HL Deb 29 March 1990 vol 517 cc963-4

Lord Boyd-Carpenter asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have any information on the expansion or contraction of the Russian Government's preparations for chemical warfare.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (The Earl of Arran)

My Lords, we are not aware of any recent significant changes in the Soviet Union's chemical warfare capability.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Can he confirm that Russia's capability in such deadly and terrible weapons is enormous and that it is difficult to believe in any serious move towards detente until a substantial reduction is made?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, my noble friend is correct in being cautious, because the Soviet Union has the world's largest and most sophisticated chemical weapon capability. We continue to have doubts about Soviet claims about their chemical weapon capability but we hope that bilateral Soviet/US contacts will resolve the concerns.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, the Government estimate that stocks of chemical weapons in Russia amount to 300, 000 tonnes. The Americans have recently announced that they are satisfied that the total is between 30, 000 and 100, 000 tonnes; the Russians have announced that the total is 50, 000 tonnes. Can the Minister give the Government's latest estimate of the total stock of chemical weapons in Russia? It is no good talking in general terms; the Government must have an estimate. Can they also give an undertaking that after the chemical weapons convention this country will cease to produce binary chemical weapons even though others may not cease to do so?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, no chemical weapons have been produced in this country since the late 1950s. Our current estimate of the stock of chemical weapons in Russia is about 50, 000 tonnes. However, the Americans say that they are not optimistic about that and believe that the Russians could hold far more stocks.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is almost impossible to judge the amount of chemical weapons or to monitor the amount? Can he reassure the House that as regards disarmament, Mr. Gorbachev has been extremely positive in words and deeds for a considerable period of time?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, the noble Lord is correct in saying that it is extremely difficult to produce a true and authentic figure about the amount of chemical weapons stocks in the world. However, I assure him that good progress has been made in the recent bilateral discussions on chemical weapons. The memorandum of understanding which was agreed in September last year at Wyoming provided for a two-year experiment in data exchange and verification. The first exchange of information took place in December last year. However, in February the two nations agreed in principle to the destruction of chemical weapon stocks, reducing them to 20 per cent. of current US levels. Her Majesty's Government fully endorse and support those initiatives.

Lord Elton

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether his original Answer and that concerning the Wyoming agreement relate also to biological weapons, or is that another Question?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, if I knew the exact answer I could say whether it related to this Question. However, I am not certain of the answer and therefore it could be another Question. In the circumstances I shall write to my noble friend.

Lord Monson

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the general public worries far too much about nuclear warfare and far too little about chemical warfare, which is a more likely possibility and could be almost as devastating in its consequences?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, the noble Lord's assumption is correct. Chemical warfare has a far-reaching and lethal potential.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, the Minister said that there could be a follow-up of verification for the gradual abandonment of chemical weapons. Will that verification include on-the-spot physical examination and therefore reduce the possibility of cheating to nil?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, the point made by the noble Lord is being discussed under the confidence and security building measures which are taking place.

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