HL Deb 26 June 2000 vol 614 cc619-21

2.36 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney asked Her Majesty's Government:

What are the circumstances which prevent them from adopting and advocating an international convention outlawing nuclear weapons, as is the case with chemical and biological weapons.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, as my noble friend Lady Scotland said in answer to my noble friend's Question of 12th April, the Government agree that logically the process of nuclear disarmament ultimately is likely to require the negotiation of a nuclear weapons convention. However, in the current strategic environment, where large nuclear arsenals and risks of proliferation remain, we continue to judge that our minimum deterrent remains a necessary element of our security. We are working hard to change that international environment for the better.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, in changing that environment for the better, would it not be helpful if the Government were to produce the first draft of a convention which they believe to be acceptable and enforceable? Producing the first draft of the means by which such a change might be achieved would at least show people who believe that the Government's devotion to getting rid of the nuclear weapon is false that the Government are prepared to take the first step towards putting into effect that enforcement, would it not?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, the Government have made crystal clear the fact that our goal is the global elimination of nuclear weapons. In principle, we have no problem 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 in present circumstances negotiations on such a convention can be expected to make headway. By all means, let us be ambitious in this area but, as recognised by the NPT Review Conference, let us also focus on goals which are achievable.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, I recognise that the proposed international convention may not be the answer at the moment. However, does the noble Baroness agree that, with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty regime under some pressure and tension and with the proposals for anti-ballistic missile defence now being developed by the Americans, we are moving towards the stage at which radical rethinking of the entire regime is needed? Will she bring us up to date regarding what stage the Government have reached in their discussions with the Americans about the idea of extending national missile defence to this country, and particularly about upgrading Fylingdales and Menwith Hill to help the Americans with their new system?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, of course we and our allies take a very close interest in US thinking on missile defence and its international implications. However, I assure the noble Lord, Lord Howell, that it remains the case that the United States has not yet decided to proceed with deployment of such a system and is not expected to take such a decision before much later this year, at the earliest. As the US has not yet decided to proceed, it follows that it has not asked us for permission to use facilities in this country as part of such a system. Suggestions in the press that we have already agreed to that simply are not true. If and when such a request is put to us, obviously we shall give it careful consideration. However, as we cannot know the circumstances in which such a request might be put to us, plainly we cannot say how we would respond.

Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe

My Lords, can the noble Baroness tell us whether the Government are satisfied with the recent outcome of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

Yes, my Lords. The recent NTP Review Conference in New York was a marked success. I can tell my noble friend Lord Cocks that for the first time since 1985 all participating states were able to agree a final document which both reviewed progress over the past five years and set out an agenda for the next five. Of particular significance was the unequivocal undertaking of the five nuclear weapons states to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals. As was widely recognised in New York, we played a key role in the success of that negotiation and we hope that the agreements reached will provide a timely boost to the non-proliferation regime and global disarmament efforts.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, will the noble Baroness confirm that the main weakness of the two conventions—biological and chemical—mentioned in the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, is that a number of states have not—is the noble Baroness able to hear what I am saying?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

Yes, my Lords, I can hear.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, will the noble Baroness confirm that the main weakness of those conventions is that a large number of states have not ratified or even signed the conventions? Would not a nuclear weapons convention with similar weaknesses be not only worse than useless but positively dangerous?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, we recognise that the complete elimination of nuclear weapons will require extremely rigorous verification requirements in order to provide a high level of assurance against cheating. It is certainly true that major challenges arise in seeking to develop such verification arrangements. However, we do not accept that the challenges are insurmountable. Indeed, following the 1998 Strategic Defence Review, the Government set in hand a programme to develop expertise in that very area, drawing in particular on our own specialist expertise at the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment. The initial results of that work were warmly welcomed by the other states at the recent NPT Review Conference and it has now been taken further.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, in any radical rethink, what strategy would be adopted against the threat of hand-held nuclear devices?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, as I have said, the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment is looking at every possible means of delivery and will conduct research into every type of weapon, including hand-held weapons.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, a number of Ministers have visited India and Pakistan in recent days. Has the issue of nuclear deterrents been discussed on those visits?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, we take every opportunity to raise the question with India and Pakistan. They have given us encouraging early indications that they are actively working towards signature of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. We greatly regret that neither has yet signed, but we continue on every possible occasion to urge both to take that step as soon as possible.