HL Deb 25 April 1986 vol 473 cc1382-4

11.20 a.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 will now establish operational control over American nuclear weapons based in this country.

The Minister of State for Defence Support (Lord Trefgarne)

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government are satisfied with the existing understandings governing the use of US nuclear weapons based in the United Kingdom. These provide that no nuclear weapon would be fired or launched from British territory without the agreement of the British Prime Minister. Those arrangements have been reviewed and found satisfactory by successive governments of both parties.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the Minister aware that although what he says may be the case, the American Government have made clear that the Prime Minister has no veto over the firing of American nuclear missiles which are based on our soil? In those circumstances, without agreement within the parties on whether there is or is not a veto in the event of a dispute, the assurances that the Minister and the Prime Minister give to the British people are entirely worthless. Furthermore, is the Minister aware that without operational control, in a crisis political control is quite useless? Without operational control any assurance which is given on this point is shown to be entirely valueless.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, as far as nuclear weapons are concerned I am afraid that the noble Lord is mistaken. The position is as I have described it.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, if the noble Lord does not believe that, let me quote chapter and verse from what Mr. McNamara, the Defence Secretary, said. He said that there is no veto—

Noble Lords

Order! Question.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the Minister aware that it has been said by successive American Secretaries of State for Defence that as far as they are concerned there will be discussion and there will be consultation but that the final decision rests in the hands of the firing authority, which is the United States?

Lord Trefgarne

No, my Lords, the position is as I have said on a number of occasions. No nuclear weapon will ever be fired or launched from British territory without the agreement of the British Prime Minister.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for repeating that statement, which has been made on several previous occasions by him, by his colleagues in another place, and, indeed, by Ministers in a previous government of another complexion. Having said that, I ask the Minister whether he also agrees that there is an area of uncertainty that is causing a certain amount of public disquiet.

Does he further agree that the basic document describing the nature and range of operational control was the Attlee-Truman document, confirmed by the Churchill-Truman Agreement? They are over 35 years' old and there is a need now for a clear definition of operational control and what precisely it means. Will the noble Lord convey to his right honourable friend the desirability of a government Statement or White Paper which makes the situation absolutely clear beyond peradventure?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am afraid I do not share the doubts of the noble Lord. The arrangements to which I have referred are reviewed each time a new President or Prime Minister comes into office. They have consistently been found satisfactory, including, if I may so so, on the occasion that Prime Ministers from the Labour Party came into office.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that both the questions and the answers are familiar over many years and on all sides of the House? Will he say why there is objection to publishing the original document? I refer to the correspondence between President Truman and Mr. Attlee. Surely we are entitled to see the original undertakings?

A noble Lord

Why not, my Lords?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am afraid that the noble Lord is not entitled to see them. They are highly classified.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, will the Minister at least ask the American Government, in view of public disquiet, to issue a firm assurance on the lines that he has himself uttered? I think that if he does that he will get a negative answer, and that is why he will not ask for it.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, there is no need for the Government to put that question to the American Administration as the noble Lord suggests because the Americans, too, have confirmed the understanding to which I have referred.

Lord Soames

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that in view of the close association of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, with CND it is natural for him to try to add to public disquiet, such as it is?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, it is not for me to impugn the motives of the noble Lord opposite, but the answers to the questions he has put to me are the ones I have given.