HL Deb 15 November 2001 vol 628 cc675-7

3.14 p.m.

Lord Judd

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they are taking towards the establishment of a global bio-security order.

The Minister for Trade (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government believe that the best way to achieve global security on biological weapons is to press for the universal adoption of the Biological Weapons Convention. We welcome proposals that have been made for practical and effective measures to meet the biological weapons threat. We hope that those can be agreed at the 5th Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention, which is due to take place in Geneva from 19th November to 7th December.

Lord Judd

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Does she agree that recent events in the United States have underlined the indispensable need for adequate control and accountability arrangements as regards potential sources of supply? Does she further agree that, for any international regime to be effective, enforcement and inspection in all countries—without exception—is vital? If the United States still finds it impossible to endorse the protocol on which the UK Government have carried out so much work, can my noble friend tell the House what will be the position of the UK Government as regards the proposals being put forward by the United States?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, when noble Lords last discussed the matter around two weeks ago, I believe that I told the House that the United States did find it impossible to endorse the protocol but had put forward suggestions as regards strengthening the convention itself. We welcome those suggestions. They address a number of important issues: improving international disease control; enacting international criminal legislation; along with a number of other measures which will be extremely useful. For our part, we would welcome any proposals that provide practical and effective measures to meet the biological weapons threat. As regards inspections and other issues which have given cause for concern in the United States, of course those will be matters for discussion and negotiation during what will be a fairly lengthy conference period.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, if the United States does not sign up to the Biological Weapons Convention, the convention will then be seen as fatally flawed? Given the implications of the recent anthrax attacks, which it is suspected may have emanated from terrorist acts committed within the United States itself, the global perspective of the threat should give the United States cause to reconsider its position. Are the Government pressing the United States to do so?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, towards the end of July this year, the United Kingdom Government, in concert with our colleagues in the European Union, expressed to the United States our disappointment over its decision not to endorse the protocol. The noble Lord is quite right to say that United States participation in the convention—here I draw a distinction between the convention and the protocol—is enormously important. The United States pharmaceutical industry produces around 40 per cent of the world's supply of pharmaceuticals. Without the participation of the United States, of course there would be no real incentive to press other countries that we very much want to see sign the original convention. I shall mention Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Iran as only a few examples, although they are all extremely important countries. As I have said, it will be far more difficult to persuade other countries to adopt the convention. Therefore we must address not only the issue of the United States itself, but also the issue of the United States and its ability to act as an incentive to other countries.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, the Biological Weapons Convention is vitally important, but the Question tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, raised the issue of global bio-security. Global bio-security is a concern of the World Health Organisation, which has put forward a range of proposals to establish a balanced approach to antimicrobial agents as regards whether they should be used to aid animal health. If they are overused, they may pose a risk of infecting food. Can the Minister tell the House the Government's response to the WHO proposals put forward in relation to global bio-security, which I believe is what the Question seeks to address?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I had understood that the main concern of my noble friend related to the threat of biological weapons. I believe that that is the thrust of both his Question and his supplementary question. As regards the proposals being put forward by the WHO, of course the noble Lord is quite right to point out that that organisation plays an important role as regards the wider issues of bio-security. Perhaps I may consult with my colleagues in the Department of Health and write a detailed response to the point that the noble Lord has raised.

Lord Tanlaw

My Lords, can the Minister include in her deliberations on this matter consideration of the risk of biological threat from outer space? Tonight a meeting will be held of the All-Party Astronomy and Space Environment Group. It will hear a scientific case for human space exploration. Is the Minister aware that, within the next two or three years, samples from other planets will come to the earth's surface which may contain serious biological threats? What is to be done about that?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree that the wider issues of bio-security extend a great deal further than this planet. I shall do what I can to find out what is happening in other departments on the wider question raised by the noble Lord. That means obtaining a wide variety of advice from different scientific sources around government. I shall endeavour to do that before writing to the noble Lord.