HL Deb 19 February 2001 vol 622 cc498-500

2.51 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby asked Her Majesty's Government:

What representations, if any, they have made in response to the United States Government's statement that they propose to go ahead with sea and space-based national missile defence systems; and whether consultations on the issue among the NATO allies have now been scheduled.

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

My Lords, the new US Administration, while stressing their commitment to national missile defence, have made no decision on the development or deployment of a specific system. The US has made clear that prior to making any such decision it will consult fully with allies, with Russia and with others. We expect formal consultations to be scheduled with NATO allies once the US has developed its thinking further.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. However, the Prime Minister recently implied that if there were to be such requests from the United States, he would be inclined to give a positive reply. Is the Minister aware of the deep concern among many of our European Union allies, including those who are loyal allies of NATO, such as Germany and Italy? Would the Government support efforts made in particular by the German Government and others to try to bring Russia and possibly China within a negotiation that would allow the ABM treaty to survive and any possible NMD initiative to be associated with large-scale disarmament proposals under the Start 2 and Start 3 treaties?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we fully understand how serious and sensitive the issue is but I reaffirm what I said in my Answer. The United States Government are determining how to take the matter forward and they have come to no conclusion in relation to the specific form. It is also clear that the issue is a matter of anxious debate with our European allies and with the Russians. We are comforted by the statements made in particular by Colin Powell that those concerns will be taken into account and that consultations will continue. We believe that we should be fully involved in that situation and we will take those discussions further.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, while it is reassuring to know that the United States will consult with friendly and major nations on the subject, can we have an assurance that the British Government will consult with the British Parliament?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, your Lordships will be aware that in any matter which needs to come through this House or the other place the Government have always honoured their responsibility.

Lord Judd

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that in the hard realities of the age in which we live real dangers face us in the sphere of international terrorism and the possible use of nuclear/chemical weapons by unorthodox means? Does she further agree that before we go down the road of "gi-normous" expenditure, it would be as well to examine how far such a system would defend us against the real and likely attacks which lie ahead?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I repeat that I understand the anxiety that has been generated by the issue. It is serious and sensitive. However, noble Lords will know that we undertook our own Strategic Defence Review in 1998 and as far as we are concerned that review stands. We shall continue to identify those issues which best serve the safety and security of the British people. That is not to fail to recognise the threat. We understand and sympathise with it.

Lord Blaker

My Lords, did not the Foreign Secretary say in Washington on 7th February, as reported in the Financial Times the following day, that an American national missile defence system could yield a net gain? Would the Minister spell out for us his thinking in saying that?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary during his recent visit to Washington made clear that we fully understand and share the concerns of the United States about the threat from weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery. The Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State Colin Powell agreed that we should work together to do all we can to strengthen the international regime against missile proliferation.

National missile defence would be one element of the new Administration's response to the threat and it is not in British interests for our closest allies to feel vulnerable to attack. However, as I have said twice, the new Administration have made clear that they have no firm views on a specific system. Therefore, we must take this stage by stage and not run before we have decided in which direction to walk. We will treat the matter with the same probity and judicious judgment that we have used in the past. The nation's security will remain our priority.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, will the wonderful Freedom of Information Act allow the British public to have access to the details of the agreement we have made with the Americans on the use of Fylingdales and the Mendip Hills and any changes which may be necessary to that agreement in order to accommodate the NMD process?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I do understand. I wish that noble Lords would not run away on certain premises which are false. We have not been asked as yet for use of any of the facilities which the noble Lord described. If and when a request is made by our US allies, we will consider it and make a judicious judgment. That date has not yet arrived.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, told a conference held in Munich on 3rd February that America had a moral duty to press forward with the programme and wanted to discuss how to help the European nations and other allies to deploy missile defences? Does the Minister believe that it would be better for this country to be brought under the protection of a Russian missile defence system rather than a US-led NATO one? Does the Minister not agree that to work with the US rather than against it is the best way to proceed?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, perhaps I may say this, it is to be hoped, clearly and for the last time. We will work energetically with our oldest allies, the United States. This is an issue which we have been working on for quite some time. Noble Lords opposite should be left in no doubt that we understand the ambit of this issue and we will work with energy with all our allies. We are comforted by the fact that America and Russia are talking together about the self same issue.