HL Deb 29 January 1974 vol 349 cc257-65

7.6 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be read a second time. As noble Lords will know, the Bill before us is a consequence of the United Kingdom's signature in 1972 of the Biological Weapons Convention. The Convention imposes certain obligations upon us; before we can ratify it, we must make the necessary legal provisions to enable us to fulfil these obligations.

In 1968, the United Kingdom tabled a Working Paper at the Eighteen Nation Disarmament Conference in Geneva, calling for the early conclusion of a new Convention to prohibit biological methods of warfare—"germ warfare". The Geneva Protocol of 1925 had already prohibited the use of biological weapons, as well as of gases, in war. Our proposal in 1968 was intended to supplement this prohibition in two ways: by banning the production and possession, as well as the use of biological agents; and by banning them in all circumstances, not only in war.

In July, 1969, the United Kingdom formally tabled in Geneva a draft Convention for the prohibition of biological methods of warfare, and negotiations on a new version of the draft began in the early part of 1971. They resulted in agreement on the text of the Biological Weapons Convention, which was opened for signature in London, Moscow and Washington in July, 1972. The United Kingdom is a Depositary Power. We and the other Depositary Powers, the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R., all signed on that day. Up to the present time 110 States have signed the Convention and 30 have ratified it. However, it will not come into force until it has been ratified by all three Depositary Powers. We, for our part, cannot ratify the Convention until provisions have been enacted in the form of this Bill and the Act has been extended to Dependent Territories.

The purpose of the Convention is to ban the production and possession for hostile purposes of biological and toxin weapons. Biological agents and toxins are defined both in the Convention and in the Bill in wide terms. Although we recognise that there are problems in such a wide definition, it is not thought possible to devise a better one for the purpose intended. Any narrower definition would risk excluding agents which the Convention and the Bill should include; and any list of prohibited substances would quickly become obsolete. For a biological agent is a micro-organism which causes death or disease by multiplying in man, animals or plants. A toxin is a poison which is produced by a biological agent, but is not capable of reproducing itself.

The Convention is directed primarily towards States. However, each State Party is also obliged, under Article IV, to take any necessary measures to prevent people from engaging in activities forbidden by the Convention, within the territories of such State, under its jurisdiction or under its control anywhere". The Biological Weapons Bill will give us the legal means to carry out this obligation.

The Convention was not intended to prohibit States from developing "passive" defensive measures against the possibility of an attack using biological agents or toxins. During the negotiations on the Convention it was recognised that even when it comes into force States may still need to hold some stock of protective masks, clothing and warning devices, as well as laboratory quantities of certain agents and toxins. On the other hand, there is no doubt that the development of biological weapons for "defensive" warfare is prohibited. Her Majesty's Government and all Government agencies will of course be bound by the terms of the Convention.

I will now turn to the Bill, which is largely self-explanatory. Clause 1 defines the new offences that are created, and it provides for a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Its wording closely follows that of the Convention. Clause 2 makes the institution of proceedings subject to the consent of the Attorney General, but with no risk that vital steps to obtain warrants or arrest suspects may be delayed by this requirement. It also removes the offence from the jurisdiction of the county courts in Northern Ireland. Clause 3 deals with offences by officers of bodies corporate. Clause 4 gives the police powers to search premises and seize suspect material. This is important, because it could be difficult to decide on the spot whether such material was likely to be covered by the Act. The clause also provides that the police may be accompanied by experts, who could give them advice about any material found. Clause 5 excludes the new offence from the jurisdiction of courts-martial. Clause 6 extends the effects of the Bill to Northern Ireland, and permits its extension by Order in Council to other territories, so that it can be applied in any territory under United Kingdom jurisdiction or control, as required by the Convention.

We remain committed, by Article IX of the Convention, to carrying on further negotiations on chemical weapons, and this we are doing. But meanwhile we believe that the present Convention is an important and useful measure which forbids the possession of so-called "germ" weapons, not only by States but by criminals and by terrorists. The weapons which this Bill seeks to ban are, I think, especially abhorred by all. It is for this reason that I commend this Bill to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a. —(Baroness Tweedsmuir of Belhelvie.)

7.13 p.m.


My Lords, a few minutes ago my noble friend Lord St. Davids confessed that he was not a lawyer. I think I should confess than I am not a scientist, and comprehension of this Bill does not come easily to me. I intend no discourtesy to the noble Baroness when I say that even her lucid explanation would not have been readily intelligible to me if I had not done a good deal of homework on the Bill. But such homework as I have been able to do leads me to the conclusion that the Bill is non-controversial and one which all of us ought to welcome. I think, too, it is of interest because it is an example of how some measure of disarmament can be achieved. The noble Baroness has told your Lordships that it arises from the negotiation of the Convention on Biological Weapons. I congratulate the Government on their part in these negotiations, but I think noble Lords will agree that praise is also due to the last Government; indeed the noble Baroness herself referred to the initiative taken by the Labour Government on August 6, 1968. It was that which really opened the way to this important Agreement.

The initiative was the suggestion that biological weaponry should be separated from chemical weaponry. I think the traditional link between the two was clearly a mistake. It is much easier to ban biological weaponry than chemical weaponry. In fact I believe that many military men wish to retain chemical weaponry until general and complete disarmament is achieved, but they have seen little use for the uncontrollable biological weaponry. If my understanding is correct, it was for that reason that the suggestion was made that the two should be separated. The Soviet Union accepted the British idea in principle in the spring of 1971, and thus opened the way for the present Convention. The Labour Government was out of office by that time, but both the Labour Government and the present Government, I think, deserve the part of the credit which is due to them for what they have achieved.

I think most of us will agree that in some respects it might have been better if the Convention could have been stronger, but any strengthening would no doubt have made it correspondingly more difficult to negotiate. I believe, for example, that the provision for withdrawal on three months' notice is a pity. Permanent renunciation would have been better. And unless I have misread it, the Convention does not specifically contain a provision banning the use of biological weapons, as was suggested in the last Government's initial plan. I recognise, however, that it can be argued that a ban on development, production and stockpiling, if effective, would seem to make use impossible.

I appreciate, too, that the first use of biological weapons, like chemical weapons, is already covered by the Geneva Protocol of 1925. Even so, it is difficult, it seems to me, to rely exclusively on the Geneva Protocol as an instrument for preventing the use of biological weaponry, because the British, in particular, have recently caused a good deal of controversy as to the exact scope of the Protocol. I am referring to the decision of the Labour Government in 1970 to redefine the British attitude to the use of CS gas in warfare. If I understand the noble Baroness correctly, the present Government have been giving careful consideration to this redefinition, and I should like the noble Viscount who is to conclude this discussion to tell us whether in his view the Bill makes this clear, at least by implication. I think from what the noble Baroness said that this is the case, but if the noble Viscount is able to answer this point I shall be grateful. I apologise for not having been able to give him advance notice.


My Lords, I wonder whether it would help the noble Lord if I answered that question at once. I think my noble friend the Minister of State at the Home Office would like particularly to reply on the body of the Bill which deals very much with Home Office matters. On the specific question of CS gas, we are giving careful consideration to it; but we have taken no decision yet on whether to follow the previous Government's ruling in 1970 that CS gas is not covered by the Geneva Protocol.


My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for having made that clear. It was a point on which I was far from clear in my own mind, and I appreciate the trouble she has taken to elucidate it. I would only add that a decision by Great Britain to reduce the use of CS gas in warfare, as distinct from domestic riot control, would greatly strengthen international confidence in the Geneva Protocol, and therefore increase the likelihood that biological weaponry will never be used, thus complementing the measure before the House to-day.

Finally, I should like to comment on the precedent which the present Bill constitutes by introducing for the first time in multilateral arms control history the domestic legal aspect. If this became general practice in many countries in all treaties of this type—I mean, of course, partial nuclear test bans and nonproliferation treaties—it might be of great value to the human race. I say that for two reasons. First, it would lessen the chances of lethal weapons falling into the hands of guerrillas, or even common criminals. So many of us have been preoccupied with the risks of war between the States that we have until recently overlooked the great danger that hijacking, urban violence, and the like, may become the great curse of mankind in the last decades of the 20th century, in the same way that international conflict was in the first half. I heard it said recently, for example, that Professor Rotblat, who originally started me thinking on the ethics of nuclear warfare, believes that it might soon be technically feasible for a group of guerrillas to hold the world up to nuclear blackmail. The principle embodied in this Bill is a step, but only a step, towards preventing that kind of development taking place.

Secondly, the idea of introducing a domestic criminal aspect into international arms control agreements may also be of value in helping to overcome the problem of on-site verification by international inspection, which has been such a stumbling block in the post-war period. Even in the harshest dictatorships courageous men might well speak out if they saw officials of their own Government conniving at the breaking of their own laws. I would hope that for many measures of arms control, where vexatious large scale on-site inspection is unacceptable as being likely to involve military or industrial espionage, the passing of domestic laws might be an adequate substitute. In the case of biological weaponry, for example, no international verification is proposed. That is clearly a weakness in the present situation, but we must be satisfied with even small advances. The introduction of domestic legislation is an important step towards getting the development of biological weaponry under control, and I therefore give the Bill a wholehearted welcome and the Government the congratulations of the Opposition.

7.23 p.m.


My Lords, I not only have to share with the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood of Rossendale, the disadvantage of not being a scientist but a further disadvantage of knowing very little about foreign affairs and conventions, and absolutely nothing at all about the workings of the Ministry of Defence. Nevertheless, the noble Lord is quite right; within the scope of this Bill is the domestic implementation into the criminal law of this country of our obligations under the Convention. He is quite right that this is perhaps only a small step forward when one thinks in terms of verification. As I understand it Article VI of the Convention deals with what States themselves shall do, and the way in which they shall draw attention to each others sins, if any, and of course Article I requires the signatory States not to sin in the first place. I hope, like everybody else, that this will be the preface to other things to come, as my noble friend has said, and will also attract the good will of Governments of States that have these capabilities, so that they will stick to the letter and indeed the spirit of the Convention.

There is no question of attributing praise here. We recognise the share that the previous Administration had in the preparation of this. Perhaps it has been developed a little in that the toxins have now been included. They may not have been present in the days of the noble Lord's Administration. What the "toxins" are I am not sure, but my noble friend defined them in a fine way. Perhaps that is a small inroad into the area of chemical warfare, at which we are no doubt aiming, and to which my noble friend referred.

For the rest of the Bill itself, it is the result in this country of the obligation laid upon us by Article IV, which makes us, like all other signatories, provide out own internal remedies for anybody who wishes, or thinks that they might like to acquire, or make, or indeed use any of these dreadful things. We think that the machinery that we have invented is as good as can be devised. It provides a very severe penalty for anyone caught. We think that we have done the best we can on the internal detection methods and powers of the police, and the assistance the police might be given. Certainly there is no doubt that if we pass the Bill we shall be able to ratify the Convention. This is a great step forward, because until each of the depository parties have ratified it it cannot come finally into effect.

I was just wondering—and this is the last point that I think I need make in answer to the noble Lord's speech—about the use of weapons of this sort. The noble Lord said that the States that are parties to this Convention undertake that they will not develop, produce, or stockpile any of them; but if he reads on he will see that they cannot acquire or retain them. I should have thought that if you could not acquire them, you would not be able to despatch them; and if you could not retain them you were fairly tied down in what you would be enabled to do. So far as this undertaking is binding in international law, this covers, in its wording, about as wide a spectrum as it is possible to imagine. I hope that at least the wording of the Convention itself is broad enough to cope with that point.

I am really concerned with implementation in the domestic law of this country. I was delighted that the noble Lord has no criticism to make of this. I shall not in the least object if he wishes to come back on detailed points at later stages of the Bill. Meanwhile, I am grateful for his welcome, and I should like to repeat our thanks for the preliminary work done by the Administration of which he was a Member. I hope that the House will give a Second Reading to this Bill this evening.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

[The Sitting was suspended at 7.28 p.m. and resumed at 8 p.m.]