HL Deb 14 May 1998 vol 589 cc1193-201

4.38 p.m.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on Indian nuclear testing which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

"Madam Speaker, with permission, I would like to make a Statement on the recent nuclear tests in India.

"On Monday, the Government of India announced that they had conducted three nuclear tests, including one thermo-nuclear device. On Wednesday, the Government of India confirmed two further nuclear tests. According to a statement by the Government of India yesterday, these last two complete the planned series of nuclear testing. These were India's first nuclear tests since 1974.

"Nuclear proliferation is a serious threat to the stability and security of the international community. We and our partners have sought vigorously to prevent the technology and equipment for a nuclear weapons programme from being acquired by states which might use them to develop a nuclear weapons capacity. Last weekend the G8 Foreign Ministers committed our countries to strengthen further the safeguard systems against nuclear proliferation.

"The recent nuclear tests by India undermine the efforts of the international community to prevent nuclear proliferation and may encourage other states who wish to do the same. Nor will these tests help the security of India. An increase in tension in the region cannot be in the interests of India, and the escalation of an arms race in the Subcontinent cannot help to tackle the poverty in which millions of its people live. The sharp reaction by China demonstrates the danger that such tests will increase tension rather than strengthen security.

"We have already expressed our dismay to the Indian Government. Yesterday the Acting High Commissioner for India was summoned to the Foreign Office in order that we could express our concern at the test programme. In New Delhi our High Commissioner led a troika of European Union Ambassadors to inform the Government of India of the concern—not just of Britain, but of all of Europe. I can inform the House that I have today recalled our High Commissioner from Delhi for consultation on how Britain and Europe can effectively bring home to the Government of India our anxiety at the damage of these tests to the non-proliferation regime, and to the stability of the region.

"We will seek to co-ordinate our response with our major international partners. Tomorrow's G8 summit in Birmingham will consider how our countries can work together to bring home to the Government of India the dismay of the international community at the resumption of nuclear tests. And in a week's time, at the next meeting of the General Affairs Council, we will seek a common approach by Europe making clear our opposition to this new challenge to the non-proliferation regime.

"The urgent task now is to do all we can to prevent these tests from provoking other tests in the region. Our High Commissioner in Islamabad has led representations by the European Union troika, making clear to the Government of Pakistan our strong view that Pakistan's interests also would not be served by a regional arms race. We are urging Pakistan's leaders to show restraint at what we acknowledge is a difficult time for them.

"Madam Speaker, we regret and condemn these nuclear tests. Britain is a leading advocate of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. We believe firmly that their provisions provide Britain and all members of the international community with the strongest basis for confidence in their international security. Nobody's long-term interests are secured by encouraging the spread of nuclear weapons. I am sure that the whole of the House will wish to support the Government in sending a united message on behalf of Britain that we oppose and condemn these nuclear tests."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.43 p.m.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, on behalf of the Official Opposition, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place. We strongly share the Government's concern about the nuclear tests which the Indian Government have carried out.

Does the Minister accept that the decision by the Indian Government to ignore international pressure not to conduct any future nuclear tests since its last "peaceful" test in 1974 has had important implications in terms of damaging India's relationship with one nuclear power, China? As a result there is a real danger that we may see a nuclear arms race developing in South Asia which would have grave ramifications for the international community.

What further representations do the Government intend to make to the governments of Pakistan and China to ensure that the situation does not escalate?

I think it is important to set this day's exchanges in context. I believe it is important to recall that there was an exceptionally good and strong relationship between our two countries built by John Major when he was Prime Minister. I have to say that it is regrettable that that relationship has been damaged by Robin Cook's visit. Otherwise today that may have provided an invaluable and very special relationship with important historical ramifications for our country.

Therefore it is important that we learn what the Minister can tell the House about the ways in which the Foreign Secretary has worked to build on a relationship which the previous administration valued greatly and worked hard to promote through a constant and busy two-way street of traffic between government, business and people.

But most important in terms of questions, I should like to ask the Minister to comment on the decision of Germany, Sweden and Denmark to cut their aid to India. Does the Minister expect them to ask Britain to do likewise? What consultations have been held between the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Development? Would the Minister also comment on Canada's decision to ban military exports to India?

Can the Minister elaborate a little further on the discussions the Foreign Secretary has had with his American counterpart? Have the Government examined the nature of American economic sanctions and has the Foreign Secretary consulted the President of the Board of Trade on the advisability of the United Kingdom implementing similar sanctions?

These are all important questions, but one aspect that unites both sides of this House is the importance we attach to ensuring that in this busy time during our presidency of the European Union and in government the Minister and his colleagues will have our full support in seeking an early resolution to this problem, hopefully against the recognition that trade sanctions may well be unwise given the damaging effects that they would have on a society possessing the entrenched democratic credentials of India. Finally, can the Minister confirm that that will be raised as a matter of urgency at the G8 meeting this weekend?

4.36 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, perhaps I may too thank the noble Baroness for the Statement. Perhaps I may ask her three questions. The first concerns the issue of monitoring. It is quite clear from both United States and British sources that there was no prior knowledge of what might happen, nor indeed any immediate result of monitoring of the tests that India held.

In view of the fact that during the Second Reading of the nuclear explosions Bill in another place the Minister of State, Tony Lloyd, specifically pointed out that a worldwide network of monitoring stations would detect, identify and locate the source of a suspicious event anywhere in the world".—[Official Report, Commons, 6/11/97; col. 456.], can the Minister give us any information on the failure of monitoring in this case?

Secondly, perhaps I may ask her whether the phrase "co-ordinating our response", which was used in her Statement, means that we will follow the United States with respect to sanctions. In that I follow what the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition asked.

My final question is perhaps to me the most important question that I want to ask the Minister. The Minister will be well aware that India had a long record, until recently, of constantly seeking peaceful outcomes. Indeed, many of us admired Indian governments precisely because they had a record of constantly trying to find peaceful answers to difficult questions. It therefore is a great disappointment that India, of all countries, should have broken the terms—although she did not herself sign it—of the comprehensive test ban treaty. Given her record, given also that she is the second largest country in the world and the world's largest democracy, would the G8 Ministers consider whether the time might be right for pursuing a new initiative in the field of comprehensive nuclear disarmament along lines that would embrace countries that are on the edge of nuclear developments, whether civil or military, that bring them into the group of nuclear powers?

It seems to me and to many of my colleagues on these Benches that it is essentially in the resumption of comprehensive disarmament of nuclear weapons that may lie the best answer to this extremely troubling new situation.

4.50 p.m.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thank both the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, for their support and for what the noble Lord described as his party's strongly shared concern over this issue.

As I believe I indicated in repeating my right honourable friend's Statement, the tension which the tests have caused in China is something which causes Her Majesty's Government enormous concern. As I am sure the noble Lord is aware, there has been a strong reaction from China and the Government will be doing everything they can to try to lessen the tension in that part of the world, not only in relation to China but also in relation to Pakistan's reaction.

The only slight regret I have about what the noble Lord said is that he sought perhaps a touch of party political advantage when the rest of his remarks indicated what I hope will be the strong feeling of the House that the reaction from the United Kingdom should be one in which we all share the same feelings of condemnation. I am sure that that is the noble Lord's overwhelming feeling. Any suggestion that if things had gone a different way there would have been no nuclear tests this week is a little over-blown.

Dismay at the tests is shared by almost all the international community. India has chosen to isolate itself and as one of India's oldest friends we very much regret that. The strength of the relationship of this country and this Government with India was amply demonstrated at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in October last year.

The noble Lord asked some questions about banning military exports. That is an issue which must be discussed with our international partners. I suggest that there are a number of different issues which will have to be discussed, not just that of arms sales. I suppose that we are fortunate in that we have all our G8 partners in Birmingham tomorrow and there will be discussions at that time. The noble Lord asked what else we could do in that respect. We are not only discussing the matter with the G8 countries over the weekend. We shall also be discussing it with our European partners, as I indicated, at the general affairs meeting on 25th May. I understand that at the United Nations we are discussing at the moment the Security Council presidential statement. That shows, I hope, that in three arenas—the European Union, the G8 and the United Nations—the United Kingdom Government are doing what they can to co-ordinate matters, a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams.

The noble Baroness asked about monitoring which, I am sure, will be of interest to many people. I have some difficulty in going into any great detail because much of the monitoring must depend on intelligence issues which, as the noble Baroness will know, it is improper for me to discuss in your Lordships' House. Without wishing to denigrate the point which the noble Baroness made, it is an obvious one which we shall need to look at. We shall co-ordinate with those with whom we share intelligence material. I hope that that covers most of the matters raised.

The noble Baroness referred to strengthening the comprehensive test ban treaty and the non-proliferation treaty. Many countries which are signatories to those agreements will wish to look at ways to strengthen them and ways in which we can ensure that the united feeling of dismay about what has happened this week in India is not left in any doubt at all.

4.55 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, from this side of the House, I express my support—I believe it will be widespread in this House—for the Statement which has been repeated. However, the Statement does not seem to go far enough. It refers to concern and dismay. But what about anger and determination? There should be a realisation of the dangers of the situation. Over the past few years, we have been moving gradually, even if there has been an element of lip service, towards, it is hoped, eliminating the nuclear threat. This incident could completely reverse that situation and we shall find ourselves marching in the opposite direction towards the ultimate of a nuclear war. That is the danger. In reply to questions the Minister has indicated that she is not without appreciation of that danger.

It seems to me that if we follow the path suggested by the Liberal Democrats just now it may be possible to rescue ourselves from the peril of this new position and move more vigorously towards the aim of nuclear disarmament. Unless we reach that point, the world will continue to remain in peril.

I express my general support, appreciation and approval of the actions which the Government intend to take. I would welcome a little more understanding and appreciation of the true horror which faces us unless we succeed in solving the present problem. It is that abyss which worries me. Although the Government may not wish to express it too clearly, I believe that it is that horror which is behind the Government's Statement. I should like to know from my noble friend whether I am correct in that belief.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the Statement is unequivocal in its condemnation of the nuclear tests. I repeat that my right honourable friend said: We regret and condemn these nuclear tests". The United Kingdom reacted immediately to the news of the tests on 11th May. The Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my honourable friend Derek Fatchett, summoned the acting High Commissioner yesterday. He left him in no doubt of the seriousness with which Her Majesty's Government view the tests. In addition, as I said in repeating the Statement, my right honourable friend has this afternoon recalled our High Commissioner for consultation.

I must remind noble Lords that at the conclusion of the Statement I said that my right honourable friend was sure that he would have the support of the whole House, in sending a united message on behalf of Britain that we oppose and condemn these nuclear tests". One cannot be much more unequivocal than that.

Lord Naseby

My Lords, your Lordships' House will be aware that until this event we were celebrating the 50th anniversary of the independence of India. Those in this Chamber who have lived and worked in that great country will be extremely worried by this event. In the Statement, the Minister rightly said that there are three opportunities for Her Majesty's Government to co-ordinate a response to this outrage. Those opportunities should be seized. This House will pass judgment in about 10 days' time on whether the Government had the leadership to pull together the rest of the world to make sure that what is in effect a minority government in India should suffer to a degree for their transgressions.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, all of us who consider ourselves friends of India will share the noble Lord's worries over the difficulty created by the tests in terms of the reaction of other countries in the region; in particular, Pakistan and China. Officials have spoken to the Pakistani High Commissioner in London and have urged restraint upon him. However, as the noble Lord noted from what I said, we have these three opportunities to try our best to co-ordinate our reaction to what is happening in India. I know that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister will be joining my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary in trying to co-ordinate that response.

Lord Desai

My Lords, I have two questions for my noble friend. Given the fact that exercising a nuclear option was a manifesto commitment of the BJP made before the election, is there not a failure of political intelligence, let alone of technical monitoring, in that neither the United States nor the UK anticipated that this would be the first step that that government would take, bearing in mind that when they previously held office for only 13 days they had already made such preparations?

Secondly, at the meetings this weekend, may I urge my noble friend the Minister not to do anything precipitate about imposing sanctions on India, which would reverse the good economic reform record that she has maintained? We must also remember that the situation is also very fragile on that level. Indeed, we should promote trade, investment and industry and not do anything to punish India to an extent that we have not punished China for similar transgressions.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, my noble friend's points raise enormously interesting issues. One of the problems in India is that the reaction to these nuclear tests seems to indicate that they are very widely supported in the Indian Parliament. I am not aware of the exact measure of support, but it seems that that has so far been the case. I understand that this was a commitment of the Indian Government. Nonetheless, I feel that we must still do everything we can to urge upon India the realisation that what it is doing not only poses a threat to that part of the world; it also poses a very real threat to India itself.

My noble friend urges us not to do anything which will destabilise the Indian economy. Her Majesty's Government are enormously aware of the difficulties that might flow from different sorts of sanctions. That is why the Government have not rushed in and imposed sanctions; why we are considering these issues very carefully; and why we wish to discuss them with our partners in Europe, in the G8 and at the United Nations.

However, Her Majesty's Government are also enormously aware of the very real poverty in India and of the difficulty that some sorts of sanctions might provoke in relation to some of the most vulnerable people in the country. All these matters have to be considered when deciding what sort of co-ordinated and united action should be taken on such issues.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, does the Minister agree that what has happened in the past few days emphasises the importance of achieving a solution to the problems in Jammu and Kashmir, which is permanent, peaceful and, so far as possible, acceptable to its inhabitants? Jammu and Kashmir has already been the cause of two wars between Pakistan and India and there is now every prospect that, if there should by any disaster be a third war, it would be a nuclear one.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, what the noble Lord says has to be true. The fragility around Kashmir is a very worrying issue. Having been in both India and Pakistan in the past few months, it is very clear to me that it is the real gritty issue in their entire relationship. However, so much else in both those countries hangs on how the issue is treated. The noble Lord's worries and concerns about the way that the situation may develop lie very much at the heart of the concerns of Her Majesty's Government; indeed, they are very much at the heart of the reason why my right honourable friend wanted to recall our High Commissioner this afternoon.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, will my noble friend not allow the Government to stop short at punishing and scolding India and insist that they look beyond and consult human reason and history and inquire from those authorities whether it is so much worse to have seven nuclear weapons powers in the world than it is to have six, as has been the case for many years now? If they were to find that this was merely an incremental change in an awful situation, would they then adopt the thought put forward very ably by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Putney; namely, that the only true answer is a reduction leading to an elimination of weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons, by all countries in the world, including this one?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I hope that I do not have to tell my noble friend, nor, indeed, anyone else in your Lordships' House, that it is the reduction of nuclear weapons in particular—certainly weapons of mass destruction generally—that lies at the heart of the Government's thinking on the matter. Indeed, that was a very clear commitment in the Government's election manifesto. My noble friend asked whether it would be so much worse to have seven nuclear weapons powers than to have six. My answer is yes; it would be. What we are concerned with is the reduction of nuclear powers and non-proliferation. That lies very much at the heart of our policies.

I should also tell my noble friend that there is a particular problem, as we have just been discussing, with India taking such action because of the difficulties in its relationships with China on the one hand, and, on the other, with Pakistan. These countries have difficult and, in some ways, quite fragile relationships. Since the tests were carried out earlier this week, it is very obvious that the strength of the reaction in both those countries bears out the worries that we have had about how this may destabilise that part of the world.

The Earl of Carlisle

My Lords, the Minister mentioned that our High Commissioner in Delhi had correctly led the delegation of the other European Union nations to visit the Indian Government to make the protest. Can the noble Baroness tell the House if all the EU representatives accompanied him; what effect this representation had; and, whether the High Commissioner discovered if the Indians have any further plans to conduct these deplorable tests?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, our High Commissioner led a troika of the European Union ambassadors. So three ambassadors went to see the Indian Government to express our concern. However, they did not speak just on behalf of the troika; they spoke on behalf of all EU members. I hope that that clears up the noble Lord's point. They will have made a very strong statement to the Indian Government, expressing not only dismay but also the unequivocal opposition and condemnation of the EU on these points.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, although I support every word that my noble friend the Minister has said, does she agree that, until further progress is made on disarmament generally, the alternative will be continual crisis management of this kind and perpetual running to stay in the same place? Therefore, will the Government renew their efforts to ensure a fourth special session on disarmament at the General Assembly?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree with my noble and learned friend that further progress on disarmament is highly desirable. At present we are talking with our UN partners to try to ensure that there is a Security Council presidential statement on what has happened in India. Further to that, I cannot make any commitments on behalf of Her Majesty's Government other than to say, in the context of what I have already been able to tell the House in relation to the three arenas where we will be pursuing these matters, that Her Majesty's Government will of course be doing everything possible to ensure that our position—one of opposition and condemnation—is shared as widely as possible.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, I support the Statement and I thank my noble friend for repeating it. I remind the House of the result of the previous general election when the British people endorsed the Labour Party's manifesto which stated, We will press for multilateral negotiations towards mutual, balanced and verifiable reductions in nuclear weapons. When satisfied with verified progress towards our goal of the global elimination of nuclear weapons, we will ensure that British nuclear weapons are included in multinational negotiations". Bearing in mind the significance of recent developments, will my noble friend take a strong message from this House that we hope that the Government will take further practical steps to achieve the object of the manifesto, towards our goal of the global elimination of nuclear weapons"? Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for reminding us all of the clear, unequivocal manifesto commitment of Her Majesty's Government. As I have on previous occasions been able to tell the House, we shall proceed on the basis of verifiable reductions. I shall be happy to convey the message of my noble friend, and indeed others, to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister.