HC Deb 10 May 1999 vol 331 cc12-4
9. Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

What discussions have taken place between his Department and the Foreign Office on the longterm implications for the international nuclear disarmament process of NATO's decision not to redefine the role nuclear weapons play in NATO's new strategic concept. [82586]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. George Robertson)

My Department and the Foreign Office maintain close dialogue on all aspects of nuclear policy. At the Washington summit, NATO's strategic concept was endorsed by all 19 members of the alliance.

Mr. Chaytor

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply, and welcome the small signs of progress at the Washington summit in the redefinition of nuclear weapons policy. Could not the very slow pace of the progress towards the objective of reducing nuclear weapons worldwide put at risk the negotiations on the non-proliferation treaty taking place this week, as well as the long-term future of the comprehensive test ban treaty?

Mr. Robertson

I hope not. By reassessing our own nuclear stocks—we now have the smallest stockpile of nuclear weapons of any of the five nuclear weapons states—and through the confidence-building measures that we have introduced—the reduced state of alert of our nuclear submarines, and the fact that our missiles are detargeted—as well as through the other measures in the strategic defence review, we have given a clear idea of the direction in which we believe that the world should go. Therefore, our commitment to retaining Trident, which was the policy on which my hon. Friend and I fought the last election, should be, as the manifesto stated, accompanied by a greater degree of urgency in arms control negotiations. In that respect, we have shown by actions, not by words, that we mean business.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Does the Secretary of State agree with the estimate by the CIA that, by 2015, almost any country will be able to deliver an intercontinental ballistic missile? Does he therefore follow the argument that, in addition to the ability to respond with nuclear force, we need to invest in a credible defence mechanism?

Mr. Robertson

I do not think that the CIA was suggesting that every country would have its own intercontinental ballistic missile by 2015. However, the matter of ballistic missiles causes concern across the world, and that is why it is kept under constant examination. As and when the technology is available to deal with that threat, we will examine it carefully. In the meantime, we must step up the discussions on arms control, so that countries will not feel the need to acquire such weapons systems.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)

Did my right hon. Friend read the communique of the strategic concept summit, which stated that the characteristic of nuclear weapons is that they prevent coercion and any kind of war"? Surely whoever wrote that was not paying attention to the fact that there is a war going on in the Balkans, and that nuclear weapons were doing nothing to prevent it. That does not give much confidence in the seriousness with which NATO countries regard the role of nuclear weapons. Should that not be addressed in the not-too-distant future?

Mr. Robertson

Nobody is pretending that nuclear weapons can prevent all conflict, but the deterrence value of our nuclear weapons is proven and is supported by the vast majority of the British people. As I said before, the strategic concept and the language in it, over which there were long and sometimes painful discussions, were subscribed to by the Governments of all 19 countries.

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