HL Deb 24 April 1980 vol 408 cc879-83

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are considering the development of chemical weapons for use by the armed forces.

The MINISTER of STATE, MINISTRY of DEFENCE (Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal)

My Lords, what we are considering is the Soviet chemical warfare threat and our ability to meet it. The United Kingdom already occupies a leading position in the field of defensive equipment designed to withstand a chemical warfare attack. We have no plans for acquiring an offensive capability, but it would be wrong for the West to ignore the massive Soviet stocks of chemical weapons and the issues these raise.


My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is not this a little precipitate and a little insensitive to international discussions which are taking place in two spheres? Is it not the case that at this moment discussions are taking place between the powers to make chemical weapons outlawed, just as biological weapons have already been outlawed? Is it not the case that the Geneva Committee, set up by the United Nations with the support of all Governments, including our own, is considering this very question?


My Lords, to use the noble Lord's word, I do not think that it is a little "precipitate". We continue to believe that with chemical weapons the proper thing to do is to outlaw them altogether. But in order to make that credible, we must have a credible system of verification. It is even more difficult in the case of chemical weapons to have a credible system of verification than it is for nuclear weapons. So we believe that we have to live in the real world where the Soviet Union has a capability which the West does not possess.


My Lords, if we decide not to proceed with the development of chemical weapons, is there any indication that the Soviet Union would follow suit? Further, can the noble Lord say whether the subject has been dealt with by the NATO countries, either collectively or individually, and with what result?


My Lords, I do not know the exact formal position relating to the second part of the noble Lord's question, but certainly negotiations are taking place. However, I think that I had better write to him, because he asked a very specific question which requires a fully accurate answer. I am not sure whether it is NATO as NATO which is carrying out the negotiations. Unquestionably, negotiations are underway. Dealing with the first part of his question, I am grateful for it because of its implications. The plain fact is that we do not have this capability, and the Soviet Union has it, and has shown no signs whatever of giving it up. If anything, if I may say so, I think that it has shown the reverse.


My Lords, in a reply by the Under-Secretary of State for the Royal Navy in another place on 7th February to an Adjournment Motion on this question, he said that this Government were signatory to the Geneva Treaty of 1925. After a dissertation on the various forms of poison gases that have been used, or could be used, in warfare—and we can remember sufferers from mustard gas—he went on, in a very fair statement, to suggest that the matter was fully under consideration at this moment. Indeed, the latest American gas—the nerve gas—was said to be much more lethal than anything that had been discussed up to then.


My Lords, I am not wholly clear what question the noble Lord is asking me. I cannot believe that my right honourable friend gave any indication that we had a capability, because that is not the case. Undoubtedly, it is true that the Americans did have some chemical weapons some years ago, but these are now very old. The plain fact is that the West has nothing comparable to the capability possessed by the Soviet Union at the present time.


My Lords, will my noble friend not agree that the original Question would have been much more appropriate if it had also inquired about our ability to improve not only our defensive equipment but the training of our troops in defensive effects against chemical warfare, to counter the ever-increasing offensive capability of the Soviet forces?


My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. The fact is that among NATO forces the British forces probably have the best defensive equipment of all our allies. But, equally, the fact remains that given a battlefield situation, if we are threatened by an enemy who has a chemical-warfare attack capability and we have to take precautions—such as shutting down all our vehicles or wearing what are affectionately known as "Noddy" suits—then we are operating at a disadvantage from there on in if the enemy does not feel so threatened and does not have to dress up and shutdown in a similar manner.


My Lords, is it not the case that reports that the Soviets used chemical warfare in Afghanistan were proven premature?


My Lords, obviously I have seen those reports, but I cannot make any comment upon them.


My Lords, is it the intention of Her Majesty's Government to proceed in isolation on this matter, or only in conjunction with our allies?


My Lords, we should certainly wish to consult our allies before we proceeded in any very positive manner on this issue.


My Lords, although I recognise the great difficulties about verification, because chemical weapons can be produced under cover so easily, is that not also true of biological weapons, which we have agreed to outlaw? When charges are made against the Soviet Union, are they not obviously sometimes exaggerated? Has the noble Lord seen the report by the correspondent in The Times—although it may be the Guardian, because I read both newspapers—that there is no evidence whatever for the charge by the United States that poison gas has been used in Afghanistan? Therefore, we must be careful about these charges.


My Lords, obviously we shall be cautious in assessing any reports which appear in the Press or elsewhere. I have already said that I cannot comment in an authoritative manner on the reports that there have been so far. But the fact is that at the present time Soviet Russia possesses this capability in considerable detail and down to quite a low level in its forces. There is no dispute about this question. It is manifestly a very unsatisfactory situation for the West to find itself in, when a potential enemy possesses a capability in which we are totally lacking. I agree with the noble Lord that, naturally, we would wish them to give it up, but we have not in any way threatened them. All we have done is to take defensive measures against a capability which the Soviet Union possesses; and it has shown no signs whatever of wishing to do the same.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that in the same article that has just been quoted it was stated fairly authoritatively that, while poison gas was not used, debilitating gas was used, and while this gas was used the people it was used against were unable to defend themselves?


My Lords, I am sure that the House will be grateful for that further information, but again I cannot comment upon it.


My Lords, will the Minister tell us what is the status of the British draft treaty to ban chemical warfare and chemical weapons? Does he recall that this having been put to the Geneva Disarmament Committee—CCD as it then was—it was then taken up by the two super powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, with a view to their coming to basic agreement and then bringing it back to the Geneva Committee? What has happened since, because the rest of that committee, representing the world, is waiting for the two super powers to do something about a perfectly workable draft treaty?


My Lords, the noble Lord will of course remember the situation which took place when the last Government were in office. In 1976 the United Kingdom tabled a draft text in the Committee on Disarmament which was intended to assist in negotiations to proscribe, not just the use in war of chemical weapons but also their very possession. We have supported the bilateral negotiations between the Soviet Union and the United States, and we shall be playing an active part in discussions in a working group on chemical warfare which is currently being formed in the Geneva Committee on Disarmament.

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