HC Deb 03 May 2001 vol 367 cc981-9 12.33 pm
Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham)

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on Government policy towards ballistic missile defence.

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook)

When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister met President Bush at Camp David, he stressed the importance of taking forward proposals for missile defence through close consultation with allies and through dialogue with Russia.

On Tuesday, President Bush made a statement—[Interruption.] If I may say so, this is a serious matter that I am endeavouring to take seriously. On Tuesday, President Bush made a statement on his Administration's plans on how to proceed with missile defence. We warmly welcome the strong emphasis placed by President Bush on consultation with close allies. We look forward to discussions next week with the high-level team that he is sending to Europe.

We also welcome the commitment to dialogue with Russia in order to develop a new co-operative relationship that is based on openness and mutual confidence. President Putin has also demonstrated his concern about the missile threat from rogue states, and his security adviser recently briefed NATO on Russian proposals for missile defence. We will encourage both the United States and Russia to have constructive dialogue to reach agreement on how to tackle the problem that both have identified.

We also warmly welcome the commitment by President Bush to further cuts in nuclear weapons. We want nuclear arms reduction to be a feature of the new relationship that the United States seeks with Russia.

It should be stressed that President Bush's speech was a commitment to a future goal. The technology for missile defence will take some years to develop and the United States has yet to confirm which technical option it will pursue. Nor do we yet know the diplomatic context of any final decision, such as the potential for agreement with Russia.

However, we must recognise the reality that there is a growing challenge of missile proliferation. A number of states, of mutual concern to the US and the UK, are developing ballistic missile technology. At Camp David our two leaders agreed: We need to obstruct and deter these new threats. In the years that it will take for missile defence to be developed, we will work closely with the US, both to reduce proliferation of ballistic missile technology and to enhance security against those ballistic missiles.

Mr. Maude

Ballistic missile defence is a subject of intense interest and concern throughout the House. Yesterday, the Prime Minister deliberately equivocated when questioned on the subject in the Chamber by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) and the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham). Not 10 minutes later, his official spokesman said that missile defence was a good idea. The House is entitled to feel extremely angry that it is treated in that way.

Next week, a delegation from Washington comes to London to discuss precisely this matter. Given the overwhelming importance of the issue, and the absolute necessity of the British Government speaking with a single and authoritative voice, will the Foreign Secretary now repeat, word for word, what the Prime Minister's official spokesman said yesterday? How otherwise can Britain expect to have influence with either America or our European partners? Does he believe that British people should have less protection against missile attack than people in America

Mr. Cook

I am entirely happy to endorse everything that was said by the Prime Minister in the House yesterday when he stressed that it is impossible to give a firm answer until we have firm details. The Opposition's position is that, although we do not yet know whether the system will be sea-based or land-based, whether it will attempt to hit an incoming missile in the boost phase or in the re-entry phase, or whether it will be done with or without agreement, they know the answer that they would give. That is a betrayal of the national interest and of any influence that one may hope to have on the proposal.

Yes, I do think—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Let the Minister reply.

Mr. Cook

I do think that it is a good thing that the United States President should be able to say to the United States people that they are secure against any ballistic attack. It may or may not be that missile defence will play a part in that, but, as the Prime Minister's official spokesman said yesterday, nothing is inevitable and no answer can be given by Britain until we know the details; and, in that context, the position taken by the Government to look at the detail and the international context and to take a decision in the national interest compares responsibly and favourably with the position taken by the Opposition, who have adopted an attitude that plainly means that they do not expect to be in government, do not have any intention of taking a responsible approach to the issue, and would put their own party prejudice first rather than the national interest.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

Last August, the all-party Select Committee on Foreign Affairs unanimously agreed a report in which we urged the Government to make it clear to the US Administration that they should not necessarily assume unqualified UK co-operation in national missile defence and urged the Government to articulate Britain's strong concerns about NMD.

The Government, in their reply in August 2000, said, in terms, that they value the stability that the anti-ballistic missile treaty provides. Is that still the Government's position? What does consultation mean in practice? What is the agenda? Will my right hon. Friend say clearly that the position taken by the Leader of the Opposition, giving a blank cheque—a yes—to whatever the US Administration says, is absurd?

Mr. Cook

On the anti-ballistic missile treaty, we have constantly stressed to the United States Administration the importance of taking forward any amendment that they wish to make to their agreements with Russia by agreement and through dialogue.

The speech by President Bush was welcomed in Moscow yesterday by my colleague, Foreign Minister Ivanov, who said that he was pleased that the United States did not intend to take unilateral steps. He welcomed the offer of dialogue as beginning an era of strategic stability consultations". We are not a party to the anti-ballistic missile treaty; the parties to it are the United States and Russia. They must resolve between them the way in which they proceed with the new relationship that President Bush has offered. We have a legitimate interest in its progress through co-operation, not confrontation, and by agreement, not unilaterally.

My right hon. Friend is right that members of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs take their duties seriously and consider carefully the impact of their words. I wish that Conservative Front-Bench Members considered as carefully as the Conservative members of the Committee the impact on the rest of the world of the comments that they make for party reasons.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

I apologise for having to leave shortly. I have a long-standing commitment at the Royal United Services Institute.

No matter how the Foreign Secretary describes the matter, there was a substantial difference in emphasis between what the Prime Minister told the House and the official spokesman's comments to journalists within an hour of Prime Minister's questions. It is highly unsatisfactory to reveal a change of emphasis in policy in that way; there is no getting away from that.

Should not we be anxious about the absence from President Bush's proposals of any understanding of their impact on other treaties and agreements on the prevention of the proliferation of nuclear weapons? What store can we set by consultation that takes place after rather than before a decision has been made?

Mr. Cook

I say to my right hon. and learned Friend—[Interruption.] I extend the hand of friendship to my right hon. and learned Friend. [Interruption.] I assure Conservative Members that I shall not describe them in the same way.

Mr. Speaker

Order. There is too much noise. Opposition Front-Bench Members wanted a statement.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)

We are enjoying it.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman may be enjoying it, but there is other business before the House. If there is more such behaviour, I shall bring discussion on the private notice question to an end.

Mr. Cook

There is no doubt that the United States Administration have made a commitment to proceed with missile defence. However, a range of decisions remain to be taken, and it is important to consult on them. I am confident that all our colleagues in Europe will give the same advice: it is important to proceed through dialogue and agreement, not only with us but with Russia.

I am glad that the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) gives me the chance to put the record straight about what was said at 4 pm yesterday. [Interruption.] As Conservative Members are so interested in that, I shall describe the Prime Minister's official spokesman's words in full. His statement and what was said in the House are identical. When it was put to him that we would ultimately go along with whatever the United Stated asked us to do, he disagreed, said that nothing was inevitable and that Our decision would depend on the detail of the US plans—something which President Bush clearly understood and accepted. That is precisely what the Prime Minister told the House yesterday afternoon.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

It is clear that the Government want to be cautious about this matter before polling day, as they know that there is widespread opposition to it world wide because of the fear of a new arms race, which could involve this country. The United States supplies us with nuclear weapons, which we pretend are independent. Those weapons are dependent upon the American satellite system and, therefore, on the basis of past experience, British Governments do not go against the decisions of the President. Did the Foreign Secretary hear that Admiral Eugene Carroll—a distinguished retired American admiral—came to the House recently and said that if the scheme went ahead, he hoped that there would be a lot of Greenham commons and a large-scale peace movement? My right hon. Friend, as a passionate and articulate supporter of CND, will understand the importance of such a campaign.

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his helpful intervention. I can assure him that the Government will be cautious, responsible and realistic throughout the whole period after we are re-elected on polling day. That is precisely why we are taking a measured and considered approach to the question, totally unlike the Conservative party. However, I say to my right hon. Friend that we are the closest ally and one of the oldest friends of the United States. Plainly, that will be reflected in any judgment that we make if we are asked to be helpful.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the early warning radar station at RAF Fylingdales in my constituency has played a crucial role in maintaining peace and security in Britain and the west for more than 40 years? Is he aware that the majority in north Yorkshire overwhelmingly support RAF Fylingdales? However, some of my constituents are alarmed at the more sensational suggestions as to what ballistic missile defence might mean for RAF Fylingdales. Will he take this opportunity to confirm that although no definitive proposals have been put to the Government by America, the clear intention is that the role of Fylingdales will remain limited to early warning radar stations and that there is no question of siting missiles or interceptors in north Yorkshire?

Mr. Cook

At no stage has anybody involved in the debate—either in the United States or Europe—suggested that interceptor missiles be based either in Britain or anywhere in continental Europe. The hon. Gentleman is right; no precise proposal has been put to us and no decision has been taken on what the response would be, or indeed where any such facility would be based. It will not necessarily be Fylingdales.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)

I welcome the stress that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have put on the need to insist on dialogue between the United States Administration, the Government, our other allies and Russia before the proposals are confirmed. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the current framework of arms control treaties has played an important part in the security of the United Kingdom and will continue to do so? Are there not much easier ways of dealing with the suggested missile threat from supposed states of concern, rather than the current proposals? In particular, the steps taken by the EU to improve dialogue with North Korea are an obvious way of dealing with that missile threat. Finally, given the extreme concern shown by a large number of people across the UK about the proposals and their possible effect on UK security, will he join me in condemning the levity of Conservative Members? Obviously they are thinking only of party political issues and not the security of this country.

Mr. Cook

Mr. Speaker has already reminded the House that we are discussing this question because the official Opposition tabled it. As they went to the lengths of tabling it, I would have expected them to have made a serious contribution on a serious global issue, not simply to have tried to exploit for party prejudice and party interest an issue that should and will be dealt with in the national interest by the Government.

My hon. Friend is right that there are other ways in which to handle the threat of missile proliferation, although I do not know that it is necessary for us to choose between them. They all have a contribution to make. Whether or not missile defence goes ahead, I agree that it is important that we do what we can for rapprochement on the Korean peninsula and it is important that we tighten the technology regimes against the spread of missile technology. I assure her that we shall continue that work and that, as I said at my meeting with Colin Powell in March, we shall ensure that we work closely with the United States to achieve those goals as well.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester)

We must clarify whether there is any difference of view between the Prime Minister's press spokesman and the Prime Minister himself. I have here an extract from the lobby briefing, which says: Pressed as to whether we believed missile defence, broadly speaking, was a good idea, the PMOS said broadly, yes it was … It was now the Prime Minister and the British Government's responsibility to look at any specific policy questions which might relate to the UK. In other words, there is clear agreement in principle and it is a question of looking at the details. It is difficult to place any other construction on what the Prime Minister's official spokesman said. That being the case, will the Foreign Secretary say whether it can therefore be assumed that the Government do not consider the United States proposals to be in breach of the 1972 ABM treaty?

Mr. Cook

The answer to the last point is that President Bush himself has said that the United States is constrained by the ABM treaty. After all, that is why he is seeking dialogue with Russia and why we are urging both sides to find a way in which they can go forward.

In reference to the hon. Gentleman's opening remarks, at risk of wearying the House by repeating what we have already said, that is precisely what the Prime Minister said yesterday and what I have said today. This is an issue that we are obliged to look at. We will look at it responsibly. We will look at it with the national interest in mind, unlike the Conservative party, which is looking at it irresponsibly and without the national interest in mind.

Mr. Ivan Lewis (Bury, South)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the decision is of immense strategic importance to this country, that party politics has no part to play in such a decision, which is related to the national interest, and that the British people would expect a responsible Government to wait for the detail of any such proposals before reaching a decision that will have wide-ranging implications not only for this country, but for the international community?

Mr. Cook

I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend. Those members of the public who are watching this exchange can make up their own minds as to which side is engaged seriously in the issue and which side has treated it as a matter of levity and party prejudice. They can also resolve for themselves whether it makes more sense to know firmly what we are being asked to answer or to give the answer now, whatever the question may be, as Conservative Members are doing.

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that, once upon a time, this nation gave facilities to the Americans to bomb Libya and that the people in the United Kingdom who paid the highest price for that bombing were the people of Northern Ireland, who suffered because a large number of weapons were imported from Libya? Given that such consequences flowed from that decision, can we have an assurance from him that this country will fall well within any protective umbrella should missile defence be created?

Mr. Cook

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman such an assurance at present. Indeed, it would be odd if I were able to do so, given that there is no precise missile defence system yet proposed by the United States. However, I can assure him and the House that, obviously, that issue will be a major factor in consultations that we have over the coming months.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

The Foreign Secretary has already said that we are not party to the ABM treaty, but does he agree that we were a vital party to the nuclear non-proliferation review conference last year at which it was agreed that maintaining and strengthening that treaty was part of the agreement to which all the countries involved signed up? Surely, therefore, we have an important interest in ensuring that missile defence does not undermine the whole non-proliferation and arms control regime.

Is not it vital that the United States engage in discussions not only with Russia, but with China and other countries? Should not we consider the suggestion made by the Secretary-General of the United Nations that we should call a conference of all countries, including those that are not party to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, to discuss how best to reduce the risks of nuclear weapons?

Mr. Cook

I fully agree with my hon. Friend's support for the text of the NPT review conference. Indeed, the British Government were influential in securing the agreement on that text. Our problem is that the countries of greatest concern in relation to the proliferation of missile technology are outwith the NPT regime. I absolutely agree with him that if we could strengthen that regime by bringing those countries into it, a lot of the tension and anxiety would be removed from the United States' debate. We can all continue to press those countries to sign up, and to point out to them that if they do not do so, there will unavoidably be consequences. However, the United States has to take account of the countries that have not signed up, and continue to develop the means of missile delivery of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.

None of that is inconsistent with the further cuts in nuclear offensive missiles to which we committed ourselves in that text, and I welcome the fact that President Bush's speech on Tuesday repeated that commitment on behalf of the United States. I hope that he will be able to take it forward through bilateral dialogue with Russia.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

Are not the divisions in the Labour party and the hard left anti-defence lobby that sits on the Benches behind him the real reasons why the Foreign Secretary will not say whether he, in principle, favours missile defence?

Mr. Cook

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government will take a collective decision when the time comes, in which we will all participate. The reason that we are not saying now what our answer will be when we are asked a question is that we are in government, we are responsible and realistic, and we want to know what the question is first. The fact that Conservative Members are prepared to answer the question without knowing what it is demonstrates that they do not really ever expect to be in government.

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton)

Can I tell my right hon. Friend how welcome his reaffirmation is of the Prime Minister's position, as set out in the House yesterday? Will my right hon. Friend also join me in condemning the Conservative party for once again showing its knee-jerk enthusiasm for as yet non-existent proposals purely and simply for electioneering purposes?

Mr. Cook

I do not think that anybody studying the text of these exchanges or watching them this afternoon will come to the conclusion that a single thing has been said by Conservative Members that would enhance the security of Britain, or strengthen the security of her alliance.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Does the Foreign Secretary recall—on the day on which he is possibly making his last outing as Foreign Secretary—those happy, carefree times when he used to describe it as nonsense on stilts for Britain to pretend to be a nuclear power? Does he recall his reactions when the American President of the day originally proposed ballistic missile defence? Will he accept the sympathy of those Conservative Members who have consistently supported nuclear deterrence for his position now, as he finds himself attacked from his own Back Benches by people who stick to the views that he used to stick to but has now abandoned? Does he realise that many of us understand why he has recently taken to lowering his voice when he answers these embarrassing questions?

Mr. Cook

I am happy to say to the hon. Gentleman that I can resist the temptation to accept his sympathy in any circumstances whatsoever. I invite him to reflect on the proposal that I understand him to be supporting, which is that we should support missile defence. Will he reflect on the fact that missile defence is a clear statement that the many people in the United States who support it no longer have the faith in nuclear deterrence in which he still seems to be mired?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Bush got elected with the help of a massive amount of money from the defence industries, principally in America, and that he fiddled his way to victory on the back of that money? Is he aware that now is payback time? I suggest that he should be very careful about how the Government tread in the next few weeks. I believe that the Tories are as wrong on this issue as they are on the economy, and on almost every other political issue.

Mr. Cook

I have no problem in assenting to my hon. Friend's proposition that the Conservatives are wrong on a range of issues. I find it startling that there are still Conservative Members who appear to believe that the Government's real success is not in substance, but in spin. The reason why the Conservatives are in opposition is that they presided over the two worst economic recessions in British history, and the reason why they will stay in opposition is that this Government have presided over a sound, healthy, growing economy. Those are issues of substance, not of spin.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

All hon. Members will agree on the importance of this issue, but when we are reduced to considering how effective Mr. Bremner is as a parody of Government and when Downing street is acting as a parody of Bremner, is it not about time that the Government stood aside for people who will deal with the issue in a serious fashion?

Mr. Cook

I am conscious that we are appearing in the House of Commons now, and seeking to debate these matters seriously. I will not enter into any studio comedy with the hon. Gentleman.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow)

May I record the grave concern felt by many of my constituents, and shared by me, about missile proliferation and the threat posed by rogue states? Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that the Government's position remains that we will await a firm proposal from the Americans before deciding on the merits of any such proposal? Will he put clear blue water—or clear red water—between the parties, by confirming that we will not do what the Conservatives have done and blindly rush in to support any proposal that the Americans come up with before they have even decided on a proposal?

Mr. Cook

I am happy to confirm that the answer to both questions is yes. We will of course consider the details that are put to us—it would be irresponsible to do otherwise—and, as the Prime Minister's official spokesman said yesterday, our answer is not inevitable.

Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall take the point of order after the Business Question.