HL Deb 26 February 1997 vol 578 cc1181-4

3.3 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are ready to enter into discussions with other states with nuclear weapons capability with a view to defining the conditions under which all such states would be prepared to contemplate adopting or continuing the present reductions of such weapons towards an ultimate aim of their elimination.

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

My Lords, we have regular contacts on these issues with relevant states. The continuation of the START process should, in our view, remain the priority. We have already made clear the conditions under which we would join in multilateral talks on the global reduction of nuclear arms.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that Answer. Is she aware that there seems to be a lack of urgency among the nuclear powers in their desire to get rid of nuclear weapons?

Does she believe that her own Government are also lacking in a sense of urgency? The dangers that exist while the world is covered with nuclear weapons have been impressed on the House by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Carver, and internationally by the Canberra Commission, the Washington gathering of generals and so on.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, there is no lack of urgency on our part or on the part of our NATO partners. But there is no doubt that the most effective reduction in the number of nuclear warheads worldwide will come through further progress on the bilateral START process. We all know that the United States and Russian arsenals are still by far the largest, and until we get Russian ratification of START II I do not believe that we shall be going forward as fast as we would like. But in the meantime, as I reminded the noble Lord on 31st October last, and then again on 11th February, the UK has already taken steps in line with the goals established by the Non-Proliferation Treaty. We have eliminated our maritime surface tactical nuclear capability; we have withdrawn our nuclear artillery and Lance missiles, and the WE-177 free-fall bomb will be withdrawn by the end of the next year. 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. There is no lack of urgency on the part of this British Government.

Lord Carver

My Lords, will the noble Baroness agree that the world would be a safer place if it were possible to persuade the nuclear weapon states, both declared and undeclared, that, pending the reductions of which she spoke, they should remove all their nuclear weapons from alert status and separate the warheads from the delivery vehicles and have that verified as recommended by the Canberra Commission?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, in one sense the noble and gallant Lord is right. But what I doubt—and what I believe most people who study such matters these days doubt—is that all the nuclear weapons-holding states would actually do that. Therefore, for some—namely, the West as the noble and gallant Lord would advocate—to reduce their defences at a time when others are not reducing theirs would be foolhardy.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, following what the Minister has just said denying that there is any lack of urgency on the part of the Government, and following the commitment in the Queen's Speech to pursue negotiations on a convention to ban the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons, can she tell the House what, if any, proposals the Government have made at the conference on disarmament in Geneva to secure a fissile material cut-off agreement?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I understand that there is some internal discussion going on about the question of the fissile material cut-off treaty. We have certainly supported calls for negotiations and have been working on that. But I cannot give the noble Baroness any more information at the present time. The matter has not been discussed in public. It may happen in a few months.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, given the importance of persuading the Russians to ratify START II, as the Minister has accepted, can she explain to us how negotiations between Russia and the West about NATO enlargement and CFE get in the way of the ratification process for START II? Do we have to find a package for dealing with the Russians or can we deal with things one at a time?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, it is very difficult to tell at the present time because, as the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, will surely know, there are a number of conflicting comments coming out of Russia from Mr. Rodionov, Mr. Baturin and Prime Minister Chernomyrdin. They do not seem to chime together. Therefore, it is difficult to be exact. In this process of negotiation it is probably dangerous to formally link any aspect because we need to work in parallel on every aspect of achieving disarmament.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, can the noble Baroness tell us in what possible circumstances would the United Kingdom use this terrible weapon?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, as I have said many times before in this House, it would be under very extreme circumstances and only in self-defence, but that does not undermine the importance of the role of deterrence. This House has discussed the matter on numerous occasions in the past. I cannot think that there is anything new to be said on this subject. I recommend that the noble Lord reads the speech that my right honourable friend the then Foreign Secretary made on 18th April 1995, when he went very thoroughly through the review and extension conference of the parties to the non-proliferation treaty on nuclear weapons. It will prove very good reading.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, will my noble friend also remain mindful of the threat that comes from possibly less stable powers than Russia, such as those in the Middle East, and the rising power of China? Does she agree that it would seem inopportune to render ourselves defenceless when others are increasing their capacity for nuclear war?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, my noble friend is right. It is not only the former Soviet Union of which one must be mindful but, as I said in answer to Questions last October and on many other occasions in your Lordships' House, the Middle East remains an unstable area. There are those there whom we believe to have a nuclear capacity. There is also the question of South Asia, let alone China.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, it would be churlish to deny that progress has been made, but does the Minister share my hope that after the general election even faster progress will be made?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I always look for faster progress. However, I am quite sure of one thing: one does not make progress sensibly and in the best interests of the nation by giving away things before getting something in compensation from other states which should also be giving up their warheads, as Britain is doing.