HL Deb 18 April 2000 vol 612 cc556-8

2.52 p.m.

Lord Chalfont

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have entered into any arrangement to provide support for an American national missile defence system if the United States Government should decide to establish such a system.

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

No, my Lords. The United States has not put any such request to us, nor would we expect it to do so until, and unless, it has decided to proceed with the deployment of a national missile defence system. No such decision is expected before later this summer at the earliest.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that only moderately enlightening Answer. Does she agree that this is part of a much wider issue and a very serious one? Given that strategic policy nowadays involves the frequent use of expeditionary forces and the fact that many countries around the world which might be involved have weapons of mass destruction and the missiles to deliver them—they are sometimes capable of being delivered from surface vessels—does the noble Baroness also agree that such forces are becoming more and more vulnerable to counter-attack as time goes on? Further, can she give the House an assurance that that assessment of the threat is included in the long-term defence and strategic planning of the Government?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I can give the House such an assurance. As we made clear in the Strategic Defence Review, that is indeed the focus of the research work we are undertaking in the United Kingdom. It is also the focus of the feasibility study that we and our allies commissioned in NATO earlier this year. At this stage, we still judge that it would be premature to decide on acquiring a ballistic missile defence capability either for our deployed forces or for homeland defence. However, our involvement in the NATO study and our own national programme will enable us to make an informed judgment on whether to invest in ballistic missile defences in the future. This is obviously a matter that we must take into account and consider seriously. We are not disregarding it; indeed, we understand the concerns highlighted by the noble Lord.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will agree that the prospect of a new arms race as a result of the NMD proposals does exist. However, can the noble Baroness comment on the very interesting link made by President Putin on his recent visit to London about the possibility of linking a Start II treaty ratification and, possibly, the ratification of other unratified nuclear treaties by Russia with an agreement about an NMD that Russia could accept? Will the Government explore the possibilities that arise from President Plain's remarks?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I can reassure the noble Baroness that Her Majesty's Government are doing everything to encourage both our Russian partners and the United States seriously to consider the anti-ballistic missile treaty. Those two parties are the ones negotiating it. I can also assure the noble Baroness that we very much wish to encourage them to reach a decision about which both can feel comfortable so that our security is enhanced thereby.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, will the Minister urge the Government to discourage the American Government from proceeding along the lines of a national defence system? Further, does she agree that it would be a step towards nuclear armament and away from nuclear disarmament? Consequently, should not such a step be viewed with less enthusiasm and, indeed, as a step that could lead us in a direction in which we ought not to be going?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we understand the concerns expressed by my noble friend. I should point out that the signing of Start II on Friday was a very helpful indicator that the Russians are participating in a way that we must all feel is very productive. We hope that this is not a step forward that will be taken without the full implications of the international consequences being taken fully into account. In our conversations with our partners, these are of course issues that are explored quite extensively.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, the noble Baroness has accepted the fact that there are very real dangers in the spread of anti-missile systems of this type, particularly in the Far East. Is she aware that, for the first time in my life, I find myself agreeing with a great deal of what the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, said?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I hope that that is a comfortable position for the noble Lord.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, perhaps the noble Baroness can enlighten the House in one respect. As the object of the American scheme, as I understand it, is primarily to guard against the increasing missile capability of rogue states, can she tell the House to what extent that danger was explored in recent conversations between her right honourable friend the Prime Minister and the President-elect of Russia? Further, can the noble Baroness say whether the President-elect saw the force of those arguments and whether there might therefore be some means of bringing such conversations forward to enable him to become more sympathetic to the idea of a breach of the ABM treaty?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I can certainly tell the House that Mr Putin did discuss the issue with my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. Mr Putin made clear the Russian concerns about the US national missile defence plan. The Prime Minister made clear our view that this is a matter best pursued through patient negotiation between the US and the Russians. The concerns of both sides need to be fully addressed. That issue was discussed and it will continue to attract much attention in Russia and America which are aware of each other's respective positions and concerns.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, one of the main actors on the US stage in this area, former Secretary of State for Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, says that one of the biggest threats comes—several noble Lords have mentioned this—from the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Has Mr Hoon pledged our support, not just held regular dialogues as he said in the other place yesterday, for the US ABM treaty, even if President Clinton said he was committed to development and not deployment, so that we too can benefit from it?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we have not had a formal request. As I believe I have said on a number of occasions from this Dispatch Box, the situation is not fixed. If the matter goes forward and the Americans are determined upon it, further discussions about merits, demerits, and where we would fit in, would, of course, take place.