HL Deb 16 December 1982 vol 437 cc714-7

3.18 p.m.

Lord Beloff

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 what progress has been made during the last nine years in the talks in Vienna on the Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the area of reductions has been agreed; that all participants with forces stationed there will share in the reductions; and that the first reductions should be made by United States and Soviet forces, with reductions in the latter being greater. It has also been agreed that the end result should be for each side's combined ground and air forces in the area to be limited to around 900,000, up to 700,000 of whom could be ground forces.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, may I ask the Minister what, then, are the obstacles to these reductions actually taking place?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, there are two obstacles. First, there is not yet base data agreement, by which I mean that the Eastern side dispute the West's figures for the Eastern forces. Secondly, as I have told the House many times before, there is no agreement on effective verification measures.

Lord Brockway

My Lords, while welcoming the report, may I ask the noble Lord whether he is aware that many of us are opposed to SS20s just as much as to nuclear arms in this country? But in view of the fact that the Soviet Union has now proposed to reduce the number of SS20s by 50 per cent., has proposed to withdraw its missiles largely from Central Europe and has proposed no first use of nuclear weapons, is there not now an opportunity for fruitful negotiations with the Soviet Union at Vienna?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the noble Lord and the House will well know that the MBFR talks have nothing whatever to do with nuclear weapons. However, there is no doubt, in my mind at least, that one of the objects of the Soviet Government and their allies is to confuse the strategy of the opposite bloc, and neither have I any doubt that by this offer they think they have done so.

Lord Gladwyn

My Lords, is it not a possibility that in these protracted negotiations in Vienna undue emphasis has perhaps been put on the achievement of exact parity? For instance, does it matter if the Russians have a considerable advantage as regards tanks provided we have enough anti-tank weapons with which to knock those tanks out? Is not the only thing that really matters the achievement of some kind of conventional defence in the West which is able, on the face of it, to resist any attack by conventional means from the other side?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the allies are constantly reviewing the size, shape and concept of their operations and equipment, including anti-tank weapons and their forces, and have not been inhibited in so doing by the existence of these negotiations. That does not in any way detract from the need to seek to preserve security at lower and equal force levels. That is the approach which the alliance is supporting in all the current negotiations, including these talks, to which Her Majesty's Government remain fully committed.

Lord Thomas of Swynnerton

My Lords, would my noble friend agree that the very existence of these talks, alongside the IMF and START talks, is a sure sign of the desire of the West to reach agreement on these matters against a most agile and dangerous opponent, who seems very often to be able to persuade people who should know quite well that we are very interested in reaching agreements ourselves?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend for that supplementary question. He is, of course, absolutely correct.

Lord Bishopston

My Lords, accepting that the Minister is right in saying that the two biggest problems in the MBFR talks are the data problem (that of the agreed assessment of mutual forces) and verification, may I ask him what further steps the Government have in mind to resolve those two matters, which have been at the base of our disagreement for about nine years? Further, would he consider recommending a freeze on force levels on both sides as well as giving support for a nuclear test ban treaty?

Lord Skelmersdale

As I have said already, my Lords, a nuclear test ban treaty is rather wide of the Question. On the substantive point raised by the noble Lord, after long negotiations such as these it is often forgotten why they originated in the first place. The Eastern bloc never wanted them, for the simple reason that, as is well known, they have superiority of forces in the area and have never wanted to negotiate that away. These talks were proposed by the West as long ago as 1968 but did not start until 1973. That was simply as a quid pro quo for getting the Helsinki Conference off the ground, which the Eastern nations wanted very desperately. As for the other part of the noble Lord's supplementary, at all these international meetings we lose no opportunity to kick against what I am afraid is a rather swollen door.

Lord Shinwell

My Lords, if there is any failure at all, may it not be due to our representation at these conferences? Would it not be more advisable to send over there to talk to the Russians people who are against British expenditure on defence, which may have some impact on the Russian mentality? Would that not be a good idea? In any event, may we have some information about the costs entailed over the nine years of this farce?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I do not think talking about avoiding war should be considered in terms of cost; it is vital to all our lives. While the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, has much more experience of Government that I have, I do not recommend the strategy: when in doubt, change the team.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, would the Government consider the following proposal for breaking the deadlock on data; forget all about our present differences on how many men each side has, pull an equal number out of the hat—which undoubtedly will be below the number on the lower side—agree to go down to that number, institute inspection and then, if the inspection reveals cheating, tear the whole thing up?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I think that is precisely what the Eastern bloc require, so a strategy on those lines would be falling directly into their hands, and I do not recommend it.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, would the noble Lord not agree that a proposal emanating from the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, would hardly likely be intended to aid the Russians? Would he not further agree that the length at which these discussions take place and the total ineffectiveness of the multilateral discussions which have been going on for so many years, in both the conventional and nuclear areas, strengthen all the time the beliefs of those of us who believe in unilateral action?

Lord Skelmersdale

On the principle that that was a question, my Lords, this is the answer. One of nature's most effective beasts of prey is the spider, yet it spends 90 per cent. of its life sitting absolutely still. In this, as in so many other cases, I believe in following the example of the true professional.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, may I ask the Minister to explain why on-site verification is still considered to be of such fundamental importance, bearing in mind that the numbers of troops and quantity and types of weapons can be accurately assessed by satellite observations?

Lord Skelmersdale

Alas! my Lords, I am informed that that is not the case.

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