HL Deb 12 April 2000 vol 612 cc188-90

2.53 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, at the forthcoming conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in New York, they will press for a nuclear weapons convention along the same lines as the conventions now in Force regarding chemical and biological weapons so as to emphasise international commitment to nuclear disarmament.

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

My Lords, the Government agree that logically the process of nuclear disarmament ultimately is likely to require the negotiation of a nuclear weapons convention to ban nuclear weapons, just as chemical and biological weapons are banned by the Chemical and Biological Weapons Conventions respectively. Unfortunately, the reality is that the circumstances do not yet exist to make starting such negotiations a practical proposition. Therefore, at the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference later this month we shall press for progress towards more immediate goals such as further deep cuts in the arsenals of the two major nuclear powers, bringing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty into force and launching negotiations on a fissile material cut-off treaty.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the very process of expressing a desire to move in the direction of banning would of .itself create the situation that the Government desire and make it an obviously sensible and, indeed, inevitable and right thing to do? Unless that is done, the feeling will persist that nuclear weapons are not quite as bad as biological and chemical weapons and do not need to be outlawed. That kind of comparison is fruitless. I suggest to my noble friend that the necessity for banning nuclear weapons is extremely urgent and should be looked at in the same light as the banning of biological and chemical weapons.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I understand absolutely the passion with which the noble Lord addresses this issue. We have no problem in principle with the idea of a nuclear weapons convention as the ultimate legal underpinning of a nuclear weapons-free world. However, we cannot wish away present political realities and pretend that negotiations on such a convention could be expected to make headway in present circumstances. We agree with the noble Lord that it is a consummation devoutly to be wished but, regrettably, unlikely to be delivered very quickly.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, despite the Minister's reply, does she recognise that there are great opportunities for the United Kingdom at the review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty? Perhaps I may ask her about two of them. First, can she tell us what will be the position of Her Majesty's Government with regard to the redefinition of the position of India and Pakistan, which are both listed in the existing treaty as "non-nuclear states"? Secondly, can the Minister take advantage of the warm rapprochement—almost a special relationship—between the recently elected President of Russia and our own Prime Minister to press for the Duma to ratify the START II disarmament treaty which now seems a real and exciting possibility?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I can certainly tell the noble Baroness that we hope that both Pakistan and India will consider favourably signing the treaty. We are urging them as energetically as we can to direct their minds to that. We very much welcome the news that the Russian Duma plans to vote on the ratification of START II on Friday. Obviously, we hope for a positive outcome that will open the way for negotiations with the United States on a START III treaty, promising significant further cuts in the two countries' nuclear arsenals. Therefore, we very much welcome this positive move and we are doing everything that we can to encourage our Russian partners to ratify START II as soon as practicable.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, the noble Baroness referred to political realities. Will she bear in mind how stupid and entrenched those obstacles to progress can be? They will be there for ever unless determined action is taken to combat them.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we certainly agree that determined action needs to be taken to combat them. That is precisely what we are doing in pushing forward with the conference and trying to make the atmosphere as conducive as possible to a rapprochement, as the noble Baroness has already mentioned. Our energy is devoted wholly to that end.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, is it not the case that a number of countries which have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or ratified it are constructing nuclear capabilities, testing nuclear weapons and producing the means to deliver them by ballistic missiles? Is it not pointless to talk about a nuclear weapons convention while that is the case?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I cannot agree with the noble Lord, although I of course understand his anxiety. We must push ahead with this as a policy and encourage others to follow us keenly.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there is a serious problem of confidence among the non-nuclear powers as to whether the nuclear powers are taking seriously their obligations to negotiate for the abolition of nuclear weapons under Article 6 of the treaty? My noble friend mentioned the possibility of negotiations for a fissile material cut-off treaty. Will there be a vigorous campaign to initiate those negotiations, and would that not be a major step forward?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the Government understand the frustration of some of the non-nuclear weapon states at the slow pace of progress towards nuclear disarmament. We share it. We have been vigorous in pursuing those matters; we shall continue to be robust in our approach with our partners; and we shall strive to reach a satisfactory conclusion. But we must take others with us. We cannot walk that journey alone.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, one way to end the growing nuclear terror and the spread of nuclear weapons which is taking place is to develop anti-missile defences which render useless nuclear weapons and nuclear delivery systems. Will the noble Baroness say where the Government stand on the proposals of the American Government to go ahead in July with precisely that kind of development? Are we in Britain to be involved with that development which would be a practical way of meeting the nuclear horror?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the Americans have been considering that issue, but as yet they have reached no definitive view. We believe that it is important that Britain enters into the debate; considers the opportunity which may be available; and takes those decisions which best befit the security of this nation. We are not at a stage now where we have any particular focused policies which are being advocated. But it is a debate which is causing a great deal of concern.