HL Deb 08 June 1994 vol 555 cc1225-6

2.55 p.m.

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

What measures are being taken by the Department of Trade and Industry to prepare for the coming into force of the Chemical Weapons Convention and to ensure that the United Kingdom does not suffer any trade or other disbenefits from failing to become a party from the moment the treaty enters into force.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the Department of Trade and Industry has a section dedicated to preparing for the implementation in the United Kingdom of the Chemical Weapons Convention. It is in close contact with industry representatives and other government departments about the detailed arrangements necessary for the entering into force of the convention in the United Kingdom.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for that reply. Does he appreciate that in order to be sure that the United Kingdom has original party status the Government must ratify before 13th January, 1995? If they do not want to be seen as dragging their feet, they should do so before 18th July 1994. Can the noble Viscount impress upon his right honourable friend the President of the Board of Trade the need for urgency in this matter? Will he say also when we can expect to see primary legislation?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the Government are fully committed to ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention which cannot come into force until 180 days after receipt of the 65th ratification, as the noble Countess noted. Indeed, it cannot come into force before January 1995 at the earliest. To date, seven states have ratified. For the UK to ratify the convention, primary legislation will be required, and that will be introduced as soon as parliamentary time permits.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that in this area this country has an admirable record over many years? It would be a great pity if the excellent work of the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence was now spoilt by the dilatory action of the DTI. The noble Viscount mentioned legislation. I am sure my noble friends will agree that we warmly welcome that legislation; I am sure that that is true also of the official Opposition. What delay therefore can there be? Can we not get on with it?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I fully agree with the noble Lord regarding the good works of the United Kingdom in this area. We played a major role in the negotiations leading up to the Chemical Weapons Convention and we are committed to ratifying it as soon as possible, which means as soon as parliamentary time permits.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, will the noble Viscount bear in mind that although the convention is extremely welcome, it may not change the situation all that much? Even if all the countries of the world sign and observe it, it will still be possible for one country to drop conventional bombs on the chemical plants—pesticide and insecticide plants—of another, which will have exactly the same effect as using chemical weapons. Indeed, it may be that something of that sort happened in Iraq when its chemical plants were bombed by the Americans with the result that a large number of American soldiers and possibly some British are still quite ill.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that no convention can be 100 per cent. watertight. But we believe the convention to be important and a major step forward in the struggle against chemical weapon use and proliferation.

Lord Peston

My Lords, will the noble Viscount accept that I totally agree with the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew? This is an area in which the British Government have taken a leading role for which they deserve full credit. The mystery is that, having got this far, there is now a gap. Is the noble Viscount saying that there is no DTI problem and that it has done all the work? If so, despite all the extraordinary Bills that the Government are bringing forward and that we could do without, why cannot they find room for one little Bill which will actually do some good? To put it a different way, can the noble Viscount say what is the problem of parliamentary time? It would not take much time and the Government would receive full support from the Opposition.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Peston, for his helpful remarks on the quality of the convention and the importance of early ratification. We recognise that importance. We have the support of industry, and that is why we intend to bring forward the legislation as soon as possible. There is always a great deal of pressure on the legislative programme.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware there need be no pressure on the legislative programme? The legislation could be put through both Houses of Parliament in a day if the Government sought the support of the Opposition parties. I hope it is not a question of waiting for the next Queen's Speech. Can the legislation be brought forward before the end of this Session?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, a great deal of preparatory work has already been done in advance of legislation. However, I do not think I can go further than saying that we shall bring forward the legislation as soon as we possibly can. We welcome the support of Opposition parties.