HL Deb 12 February 1997 vol 578 cc240-2

2.47 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in the light of their commitment to nuclear disarmament and of the opinion of the Canberra Commission that the present lack of control of nuclear weapons is dangerous, they will support the commission's recommendation for the gradual internationally agreed and verified reduction of nuclear weapons to zero.

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

My Lords, we remain committed to pursuing nuclear disarmament under our international obligations, including Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Nuclear disarmament measures cannot be divorced from the broader global security context. As we have previously made clear, we disagree fundamentally with the Canberra Commission's assertion that nuclear deterrence has no role.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is somewhat hypocritical to be in favour of something theoretically but to oppose any steps taken in that direction? In the circumstances, will the Government reconsider their attitude in particular towards the Canberra Commission and the general view in the world that the time has come not merely to be theoretically in favour of nuclear disarmament but to do something about it?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, there is nothing theoretical about the Government's commitment to disarmament. We have already made reductions to our nuclear arsenal on a national basis. Our deterrent is set at a minimum consistent with our security needs.

I shall try not to repeat what I said in answer to the noble Lord's Question yesterday. But while we welcome the recognition in the Canberra Commission report that nuclear arms control can be negotiated only between the nuclear weapon states themselves, I have to disagree that the role of deterrence has disappeared. As I said, disarmament measures cannot be divorced from the broader global security context. Deterrence continues to make a substantial and essential contribution to European security.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, is the Minister aware that both General Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright, the new US Secretary of State, have publicly declared that they look forward to the day when the number of nuclear weapons is zero and when, in the words of Mrs. Albright, they are nothing but a memory? Can the Minister explain why the Government are lagging behind our American allies in declaring their eventual elimination as an important policy objective?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, first, I should say to the noble Baroness that we too wish to see a zero situation, but it is not right—and the Americans would agree with this—to go to zero while other nuclear powers refuse to do so. We are not lagging behind. As I said yesterday, we have eliminated our maritime surface tactical nuclear capability and we have withdrawn our nuclear artillery and Lance missiles and further reductions are planned. When the WE-177 free-fall bomb is withdrawn by the end of next year, we shall have one system left—Trident. Our deterrent will then be 21 per cent. smaller in terms of warheads and 59 per cent. smaller in terms of explosive power than in the mid-1970s when the party opposite was in power.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that, although the heart of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, might be in the right place, the same cannot always be said of his references? Is it not a fact that the Canberra Commission made no reference at all to the present lack of control over nuclear weapons, although it referred to a potential loss of control in certain circumstances, which is very different? Will the Minister confirm that whatever may be the dangers elsewhere in the world, the command, control and communications of our own nuclear weapons are as effective and safe as human ingenuity can make them?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, the noble Lord is once again absolutely right. I shall not comment on his reference to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney. But we must have a sense of proportion about what is going on and stick to the facts. The Canberra Commission's report made specific recommendations for immediate steps to be taken. As regards an end to nuclear tests, the CTBT has effectively done that. As regards further US/Russian cuts, we have made clear our support for the START process. As regards fissile material cut-off, we have already supported the beginning of negotiations with the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. As regards the command, control and communications of our own weapons, I believe that it is the best in the world.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, will the Minister concede that the world circumstances when the Labour Party was last in power were very different from today?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, indeed they were. The country was in a terrible state.

Lord Carver

My Lords, will the Minister explain who is supposed to be deterred by the deterrent to which she referred, and from doing what?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, anyone who seeks to use aggression against this country and its allies.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, while we are all accustomed to what the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, says, and he is very apt to confuse hypocrisy with common sense, it is rather worrying when the very distinguished noble Baroness from the Front Bench opposite talks a lot of nonsense about us lagging behind the Americans?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, we work extremely closely with our American and other allies. We shall make sure that we are not lagging behind anybody. I am sure that the noble Baroness will wish to do some more reading after today's Question Time.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, did I understand the Minister correctly in replying to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Carver, that we should use the nuclear bomb as a weapon to stop aggression?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, we have made it absolutely clear that we would not use a bomb except in self-defence, and that would be after everything else had been tried.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, has the Minister noted a report that a very senior Russian military figure has said quite clearly that in the event of a conventional attack upon Russia, which we must all hope will never happen, Russia reserves the right to use a nuclear deterrent? Does not that make nonsense of the idea that deterrence has somehow vanished from the strategic armament?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. The proposal by Mr. Rybkin, the Russian Security Council Secretary, to abandon the no-first-use principle is not new. It is restating the 1993 military doctrine. There are still risks in this world. What we are seeking to do—and it is important to understand this—is to embrace Russia in European security issues and not to isolate her. By that embracing, we hope to avoid the use of any nuclear weaponry whatever. That is why the Russians need not fear that anyone in NATO will ever contemplate taking advantage of their present difficulties in maintaining their conventional forces.