HC Deb 03 May 2000 vol 349 cc66-87WH

11 am

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

I am grateful for the opportunity to open this debate on the review conference of the non-proliferation treaty. The conference opened on 24 April and will continue until 19 May, so the timing of the debate is highly appropriate.

This debate follows an Adjournment debate on the wider topic of weapons of mass destruction and the implications for global security that took place in Westminster Hall a few weeks ago, which was timed to coincide with the launch of the all-party group on global security and non-proliferation. It also follows a very interesting visit to the United Kingdom by the United Nations Secretary-General's special envoy for peace and disarmament, Mr. Michael Douglas, who addressed a well-attended meeting in this Chamber some weeks ago. He called on the UK to use its particular influence in international negotiations to ensure that the NPT review conference was a success and that nuclear weapons states and non-nuclear weapons states reaffirmed their commitment to achieving global nuclear disarmament.

The UK's attitude to nuclear weapons is not typical of most countries. The national Governments and peoples of most countries long ago rejected nuclear weapons as the cornerstone of their defence policies. The overwhelming majority of states are now strongly committed to seeking the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.

In the post-cold war era, the debate about nuclear weapons is very different from 20 years ago. There is now a consensus among nuclear weapons states and non-nuclear weapons states that the disarmament process must continue. The United States and Russia have taken major steps forward in that direction, although they have not yet gone far enough. The debate now centres on the means by which the commitment to global nuclear disarmament, as enshrined in the non-proliferation treaty, can be achieved.

The non-proliferation treaty was signed in 1968 and came into force in 1970. Originally, it was signed by 182 countries, which agreed not to acquire nuclear weapons. Some of them abandoned the nuclear programmes that they had already started. The treaty allowed the five current nuclear weapons states to continue to hold their weapons on condition that they promised to end the arms race and work towards nuclear disarmament. The treaty now has 187 members, at least two of which have unfortunately violated their treaty obligations. Four states remain outside the treaty, three of which—India, Pakistan and Israel—are now nuclear weapons capable.

The treaty was initially agreed for a 25-year period. At the 1995 review conference, after some debate, it was extended indefinitely. Significantly, the 1995 conference also agreed to three further measures: first, to conclude a comprehensive test ban treaty by the following year, secondly, to commence negotiations on a fissile material cut-off treaty—that is, a treaty banning the production of fissile material—and thirdly, to increase efforts to pursue nuclear arms reduction.

At the heart of the non-proliferation treaty is article 6, which makes it clear that the treaty is about the commitment to nuclear disarmament, not just arms control or reduction. It says: Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control. Since 1995, there have been many worrying trends in global politics. In May 1998, two major countries that have fought a number of wars and engaged in continuing conflict since their formation tested nuclear weapons. The tests conducted by India and Pakistan have changed the international climate on nuclear weapons, placing a question mark over the capability and willingness of the international community to continue to seek their complete elimination. In October 1999, the United States Senate rejected ratification of the comprehensive test ban treaty, which had been agreed at the 1995 Europe review conference.

Two new states, Iraq and North Korea, are suspected of developing a nuclear weapons capability and have resisted international efforts to monitor and supervise their weapons programmes. NATO has reaffirmed its strategic doctrine, which puts nuclear weapons at the heart of its defence policy. In recent weeks, the new president of Russia, Mr. Putin, has also engaged in a new form of rhetoric, stressing the importance of Russia's nuclear weapons. Ratification of the START 2 treaty in Russia was seriously delayed, although—thankfully—it has been ratified in the past few weeks. At the conference on disarmament in Geneva, negotiations on the fissile material ban have resulted in deadlock. We have also learned of the United States' intention to seek an amendment to the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty to allow it to extend its anti-ballistic missile defence capacity beyond a single city and a single intercontinental ballistic missile site—as envisaged in the 1972 treaty—to the whole of the United States.

In that respect, the past five years have led to pessimism about the willingness of the international community to implement the principles of article 6 of the non-proliferation treaty. However, not everything has been pessimistic; there have been positive moves. The Russian Duma's recent ratification of the START 2 arms reduction treaty will pave the way for ratification by the United States Senate and negotiations on the START 3 treaty. START 2 cut the United States' nuclear weapons capability by approximately 60 per cent. If agreement is reached on START 3, it will cut Russia's nuclear arsenal by approximately 80 per cent. compared with the peaks of the cold war period.

There has been greater co-operation between the United States and Russia in respect of financial help for Russia's disarmament and nuclear clean-up programme. I pay tribute to the efforts of the United Kingdom Government and Lord Robertson, the former Secretary of State for Defence, in particular. His strategic defence review of July 1998 announced a significant cut, from 300 to 200, in the UK's warhead stockpile. That is equivalent to a nearly 70 per cent. cut in potential explosive power. The Trident patrol cycle has been relaxed, so that only one boat is on patrol at any time. The alert status of Trident has been reduced, so that missiles can now be fired only at several days' notice. The United Kingdom's stocks of fissile material have been cut, and a welcome new transparency of information about those stocks has been introduced. Earlier, the decision was taken to end the use of the RAF's WA 177 free-fall nuclear bombs.

On the international front, there has been a most interesting development by the non-nuclear weapons states, eight of which formed a new alliance, known as the new agenda coalition, in 1998. Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa and Sweden published a major declaration in 1998 calling for a general convention banning nuclear weapons. They put their statement to the United Nations in December 1998 and obtained the support of 114 states, with only 18 states voting against the proposal and 38 abstaining. Significantly, one of the abstentions was from China, which is one of the five nuclear weapons states.

The review conference opened at the end of April. I shall focus on the two main arguments put forward at that conference to date: the position statements made by the nuclear weapons states and the new agenda coalition. The nuclear weapons states, represented by the spokesman from France, published a major document providing welcome reassurances about their continued commitment to the NPT process, from which I shall quote selectively. The French spokesman said unequivocally: We remain committed to fulfilling all our obligations under the Treaty…We reiterate our unequivocal commitment to the ultimate goals of a complete elimination of nuclear weapons and a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control. The French spokesman also cited the many significant multilateral, bilateral and unilateral developments since 1995, and reassured the conference of the determination of the nuclear weapons states to ensure that the comprehensive test ban treaty was a universal and internationally and effectively verifiable treaty and to secure its early entry into force. That early entry is dependent on ratification by the United States Senate. The statement also reaffirmed the importance of a ban on the production of fissile material and urged the conference on disarmament in Geneva to agree on a programme of work to secure one as soon as possible.

In emphasising the importance of co-operation between the non-weapons states and the weapons states, the French spokesman also declared that none of the nuclear weapons held by the five weapons states is targeted at any other state. In respect of the START 2 and 3 arms reduction treaties, he said: We look forward to the conclusion of START III as soon as possible while preserving and strengthening the— anti-ballistic missile treaty— as a cornerstone of strategic stability and as a basis for further reductions of strategic offensive weapons, in accordance with its provisions. We are committed to placing as soon as practicable fissile materials designated by each of us as no longer required for defence purposes under IAEA or other relevant international verification. Reference was made to the creation of the two new nuclear weapons-free zones since 1995 in south-east Asia and Africa, and support was expressed for the continued establishment of further nuclear weapons-free zones, especially in central Asia.

In conclusion, the French spokesman said on behalf of the nuclear weapons states: We are determined to take a forward-looking approach to nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament. The NPT provides an indispensable framework for future efforts against nuclear proliferation and towards nuclear disarmament. We fully acknowledge our particular responsibility and key role in ensuring continued progress in the implementation of the NPT. The rhetoric of the nuclear weapons states was extremely encouraging and positive, but, 30 years after the treaty came into force, the world still has the capacity to destroy itself many times over with its existing stock of nuclear weapons.

I want to focus on the position of the states represented by the new agenda coalition and their efforts to persuade the nuclear weapons states to treat the disarmament process more seriously and specifically to ensure that when the next review conference takes place in 2005, there can be no doubt that the world is on its way to total nuclear disarmament.

The Foreign Minister of Mexico, Ms Green, was the spokesman for the new agenda coalition. In her opening remarks she said: This…Review Conference offers us a unique opportunity to move definitively forward in the achievement of a world without nuclear weapons. We have reached the juncture when more far-reaching action must be decided upon. It has been a theme of many contributors to the conference so far that this is the year when the world must choose whether to embark on a serious programme of global nuclear disarmament or find itself drawn down the road of further proliferation, with nuclear weapons being seen by more and more states as a normal part of their defence policy.

Ms Green quoted the example of other categories of weapons of mass destruction that have already been subject to reduction and, in some cases, elimination by international treaty. She was critical of the statements by some countries, which she described as re-statements of policies and postures which reaffirm the central role of nuclear weapons in strategic concepts and the possibility of fighting war with the use of nuclear weapons. That rhetoric is not the prerogative of any one country or group of countries. Countries and military alliances in all parts of the world have been guilty of it in recent years.

Ms Green was concerned about the re-rationalization of nuclear weapons in an age when the context which gave rise to the original proliferation of nuclear weapons among the five nuclear weapon states has long disappeared. As the cold war is now long over and, in spite of the many difficulties that face the world and the many global and regional conflicts that still take place, the original rationale of mutually assured destruction has long since become obsolete, the use of nuclear weapons as the central plank of defence policy is equally obsolete.

Ms Green acknowledged the various unilateral measures undertaken by two of the five nuclear weapons states, but called for the early involvement of all five nuclear weapon states in bringing about the elimination of their respective nuclear forces. We consider that the principle of irreversibility should be applied to all disarmament measures. We look to greater transparency as the nuclear disarmament process gains pace. The new agenda coalition has been consistently critical of the nuclear weapons states' failure to take detailed action to set in motion the 1970 treaty commitment. Time and again Ms Green, on behalf of the coalition, has called for a commitment to specific policies, such as no first use. Of the five nuclear weapon states, only China has committed itself to a no-first-use policy. Another example is de-alerting nuclear weapons and separating warheads from delivery vehicles. Another is the withdrawal of non-strategic nuclear weapons from deployment. The United Kingdom has done that, but other nuclear weapons states have not. The coalition also wants legally binding security assurances to the non-nuclear weapons states, so that they feel secure without nuclear weapons.

The comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty was referred to as an essential building block in the nuclear disarmament agenda and the onus remains on the United States Senate to ratify it. It was agreed in 1995 that a fissile material ban would be an important next step forward, but there has been little if any progress on that in Geneva since 1995.

The new agenda coalition is also convinced that the establishment and gradual extension of nuclear-free zones is an important part in the wider confidence-building measures of the global disarmament programme and calls for additional nuclear-free zones in areas of tension such as the middle east and south Asia.

Finally, the new agenda coalition endorses the call by the United Nations Secretary-General in his report to the millennium assembly last year to convene a major international conference that would help to identify ways of eliminating nuclear danger. Ms Green stated: We consider that an international conference on nuclear disarmament and nuclear nonproliferation, which effectively complements efforts being undertaken in other settings, could facilitate the consolidation of a new agenda for a nuclear weapon free world. I do not want to underestimate the task facing the states that are party to the treaty, but there is now general recognition that the world is at a critical turning point and there is a choice to be made at this year's conference. Do we allow what I referred to earlier as the re-rationalisation of nuclear weapons in the strategic concepts of the major military blocks or the defence policies of individual states, or do we unequivocally set in motion the detailed mechanisms to bring about the complete global nuclear disarmament to which the treaty commits its signatory states?

I recognise that my hon. Friend the Minister has a strong commitment to securing the continuation of the process and the achievements of the United Kingdom Government in recent years, particularly following the strategic defence review. Is the Minister sympathetic to the detailed programme of the new agenda coalition set out in its statement to the treaty review conference? Does he agree that attempts by the United States to amend the anti-ballistic missile treaty and to go ahead with a national missile defence system would contradict the spirit of the non-proliferation treaty? Do the Government intend to co-operate with the United States by allowing the use of British military facilities, particularly Menwith Hill, which the United States would need if were to implement its plans? Do the Government support the principles enshrined in the new agenda coalition? What is their position on the adoption of a strategy of no first use, to which China has already agreed, the decoupling of warheads from delivery systems, the further development of nuclear-free zones and the urgency of the need for a fissile material cut-off treaty? What will the Government do to ensure that by the end of the review conference on 19 May, the mechanisms for establishing the fissile material cut-off treaty are in place?

Our Government can take justifiable pride in their international leadership during past three years on many complex issues that were considered to be intractable. I am thinking specifically of their work on the climate change problem, and that of my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for International Development on debt relief for the poorest countries. The Chancellor has also worked on the reform of international financial institutions.

This more complex and intractable problem provides an opportunity for our Government to show international leadership. As the United Nations special envoy on peace and disarmament said in this Chamber shortly before Easter, the Prime Minister must recognise that the future of the planet depends on this issue above all others. If we cannot negotiate an international commitment on it in the next few weeks, the opportunity could be lost for ever. We could then face a future in which the commitment of the NPT conference gradually weakened, more and more states currently without nuclear weapons violated their commitments under the treaty, and the acquisition of nuclear weapons again became seen as a normal part of national defence policies.

The Government have an opportunity to confront the complexity rather than shying away from it. They could make an unequivocal commitment to give the same international leadership on global nuclear disarmament as they showed in resolving the climate change difficulties in Kyoto and in the settlement of international debt for the poorest countries.

To conclude, I shall quote the South African representative at the conference, who said a few days ago that if the international community cannot free itself from nuclear weapons, We will never be liberated from the unspeakable destruction and human suffering which these weapons can cause.

11.26 am
Mr. Tony Colman (Putney)

Thank you for calling me so early in the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise that I shall be unable to stay until the end of the debate, as I have a prior engagement at a question and answer session at a school in my constituency at 12.30. I declare an interest, as I have visited Pakistan with Lord Avebury in the past two weeks. It might be interesting to mention some of the discussions that took place on that visit.

My Labour predecessor in my constituency was Lord Jenkins of Putney, and I am pleased to see the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), who is somewhat jet-lagged. He has also been a Labour candidate for Putney, so I am pleased that I can speak in a continuation of my constituency's tradition of interest in nuclear disarmament.

I pay tribute to Rebecca Johnson from the Acronym Institute. If I had more time I would speak at length from her extremely good briefing, which is available every day on www.acronym.org.uk. It details almost every speech made in the NPT review conference, giving full coverage of the new agenda coalition and interesting anecdotes and details, such as British comments on the Egyptian position in the middle east. The briefing states that Britain reiterated its call to Israel to adhere to the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state and to place all its nuclear facilities under full-scope IAEA safeguards. My hon. Friend the Minister may want to respond on that issue, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) did not mention in his excellent speech.

Rebecca Johnson points out that the additional protocol 93/2 has not featured highly in debate. I had the privilege to introduce it in a private Member's Bill last year, and it is now completing its final stages in the House before the protocol's ratification. Has my hon. Friend the Minister been able to urge any other states at the conference to sign and ratify the protocol, which would be a major move towards making the world safer? I regret that I shall have to read his reply in Hansard rather than hearing it.

In Pakistan I met General Musharraf, who is the chief executive of the country. I also met the foreign minister and nuclear weapons experts. President Clinton has called Pakistan the most dangerous place in the world, given the line of control in Kashmir. I strongly urge Pakistan to attend the NPT conference, primarily as an observer. Lord Avebury and I have raised the issue of the comprehensive test ban treaty and we should push for India and Pakistan to become signatories. I spent a significant amount of time urging Pakistan, on a bilateral basis with the IAEA, to sign the 93/2 additional protocol on safeguards on its nuclear weapons, particularly in terms of nuclear weapon technology becoming available to neighbouring states. That is an important initiative and I strongly urge the Minister to take it up with the Pakistani high commissioner in London to see whether a dialogue could be created. I realise that such an initiative is outside the scope of the NPT review conference, but as a measure that would make the world a safer place, it is obviously within its spirit.

It may be strange for a Back-Bench parliamentarian, but I have been concerned over the past two years to raise the issue in several countries that I have visited. It is important to ensure that nuclear weapons, wherever they are, are safeguarded and do not leak out further. I condemn both India and Pakistan for having gone ahead with nuclear tests. During any visits under the auspices of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association or the Inter-Parliamentary Union, I strongly urge that the issue of non-proliferation of nuclear safeguards under the new agenda coalition be taken forward in every possible way. The review conference will continue until 20 May, so there is some time in hand. I hope that other countries will sign and, if possible, ratify the treaty; South Korea, for example, signed and ratified it on the same day when I was there last May.

To conclude my brief intervention, I wanted to update the House on the interesting situation of Pakistan being willing to consider a bilateral agreement with the IAEA, on the basis of the 93/2 additional protocol.

11.32 am
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

I wish my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Colman) well in his school question and answer session. He can watch the rest of the debate on video tomorrow morning. I also thank the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) for initiating the debate. It is slightly disappointing that there are fewer hon. Members present than there were for the debate on police numbers in England and Wales. The issue of police numbers is obviously important for security, but this debate raises matters of security for the whole planet. We should bear the dangers in mind.

Debates on disarmament sometimes get bogged down in obscurantist language about obscure conferences taking place all over the world. It is easy to fall into that trap and miss the big picture—and I should know, as a life-long member of CND and a member of its national council. I sometimes get lost in all the acronyms and the endless references to conferences, and think, "Hang on a minute; we are here to discuss the thirst for peace around the world."

A year ago, I attended the Hague convention on peace, which attracted 8,000 delegates from all over the world. Many people came at considerable personal expense from island states in the Pacific and from elsewhere, because they were determined that at the end of the 20th century there should at least be an opportunity to discuss a peaceful future in which the world spent rather less on weapons of mass destruction, in particular nuclear weapons, and rather more on the redistribution of wealth and power around the globe and ensuring some kind of peaceful future. The world court has seriously questioned the legality of nuclear weapons, although the Foreign Office takes a somewhat different view. I shall be interested to hear what the Minister says, but I believe that the opinion of the world court on nuclear weapons should be taken extremely seriously, as should the decision of the Scottish court on their legality.

Before moving to the main burden of the debate, I wish to reflect for a moment on the world situation. There are 30,000 nuclear weapons in existence. We do not know the location of all of them or whether they are all stored safely—a fact to which my hon. Friend the Member for Putney drew attention. Given that there are 30,000 weapons throughout the world, the danger of leakage or proliferation is enormous. If the current non-proliferation conference misses the opportunity to achieve a lasting settlement on decommissioning, disarmament, no first use and ultimately the abolition of nuclear weapons, the danger of proliferation will be writ large.

My hon. Friend the Member for Putney has just returned from Pakistan. Anyone who imagines that no country would seriously use nuclear weapons should bear in mind the tension and the rhetoric between India and Pakistan and the nationalist fervour in both countries. At some point, a politician somewhere will bow to that fervour and press a button—albeit to release a less powerful nuclear weapon than those held elsewhere. The consequences of a nuclear explosion set off in anger anywhere in the world and its knock-on effects are too horrific to think about. That is why the non-proliferation conference is so important.

This country can do a lot by example. We have access to the Trident nuclear submarine system. Various vessels are on patrol at any one time. Anyone who says that the acquisition and development of the Trident fleet is not nuclear proliferation is wrong. It is an enormous proliferation. On any one submarine, Trident carries 48 warheads. It could carry more. Each warhead has a capacity of 100 kilotonnes, and is the equivalent of five Nagasaki bombs. We now face a nuclear weapons capability that will make what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki—on 6 August each year we commemorate the 60,000 or more people who died in each of those two cities—look like a minor firework explosion.

Will the Minister respond to my point about the legality of nuclear weapons? Many non-nuclear weapons states or those with nuclear capability that do not admit to holding weapons draw comparisons with those nuclear weapons states that say that they want disarmament, while at the same time increasing their nuclear capability. We must also take into account the United States' use of Fylingdales for its development of a national missile defence strategy. Are we to become once more a nuclear aircraft carrier for the United States, which so many of us spent much of the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s opposing? The closure of Greenham Common and its restoration as a public open space is a source of great pride and triumph to many people, but will not a massive American facility at Fylingdales be just as dangerous as Greenham Common was—if not more so—for the people of this country?

The conference has an opportunity to bring about a solution to the problems, but it means that the nuclear weapons states will have to make a big move. I understand that the Government are opposed to nuclear weapons and want massive disarmament throughout the world, but they keep holding them in the mean time while there is a threat or danger in the world. Some countries have given up nuclear weapons. For example, during the apartheid regime, South Africa clearly had a nuclear weapons capability. It is to the eternal credit of President Mandela that one of the early actions of the ANC Government was to end all nuclear weapons research and to declare South Africa a nuclear-free state. It can be done and South Africa has provided an example and a way forward.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

Is the stance of the Government in line with the current aims and objectives of CND, of which the hon. Gentleman is a council member?

Mr. Corbyn

I can pass the hon. Lady a vast amount of CND documentation. Clearly, CND does not agree with everything that the Government say. Nobody—neither the Government nor CND—would pretend otherwise. However, CND is involved in a process of constructive engagement with the Government. Meetings take place with representatives of CND and many Members of Parliament. I am a member of parliamentary CND, as are other colleagues who are present in this Chamber. I am not sure what point the hon. Lady is trying to make. If she is trying to say that the Labour party is in the pocket of CND, all I can say is that I wish it were. Unfortunately, it is not.

Mrs. Gillan

I am not trying to make a particular point. I understand that the Minister replying to the debate is a member of parliamentary CND, and I merely wonder how that is compatible with being a member of the Government, with whom CND does not agree.

Mr. Corbyn

I invite the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) to meet CND—it is not far to come on the Metropolitan line. She would then understand that it is not in the mould of a democratic centralist organisation, with an all-powerful central committee that sends out edicts to every one of the thousands of CND members around the country, who religiously carry out those exact instructions. It is a wondrous affair, which encompasses Christian CND, trade union CND, Labour CND, and lots of other groups from lots of traditions, including pacifists, and ex-service CND. It is a peace movement in which a great deal of deal of debate and discussion takes place. Policies are arrived at and promoted. Many people who are in CND do not accept every tenet of everything that CND says or does. That is not a great problem; it is a peace movement that advances the cause of peace and has made a major contribution. The quality of its research and contribution to debate about Government statements is widely respected.

Mr. Chaytor

Does my hon. Friend find it unusual that, apart from the Front-Bench spokesperson, not a single Conservative Member is present in this Chamber? Not long ago, it would have been impossible to have a debate on this subject without a flood of Conservative Members rushing to be the first to denounce any attempt to suggest that the elimination of nuclear weapons might be good, or even possible. Does he agree that that change is highly significant? Does it not reflect a newfound consensus? The old debate, with those who believed in unilateral action and those who believed in multilateral action but did not have to do anything about it, is behind us—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Frank Cook)

Order. Interventions should be brief rather than repetitive speeches.

Mr. Corbyn

I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North was trying to allude to arguments that various absent friends would have made if they had been in this Chamber this morning. I miss them, because I miss the ritual denunciation of anyone who has ever been in CND, and the McCarthyite language that surrounded it. Nevertheless, I hope that they will read the debate in Hansard or watch the video.

May I move on, Mr. Cook, and take fewer interventions—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. It might be helpful if I were to remind all hon. Members that this is a sitting of the House and not a Committee. The House, in its wisdom, decided that the Chair should be addressed as in the parent Chamber.

Mr. Corbyn

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I beg your pardon. You said that so well that you lost me along the way.

When Michael Douglas came here for a meeting, I was unfortunately unable to attend. I was at a far more glamorous affair in Islington—a tenants association meeting. Although I was unable to hear him, I read what he said and about his work, so I am aware of the efforts being made by the United Nations. It has drawn attention to the urgency of the situation.

The hon. Member for Putney spoke about the danger of war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. There certainly is a danger of those two countries developing a further generation of nuclear weapons and a delivery system capable of setting them off. There is a dispute over Kashmir. Both Governments are attempting to stoke up nationalist rhetoric to divert attention from the unremitting poverty of so many people living in those countries. It is regrettable and deplorable that both India and Pakistan—though the criticism applies to many countries in the world—spend far more on defence and weaponry than on education or health. We must do all that we can to bring about a solution to the Kashmir problem and to persuade both India and Pakistan to sign up at least to the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty as a prelude to full involvement in the non-proliferation treaty discussions.

There are other countries that are either nuclear weapons states or on the threshold of being so. Some are undeclared, but Israel, for example, is now fairly open about its nuclear weapons. The threat in that region of other states such as Iraq having access to nuclear weapons is terribly dangerous. In Israel, the prisoner of conscience Mordecai Vanunu has spent 11 years of his sentence in solitary confinement. He is now out of solitary confinement and living in more general prison conditions, but he remains in Ashkelon prison. I attempted to visit him a couple of years ago, but I was denied access.

We must recognise that Vanunu, a nuclear scientist, is a prisoner of conscience, attempting to draw the world's attention to the danger of nuclear proliferation. I hope that the Minister will continue the policy of this and previous Governments in putting pressure on Israel to ensure that Vanunu is properly treated and attempting to secure his early release from prison. In my view, he has committed no crime other than drawing the world's attention to the dangers of nuclear proliferation.

Nuclear weapons states can continue to operate as a club, to develop their own nuclear capability and to ignore the reality of the dangers all over the world. I want our Government to declare that we are serious about arms negotiation talks, that we are prepared to advocate a no-first-use policy, that we are prepared to decommission nuclear weapons and to put pressure on the United States to do the same and that we will continue to develop the encouraging rhetoric of the past few weeks about the real prospects for the peace process.

I shall quote from a CND document, which provides a summary of the UK's record on nuclear disarmament: The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament believes that the UK, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and one of the five declared Nuclear Weapons States under the NPT, is well placed to take the lead on the path of global nuclear disarmament. The end of the Cold War and the election of a Labour Government raised expectations, so far unfulfilled. Thirty years after it entered into force on 5 March 1970, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons is in danger of being universally perceived as enshrining the privileges of the few to retain nuclear weapons indefinitely against the needs of humanity to achieve their abolition, sooner rather than later. If we miss this opportunity, proliferation will continue and irresponsible will people get hold of nuclear weapons. If somebody sets one off, God knows where that catastrophe will lead us. This is perhaps the most serious debate of the present Parliament. It provides a chance that we must seize with both hands in order to bring about the worldwide abolition of nuclear weapons.

11.49 am
Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) on securing the debate and introducing it so comprehensively. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Colman) in thanking and congratulating Rebecca Johnson of the Acronym Institute, whose e-mails must have informed many of us, judging by how people smiled when he referred to them.

The sixth review conference of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty is crucial because of our failure to take advantage of the end of the cold war in the past decade, because of the growth of unofficial nuclear weapons states, because we have reached a watershed, and because of the unimaginable horror if it ever goes wrong even on a small scale, let alone on a cataclysmic scale, as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) movingly described.

Various crucial issues are involved, such as the future of the test ban treaty, nuclear weapons-free zones, the fissile materials ban and the future of the anti-ballistic missile treaty, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North referred. I join him in welcoming the statement from the five recognised nuclear weapons states—perhaps more because they achieved a joint statement than because it contained especially ground-breaking comments. Achieving unity is important. I welcome the fact that all the states involved were able to show at least some progress. It would be fair to say, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North did, that Britain has achieved rather more than other states.

I share the pleasure expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Putney about the reference to the middle east and the importance of all states signing up to the non-proliferation treaty. Only one state now needs to do so, but it is perhaps the most important—Israel. I welcome the fact that Britain advocates sending a special envoy to encourage the development of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the middle east. I also welcome the support expressed in the statement for nuclear weapons-free zones, and the reference to India and Pakistan.

The statement also strongly welcomes the comprehensive test ban treaty. Now that the Russian Duma has signed up to the treaty, it must be the desire of the vast majority of hon. Members that it should be ratified by all major states, including China and the United States of America. Of the 155 signatories, 56 have now ratified. The Government and the Opposition Front Bench want the comprehensive test ban treaty to be brought into force, and they have the overwhelming support of Back Benchers from all parties, as was shown by early-day motion 929.

I welcome the statement that the anti-ballistic missile treaty should be preserved and strengthened, but I fear that an ambiguity may lie behind it. I suspect that the different parties have different opinions about exactly what is meant by "preserved and strengthened", but I welcome the fact that it seems to put down the idea of unilateral action by the United States of America. The unilateralist position was vigorously expressed last week by a leader writer in The Times, Michael Gove, who argued not only for the United States adopting national missile defence, but for developing all possible aggressive and defensive technologies and scrapping all arms control agreements. In common with some of the more rabid sections of the United States right, Mr. Gove seems to believe that the more nuclear weapons there are, the safer we shall all be. As I have said before, some people in the United States hold a similar view about guns, and believe that if everyone had guns, no one would be killed. However, that does not seem to work.

Adopting national missile defence and scrapping the ABM treaty would be devastating. It would undermine all other treaties, especially if, as some Republicans have implied, the Republican party would abrogate the treaty, even though it was originally signed under a Republican president. Whatever assurances were given to Russia and China that the missiles were not intended to be used against them, how would they know that some future Administration would not simply abrogate those agreements, too? There would be a grave danger that Russia might be encouraged to start re-expanding its nuclear capability rather than continuing with reductions.

Even if the ABM treaty is renegotiated with Russia, there will be a grave need for the United States to consider the position of China and other states. As far as I am aware, almost no other state at the negotiations strongly supported the idea of the national missile defence system, and there has been strong support for maintaining the ABM treaty. I hope that the United States will take account of that.

How far is NMD relevant to Britain, since we are not party to the ABM treaty? As has already been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North, if the system were developed, we would be expected to supply tracking stations at Menwith and Fylingdales, and the people there would automatically become likely targets, but under present circumstances they would not be afforded any cover. Even if there were offers of cover from the system or extra local contracts and employment, it would be inappropriate to dice with the safety of our planet and our people.

We should examine the extent of the danger posed by rogue states, which is genuine, but it is a little unrealistic for states that claim to believe in deterrence, and have several thousand times more weapons that any rogue state could develop, to say that they also need a massive missile defence system. Tactical capacity has been vastly overestimated. It is easy to say that one suspects that a state may have a missile delivery system capability, or is close to achieving it, or that it may have the capacity to produce a nuclear weapon, but that would probably be far too large for the purposes of their missile delivery system. There is often a tendency to exaggerate such threats. In any case, other means of delivery are available to such states, such as bringing in a weapon on a lorry or by boat. That could apply to nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.

National missile defence threatens to undermine our arms control system, yet we have no guarantee that it would actually work. So far, the only tests that have been carried out have been unsuccessful, and it is unlikely that there could be any tests even suggesting that it might be successful before 2001. I suspect that the push to adopt the system is partly electoral and partly the result of financial inducements—that is, pork barrel politics, with politicians claiming that billions of dollars would be spent in different parts of the United States. While I do not expect Britain to take a public stance on the issue, I hope that we could employ private diplomacy to try to discourage the United States from taking precipitate action that might undermine the whole arms control and disarmament process. It is vital that we try to make progress with START 3, now that START 2 is likely to be confirmed.

In his article, Mr. Gove—using the slightly extravagant language that appeared to make my hon. Friends nostalgic—described my hon. Friend the Minister as one of the KGB's "useful idiots". If it is any consolation to the Minister, he used the same phrase to describe the United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan. By Mr. Gove's definition, even his own icons, Baroness Thatcher and President Reagan, must also have been useful idiots, as they engaged in arms control negotiations. Like the cartoon of the Japanese soldier on the desert island who was unaware that the second world war was over, Mr. Gove appears to be similarly unaware that the cold war ended more than a decade ago. I say that not only to poke gentle fun at him, but because it illustrates part of the problem that we face. Einstein said that nuclear weapons had changed everything except the way in which people think, and the end of the cold war seems to have changed everything except the way in which some people who pontificate on defence matters think.

The statement by the five nuclear weapons states, which contains an unequivocal commitment to the ultimate goals of the complete elimination of nuclear weapons and a treaty for general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international controls has caused concern. We all agree that general disarmament is crucially tied up with the effort to reduce weapons of mass destruction. The new agenda coalition and the movement of non-aligned states said: the total elimination of nuclear weapons is an obligation and a priority and not an ultimate goal, and even less a goal that is linked, subject or conditioned to general and complete disarmament. The phrase, "total elimination" is sometimes used by starry-eyed idealists and hardened cynics—I am reminded of the decommissioning situation in Northern Ireland. Positive statements are good, but timetabled reductions are better.

We face a race against time. To put the point in simplistic but dramatic terms, this century's challenge is to establish whether human beings can eliminate nuclear weapons before nuclear weapons eliminate human beings.

12 noon

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

I start by echoing the comment that was made in an intervention by the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor)—I, too, am disappointed that there are not more hon. Members present. Today is the eve of the local elections, the London mayoral elections, in which our candidate, Steven Norris, is fighting a good fight, and the by-election. Presumably, that explains why there are no Liberal Democrat Members in the Chamber. The hon. Gentleman made some good observations, but he failed to point that out. I hope that I can make up for the absence of support from the Opposition Back Benches by making a brief contribution from the Front Bench. This subject has been debated for some time, but it is apposite to discuss it today in view of the start of the review conference.

The likelihood that threats to European security will become a reality has increased rather than diminished during the past few years. Today's global security environment is characterised by the same complex mix of political, economic, military and social factors that undermined stability during much of the 1990s. There are uncertainties regarding Russia, China, the middle east and eastern Europe, as well as various rogue states—to which hon. Members have alluded this morning—groups and individuals. There are also growing disparities in global wealth and source distribution and there has been an unwelcome spread of ethnic and religious conflicts.

For this country, one of the most obvious and disturbing features of the post-cold war order is the proliferation of ballistic missiles and the weapons of mass destruction with which they are armed. Between 35 and 40 countries have such a missile capability and, according to a report from Lancaster university, 18 countries have nuclear, chemical or biological weapons warheads with which to arm those missiles.

The post-cold war environment has proved to be increasingly open to proliferation activities. New alliances have formed, providing pooled resources for developing those capabilities. Technology, expertise and the hardware with which to build ballistic missiles are proliferating rapidly. That process has been instigated by advances in information technology. Foreign assistance is a universal characteristic of the contemporary ballistic missile development environment.

It is widely recognised that the key suppliers include China, Russia and North Korea. China has provided missile-related items, raw materials and assistance to several countries, including, I believe, Iran. It has also provided support to Pakistan's weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programmes.

Russia has provided a variety of ballistic missile-related goods and technical know-how to Iran, and it is expanding its assistance to countries such as Syria and India. Iran's earlier success in gaining technology and materials from Russian companies accelerated the development of its Shahab 3 medium range ballistic missile, which was first flight-tested in July 1998.

North Korea continues to export ballistic missile-related equipment and missile components, materials and technical expertise to countries in the middle east and Africa. The export of ballistic missiles and related technology is one of North Korea's major sources of hard currency.

It is against that background that the hon. Member for Bury, North has initiated this debate. He referred to the meeting in this Chamber that was attended by Michael Douglas, the United Nations peace ambassador, to which the Minister and I were privileged to contribute. I am not sure what that visit achieved. I know that Michael Douglas hoped to capture the imagination of the man in the street and raise the profile of the review conference, but I doubt whether that has happened. If a visit to Parliament by Michael Douglas cannot raise the profile on a lasting basis, I wonder what can. The man in the street is less concerned about such issues than in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Closing my eyes during the speech of the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), I could have been back in those decades, but I acknowledge that he has held those views consistently for many years.

The hon. Member for Bury, North welcomed the Russian Duma's ratification of the START 2 treaty, as do I. He quoted from position statements by the nuclear weapons states and the new agenda coalition. I would like to add to his questions on the Minister's attitude towards that coalition. The Minister must make the Government's policy clear, because we are getting mixed messages. The hon. Member for Islington, North rightly pointed out that CND and parliamentary CND do not currently agree with the Government. Nevertheless, the Minister, who is putting forward the Government's policy, remains a member of CND. That is incompatible with his ministerial duties, so perhaps he can tell us whether he feels that he should resign from CND. If he does resign, we shall feel better about his stance.

At the same time, and building on questions asked by the hon. Member for Bury, North, we need to know the Minister's attitude towards the American missile defence programme. The hon. Member for Bury, North mentioned Menwith, and the hon. Members for Islington, North and for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge) referred to Fylingdales. What exchanges have taken place between the Minister and the Americans? Has he confirmed our support for the missile defence programme, or has he said that he has some difficulty in that regard? What is the Government's exact position? What has the Foreign and Commonwealth Office done to reassure the Americans of our continuing support? Today's debate has cast some doubt on the support expressed by certain members of the Government earlier this year.

Mr. Savidge

What is the position of members of the Opposition Front Bench? Some have spoken strongly in favour of national missile defence, but some prominent and experienced members of the Conservative party oppose it.

Mrs. Gillan

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. If he reads my speeches, he will see that I have always been extremely supportive of the Americans, and I do not seek decoupling of the defence arrangements between the United Kingdom and the United States.

The hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Colman) asked the Minister about Pakistan. We would be pleased to have an Adjournment debate on Pakistan, particularly as it is currently suspended from the Commonwealth. As was evident from what the hon. Member for Putney said, dialogue with Pakistan is continuing. I hope that the Minister will tell us what recent contact there has been, what diplomatic work has been done on proliferation and whether the issue of nuclear weapons was raised at the meeting of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group earlier this week.

The review conference is a process. The Minister should tell us what impression he has of the progress made to date. Does he perceive any problems in the process? Has he suggested how that process might be changed? What is his assessment of the effectiveness of the process? The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North hopes that a solution to the problem might be found at the conference, but it is obvious that it will be a continuing process. The Minister should tell us what the next stages will be, not only for this country, but for the five nuclear weapons states.

The four countries outside the process are just as important, and I would like to hear the Minister's assessment of the positions of Cuba, India, Israel and Pakistan. The hon. Member for Putney and others have sung the praises of Acronym and Rebecca Johnson, and I am happy to do likewise. I quote from Acronym 13: How the NPT parties address the nuclear capabilities of India, Israel and Pakistan may determine the future credibility of the regime as far as some significant non-nuclear weapon State Parties are concerned. The Treaty cannot admit new members without amending the definition of a NWS in its 1968 text (where a nuclear weapon state is defined as one which has manufactured and exploded a nuclear device prior to January 1, 1967). What suggestions has the Minister made concerning those countries and about the problems associated with admitting new members under that definition? What progress has been made on that issue?

Many questions have been raised about Pakistan and India, and I would like to ask the Minister what comments have been made about China's role, specifically its support for Pakistan's nuclear programme. There seems to be general assistance to India and Pakistan to improve the safety of their nuclear-related command, control and communication systems. Does the Minister approve of that assistance, or does he believe that it legitimises the nuclear status of those two countries? What is the position of Her Majesty's Government?

I read on a website the Minister's contribution to the NPT review conference in New York on Monday 24 April. I was delighted to see that, significantly, he referred to three achievements. The first was the completion by no later than 1996 of the negotiation in the Conference on Disarmament for a Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). The second achievement, which was identified as particularly important by the parties to this Treaty at the 1995 Conference was the negotiation of a treaty banning the production of fissile material. The third was identified as the determined pursuit by the nuclear-weapon States of systematic and progressive efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally. I was pleased to note that they were all agreed under the last Conservative Government, so I find it odd that he claimed that the Labour Government had transformed Britain's role in the nuclear disarmament process. That is slightly disingenuous of him, because great progress was made under previous Conservative Governments. It is a sad shame that that is rarely acknowledged in any arena.

The non-proliferation treaty process may not be perfect, but it has survived and fared well over the years. Certainly over the past five years nine new states have joined and only four remain outside. We must now move forward, building on the progress made on disarmament and peaceful co-operation, and make more progress on preventing proliferation, which has been such a serious challenge to the entire process. However, we must never forget that these weapons have helped to secure the peace. We must all support the international co-operation that enables us to work continuously to ensure that the world is safer and more secure.

12.15 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Peter Hain)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) for giving us the opportunity to debate this important review conference on the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Colman), who worked energetically on his private Member's Bill and deserves a great deal of credit for its achievement in nuclear safety regimes across the world.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), who has a long and honourable record of interest in and campaigning for nuclear disarmament, made a number of points, which I shall come back to, although I thought that he was audacious in inviting the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) to CND's offices. I do not want to intrude on private grief, but I think that it would be an enlightening experience for both of them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge), who contributed in his normal expert fashion, continues to enjoy my support for his work in chairing the all-party non-proliferation group.

In relation to the questions asked by the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham, in our bilateral contacts with the new regime in Pakistan we have repeatedly stressed that it is in its interests to sign up to the non-proliferation treaty requirements and, in particular, to the comprehensive test ban treaty, and to adopt controls on the proliferation of nuclear weapons, which are undoubtedly a concern both to and from Pakistan. The visit of the Chief of Defence Staff, at our request, in early January, provided the vehicle for delivering that message firmly.

The NPT remains the main instrument for preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and it is vital that the review conference succeeds. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North said, there have been positive achievements during the past five years: nine states have become new parties to the treaty over that period; agreement has been reached on how to strengthen the safeguards system of the International Atomic Energy Agency; a number of new conventions relating to nuclear safety have come into force or have been opened for signature; and the United States and Russia have been busy implementing the START 1 reductions in their nuclear forces, while a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty has been concluded and signed by all five of the NPT's nuclear weapons states, none of which has carried out a nuclear explosion since signing. Two nuclear weapons states—the United Kingdom and France—have ratified as well, while, in a welcome move, the Russian Duma recently approved ratification of the treaty. I congratulate it on so doing.

The United Kingdom, especially under this Labour Government, has been a leading force for nuclear disarmament. I acknowledge that some of it started before we came to power. In the past few years we have completed the dismantling of the maritime tactical nuclear weapons that we withdrew from service some time ago; we have withdrawn from service and dismantled all our air-delivered nuclear weapons so that now they are only submarine-based; and we are currently dismantling the Chevaline warheads from our old force of Polaris submarines.

As for Trident—Britain's only remaining nuclear system—we have reduced the number of operationally available warheads to fewer than 200. We have stated that only one submarine may be on patrol at a time, that it will carry 50 per cent. fewer warheads than the previously announced ceiling, and that it will operate at a reduced state of readiness. Furthermore, all our missiles have been de-targeted since May 1994.

The British Government have taken a number of other important steps over the past five years. We have signed and ratified the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty, strongly supported efforts to establish the treaty's verification system—a crucial objective—and taken a leading role in efforts to persuade others to sign and ratify the treaty.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North asked about the fissile material cut-off treaty. We have pressed hard for negotiations on such a treaty at the conference on disarmament in Geneva, and, despite the highly regrettable absence of progress there, we have taken steps to ensure that all British reprocessing and enrichment operations are now under Euratom safeguards and are either inspected or liable to inspection by the IAEA. We have also made it clear that when we are satisfied with the progress towards the global elimination of nuclear weapons, British nuclear weapons will be included in multilateral negotiations.

Furthermore, we have been transparent about the size of our stocks of nuclear material, military as well as civil. We have declared some of our previous military material as surplus to our defence requirements and taken steps to place it under safeguards arrangements. We have also carried out some initial work to account for our past production of fissile material for defence purposes, and begun to develop a pool of expertise in verifying the reduction and elimination of nuclear weapons that we are working to achieve.

Hon. Members who keep an eye on the Foreign Office website will know that I had the privilege of making many of those points at the NPT review conference on its opening day last month. Following my discussions in New York I believe that there is a widespread recognition that the United Kingdom is second to none among the nuclear weapons states in trying to move these matters in the right direction, but the path to nuclear disarmament is not one that we can walk alone.

Over the next five years, we will work towards securing universal adherence to the NPT treaty by pressing the only remaining non-parties—Cuba, India, Israel and Pakistan—to join the 187 countries that have already signed up to the NPT. We shall deal robustly with countries that renege on their commitment to the NPT, including Iraq and North Korea. We shall also play a leading role in making progress towards nuclear disarmament.

Central to further progress towards nuclear disarmament is the continuation of the strategic arms reduction process between the United States and Russia. I welcome the news that the Russian Duma and the federation council have now approved ratification of the START 2 treaty and its 1997 protocol. We urge the US Senate, which gave its consent to ratification of the treaty in January 1996, to give its consent to ratification of the 1997 protocol. We also urge progress in the current talks between the US and Russia on a START 3 treaty and the anti-ballistic missile treaty.

That brings me to the concerns expressed by several hon. Members about the potential impact on nuclear disarmament efforts of American interest in the establishment of a national missile defence system. A number of Members have expressed the fear that the deployment of such a system could set back the strategic arms reduction process between the United States and Russia, and could also be used by China as a justification for expanding her nuclear forces. Those are legitimate concerns, which the US also recognises. I had discussions on the matter in New York and Washington last week. Also legitimate are the concerns, felt not only by the United States, about the acquisition of long-range ballistic missiles by countries of concern. No responsible Government can afford to ignore that potential threat.

National missile defence raises thorny issues that require calm and measured dialogue. That is why we welcome the intensive discussions on these matters in which the US and Russia are currently engaged. Despite the obvious differences between the two sides, highlighted by the Russian Foreign Minister in his speech to the review conference last week, we hope that they can ultimately reach an agreement that will strike an appropriate balance between the competing considerations. We have made it clear to both sides that we continue to attach great importance to the strategic stability that the anti-ballistic missile treaty provides, and that we wish to see it preserved alongside global reinforcement of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. I made those points personally in the course of my recent visit to the United States.

Some hon. Members have asked about the Government's position on meeting any potential American requests to use facilities in this country for national missile defence purposes. Let me make it clear, once again, that the United States has not yet decided to deploy any NMD system, and has, therefore, not put a formal request to us to use facilities in this country for such a system. If such a request is made, we shall naturally consider it carefully, taking into account all the circumstances.

I have tried to be as frank as possible and I will not disguise the fact that the future of the nuclear disarmament process and the anti-ballistic missile treaty raises difficult and complex issues. I assure the House that the Government are working hard to encourage the United States and Russia to find a way forward that will meet the legitimate interests of all concerned and allow the positive progress made in reducing nuclear weapons during the past few years to continue. We hope that at the review conference the other parties to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty will not forget the vital need for early entry into force of the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty and for an immediate start to negotiations on a fissile material cut-off treaty.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North referred to the new agenda coalition. I welcome the contribution made by some non-nuclear weapons states, including that coalition, to the debate on measures that might be pursued in the next five years. We are studying closely the speech made by the Mexican Foreign Minister on behalf of those countries. I assure hon. Members that we are ready to engage in constructive discussion of those and other ideas. I held such discussions with the Irish and New Zealand Foreign Ministers, and with the South African delegation in New York.

I have instructed my officials still at the NPT in New York to discuss with the leading countries involved in the new agenda coalition—including New Zealand, South Africa and Ireland—amendments that would enable the UK to support their proposals to the conference. We agree with the vast majority of their proposals, but there are some sticking points, one of which is the proposal to demate warheads from delivery systems. In Britain at least, that is impossible, because our weapons are submarine based. I hope that we can obtain an agreement with the non-nuclear weapons states, because we overwhelmingly share their aims for nuclear disarmament. I ask my hon. Friend to think again about the need for an international conference. I do not want detract from the important NPT process.

We recently marked the 30th anniversary of the treaty's entry into force. It remains vital. We hope that all parties will recognise that the treaty continues to be overwhelmingly in their interests and those of the international community. As a nuclear weapons state that complies fully with the non-proliferation treaty, we want this important conference to take a giant leap forward, to curb the current threat of a new nuclear arms race and achieve our ultimate objective of a nuclear-free world.

The Labour Government have placed Britain in a unique pivotal role. We are a key member of the P5 nuclear weapons states, but also a country that the non-nuclear states can see as a friend in court, advancing our common objectives to reduce nuclear weapons proliferation. We agree with many of the non-nuclear weapons states that want faster progress towards nuclear disarmament, and we have tried to lead by example.

When the cold war ended, many thought that the planet would be a safer place. The recent unblocking of the stalled disarmament discourse between Washington and Moscow has renewed that hope. I am pleased to tell the House that in a common statement made in New York on Monday, as a result of British efforts, all five nuclear weapons states declared that none of their nuclear weapons was targeted at any other state. That statement also contained an important confirmation of our unequivocal commitment to the ultimate goal of the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.

There is almost universal agreement that we need a united and vigorous response to tackle the problems of global insecurity and ensure that we have proper controls on the proliferation of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. We must do all that we can to ensure that humankind does not jeopardise its own future and that of the planet. However, some states continue to challenge the objectives of the global non-proliferation regime. Although Iraq and North Korea are parties to the NPT, they have attempted to acquire nuclear weapons. India and Pakistan have carried out nuclear weapons tests. Israel's nuclear stance is seen by the non-nuclear states in the region as a factor complicating the middle east peace process, as my hon. Friend the Member for Putney said. There is a great deal of work to do, but Britain is leading the way in accomplishing it.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. John McWilliam)

Hon. Members who do not wish to stay for the next debate, which looks absolutely fascinating, please leave quietly now so that we can get on.