HL Deb 02 December 1999 vol 607 cc909-11

3.15 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What recent exchanges they have held with the United States Administration on proposals to develop ballistic missile defence.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

My Lords, the Government have a continuous dialogue with the United States Administration on ballistic missile defence issues in general. The US Administration has also briefed us nationally and in NATO on its current thinking on the possible establishment of a national missile defence system designed to defend the US against limited attack by ballistic missiles.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Answer, but can she confirm that it is part of the American assumption that US missile warning systems in this country are a necessary part of its defence and that Fylingdales would have to be upgraded for the proposed national ballistic defence system? Does that give Her Majesty's Government a certain additional standing and leverage in this American debate?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, although the US has briefed us on its current thinking on the kind of national missile defence system that it may seek to establish, should it decide to deploy such a system, it has not come to a decision that that is what it wants to do. It has also made clear that no such decision will be taken before next June. Questions about any possible UK involvement are, therefore, premature at this stage.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, as both the US and British Governments are committed, theoretically, to abolishing nuclear weapons, it would be a good idea if some of these discussions covered that subject instead of considering how the system can be improved? Is it not high time that the United States and the British Government got together and began to discuss nuclear disarmament?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government have always taken the issue of nuclear disarmament very seriously in a number of fora. Discussions with our friends and allies continue. We entirely understand that we cannot afford to ignore the threat from the proliferation of ballistic missiles. That is a matter of real importance to all of us.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, does the Minister agree that NATO remains the bedrock of western defence? Is there not a huge danger in all this talk about setting up a European Union army that the United States will feel increasingly isolated in NATO, which will encourage her to think again about a ballistic missile shield?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, NATO remains extremely important. Currently, there is no sign that the United States feels isolated. We are discussing with our friends matters pertaining to that issue, and that situation will continue. There is no need at this moment for any degree of alarm.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, will the Minister take a rather more urgent attitude in view of the fact that, first, according to American sources there is a possibility that the anti-ballistic missile treaty of 1972 would Lave to be breached, and, secondly, there is a real danger that Russia will not, as she has made clear, consider further the ratification of SALT II or proceed to SALT III if there is any question of the establishment of an anti-ballistic missile system? Virtually the whole of the slow progress towards mutual world disarmament could be put at risk. Will the Minister ponder that in her further responses?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the American Administration and the Russians are looking at this issue together. The US Administration has not yet decided to deploy a national missile defence system, and it has made clear that it will not do so until June. We have welcomed the US recognition that if an NMD system is pursued it will be important to preserve strategic stability.

We have also welcomed the agreement of Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin at Cologne in June that the US and Russia should begin talks on the anti-ballistic missile treaty and on further cuts in the US and Russian nuclear arsenal.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, does the Minister agree that we are not talking only about national missile protection systems but theatre missile defences and the defence of expeditionary forces, should we need to use them in the future? Does the noble Baroness agree that deterrence is no longer sufficient protection against rogue states in possession of ballistic missiles? Will she assure the House that we shall keep our minds open on this and continue our discussions to that end with the United States?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the UK, US and allies are actively engaged in efforts to counter the proliferation of missiles and of weapons of mass destruction. We are in discussion with the Americans about the consideration that they are giving to a defence system. We shall of course continue to consider openly the issue as to what would best meet British interests.