HL Deb 17 July 1981 vol 422 cc1489-91

11.17 a.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

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 aware that over 60 local authorities have declared their areas to be "nuclear-free zones" and whether they will respect the decision of the elected representatives of the people of these areas.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I understand that resolutions along these lines have been passed by about 70 local authorities. As the elected Government we are responsible for national security, and we will continue to take any steps which we consider necessary to maintain this, including all those activities related to the deployment of nuclear-capable forces as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's deterrent strategy.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that it is the official policy of the Labour Party that local authorities should reject the pretence of civil defence against nuclear war, and should oppose nuclear weapons being deployed in their areas? Will he encourage his Government to think again about their policy on this matter having regard to the considerable doubts that there are among many people about his Government's nuclear weapons policy, not excluding leading military figures?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I am delighted to be informed of the present socialist policy on nuclear weapons. Of course, ever since the last war successive Governments of both parties have employed nuclear arms, including an independent deterrent. It is Her Majesty's Government's intention to continue this policy, and I should be very sorry, should the party opposite ever return to office, if they go back on what they did during their last term.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, would the Government not agree that even more important than having 60 British local authority areas declared nuclear-free zones would be if we could have 150 or so independent nation states, members of the United Nations, declared nuclear-free zones?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, that is indeed a very nice idea, a very nice scenario; and, of course, through the United Nations we are working continuously on disarmament.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, would the noble Earl agree—if he does, would he not also agree that it is important to make clear—that in the event of a nuclear attack upon this country those carrying it out would be most unlikely to respect the wishes of the elected representatives in these rather bizarre nuclear-free zones?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I am quite certain that what the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, says is correct. Perhaps one may also draw to the attention of the House that it is only 70 local authorities out of a vast number in the country which have so far passed this resolution.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, in the presence of the Leader of the House and the Leader of the Opposition, is my noble friend aware that it is disturbing to many who have seen the Questions Order Paper in another place deteriorate to the point of being a farce, that in your Lordships' House the same trend is allowing us to get into that situation? Questions which, with one exception, are based purely upon party political ploys are not in accordance with the dignity of this House and many of us hope that that will not continue.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, so far as the first part of my noble friend's question is concerned, it is not up to me to comment on what takes place in another place. So far as his second point is concerned, I hope that the House will keep to free speech so long as it can.

Lord Peart

My Lords, may I endorse what the noble Earl has just now said? I believe that my colleagues have every right to put down Questions on matters which are of great concern to all of us.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, on the question of free speech, can the noble Earl say how many local authorities in the Soviet Union have passed resolutions similar in nature to that referred to in the Question?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I do not think that it will matter very much how many have.

Lord Chelwood

My Lords, will my noble friend bear in mind that our electoral system is such that these elected representatives of the people are most unlikely to obtain the votes of more than 15 per cent. or 20 per cent. of the electorate and cannot therefore be said to be speaking for most people in the local authority areas? Can my noble friend say off-hand how many nuclear-free zones have been declared in the Soviet Union?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, off-hand I could not; but I have taken the gist of my noble friend's remarks.

Lord Brockway

My Lords, arising from an earlier reply of the Minister, when he said that only 70 local authorities had adopted this attitude, is he aware that the last local elections returned local authorities, including the Greater London Council, which have taken this view and probably represent a majority of the people of this country?

The Earl of Avon

; My Lords, the main point here is that very few of the local authorities have the relevant information to make the decisions that they are making, which must be in central Government's hands.

Lord Morris

My Lords, would my noble friend agree that any declaration, however well intentioned and however pious, is no substitute for a sound defence policy?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, if I may bring the House a little nearer to agreement on this point, would the noble Earl agree that this is a subject of immense seriousness which ought to be examined in detail by this House from time to time?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I agree that this is a serious subject. I should like to reiterate once more that it is for the Government and Parliament to decide on the measures necessary for defence of the country, and it is quite impracticable for local authorities to be involved in the decision where elements of our forces should go.