HC Deb 16 March 1998 vol 308 cc1053-7

As amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.

Order for Third Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.—[Jane Kennedy.]

10.39 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Derek Fatchett)

The Bill will enable the United Kingdom to ratify the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty, which bans any nuclear weapons test explosion and any other nuclear explosion. We made it clear on several occasions during the passage of the Bill that it is, for the most part, highly technical, but that does not detract from the importance of a treaty that is the culmination of almost 40 years of effort. As its preamble makes clear, the treaty will constrain the development and qualitative improvement of nuclear weapons, and will end the development of advanced new types of nuclear weapons.

I want to place on the record our appreciation for the support of the main Opposition parties. On Second Reading, the hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Faber) said that we should thank the previous Foreign Secretary for his work on this issue, and I am happy to do so. Given the much-reported bitterness on Europe between Sir Malcolm Rifkind and the current shadow Foreign Secretary, it may be wiser for me rather than the hon. Member for Westbury to offer thanks.

To ensure that the provisions are properly observed, the treaty establishes a number of new international bodies and an international monitoring system, which will consist of a worldwide network of monitoring stations at locations that were agreed by scientific experts. Those stations will use various technologies to detect, identify and locate the source of a suspicious event anywhere in the world. The data from the stations will be transmitted to an international data centre in Vienna, and made available to states parties.

The treaty has now been signed by 149 states and ratified by nine. Of the 44 states whose ratification is a pre-condition for the treaty's entry into force, only India, Pakistan and North Korea have yet to sign. We are doing everything that we can to encourage all three states to sign and to ratify the treaty, and we are working for entry into force at the earliest possible date.

In the meantime, the treaty has created a strong moral and political norm against nuclear testing. The international monitoring system will, in due course, provide a further practical deterrent to nuclear testing, ensuring that any breaches will be detected.

The United Kingdom has played an important role in the formulation of the treaty. The United Kingdom is one of the states whose ratification is a pre-condition for the treaty's entry into force. The United Kingdom and its overseas territories will host a number of the monitoring stations. The United Kingdom signed the treaty on the first day that it opened for signature. The Government want to further that record by being among the first states to ratify the treaty.

In our manifesto, we committed ourselves to working for a nuclear-weapons-free world. In our strategic defence review, we are examining how to take that commitment forward. The Bill is a step towards achieving our overall objective, and I commend it to the House.

10.43 pm
Mr. David Faber (Westbury)

I thank the Minister for opening the debate on Third Reading. This is his first outing on the Bill, and we are glad to see him on the Treasury Bench. As he said, the Bill has had the Opposition's full support not only in another place but on its Second Reading and in Committee.

We are grateful to the Minister for giving us details of the monitoring arrangements. We had not heard that some of the monitoring stations will be in British overseas territories. I am sure that, in future, we shall wish to ask some questions on the location and capacity of those stations.

In the longer term and in the wider sphere, the Bill is vital legislation, designed to restrict and, ultimately, to eliminate development of nuclear capacity around the world. I am grateful to the Minister for paying tribute to the previous Government, even though his remarks about the former Foreign Secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, were somewhat churlish. On 24 September 1996, my former right hon. and learned Friend signed the treaty in New York. I should like to pay tribute also to my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis)—who is in the Chamber—who was instrumental in the British Government's part in negotiating the treaty.

The Bill is part of the wider ratification process on the treaty. The full support of all the signatory states will be crucial to the long-term success of the non-proliferation treaty. Although we do not pretend that the Bill alone is the answer to nuclear non-proliferation, we are pleased—we echo the Minister's comments—that the United Kingdom has embarked so speedily on the ratification process.

In Committee, we were told that 149 countries had signed the treaty and that eight countries had ratified it. Today, we have been told that 149 countries have signed it and that nine have now ratified it. Like the United Kingdom, other countries will be going through the ratification process.

As the Minister said, 44 named states are required to ratify the treaty for it to come into force. Although the vast majority of countries have signed the treaty, those that have signed but not ratified are considered by the rest of the international community to be bound already by its terms.

The Minister—like the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) in the debate on Second Reading—skirted over the issue of three particular countries that have yet to sign the treaty but that are among the 44 that are required to do so. It is important to express the Opposition's concern about the position of North Korea, of Pakistan and especially of India.

North Korea is still developing and improving its ballistic missile capability, and the country's instability—especially its economic instability—is of some concern. Pakistan has stated its intention of waiting on India's decision and on determining India's future nuclear capacity.

During the Bill's Committee stage, we were in the immediate aftermath of the Indian general election, and the Minister was unable to comment on the position of the new Indian Government. However, in recent weeks, it seems likely that the Indian Government's position on the issue of signing the treaty will have hardened. Opposition Members hope that the Government will do all that they can to place pressure on the Indian Government to persuade them that the treaty is important and that they should sign and ratify it.

The Minister did not mention—as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and I did in the Second Reading debate—the attitude of the United States, where there is considerable hostility, within the Senate and Congress generally, to ratifying the treaty. It is important to stress the need for the United States to send a strong signal to the rest of the world to follow as soon as possible the United Kingdom and other countries in signing and ratifying the treaty.

We realise that the Government will continue to do what they can to press for worldwide ratification, and we shall of course support them in that aim. The Bill marks the end of our own ratification process. I assume that it will subsequently, after Third Reading, be further ratified in a statutory instrument. Not only is our ratification of the treaty an important step for the United Kingdom, but it will send a signal to the rest of the world. As such, we are pleased to support Third Reading.

10.48 pm
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

I rise with some trepidation, not only because of the lateness of the hour—I do not wish to tire the House—but because of the attitude that was expressed in the debate on the Bill's Second Reading when I said that I whole-heartedly welcome the Government's speedy introduction of the Bill. I said also that I hoped that the Bill would make fast progress, and that it was an historic Bill which would achieve a long-desired result. I was told by the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) that I had been—to use the word of the evening—"churlish". I do not know what superlatives I am required to employ to overcome my naturally curmudgeonly nature, but I repeat that we whole-heartedly support the Bill and congratulate the Government on introducing it.

Some questions remain to be answered, not necessarily by the Government, and the hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Faber) has already alluded to some of them. The process of signatories and ratification does not lie at the door of the Government. Nevertheless, it is an extremely complicated and rigorous process and there are significant concerns about countries that are either not signatories or have failed to ratify the treaty.

The hon. Member for Westbury has already mentioned America. I was with the Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington last week and I still have grave concerns about the position of the Senate. There is no doubt about the position of the Administration, who want the treaty ratified. However, the Senate has its own views on the enlargement of NATO, the funding of the United Nations and the treaty. We need to use all our powers of persuasion on individual members of the Senate to ensure that they agree to the ratification of the treaty.

There are equally major concerns about the three countries that are not signatories, and I accept that there is probably very little that we can do about North Korea. However, in respect of India and Pakistan, there are mechanisms through the Commonwealth, and I should be pleased if the Minister would outline the steps that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has taken over recent weeks to ensure that our message is getting through to India and Pakistan. The Government are unusually coy about what they have done. I am sure that there has been a great deal of movement behind the scenes and it would be nice if some of it were to come out in the Minister's reply to the debate.

On Second Reading and in Committee, we expressed our views about the dangers of sub-critical testing and whether qualitative improvements undermine the views of the rest of the world about what exactly the nuclear powers are doing and whether they are acting within the spirit of the treaty.

I was gratified to hear what the Minister said about the way forward and his clearly expressed intent to reduce the availability of nuclear weapons throughout the world. I hope that the Government will make a clear statement of their intent by saying that they do not wish to increase the number of warheads on the Trident replacement of Polaris so that Britain gives a clear signal to the rest of the world that we match our words with actions.

The Bill is important and has our whole-hearted support. We look forward to ratification and the diplomatic initiative that we are sure the Government will take to ensure that the treaty is signed and ratified by as many nations as possible.

10.52 pm
Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)

I join right hon. and hon. Members in welcoming the Bill. I should also like to reiterate one point to the Minister.

Had it not been for the British Government's stance in the negotiations on the treaty, it is quite likely that an attempt would have been made to base it on a P5-only signatory list. It was very much Britain's stance that led to the current signatory list. It is no accident, as the Minister well understands, that the three countries that have not signed are North Korea, India and Pakistan. I hope that the Minister will reinforce the commitment of the British Government to use every available means to ensure that North Korea and India in particular—as Pakistan will follow—are brought within the treaty.

The Government like to talk about an ethical foreign policy. This is a good example of an ethical foreign policy in action, and I should like to hear the Minister reinforce that point of view.

10.53 pm
Mr. Fatchett

With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall try to respond to the points that have been raised. I thought that the speech of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) was far from churlish. It was a splendid example of consensual politics. The only thing missing was approval of the Minister's excellent speech. Apart from that, the hon. Gentleman did extremely well. I shall certainly reprimand my colleague who, on Second Reading, described him as churlish.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) on his part in the negotiation process that led to the treaty. I have put on record our thanks to Sir Malcolm Rifkind. I am happy to put on record our thanks to the right hon. Gentleman as well.

Two crucial points have been raised in our short debate. The hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Faber) asked about the United Kingdom contribution towards the monitoring process. It may be useful if I put the extent of that on the record. Our contribution is significant: the existing seismic array at Eskdalemuir in the United Kingdom; the radionuclide stations in the British Indian Ocean Territory, St. Helena, Tristan da Cunha, Halley island and Antarctica and a radionuclide laboratory in the United Kingdom; hydroacoustic stations in the British Indian ocean territory and in Tristan da Cunha; and infrasound stations in the British Indian Ocean Territory, Tristan da Cunha, Ascension island and Bermuda. We are making a substantial contribution towards monitoring.

The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden said, I think in approval, that the Government have a strong ethical dimension to our foreign policy. Those monitoring commitments contribute to that strong ethical dimension. I am delighted to have the approval of the right hon. Gentleman. He should use his persuasive skills to ensure that those on the Conservative Front Bench show the same consensual approach.

The hon. Members for Westbury and for Somerton and Frome asked about the three countries that have not yet signed—North Korea, India and Pakistan. Living in the paranoid world that the Liberals have occupied for many years, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome asked us to let him into the secrets of what the Government have been doing. Only the Liberals could turn that into a profound state secret. We have been lobbying hard with those Governments. Our diplomatic effort on this important issue is aimed at persuading them to sign. It is important that they should do so. There is no secret about that. It is our wish, the wish of the House and the wish of the international community to get those countries on board.

The treaty is important. It has support across the House of Commons. I am delighted that the Bill is about achieve its Third Reading.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed, with an amendment.