HL Deb 07 February 2000 vol 609 cc387-90

2.43 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What position they take on the amendment of the ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) Treaty in the light of revived proposals in the United States for an anti-missile defence system.

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

My Lords, the Government continue to value the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and wish to see it preserved. The United Kingdom is not, however, a party to the treaty. The question of any amendments to it is a matter for the United States and Russia. We hope that the discussions now in progress between those countries will ultimately reach a successful conclusion.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, first, does the Minister agree that the United Kingdom is inevitably involved because of the pursuit of the upgrading of early warning systems in particular in Yorkshire at Fylingdales and Menwith Hill?

Secondly, does the noble Baroness agree that a national anti-missile defence system for the United States or any other member of NATO has the most profound implications for the cohesion of NATO, and the Anti-Ballistic missile Treaty which remains one of the few pillars of arms control in the world? Will she agree, therefore, that there should be a major debate on this crucial issue within NATO and, if possible, separately with Russia after the elections, to ensure that we do not worsen the present instability in the world?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I understand the noble Baroness's anxiety. However, she will know that we are not directly involved at present. America has not made a decision to proceed with the matter, and we have to await its consideration of the issue. The Anti-Ballistic missile Treaty is a matter of real importance to us all. We continue to talk to America and Russia about the stance they take in relation to that matter. It is a matter for the Americans and Russians. We shall, of course, play our supportive part.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, does the Minister agree that if the whole purpose of antiballistic missile defences is to make the world, or even America, safer, it would be highly counter-productive to alarm Russia into retarding or reducing its arms control programme? Does the noble Baroness know of anyone who can explain that simple truth to the hawks in Congress?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the Russians and Americans are well aware of the delicacy of these issues. Our American partners are clear that they wish to continue to uphold the treaty. They are in negotiations with the Russians to see whether some amendment to that treaty can be made. Your Lordships will know that the treaty has been amended on two occasions without difficulty. We are hopeful that this could be a third such occasion, should it prove necessary.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, the Minister referred to the delicacy of the situation. Can the noble Baroness tell the House anything about the objections by other states in Europe to the construction of facilities, in particular at Menwith Hill, which are alleged to be part of the American anti-ballistic missile system? Has she noted President Chirac's criticisms of the American attempt to develop such a system? Does the Minister think that it would be highly divisive in Europe if the UK were to go ahead in assisting the US to construct that system?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I repeat that no such request has as yet been made of Her Majesty's Government. If and when a request is made, Her Majesty's Government will have to give it proper attention.

As your Lordships will know, Menwith Hill is a site for the European ground relay system for the new US space-based infra-red system. That new system will provide early warning of any ballistic missile launches, replacing the ageing defence support programme. The space-based infra-red system is needed irrespective of any national missile defence system and is being pursued as a separate project. As the noble Lord mentions, it would be capable of providing early warning of ballistic missile launches to a national missile defence system should the US decide to deploy such a system. I repeat: no such request has been made. That matter is not before us at the moment.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, does the Minister accept that many people will be pleased that she takes the view that, because, we are not party to the treaty, we have no position in it? Will the noble Baroness confirm that while the United States can deploy a ballistic missile defence system even under the present ABM system, it wants an amendment to the treaty in order to construct a better one? Would not that be desirable? Finally, will the Minister confirm that if the Americans do not gain an amendment to the treaty, they are likely to withdraw from it, having given the requisite six months' notice? Would not that be worse than amending the treaty?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I understand the noble Lord's anxiety, but all of these issues are speculative. At the moment, the Americans and the Russians understand the importance of the treaty and are working within a framework which would enable it to be maintained. What is at issue is amendment, nothing more.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, following on from the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, given Russian warnings that there will be dire consequences if the US continues the development of a national anti-missile defence, what action are the Government taking together with NATO and our EU partners to prevent irreparable damage to the global system of nuclear arms control?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the Government's position on nuclear arms control is clear. We are working hard with al} our partners to reduce the threat which it poses and we continue to urge both America and Russia to work collaboratively in relation to the current difficulty.

Lord Carver

My Lords, will the Government take the opportunity to represent what the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, described as the "dire consequences" in their input to the NATO review of arms control, which was decided on at the Washington Summit last year, and is being carried out by the special political committee and presented to defence Ministers in December this year?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I have already said that the concerns and the delicacy of the issue are well understood by ourselves and all our partners. We continue to urge all parties to continue to respond responsibly in relation to the difficult challenges which face them. I reiterate that as yet the Americans have not taken the decision to have an NMD. We must have a certain degree of proportion in dealing with this matter.