HC Deb 21 February 2000 vol 344 cc1222-6
4. Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

If it is the Government's policy that Britain should continue to possess a nuclear deterrent as long as other countries have nuclear weapons. [109397]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

Britain's minimum nuclear deterrent is a necessary element of the security of this country, particularly while large nuclear arsenals and risks of proliferation remain. That was a key conclusion of the Government's strategic defence review. When we are satisfied that sufficient progress has been made to allow us to include British nuclear weapons in negotiations without endangering our security interests, we shall do so.

Dr. Lewis

That goes three quarters of the way towards answering the question, but not the whole way.

Does the Secretary of State not recall that, in July 1991, after two years of intense Conservative pressure, his right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) committed his party to keeping some nuclear weapons, as long as other countries had them? Will he now reaffirm that commitment, and confirm that, no matter what sort of multilateral negotiations take place in the future, he will never agree to arrangements whereby we would get rid of all our nuclear weapons while other countries still possessed some with which we could be threatened?

Mr. Hoon

I have set out the Government's position. It is the position on which Labour Members were elected at the last general election, and it remains the position that the Government will adopt.

In his supplementary question, the hon. Gentleman overlooked the purpose of deterrence. The purpose of deterrence is to deter those who might be tempted to attack this country's security interests, and the retention of nuclear weapons is designed to deter any such aggression. That is the purpose of deterrence; that is why the United Kingdom has an independent nuclear deterrent; and that is why the Government, subject to what I set out earlier, will retain that deterrent.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)

Speaking of this country's nuclear deterrent capability, my right hon. Friend will know of the letter sent by his colleague Baroness Symons to those of us who represent constituencies surrounding the atomic weapons establishment at Aldermaston. In the light of the decision to award a future 10-year management contract at AWE Aldermaston to a consortium including British Nuclear Fuels plc, and following revelations of the deliberate falsification of nuclear data, does my right hon. Friend agree that the decision to award the contract to that consortium is in urgent need of review? Many of my constituents would prefer Homer Simpson to run AWE Aldermaston rather than have BNFL.

Mr. Hoon

I am aware of the letter. As my hon. Friend will know, we have instructed the Chief of Defence Procurement to examine the terms and conditions of the contract to ensure the pre-eminence of public health and environmental safety as they affect the workers at the facility, and also the general public. We have also insisted that BNFL nominations to the new AWE top management team are free of any connection with the incidents noted in the report by the Department of Trade and Industry.

The Ministry of Defence is confident that the nuclear installations inspectorate is in a position to impose the highest possible safety standards before it will be prepared to grant the licence, which is a precondition of the new contract's taking effect. The reports on BNFL demonstrate the NII's independence and integrity.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury)

Does the Secretary of State realise that serious queries are arising about the safety consciousness of two of the three firms that make up the consortium to which he has just granted the new contract to run Aldermaston: Lockheed Martin and BNFL? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that my constituents and those living close to the site will be appalled by the thought that, in future, their safety could be in the hands of those two companies?

Mr. Hoon

I have described the steps that we have taken, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his constituents will be satisfied with the concern that has already been expressed.

The NII has approved the draft management prospectus, but before it can grant a new nuclear licence to enable AWE sites to operate from 1 April, it must be satisfied that all parts of the approved safety regime are underwritten by the directors appointed to run them. It will be able to examine carefully the antecedents and, as I said earlier, any possible connections with the incidents that have caused so much concern. All the points raised by the hon. Gentleman will be considered, and I hope he will be able to reassure his constituents that every step will be taken to investigate the antecedents of those who might be involved in running the AWE.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

Surely the sophistical arguments of the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) about our possible ultimate negotiating stance in putative negotiations that have not even reached the planning stage yet are about as relevant as debating angels dancing on pinheads. Would it not be better to concentrate on encouraging the ratification of the START 2 treaty and to begin meaningful multilateral negotiations, lest we end up joining the angels?

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend raises the alarming prospect of the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) dancing on a pinhead. On his more serious point, he is right. What is important is that we encourage, disarmament, particularly nuclear disarmament, where we can. The Government are committed to that and will use their influence in the world to achieve it.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

In considering the future of nuclear deterrence, is it not right to give some regard to the proposal from the United States that it should deploy some form of national missile defence? Is it not clear that the United States intends to deploy some form of national missile defence, even against the reservations of its European allies and even if it means breaching the anti-ballistic missile treaty of 1972?

What undertakings, if any, has the Secretary of State given on the possible use of such a system at Filingdales? What assessment has he made of the effectiveness of the British nuclear deterrent if an NMD were to come about in the United States and were the subject of a response—an increase in ballistic missiles by other countries?

Mr. Hoon

The right hon. and learned Gentleman should know that there is no specific proposal as yet from the United States. The Government have been in close touch with the United States Administration on the question. President Clinton will not decide on deployment before next summer.

As for the reservations—as the right hon. and learned Gentleman alleges—of the allies, the United States Administration have made it clear that one of the specific considerations that they will take into account is the reaction and attitude of the allies, as well as other international security considerations, so the matters that he raises have been fully taken into account.

Certainly, the matter will have to be looked at in the event of any specific request from the United States, although no specific request has been made. The right hon. and learned Gentleman will be aware that there is a long history of close co-operation between the UK and the United States in relation to United States basing. I anticipate that that co-operation will continue.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

If we are to continue with possession of the nuclear deterrent, it will be right and proper that the House ensures that the highest safety standards are followed on the maintenance and transportation of such weaponry, especially where submarines that carry nuclear weapons travel through traditional fishing grounds. Will my right hon. Friend confirm here and now that there was no nuclear submarine in the vicinity of the sinking of the Kirkcudbright scallop dredger, the Solway Harvester, because many people in Scotland believe that the vessel went down with the loss of its seven-man crew because it was in collision with another vessel, perhaps a nuclear submarine?

Mr. Hoon

I can assure my hon. Friend that no nuclear vessel was in the vicinity at the relevant time.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

Further to the question from the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell), are not the Government in a wobble over the whole position on ballistic missile defence? The Secretary of State's predecessor, Lord Robertson, said: We are not in favour of developing ballistic missile defence systems"—[Official Report, 10 May 1999; Vol. 331, c. 10.], yet we find that the Government have already reached agreement with the United States through their receipt of information and the upgrade of Menwith Hill. We also know that the Secretary of State has had serious discussions with his counterparts in the United States on the upgrade of Filingdales. Is not the reality that they dare not say what their intention is because of their fear of their own Back Benchers, who do not like it?

Mr. Hoon

The specific answer to the hon. Gentleman's final question is no. Let me repeat what I have already told the House: as yet, we have had no specific request from the United States Government and they have not yet decided whether to go ahead with national missile defence. Our position is clear.

Mr. Duncan Smith

What about Menwith Hill?

Mr. Hoon

If the hon. Gentleman investigated the role and responsibilities of that establishment a little more closely, he would discover that it would go ahead regardless of whether national missile defence goes ahead. Menwith Hill will play an important role in detecting the launch of ballistic missiles anywhere in the world. It is an entirely sensible step in its own right.

Mr. Duncan Smith

The Secretary of State is all over the place on the issue. His predecessor, Lord Robertson, said that the ABM treaty was one of the pioneering forerunners of arms control legislation, yet as recently as the end of last year, Baroness Symons said: Interpretation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty is a matter for the parties to that treaty."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 25 October 1999; Vol. 606, c. WA6.] She and the Secretary of State know that the US and the old Soviet Union are signatories. The Government are sliding on the issue. Previously, they said that they were utterly opposed, but now they are not quite as opposed as they were.

Mr. Hoon

The Soviet Union and its successor, Russia, are signatories to the ABM treaty. The hon. Gentleman will also be aware that there have been two significant amendments to the treaty, one of which was made in 1997, long after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The fact that the parties to the treaty might wish to enter into negotiations with a view to a further amendment can hardly be a surprise to him or to anyone else.

Mr. Duncan Smith

It is clear that the Government are scared not only of their Back Benchers but of their new co-habitees in the European security and defence identity, the French Government. President Chirac has said: We must avoid any questioning of the ABM Treaty that could lead to a disruption of the strategic equilibrium and a new nuclear arms race. The Secretary of State has been to the United States and had a series of discussions on the issue. He has agreed to the use of information, not only from Menwith Hill, for that defence programme, and has undertaken the same for Filingdales. Is not the reality that, as on so many other issues, the Government are behaving ever more like a double agent, telling one thing to one group and another to another?

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman is getting ever more desperate as he tries to find some substance for his questions. Let us deal with Menwith Hill. It is the European relay ground system of the United States space-based infra-red system, designed to detect the launch of ballistic missiles. It is regarded by the United States as necessary, irrespective of any decision on a national missile defence programme. The hon. Gentleman would do well not to keep referring to Menwith Hill, because it does not make his case, whatever it is—although the more I listen to him, the harder it is to detect what his argument is about.

Madam Speaker

I call Mr. Eric Forth for question No. 5. [HON. MEMBERS: "He is not here."] In that case I call Mr. Tam Dalyell.