HL Deb 12 December 1983 vol 446 cc8-11

3 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether, having regard to authoritative reports of the unreliability of the cruise missile, they will set up a British technical team to monitor both the assembly and testing of the weapons in the United States and their maintenance in this country, and will defer the importation of any further cruise missiles and related material until such a team has investigated and reported.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Energy (The Earl of Avon)

No, my Lords. As my noble friend Lord Trefgarne told the noble Lord on 15th November: The results of United States tests have been made known to us and we arc confident about the safety and performance of the weapon". [col. 1272.]

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Earl unaware of the fact that there has been considerable criticism in the United States on a number of grounds? Is he aware of the fact that the quality control of the manufacturing company, General Dynamics, has been subject to very heavy criticism? Is he further aware that in the rush to produce these weapons at a particular time, for political reasons, much of the work on the software, for example, has been scant and done rather hurriedly? That also has been the subject of criticism in the United States. In the circumstances, is it not a matter of simple precaution, for the safety of our own people, quite apart from the undesirable characteristics of the weapon itself, that we should have our own team to verify whether or not these criticisms in the United States are valid?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, of course there have been failures, as there would be in any test programme. But the whole purpose of these tests is to expose and iron out faults before the weapon enters service. A number of potential problem areas have been identified and rectified. The United States have made available a great deal of detailed information about the cruise missiles, sufficient to satisfy ourselves that the system is safe. The Government sincerely hope that the Soviet Union will be prepared to reach an equitable arms control agreement that will limit deployment on both sides. That can be the only valid reason for altering the deployment programme.

Lord Gladwyn

My Lords, will the noble Earl allow me to put three brief but, I think, relevant supplementary questions? First, in view of the almost unimaginably horrific consequences of such action, will the Government agree that first use of these missiles from this country will never be authorised by them? Secondly, since, as we all know, NATO policy is, in the last resort, to make first use of such weapons, will the Government reconsider their present attitude towards the acceptance of some real control over their use? Finally, always on the assumption that these missiles have not previously been knocked out by Russian bombs, are the Government satisfied with the proposed targeting policy governing possible use of the cruise missiles on a second strike?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I appreciate the noble Lord's three questions. I have heard him ask these questions in the House on previous occasions; but the issue of first use is a different subject from that raised in the Question tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney.

Lord Shinwell

My Lords, is it possible to ascertain, either directly or indirectly, what my noble friend prefers—reliability or unreliability?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for not addressing the question to me. I can assure him that my answer would be reliability.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, what representations were made by the Government to the broadcasting authorities to allow Mr. Heseltine to expound nuclear policy on all the channels of radio and television? Is the noble Earl aware that no producer would have invited Mr. Heseltine to express those opinions if the decision had been based on public interest alone? Is the noble Earl further aware that if such pressure is brought to hear on the broadcasting authorities then in the end we are no better than the Soviet Union?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I am afraid that that is wide of the Question, and I do not know the answer.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, will the Minister please explain exactly what he meant when, in replying to my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Putney, he referred to the "safe performance" of these missiles? One understood that the object of them was to wipe out millions of human beings as quickly as possible. Secondly, can the noble Earl say whether the degree of safety about which he is assured includes the moving of these vehicles from place to place throughout Great Britain as has recently been stated in what can be described as the authoritative press?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, in reply to the noble Lord's first question, I was talking about tests which have been taking place in the United States. Of the major tests, seven out of eight were good, and I think that is a high proportion as tests go. As regards stringent safety precautions taken over every aspect of design, handling, storage and movement of nuclear weapons, these make the possibility of accidental release of fissile material into the environment very remote indeed. There has never been such an accident involving nuclear weapons in this country, although they have been deployed here for more than 30 years.

Lord Bishopston

My Lords, will the noble Earl accept that the possibility of an accident, even though remote, will cause grave concern to the public after seeing the film this weekend? In view of the fact that the cruise missiles are mobile, will the noble Earl ensure that the maintenance of them is such as to guarantee the safety of the people in the areas where they may be stationed?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I think I responded to the latter part of that question in my answer to the noble Lord, Lord Molloy. As regards the dramatised version on television this weekend, that serves to underline the need to ensure that such an occurrence never happens. This means that it is even more important to maintain the deterrent effect—a view that I think is widely shared in this House—and makes the Government and the NATO case for cruise missiles more pertinent than ever.

Lord Brockway

My Lords, in view of the effect that any accident involving the cruise missiles might have on a large population around them and what is said in the experts' report to the United Nations, would it not be reassuring to have leading scientists in this country carry out an investigation which had the confidence of the people?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, my right honourable friend is, of course, advised by the Nuclear Weapons Safety Committee. May I also inform the noble Lord, in referring to the launching of cruise missiles from this country, that the warheads are armed only in the final stages of the flight.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, will the noble Earl permit me, through him, to tell my noble friend that the objection to the cruise missile is that it is essentially a destabilising weapon and that to have it unreliable as well makes it not only destabilising but could also accidentally plunge us into serious nuclear damage, if not worse? Under those circumstances, will the Minister discuss with his colleagues the possibility that they look at this whole question again, if for no other reason than the safety of themselves and their families?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I hope that the responses I have made this afternoon will have led the House to agree that this is a reliable weapon. Both NATO and ourselves considered this very carefully. It is a plan in order to bring up to date our nuclear defences, and in some measure to deter the threat. That, I believe, we all welcome.

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