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Missile Defence System

Volume 457: debated on Monday 26 February 2007

Before I turn to the answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question, I am sure that the whole House will join me in offering my condolences to the family and friends of Marine Jonathan Holland, of 45 Commando, who died in Afghanistan last week. His loss is a further reminder of the bravery and commitment of all our personnel, military and civilian, who serve in dangerous places and do such amazing work.

We continue to examine the potential options for future UK participation in a missile defence system. The NATO summit at Riga last November tasked continued work on the political and military implications of missile defence for the alliance. The work is now under way and the UK remains closely involved in it.

Many of my constituents work at RAF Fylingdales, which has played a vital role in the defence of our nation, particularly during the cold war. What role does the Secretary of State see RAF Fylingdales playing in the future defence of our country?

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that our view is that RAF Fylingdales, which, as he says, has played such an important role thus far in the defence of our country, will continue to play a very important role. The UK already makes a contribution to the US missile defence system through the early warning radar at RAF Fylingdales, and through well-established technical co-operation programmes, which include the work of Fylingdales. I do not see that that is likely to come to an end in the near future.

I endorse the words of the Secretary of State in expressing his condolences. What contact has the Prime Minister had with the American President about this missile defence system, and does the Secretary of State recognise that reports suggest that the Americans have already spent $90 billion on research? Does he believe that the system actually works, or is there some risk that people might develop a false sense of security if we have it in the UK? What impact does he think that it might have on our relations with Russia and China? More broadly, is there any sense that this might make us a target, and does he think that it will have any impact on—

I shall endeavour, Mr. Speaker, to give the hon. Gentleman a short answer to his questions. I do not know what he means by asking whether the system “actually works”, and I am not in a position to give the House an assessment of whether the proposed United States system will work, but my understanding is that it is at the developmental stage. As far as Russia and other states that have developed responsible attitudes to missile defence are concerned, the system, as I understand it, is not intended to defend against them, but to address limited threats from states that seek to acquire, and threaten the use of, ballistic missiles. Frankly, talk of being targeted as a consequence of the development of such a system is entirely uncalled for. According to the way in which the system has been explained to me, it does not pose a threat to anyone.

Why has the Secretary of State chosen to reveal the fact that such discussions were going on with the United States only following an article in The Economist last week, given that Members of this House have been asking questions about the subject for more than 18 months? Why does he not want to engender cross-party consensus on this issue by being prepared to discuss it with my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State?

In the time that I have been the Secretary of State I have answered questions on this issue, as the hon. Gentleman will see if he checks the records of this House. Indeed, I have a number of such questions in my brief, and if I could find them I would quote them to him; however, he can check them for himself in the record. I have made it clear, as did my predecessor and his predecessor, that we continue to be involved in discussions with our NATO allies, including the United States of America, on ballistic missile defence. Nothing in what has been revealed is inconsistent with what I have said in the past, and I have checked to make sure that that is the case. No decisions have been taken, no matter what may have been suggested, but frankly, it would be irresponsible of the Government not to explore with the United States and our other NATO allies the implications that the system might offer for the security of the United Kingdom. That is what we are doing and will continue to do, and the House will be informed, as I said in July, of any change to the current position.

May I begin by associating myself with the Secretary of State’s comments about Jonathan Holland? The thoughts and prayers of the whole House will be with his family and friends.

May I just jog the Secretary of State’s memory a little? On 1 November last year, in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) asking him what discussions he had had with the United States Government about the provision of a ballistic missile defence system site in the United Kingdom, he gave the answer:

“It is not the practice of the Government to make public details of discussions with foreign Governments as this would, or would be likely to prejudice international relations.”—[Official Report, 1 November 2006; Vol. 451, c. 431W.]

Far from there being frankness on the issue, we would not even have known that discussions were taking place had it not been for The Economist. Now that we have had confirmation from Downing street that such talks are taking place, can the Secretary of State tell us exactly what the status of the talks is, what the future plans for talks are, what we may have been committed to in terms of planning or development, and what the time scales for decisions will be?

The hon. Gentleman’s researches on the questions that I have answered are incomplete. On 29 June, in response to questions posed by a Liberal Member, I told the House:

“Officials work closely with the United States on joint technology programmes and to further our understanding of the US ballistic missile defence system. Their discussions include the modelling of possible missile defence architectures. However, we have had no discussions about the use of specific sites for interceptors in the United Kingdom.”—[Official Report, 29 June 2006; Vol. 448, c. 533W.]

If the hon. Gentleman cares to research fully the questions that I and others have answered, he will see that our position is consistent with the position that Governments before our Government have occupied, which is that we do not talk about discussions between Ministers, for the obvious reasons that I have given in answer to the question that he asked. Perhaps if he had asked another question, he might have been given the answer that Liberal Members were given, but in any event his researches should have revealed it.

We have not moved from the position that I have consistently explained to the House. No decisions have been taken, and no amount of presenting what has been going on and has appropriately been reported to the House will alter that fact. We are not at the decision-making stage. The United States has announced the beginning of negotiations with Poland and the Czech Republic, and it would be irresponsible of our Government not to explore with the US and NATO the implications that the system might offer for the defence of the United Kingdom. That is all we have been doing.

It is clear that the answers from the Secretary of State’s Department are, at the very least, inconsistent. Opposition Members—those on the Conservative Benches, in particular—would welcome any discussions that we had with the United States about such a system, or, indeed, any system that might increase the security of the United Kingdom. Can the Secretary of State tell us when he feels that he will be able to give the House an assessment of the technical capabilities of such a system as it develops—and with both Iran and Russia among the large number of countries that are increasing their ballistic missile spending, does he not believe that it would be prudent for us to be involved in such talks? Also on that issue, who does he believe is likely to be the main threat in the years ahead?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that NATO carried out a feasibility study, which was commissioned in Prague in 2002. Although the detail of that study is classified, it is perfectly clear that it has come to the conclusion that although at the moment there is not a coincidence of capability and intent, there is, in the view of the Government, a strong possibility of that developing in the years to come. The hon. Gentleman identifies Iran as one of the countries that may be developing such a capability, and of course we saw the developments over the weekend. I agree with his assessment that it would be entirely appropriate for the UK Government, commensurate with our responsibility for the defence of the United Kingdom, to keep abreast of discussions and developments in relation to that potentially very important capability, which is exactly what we have been doing.