HL Deb 18 May 2000 vol 613 cc355-7

3.7 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they consider that the banning of all nuclear weapons can only be achieved by the adoption of a plan by the nuclear powers along the lines proposed by the Canberra Commission, and whether they will now propose such a plan.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I am puzzled by this Question from my noble friend. The Canberra Commission did indeed consider the merits of proposing a precise timeframe for the elimination of nuclear weapons, but, after careful thought, decided not to do so. We believe that it was right to reach that conclusion. We remain convinced that the best way to make progress towards nuclear disarmament is by pursuing achievable, incremental steps forward. Given the complexity and difficulty of the issues involved, we do not believe that the adoption of a timed plan would in practice be likely to hasten the achievement of this goal.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, my noble friend is right to say that the Canberra Commission decided in the end not to put forward its proposal for a convention. But, since that time, that matter has been reconsidered. A most remarkable document entitled Security and Survival, emanating originally from the United States although it represents also the views of several other countries, proposes a model for a convention. I suggest that that is sufficiently impressive for the Government seriously to reconsider the question of a convention. Am I wrong in thinking that the Government will agree that in the end a convention will have to take place in order to prevent the disaster which will occur if we have no such agreement among nations?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, as my noble friend knows, the Government have made it crystal clear—I hope—that our goal is the global elimination of nuclear weapons. That fundamental commitment has already been made. We also want to see faster progress in that direction. I shall, of course, note what is stated in the document to which my noble friend refers, but the Government feel that it is most important that we target our attention on achievable goals so that we make incremental improvements in the situation as quickly as we can manage that.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that unless the nuclear powers show some evidence of their intention to fulfil their obligations under the non-proliferation treaty, the non-nuclear powers will eventually renounce the treaty? Can she instil some sense of impending doom into our partners before we reach the point of no return?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord is right to express his concern. However, there have been some glimmers of hope in the recent past. It is significant that in Russia the Duma has ratified Start II; it has also ratified the comprehensive test ban treaty. We are moving—slowly, admittedly—in the right direction. I can reassure the House that all of those in Her Majesty's Government who have the privilege of dealing with this matter have their eyes clearly focused on our long-term goal of the global elimination of nuclear weapons. We shall not be distracted from the path towards that long-term goal.

Lord Carver

My Lords, can the Minister say when we can expect to see some results from the review of NATO's nuclear weapon policy, which was set in hand in a council meeting at the summit last April?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I wish I was able to give your Lordships a specific timetable in relation to that matter. I do not have one. All I can say is that this matter is moving forward as quickly as it reasonably can. I wish that I could tell your Lordships more.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, have Her Majesty's Government made representations to the Russian Government regarding the decree that the Russian President, Mr Putin, signed amending the 1992 presidential decree on export control over nuclear materials, equipment and technologies?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I am not able to answer the noble Baroness in regard to that matter. I shall write to her in due course.

Lord Wright of Richmond

My Lords, what action have the Government taken to persuade the Israeli Government—which no longer make any secret of having a nuclear capability—to sign the nonproliferation treaty?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, all countries engaged in this kind of activity have been approached with a view to, first, encouraging acknowledgement and, secondly, dealing with it. The noble Lord is right: Israel has not made the necessary concessions in this regard.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, further to the question of the Canberra Commission, does the Minister recall that in its report the commission stated that one of the most important means of ensuring the success of the Canberra plan was effective verification? It then went on to say that no verification plan can ever be 100 per cent effective. Can she reassure the House that none of the plans for disarmament, denuclearisation and all the other processes will be entered into unless there is a full and reliable verification procedure?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the noble Lord is right; Britain will retain its nuclear deterrent for as long as it appears necessary for our safety. We have made that commitment; there is no reason at the moment to revise it.

Lord Brookman

My Lords, the Minister will be aware of a debate in another place in which the Foreign Office Minister pledged, in regard to the whole question of non-proliferation, that he would be working with the New Agenda Coalition to make progress in this area. Can she inform the House of any developments in those discussions?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I can confirm that our delegation in York has been working extremely hard to forge agreement on the way forward for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. In particular, it has made a major effort to bridge our remaining differences with the countries which make up the New Agenda Coalition. We have shown a good deal of flexibility and imagination in seeking an agreed outcome from this conference and we hope that others will do likewise. I am sure that the whole House will join with me in expressing the hope that these efforts will bear fruit. If agreement is not reached by the time the conference ends tomorrow, it will not have been for any want of effort on our part.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, am I correct in believing that the Russian President, Mr Putin, has stated that if the Americans go ahead with their new missile defence system based in space there will be no further moves towards nuclear disarmament? If that is so, what representations have Her Majesty's Government made to the United States Government about that issue?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we have been speaking to both Washington and Moscow about the anti-ballistic missile treaty and the need for an agreement. We have been encouraging both sides to negotiate so that an amendment to that treaty will be possible. The treaty has been amended in the past; it is possible for it to be amended again. We are very hopeful that our Russian and American colleagues will take this matter seriously and resolve it between them. We are not a party to that treaty, but we obviously wish them well in coming to some accommodation.

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