HL Deb 18 November 1986 vol 482 cc145-50

3.52 p.m.

The Lord President of the Council (Viscount Whitelaw)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on the Prime Minister's recent visit to the United States, which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a Statement on my visit to the United States on 14th and 15th November for talks with President Reagan at Camp David. I also had separate meetings with Vice-President Bush, Secretary of State Shultz and the Defence Secretary, Mr. Weinberger.

"The main purpose of my visit was to discuss with the President issues of defence and of arms control, in the light of his meeting in Reykjavik with Mr. Gorbachev. We agreed upon a statement of our views. A copy has been placed in the Library of the House.

"President Reagan and I agreed that priority should be given in the arms control negotiations to an INF agreement with restraints on shorter-range systems, to a 50 per cent. reduction in strategic offensive weapons and to a ban on chemical weapons, all to be subject to effective verification. We also reaffirmed the need for effective nuclear deterrence as a cornerstone of NATO's strategy. The President explained that the United States would proceed with its own strategic modernisation programme, including Trident. He confirmed the United States full support for the arrangements made to modernise Britain's independent nuclear deterrent with Trident.

"We also discussed the situation in the Middle East. I thanked the President for what the United States had done on Syria. We agreed on the need for fresh impetus to efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Arab/Israel conflict.

"On Iran, we share the aim of bringing Iran back into better relations with the West and of bringing about an end to the Iran/Iraq war, without taking sides. The President reaffirmed that the United States does not pay ransom for hostages. That is our policy too.

"We discussed the situation in southern Africa, following the tragic death of President Machel. Both our governments remain ready to contribute to stability and an end to violence in the area.

"I explained to the President the reasons for our recent decision to establish an interim fisheries management and conservation zone round the Falklands. I told him that our preference remained a multilateral solution, provided that the Argentine Government was prepared to co-operate.

"Mr. Speaker, this was a very useful visit. The agreed statement confirmed the Government's policies, which I set out in my speech in the Debate on the Address, for achieving balanced reductions in nuclear and chemical weapons while maintaining and modernising Britain's independent nuclear deterrent. That is a policy which is good for the NATO Alliance and good for Britain."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Viscount for repeating the Statement. It raises a number of vital issues, especially as international negotiations on nuclear disarmament are at a crucial point. I shall ask some brief questions on the salient issues.

First, to what extent is the agreement to purchase Trident an absolute and binding contract? Will it be carried out even if the United States and Russia agree to abolish all long-range ballistic missiles? Can the noble Viscount say how this is to be accommodated by President Reagan's proposal to eliminate all ballistic missiles within 10 years? Was this discussed and, if so, with what result, because this certainly was not clear in the communiqué?

Can the noble Viscount say how Trident fits into our NATO commitments? Does it in any way come under the NATO umbrella? Did the Prime Minister discuss this latest development with NATO? She says in the Statement that it is "good for the NATO Alliance". Finally on this point, can the noble Viscount say whether there is any change in the cost of Trident as a result of the confirmation of the agreement?

Secondly, in view of the uncertainty about the strategic defence initiative, especially in the United States itself, why did the Prime Minister commit herself so firmly to it? What range of research do Her Majesty's Government regard as being within the terms of the ABM treaty, and does it go beyond laboratory research? The Prime Minister has used the words "up to feasibility". Can the noble Viscount say precisely what that means?

We note with interest the Prime Minister's account of her discussion with the President about Iran and Iraq and the agreement not to take sides. We note she said that the President said that the United States—and I use the words in the Statement— does not pay ransom for hostages". But as it is now conceded by the President that the United States sold arms to Iran, although Mr. Shultz knew nothing about it, did not the Prime Minister make her disagreement with this policy plain to him as being totally against our policy on international terrorism? There is an extremely important point here and I hope the noble Viscount will be able to deal with it clearly.

In conclusion, is it true to say on the question of the Falklands, to which the Statement refers, that the President indicated his support for early British talks with the Argentine Government on the Falklands in regard to fisheries and other general problems?

4 p.m.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, we, too, thank the noble Viscount the leader of the House for repeating the Statement. The section on disarmament in the Statement contains no mention of conventional weapons reductions although the agreed statement between the Prime Minister and the President, of which there is a copy in the Library, does contain such a mention.

The Soviet Union has proposed conventional reductions to go along with nuclear reductions no less than three times this year, and indeed it is perfectly clear that to undertake nuclear disarmament without conventional disarmament would be extremely unsafe for Europe. So my question is: why was this crucial point omitted from the Statement to the House when apparently it was agreed with the President and is good news indeed?

Secondly, further to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, on SDI, in using the word "feasibility" the Prime Minister is reported to have said that she agreed that SDI equipment could be tested "to feasibility", or "up to feasibility", or "short of feasibility", or some other such words. What does that mean? It suggests at first hearing that the Government may be weakening on the stand they have always taken so far; namely, that the ABM treaty should be strengthened. If the ABM treaty is to be read in such a way as to permit testing of an SDI system to feasibility, that is a notable weakening. What has happened to strengthening? Can the Leader of the House please set our minds at rest?

On arms to Iran, nobody wants to prolong this shameful episode longer than we need, but we cannot but note that the President affirmed that the United States does not pay ransom for hostages. So what, in the Government's opinion, were those arms shipments for, if not ransom for hostages? Why were they concealed by the President from his own Secretary of State, his own Secretary of Defense and his own Congress? Is it true that they were sent in a Danish ship out of the Italian port of Talamone: that is, by a NATO ship out of a NATO port in the European NATO area?

On the southern Africa part of the communiqué, I think no comment or question is possible. That shows the complete division between the United States, which is now committed to meaningful sanctions, and Britain which refuses to be so committed.

Lastly, on Argentina, although we had a bit of a go at this just now at Question Time, can the noble Viscount confirm that the President saw President Alfonsin of Argentina almost as soon as the door had closed on our Prime Minister? Can he show that the Government are, at least, aware of the danger that we may lose a great deal by swimming against the tide of world opinion, simply by refusing to distinguish between an outright hand-over to Argentina of sovereignty over the Falklands, which of course we must continue to refuse, and on the other hand a discussion of forms of shared or pooled sovereignty, with or without the United Nations, against which there cannot forever be a final objection?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, and the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, for their reception of the Statement. The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, first asked me several questions about Trident. I think I should first say that the agreement on Trident is set out perfectly plainly in the Statement. Of course, our position so far as Trident is concerned remains that it is part of the NATO strategy; it has been put before our nuclear allies earlier and it is perfectly clearly part of our particular strategy. It is accepted by the United States Government as such, as well as by our NATO allies. That remains the position.

I know of no change in the cost of Trident. All I do know is that Trident is regarded by those who are expert in these matters—and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Lewin, made this perfectly clear in the debate in this House last week—as by far the cheapest method of prolonging Britain's nuclear deterrent. The noble and gallant Lord made that clear with all his authority as Chief of the Defence Staff at the time.

So far as the question of research on SDI is concerned, the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, and the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, asked me to put a gloss on my right honourable friend's Statement of what she means by "up to feasibility". Do they really expect me to come to your Lordships' House and try to put a gloss on my right honourable friend's Statement? If my right honourable friend says "up to feasibility", it is up to feasibility so far as I am concerned, and I do not know what else I am expected to say. So I shall not say anything at all, which seems to be the obvious answer to that question.

As regards the Iran hostages, the President made it perfectly clear that he stood absolutely firmly by the policy against hostages, so far as terrorism is concerned, and firmly by our policy that we do not treat for hostages with terrorists. He made that perfectly clear. The Prime Minister accepted the President's statement, as he had made it to the American public, and regards that as a matter for him and for the American Administration and not for this country.

Both noble Lords asked me about the Falklands. First, our position on the fisheries was made perfectly clear and it was made clear again by my noble friend the Minister of State at Question Time this afternoon. Yes, of course—to answer the noble Lord, Lord Kennet—the Prime Minister has noted the discussions between President Alfonsin and the United States President. Our position remains as it has been hitherto. Of course we wish to improve our relations with Argentina. We have made our position as to how we should do so perfectly clear, and we stand by that.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, I believe that there is something to be asked regarding that section of the Statement which includes discussions on southern Africa. According to the Statement, the Prime Minister and the President discussed how to contribute to stability in southern Africa. In view of the fact that the American Congress has taken a fundamentally different view from this Government over the way of bringing stability to southern Africa in relation to sanctions, can the noble Viscount tell the House what was the subject of those discussions, how the President and the Prime Minister reconciled their opposing views and what they intend to do in joint action to bring greater stability to southern Africa, as is suggested in the Statement?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, in answer to the noble Lord, I do not think that my right honourable friend and the President had any need to reconcile their differing views, because, after all, they shared a very clear position of agreement. First, both governments totally abhor apartheid. Both governments wish to see further progress made by the South African Government and will take steps to that end. Both governments are taking steps to that end. We certainly are taking steps, together with our European allies, and these have been set out very plainly. The Americans have made perfectly clear their position and what steps they are taking, and that remains the position.

Lord Thorneycroft

My Lords, will my noble friend convey to the Prime Minister our congratulations from this side of the House on so successful a mission on such important matters, and in particular on obtaining assurances which make clear that the keeping of a credible, effective nuclear deterrent lies plain before us?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Thorneycroft for what he has said. Once more, he has helped me, as he has helped me so often in my political career, and I am most grateful to him for the very important facts that he has expressed.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Viscount will forgive me for intervening very briefly again and asking him whether he can give us a definition of what "up to feasibility" means? How far beyond laboratory research would Her Majesty's Government be prepared to support the United States? That really is the point, and it is fairly central to any hope of an agreement on the limitation of nuclear weapons. Can he say whether Her Majesty's Government would support practical research beyond the laboratory? Is that what "up to feasibility" means?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, the noble Lord may continue to press me as hard as he likes, but I am not going to depart from the terms of the Statement. It would be quite wrong of me to do so. I should have thought that "up to feasibility" was a perfectly clear statement and I stand by it.

Lord Gladwyn

My Lords, I should like, if I may, to put one or two short questions to the noble Viscount. We welcome the fact that agreement was reached that priority should be given in the arms control negotiations to an INF agreement on the terms suggested. But do the Government think it at all probable that Mr. Gorbachev, for his part, will agree to such a solution in the absence of any modification of the present United States policy on research and deployment of star wars? Secondly, if effective nuclear deterrence is "a cornerstone of NATO" would not any zero/zero solution in regard to ballistic missiles, which was apparently contemplated in Reykjavik, if put to effect cause this cornerstone of NATO to disappear?

Lastly, does the President's full support for the British Trident programme necessarily bind his successor, and does it even bind the present Congress? Are we certain that would be the case!

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, in answer to the last point of the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, clearly the Statement binds the President. Whether anyone in politics—in this country, in America or anywhere else—can bind their successors over a period of time, is a question which Lord Gladwyn knows a good deal more about than I do. I should have thought that all that could have been expected was achieved. I agree with my noble friend Lord Thorneycroft that a great deal was achieved in getting the President's clear agreement with the position as it stands today. I should have thought that was very important indeed to this country. I do not think that anyone can slide away from that important factor.

As for the question of what Mr. Gorbachev's view might be in various circumstances, with the best will in the world I do not think it is for me to speculate on what view Mr. Gorbachev might have under particular circumstances.