestions to be made. Moreover, I am proud to say that we are in the first group of countries that will implement the convention. The hon. Gentleman may say that we are a bit slow, but other countries have had even more problems than we have in implementing it. I feel that I should at least respond to some of the gratuitous comments that have been flung at my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, who is not here to defend himself.

Mr. Dalyell

The Minister speaks of gratuitous comments. It was his mother who, on a famous occasion in May 1982, told me in front of a full House that I was treasonable—but I shall not pursue that.

I acknowledge the need to get the legislation right, but how are industry and others who will be affected to be told about the Bill's provisions? There is a communications problem, is there not?

Mr. Oppenheim

I shall deal with that point, which I consider valid. Let me say in passing that, in my 39 years, I have found that my mother is usually right—although she may have been wrong in the case of the hon. Gentleman.

A number of hon. Members raised an important issue. One of them was my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury, who indeed taught me economics, but at O-level rather than A-level. It is a minor point, of course. I do not think that I took the examination in the end; I think that I took Latin instead. These are not important issues, however. All that need be said is that I benefited enormously from my hon. Friend's teaching. I passed all my examinations; it is just that I may not have taken that particular subject. But I digress, and I shall risk being out of order if I continue.

Our relationship with Porton Down is enormously important. It is connected with the question of where the DTI takes advice on the whole issue of chemical weapons. The Department tends to take such advice from the widest possible range of advisers, but will rely particularly on Porton Down, the advice of which has already proved invaluable. It is an enormous, almost unique centre of expertise in the United Kingdom's defence against chemical weapons, and we shall draw fully on its abilities. We feel, however, that simply to set up a committee of experts may be limiting. We are open to other points of view, but we believe that we should draw as fully as possible on the widest range of expertise that exists in this country. Porton Down will play a valuable part in that.

The issue of whether new chemicals and newly developed chemical weapons fall within the convention has been raised. That is another area in which Porton Down will be invaluable. The convention and the legislation operate not merely against specific chemicals but against chemical weapons per se. Any development of new chemical weapons, therefore, will come within the bounds of the convention and the legislation, added to which there is scope, if necessary, to make rapid changes to the convention and the legislation.

The hon. Member for East Kilbride and other hon. Members spoke about export controls. The Bill makes no specific provision for export and import controls but it bans chemical weapons whether people are making them, trading in them or using them, because we intend that the existing licensing system for import and export controls should apply. The departmental responsibility in this area is perfectly clear. The President of the Board of Trade is ultimately responsible for issuing export licences. He has the final decision although, of course, he always consults the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office before making any decisions. That is why there is no specific reference in the legislation to export controls.

Mr. Ingram

I do not want to cause delay but I should like to ask a question about export controls. If the DTI, as the national authority, identified that a chemical was being exported which could be used for weapons, who would have the ultimate authority? Would the judgment be made on the basis of trade by the DTI as the national authority in relation to the convention?

Mr. Oppenheim

First, the DTI would not licence the export of any chemical weapon, and it would also fall within the terms of the legislation that governs the convention because the convention prevents us from trading in chemical weapons. Such export would be illegal on both grounds and a licence would not be issued. In any case, the request would fall within the terms of the convention and one hopes that that would be picked up long before anyone applied for an export licence. It is unlikely that anyone would apply for a licence for chemical weapons when such weapons are illegal. I hope that that satisfies the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) mentioned the appeals procedure. The Bill has an appeals procedure as part of the licensing arrangements and it applies to schedule 1 chemicals that do not have to be licensed. I shall come to that matter. We intend to model the appeals procedure on the one that is soon to be introduced under the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994-. I assure hon. Members that the appeals procedure would include a committee consisting of those with sufficient expertise to advise on licensing matters.

The issue of whether there are short cuts on verification was mentioned. I assure the House that the preparatory commission process has not led to any weakening of the convention's verification procedures. United Kingdom experts have worked extremely hard and closely with officials to maintain the integrity of the convention, and our officials will continue to do so.

The hon. Member for East Kilbride and others were concerned about whether clause 23 was unnecessarily draconian. We looked carefully at that possibility and it concerned me when I looked at the proposed legislation. The first problem is that the chemical industry is large, diverse and scattered. Secondly, there is no single list of firms that might produce or use scheduled chemicals. Thirdly, the convention clearly requires the UK to produce a complete declaration of scheduled chemicals and not just an approximate list. The Department needs to assemble a complete list to fulfil our obligations under the convention. That is why clause 23 is relatively draconian and why, as a last resort, we also need criminal sanctions.

International experience in this area shows that without criminal sanctions there can be a low response. We carefully considered the implications of clause 23 and we are prepared to consider them further, but we think that they are essential. That goes to the issue of regulation, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury. By instinct we are not regulators and want regulation only when it is absolutely necessary. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that this area is absolutely black and white in terms of where the Government need to regulate. We are trying to make sure that we regulate properly. Clause 23 is necessary but if hon. Members are worried about it we shall listen to their concerns.

The hon. Member for East Kilbride mentioned the annual report. We want to ensure that the report is as informative as possible within certain constraints, and I think that Opposition Members accept what those constraints must be. First, commercial confidentiality is important, and that is allowed for in the convention. Secondly, national security must be considered and, thirdly, the convention insists that we must not reveal information that has been received specifically for the purposes of fulfilling the convention or about individuals. Therefore, we have to be careful about the information that we do reveal. However, within those bounds we are determined to ensure that the annual report should be as transparent as possible.

I have listened carefully to hon. Members and I think that it is sufficient that I have placed quite clearly on the record the fact that there will be an annual report. We will consider that further if hon. Members remain genuinely unhappy about there not being a statutory requirement. A report that is subject to normal parliamentary scrutiny is the best guarantee that the agency and the report will be effective. Parliament will be the ultimate scrutineer and arbiter.

Mr. Dalyell

One day the Minister will be long forgotten just as one day I suppose that we shall all be long forgotten. I do not doubt his good faith but a statutory annual report is totally different from one that Ministers promise in good faith from the Dispatch Box.

Mr. Oppenheim

I note what the hon. Gentleman says and I accept his concern. I hope that a Minister saying clearly on the record in the House that there will be an annual report is enough. If hon. Members are still dissatisfied, we shall consider their worries on that aspect. My strong view at the moment is that that should be sufficient. I have stated clearly that there will be an annual report; I hope that that is enough.

The hon. Member for Linlithgow raised another important issue when he spoke about what he called the licensing requirements of the short list of quite common chemicals. Some of them, such as carbon, are inert and others, such as sulphur, are relatively inert. I assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no licensing requirement for those chemicals. There are licensing requirements only for the very toxic schedule 1 chemicals. There is a reporting requirement for relatively inert chemicals and it applies only to companies or organisations that maintain significantly large stocks of the chemicals as set out in the schedule. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman and allays his concerns about research bodies and others needing to apply for licences for ordinary run-of-the-mill chemicals.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) raised the important issue of what can be done about non-signatories to the convention. We shall continue to press hard that all such states should sign the convention. About three quarters of the world's states have signified that they will join. A relatively small number are still outside the convention and we shall be at the forefront of states pushing to ensure that they sign. The convention proposes constraints on shipping scheduled chemicals to states that are not party to the convention and that element of sanction already exists. Of course, the convention's signatories will be able to consider other measures, as I suspect, in some cases, they will do.

My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury was worried about the compliance cost assessment. I have already dealt with the question of whether we are over-regulating in that area, but my hon. Friend raised particularly the point that smaller firms may not be affected by declaration and inspection requirements. I can assure him that for schedule 1 toxic chemicals, the size of firm is not a factor, and small firms will not be exempt. The compliance cost assessment applies to the relatively not-so-toxic chemicals below the level of schedule 3 and discrete organic chemicals. We see no reason to apply those measures to smaller companies unnecessarily. The measures are not licensing, but reporting requirements, and the convention does not require those companies or organisations to record what they have got. I hope that that reassures my hon. Friend.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton asked about the various posts involved in the convention and the inspection regime. I can assure my right hon. Friend that we have already passed details of the inspector posts and provisional technical secretariat positions to the relevant qualified UK experts. I understand that several have already been interviewed. Some of the senior posts, such as the executive secretary, are already occupied by UK nationals.

The hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) mentioned the complaint made by UNSCOM to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about British equipment being found at Salman Pak. I understand that UNSCOM asked for details of supplies from the FCO to assist in its investigation. UNSCOM did not make any complaint and all the items it found were dual-use and not licensable. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to pursue the matter further, he should approach the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The Member for Leyton also mentioned the important question of article X of the convention, which requires the United Kingdom to give a report to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons on the assistance that it gives to other states to protect them against chemical weapons. I accept that point, but the Government do not require special legislation to implement action.

I hope that I have answered all the substantive queries to the satisfaction of the House. I appreciate the spirit in which the debate has been conducted. I hope that our differences are relatively small because the legislation is important not just for our future as a nation, but for the future of the world. If the Bill is passed quickly, it will enable the United Kingdom to ensure the effective operation of the convention. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.— [Mr. Knapman.]

Committee tomorrow.