HL Deb 08 May 2001 vol 625 cc899-901

3 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney asked Her Majesty's Government:

Given that their aim of a nuclear weapon-free world would require Trident and its weapons to be destroyed, when and how they envisage this taking place.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, the Government wish to see a safer world in which there is no place for nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, while large nuclear arsenals and risks of proliferation remain, Britain's minimum deterrent is a necessary element of national security. We have made it clear that when we are satisfied with progress in mutual, balanced and verifiable reductions in nuclear arsenals, we shall include British weapons in multilateral negotiations.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, does the Minister agree that both policies which the Government claim to support are directly opposed to each other? One policy envisages a considerable spread of nuclear weapons and the other their total abolition. Is not the Government's position in this matter in serious need of clarification? If they have any difficulty in dealing with that question, will the Government approach the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Carver, who has considerable experience in this area?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord has considerable experience in this area of policy and his views are always welcome. We made it very clear when we were elected that we would retain Trident while pressing for progress towards multilateral nuclear disarmament. We have made good our pledge on multilateral nuclear disarmament by abolishing the free-fall bomb in March 1998, by substantially reducing our nuclear arsenal and by greater transparency in our stockpiles of nuclear and fissile material. We have also pressed very hard internationally on this point. I believe that the Government have stuck faithfully to what they undertook to do at the time of the previous election.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, perhaps the Minister can assist me on one small matter of logic. If someone is against Trident and wants to destroy it, would not one expect that person to be in favour of ballistic missile defence?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we have been clear about what we seek to do in respect of Trident. We have not retained weapons that we do not believe are necessary. That exactly reflects the position articulated by the President of the United States only last week when he said that the US deterrent would be reduced to the minimum necessary. As to missile defence, today we receive in London our friends from the United States led by Steve Hadley, Deputy National Security Adviser. We shall further discuss national missile defence during the course of the day, and I hope that we shall then have a clearer view of what the United States is asking us to consider.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, in welcoming the US announcement of substantial unilateral reductions in the large nuclear arsenals which it possesses, I ask the noble Baroness whether she will also use her influence to persuade the Americans that a multilateral approach to a reduction in nuclear weapons, which would succeed in persuading the Russians to take similar action, would be rather more constructive.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I do not believe that we should underestimate the importance of President Bush's announcement last week. It is possible that some political commentators did not read President Bush's announcement last week quite as carefully as I know the noble Lord will have done. The noble Lord will be aware that the United States President said that the US could arid would change the size, composition and character of its nuclear forces, and that in a different part of his speech he stressed the importance that he attached to international negotiations on what was happening not only in relation to nuclear missile defence but missile defence in general. At the moment the US is considering not simply nuclear defence but other very potent chemical and biological weapons, as well as the more conventional weapons that are being developed by some rogue states throughout the world.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, will the noble Baroness attempt to remind the House of the occasions when the Government have moved at all to get some action taken about the 40,000 or so nuclear warheads which exist and which will be a real threat to the peace of the world for as long as they exist? I cannot recall the Government saying or doing anything about them.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, perhaps I may remind the noble Lord of the agreed strength and international safeguard arrangements which we put forward in September 1998, with the International Atomic Energy Authority in a monitoring role. I also remind the noble Lord that last year we pressed the matter very hard at the nuclear non-proliferation treaty review conference, the final document of which spoke of an international unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear weapons states to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals. I believe that the Government have attempted to ensure that the threat posed by nuclear missiles throughout the world is taken seriously not only in this country but also by our friends—and those who may not be quite so friendly—overseas.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, in welcoming the American initiative on nuclear defence, I ask the noble Baroness what steps Her Majesty's Government are taking to reconcile the people of Fylingdales, and other places which may be affected, to the intrusion (if that is the right word) into their areas of this very necessary defence initiative.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, to respond to the noble Lord with all the sincerity that I can muster, until we are clear exactly what the US wishes us to consider it is very difficult to be reassuring on specific points. Until there are specific proposals, we can make no specific responses. Therefore, it is very difficult to be specific with people in the locality who may be affected. If such proposals are forthcoming, they will be important not only for local people—I recognise the importance for those who live near these installations—but for all the people in the United Kingdom.