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Ballistic Missiles

Volume 458: debated on Monday 26 March 2007

3. What preliminary proposals for ballistic missile defence installations in the United Kingdom have been discussed with the United States. (129297)

The UK makes a valuable contribution to the US ballistic missile defence system through RAF Fylingdales and our well established technical co-operation programmes. We regularly discuss with the United States our ongoing support and, as I and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister have said on many occasions, we will inform the House of any change to the current position.

Will the Secretary of State update the House on the position of NATO’s missile defence programmes?

The position in relation to NATO is that there was a process of assessment as to whether the ballistic missile defence would make a contribution to NATO defence. That process reported, indicating that such a contribution could be made, following the completion of the feasibility study. NATO continues to examine the options for and the implications of territorial missile defence, but it has no plans, nor has it set a timetable for any specific decision.

What part will RAF Fylingdales and the US base at Menwith Hill play in any negotiations with the US on missile defence? Will there be a full and public discussion of any developments at those sites?

When the decision was made to incorporate RAF Fylingdales into the US missile defence system, there was a full debate in the House in relation to the role that it would play. That role—[Interruption.] I am not going to go into the detail of that. There was a full debate. An important contribution is made, in radar terms, to the system. No decisions have been taken in relation to any other facility or site. The discussions are ongoing and, as I told the House when I answered questions on the matter last month, it would be irresponsible of the Government not to explore, both through the United States and our NATO allies, the implications that any system of this nature might offer for the security of the UK. That is the stage that we are at. That is what we are currently doing. When there is anything further to report, we will of course report to the House.

I know that the Secretary of State is aware that the Polish newspaper, Trybuna, on 7 October last year published an article that stated:

“the United Kingdom has revised its stance and—there are many indications of this—it will make the Orkneys accessible for building the second base of universal application.”

The Secretary of State was good enough to tell me in a telephone conversation last October that that was not the case. Will he confirm that denial today and will he also confirm that neither Orkney, nor for that matter Shetland, is being considered by the United Kingdom Government in relation to an installation of this nature?

I know of no change in the information that I gave the hon. Gentleman when he last spoke to me in relation to this matter. As I have told the House, no sites are being considered in our very preliminary discussions in relation to the siting of any missile defence.

But the Government have taken a decision in principle to support missile defence as something that the Americans may wish to deploy. We know that from the memoirs of Sir Christopher Meyer, who wrote of the toothpaste summit when the Prime Minister first met President Bush in Washington, back in President Bush’s first year of office. We have had a tremendous debate about nuclear weapons in this country. When are we going to have a proper debate in the House about the principle of missile defence? That issue is dividing NATO and destabilising relations with Russia.

The hon. Gentleman knows that the United Kingdom already makes a contribution to the US missile defence system through RAF Fylingdales and that there is other co-operation through technical programmes. All that is entirely consistent with the issue of principle. The House also knows that the Government’s position—I think that most hon. Members share this view—is that it would be irresponsible not to explore with the US and its NATO allies the possible implications of the system for the security of the UK—[Interruption.] I can tell the hon. Gentleman that when there is something to report to the House, a report will be made. However, no decisions have been taken at this stage, and there are no developments that require the matter to be reported to, and debated in, the House.

Given the ever-increasing prospect of rogue states, including perhaps Iran, acquiring a ballistic missile capability, does not the Secretary of State understand that it is his duty to engage in public debate, not to hide behind spurious claims that he needs to protect international relations? As far as the Fylingdales upgrade is concerned, may I remind him that there was so little debate that the Defence Committee issued a report in January 2003 that said:

“We strongly regret … the way in which the issue has been handled by the Government. We believe that it was a mistake on the part of the MoD to fail to respond to calls for a public debate of this issue for much of last year”?

Why cannot the Secretary of State share with us the assessment that he has made of the risk, and of the benefits or drawbacks, that might result from the UK’s participation in positioning ground-based interceptors on our soil? Alternatively, as was the case with the Fylingdales experience, are we once again to be bounced into a decision without the House or the public being engaged?

I know of the support of the hon. Gentleman and his party for engagement in ballistic missile defence. As he says, there are developments throughout the world that suggest that ballistic missile defence will make a significant contribution to the defence of the United Kingdom. This is a US system, and, currently, the US has not asked to examine any UK sites—for example, regarding any element of its missile defence system. I am reporting to the House the current state of our relations with the United States on this issue. I have given hon. Members an undertaking that when the situation moves beyond that, I will report to the House.