HL Deb 09 December 1985 vol 469 cc19-27

3.42 p.m.

The Minister of State for Defence Support (Lord Trefgarne)

My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I should like to repeat a Statement being made in the other place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence on British participation in the United States strategic defence initiative research programme. The Statement is as follows:

"The Government's policy towards the strategic defence initiative remains firmly based on the four points agreed between the Prime Minister and President Reagan at Camp David in December 1984: namely, that the Western aim is not to achieve superiority, but to maintain balance taking into account Soviet developments; that SDI related deployment would, in view of treaty obligations, have to be a matter for negotiation; that the aim is to enhance, and not to undermine, deterrence; and that East-West negotiation should aim to achieve security with reduced levels of offensive systems on both sides.

"It was in this context that, at Camp David, the Prime Minister told President Reagan of her firm conviction that the SDI research programme should go ahead as a prudent hedge against Soviet activities in the same field.

"Earlier this year, the United States invited her NATO Allies (and certain other nations) to participate in the SDI research programme.

"Following this invitation, we have engaged in detailed discussions with the United States government on the nature and scope of the research which could sensibly be undertaken by United Kingdom firms and institutions.

"These complex discussions have now been completed and agreement has been reached on an information exchange programme, on the areas where British companies and institutions have expertise which might form part of the US-funded SDI research programme, and on the mechanisms to facilitate this co-operation.

"The confidential memorandum of understanding reached between the two governments safeguards British interest in relation to the ownership of intellectual property rights and technology transfer, and provides for consultative and review mechanisms in support of the aims of the MOU.

"Mr. Speaker, the SDI research programme goes to the heart of future defence technologies. Participation will enhance our ability to sustain an effective British research capability in areas of high technology relevant to both defence and civil programmes.

"Now that agreement has been reached on the MOU, British companies, universities and research institutions have the opportunity to compete on a clearly defined basis for the research contracts which are on offer from the United States government, as well as to participate in an information exchange programme on a fully reciprocal basis for the mutual benefit of the United Kingdom and the United States.

"To act as a focal point for British participation and to liase with the US SDI participation office, I am establishing immediately within the Ministry of Defence an SDI participation office with representation from other interested departments. This office will work in the closest concert with British firms and institutions interested in such participation.

"Mr. Speaker, this agreement opens for Britain research possibilities which we could not afford on our own, in technologies that will be at the centre of tomorrow's world. It will bring jobs that would otherwise be created abroad, and I commend it to the House."

My Lords, that is the Statement.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement which has been made by his colleague in another place. However, is the Minister aware that this participation agreement locks Britain into the strategic defence initiative more firmly than ever? In our view this agreement will be seen in retrospect as a crucial part of the escalation of the nuclear weapons arms race. The question must be asked: what is there in this agreement for Britain? The very strong impression comes out of the Statement that, so far as equity is concerned, it will very much be a one-way traffic and it will not be coming in our direction.

I should like to put to the Minister a number of specific questions. Can the Minister explain why the memorandum of understanding has been signed at this particular time? For example, is the timing linked to the fact that the Geneva arms negotiations are scheduled to resume in January? What impact does the Minister think the agreement will have on those negotiations? Do the Government not agree that there is a danger of the agreement inhibiting progress, since it gives the impression of the NATO alliance hardening against the Soviet Union in its willingness to be flexible at the negotiating table?

Is it not the case not only that the Government have signalled to the world that they support the potentially catastrophic star wars programme, but that they have failed to secure any financial commitment on the part of the United States government for their pains? Is it not the case that the Secretary of State for Defence had hoped to ensure contracts to the tune of £ I billion, but came away with almost nothing? Is it not the case that federal law in the United States forbids giving contracts to anyone but the highest bidder? What assurances can the Government give that we will not see a repeat of the Trident fiasco, where United Kingdom companies have been awarded only £25 million of the workload of the £4.2 billion US-built component of the total £9.3 billion Trident programme?

Can the Government allay fears that the agreement will further encourage a brain drain to the United States? Perhaps the noble Lord can comment on the remarks of General Abrahamson, director of the SDI programme, who has said: allies could be invited to send selected and appropriately cleared personnel who can make real contributions to join specified US research teams in a scientific exchange programme". What agreement was reached with respect to intellectual property rights and what potential will there be for commercial application of the research findings? I know that the Statement states that: The confidential memorandum of understanding reached between the two governments safeguards British interest in relation to the ownership of intellectual property". I wonder whether the Minister can spell out a little more what is meant by that.

What influence will Britain have on the direction of SDI and do the Government believe that they will be able to draw a firm enough line between research and deployment? The Minister will be aware that in this House and in another place we have more than once raised the difficulty, once a research programme gets under way, of knowing precisely when research stops and when the actual implementation of the research takes place. What, in fact, will be the Government's response to the European defence initiative, which would apply European technical expertise to the development of European defences?

Finally, what is the Government's response to comments such as those of Dr. James Fletcher of the Defensive Technologies Study Team who said, there is no such thing as a nuclear umbrella", and Dr. Richard Gavin of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who said of SDI that "it cannot work"?

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, is the noble Lord the Minister aware that we on these Benches will wait eagerly for his reply to a number of the pertinent questions put to him by the noble Lord, Lord Graham? Can he explain why, if this is the right course to take, not one of our European NATO allies supports it? Can he explain why this should be? How is it that so often, whether it is the Falklands or SDI, the British Government seem determined to break ranks with the majority of their natural friends and allies? As this agreement covers research into antimissile defence in Europe, and in particular the defence of cruise and Pershing, has it been plainly understood that the full cost of this will be borne by the United States?

Does the noble Lord recall that in discussions on Trident he has often defended the project by saying that the huge expenditure of £4 billion in the United States on Trident would be open to participation by British firms? Is he aware that so far £25 million worth of orders have been won, which is less than one-half of 1 per cent. of the £4 billion expenditure in the United States? Can he explain this failure in the case of Trident? What measures have been taken in this agreement to ensure that similar failure does not await those British firms which try to participate in SDI?

There are a whole number of questions on this huge subject and some of them have been asked by the noble Lord, Lord Graham. We wait anxiously for the Minister's reply.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I shall endeavour to reply to the points put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Graham, and to cover at the same time those put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, although as both noble Lords will recognise some of their points overlapped.

The noble Lord, Lord Graham, started by saying that this agreement locks us into the SDI programme in a way that he thought was undesirable. But the United Kingdom position on the SDI programme, which is not changed one jot by this agreement, was reflected in the four points which my right honourable friend the Prime Minister enunciated following her talks with President Reagan late last year. Those four points are set out at the beginning of the Statement. I shall not repeat them now, but they remain at the heart of our position on this matter.

The noble Lord, Lord Graham, asked me what is in it, if I may paraphrase what he said, for the United Kingdom. The agreement provides for the United Kingdom an opportunity to participate in this major research programme on a scale that I do not think could possibly have been envisaged had we not entertained the agreement as we have. As the noble Lord will be aware, the agreement specifically refers to a number of areas of technology in which the United Kingdom is pre-eminent at the present time and where clearly we may have an important contribution to make. Of course nothing in this agreement, nor for that matter in the Trident arrangements to which the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, referred, enables United Kingdom organisations, whether they be companies or institutions, to secure contracts in this area without having to submit themselves to the competitive process. Nonetheless, having regard to the preeminence of United Kingdom companies in this area I should be very surprised indeed if United Kingdom companies do not succeed; and, indeed, it would be very disappointing if that were to happen.

The noble Lord, Lord Graham, asked about the relationship to Geneva and about the forthcoming resumed discussions there on arms control. This agreement has no specific relationship to that. There was no question of our timing this signature to have anything to do with what may be happening in Geneva. What the United States is doing with the SDI programme and in connection with the research in which we are now to join them is of course to try to get on level pegging with the Soviet Union in this matter, because as is widely known that country has already embarked on a major research programme in this area.

The noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, asked about the brain drain which might emerge from this programme. On the contrary, I believe that if we had not entered into the agreement we would indeed have set the scene for a major brain drain, as the noble Lord calls it, because the programme in the United States would have continued in any event. I am certain that large numbers of our senior scientific and skilled scientific personnel would have been tempted to go to the United States to take part in the programme. As it is, a large number of projects can now start in the United Kingdom—and I hope they will—and so British scientists will have an opportunity to continue their work here in this country.

The noble Lord, Lord Graham, asked me to speak about the difference between research, development and deployment. I agree that there is something of a grey area—certainly in between research and development—but wherever that grey area is, we have not reached it yet. The noble Lord said that this concept cannot work. He was quoting some eminent scientists who have expressed that view. We do not yet know whether or not this concept will work. That is why we are embarking upon the research programme, and that is why we cannot yet say, therefore, when we are going to approach decisions on the point to which the noble Lord referred. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has also made it clear that to proceed away from the research phase into the later phases would clearly need a renegotiation of the AMB treaty.

I think I have covered all the points, or certainly most of them, that the noble Lord has raised, and those raised by the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew.

Lord Home of the Hirsel

My Lords, my noble friend saved me from having to ask one of the questions that I was going to ask when he said that the Russians are pursuing exactly the same lines of research as the United States is pursuing now. Has not the offer been made by President Reagan to share the acquired American knowledge with the Soviet Union should they wish to do so, and to examine the case whether SDI might not be of mutual advantage, therefore, to both? Could not this sharing of knowledge be injected into the Geneva conference should the Russians agree?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, it is true that President Reagan has spoken as my noble friend has said, but I think he suffixed his remarks by the observation that the price would have to be first calculated.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the Prime Minister's famous four points, inadequate though they were even then, were enunciated a year ago at the time of Star Wars I, which was then sold by President Reagan quite erroneously—but he may have been ignorant rather than malign—with the proposition that this was to be a non-nuclear umbrella against the nuclear threat? Now we are into Star Wars II, which has no relation to Star Wars I, and therefore the famous four points do not accurately bear upon the situation as it is a year later.

Is the noble Lord aware that the position at the moment is already out of hand and that, if we gear ourselves to this situation, we shall wind ourselves up into a position from which we shall have the utmost difficulty in extracting ourselves? What is sold here as a defensive method intended to bring us up to a level basis with the Soviet Union is no more than a cranking up of the whole operation of the nuclear arms race. If the Government do not secede from it they will discover that they will find themselves bound to the American position in much the same way as they have found themselves bound, as my noble friend has said, with regard to their previous association with Trident.

In all the circumstances, is it not the case that the Government should consider very carefully what they are on about or they may find themselves tied to something to which they do not want to be tied, something that will bring precious little benefit and possibly a great deal of harm to the people of this country?

4 p.m.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord pours such cold water on the four points to which I referred earlier. I believe those points precisely meet the objections that he has raised. I will quote from just two of them. First, this is a research programme, and no more. Then, from the fourth point: And that East/West negotiation should aim to achieve security with reduced levels of offensive systems on both sides". I thought that was what the noble Lord wanted.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, is the noble Lord the Minister aware that many people who have been involved in the discussion about ballistic missile defence since the beginning of the strategic defence initiative will congratulate the Government upon this imaginative agreement with the United States of America? Would the Minister not agree that the points which have been put about the escalation of the nuclear arms race are wildly without substance? The entire strategic defence initiative is concerned with non-nuclear defence against nuclear weapons. Is the Minister not as surprised as I am that it is characterised in some quarters as an escalation of the nuclear arms race?

Is the Minister further aware that when Dr. Fletcher is quoted as saying that there is no such thing as a nuclear umbrella, Dr. Fletcher was referring to the total misrepresentation by the opponents of SDI, who characterised it as a complete umbrella when it was never intended to be any such thing but merely an increase in the deterrent posture of the West?

Finally, will the Minister accept the congratulations of at least one small constituency in this country on the Government's acceptance that we are in a new and totally revolutionary strategic concept raised by the strategic defence initiative? It is an area in which the Soviet Union is already well advanced, and more advanced than the United States in some respects. Will the Minister accept the congratulations of some of us that we have at last given a lead to our European allies in the matter of defence?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that support. As I have said more than once this afternoon, this is a research programme and it is of course the case that there are a number of questions properly raised by eminent scientists that have yet to be answered. But the history of scientific research in these demanding areas, particularly in some of the major programmes carried out by the United States in the past (for example, the man on the moon programme), is one of success and not of failure. The United Kingdom is therefore well advised to involve itself in the programme. It is also the case that the intentions of President Reagan have been misrepresented widely by those who would wish him ill.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, I should like to press the noble Lord a little further on the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Home of the Hirsel, who, when he asked about the negotiability of the programme, received what I thought was a very terse reply from his noble friend the Minister. Is it the Minister's view that the programme is not negotiable and cannot be put on the agenda for the Geneva talks? If the United States took the initiative, would not that ensure that the programme was on the agenda? Why does the Minister say that it is not a negotiable point on the agenda for the Geneva talks?

Secondly, is the Minister quite clear that there is adequate evidence that the Russians are in advance of the United States in this programme? He has said that they are on two occasions this afternoon. It will be of interest to the House to know whether the Government are in possession of clear evidence that such is the case. Finally, on the Statement itself, I note that it says: The United States invited her NATO allies (and certain other nations) to participate in the SDI research programme". Is it not the case that no NATO ally of ours has decided to participate? Who are the "certain other nations"? Have any of them decided to participate?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, if I may answer first the noble Lord's final question, the other countries over and above those in NATO who were invited to participate were, I believe, Japan and Israel. I am not aware of what response they have made. As far as other European NATO allies are concerned, I dare say that they, too, will be responding in due course, although it happens that we are the first to do so on this occasion.

On the question of the negotiability of the star wars programme, I believe that the noble Lord was talking about something slightly different from the point made by my noble friend Lord Home. With regard to negotiability at Geneva, the United States have made it quite clear that if they were to negotiate away this programme then they would be abandoning their preparations in an area where the Soviet Union is clearly already involved. A number of examples have been mentioned in the past; one of them is the Krasnoyarsk radar, with which I dare say the noble Lord will be familiar.

Turning again to the point raised by my noble friend Lord Home, I believe he was referring to the observations made by President Reagan about the possibility of sharing that technology with the Soviet Union, which is quite separate from negotiating the system as part of the arms control process. President Reagan made an observation about that matter recently, when he said that that would certainly be possible, but clearly it would involve Soviet financial participation as well.

Lord Gladwyn

My Lords, the Minister has twice quoted the passage in the Statement which states that: The Government's policy towards the strategic defence initiative remains firmly based on the four points agreed … at Camp David". The second point in that Statement was: That SDI-related deployment would, in view of treaty obligations, have to be a matter for negotiation". Are we to assume that, in the opinion of the United States Administration, this means that it would have to be a matter for agreement? Or are we to assume, as I think is more likely, that if the Americans eventually embark upon negotiations they will reserve their right to go ahead with deployment whatever the Soviet Government may say?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I do not think that is the case at all. The United States has made it quite clear that it regards itself bound by the provisions of the ABM treaty. The United Kingdom is not a signatory to that treaty, but naturally we, too, will be guided by its provisions.

Lord Ardwick

My Lords, the noble Lord the Minister mentioned jobs in the original Statement, but is that not a very minor aspect of the contracts, since they involve research and perhaps not even development yet? The kind of labour involved will be of a very highly skilled nature, which is not a characteristic of mass unemployment today.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, clearly I cannot be specific as to the number of jobs that will be secured following British participation in these programmes. That will depend on a number of factors, not least—and perhaps most of all—the success that British enterprises achieve in the competitive process that will lead to the awarding of the contracts.

Lord Ironside

My Lords, will it be possible for my noble friend to place a copy of the agreement in the Library?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, this is a confidential agreement between Governments, so I cannot do so.

Lord Diamond

My Lords, the Minister has referred to the possibility of participation by British manufacturers, and obviously that in turn depends upon the competitive prices which British manufacturers can put in. Can the Minister tell the House why he is so sure that they will be competitive by virtue of our pre-eminence (which I believe is the word he used) in this field? Does the noble Lord recollect that there was an occasion recently when we sought to obtain a contract for a system relating to aircraft from the United States—indeed, his right honourable friend the Prime Minister took an interest in that matter—and where apparently the contract was lost by an enormous margin due to the fact that the tender was entered not directly by a British firm but by the American firm with whom the British firm was in alliance or in concert? Has that matter been examined, and can the Minister tell the House whether the Government propose to draw any conclusions from that particular misfortune?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I think the noble Lord is referring to the contract for the Ptarmigan system—the British system which was tendered in response to a recent United States requirement. In fact, the British component of that contract was comparatively small, so the total offer which was eventually made to the United States Government consisted not only of the United Kingdom contribution but of an important American contribution as well. Therefore, we were not wholly in control of the price that was tendered for the whole package. Nonetheless, it was disappointing that we did not achieve success on that occasion. There will, of course, be a very different arrangement under the agreement referred to in the Statement because the contracts will be made direct with British institutions by the United States.