HL Deb 08 March 1993 vol 543 cc817-20

2.50 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, as they have accepted the requirement under Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to negotiate away all nuclear weapons at an early date, they will re-equip both Rosyth and Devonport Royal Dockyards for longer-term purposes.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Viscount Cranborne)

My Lords, for as long as our security depends on the possession of nuclear weapons, the Government are committed to maintaining a minimum nuclear deterrent, properly and responsibly supported. That is entirely consistent with our commitment under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as I believe I advised the noble Lord in your Lordships' House on 28th January last.

On the future of the Royal dockyards, I have nothing to add to the reply that I gave to my noble friend Lord Brougham and Vaux on 10th February: that it is not yet possible to make an announcement on where the refitting of our nuclear-powered submarines will be concentrated.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount for that Answer. But how does he reconcile the Government's obligation under the non-proliferation treaty to negotiate away all nuclear weapons at an early date with his statement that the Government propose to keep them for apparently as long as they think fit? Which of those two statements do the Government stand by; or do they stand by both? If so, which has priority? Which statement are they serious about and which do they regard as of no consequence?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, if it were at all possible to read the appropriate clause in the treaty in the way the noble Lord suggests, then the conclusion that he draws from his premise would be perfectly sustainable. The difficulty is that Article VI, to which he refers, is clear in another way. It talks about effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date. I suggest that that is rather different from what the noble Lord suggests. There is a difference between the nuclear disarmament referred to in the treaty's preamble and general and complete disarmament.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, although my noble friend may be slightly surprised, is he aware that I agree at least in part with the Question on the Order Paper from the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney? I agree that we should re-equip Rosyth for longer-term purposes. Is he further aware that the longer-term purpose ought to be the defence of the realm, brought about by re-equipping Rosyth to service the nuclear Trident fleet?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am not in the least surprised at my noble friend's continued and eloquent advocacy of the claims of Rosyth in that respect. Equally, he will not be surprised if I feel unable to be drawn as to what decision my right honourable friend and other colleagues will make in this important matter.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that it is hard to argue that refitting nuclear submarines is a form of proliferation? However, increasing the number of warheads, developing a new surface-to-air missile system and, above all, obstructing a comprehensive test ban treaty are all obstacles to non-proliferation. They are isolating us not only from our allies but from the world community.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I sometimes feel that the noble Lord and I are going down the same lane together at regular intervals. He knows as well as I do that on frequent occasions I have endeavoured to give him an adequate answer to his questions. He poses them again today. I am sorry that I am unable to add in any way to the answers that I have given him previously. I should make it plain that the study continues on the future of a sub-strategic replacement for our present replacement. He knows as well as I do that we are wholly in conformity with the non-proliferation treaty in pursuing our present policy.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it would be a good idea if Questions in your Lordships' House were based upon an accurate representation of the facts? As one who was largely instrumental in drafting Article VI of the nonproliferation treaty, I ask him whether he is aware that it makes no reference whatsoever to negotiating away all nuclear weapons at an early date. It commits Her Majesty's Government and all other signatories to the treaty in good faith to pursue negotiations to control the nuclear arms race. Would not the debate tie much better informed if it were based upon facts and not upon fantasy?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. He is entirely correct in what he states. The reference is very clear, as I tried to explain to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, a moment ago. The words are, on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date". The noble Lord makes the point far more eloquently and clearly than I have been able to do.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, the Minister stated that he could not possibly give an answer on what Rosyth would be asked to do. However, can he state that Rosyth will not be forsaken?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I would hate to feel that Rosyth would be forsaken. One thing is perfectly clear. We are aware of all the great issues that are at stake in terms of skills and employment both at Rosyth and at Devonport. However, your Lordships, and the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, in particular, will be aware of the importance of resources with regard to the defence budget. Resources devoted to too great a support would merely detract from the amount of money that we were able to apply to the sharp end, which is the purpose of the defence budget in the first place.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in Scotland we very much hope that when making the decision he and his right honourable friends will keep their hearts in the Highlands, or at least north of the Forth at Rosyth?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, my noble friend is well known for her laudable addiction to matters Scottish and the support of the Scottish nation. But I fear that even her charm will not prevail upon me to go further than I have done already in your Lordships' House today.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, is there still not a long-term problem for Rosyth and Devonport, even if the Trident submarine refitting programme is awarded in whatever way the Government think fit? As I understand it, there are many people in both areas with major skills. Is it not easier to refit surface vessels at Devonport than at Rosyth? If the submarine refitting contract does not go to Rosyth the future for the dockyard is grim. Would it not be sensible for the Government to have contingency plans in the long term, if and when the objective of my noble friend is reached and we can start to negotiate away nuclear arms? Is it not a good idea for the Government to have long-term plans on how to develop the areas of Rosyth and Devonport to make use of the skills available?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I believe that my right honourable friends in the Ministry of Defence and I are as aware as anyone of what is at stake and of the great concentration of skills at both Devonport and Rosyth. We are also aware that they will be able to compete for surface ship refitting, no matter which way the decision goes. Already efforts are being made, in particular at Rosyth, to diversify out of shipbuilding in certain areas. However, even at the insistence of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, I do not wish to be drawn further down that path than I have been already. I hope that he will forgive me for kicking his question slightly into touch.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that it is impossible to put the whole article into a Question? I prefer the selection made by the noble Viscount to that of the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont. The noble Viscount and I appear to agree on what the article is about. It is about getting rid of nuclear weapons. It seems to me that the Government are reasonably serious about disposing of chemical weapons. Why do they not bring that same seriousness to bear upon nuclear weapons?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am afraid that I have to say to the noble Lord that he and I disagree fundamentally about what is crucial for the future defence of this country. So long as there is the kind of threat which existed and still exists to this country, whether from nuclear proliferation or targeting from the former Soviet Union, it would be most unwise of us not to continue to depend for our ultimate deterrent on the minimum number of missiles that we have predicated.