HL Deb 07 February 2002 vol 631 cc734-6

3.8 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney asked Her Majesty's Government:

What actions they are taking to reduce the danger of nuclear war.

The Minister for Trade (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, since the end of the Cold War, the day-to-day danger of nuclear exchange has much diminished and nuclear weapons arsenals have been greatly reduced but we are not complacent. Dangers remain, for instance, in tensions caused by regional conflicts. We are working to address those through diplomacy, international conflict prevention activity and by work to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. All of those approaches are designed to contribute towards creating the circumstances in which our ultimate goal of global nuclear disarmament can be achieved.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, I am glad that the Government are not complacent. I am sure that the House generally will share that view. It may also share the view that some further action to demonstrate that lack of complacency would not be unwelcome.

I recall an interview that I had with Mr Attlee in the demobilisation period in 1947. He said that the view that I expressed, which was that nuclear weapons had to be got rid of, had been shared at an even "higher level"—as he put it, pulling my leg. The higher level concerned was the supremo himself, Lord Mountbatten. It was his view that we must get rid of this damn thing quickly or the damn thing will get rid of us. We have been spared that, although it has sometimes been a close-run thing. But we must not be complacent. I suggest that the Government should be called on to demonstrate that lack of complacency more fully than they have done hitherto.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I certainly shall not in any way attempt to challenge my noble friend's extraordinary expertise which goes back over many years on this very important issue. Perhaps I may suggest that I write to him with a full list of all the measures that the Government have taken since May 1997 to further the cause of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. It is a long list with well over 10 items. Perhaps if I do that, and place it in the Library of your Lordships' House, it will give my noble friend the information that he needs.

I should also like to point out to my noble friend that we are very much looking forward to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty preparatory conference which is due to take place in April this year. At that conference we shall again return to some of the issues in which I know my noble friend is interested, including of course pressing very hard for negotiations on a fissile material cut-off treaty. I believe that that lies very much at the heart of taking this issue forward.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, is the Minister aware that we on this side of the House rather welcome the sudden change of view by the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary on the matter of antiballistic missiles and his apparent recognition now that the abrogation or bypassing of the ABM treaty would actually assist in non-proliferation, assist and accelerate the task of nuclear disarmament and reducing nuclear weapons, and is of no threat to Russia whatever? That is what he said yesterday. Will the Minister endorse that welcome change of view? Will she reject strongly the views that we have heard in both your Lordships' House and another place in the past that somehow this move would lead to a new arms race and bring Russia raging into the nuclear battle again? In fact, it would do the opposite, would it not?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I think that I had better send the noble Lord a copy of the speech. I am sure that he has read it. I certainly have done so. It does not say quite what the press says that it says. I have never heard my right honourable friend, or indeed any member of the Government, suggest that the plans put forward by the American Administration would lead to a new arms race. I assure the noble Lord that what may have changed is the spin put on by the press of what my right honourable friend said, but his position has not changed.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, can the Minister say how much influence the British Government have over these bilateral conversations or negotiations between the United States and Russia about the abrogation and replacement of the ABM treaty? If the British Government do have any influence, could we bring that influence to bear on the American Government to suggest that they should accept Russian proposals that those nuclear weapons removed should be destroyed and not simply stored?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, these are essentially discussions between the United States and Russia. It is a treaty between those two parties. But naturally we are interested in ensuring that they have peaceful and useful discussions. I do think that the US posture review has taken this position forward. The START I treaty allows both sides to have in the region of 6,000 deployable warheads. The American proposals would reduce the deployable operational warheads to between 1,700 and 2,200. We await the Russian response to that. Another key part of their discussions will be the arrangements that can be made between those two countries on transparency and verification. We very much encourage them to stick at those discussions.

Lord Renton

My Lords, has the Prime Minister's attempt to persuade the Governments of India and Pakistan not to use nuclear weapons against each other been successful?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, happily we have not seen the use of these appalling weapons between those two countries. But recent tensions speak for themselves. Tensions between India and Pakistan make progress on a non-proliferation agenda all the more important, not just for the safety of south Asia but for the whole world. So the noble Lord, Lord Renton, is right; it is enormously important that we continue to press both countries to engage as soon as possible in dialogue on nuclear confidence-building measures. It is also very important that we encourage both countries to sign up to the non-proliferation treaty. We want to see them signed up as non-nuclear weapons states. That is an enormously important aspect of what we are encouraging them to do.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale

My Lords, can my noble friend say what pressure Her Majesty's Government are bringing to bear on the Government of Iran to abandon their development of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we encourage all countries which hold weapons of mass destruction—whether chemical, biological or nuclear—to abandon them. I make no distinction here. We are of course very concerned by the rumours concerning Iran's possible development of nuclear weapons. But I come back to the point that I made to my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Putney, that one of the crucial issues in this matter is to move towards a treaty on fissile material. It is self-evident that, in order to develop nuclear weapons, countries must be able to get hold of fissile material. The control of that fissile material through a treaty which has been deadlocked is a very important issue for us to take forward in the discussions which we hope to pursue in April.

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