HL Deb 24 January 2001 vol 621 cc260-3

2.57 p.m.

Lord Burnham asked Her Majesty's Government:

What communication they have had with President George W. Bush about United Kingdom co-operation with work to put in place an anti-ballistic missile shield.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, we have had no communication with President George W. Bush about national missile defence, but we look forward to discussing this and other issues with the new Administration over the coming months.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply, which is slightly disappointing. I express the hope that her colleague is not freezing in her tent in Antarctica, which is presumably colder than Scotland. Can the Minister tell the House whether the Government will take the initiative to persuade our European allies to support the American initiative in the anti-ballistic missile shield?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, I am not sure why the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, is disappointed. I remind him that the Bush Administration has not yet been in office for a week. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister made clear last week in another place, we entirely understand America's reasons for wishing to develop a national missile defence system, but the new Administration has made it clear that it has no firm views on a specific system. It is not for us to say how they should deal with a perceived threat.

President Bush, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Powell have all made clear the need to consult with allies and with Russia as they determine how to tackle the threat posed by missile proliferation. As I said yesterday to the House in answer to another Question, we welcome that. Of course, we want to see strategic stability preserved and we are sympathetic to the concerns of the United States.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there can be nothing more foolish than to commit ourselves in advance to an untested and unknown system before there has been consultation with allies and without regard to the outcome of such consultation? Does she also agree that the emphasis that was placed on the possibility of space-based or sea-based national missile defence systems would suggest, in particular, a considerable concern for China in view of its geographical placement?

Finally, does she agree that it is vital to have the widest possible consultation with NATO allies and with other countries similar to that to which the Secretary of State in the new Administration has clearly indicated he is committed?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, as I indicated in my Answer, the new Administration has not made clear any firm views on a specific system. As the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, rightly said, in addition to Colin Powell, of the Secretary of State, President Bush and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld have made clear the need to consult with allies and with Russia as they determine to tackle the threat proposed by missile proliferation.

In the present situation, no one knows whether a request will be made. If a request is made, no one knows what it will be and no one knows what the global, political and military context will be if such a request is made. Therefore, forming replies now would seem to be a pointless exercise.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that it remains Her Majesty's Government's policy to get rid of nuclear weapons altogether and that ABM is in direct conflict with that aim?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, as I assured my noble friend Lord Jenkins yesterday, our ultimate aim is to have global nuclear disarmament.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, the Minister is right in saying that it is early days for the new American Administration. However, with Iraq again working on longer range missiles and with the horrific warheads it plans to put on them, and with Iran testing a missile with a range of more than 1,000 miles, are we not moving to the point where considerable new dangers threaten the entire European continent and our region? Should we not be doing a little more than merely waiting for a request? Should we not be taking an active initiative with American technologists and defence chiefs in seeing how we can prevent these increasing dangers from threatening the security of everyone in the European region?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, we understand the concerns of the United States. We, too, are concerned about missile proliferation. Currently, we see no significant threat to the United Kingdom but we continue to assess the range of threats and the best means to overcome them, including the case for ballistic missile defence. Our present research work is focused on the threat to UK-deployed forces. It is also the focus of the feasibility study that we and our allies commissioned in NATO last year. I can assure the House that we will continue to assess the range of threats and the best means to overcome them, including the case for a ballistic missile defence. It is certainly not the case that we are doing nothing.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the arguments which is frequently put forward against assisting the United States in this endeavour is the ABM treaty? If so, will she make clear to the House that the ABM treaty was an agreement between the then Soviet Union and America not to deploy missile defences so that their populations were vulnerable to each other's missiles? That was the concept known as "mutual assured destruction" or, perhaps more appropriately, MAD?

Does the Minister further agree that it is somewhat strange that the people who are so outraged by the principle of mutual assured destruction are the very same people who are complaining about measures being taken to defend their populations against it?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, I am in broad agreement with the thrust of what the noble Lord says. Of course he is right that the ABM treaty is important and we would not like to see it damaged. But neither would the Americans. The previous and new Administrations have made clear that they see the importance of consulting both with allies and Russia.

Lord Blaker

My Lords, when last year President Clinton proposed the installation of a national missile defence, was not the reaction of President Putin to a renegotiation of the anti-ballistic missile treaty not wholly hostile? If the Americans decide to install an anti-ballistic missile system, would not such a renegotiation between at least those two parties be a useful course of action?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, renegotiations will not be easy and the noble Lord is right in saying that the initial reaction from Russia was hostile. But that is the point of negotiation. Talks continued and I am sure that the new Administration, as it has said, will ensure that it will consult with Russia as well as with its allies.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, will my noble friend assure the House that the subject of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty will be on the agenda for discussions with the new Administration, when they take place?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, there is great interest in that subject. We can say only that we have noted that Secretary of State, Colin Powell, in his statement at his confirmation hearing, said that the new Administration would not ask the Senate to reconsider. However, he also said that the US would not resume testing as there was no need to do so in the foreseeable future. He further said that he would consider a report prepared for President Clinton by General Shalikashvili which argued in favour of US ratification. So we shall certainly examine ways of encouraging the entry into force of the CTBT.

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