HL Deb 08 February 1962 vol 237 cc237-44

4.6 p.m.


My Lords, perhaps this would be the best moment—I hardly say a convenient one—at which I could now repeat, with the permission of the House, the statement which my right honourable friend the Prime Minister will now have made in another place, on the subject of disarmament and nuclear tests. The statement is as follows:

" As the House knows, successive British Governments have, since the last war, devoted major efforts to the attempt to reach disarmament agreements. We have tried broad negotiations, such as those in London from 1954 to 1957, and again in Geneva in 1960; we have tried narrower negotiations on specific points like the negotiations which took place in Geneva from 1958 onwards about nuclear tests and those about surprise attack measures. We have attempted, as regards the narrower negotiations, to begin with technical discussions like the 1958 Conference of Experts on nuclear tests, in the hope that these would clear the ground in advance of what I might describe as political discussions. In addition to these international conferences we have also discussed disarmament frequently at private meetings as during my visit to the Soviet Union in 1959 and in my talks with Mr. Khrushchev in New York in 1960. So far, as the House knows, although there have been ups and downs and even moments of hope, we have as yet achieved nothing. Indeed, since the dramatic failure of the Summit Meeting in May, 1960, the general international climate has deteriorated to such an extent that the prospects of any agreement about disarmament between East and West have seemed more remote that ever.

"Last autumn, this situation was reflected in the massive series of Soviet atmospheric nuclear tests. After these had taken place I explained to the House on October 31 last the position of principle as regards further testing which Her Majesty's Government had felt bound to adopt. President Kennedy made a similar statement of the United States' attitude on November 1. It was against this background that President Kennedy and I met just before Christmas in Bermuda. As the communiqué issued after this meeting explained, we there considered the position both as regards the military situation and as regards the future of, disarmament. Since our meeting in Bermuda, the President and I have been in close touch about the situation and about the future of Western policy in these fields.

"In my statement I said that the West would conduct further tests only for compelling military or scientific reasons and that if possible these would be made underground. The United States has, in line with this principle, for some time been conducting a series of underground tests of nuclear devices. In this connection we are now satisfied that substantial technical and military benefits can be obtained by testing one particular British nuclear device underground. The United States Government have agreed to make available suitable facilities in the United States so that this test can be conducted there in the near future.

"At Bermuda, we also discussed the question of atmospheric tests about which the House, I think rightly, feel a more lively concern. President Kennedy explained that in accordance with his statement on November 1 he felt it militarily necessary now to make preparations for a limited series of atmospheric tests for specific purposes. In the world of ballistic missiles offensive power remains far ahead of defensive power, and we know that some most formidable practical problems stand in the way of devising a defence against missiles. Yet, while the arms race continues, we dare not fall behind in the struggle between offensive and defensive capabilities with their increasingly complex systems of counter-measures and counter-counter-measures. We must bear in mind the claims, true or false, made by Russian military leaders at the time of their nuclear test series last autumn that they have solved the problem of destroying ballistic missiles in flight. As I said in my statement of October 31, I conceive that 'we have a duty to maintain the balance of power in the world and to ensure that the security of the free man is not overthrown because an aggressor suddenly becomes possessed by an overwhelming advantage'.

"I felt myself bound to accept, therefore, the military and scientific arguments in favour of preparations for a resumption of tests, and when President Kennedy asked for the use of facilities at Christmas Island for them, Her Majesty's Government thought it right to agree. Accordingly, an agreement is being discussed in Washington at the moment under which Her Majesty's Government will allow the United States the use of facilities at Christmas Island for a limited period and for a specific programme of tests with which we shall of course be associated. On this point the following announcement is being issued immediately in London and in Washington. I will quote it textually:— 'It is the joint view of the United States and the United Kingdom Governments that the existing state of nuclear development, in which the recent massive Soviet tests are an important factor, would justify the West in making such further series of nuclear tests as may be necessary for purely military reasons. 'The United States and United Kingdom Governments have therefore decided that preparations should be made in various places, and as part of these the United Kingdom Government are making available to the United States Government the facilities at Christmas Island'. That is the end of the text. My right honourable friend went on:

"While our two Governments have reluctantly accepted the need to prepare for further nuclear tests, both President Kennedy and I were deeply distressed at this necessity and at the future position in the world if a halt cannot be called to the nuclear arms race. When I was in Bermuda, I made this point strongly to the President, who was very receptive, and accordingly on my return after consulting my colleagues I made a definite proposal to President Kennedy that the Western Powers should make another determined effort to reach some agreement with the Soviet Union on the question of disarmament. We have already agreed to join in the work of the Committee of Eighteen which meets in Geneva on March 14 and I believe that this will offer an opportunitly for renewed serious discussions. I am glad to say that President Kennedy very much welcomed the idea of trying to give special impetus and effectiveness to this Conference. Accordingly the two Governments have to-day communicated with the Soviet Government, and have invited them to send their Foreign Minister to a tripartite meeting to assemble before the Geneva meeting and to begin this meeting also at the level of Foreign Ministers. I have addressed a personal letter to Mr. Khrushchev appealing to him to agree to this proposal and President Kennedy has done the same. It is our hope that a preliminary meeting of Foreign Ministers may reach broad agreement on the type of work which could be studied in the Committee of Eighteen and that the presence of Foreign Ministers at the start of the meetings of the Committee will give an impetus to its work. In order to record this agreement, the following announcement is being issued at this moment in Washington and London: 'The two Governments are, however, deeply concerned for the future of mankind if a halt cannot be called to the nuclear arms race. The two Governments are, therefore, determined to make a new effort to move away from this sterile contest. They believe that a supreme effort should be made at the Eighteen Nation Disarmament Committee which will begin meetings on the 14th March at Geneva, and that the Heads of Government of the United Kingdom, United States and Union of Soviet Socialist Republics shoud take a direct personal interest in these negotiations. The President and Prime Minister have, therefore, addressed a joint communication to Chairman Khrushchev, proposing that this meeting be initiated at the Foreign Minister level and that their Foreign Ministers should meet before the conference starts and also be prepared to return as personal participants in the negotiations at appropriate stages as progress is made.' "That is the announcement.

"I earnestly trust, as I am sure does the whole House, that this new initiative will be fruitful."

4.17 p.m.


My Lords, I am much obliged to the noble and learned Viscount, for the trouble he has taken to put to your Lordships' House this statement that the Prime Minister has made. There have probably been few statements of this nature, in the last two or three years of trouble in this matter, which were much more important than this one. It is a matter of great concern to the people of the country at large, as well as to every Member of both Houses of Parliament.

I see that the statement divides itself, mainly, into two parts. One part sets out the reasons for, and the actual announcement of, the decision to agree with the United States of America with regard to preparations for the resumption of these tests in the atmosphere. At this stage I think we have all to be very careful to choose our words about that particular decision. I think that it is essential first to look at the second part of the statement, and I believe that every Member of the House, whatever his views may be on this great and throbbing issue of the use of nuclear power, will welcome this statement in an attempt to achieve success by a new initiative in the realm of disarmament.

I welcome the decision to try to agree with Moscow that, when the Committee of Eighteen meets, the discussions should be preceded by a meeting of Foreign Ministers; and that, certainly at the opening parts of the discussions of the Committee of Eighteen the Foreign Ministers, should remain in charge of the operations of their particular delegations. I am quite sure that we shall all wish that that may become the practice agreed to by Moscow, as well as by the Allies, and that the discussions will be completely successful.

That leads me to ask whether any final decision, about putting into operation what is included in the first part of the statement, in relation to the tests at Christmas Island, will be delayed until the result of the new initiative at the Committee of Eighteen has been reached and made known to Parliament. That is the first question that I want to ask. Then, in view of the nature of the first part of the statement, may I put this further question to the noble Viscount? Can we clearly understand the whole nature of the association between the United States and ourselves in the decision which has been arrived at as set out in the first part of the statement? I am certainly not going to criticise that to-day. I do not think this is the time or place to criticise it; and anybody who has had responsibility for the defence of the country knows how carefully one has to examine the detailed arguments, which are included in the first part of the decision, before coming to a conclusion on the decision which has been taken. But may I ask: Will the final decision actually to put those tests into operation be taken only after detailed consultation with this country's Government, and will the decision, in its final form, be a joint decision of the Powers concerned?


My Lords, before the noble Viscount answers and I am not going to ask him any more questions—may I say that I think the whole House would agree with the noble Viscount the Leader of the Opposition in saying that no good would be served at this juncture in going over old ground again. What we hope is that the sad experience of the past will not lead to a discouragement about the future, but may lead to a hope that this new meeting at Foreign Minister level will be really successful. If I may, I should like to offer our own Foreign Secretary the best wishes of everybody, I am sure of every Party.


My Lords, I should like first of all to thank both the noble Viscount and the noble Lord, Lord Rea, for the good will with which they have received the announcements of the initiative which my right honourable friends and the American Government are taking. I, for my part, I need hardly say, wish for its success with my whole heart.

My Lords, no final decision has yet been taken about the resumption of tests, and there will, of course, continue to be continuous and close consultation between our two Governments, both on the scientific and on the political aspects. I do not know that I could go further than that in answer to the specific questions which the noble Viscount has put to me to-day. Obviously, I suppose that if we could agree that further tests can be postponed we should all heave a sigh of relief; but I feel that I should rather like to think more deeply about the actual form in which the noble Viscount has put his questions. I must make it quite clear to the House that we have, in fact, reached agreement in principle about the moral justification of further tests, and neither Government would stand in the way of the other if, in the end, they felt that further tests were militarily necessary.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Viscount the Leader of the House, as Minister for Science, how he regards the increase in radioactive material in the atmosphere which will inevitably result in consequence of these tests?


My Lords, I have already dealt on two separate occasions, I think, with the results of the Russian tests, and I do not think that the results of these will be anything like so serious.


My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Viscount could tell us: Why is it that new territory has to be sterilised, as presumably it will be as a result of these tests, and why cannot the same areas as have been used in the past, the atolls that the Americans have used previously, be used again?


My Lords, to answer that would take me a little wide, but I think there are various reasons why it would be worse to use the atolls than the territory of Christmas Island, which the United States have put before us. I should be prepared to give more detailed reasons for that, but I should like to consider rather carefully before I chose my words.


The noble Viscount must realise that to a great many of us this is a very vital question.


Yes, my Lords. On the other hand, I am sure the noble Lord will agree, as a matter of principle, that we must choose the better of the two sites, the one which is likely to do the least damage and to be the least open to objection, whichever that happens to be. Of course, it is open to argument which that is; but, if I were pressed about that, I should like to consider what I said. However, I think that, as a matter of principle, there would be no difference between the noble Lord and myself.


I take it that the noble Viscount would be prepared to answer a Question on the Order Paper.


I should like to see it before I undertook to answer it.