HL Deb 21 April 1986 vol 473 cc950-3

2.39 p.m.

Lord Molloy

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 what steps they are taking to establish, in conjunction with the USA, USSR and other nuclear powers, an acceptable system of verification to permit reduction and ultimate abandonment of nuclear weapons.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Young)

None, my Lords, but I would remind the House that, as far as the question of a comprehensive test ban is concerned, the United Kingdom tabled a paper on seismic monitoring for a comprehensive test ban at the conference on disarmament in July 1985. This followed two earlier UK papers. We are disappointed that these have not yet received the attention they deserve.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, I am pleased that the noble Baroness says that nothing has been embarked upon, because I now believe that the Government have a wonderful opportunity to do what the Question requests. Does she agree that what has bedevilled all forms of disarmament, particularly in the field of nuclear weapons, has been a lack of worthwhile verification which can make a reality of the agreements? Does she further agree that perhaps in view of the previous failures it would be a great thing for the British Government, with their experience, to initiate something that could be not only for the benefit of this country but for all mankind?

Baroness Young

My Lords, as the noble Lord no doubt will be aware, the Government are not a party to the United States-Soviet Union nuclear and space talks at Geneva, but the United States rigorously consults its alliance partners about these talks. As far as a comprehensive test ban is concerned, he will be aware of the Government's views on adequate verification being essential.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, the noble Baroness referred to a paper tabled by the Government. I wonder whether she will say a word about that. If it has not received the attention that it deserves, is she aware that the House believes that that should be deplored? Can she say whether substantial advances have been made in the techniques of verification and particularly in the field of seismology? Is it in that direction that the Government's paper is intended to make an impression?

Baroness Young

My Lords, as the noble Lord will be well aware, this is a highly technical matter, but the United Kingdom presented to the conference on disarmament in July 1985 a paper setting out some views about verification. We hope that these were regarded as being constructive in a difficult area. What we have not been able to accept are the reports of a Norwegian seismic array experiment that appeared in a Financial Times article in November 1985. We hope that this experiment will help to provide a solution to some of the outstanding technical problems, but we do not have a great deal of data on them.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, may I ask the noble Baroness whether verification is the only obstacle from the point of view of the Government or whether another reason for refusing to resume negotiations is their belief that this country needs to continue testing?

Baroness Young

My Lords, the noble Lord has asked me that question on a number of occasions in different forms, and I have made it plain to him that we demand verification as a major concern at this time.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, in the light of the reference in the original Question to the ultimate abandonment of nuclear weapons, will the Government bear in mind the implications, and indeed dangers, of abandoning nuclear weapons in isolation from other measures of arms control and disarmament?

Baroness Young

Yes, my Lords; that is an important question. The early elimination of nuclear weapons would be possible only if they could be disinvented. For a considerable time nuclear deterrence will continue to play a major role in the defence of the West and what we aim at is not just the elimination of nuclear weapons but progress towards overall disarmament.

Lord Mellish

My Lords, is the noble Baroness saying in effect that the paper that the Government issued last July has been rejected by Russia and by other countries? Is that not a demonstration that the paper was a genuine effort by this country to show our sincere desire on verification to reduce, and indeed to abolish, nuclear weapons?

Baroness Young

Yes, my Lords. I thank the noble Lord for his question. It is indeed an attempt by the United Kingdom Government to advance the complex and technical question of verification, and it is a matter for regret that little progress has been made on it.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is it possible for the noble Baroness to make copies of the report available in the Library? Will she say why, if the Norwegians published relevant information about seismological detection in November 1985, the Government have not yet sought clarification of any doubtful points from the Norwegian authorities?

Baroness Young

My Lords, so far as the Norwegian experiment is concerned, as I indicated in answer to an earlier question, we hope that it will provide a solution to some of the outstanding technical problems; but claims for efficiency of high frequency seismic stations, we believe, have been exaggerated. We do not have much data on them, nor on their reliable discriminate applicable to high frequency signals. As to the noble Lord's other point, I shall consider it.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the noble Baroness saying that it is the policy of Her Majesty's Government in no way to seek abandonment of thermonuclear weapons, no matter who has them? Further, does she not agree that simply because some of the major powers have great control over their nuclear weapons, we may have no say whatsoever over those of the smaller powers, and that is the real danger and threat from nuclear weapons?

Does she agree that what has been understandably difficult, in whether the Americans and the British can trust the Russians, and vice versa, has been finding some form of verification? If that is still the problem, would it not be a good thing for all the great nations, as indicated in my original Question, to get together to see whether they can find a form of verification that would make agreements binding on everyone before nuclear weapons spread to much smaller powers, over whom we should have no control whatsoever?

Baroness Young

My Lords, the noble Lord has asked a number of supplementary questions somewhat similar in nature. If I may disentangle the two points of this argument, the first answer is that which I gave him on the whole question of the disarmament talks at Geneva. They are between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom is not directly a party, although we are consulted regularly by the United States Government on the proposals that they are making. The second concerns the question of a comprehensive test ban. There I have indicated in my original Answer the proposals that we have made.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there is one fallacy on the other side of the argument; namely, that it is not a question of some form of verification: it has to be foolproof verification?

Baroness Young

My Lords, my noble friend is quite right. It is important that no one should be able to cheat.

Lord Leatherland

My Lords, may I ask the noble Baroness this? If it is understood that both sides possess these nuclear weapons, is that not likely to turn out to be a guarantee of peace?

Baroness Young

My Lords, there is no doubt at all that the possession of nuclear weapons has been one of the guarantors of the peace that we have had ever since the ending of the Second World War.