HL Deb 08 December 1999 vol 607 cc1271-3

2.36 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the decision of the United States Senate not to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the Geneva conference's decision to spend a year discussing procedure, increase the possibility of nuclear war early in the coming millennium.

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

My Lords, we have made no secret of our disappointment at the US Senate's vote against ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty or of our frustration at the lack of progress in the conference on disarmament. Nevertheless, we continue to believe, as do our NATO allies, that the circumstances in which we might have to contemplate any use of nuclear weapons are extremely remote.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is it not the case that a nuclear confrontation need not be contemplated; it can happen by accident or by chance? Is it not therefore true that the danger of such a war occurring is increased? If it were not so, all the efforts which were expended on those treaties which were intended to decrease the danger of nuclear war would have been wasted. Surely the failure must be taken to mean that that danger is increased.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I can understand the anxiety that the noble Lord shares with us in relation to this matter. However, I assure noble Lords that the Government are fully committed to progress on nuclear disarmament. The lack of progress internationally in recent years has been frustrating for us all, but is not for lack of effort on our part to advance the agenda. The UK sets an example for all in the measures set out in the Strategic Defence Review last year, and we shall continue to encourage others to emulate our stance.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, did the Minister notice that she did not actually answer the Question on the Order Paper? It could be answered, "Yes", "No", or "Maybe". The Minister gave us none of those answers, but a little homily.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I regret that the noble Lord takes the view that it was a homily. I tried to give your Lordships a helpful and frank response.

Lord Wright of Richmond

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House what assurances the British Government have received, either directly or via the United States Government, about the security of the nuclear weapons systems and the political control systems in the former Soviet Union with regard to the coming millennium?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, if the noble Lord refers to the millennium bug, I can certainly assure him that all the information we have indicates that those matters will not be affected adversely in relation to that issue and that they are quite safe.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

My Lords, while the decision of the United States not to agree to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is, of course, to be regretted, does the Minister believe that it would make any difference to the possibility of either Pakistan or India, both of which now have nuclear weapons, launching them against each other?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, that would not be directly affected by the United States' decision, but of course one looks to our partners to take a lead. The lead given by ourselves and others is important. We are working closely with India and Pakistan in order to encourage them to ratify in due course. There are hopeful noises, particularly in relation to India, that they may be minded to do that.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the American debate is currently much more directed towards China and North Korea and that European security risks being compromised by the American preoccupation with security in east Asia? From our perspective, maintaining the confidence of the Russian Government in nuclear disarmament and persuading them to continue disarming matters most. I hope that Her Majesty's Government are making that clear to the Americans.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, all our partners are aware of our anxiety about that issue. We have made our position clear to them all. We are certainly comforted that the American Administration have said that they are committed to ratification and that they see the matter as one of importance. We can take some comfort—little, I admit—from that assurance.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, following the question of the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, will the Minister agree that she still has not answered the Question on the Order Paper? It is a straight Question which requires and could be given an unequivocal Answer. Is the Minister aware that my own answer would be, unequivocally, "No"? Does she agree with that?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I have no reason to believe that the possibility of nuclear war is being enhanced.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, to what extent is the Minister concerned that the failure at the Conference on Disarmament to agree a work programme to enable substantive negotiations to take place on internationally-agreed actions such as the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty risks undermining the very credibility of the Conference on Disarmament as a whole? What specific action do the Government intend to take at the conference's 2000 session to prevent a repeat of the deadlock which has hampered the conference this year?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we are doing all we can to overcome the current deadlock in Geneva. We have shown flexibility ourselves in the search for an agreement on a way forward. We hope that others will do likewise, so that work may begin without further delay on the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty. The reality is that the Conference on Disarmament operates, as noble Lords will know, by consensus. Neither we nor any other country may simply put normal procedures aside and impose a solution. If the present deadlock persists, there may well be increasing support for reform of the working practices of the Conference on Disarmament. We shall consider that possibility energetically.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, if the Government are enthusiastic about nuclear disarmament, will my noble friend tell us why, when a motion opposing nuclear war was carried overwhelmingly in the United Nations General Assembly recently, our Government were among the small minority opposing that resolution on two occasions?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I have answered that question on a number of occasions and my answer remains the same. Britain will continue to do all those things which advance our own interest. HMG took the view that it was not in our interest, bearing in mind all the circumstances, to agree to the resolution. That remains the position to date; it has not changed since the last time I answered that question.