HL Deb 12 March 1986 vol 472 cc627-30

3.3 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 the recent report of the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment on the environmental consequences of nuclear war, they will take urgent steps to reduce this country's dependence on nuclear weapons.

Minister of State for Defence Support (Lord Trefgarne)

My Lords, no one doubts the awful consequences of a nuclear exchange, not least for the environment. But unilateral reduction in nuclear weapons of the kind envisaged by the noble Lord would make those consequences more likely, not less so, and therefore form no part of our policy.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that I am not advocating a unilaterial reduction in our armaments at the moment, although that might be a good thing to do at some other time? At the moment is it not the case that the Prime Minister has just rejected an offer from the Soviet Union to follow the example which they themselves have unilaterally given already, which is to discontinue testing nuclear weapons? In these circumstances ought not the Government to take into account, for example, the report of the British Medical Association which has just been issued and says: The nuclear weapon strategy of the United Kingdom must take explicitly into account the likelihood that even a limited nuclear war, particularly in Europe, could trigger a nuclear winter."? In these circumstances should we not have had a different answer from the Prime Minister to Mr. Gorbachev's proposals?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the reply which my right honourable friend gave to Mr. Gorbachev had of course to take into account the proposition that we cannot be persuaded to accept proposals which would detract from, rather than contribute to, our security. As for the position of the British Medical Association—I think the noble Lord referred to them—responsibility for defence policy rests with Her Majesty's Government.

Lord Mellish

My Lords, will the Minister express a view on whether in the event of Britain not having any nuclear weapons at all—being absolutely and completely without nuclear weapons—there is any guarantee that we would not be bombed by somebody else with nuclear weapons?

Lord Tregfarne

My Lords, if we were to abandon the independent nuclear deterrent which this Government and all their predecessors since the late 1940s have sustained, I think we would be exposing ourselves to the gravest risks.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that owing to the vast superiority and quantity of Russian nuclear weapons compared with ours and those of our European allies, and also owing to the vast superiority of Russian conventional forces in Europe, it would be suicidal for us and our European allies, if I may quote the words of the noble Lord's Question, to reduce this country's dependence on nuclear weapons"?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, my noble friend has underlined the answers I gave earlier, but I would of course add that the United Kingdom is a member of the North Atlantic Alliance and we have the benefit of that membership with the United States.

Lord Melchett

My Lords, does the noble Lord remember that last year before the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment had produced their report the Government said that they were waiting for that SCOPE Report before deciding whether the nuclear winter hypothesis was a good one or not? Now they have had a chance to study the SCOPE Report do they accept its conclusions that in the event of even a limited nuclear war a nuclear winter is likely to occur?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am aware that there are a number of views along the lines that the noble Lord offers. The SCOPE Report was in fact published in two volumes. I understand that Volume 2 was published at the end of last year and, for some curious reason, we await Volume 1.

Lord Brockway

My Lords, is the Minister aware how appalled many of us are by the Prime Minister's statement that nuclear weapons would continue to make an essential contribution to peace—to peace!—and security for the foreseeable future? Nuclear weapons make a contribution to peace? It is like saying that disease should be maintained in the interests of health. Does the Minister appreciate that we shall have an opportunity to develop this point in speeches tonight?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I dare say that that will happen, but the Government's position remains that nuclear weapons do indeed make an important contribution to peace now and, I dare say, in the future, as they have for the past 30-odd years.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that, despite the extreme views expressed on both sides, the Government think that we have far too many nuclear weapons on both sides, and that a serious effort will be made to reduce them, and that that would be in the interests of peace?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, yes, I agree that it would be desirable to create a balance at a lower level of nuclear weapons on both sides, but I do not think that we can approach that position by unbalanced or unverifiable changes as some advocate.

Lord Melchett

My Lords, I was grateful to the noble Lord for reminding me that the working papers of the SCOPE Report in Volume 1 have not yet been published, although I believe they are available in the scientific literature. What I asked the noble Lord was whether the Government accept the conclusions of the SCOPE Report, which last year they said they were awaiting before they came to a view on the nuclear winter hypothesis.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am afraid that we have not yet had a chance to come to a view on the SCOPE Report, but we look forward to seeing it in due course.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, can it be arranged through the usual channels that in years to come we abstain from nuclear questions during Lent? It would be wonderfully heartening to those who are endeavouring to control other forms of self-indulgence, and according to canon law the noble Lord could blow off steam on Sundays.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, without referring any further to the noble Earl's suggestions, many of which I might find admirable in one sense if not in another, perhaps it would be reasonable to say, as the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, said, that there will be opportunities to pursue this subject in the debate later. Therefore the House might feel that now is the time to proceed on beyond Questions.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, with one qualification—

Noble Lords


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