HL Deb 28 November 2001 vol 629 cc291-3

Lord Hunt of Chesterton asked Her Majesty's Government:

How they are working with the Russian Government to ensure that Russian weapons and technical and scientific capabilities do not become available to international terrorist organisations and enemy countries.

The Minister for Trade (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, the Government have allocated an Interdepartmental budget of £83.8 million for the years 2001–04 to projects to tackle the environmental, security and proliferation threats posed by the former Soviet Union's nuclear legacy. That includes a proportion of a £70 million UK contribution over 10 years to a US/Russia plutonium disposal programme. We are also spending up to £12 million in the same period on chemical and biological non-proliferation projects in Russia.

The proliferation risk posed by Russian weapon scientists and technicians is also taken seriously by the Russian Government and the UK and we co-ordinate our response with that of Russian, EU and United States partners.

Lord Hunt of Chesterton

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. Does she agree that, as I saw on a recent visit to Russia, compared to France, Germany and the United States, our support for Russian defence and other areas of science and technology is not as great as theirs, and that increasing that would be mutually beneficial to the UK and to Russia?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I cannot agree with that. I can agree possibly in relation to the United States, which is a much more wealthy country than the United Kingdom. However, I should tell the noble Lord that when I made reference to the £70 million contribution over a 10-year period to assist with the conversion of Russian weapon-grade plutonium into non-weapon usable form, the United Kingdom is the second largest contributor to that programme after the United States. We are making a greater contribution than either France or Germany. We are also committed to spending £3 million over the next three years on projects which are designed to ensure that nuclear scientists and technicians are not tempted to sell their skills to foreign regimes where they might do some damage. In that respect we contribute more than either France or Germany.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

My Lords, are the Government satisfied that the sums which they are making available are reaching their intended targets? At a briefing for parliamentarians last year given by the British Nuclear Forum, there was widespread criticism of the fact that relatively small parts of the total programme were reaching their intended purposes, as well as criticism of the falling United Kingdom contribution to this effort. Does the Minister accept that there is a good deal to he done if we are to be satisfied that these dangerous materials will not fall into the hands of terrorists?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I certainly accept that this is a serious problem. However, I would point out that among our European partners, the United Kingdom is not only playing its part; we are putting a great deal of money into the effort. There are responsibilities that devolve to Russia. The noble Lord will know that as a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Zangger Committee, Russia is committed to ensuring that transfers of nuclear materials and technology do not fall into the wrong hands. We have regular bilateral talks with the Russians on non-proliferation issues and shall continue to do so.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House what arrangements there have been for inspecting sites such as those where chemical weapons are held to ensure that the money is being used for the purpose it was given? I have heard from an authoritative source that the roads have improved greatly in that area and that a number of interesting and splendid houses have been built for party functionaries. However, there is not much evidence that anyone has done anything about removing chemical weapons or, indeed, looking after the unfortunate villagers who have suffered. What arrangements are there for inspection to prove that the money is being spent in the right way?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, at present we are discussing a further agreement with the Russians in respect of the type of problems raised by the noble Baroness. Perhaps I may suggest to her that if she has evidence—I am sure she has if she says that—she approaches me privately outside the Chamber. I would be happy to learn of any concerns she has and to act upon them. However, it is probably best that we do that privately after Question Time.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether the United States programme, entitled Nunn-Lugar, is continuing? In particular, can she say whether some of the efforts being made between the United States and the United Kingdom to bring contracts to the Russian scientific establishment to ensure that it looks for respectable and non-dangerous employment are continuing?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the programmes I mentioned a moment ago, to which the United Kingdom contributes £3 million, involve also the European Union. As the noble Baroness indicated, there are also programmes which involve the United States. This is an area where constant vigilance is necessary. This matter would have been discussed between the United States and Russia—most recently between President Putin and President Bush—in discussions about their future nuclear relationship. They are now considering a new framework to discuss the particular threats of the 21st century. That is being done in the spirit of partners and friends, which is a constructive way to reach agreement. The noble Baroness can rest assured that in relation to scientists the United States is as engaged—probably rather more so in financial terms—as the United Kingdom.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House whether any of the missile grade material from Russia could be reprocessed at the new plant in Sellafield which has just been given permission to operate?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot answer that question, but I am sure that there are those who can. I shall do my best to find out and write to the noble Lord.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right that the Russians are well aware of the problem. Will she agree that her noble friend Lord Hunt has raised an issue of the utmost and immediate seriousness? In addition, there are as many as 12 states, quite aside from the terrorist networks, which are trying to purchase illegally procured nuclear and other toxic materials from ex-Soviet Union and ex-Russian stocks. Will she agree that that is a matter that is almost as urgent as dealing with the problems of the Al'Qaeda network in Afghanistan and elsewhere? Will she further agree that the great coalition should be turning its mind today to new attempts and new arrangements to try to curb the dissemination of that material before the next terrorist horror occurs?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I shall not confirm the number of states which may be trying to purchase material from Russia. As the noble Lord would expect, there is a certain amount of information on these matters in intelligence circles. I am sure that the noble Lord would not want to press me on numbers or the states involved.

I agree with the noble Lord that my noble friend has raised a very important point. I hope that the information that I have given to the House has reassured noble Lords that the United Kingdom is playing a leading part in Europe in dealing not only with the material that might be the subject of such purchases from states that we would not want to make such purchases, but also with the very important question of what happens to the professional expertise of the scientists. We need to concentrate on the people as well as on the material concerns.

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