HL Deb 09 July 2001 vol 626 cc930-3

3.6 p.m.

Lord Judd

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What arrangements they are making to evaluate the relevance of a missile defence system to their national and international security priorities, with particular reference to the outcome of the last defence review.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Bach)

My Lords, consistent with the Strategic Defence Review, we continue to assess the potential role of missile defence systems as part of a broad ranging response to missile and weapons of mass destruction proliferation. Our position of monitoring developments, both in the threat and in defensive technologies, our involvement in NATO studies and our dialogue with allies all help us to make informed judgments on security priorities. But it would be premature to decide to acquire a ballistic missile defence capability.

Lord Judd

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Does he agree that any missile defence system will have immense expenditure implications, with far-reaching consequences for our existing defence strategy introduced after the recent defence review? Therefore, does he also agree that it is absolutely essential that, before we drift into any commitment from which it may be increasingly difficult to extricate ourselves, there is a convincing threat analysis that demonstrates why such a system is necessary and could be effective? Does my noble friend agree that we must be clear about the consequences for arms control and disarmament, which must remain a cornerstone of global security? Is not terrorism, in its nuclear, biological and chemical dimensions, a much more immediate threat? Is that being addressed adequately?

Lord Bach

My Lords, there will be no drift at all into such a defence system. Perhaps I may quote from the SDR published some three years ago. It states that systems, may play a role within a balanced spectrum of capabilities to counter the risks posed by chemical and biological weapons and their means of delivery. But technologies in this area are changing rapidly and it would, at this stage, be premature to decide on acquiring such a capability". It went on to say: We will, however, monitor developments in the risks posed by ballistic missiles and in the technology available to counter them, participate in NATO studies, and work closely with our Allies to inform future decisions". That was two or three years ago and it is exactly the policy that we have followed since then. What we said then applies now. Of course, my noble friend is right that any system would be very expensive. As far as disarmament is concerned, the goal of Her Majesty's Government is the global elimination of nuclear weapons. That remains our policy.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, in the course of such monitoring, has the Minister come across the recently published internal US Defence Department study that indicates that the testing of missile defences is, first, long-delayed, secondly, subject to a high level of failure, and, thirdly, does not take into account the use of sophisticated decoys? Has he seen the article in the contemporary issue of Foreign Affairs by Mr John Newhouse, an outstanding expert, who argues that the single greatest threat to global security arises from the growing and dangerous disrepair of the Russian strategic forces?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I have not had the benefit of seeing either of the articles to which the noble Baroness refers. However, she can be assured that I will have seen them by this time tomorrow afternoon. I take great note of what she says and I know that she understands our policy, which we have made clear, that in considering any future request from the United States implications for United Kingdom security will be a major consideration.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, has not the noble Lord, Lord Judd, put the cart before the horse? Is it not the policy of government that defence review and defence provision should take account of the reality of missile defence and is not that matter under continuous consideration?

Lord Bach

My Lords, of course it is under continuous review, and that is how I answered my noble friend Lord Judd. But there is no question of our drifting into a policy of ballistic missile defence. We will make a decision on the matter when we feel that it is right, in our interest, to do so. At the present time, we believe that it is premature.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that his confirmation that none of these later developments affect the Government's commitment to the achievement of a nuclear-free world will receive world-wide support and acclaim?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend, who has shown a huge interest in this subject throughout a long and distinguished career.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, the Minister gave me a complete brush-off when a few days ago I asked him about new construction at Menwith Hill. It is a matter of common knowledge that new radomes have appeared on the site and that pictures of them have appeared in national newspapers. Surely therefore it is a matter which we can discuss in this House.

The Minister says that there is no question of our drifting into a national missile defence policy. However, when we see those new constructions at Menwith Hill, and in the absence of any statement by the Minister or his colleagues, are we not entitled to draw a conclusion as to what they consist of?

Lord Bach

My Lords, the noble Lord can draw whatever conclusions he likes. The fact remains—I said this last Thursday in the House—that it has never been the policy of governments of any colour to comment on specific security measures. Tempting as the noble Lord may be in the way he poses the question for the second time in four days, I shall not comment further.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Judd, referred to ballistic missile defence in the context of the Strategic Defence Review. When that review was put together three years ago, the BMD was not in consideration. Can the Government assure us that if it is agreed to go ahead with BMD the money will be made available over and above the existing defence budget?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am not in a position to give that assurance to the noble Lord today. Let us take things one stage at a time. At this stage no decision has been made and none is imminent. We do not yet know what the United States may or may not ask for. When we know that, I shall be in a position to answer the noble Lord better.