HL Deb 22 July 1994 vol 557 cc471-3

Lord Mayhew asked Her Majesty's Government:

What proposals they will submit to the special conference on Biological and Toxin Weapons in Geneva in September.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Chalker of Wallasey)

My Lords, we shall be proposing that the special conference agrees a mandate for a group of experts to draft a verification protocol for the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. This should be completed in time for the 1996 BTWC Fourth Review Conference.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness. Does she agree that the advance in biotechnology has made those weapons more easily available and even more dangerous? Will she say how many countries are now believed either to possess them or to be developing them?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I cannot give the noble Lord an exact answer on that. However, what is certainly a step forward is the number of countries who now agree with the initiative for a separate biological toxin weapons convention which, as the noble Lord will remember, we took many years ago. We still do not know how many countries may have them, but we believe that they are certainly in double figures. We shall do all we can, through the measures that are being worked out, to ensure that there will be mandatory national declarations, but backed up by inspections to check the validity so that we can have confidence in those countries who may have had the weapons in the past.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I welcome the Government's efforts so far in seeking to devise an effective verification regime for the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. It is of course, extremely important to prevent the proliferation of biological weapons. Can the Minister say what lessons have been learnt from the practice compliance inspections of commercial facilities in the UK? Do the Government think that a satisfactory verification regime can be devised that will not weaken the competitiveness of the biotechnology industry?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, on the last point the answer is certainly yes. As regards the companies who have been involved in the practice inspections, there are four pharmaceutical, biotechnology and vaccine producers who have made their facilities available. The specific inspection reports were agreed in confidence, but the general inspection report will be made available at the special conference in Geneva in September. So progress is being made.

Perhaps I may also say to the noble Baroness that while some have said in the past that biological weapons verification was impossible, we would say now that we believe it to be difficult but not impossible on the basis of the work done by the VEREX expert group. As it has now come up with a combination of technical measures and has gone through them in the practice inspections, I think that we are in a much better position to proceed in the way that I know the noble Baroness would like us to.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that her answer that she believes verification to be practicable is surprising and encouraging? May I ask whether we are satisfied that Iraq has no capability in that field?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I wish I could answer yes. But no, we are not. We know that Iraq had a biological weapons programme. We also know that Russia in the past has had a programme; but we also have the 1992 acceptance by President Yeltsin that those activities should be prohibited in future. With Russia, I hope that we shall be able to demonstrate its full compliance with the BTWC; but for Iraq I am afraid that I can give no such confident reply.

Lord Richard

My Lords, perhaps I may ask whether the Government are aware that the answers on this subject are encouraging. We hope that the Government will continue down that path. However, my real reason for getting on my feet is that this is the first opportunity that I have had of welcoming the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, to his new position as Leader of the House. So far as this House and Parliament are concerned, he comes with a pedigree that is notable. I was considering the other day how many "greats" should have to go before his grandfather in order to arrive at the first Cecil who came to this building. The only conclusion that I came to was that however many "greats" would have to go before Cecil, it would be infinitely more than would have to go before "Richard". We welcome the noble Viscount to his task. He will know what it is, and it is not the easiest of tasks. In some ways, this is a restive and difficult House —particularly on the other side. We do not wish him success in his task, but we wish him well. I am sure that he will carry out his duties with all the skill that he has demonstrated at the Dispatch Box since he has been a Minister. I assure him that so far as we are concerned he will get the same reception as did his predecessor.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, I offer my personal congratulations to the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne. I wish him well in his new office. Perhaps I may remind the House that the first Cecil who came to this House came from Wales.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, from these Benches we should also like to welcome the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, to his new position. We are grateful for the way in which in the past he has always given us very detailed replies and has not been dependent on his brief, which is always a very welcome change.

The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne)

My Lords, by the leave of the House, this is perhaps one of the most undisciplined moments that I have experienced in the short time that I have been privileged to be a Member of your Lordships' House. However, since it is Friday morning, and your Lordships are disposed, I think, to break the conventions of order in this House, perhaps I may say how very touched and flattered I have been by what has been for me a totally unexpected initiative on the part of three most distinguished noble Lords.

I understand wholly the desire of the noble Lord, Lord Richard, to sit where I sit after the next general election, and that therefore he cannot, by any means, wish me success. But I certainly take in the spirit in which it was intended the remark that the noble Lord made about wishing me good fortune. I am touched by the manner in which he said it. I reciprocate all the good wishes that the noble Lord gave me —in spades.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, too, made a most charming intervention. Perhaps I may take it that the noble Lord has made me at least an honorary member of the "Taffia"! If so, I accept the nomination with the greatest of pleasure. The flattering remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, coming from such a source, are praise indeed. Nobody has been more notorious in this House so far for her failure to look at paper or to stick to her brief. There can be no greater honour than to be called upon to lead your Lordships' House. I am all too aware of my relative youth and inexperience. I hope that, as the noble Lord, Lord Richard, said, genes will help me out.

However, if your Lordships will allow me the indulgence for one second longer, I should like to make one more remark. It is this. I am aware, more than any other, that it is the duty of the Leader of this House to be the Leader of the Whole House. I can assure your Lordships that that is what I intend to be rather than merely the leader of my party in this House. I am reinforced in my confidence that I shall be able to fulfil that role by the very sure knowledge that, if I fail to do so, your Lordships will remind me of my dereliction of duty.

Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

Lord Weatherill

My Lords, in the other place it would have been out of order to have these kinds of exchanges in the middle of Question Time. But the Cross-Benches would not wish to be left out on this happy occasion. We also welcome the noble Viscount to his post. We all wish him well in his duties.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, Conservatives in this House share, I know, the sentiments that have been expressed. We wish my noble friend all good fortune and welcome him in his place.

Back to