HC Deb 14 May 1998 vol 312 cc517-30 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the recent nuclear tests in India.

On Monday, the Government of India announced that they had conducted three nuclear tests, including one thermo-nuclear device. On Wednesday, the Government of India confirmed two further nuclear tests. According to a statement by the Government of India yesterday, the last two complete the planned series of nuclear testing. These were India's first nuclear tests since 1974.

Nuclear proliferation is a serious threat to the stability and security of the international community. We and our partners have sought vigorously to prevent the technology and equipment for nuclear weapons programmes from being acquired by states that might use them to develop a nuclear weapons capacity. Last weekend, the G8 Foreign Ministers committed our countries to strengthen further the safeguard systems against nuclear proliferation. The recent nuclear tests by India undermined the efforts of the international community to prevent nuclear proliferation, and may encourage other states that wish to do the same.

Nor will these tests help the security of India. An increase in tension in the region cannot be in the interests of India, and the escalation of an arms race in the sub-continent cannot help to tackle the poverty in which millions of its people live. The sharp reaction by China demonstrates the danger that such tests will increase tension, rather than strengthen security.

We have already expressed our dismay to the Indian Government. Yesterday, the acting high commissioner for India was summoned to the Foreign Office in order that we could express our concern at the test programme. In New Delhi, our high commissioner led a troika of European Union ambassadors to inform the Government of India of the concern not just of Britain, but of all Europe. I can inform the House that I have today recalled our high commissioner from Delhi for consultation on how Britain and Europe can effectively bring home to the Government of India our anxiety at the damage of these tests to the non-proliferation regime and to the stability of the region.

We shall also seek to co-ordinate our response with our major international partners. Tomorrow's G8 summit in Birmingham will consider how our countries can work together to bring home to the Government of India the dismay of the international community at the resumption of nuclear tests. In a week's time, at the next meeting of the General Affairs Council, we shall seek a common approach by Europe, making clear our opposition to this new challenge to the non-proliferation regime.

The urgent task now is to do all that we can to prevent the tests from provoking other tests in the region. Our high commissioner in Islamabad has led representations by the European Union troika, conveying to the Government of Pakistan our strong view that Pakistan's interests would not be served by a regional arms race. We are urging Pakistan's leaders to show restraint at what we acknowledge is a difficult time for them.

We regret and condemn these nuclear tests. Britain is a leading advocate of the comprehensive test ban treaty and of the non-proliferation treaty. We firmly believe that their provisions provide Britain and all members of the international community with the strongest basis for confidence in their international security. Nobody's long-term interests are secured by encouraging the spread of nuclear weapons. I am sure that the whole House will want to support the Government in sending a united message on behalf of Britain that we oppose and condemn the tests.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)

Conservative Members share the right hon. Gentleman's concerns about the nuclear tests that India has carried out and at the prospect that that dismal example may be followed by Pakistan. Nuclear proliferation is one of the greatest dangers faced by humanity as we move towards the millennium.

What position will the Government take, both in the European Union and at the G8 summit this weekend? We know that France and Russia are opposed to sanctions against India, but that the United States, Canada, Japan, Germany, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands are either imposing, or considering the imposition of, sanctions. On which side of that divide do the British Government stand?

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us more about the prospects of India's now signing the comprehensive test ban treaty? What, if anything, can the British Government do to bring that about?

Mr. Cook

I shall respond first to the right hon. and learned Gentleman's last point. The Prime Minister of India has written to say that India may be interested in adhering to some parts of the comprehensive test ban treaty and to the fissile material cut-off treaty, of which Britain is a leading advocate. We welcome the suggestion that India is willing to be drawn into an international dialogue on arms control for nuclear weapons, and we shall seek to build on it. Our ambition must be for India not to adhere to parts of the comprehensive test ban treaty, but to sign, ratify and abide by the whole of what is intended as a comprehensive treaty.

I do not think that it helps our case to suggest, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman explicitly did, that there is a divide in the international community.

Mr. Howard

But there is.

Mr. Cook

There is no divide—there is a range of views on what measures it would be appropriate to use. I believe that the appropriate job for the presidency of the G8 this weekend will be to find the point of maximum unity. Certainly, measures will have to be taken to bring home to the Government of India the strength of feeling in the international community, but it is important that we act with unity and around the maximum point of that unity.

India has aspirations in the international community, particularly at the United Nations. It must now reflect soberly on whether its conduct over the nuclear tests has advanced or hindered those ambitions.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that what we are witnessing is not simply a matter of non-proliferation, extremely serious though that is, but the most dangerous nuclear missile race in the world? Both India and Pakistan have not only the missiles to hit each other—and to poison each other and themselves—but the capability to put warheads on the missiles. Is he aware that the director of the CIA has told the United States Government that the confrontation between India and Pakistan is the most dangerous nuclear flashpoint in the world?

We cannot simply stand by—I know that my right hon. Friend does not intend to do that—and say that dealing with the issue on the basis of non-proliferation is enough. I hope that the Government will support sanctions when the G8 meets, but we must also take into account the fact that the reason for the confrontation is the canker of the unsolved problem of Kashmir. As long as the Kashmir problem remains unsolved, the confrontation will continue.

Will my right hon. Friend, who has great courage in these matters, bear it in mind that it is now the responsibility of the international community to intervene actively to try to bring about a solution to the Kashmir problem? Otherwise, a nuclear confrontation might well take place in the Himalayas.

Mr. Cook

I fully echo my right hon. Friend's concern that there are now three nuclear or near-nuclear weapons states in the region, among which great tension exists, and there have been two wars in recent decades. Those are matters of concern not only to those countries but to the international community as a whole. I also agree entirely that a just solution to the issue of Kashmir would do far more for stability and security in the region than any number of nuclear tests.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

May I associate myself with the Foreign Secretary's expressions of regret and condemnation? Does he agree that if the nuclear tests have caused anger among India's enemies, they have most certainly caused profound disappointment among its friends, of whom there are many in the House? Does he also agree that our condemnation would be rather more soundly based if the United Kingdom had done more to fulfil its obligations under article VI of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which requires us to seek general nuclear disarmament?

To show willingness to fulfil those obligations, will the Foreign Secretary confirm Labour's manifesto commitment to deploy no more warheads on the Trident system than there were on the Polaris system that it has replaced?

Mr. Cook

The hon. and learned Gentleman invites me to make a statement that properly belongs to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, but I can assure him that, as a general principle, we stand by all our manifesto commitments. Britain has been a leading supporter of the comprehensive test ban treaty, and the Government have urged it on all other countries and sought to encourage India to adhere to it.

We have also led the way in tabling proposals for a fissile material cut-off treaty, to try to cap further nuclear weapons programmes, and, in a range of forums, we have advanced ideas for international arms control, to try to create confidence among states that do not have nuclear weapons that they do not need to achieve nuclear weapon status to match existing nuclear powers. I regret that India's action may encourage others to contemplate following its example.

Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

Clearly these are issues of concern. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that, no matter what is said publicly, a constructive, positive and strong dialogue will continue with the Indian Government, who have a long-standing special relationship with this country? How can that happen, when he has recalled Sir David Gore-Booth? Will Sir David return to continue that dialogue? Will my right hon. Friend assure us that, no matter what happens at the G8 summit, we will not cut humanitarian aid to India?

Mr. Cook

I am happy to assure my hon. Friend that, after consultation, it would indeed be our intention that our high commissioner should return to Delhi. I do not disagree at all with the central point that it is important to maintain dialogue and contact with the Indian Government, in order that they may be fully aware of the dismay of their friends and allies in the international community at this development.

I can assure my hon. Friend that we do not contemplate withdrawing aid from India, which is the recipient of our largest aid programme anywhere in the world. We do not think that it would be right effectively to register our protest about a decision taken at the highest levels of Indian society by taking steps that would hit the poorest in Indian society.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, given not only this testing of nuclear weapons, but the fact that missiles are being tested and being supplied by China to one of the countries concerned and that there is every prospect and danger of a further test in the region, this could hardly be a more dangerous time?

The countries involved have a grievance which, as the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) made clear, might make people on either side mad enough that they could conceivably justify the ultimate deterrent. In those circumstances and recognising that the test has blown a serious hole in the non-proliferation treaty, in particular the apparent credibility of the United States in being able to monitor any attempts to evade it, it is a matter of the greatest urgency in discussions with the United States and China that we should avoid the serious situation in which others will have observed and learnt from the experience of India. They must quickly be discouraged from following suit.

Mr. Cook

I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that we will co-ordinate closely with the United States on how we both react and will ensure that our messages reinforce each other to the countries of the region and to India in particular. He fairly outlined the intense security environment in which this event has taken place. I do not know that it could correctly be ascribed to the failure of the United States' intelligence or anyone else's—it had been well known for some time that India had a near-nuclear weapon capacity. What is distressing about the tests is the plain and evident decision of the Indian Government to display that capacity and to assert a nuclear weapon's state role. I very much hope that it will be possible for us to pull back before other countries in the region feel obliged to respond.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, overwhelmingly, opinion throughout the world will share the concern, anxiety and alarm that have been brought about by the tests? He will be aware that there is a warm welcome for what he said about sanctions—that they should not be used against a people when the Government are responsible, which has some application to Iraq. Is he also aware that the statement he made against India possessing and testing nuclear weapons applies with equal force to this country? Indeed, it is difficult for a moral stand to be taken on that matter by the Government when, in the manifesto on which we were elected, we were utterly committed to the retention and possible use of nuclear weapons. There has to be some logic in this matter. India could certainly claim to have pursued that policy in line with the policies pursued by previous Governments in this country.

Mr. Cook

I have to say to my right hon. Friend that although the Government of India put forward a number of justifications for the nuclear tests, they have not put forward our possession of such weapons, although they have referred to other countries in the region. Also, there is no double standard on the part of Britain. We have not conducted nuclear tests for some time, and we are a signatory to the comprehensive test ban treaty, which we uphold. We believe that India's security would be better served by adhering to that treaty than by continuing to develop nuclear weapons.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

Would not the people of India be justified in thinking that there is just a whiff of hypocrisy in our reaction, as the fact that India has possessed nuclear weapons has been known for more than a quarter of a century? Is not India's position analogous to that of France? Having tested its weapons on Mururoa and made the next generation of nuclear weapons secure, France then signed the comprehensive test ban treaty. Would not the best approach now be for Sir David Gore-Booth to remain in New Delhi and encourage the Indians to sign that treaty instead of maintaining their current position?

Mr. Cook

I have to say to the hon. Member that if I had come to the Dispatch Box today and welcomed Indian nuclear tests, I would have been roundly condemned from both sides of the Chamber, and rightly so. Nor is our condemnation simply that of a nuclear weapons state, as many countries that have no nuclear weapons and have never had any ambition to acquire them have also joined us in firm statements of concern, dismay and anxiety. Yes, it is our ambition that India should sign the comprehensive test ban treaty and we will continue to build on the modest opening that India has made for dialogue in that area.

We have recalled our high commissioner precisely so that we can together work out the best way of putting pressure on the Government of India to recognise the concern of the international community.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the nuclear tests are damaging to nuclear proliferation and regional tension, and that the resulting arms race will make poverty in the sub-continent much harder to deal with and will increase it? Does he agree that we should not give aid to Governments who spend a great deal of money enhancing their military forces and developing weapons of mass destruction?

Why are the Americans doing more than we are in acting against the Indian Government over the tests? Should we not stop direct Government-to-Government aid, while putting it through non-governmental organisations to help the poor directly? Will we stop export credit guarantees? Surely we should not subsidise, even indirectly, India's nuclear weapons programme.

Mr. Cook

I welcome my hon. Friend's robust support for our criticism of the nuclear tests. It is not fair for us to respond to them by withdrawing aid, which would affect the most vulnerable people in India. The aid that we provide is not handed over to the Government of India as some sort of funding arrangement, but is directly administered, overwhelmingly by us and often in collaboration with NGOs, to make sure that it gets through to the poorest people in the poorest regions of India, primarily in rural areas. I doubt whether it would be particularly effective pressure on Delhi were we to turn off that tap, but it would have an immediate and direct effect on communities living barely at the level of subsistence. I do not think that it is the appropriate response.

I do not disagree with what my hon. Friend said about the priorities of the Indian Government. One of the tragedies of the Indian sub-continent is that there are countries throughout the region whose defence budgets exceed their education budgets. That is unsatisfactory in areas of such poverty. I hope that it will be possible to achieve a reduction in tension which would result in a reduction of defence spending.

Mr. Alasdair Morgan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale)

At this very tense time, should we not give a moral lead to the rest of the world by scrapping the Trident missile system and spending the money saved on health, education and increased aid to the rest of the world?

Mr. Cook

I have already told the House that this Government were elected on their manifesto and will abide by it. Our commitment on nuclear weapons was to pursue the goal of a nuclear-free world. An appropriate time as we approach that goal will be the time to consider the future of Trident, but our manifesto committed us to retaining Trident as long as there is a an external nuclear threat to Britain.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

The Government of India are still a relatively new Government and a fragile coalition. Does my right hon. Friend believe that they now understand that they have probably made the most appalling mistake that they could have made? Their decision does not help to solve the problems of poverty, their desire to play a greater part in world affairs or to resolve the problem of Kashmir, which has existed for 50 years. They need to talk with Pakistan to solve that problem.

Is it not also crucial that Pakistan, which has a stable Government with a large majority, recognises that, however much it feels that its security may be threatened, the worst possible thing to do would be to respond with nuclear tests?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend finished with an important message for the Government and people of Pakistan. Its security and future relations with other countries in the sub-continent would be best served by retaining allies, partnership and respect throughout the international community. I hope that the Government of Pakistan will approach their present critical position by recognising that they have an opportunity to demonstrate to the international community their adherence to its standards and norms, rather than locking themselves into a competitive arms race.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

May I support the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) in saying that a resolution of the outstanding issues between India, Pakistan and China should be an urgent objective of United Kingdom, European Union and United Nations policy? Has the Foreign Secretary any proposals in that respect? Will he take every opportunity to make it plain to the Government of India that, as long as she has not signed up to the treaty, her chances of obtaining a permanent seat on the Security Council are pretty remote?

Will the Foreign Secretary also take advantage of the G8 meeting to make it plain to the French that the European Union troika representations would have been even more effective if the French Government had not conducted tests within the past three years?

Mr. Cook

I am happy to agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman's last point, although I seem to recall that, when those tests were carried out, it was the party then in opposition which condemned them, not the party in government. On his other points, of course a solution to tensions in the region is the way forward to achieving security in the region. I fear that the recent nuclear tests will make it more difficult, rather than easier, to achieve the meaningful dialogue that is necessary to resolve the outstanding problems.

On the question of the United Nations, to which I alluded in my response to the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), India has ambitions in the international community. Those are reasonable ambitions given India's size, its role in the world and its potential significance on the world stage; but they are ambitions which will be realised only if India now recognises the depth of concern and dismay felt by friends in the international community who would otherwise wish many of those ambitions to prosper.

Ms Jenny Jones (Wolverhampton, South-West)

We are all agreed that the geographical siting of the nuclear tests will not improve the relations with Pakistan on the issue of Kashmir, but will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the fact that there is a growing view that it is also likely to increase the internal tension between the Indian Government and the Punjab? That issue, which for a while looked as though it was going quiet and beginning to be resolved, is now likely to flare up. Will my right hon. Friend bear that in mind when he talks to our high commissioner, because there are many Indians of Punjabi origin in this country who are extremely concerned about the implications of these events?

Mr. Cook

I am happy to respond to my hon. Friend by saying that I fully understand the point to which she refers. Indeed, the recent visit to Amritsar brought home to me not only how large was the Sikh population in India, but the strong connections between it and our domestic population in Britain, which is funding the restoration of the golden temple.

My hon. Friend referred to the most distressing feature of the nuclear tests: there are serious problems of bilateral relations between India and some of its neighbours and serious problems of resolving ethnic tensions within India. It is impossible for even the most friendly outsider to see how the nuclear tests will assist in the resolution of either set of problems.

Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)

The Foreign Secretary will be aware that it was the policy not only of this Government, but of the previous Government, specifically to avoid what has happened in the past few days, for reasons cogently stated by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King)—reasons of technological escalation in an area of hair-trigger tension. Does he accept that it is vital that Britain and Europe as a whole go to the maximum extent—including sanctions, but not including withdrawal of aid, which I accept would be an amoral approach—not only to demonstrate to India our disapproval, but to dissuade Pakistan from following suit and to deter other countries on the nuclear threshold from following the Indian example?

Mr. Cook

I fully share the right hon. Gentleman's concern and I am happy to say that we understand that my statement today contains sentiments that would also have been expressed by the previous Administration. It is important that India should recognise the unity of concern over this issue. We shall now be pursuing that unity of view throughout international forums where we can, not only at the G8, but in the ASEAN regional forum, which is to meet soon, in the European Union and, almost certainly, within the Security Council at the United Nations. I hope that those messages, which will be backed up by agreed common positions in many of these forums, will bring home to the Government of India the fact that they have much more to gain from exercising restraint than they can possibly hope to gain from demonstrating nuclear capacity.

Mr. Marsha Singh (Bradford, West)

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that that fragile Government have taken this irresponsible action partly for reasons of national electoral popularity? If that is so, why should the British taxpayer subsidise that national electoral popularity? Does the Foreign Secretary agree that, unless the international community takes the firmest possible action, it will be a green light for other countries to test nuclear weapons? If he does agree, should we not lead on sanctions rather than trail behind others?

Mr. Cook

I am not aware of any subsidy that we provide to the Government of India. I have already made clear our position on our aid programme. If that programme is a subsidy to anyone, it is a subsidy to the poorest communities in India.

My hon. Friend raises a very important point of which we should not lose sight. It may be unfortunate, but the reality is that the Indian nuclear tests have been widely and enthusiastically welcomed by large sections of the Indian population. That is why I think that it is very important that, in our conduct of this issue and in order to get the message across, we must demonstrate not just to the Government of India but to their people that the course on which the Government have embarked in this case is damaging to India's national interests and that the interests of the Government of India and their people will be far better achieved by adhering to the comprehensive test ban treaty, by reducing tension and by seeking a reduction in confrontation with neighbouring countries rather than an escalation in the arms race.

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)

May I welcome the measured and responsible response of the Foreign Secretary to these deplorable nuclear tests, and particularly his reassurance to the House that we shall continue with our aid programme in order to assist the poorest people in India? Will he lose absolutely no opportunity of impressing on the Indian Government the sheer uselessness of the nuclear tests and of the arms race that they will inevitably trigger? They will set in motion a line of expenditure that the Indian population and the Indian Government can ill afford, and will thus deny many millions of Indian people the opportunity for good education, good health and inward and domestic investment in their economy.

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman speaks with knowledge of, and commitment to, the development issues. He speaks eloquently about the Indian Government's mistaken priorities. He is absolutely right: it is very difficult to see what possible utility is served by these nuclear tests or any future nuclear weapon that India may acquire as a result of them. Tragically, we all understand only too well the immediate and urgent utility that would be served by improving India's education and hospital systems.

Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

May I take forward the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Ms Jones) regarding constituents who originate from the Punjab and who have many relatives remaining there? They have expressed concern in recent months about the build-up in that area of not only nuclear weapons but military weapons in general. It is proposed that a sub-continental conference be established to bring together the relevant states in order to discuss non-proliferation and the demilitarisation of the Punjab so that we can secure long-term peace in that area, which has been blighted for so long.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend draws attention to a geographic and historic truth regarding the sub-continent: the historical area of the Punjab crosses both states and both sides have a clear interest in reducing tension between the two states. One unfortunate consequence of the recent nuclear tests and other recent events is that, in the past few years, there had been a very good and welcome development towards regional co-operation and regional forums in the sub-continent. It is very much in the interests of the sub-continent that that path is resumed. At present, India and Pakistan trade only 1 per cent. of their gross domestic products with each other. In the modern world, where prosperity is based primarily on trade, external investment and the exchange of technology, that kind of barrier to trade makes no sense for the prosperity and development of those two countries.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Is there anything in the Foreign Secretary's statement that will prevent India from maintaining the regional strategic advantage that the deplorable test programme has afforded to it? Will there not be a temptation for Pakistan, which we all hope it will resist, to follow suit, unless that regional strategic advantage is redressed? Will the Government, at the very least, deny the granting of any export licences for armaments to India, and follow the American example of a selective trade embargo until the Indian Government sign the comprehensive test ban treaty and the non-proliferation treaty?

Mr. Cook

If the international community decided on any such embargoes, we would, of course, adhere to them and uphold them. We have consistently taken the view that if there is to be an effective embargo in any circumstances, it should not be unilateral—it must be international.

I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman's earlier point that the tests will have had a destabilising effect elsewhere in the region. It is not at all clear to me that they have conferred an advantage on India. India's nuclear capacity is still clearly inferior to that of China, and, although it has demonstrated a capability, India may not necessarily be that much further ahead in technology than Pakistan. India's interests are not served by seeking an illusory advantage through the nuclear weapons programme. Its interests would be much better served by seeking a reduction in tension and economic co-operation across the sub-continent.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the revelation of India's series of tests gives the lie to those who believed that, after the end of the cold war, we could lock the nuclear weapons argument away and throw away the key? The tests are a dangerous development for India, possibly Pakistan and who knows where else.

Is it not worth noting that in a week when there have been two private notice questions from the Tory Opposition relating to a west African country and scraps of paper that never appeared in red boxes, the Opposition have shown their priorities? They did not ask for a private notice question today on this matter.

Mr. Blunt

We did.

Mr. Menzies Campbell

We did.

Mr. Skinner

I know who did. It was left to my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) to do that. That is where the private notice question came from. Does that not show that when the Sierra Leone tittle-tattle has ended, we will still be dealing with the problem of the nuclear tests?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend makes his own point in his own robust way. In my statement, I appealed for a united position on the issue, and I am pleased that the House has managed to sustain a united position. That is an important message to send to the outside world. I understand that my hon. Friend and I will have an excellent opportunity next week to make party political points.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

How confident is the Foreign Secretary that there has been no assistance to India for the missile programme or for its separate nuclear weapons programme from countries in the European Union or, more likely, from individuals from the former Soviet Union, in breach of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty? If the right hon. Gentleman is not entirely confident that India has operated alone, will he raise the matter at the G8 meeting over the weekend?

Mr. Cook

All members of the EU are parties to agreements that oblige us not to provide technology or equipment that could assist with nuclear proliferation. As India is not a party to the non-proliferation treaty, it has been regarded with special care by those who are parties to the those undertakings. I cannot answer for clandestine groups or illicit sales from within the former Soviet Union. That is a matter of legitimate concern and one which the international community has sought to tackle. At the G8 we sought to increase the safeguards against illicit trafficking in nuclear equipment and nuclear weapons material. We must continue to be vigilant and ensure that the international community does not assist development that it finds damaging.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

We all understand the dangers of Pakistan retaliating and engaging in its own tests, thus creating tit-for-tat between the two nations and escalating the test problem considerably. From our contacts with Pakistan, how serious is the likelihood of its engaging in tests? Are there views and values coming from within Pakistan that show that different counsels will prevail?

Mr. Cook

I wish that I could speak with confidence about what counsels will prevail in another Government. We have urged restraint on the Pakistan Government and, so far, they have done nothing to retaliate in a way that would be regarded as escalating the tension. We should recognise that the Government of Pakistan are under some pressure from public opinion there. We hope that they will show leadership and maturity on this issue and that they will listen to the international community. If they do so, they will win for themselves great support from within the international community, which will be of much greater value to Pakistan than any nuclear tests have been.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)

Given the dangers of nuclear escalation, which other hon. Members have pointed out, can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the Foreign Office was literally surprised by the Indian nuclear tests? If so, what will he do about it for the future?

Mr. Cook

Yes, both we and the United States were surprised at the speed with which these nuclear tests took place. We are, indeed, concerned at that degree of surprise and we are considering it. The hon. Gentleman will understand full well if I do not outline what we intend to do.

Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

May I add my voice to those who have already expressed the view that our influence on India and other states seeking to acquire weapons technology would be all the greater if we took more convincing steps not only to reduce but to get rid of our own nuclear weapons stockpile, which serves us no useful purpose either? Will my right hon. Friend initiate urgent talks with the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence to see how we can improve our performance in this area?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend makes a point which I know she holds strongly and which many people understand and support. One recognises that argument. I do not believe that if Britain did not possess a nuclear deterrent it would have had a material bearing on the decisions made in Delhi in the past few months. What is important is that we have credibility because we abide by our international commitments against nuclear tests and uphold the regime of non-proliferation. If we do so, we have every right to say to the Government of India, as a respected friend and partner, that they should do likewise.

Mr. Nigel Beard (Bexleyheath and Crayford)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, although these events are universally to be regretted, they also give urgency to the steps to strengthen international confidence in the nuclear non-proliferation treaty? Will he consider steps, therefore, to restart the stalled processes of mutual nuclear disarmament between the western powers and Russia?

Mr. Cook

I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that this was an issue on which we called for progress when the G8 Foreign Ministers met last weekend. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that if we can get that process back on track and achieve success there, it will create a rather different climate in which non-nuclear weapon states may consider whether to proceed to proliferation. Tragically, at present they may be more immediately influenced by the nuclear tests that have just occurred. That is why we are right to convey a strong, united message of opposition, concern and dismay that a friend such as India should have taken this step.

Mr. Piara S. Khabra (Ealing, Southall)

I generally support the sentiments expressed about the nuclear tests in India, but mention has been made of Punjab and of Kashmir. My hon. Friends the Members for Wolverhampton, South-West (Ms Jones), for Bradford, West (Mr. Singh) and for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) expressed views with which I do not agree. I was born and educated in Punjab, and I know the situation there.

The partition of India took place in 1947, and the problem in Kashmir is the legacy of British imperialism. I often go to Punjab. I accompanied my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on a visit at the end of 1996; he went to Kashmir to study the problem for himself. Will my right hon. Friend say that this country has no intention of interfering in the internal affairs of another country? There has been terrorism, which is being supported across the border. The Conservative party and the Labour party are committed to rooting out terrorism wherever it exists in the world, and we have been doing that in Northern Ireland. This country is committed to fight against terrorism.

Will my right hon. Friend say that this country will never interfere in the internal affairs of another independent, democratic, secular country?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend speaks with feeling and personal knowledge. I assure him that we have no intention of interfering in internal affairs. We have repeatedly stressed that issues such as Kashmir are primarily for the parties concerned to resolve among themselves. If we can in any way help them to find a solution, we are ready to do so, if called on to do so. In expressing the views that we have, we are not in any way interfering in what is solely an internal affair for India. The tragedy of the nuclear tests is that they will have profound external effects, which is why they are a legitimate matter of concern for the international community.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

May I stay on the issue of Kashmir? My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) was absolutely right that Kashmir could be the flashpoint for a nuclear war in the region. Given that the issue of Kashmir has been festering unresolved for half a century and that United Nations resolutions passed in the 1940s have never been acted on, would it help if the UN were to revisit the issue and consider a new resolution with fresh legitimacy that could bring the warring parties—Pakistan and India—to the negotiating table?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the tension within Kashmir and the extent to which that could provide a particularly dangerous environment for India to press ahead with a nuclear weapons programme.

I am not necessarily sure that the UN can usefully play a role at present; if we were to return to it for a fresh resolution, there would be grave difficulty in crafting a resolution that would be acceptable. I am not necessarily sure that the end product would be more acceptable to my hon. Friend than the resolutions that are on the table of the Security Council. It is inevitable that, as a result of the nuclear tests, the UN Security Council will have to address the issue of the tests and of the sub-continent and will almost certainly adopt a presidential statement on it.

I am not sure that it is necessarily in India's interest that it should involve the UN once again in the affairs of the sub-continent. India would much better serve its objectives if it were to ensure that, by adhering to international norms and to the comprehensive test ban treaty, it demonstrated that it was interested in finding a solution rather than escalating tension.

Mr. Howard

You will know, Madam Speaker, how false was the premise on which the intervention of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) was based.

On a point of substance, given that there has been a good deal of consensus in the House about the undesirability of taking action to withdraw aid from India, will the Foreign Secretary share with us the Government's view on the desirability or otherwise of imposing other sanctions? He has told us about the importance of establishing consensus in the European Union, the G8 and the United Nations. We understand that, but presumably the Government will not approach those talks with no view of their own. Will he share with the House what their view is on this vital question?

Mr. Cook

Most of the countries to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman referred have, as an economic measure, suspended their aid programmes. We do not intend to take that course. In fairness to those countries, I should point out that their aid programmes are much more modest than ours, so they are better able than we are to use that as political pressure. A suspension of our aid programme would have a substantial impact.

We hold the presidency of the G8 and are consulting at official level with the other countries of the group to find a point of consensus. I do not resile from the point made by the right hon. and learned Gentleman. When the G8 meets, we shall have to take action to back up the strong condemnation.