HL Deb 01 November 2001 vol 627 cc1510-2

3.10 p.m.

Lord Archer of Sandwell asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they anticipate that the proposed protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention, providing for effective investigation and enforcement, will be agreed.

The Minister for Trade (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, the 24th session of the Biological Weapons Convention Ad Hoc Group, which took place in August this year, concluded without agreement on a protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention. The United Kingdom is continuing to work with states parties to ensure that multilateral negotiations resume at an early stage following the fifth review conference of the convention in Geneva, which is due to take place between 19th November and 7th December.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, will my noble friend accept my thanks for that Answer and my congratulations to the Government, who have given a vigorous lead throughout this project? Does she agree that events have demonstrated so dramatically the need for an effective verification regime that words are almost superfluous? Are the American reservations essentially that the draft protocol does not go far enough? If so, is there not a danger of the "best being the enemy of the good"? If the protocol is not in place in time for the review conference in November, will my noble friend assure the House that it will not be left high and dry, like so many worthwhile projects which have missed their time?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thank my noble and learned friend for his plaudit for Her Majesty's Government on the vigorous way in which we have pursued the protocol. He is right: it is argued in relation to the convention that we need not only verification procedures but also enforcement procedures. The United States felt unable to support the protocol because it believed that it would be ineffective in preventing the proliferation of biological weapons and that it would place an unacceptable burden on United States commercial and defence interests. I remind my noble and learned friend that, although the United States found difficulty with the protocol, it made clear its commitment to strengthening the convention. It has now come forward with proposals about ways in which that might be done. I hope that we shall be able to make some progress at the review conference.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, is it not the position that the new American proposals go considerably further than the convention and that they have been presented in London and in other capitals? I believe that they would require new, tighter controls on imports and exports of biological material. What is the Government's attitude to this additional commitment by the Americans? Would it involve changes in our law, and has that been considered?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the United States' proposals were received somewhat later than had originally been anticipated—for the understandable reasons that the US government departments concerned were preoccupied following the events of 11th September. I agree with the noble Lord that some of the proposals are far-reaching, including the criminalisation of possession. They include, for example, improving the network for reporting disease that may flow from the use of biological weapons, stricter controls on pathogen handling and a rapid reaction force in the event of any attack. Those are only a few examples.

The noble Lord asked about the United Kingdom's reaction. We are studying the proposals with great interest. I cannot give the noble Lord a blow-by-blow account, but what is being suggested has particular force in the light of what, sadly, we have seen happen in recent days and weeks in the United States. As for any changes to United Kingdom law, those would have to be considered in the light of any agreements that were made internationally.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, does the Minister recall that during the passage through this House of the protocol to the chemical weapons convention there was some discussion about the invasion of sovereignty which an effective implementation and inspection regime involves? Is the Minister clear—I hope that Her Majesty's Government are saying this to the United States—that, if there is to be an effective enforcement regime, it must be as effective and as detailed within democratic countries, whatever the commercial interests of their companies, as it is in other countries?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I have no problem agreeing with what the noble Lord says. Indeed, the United Kingdom supported the protocol very vigorously indeed. We, together with our European partners, expressed some regret that the United States did not find itself in a position to do so. But we must look on the positive side. The United States has now come forward with some encouraging proposals—in particular, regarding the investigation of suspect outbreaks of disease and possible ways in which the international community can come together. If there are to be international verification procedures, that suggests that all countries must make up their minds where they stand on the issue of sovereignty. I believe that the United Kingdom has already made that very clear.

Lord Hunt of Chesterton

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is essential that every scientific and technological effort should be used to improve the detection of biological weapons and the prevention of their use and the consequent medical effects? Does she further agree that the current levels of science and technology in these areas are not sufficient, and that verification is therefore necessary along the lines of the convention?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree that every effort must be made to utilise all available ability and expertise in science and technology, both nationally and internationally, in order to take on the threat that any form of biological weaponry may pose not only to this country or to our allies but anywhere in the world. I am not in a position personally to express an expert view on whether there is sufficient scientific and technological capability in this country or elsewhere to fulfil that task. However, I can assure my noble friend that there are many in government who are in a position so to do and their expertise will be called upon when the convention is reviewed between the 19th of this month and the 7th of next month.