HL Deb 16 January 1992 vol 534 cc350-1

3.25 p.m.

Lord Mayhew

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether it remains their view that the British nuclear deterrent should be capable of penetrating the defences of Moscow.

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

My Lords, it has been the practice of successive governments not to discuss matters of targeting.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, I do not believe that the facts are in dispute. Is the noble Earl aware that while it is still necessary to maintain Trident, it makes no sense to continue to spend large sums of money in order to be able, independently of our allies, to penetrate the defences of Moscow and flatten the city?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I really think that the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, should understand very clearly that it is not so much a question of our targeting policy as the need always to ensure that our deterrent keeps pace with developments in technology in order to maintain our credibility. The whole point is that we must set our course for the long term. Weapons systems simply cannot be produced out of a hat if in later years we do not have them but wish that we did.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, the Government have signed NATO documents under which they undertake to run down their nuclear arms in association with other NATO countries. Why are they increasing them so greatly at the present time?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, it is true that the NATO stockpile will be run down by about 80 per cent., but certainly we are keeping pace. As I have said before, we are making quite sure that our deterrent nuclear capability is always there at the right time.

Lord Mellish

My Lords, the Government quite rightly are not saying what any targets will be. Is it not a fact that ownership of the deterrent has meant that we have had peace in this country for the past 40 or so years?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that the whole point of the Labour Government re-equipping Polaris with Chevaline was in respect of what has been termed "the Moscow priority"; namely, to be able to penetrate the defences of Moscow if required without allies, and that policy has been continued by the Government? To deny that is quite unacceptable.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, who knows where the next ABM defensive system may be required? There is one around Moscow certainly, but who knows, in this very dangerous world in which we live, where we may have to penetrate that particular system?

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, while I accept that a nuclear component is necessary in an uncertain world in both the British and NATO armoury, is it not sensible for the Government to accept the principle of minimum nuclear deterrence? Does the Minister believe that the very considerable escalation of the strike power of Trident at the same time as the ABM and ground-to-air missile defences around Moscow are going down seems incompatible with the notion of minimum deterrence?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, the whole point about Trident is that it still is a minimum deterrent.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the fact that this country will not forgive a government of any political colour which allow our defence system to be undermined?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, yes, of course I agree with my noble friend. It is the defence of the realm, the defence of our country, that always keeps us in our seats and here today.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, does the Minister agree that to put down such a Question and to prolong the discussion of the possible bombardment of the capital of a country with which, at the moment at any rate, we are in friendly relations is no help to our diplomacy, whatever it may do for the self-esteem of those who wish to wave that particular wand?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, my noble friend is quite right. As I said, we never discuss our targeting policy. But it is important that we are vigilant at all times across all parts of the world.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, will the Minister concede that it might be more profitable to co-operate with France, our neighbour, instead of having a separate independent deterrent?

The Earl of Arran

No, my Lords, we have always said that we should deliver an independent system to NATO and that continues to be our policy.