HL Deb 17 May 1984 vol 451 cc1509-11

3.20 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 they have studied the Oxford assessment by sixty British scientists of the American/Soviet scientists' unanimous findings forecasting human extinction in the northern hemisphere in the event of the firing of one-third of the present nuclear arsenals of the USA and the USSR; and what action the Government are taking in the light of the endorsement of those findings by the British assessment.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces (Lord Trefgarne)

Yes, my Lords. We will study closely the results of further work now being carried out into this area.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

I am most grateful to the noble Lord for that Answer. May I recommend that as part of the study he might suggest to his right honourable friend that a senior official in the Department of Defence should attend a conference being arranged by the Sheffied City Council in Sheffield Town Hall on 6th June so that the official can bring back a report to the Government on the findings of this conference, and the Government may be further informed on the matter?

Lord Trefgarne

I am not sure about that, my Lords. The meeting at Oxford to which the noble Lord referred in his Question, was organised, I understand, by a group pressing for our unilateral abolition of nuclear weapons; and while I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the participants, I do not believe that its findings could be truly described as objective. As for the Sheffield meeting to which the noble Lord refers, we shall have to see what the outcome of that will be.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, does the Minister agree that these slightly varied but basically repetitive questions on the nuclear deterrent by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, not only take up an excessive amount of time of this House, but are questions of an alarmist nature attempting to distort the defence situation, and that they may actually be causing unnecessary anxiety to the members of the general public?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I do my best to allay any unnecessary anxiety that might emerge from questions put to me.

Lord Boston of Faversham

My Lords, whatever may be the view of the objectivity or otherwise of those who have made assessments of these studies, would the Minister accept that one view arising out of the studies seems to be that even a limited nuclear exchange in the Northern hemisphere would have quite devastating climatic effects in the Southern hemisphere as well, and does that not at the very least mean that the need for international agreement on control and balanced reduction of forces is all the more urgent?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, yes, of course, I wholly agree that even the most limited war—nuclear or otherwise—would be wholly disastrous. All our policy therefore is aimed to securing that that does not happen. All the same, I think it is wise to try to get these things into perspective. The eruption at Krakatoa, for example, in the 1880's was in many ways analgous to a massive nuclear explosion, albeit on a localised scale, but it only had a limited effect on the atmosphere. The area around was plunged into darkness for two and a half days, I understand, and the mean temperature on earth was reduced by only about 0.27 degrees centigrade for the next few years.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

Is the noble Lord aware that his own attitude to these matters has shown greater realism in recent weeks, and will he therefore not put his head back into the sand as is being encouraged by his noble friend? Will he address himself, or ask his right honourable friend to address himself, directly to the Washington conference and make his own assessment of this matter, if he distrusts the findings of the British conference in Oxford?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, if I may say so, there is more than one view about the conclusions of the Washington conference. I wonder whether the noble Lord has seen the article in the March edition of Nature magazine by John Maddox.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, in view of the fact that these frightful weapons are supposed to serve not as weapons of war but as a frightening deterrent, and in view of the fact disclosed in the noble Lord's Question that almost the totality of Communist countries are in the Northern hemisphere, does it not now appear that these weapons are a rather better deterrent that we thought they were?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, it is certainly the case that, if a nuclear war were tragically to break out, then those who started it would suffer as much as those who were on the receiving end.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the noble Minister aware of this aspect. While acknowledging the closeness of and the leadership of the Americans as our allies, it does not follow that we should bend the knee to everything they say with regard to this appalling situation in which we find ourselves. Perhaps as a true leader of civilised humanity this country and this Government could give a lead based on the assessments of British scientists. Will the Government make a big endeavour to take full cognizance of the views of British experts and not always subordinate them to Americans?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, yes, indeed, we take cognizance of the views of all those who might have something to contribute in the discussion of these matters. That was why I referred just now to the article in Nature.

Lord Gladwyn

My Lords, if the Government come to the view on reflection that the conclusions of the scientists are justified, or even partly justified, is not the conclusion obvious that no Government can take the initiative in using these weapons even in the event of war?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, that goes to underline what I said just now, that we certainly agree that the outcome of any such war would be horrific. That is why it is our policy to see that no such war ever starts.

Lord Brockway

My Lords, in view of the admitted fact that a nuclear war would mean the loss of millions of people and vast populations, would the Government not make a positive initiative to try to remove this danger? For example, would it not test the sincerity of the Soviet proposal that the whole of Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals should be free of nuclear weapons? Can the Government not respond to that and other proposals which are being made for an ending of this danger?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, all the suggestions that are aimed at this Government and at the NATO Alliance for measures of unilateral disarmament seem to forget, if I may say so, that the Russians have made it clear that they will never follow any such course.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, will the Government agree at least to enter into discussions on the matter? Putting on one side the question of unilateral, multilateral or whatever it may be, let the Government at least begin to talk.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the Western Alliance is most certainly ready to continue discussions on this matter. What a pity it is that the Russians left the table in Geneva!

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