HC Deb 15 January 2003 vol 397 cc696-713 1.18 pm
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on missile defence.

The House will recall that in the defence debate on 17 October I described the work in the United States on the development of ballistic missile defence systems and the Government's thinking on the issue. Subsequently, on 9 December, as I informed the House during defence questions that day, I placed in the Library a discussion paper produced by the Ministry of Defence setting out the role that active missile defence might play within a comprehensive strategy for tackling the threat from ballistic missiles. On 17 December, I informed the House of the receipt of a request from the United States Government to upgrade the early warning radar at Fylingdales for missile defence purposes.

I have repeatedly emphasised that the Government would not respond to such a request without a further opportunity for discussion in the House. Next week's defence debate is a timely further occasion for the House to discuss the challenges that the United Kingdom faces in the new international security environment, including those posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile technology. I hope that the House will find it helpful if today I set out the Government's thinking on the US request.

The Government recognise that missile defence raises important strategic issues, as well as local concerns in North Yorkshire. Following the release of the discussion paper in December, with its invitation to all interested parties to contribute their views, we have had around 300 responses. In addition, I visited North Yorkshire last week, and heard the views of local people and their elected representatives, as well as meeting representatives from the planning authorities. We have taken those views into account as we have considered the central question, which is the key test that the Government will apply to the US request: would agreeing to the upgrade of Fylingdales ultimately enhance the security of the UK and the NATO Alliance?

The background to the US request is the marked increase in the threat to our security from weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery. The Prime Minister has described weapons of mass destruction as the key issue facing the world community. It is a real threat to our security, fanned by proliferation from irresponsible regimes. As we all know, threat is a combination of intention and capability. Intentions can be debated, but they can also change at very short notice. The evidence of expanding capabilities, therefore, cannot responsibly be ignored. The hard fact is that a number of states of concern are making major investments in developing ever-longer range ballistic missiles. We are not referring here to countries developing standard military technology against the risk of conventional conflict. These ballistic missile programmes are being developed solely in order to threaten the delivery of mass destruction—nerve gas, toxins, biological agents or even nuclear warheads. It is the combination of ballistic missiles and the possession of these weapons of mass destruction, together with the demonstrated willingness to use those capabilities, that makes Iraq the most immediate state threat to global security. Elsewhere, if North Korea ends its moratorium on flight testing, it could flight test a missile with the potential to reach Europe and the United States within weeks. Other countries may acquire similar missile systems, not least through the proliferation of missile technology from North Korea.

Based on the analysis and discussion that we have undertaken so far, I have therefore come to the preliminary conclusion that the answer to the US request must be yes, and that we should agree to the upgrade as proposed.

RAF Fylingdales has operated since 1963 as a ballistic missile early warning system, which together with other radars in the United States and Greenland provides tactical warning and attack assessment of a missile attack against the United Kingdom, North America or western Europe. It has been upgraded a number of times over the years. Many hon. Members will recall the old "golf balls" that were dismantled in the late 1980s and replaced with the existing pyramid-like structure. Indeed, a life extension programme is under way to maintain its capabilities to provide early warning and track objects in space. These missions will continue to be the primary function of RAF Fylingdales.

I have sought to dispel a number of misapprehensions about the US request in various meetings in North Yorkshire. The proposal is for an upgrade of the existing radar, not some massive new construction. No change to the external appearance of the radar should be involved. The upgrade essentially comprises modification to the hardware and software of the computers within the base. There will be no change in the power output of the radar, which is many times below statutory safety limits. We therefore believe that no health risk to people or livestock could arise. We have already explained to the local planning authorities that we see nothing in the upgrade proposals that would require formal planning consultation, and we have promised to provide them with full supporting evidence in due course.

The upgrade of the Fylingdales radar can and should be considered as a discrete proposition. It does not commit us in any way to any deeper involvement in missile defence, although it gives us options to do so, should we decide on that at a later date. It will not involve huge costs. The upgrade will be performed at US expense, and we do not expect any significant variation in the running costs of RAF Fylingdales, which, as is appropriate for an RAF station, we already bear.

Agreeing to the upgrade is not at odds with the wider approach of our NATO allies. The Prague summit agreed to examine options for addressing the increasing missile threat to Alliance territory, forces and population centres". The Danish Government have received a parallel request to upgrade the early warning radar in Greenland.

Missile defence is a defensive system that threatens no one. We see no reason to believe fears that the development of missile defences will be strategically destabilising. Reactions from Russia and China have been measured. Missile defence would need to be used only if a ballistic missile has actually been fired. At that point, no matter how much we emphasise our other means of addressing the threat—non-proliferation, intelligence, law enforcement, conflict prevention, diplomacy and deterrence—those means will have failed and cannot be of further help. There would be no way of preventing a devastating impact without intercepting and destroying the missile. Once the missile is in the air, it is unthinkable that anyone could not want us to be in a position to shoot it down.

Those are the reasons for concluding that agreeing to the US request would not prejudice the UK's interests. But beyond that, the key consideration is that it would represent an invaluable extra insurance against the development of a still uncertain, but potentially catastrophic, threat to the citizens of this country. There is not yet an immediate threat to us of this kind, but there is a distinct possibility that this threat could materialise in the relatively near future. It would therefore be irresponsible for the Government to leave the United Kingdom without a route map to acquire a defence against this threat. An upgraded Fylingdales radar would be a vital building-block on which missile defence for this country and for our European neighbours could later be developed, if the need arises and if we so decide.

We are confident that agreeing to this request will not significantly increase the threat to the UK. The security interests of the UK are already closely identified with those of the US and other NATO allies. That will not change, regardless of decisions on missile defence. Keeping a low profile and hoping for the best is simply not an option. We also believe that any increased threat to RAF Fylingdales itself is negligible. For the foreseeable future, states of concern are very unlikely to have the sophisticated capability or size of arsenal to consider targeting specific points or military installations. Long-range missiles in their hands will essentially be weapons of terror, and, as with all military installations in the UK, the station is well defended against terrorist attack. But we must not forget that what drives the threat against the UK is not the deployment of missile defences, but those states of concern who develop or acquire weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery.

The upgrade would indicate no commitment to further involvement with missile defence deployments. Separately, we intend to agree a new technical memorandum of understanding with the United States that would give us full insight into the development of their missile defence programme and the opportunity for UK industry to reap the benefits of participation. But any UK acquisition of missile defence would be subject to a separate decision, at the relevant time. We must approach this in stages, considering each step in the light of how both the threat and the relevant technologies evolve.

The Government have not yet formally replied to the US Administration on their request to upgrade the Fylingdales radar. I await with interest the views that hon. Members will wish to put forward, today and in next week's debate. But it is only right that the House should know the Government's preliminary conclusion that it is in the UK's interests to agree to the request. From the UK's national perspective, this specific decision is one that has real potential benefits at essentially no financial cost. It will ensure that if, in the coming years, we find that a potentially devastating threat is becoming a reality, we have the opportunity to defend against it.

Weapons of mass destruction present the gravest risk to UK security. A ballistic missile launched at the UK is the most catastrophic potential threat to our people in the future. A Government's first duty is to protect their citizens, and that is a duty that this Government will not shirk from undertaking.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

I thank the Secretary of State for giving me an advance copy of his statement. However, I start by lamenting the fact that Parliament seems to have been the last to know of this significant and controversial decision. By 5.30 pm yesterday, the Press Association wires were reporting that there would be a statement today and Mr. Hoon is expected to say…he is minded to accept the American request to use Fylingdales. The way in which the announcement has been dribbled out is all too typical of the way in which the Government treat Parliament.

I welcome next week's opportunity for debate, but rather than a general debate, which will inevitably be taken up by other defence issues such as the preparation for military action against Iraq or the outcome of the NATO Prague summit, should it not be a specific debate on missile defence? Is that not what the House of Commons is truly for?

Her Majesty's Opposition have consistently made the case for missile defence. We therefore welcome the decision as far as it goes, as we believe that it is in the interests of British national security. Many of our European allies—France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Greece—are already involved in missile defence programmes, particularly theatre missile defence, some of them in co-operation with the United States. Given that some 276 Labour Members have signed an early-day motion against the Secretary of State's policy, does the right hon. Gentleman not recognise that he must now convince those who would prefer to believe that the Government are simply a slave to the United States agenda? After all, it was only on 10 May 1999 that his predecessor Lord Robertson said: We are not in favour of developing ballistic missile defence systems. We are in favour of the anti-ballistic missile treaty".— [Official Report,10 May 1999; Vol. 331, c. 10.] Incidentally, that is a treaty whose demise the Government have now accepted without a hint of protest. It was only on 21 March 2000 that the then Foreign Office Minister, now Secretary of State for Wales, the right hon. Member for Neath (Peter Hain) said on the BBC's "Newsnight": I don't like the idea of a star wars programme, limited or unlimited. Of course, we are not talking about "star wars".

The Secretary of State has spent most of the past year stonewalling on this issue, and I now welcome the refreshing tone that he has adopted towards British participation in missile defence. Does it reflect the fact that the Government are now confident that the technology will be successfully developed to make missile defence a practical reality? What Government control will there be over the use of the facilities at Fylingdales and the information gathered there? Is it possible that Menwith Hill will also be included in the programme at some future date?

On the wider issue, the Secretary of State says that the decision does not commit us to deeper involvement in missile defence, but why is it necessary to approach the issue, as he says, in stages? Surely the conclusion from his statement must be that we should be fully committed in principle to global missile defence now. What is the Government's policy on the possibility of having ground-based interceptor missiles on British soil, or sea-based interceptors on British ships?

The Secretary of State has made a clear case for missile defence. He refers to the possibility of North Korea representing potentially an imminent missile threat "within weeks"? What is the benefit of putting off those decisions? Full support for UK partnership with the United States on missile defence will not only enhance the opportunities for the British defence industry but is clearly vital for our national security. We therefore urge the Government to be candid with the House and to state now that a full commitment to missile defence is their real intention.

Mr. Hann

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman chooses to criticise the fact that, in a short space of time, the Government are making available a full day for debating defence issues. That will be an opportunity for right hon. and hon. Members to debate this and other issues. If the hon. Gentleman feels so strongly about the issue, it is open to the Opposition to use the time that they have available to debate the question as soon as next Monday, which is the next Opposition day. He and other Opposition Front Benchers can use that time to debate the issue in the way that he suggests is so important. I anticipate that he does not really regard the matter as so important; otherwise, he would use the time as he has advocated—[Interruption.] I look forward to any debate. As I said, the Government have made time available next week, and if the Opposition want an extra debate, I will be delighted to be here to respond to any motion that they care to put down.

On the hon. Gentleman's more detailed points about the process, it is important that he examine carefully the way in which the United States is approaching developing a missile defence system. The United States has taken outline decisions only, and has specifically indicated that it is important that there should be a test bed—for the moment, a Pacific test bed designed to provide emergency protection to the United States against the threat from North Korea. As a result, the United States has not taken specific decisions about the kind of system that it would ultimately like to deploy. Again, I have made the point to the hon. Gentleman and Opposition Front Benchers over many months that it does not make sense to anticipate decisions that have not yet been made in the United States. That remains the position. We are in close consultation with the United States about the development of these systems, but it simply does not make sense to anticipate decisions that it has not yet taken.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

I thank the Secretary of State for the advance copy of his statement, but I must agree entirely with the view of the Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), that we already knew what he would say today.

The decision, whether one agrees with it or opposes it, has seemingly been made with an astonishing lack of consultation. It is a major strategic decision, and to suggest that it should be debated in an Opposition-day debate is outrageous. The Government issued the public discussion paper only last month, and the request was issued only last month, yet the House of Commons has still not had a proper opportunity to discuss the matter. The costs, the strategic dimensions and the feasibility of the scheme are not well understood by those on either side of the argument. Many questions remain unclear—not least the question of why the Secretary of State chose to announce the decision today.

If Fylingdales is to be upgraded, will Britain be protected by the current US missile defence scheme? If not, why are we participating? How will participation enhance the security of Britain? What is the position of our allies in NATO and our partners in the EU on this programme? Will they be participating? Have the Danes agreed that their site should be used? How much does the UK need to invest to be able to keep the option of participating in the future? What could be achieved by spending that money on other defence issues? Is there a risk of further terrorist attack at Fylingdales? Will extra security be required there? In short, is this a good deal for Britain? [HON. MEMBERS: "You tell us."] If Conservative Front Benchers will hold their lines, I will.

If the Secretary of State says that his preliminary conclusion is to say yes—that he is minded to agree—what might make him change his mind and say later that he does not agree? At the moment, while the Secretary of State may be minded to say yes, many on the Liberal Democrat Benches would be minded to say no. The reality is that, today, the House of Commons is being presented with a fait accompli.

Mr. Hoon

To be fair to the hon. Gentleman, he is not noted for the kind of bluster that we have just heard from him—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] No, I think it is important to be charitable to the Liberal Democrats from time to time. But it was not clear from the hon. Gentleman's contribution, if I can call it that, whether he was for or against the proposal. I assure him that there is a very large fence around RAF Fylingdales on which he can sit for as long as he likes, and which will protect him and the occupants of the base against any kind of terrorist threat or rhetoric.

This is a good deal for the United Kingdom. If the hon. Gentleman listened to the explanations that I gave, he will have heard me set out clearly the arrangements as regards support to the United Kingdom and other allies, which would be the key test for our decision.

As regards the protection of the United Kingdom, I made it clear that the test bed that the United States is developing in the Pacific is specifically designed to deal with the threat from North Korea. Clearly, as the system evolves and the United States learns lessons from the operation of the test bed, there will be an opportunity for coverage that includes the United Kingdom, as the request from the United States suggests. That is why I said that we were preserving an option to protect United Kingdom citizens.

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby)

I thank my right hon. Friend for coming to my constituency after his visit to the RAF station at Fylingdales on 6 January. He listened to local people, who are perhaps most concerned about the subject. As promised, I kept a record of the exchanges and presented it to the Defence Committee for consideration. On behalf of my constituents, and especially the people of Whitby and the Esk Valley, I welcome the opportunity to put some of the issues on the record in next week's debate.

My right hon. Friend knows of my engineer's scepticism about whether the system will work in the long run. He heard the views of the people who spoke to him at the Inn on the Moor in Goathland, which is two and a half miles away from the RAF station. They clearly expressed concerns, not so much about a ballistic attack on the base and the area but about a terrorist attack. As well as giving help and information to North Yorkshire police, will my right hon. Friend review the status of installations such as the mothballed station at RAF Staxton, for the protection of the area?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for organising several excellent meetings in North Yorkshire that produced useful and lively discussions that greatly assisted to clarify my thinking and the Government's decision.

As I hope I have made clear, the system that the United States is developing is evolving. Part of the reason for its request is to ensure the development of a comprehensive system. That will not be in place for several years. However, I have no reason to doubt the determination of the United States to make the system fully comprehensive and effective.

I have received no request from the United States about any other installations in this country.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

As the Secretary of State knows, Fylingdales is in my constituency. He also knows that, by and large, I have supported his position. I support his statement, as will most right-thinking people in North Yorkshire, let alone Ryedale.

I urge the right hon. Gentleman to do three things. First, he should take every opportunity to confirm that his comments today mean that we have signed up not to missile defence but to an upgrade of existing radar, which has happened previously. The previous upgrade put millions of pounds into the local economy, and I do not doubt that that will happen again.

Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that many local people will fear that what he has announced today is only phase 1 and that phase 2, involving missile defence, will follow? Will he therefore continue to consult local authorities such as North Yorkshire county council, the North York Moors national park authority and Ryedale council, as well as local people? I urge him to take them with him.

Thirdly, will the right hon. Gentleman recognise that, although he has denied the more lurid descriptions of what may have been involved in the decision, the local tourist industry is worried? Apart from Fylingdales, there is little else on the North York moors except sheep rearing and tourism. Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore urge his colleagues in the Government to help the local economy, tourism and our transport infrastructure? We are prepared to continue to accommodate the radar in our area, but we should like some Government recognition that we have other needs.

Mr. Hoon

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his consistent approach. He has not ducked the difficult issues that are necessarily involved. I stress that we are discussing a specific request about the internal functioning of the radar and communications systems at RAF Fylingdales. As I learned when I visited the hon. Gentleman's constituency, local anxiety is sometimes about things that have not been determined and may never be determined. The United States is considering locating phase 2 largely at sea and may never require land-based X-band radars. The phrase, "X-band radar" was used regularly when I dealt with questions in North Yorkshire. It is important to deal with each decision at the stage at which it is presented. There is no need to go further at this stage and speculate as some perhaps less helpful commentators have done. I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman's observations about the local economy are passed on to the appropriate Department.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

Given the weight of expert criticism of missile defence, the unanimous conclusions of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the extent of anxiety in the House, and, according to repeated polls, the opposition of more than 70 per cent. of the British public, will we have an opportunity for a specific debate and democratic vote on the issue in the House?

Mr. Hoon

I have outlined the nature of the debate that the Government propose. There will be an opportunity for my hon. Friend to contribute to it as he has done in the past. However, I do not accept his assertions about the weight of expert criticism. Even if it were overwhelming, my hon. Friend and other critics have to face the central point of my statement's conclusion. If a missile is in the air and targeted at the United Kingdom, threatening catastrophic consequences to the people of this country, does he seriously claim that we should not use every effort to try to protect them?

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

Would it not have been better for the Secretary of State to state clearly that, if the United States believes the system to be essential to its security and requests United Kingdom assistance, it would be politically almost inconceivable to deny the request given the importance of our relations? That would be more convincing than relying on the thin arguments in the consultation document and the serious doubts about the efficacy of the technology, especially the identification of decoy missiles, to which the document specifically refers. Can we be absolutely certain that subsequent developments, including any that involve Menwith Hill in my constituency, will be subject to a separate consultation and decision-making process?

Mr. Hoon

No one who holds a position such as mine is in any doubt about the importance of our political relationship and close friendship with the United States. I do not qualify that in any way. However, as I have said on several occasions, it is important to show that this matter is of interest and beneficial to the people of the United Kingdom and to our wider relationships in the NATO alliance. That is the test that the people of the United Kingdom want satisfied. I believe that it is satisfied and I therefore recommend accepting the United States request.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

I have received hundreds if not thousands of letters, including some from constituents of the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway). They all oppose national missile defence and upgrading Fylingdales. I do not think that those people are stupid or misguided. They point out that they believe that it will make them more of a target, and that far from protecting them it endangers them even more. They have a right to express that opinion. I agree with them. It is absolutely dreadful that once again we are acquiescing to President Bush's requests, in opposition to the people who elected us. The last opinion polls showed that more than 70 per cent. of the people of this country were opposed. The consultation has been a sham. I repeat the request of the shadow Secretary of State that we should have a debate purely on the implications of our going down this very dangerous path.

Mr. Hoon

I dealt in my statement with the suggestion, which I recognise is made by those opposed to the proposals, that somehow certain parts of the country might become more of a target as a result of this decision. I dealt with those arguments. I do not believe that there is an enhanced specific threat to Fylingdales or the immediate area, or for that matter to North Yorkshire.

Equally, my hon. Friend must think through the implications of such concerns. There are, rightly, defence bases around the country. The armed forces are located in different parts of the United Kingdom. It is important that we recognise that the decisions that the Government take in relation to matters of this kind are in the interests of the country as a whole and of our national security, and it is right that each part of the country plays its part in contributing to that national security.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon)

The Secretary of State has this absolutely right. I am sure he will agree that this is not the most difficult decision he will have to make this year. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) that it is inconceivable that we would have said no to the United States.

However, I think the need for British decisions is perhaps slightly closer than the right hon. Gentleman is letting on. The United States has made a great deal of progress—much faster progress than was originally envisaged—with its test programme. While it may not have decided what systems to deploy, I think it has taken a decision to deploy. At boost phase, missile defence benefits the whole world, because at that stage nobody knows exactly where the missile is going. The Secretary of State shakes his head, but I think that that is probably so. But if we are to defend against missiles in re-entry phase there is a need for locally based and probably ground-based interceptors. Does the memorandum of understanding with the United States to which the right hon. Gentleman referred effectively give us an option to use United States technology to base re-entry defence interceptors in and around the United Kingdom?

Mr. Hoon

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I have, in the words of the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, been entirely candid with the House. We have not received any further requests from the United States. We recognise that there is a range of options that the United States is looking at. That is precisely the purpose of the test bed that the United States is establishing. I entirely accept from the hon. Gentleman that the United States has made remarkable scientific progress in the work that it has concluded so far, but in many respects that has led it away from a decision to site X-band radar on land. It has given it a range of options that will allow a system to evolve and develop that may not require any further basing in the United Kingdom. I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that as and when any such decisions are required in the United Kingdom the House will be the first to hear of them.

Mr. Nigel Beard (Bexleyheath and Crayford)

If the technology is successfully developed, what are the prospects of extending the missile defence umbrella to the United Kingdom and the rest of NATO?

Mr. Hoon

That is one of the aspects of the United States request that have led me to conclude that this would be in the security interests of the United Kingdom, because, unlike the situation with an earlier version of these proposals, which was specifically entitled national missile defence—"national" referring to the United States—President Bush has indicated his concern that missile defence and the programme being developed by the United States should be made available to the United Kingdom and other NATO allies, should that be appropriate, and should those countries decide on it at an appropriate stage. That is a remarkably helpful offer for the United Kingdom.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that even those of us who doubt the cost-effectiveness and utility of missile defence think that he is right to respond positively to a proper request by an ally? Would he remind the House of, and put a note into the Library explaining, the precise command allocations of responsibility as between the United States and the United Kingdom within the Fylingdales base?

Mr. Hoon

Those are matters that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is entirely right to raise. They are still the subject of further detailed negotiations. As regards the upgrade implications, the right hon. and learned Gentleman will understand that I shall not be able to inform the House of all the aspects, but I undertake to ensure that the House is properly informed of the general outline of those arrangements.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the extensive press coverage that there has been, particularly in the defence press, about the development of X-band radar. Members of the Defence Committee this week received a document from Yorkshire CND raising concerns that the upgrade of RAF Fylingdales is part of the development programme for X-band. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that it is not?

Mr. Hoon

What I can assure the House is that there has been no specific decision about the deployment of X-band radar. As I have already said, the developments so far in the United States indicate that in fact an X-band radar may not necessarily have to be located on land, and certainly not anywhere in the immediate vicinity of RAF Fylingdales.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

The Secretary of State's decision today is a wise and prudent precautionary measure that should have the full support of the House. Would the battle of Britain have been won in 1940 if Dowding had not been allowed to deploy radars around our coast from 1936? In these circumstances, surely vulnerability cannot be the best policy.

Mr. Hoon

Not for the first time, the hon. Gentleman makes an appropriate historical analogy. As someone who has looked carefully at the history of that conflict, I think that he is absolutely right to recognise that as our technology develops we must use it to provide greater security for our people.

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton)

I would have liked to give a personal perspective on Fylingdales, but unfortunately my written request to the Secretary of State to visit was refused, unlike that of the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch), I understand.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that his slavish devotion to American policy in this area adds further to global destabilisation? That destabilisation is evidenced by, for example, North Korea's alleged withdrawal from the non-proliferation treaty, a treaty that the United States never ratified, following on from its abrogation of the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty. It is also reflected in the Chinese military's plan to reconfigure its nuclear forces to overcome missile defence, as and when it is ever developed, and most recently lately by the Indians, who are developing an Agni-3 rocket and are discussing dropping the nonuclear-first-strike option from their military planning.

In the Government's Gadarene rush to embrace every crackpot notion foisted on us by the ideologues in Washington, I should like the Secretary of State to point out where the independence of thought and the independence of policy are in the British Government, reflecting true British needs.

Mr. Hoon

I am sorry to hear my hon. Friend and former Ministry of Defence colleague make those observations. I am sure that he would have had the opportunity to visit RAF Fylingdales when he was a Defence Minister, had he chosen to take it. Indeed, I do not recall his making those kinds of observations at that time. I accept that his views have changed in the interim, but even allowing for those changes I would ask him to look carefully at, for example, the details of the Moscow treaty. The views that he now espouses are the views of people who have long advocated the importance of reducing the numbers of offensive systems available to the then Soviet Union, now to Russia, and to the United States. The Moscow treaty, as a result of the confidence that the United States now has because of the potential developments of missile defence, has seen the most significant reduction of deployable defensive systems in history. That remarkable success is the result of the end of the treaty that he says should continue.

Again, looking at the missile defence situation, I simply do not understand—I am perfectly willing to hear any argument—why a purely defensive system attracts so much criticism. I could certainly understand my hon. Friend setting out criticism of the further development of offensive systems, but hardly of this kind of defensive proposal.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon)

The Secretary of State should be aware that his statement will be greeted with dismay by many people in Wales, Scotland and other parts of the United Kingdom, not least among members of his own party. Given that the United States has refused to rule out the first use of nuclear weapons, will he not concede one fact: that missile defence is a misnomer—if it works, it might indeed be a defence, but it might also provide the very shield that the United States requires to launch the very first use of nuclear weapons?

Mr. Hoon

The United Kingdom has also consistently refused to rule out a no-first-use policy, for understandable and clearly well-established reasons. The hon. Gentleman is perfectly entitled to his views and to express them, but, if he is to put them in the context of wider defence policy and thinking, he needs to set out more clearly his objections to what is, as I have just said, a purely defensive system that threatens no one and can ultimately only protect people in countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States, which are fully functioning democracies.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

As the Government believe that what they have presented as the greatest threat to world peace—Iraq—can be eradicated by conventional military means, from whom do the Government believe that the threat will come that warrants an anti-ballistic missile system? It was not radar that won the battle of Britain, but Spitfires, so it is perfectly clear that radar alone will not act as a defence for this country. Are we considering a situation in which anti-ballistic missiles will be placed in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Hoon

I am now at risk of sparking a historical debate, but I accept for the avoidance of doubt that a combination of radar, Spitfires and other aircraft won the battle of Britain.

As for Iraq, I set out very clearly in my statement that we regard the threat from Iraq as the single most significant threat, particularly if Iraq is allowed the opportunity to continue to develop not only its weapons of mass destruction, but its means of delivery. I am somewhat puzzled by my hon. Friend's question because, understandably, for reasons that I well recognise, she has been among the most assiduous opponents of any proposal to deal with the threat from Iraq by conventional means. She cannot have it both ways: she cannot argue against conventional means of dealing with Iraq, as well as against the proposal to defend this country and other countries against the threat that Iraq poses. One or other must be a way forward.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

The Secretary of State and I have different ideas of candour. I do not think that it is particularly candid to come to the House on 17 December and say, "Surprise, surprise—we have just had a formal request from the Americans to upgrade the radars at Fylingdales" and then, eight sitting days later, come to the House and say, "We are minded to accept it." The fact is that this issue has been around for a very long time.

The Secretary of State's Parliamentary Private Secretary and I visited Washington and attended a briefing at the Pentagon in 1998, when it was made absolutely clear to us that the United States welcomed full British involvement in ballistic missile defence. It would have been much better had we been fully on board as early as possible, not least because the United States would have known in planning, preparing and designing the system that it could have relied on the United Kingdom as a full partner to base in the United Kingdom whatever would be required to make the system a success.

If the Secretary of State continues to insist that he will make decisions as he gets formal requests, he is, frankly, not being candid with the House. It is about time that he made it clear, as he did in making a strong case for the system, that the Government fully support it and are fully committed to it.

Mr. Hoon

Not for the first time recently, I would urge the hon. Gentleman to look carefully at what I have said and to reflect on whether he is suggesting that in any way I have not been candid with the House.

On timing, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be able to look at the relevant White House website, which will indicate precisely when the President took the decision on the development of missile defence for the United States. He will see that that decision was taken towards the end of last year and that the request to the United Kingdom followed shortly after. I would be perfectly content with any criticism that might be made from the United States if in any way the hon. Gentleman could verify it, but he is wrong to try to interpret that. There is no such criticism; the United States recognises the contribution that the United Kingdom is prepared to make, and I understand that it is extremely appreciative of the decision-making process in which the United Kingdom has engaged.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

If the technology works, why should it not be given to India and Pakistan?

Mr. Hoon

What is interesting about my hon. Friend's question is that, if the technology can be made to work, the United States has indicated that, in quite a short timeframe, it would be willing to go beyond simply protecting United States territory and consider making such a system available to NATO allies. I see no reason in principle why, if such a system can be made to work, it should not be extended further, but that is obviously a matter for the United States.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)

I welcome the spirit of the Secretary of State's announcement this afternoon because it could have important benefits for the security of the United Kingdom and, indeed, for that of our NATO allies. In considering the whole issue, is it not important to recall that, throughout the cold war, the old Soviet Union maintained a BMD system of sorts—the ABM-1 Galosh system, which ringed Moscow—and that, even today under the new partly democratic Russia, elements of that system still remain in place? If it is all right for the Russians to have such technology in some form, should not we be thinking about it too?

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely accurate and well-informed observation, with which I entirely agree.

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)

Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge that this is an act of proliferation, that star wars technology, when eventually developed, can have an offensive capacity as well as a defensive one, that it will spur Russia and China to have serviceable nuclear weapons and that it will be another blow to arms control treaties? If, as the Prime Minister has said, the Government are passionately for non-proliferation, why were arms control treaties not even on his listen-back agenda for the United States that he announced last week?

Mr. Hoon

I have debated such issues before with my hon. Friend. I entirely accept his sincerity, but, if he will forgive me for saying so, given that he has long and understandably argued against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, which he has done in a very principled way, I do not understand why he regards the development of a defensive system as strategically threatening, particularly when Russia is cutting its deployable offensive systems as a result of agreements made with the United States.

If a missile defence system can be developed, it will not only act as a very clear deterrent to the development of long-range ballistic missiles, but, of course, encourage those countries—for example, North Korea—that could spend their hard-earned foreign currency much better on feeding their own people to do so. My hon. Friend could well apply the logic that he properly applies to such issues but reach an entirely different conclusion: that the development of missile defence systems was encouraging a reduction in proliferation.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

The Secretary of State will be aware that there are several key United States bases in East Anglia and that they contribute a vast amount to the local economy. The overwhelming majority of people in East Anglia will welcome this strategic move as a good way to cement the special relationship. In his statement, he mentioned a new technical memorandum of understanding. Surely British businesses want not just an MOU, but firm assurances that they will be able to bid for some of those key contracts.

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his observations. As I said earlier, such decisions are ultimately about ensuring national security, which includes East Anglia and other parts of the United Kingdom. Part of our approach is certainly to give opportunities to British industry, and there have already been discussions about the potential involvement of leading companies in the United Kingdom in missile defence. Obviously, we shall now wish to pursue that in the light of the decision that I have taken and the proposal that I have made to the House.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that China's rational response to the development of missile defence would be to increase the number of its missiles and warheads—possibly including dummy missiles—to get through an American missile defence system? If that is China's rational response—I believe that it will be—does my right hon. Friend accept that that could have a serious knock-on effect on other regional neighbours such as India and Pakistan, and on into the middle east? Does he also accept that that is why these systems are potentially so destabilising for the whole world?

Mr. Hoon

As my hon. Friend will be aware from his time in the Foreign Office, China has had an extensive programme for developing ballistic missile defence systems for many years. Given that US proposals for missile defence have never been designed to deal with multiple missiles addressing a particular target, and that they are solely designed to deal with individual missiles from states of concern—which do not include China, as my hon. Friend will be aware—I do not believe that China would need to respond in any way to this proposal. Indeed, China has reacted in a very calm way to the United States' announcement, towards the end of last year, of its intention to develop missile defence systems.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

The Secretary of State will be aware that, outside the ranks of the Conservative party, there is very little support for our involvement in George W. Bush's national missile defence programme. That is partly because there are technical doubts as to whether the system will actually work, and partly because, although the Secretary of State may not deem this to be proliferation, some nation states, notably China, certainly do, privately, deem it to be proliferation and, as has been said earlier, may well step up their response, which would destabilise things internationally. It is also because the real and present threat to the people of Britain is not a long-range missile from North Korea, but the kind of terrorism that we saw so tragically on 9/11, and the kind of terrorism that was identified last night. The question that many people outside the ranks of the Conservative party will be asking is whether, when George Bush says "Jump!", our only response is to be "How high?"

Mr. Hoon

I fundamentally disagree with my hon. Friend. I have spent years travelling the country, visiting not only Labour party organisations up and down the United Kingdom but other groups as well, and it has not been my experience that there is very little support for the proposals. Indeed, my experience is that, when the threat is discussed, there is a completely different response: people want to know what we propose to do about it. My hon. Friend needs to look a little more carefully at North Korea. I would not place any confidence in decisions being taken there, not least because, if it goes ahead and abandons its commitment not to test-fly longer range missiles, the United Kingdom would come within range of a missile from that country. I think that my hon. Friend's constituents would want to know, as would mine, what action the Government were taking to deal with such a threat.

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston)

Given that national missile defence was originally aimed at protecting the United States, are there no plans for facilities similar to Fylingdales to be established elsewhere in Europe, so that both the United Kingdom and an enlarged Europe can be protected?

Mr. Hoon

As I said in my statement, the United States made a parallel request to Denmark in relation to a radar facility in Greenland. As the US President has said, part of the process that the United States is undertaking involves the need to ensure that any deployable system would, as it is developed, protect not only the United States but its NATO allies.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

May I urge my right hon. Friend to reconsider his interim decision? I acknowledge his duty to protect the citizens of the United Kingdom and that the system is a defensive system. Nevertheless, I believe that it will unwittingly add to proliferation. In his further assessment, will he look at the role of the military industrial complex and decide whether it is the real driver in this matter? May I also refer him to the then President Eisenhower's statement of 40 years ago, which highlighted the dangers of the military industrial complex being involved in just this kind of programme?

Mr. Hoon

I appreciate the sincerity with which my hon. Friend puts his case, but I would invite him to consider this point. He says that missile defence might unwittingly add to proliferation, but it will be developed to protect democracies. It will be developed to protect the United States, the United Kingdom and members of the NATO alliance—a fundamental prerequisite of which is that its members should be democratic societies. My hon. Friend is saying that if we do not develop missile defence to protect those democracies, we will be relying on countries such as Iraq or North Korea—neither of which could remotely be described as democracies at present—not to threaten the United Kingdom. If I went to my hon. Friend's constituency and discussed those issues with his constituents, I am pretty sure on which side of the line they would fall, because I suspect that they are not greatly dissimilar to my own. They would say, "Why shouldn't you protect us against the kind of threat that could come from countries like North Korea and Iraq?" With the greatest possible respect to my hon. Friend, I do not think they would say that those countries could be relied on not to develop a threat to the United Kingdom and its citizens.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

It is a very sad day indeed when a Secretary of State comes to the House 29 days after confirming that an application has been received from the United States to tell us that he is minded to accept it. Will he confirm that, in reality, the decision to go ahead with national missile defence was made a long time ago, and that it will mean that we are no longer able to support the ABM treaty? I suspect that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) has said, in future, the Secretary of State will ask us to remove ourselves from a series of other disarmament treaties as well. Is this not the day on which the United States, with British support, has started proliferation again? This is not an interim or technical decision; it is a fundamental departure from the process of disarmament of the past 30 years in the direction of re-armament, and it is being done in a very dangerous way, which can only result in a similar response from China and other nuclear powers.

Mr. Hoon

I believe that I have already dealt with most of the arguments set out by my hon. Friend. He has referred previously to support for the ABM treaty—I have mentioned this to him before—as though somehow the treaty still existed. It no longer exists. It was a treaty between the United States and, originally, the Soviet Union—now Russia, as its successor—and both parties now accept that it has served its useful purpose. In place of that treaty we now have something for which my hon. Friend has long argued: a very substantial reduction in the number of offensive systems. Given the consistency of my hon. Friend's approach to these matters, I should have thought that he would welcome the fact that the ABM treaty has been replaced, and that the Moscow treaty has allowed for that significant reduction for which he has understandably and rightly argued.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

Will the Secretary of State concede that, had missile defence been in place, and had it worked, it would not have made a ha'p'orth of difference to the events of 11 September? Does he accept that it takes at least some explaining that, on the day on which the Prime Minister warned against weapons proliferation in an international context, we are signing up to something that will require us fundamentally to breach the outer space treaty, because missile defence will require the militarisation of space in ways that will take us not only into a vast territorial unknown but into a political unknown, allowing weapons use from space? To settle some of the wagering that has been taking place on the Back Benches, will the Secretary of State confirm just how many nanoseconds it took him to say yes to the United States' request for a further annexation of facilities in the United Kingdom—the 51st state of the USA?

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend always manages to put his difficult questions with a good deal of courtesy. I can assure him that, as yet, the Government have no plans to install any facilities in Nottingham, South, but I am sure that, if he requests it in his normally persuasive way, that decision could be reconsidered.

More seriously, I do not understand the argument that the terrorist threat manifested in the appalling events of 11 September should take overwhelming priority in relation to any other threats that might happen in the world. I accept that there is an appalling terrorist threat—we have seen the tragic consequences of it in recent times in this country—but to suggest that that means that we should ignore all other threats, if that is what my hon. Friend was doing, is simply wrong.

We have a responsibility to protect the citizens of this country against all the threats that we reasonably detect and to take appropriate action. That is what we are doing. I shall report to the House regularly on developments that the United States proposes, including any that have implications for the outer space treaty. However, I do not approach the matter in the same way as my hon. Friend; I approach it in a way that I believe is in the interests and for the protection of the people of this country.