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Non-Proliferation Treaty

Volume 564: debated on Thursday 20 June 2013

I am delighted that we are having this debate on the operation of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and the UK contribution to it. This is an extraordinarily serious issue, and our attitude towards nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons states, as well as the prospects for our own disarmament, are hugely important. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us what the Government’s commitment is to promoting nuclear non-proliferation.

Nuclear weapons have existed since the second world war. They have been used only once in a war scenario—at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Several hundred thousand people lost their lives in a flash—literally—but the cancers have carried on for 50 years. The cancers brought about by nuclear testing and nuclear pollution around the world have carried on for a long time. We are dealing with weapons of mass destruction, which would cause very large numbers of civilian casualties, should they ever be used again.

The development of nuclear weapons by the United States during the second world war was supported by a lot of scientists from Britain. For a short period during the war, and for a long period afterwards, all the powers relied on captured Nazi scientists to develop their own nuclear weapons—that was particularly true of the USA and the rocketry that went with them.

Shortly after the second world war, the then Soviet Union developed nuclear weapons, followed by Britain and France, and lastly China, which exploded its first nuclear weapon in 1964. Interestingly, the development of British nuclear weapons was always shrouded in secrecy and mystery. Brilliant as he was in many ways as a Prime Minister, the post-war Labour leader, Clement Attlee, managed to spend £200 million—an enormous sum now, never mind then, when it was worth far more—on secretly developing Britain’s own supposedly independent nuclear missile. That practice was copied by a later Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, who in 1979 managed to develop the Chevaline project in secrecy, without even the Cabinet being informed.

Since the development of nuclear weapons, there has been one major occasion when there was a serious likelihood of their use. That was the Cuban missile crisis of 1963, which was resolved when the Soviet Union agreed not to put nuclear weapons on the island of Cuba. In return the United States agreed to remove its nuclear missiles that were targeting Soviet targets from Turkey—although that was done secretly. A year later, both the leaders who negotiated on that were either dead or gone. Khrushchev was removed by an internal process, and Kennedy of course was assassinated. What came out of that period was a realisation of just how dangerous nuclear weapons are, and how dangerous it would be if they proliferated further. A great achievement was the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which was signed in 1970.

There are several elements to the treaty. One is the agreement, by countries that sign it, not to develop nuclear weapons. They can develop nuclear power and civil nuclear facilities, but not nuclear weapons. They also place themselves open to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is based in Vienna. The five declared nuclear weapons states—Britain, France, the Soviet Union, the USA and China—agreed to ensure that there was no proliferation of their weaponry, and to take steps towards their own eventual nuclear disarmament.

The treaty’s progress has been patchy, to say the least. It is subject to a five-yearly review, and I have attended several review conferences as vice-chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and chair of the parliamentary CND group. I am not making a declaration of interest, as there is no pecuniary gain in being an officer of CND; indeed, it costs quite a lot of money, but it is a joy to do. The review conferences are designed to monitor what is happening, but also to make proposals for a step forward. The review conference of 2010, with the support of a large number of states, proposed an international conference on the humanitarian effects of nuclear war.

That conference was held in Oslo, Norway, last year, and was supported by 77 countries. Unfortunately, none of the permanent five members chose to attend. There is no undertaking as yet about whether the UK Government will participate in its recall, which is due to happen in Mexico early next year. I think that the conference should be supported, and that we should recognise the good work that Mexico has done in being prepared to take the baton from Norway and make sure the conference happens. The situation is even more peculiar given the close relationship between Britain and Norway, and, indeed, their co-operation on nuclear disarmament issues and the decommissioning of nuclear weapons. Will the Minister give a firm undertaking that the UK will attend the conference?

Several countries have in the past 20 years taken steps that have lessened nuclear tensions in certain places. The most dramatic example was when post-apartheid South Africa, led by President Mandela, announced that it would no longer develop any nuclear weapons, and would completely disarm. That in turn brought about a nuclear weapons-free continent of Africa. That was an amazing step forward. We must ask ourselves who has the greater moral standing in the world: Britain, France, Russia, China and the USA, for their continued holding and developing of nuclear weapons; or South Africa, for ridding itself of apartheid and, shortly afterwards, of nuclear weapons? Those events were followed by nuclear weapons-free zones for the whole of Latin America and for central Asia, and a continuing debate about the possibility of such a zone for the Arctic, which would be a major achievement. I hope that we shall be able to develop a nuclear weapons-free middle east, which would be a huge prize.

A humanitarian initiative was adopted at the end of the Oslo conference and signed by 77 of the 106 states attending, and it is a lesson for all of us. It says:

“The catastrophic effects of a nuclear weapon detonation, whether by accident, miscalculation or design, cannot be adequately addressed. All efforts must be exerted to eliminate this threat. The only way to guarantee that nuclear weapons will never be used again is through their total elimination. It is a shared responsibility of all States to prevent the use of nuclear weapons, to prevent their vertical and horizontal proliferation and to achieve nuclear disarmament, including through fulfilling the objectives of the NPT and achieving its universality.”

There is a message for all of us from the countries that have deliberately not developed nuclear weapons.

India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel do, unfortunately, have nuclear weapons, and I want to talk about them, and the question of Iran. India and Pakistan were both initially signatories to the NPT. Both declared that they did not want to develop nuclear weapons, and eventually both did. Each has its weapons targeted at the other, and it would be the ultimate folly for either side to use them—the madness of mutually assured destruction. If a nuclear weapon were sent from Delhi to Lahore, or Lahore to Delhi, neither side would know which was sent first, because both sides would be annihilated. There is also something tragic about the fact that, although India is in many ways a fast-developing economy and a rapidly modernising country, it still has the largest number of poor, starving children in the world. Why on earth would it spend its resources on nuclear weapons, when they could be spent on education, health and welfare? The same applies across the border in Pakistan. Any encouragement to India and Pakistan to decommission their weapons and come back into the fold of the non-proliferation treaty would be very welcome.

I have attended nuclear non-proliferation treaty review conferences and preparatory committees for the past few years. Often they are dominated by the question of Iran, and whether it has nuclear weapons. Together with the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) and two other Members on the all-party group on Iran, I attended a meeting with the IAEA in Vienna to discuss that very question, and the obstructions, or otherwise, that Iran put in the way of inspections.

It is clear to me that Iran is developing a nuclear power system and processing uranium, which it is open about admitting. It absolutely declares that it does not have nuclear weapons, and religious leaders and others in Iran have said that they have no wish to develop them. I know that this is a highly contentious position, but we now have an opportunity, with the new President—President Rouhani—to engage with Iran on this question.

The way forward has to be engagement through a nuclear weapons-free middle east, which was in the declaration of the 2010 review conference. A nuclear weapons-free middle east would of course have to include Israel, which is the only country in the region to possess nuclear weapons—it has 200 warheads—and is not signed up to any treaty obligations.

There is, however, a significant nuclear peace campaign in Israel and throughout the middle east, which is supported by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. I pay tribute to Sharon Dolev and all who have campaigned so vigorously and effectively in Israel to draw attention to the insecurity, not the security, that nuclear weapons offer.

At the recent preparatory committee in Geneva, I listened carefully to the speeches made by delegates from all the Arab League states. The Arab League obviously has a great interest in the possibility of a nuclear weapons-free middle east, and strong statements were made by both the Arab League and individual countries, such as Egypt. They bluntly told the permanent five, “If you don’t progress the question of a conference for a nuclear weapons-free middle east, we will either walk out or develop our own nuclear weapons.” The obvious counter to Israel holding nuclear weapons is their development by other states in the region.

The Egyptian statement, which I heard, said:

“Egypt strongly supports the NPT regime. It has always championed the cause of a nuclear weapon free world. However, the establishment of a Middle East nuclear weapon free zone is essential for our national interest. We cannot wait forever for the launching of a process that would lead to the establishment of this zone, a process that was repeatedly committed to within the NPT. We cannot continue to attend meetings and agree on outcomes that do not get implemented, yet be expected to abide by the concessions we gave for this outcome.”

After making that statement, Egypt withdrew from the process.

There is now a serious danger that other countries in the middle east—one thinks of Saudi Arabia and others—will decide to withdraw from the NPT process, because of the failure of the secretariat and the permanent five to ensure that the Helsinki conference on a nuclear weapons-free middle east is held. I have repeatedly asked the Foreign Secretary—I now ask the Minister, who is well intentioned on these matters—whether a date has been set for the nuclear weapons-free middle east conference, which, sadly, did not happen in Helsinki when it was supposed to last year.

We need to move very urgently on the issue. The crisis in Syria suggests the need for a political solution there, but the election of a new President of Iran is an opportunity, not a problem. We should see it as an opportunity to progress this issue very quickly. If western countries that are so ready to give economic aid, arms supplies and political support to Israel cannot put pressure on Israel to attend that conference, that says a great deal about the permanent five’s rather limited commitment to a nuclear-free world.

An issue that has recently come up, as it does increasingly, is North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons. One could discuss for a long time why it has developed nuclear weapons. Is it because it feels threatened by the possibility of American ones being placed in South Korea, or is it concerned about seaborne ones being used against it by the USA or somebody else? Undeniably, there is a terrible imbalance within North Korea: the country can barely feed itself and has many people living in desperate poverty, yet at the same time it wastes goodness knows what resources on the development of nuclear weapons and a missile system to go with them.

The six-party talks made some progress, but then completely broke down. More recently, at the end of the latest stand-off, with all the hyperbole from the new North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, there has been some clear news. An Associated Press report stated:

“North Korea’s top governing body on Sunday”—

last week—

“proposed high-level nuclear and security talks with the United States in an appeal sent just days after calling off talks with rival South Korea.”

North Korea’s position appears to be that it wants to talk not just to South Korea, but to the USA. One hopes that such talks can bring about not only a continuation of the ceasefire between North Korea and South Korea, but a permanent end to the state of conflict and both sides’ enormous waste of resources on the development of greater levels of armament to potentially attack each other. There is something very dangerous about that, but I hope that we seize that opportunity to encourage direct talks with the USA.

President Obama was in Berlin yesterday, on the anniversary of President Kennedy’s speech at the Brandenburg gate. He proposed a further reduction in nuclear warheads as a way of promoting some degree of peace. That has to be welcomed, although so far the Russian response is a little confused. It is not clear what is being suggested, but it has to be seen as a way forward. In response, Kate Hudson, general secretary of CND, said:

“We welcome President Obama’s call for further reductions in US and Russian nuclear stockpiles. His proposals, which echo his speech against nuclear weapons in Prague in 2009, give voice to the concerns of billions around the world who wish to see a world without these catastrophic weapons… The only way to create genuine peace and security for future generations is to follow up these admirable words with concrete actions.”

One obviously hopes that that will be the case.

What can we do in Britain? We are a country of 65 million people on the north-west coast of Europe, with challenges on public expenditure and the delivery of public services. We need to invest a large amount in infrastructure. Therefore, we have to ask ourselves why we spend so much money, resource, time and energy on maintaining nuclear weapons.

The history of nuclear weapons is that Attlee initially envisaged something independent and British, but that later developed into the importing of US weapons such as Polaris, Cruise and Trident. We are now locked into a programme: the initial gate decision has been made to replace the Trident system and to develop a new submarine system at enormous cost, and a main gate decision will be taken in 2016.

No debate would really be complete in which I did not intervene on the hon. Gentleman. On the renewal of the submarines, does he acknowledge that the Trident missiles have many years of life left in them? Therefore, the decision about whether to replace the ageing fleet of Vanguard submarines that carry the Trident missiles could not possibly contravene the terms of the non-proliferation treaty.

It is quite clear that the massive cost involved is largely for the replacement of the submarines. I argue that it is a breach of the treaty to replace submarines that will carry nuclear weapons, because that is an expansion of the nuclear capability, even if the number of warheads carried on each submarine is reduced as a result.

A review is being undertaken within the Government, following pressure from the Lib Dem part of the coalition. It fought the election on the basis of not having a like-for-like replacement of Trident.

The hon. Gentleman is making a passionate and cogent case for the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world. Does he agree that if we pursue this multi-billion pound like-for-like replacement of Trident, the UK will almost commit what can only be described as unilateral nuclear rearmament in the face of every other nation’s attempts to disarm on this issue? Does he also agree that we in Scotland—if we vote yes in the referendum next year—can play our part by putting a shot across the bows of the UK’s nuclear intentions by ensuring Trident’s removal from Coulport in Scotland?

This debate is not about Scottish independence; it is about nuclear weapons. Quite clearly, the positioning of Britain’s nuclear weapons in Scotland makes that issue a factor, and the very broad opposition throughout Scotland from all parties to nuclear weapons is significant. Merely moving the weapons to somewhere else does not make us all safer because they are still in existence and still a threat. I hope to persuade the Minister —I am sure that he is ready to be persuaded—of the need for Britain not to replace its nuclear weapons system and to become part of the nuclear-free world that we all aspire to. I can see that the Minister is about to jump in and intervene and say that he agrees with me. [Interruption.] Perhaps he will cover that later in his reply.

I have spoken for nearly 30 minutes, so I will conclude shortly. We are members of the UN Security Council, and some people argue that, by maintaining our nuclear weapons ability, we guarantee our place at the top table. At some point, there will be changes and reforms to the UN. Other countries will become permanent members of the Security Council or the structure will change possibly to include, among others, Brazil, Mexico and India. Our membership is not dependent on having nuclear weapons; it is because of the establishment of the UN at the end of the second world war.

We have a slightly schizophrenic approach towards nuclear weapons. Some time ago, I went to a Pugwash conference, which is a meeting that is held in Canada most years between peace campaigners, nuclear scientists and others about the possibility of bringing about a nuclear weapons-free world. I was all prepared to give a contribution to the Saturday afternoon session of the conference when I was asked to delay my presentation by half an hour or so because a video message was coming from the British Government. The former Defence Minister Geoff Hoon appeared on the screen above us and gave a cogent talk about Britain’s commitment to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and about how we were detargeting and reducing our warheads. He said that we were encouraging a nuclear-free world and co-operating with Norway on decommissioning, but that Britain was not going to give up its nuclear weapons all together. It is time that we accepted the message that we are part of the NPT and have a contribution to make towards nuclear disarmament and did something about it. We should say that we will not proceed with the development of the new submarines, which would affect the ability to deliver those weapons. Instead, we should move to a nuclear weapons-free defence policy, which would not only save us a great deal of money but improve our standing in the world.

Nuclear weapons are not a defence. They did not help the USA on 9/11 or London on 7/7. They do not help anyone very much when the threats around the world are poverty, environmental change and random acts of violence. Surely nuclear weapons are just weapons of mass destruction. One nuclear explosion cannot be limited, because it never is. It will cause from then on environmental destruction and a nuclear winter.

Let me conclude with this thought. Those people who argue that we need nuclear weapons and that the nuclear non-proliferation treaty is for everyone else but not for us must answer these questions: would they use them, in what circumstances would they use them and how would they live with the deaths of millions of people? The weapons are dangerous and redundant and it is time that we ‘fess up to that and decide to go down the road of disarmament rather than rearmament.

Before I call the next speaker, let me say that I intend to bring in the Front-Bench speakers at no later than 4 pm.

I sometimes think that the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and I missed our profession. We have both been arguing the merits and demerits of nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence—I would like to think passionately but also reasonably—for at least the last 30 years. Perhaps we should cast ourselves as the nuclear version of “Les Misérables”, but which one of us would be the fugitive and which one the pursuer is a matter for others to decide. Certainly, I would like to think that our relationship is a bit more positive, if adversarial, than that of Jean Valjean and his nemesis, but the fact is that we do disagree, and we represent two diametrically opposed schools of thought. I genuinely congratulate him on securing this debate. I was away with the Intelligence and Security Committee in the United States when he applied for it. Had I not been, I would have been happy to support him in applying for it, just as he supported me very fully earlier this year when I applied for the debate that we both secured on Trident, which most people thought was beneficial and extremely valuable, whichever side of the debate they happened to support.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that, and inform him that I prayed in aid his undoubted wish to have this debate in order to continue our lifelong struggle for nuclear peace.

I am delighted to hear that, and that is what I hoped he would do. I will try to follow the chain of the hon. Gentleman’s argument—not too pedantically, I hope. I will start where he did, in 1945, because as he said, that was the one occasion on which nuclear weapons were used. However, it all depends on what we mean by the verb “to use”, because although they were used, very controversially, to end the war with Japan, I contend that they have been used frequently, indeed continuously, ever since. Once we get to the stage of mutual nuclear deterrence, the use of the nuclear deterrent lies not in firing it, but in possessing it, so that no one else will ever be tempted to do to a country what America was able to do to Japan. Whether we regard that as right or wrong in the circumstances is irrelevant. We want to ensure that no one is tempted to do that again in the future. The use of the nuclear deterrent is to deter anyone from attacking a country with mass destruction weapons.

Towards the end of the hon. Gentleman’s speech, he said that nuclear weapons were a fat lot of use as far as 9/11 was concerned. That is an update of an argument that we used to hear in the 1980s, when it was said, “Well, your nuclear deterrent didn’t stop Argentina invading the Falklands, did it?” My answer to the more modern version of that has to be the same as my answer to the earlier version: if a weapons system does not deter every sort of threat—and it does deter some dangerous threats—there is no more reason to get rid of it than to get rid of the antidote to a deadly disease just because it could not cure us of other, unrelated diseases.

The question of nuclear deterrence was substantially worked out before nuclear weapons made their existence known. In 1944-45, the British chiefs of staff commissioned a study by defence scientists under a famous professor, Sir Henry Tizard, to try to imagine what the future nature of warfare would be once Germany and Japan were defeated. Tizard was not allowed to go into the question of nuclear weapons, even though he knew that they were under development, but he could not resist putting in his report, in 1945, that he and his fellow senior defence scientists could see only one answer to the atomic bomb, if indeed it was developed. He said:

“A knowledge that we were prepared, in the last resort”

to retaliate with such a weapon

“might well deter an aggressive nation. Duelling was a recognised method of settling quarrels between men of high social standing so long as the duellists stood 20 paces apart and fired at each other with pistols of a primitive type. If the rule had been that they should stand a yard apart with pistols at each other’s hearts, we doubt whether it would long have remained a recognised method of settling affairs of honour.”

The hon. Member for Islington North said that Nazi scientists played a great part in the subsequent development of nuclear weapons. I do not think that that is quite true. The Nazis went down a blind alley as far as nuclear weapons development was concerned. They were subject to eavesdropping at Farm hall, where intelligence experts heard them doubting and wondering whether it was true that the Americans had successfully developed the atomic bomb used in Japan. However, he is absolutely right that Nazi scientists played a key role in developing the rocketry that could carry such weapons to their destination, should they ever be fired. As I like to stress over and over, that is not what their use consists of, once the stage of stable nuclear deterrence is reached.

Similarly and interestingly, the hon. Gentleman said, again rightly, that the Cuban missile crisis was probably the most dangerous point in the cold war—the point when the possibility of a nuclear exchange was at its highest. The concession that the Americans made was even a little greater than he suggested, because they had nuclear-armed missiles based in Turkey. It was not a question of targeting Turkey; the US had missiles based in Turkey, which Kennedy wisely decided the US should offer to remove as a way of giving Khrushchev some face-saving ability, so it would not look too much like a straightforward climb-down for him to remove the Soviet missiles from Cuba.

Although the hon. Gentleman talked a great deal about non-proliferation, he did not quote from the relevant article in the non-proliferation treaty, which is often quoted incompletely. The preamble to the treaty states that nuclear disarmament should occur

“pursuant to”—

that is, in conformity with—

“a treaty on general and complete disarmament”:

in other words, worldwide conventional disarmament.

Article VI of the non-proliferation treaty states in full:

“Each of the parties to the treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to 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.”

There are three elements to article VI: the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date, a world free of nuclear weapons, and a world with general disarmament. On the first, Britain has never been part of the nuclear arms race. It is true that the superpowers have: they piled up nuclear weapons on both sides of the iron curtain.

The one thing on which I always used to agree with the famous former general secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Monsignor Bruce Kent, was his view that the Americans and the Russians could each unilaterally cut their nuclear arsenals by 10% without any loss of security whatsoever. I agreed entirely: both sides had massive overkill capability. However, Britain never did. For that matter, China never has, and nor has France. We in this country have always followed a policy of minimum strategic nuclear deterrence. In other words, it does not matter if another country has the ability to wipe us out 50 times over, because we can cause unacceptable levels of devastation in retaliation, which is why the other country will not do it in the first place.

The hon. Gentleman—I nearly called him my hon. Friend, because I regard him as an honourable friend—asked rhetorically which country had greater moral standing in the world: South Africa, for renouncing its programme, or the United Kingdom. I suppose it depends on one’s standard of morality and how one measures it. I would say that it is a little like arguing that the neutral countries in 1940—for instance, Holland, Belgium and Norway—had greater moral standing than democracies such as Britain and France, which at least tried to have armaments with which to defend themselves. However, that is not my standard of morality or my way of measuring it. My way of measuring it is to ask which country, by adopting a particular policy, will do most to prevent a nuclear war from breaking out. It was implicit—at one point, it was virtually explicit—in some of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks that he accepts that both of us share the same end. We do not wish a nuclear war to happen; we just disagree as much as it is possible to disagree on the means of achieving that laudable end.

I will say a few words about Britain and the renewal of Trident, and about the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons, and that will probably be enough. On the question of Britain’s renewal of Trident, I underscore what I said in the intervention that the hon. Gentleman generously allowed me to make. The Trident missiles that currently constitute the British strategic nuclear deterrent are not up for renewal. They have decades of life left in them. The only question is whether we should replace the submarines that carry them.

Of course, one could argue that not replacing the submarines would effectively disarm this country of its nuclear deterrent. That is why the hon. Gentleman and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament would like the submarines not to be replaced. Equally, it is why I am determined to do everything that I can to put pressure on the Government to ensure that they fulfil their promise to replace them. However, I do not think that it is credibly arguable, by any stretch of the imagination, that replacing four submarines that are reaching the end of their design life with three or four new submarines to carry the same missiles—indeed, the new submarines will have a smaller missile compartment, so arguably they will carry fewer missiles, although I freely acknowledge that the flexibility in the number of warheads that can be put on missiles probably means that it is a distinction without a difference—comes anywhere near a breach of the provisions in article VI of the non-proliferation treaty, whatever one regards our undertakings as being.

As I said before, the only time frame is ending the arms race “at an early date”. We have never been a part of the arms race, due to our policy of minimum strategic nuclear deterrence, and as far as I can see, there is nothing in the treaty that says that we must go for a nuclear-free world before the world is conventionally disarmed. In the next and final stage of my remarks, I will argue that that would be dangerous and destabilising.

To return to the point about Trident, we continue to follow a policy with the same weapons system that we have deployed ever since HMS Vanguard first went to sea in the 1990s. Whatever other arguments might be used to say that Britain ought not to build the new fleet of successor submarines, contravening the provisions of the non-proliferation treaty is not one of them.

Let me move to the final component of my argument, which is whether a nuclear-free world would be desirable, or a least a nuclear-free world that was introduced prior to general and complete disarmament—conventional disarmament—which is referred to in the same clause of the NPT that refers to a world free of nuclear weapons.

If nuclear weapons had not existed, it is unlikely that the cold war would have remained stalemated, as it did, rather than boiling over into a third global conflict. If nuclear weapons ceased to exist, but the world remained armed to the teeth and still as mutually hostile as it is, there would be nothing to prevent the first nation to cheat on the question of its abolition of nuclear weapons from using—that is, firing—secretly manufactured devices before any such temporary monopoly of them was broken.

I particularly draw attention to the example of what happened with a treaty that undoubtedly would have had the support of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1972, when it was signed: the biological warfare convention. I always remember that brilliant columnist, Bernard Levin, who wrote an article at the time of the biological warfare convention, talking about the fact that the Russians were apparently disposing at sea of all sorts of horrible biological weapons, under the terms of the treaty. He said that whatever things they were consigning to the depths of the ocean, he was pretty sure that biological weapons were not among them. He was dead right, because we now know that in 1973, the year after Russia signed the treaty, the Soviet leadership set up Biopreparat—a massive organisation—secretly to continue its deadly biological weapons research into such charming weapons as smallpox, bubonic plague, anthrax, brucellosis, tularaemia and Ebola.

We know about this because in 1989—I remember when it happened—a defector from that organisation, Vladimir Pasechnik, revealed everything that was going on. We were able to get away with that cheating, because we had the ultimate fall-back of a nuclear deterrent system, which meant that it would have been just as dangerous for Russia to have exploited its secret monopoly of biological weapons, which it kept while everybody else kept to the terms of the treaty and disarmed. We would have been able to retaliate against those weapons with our nuclear deterrent, but heaven help us if we had not the nuclear deterrent as a back-up.

The question that people who advocate a nuclear-free world have to ask themselves is this: is it a sensible policy, in the real world as we know it today, to make the world safe once again for conventional warfare between the great powers? I would love to see a nuclear-free world, but I would love to see it only when I see a weapons-free world; for that to happen, there has to be a world Government and, above all, a reformation of the mind of man and a change for the better in human nature.

I am grateful for the opportunity to make a short contribution to this debate, Mr Sheridan, and I am pleased to see you in the Chair today. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) both on securing this debate and on his comprehensive, articulate opening contribution.

I should like to ask the Government for more information about how they intend to deal with this issue. Many such debates take place in the context of the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system, about which we have heard many references. Strong arguments are made by those who believe that we should not renew Trident and by those, such as the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who believe that renewing it would be the right step for Britain to take. I would find it difficult to justify the cost of more than £100 billion being spent—we believe that would be the cost during the lifetime of a replacement for Trident—in the context of some of the cuts in the public sector and in public spending at this time, the cost of which we know is bearing down on many people throughout the country.

I should be interested in hearing the Minister provide a more detailed explanation of the position that Britain is taking internationally. I do not agree with the hon. Member for New Forest East that it would be wrong to get rid of nuclear weapons before getting rid of all weapons in this world. The position of some states on nuclear weapons makes it more likely that other states will acquire them. One of my great concerns is proliferation, particularly with the kind of people running some regimes in the world at the moment. Of course, there is much debate about Syria. Previously, there was much debate about Libya and Iraq. We have had debates and there has been discussion this week about the regime in Iran. The reality is that many of those regimes, at various points, may have had the capacity to develop and possess nuclear weapons.

It is beholden on the United Kingdom Government, as one of the five countries that are signatories to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and one of the countries that it is recognised as possessing nuclear weapons, to put a great deal of energy, expertise and political commitment into the process, to try to rid the world of nuclear weapons and take steps to ensure that, until we get to the point where there are no nuclear weapons, as few nuclear weapons exist in as few hands as possible. The more nuclear weapons that we have and the more countries that possess them, the more likely it is that they will be used, either by accident or design. I am interested in hearing a great deal more than we have heard up till now from the Government about what energy, resources and commitment they are putting into this process.

I should also be interested to have a more detailed explanation of what the Government’s position is in relation to some other initiatives taking place in the world by other states that do not possess nuclear weapons, or perhaps previously possessed nuclear weapons but no longer do, and that seem to be putting a great deal of diplomatic and political energy into trying to move towards a situation where fewer states possess nuclear weapons.

In particular, for example, I should be interested to hear from the Minister the detail of the Government’s position in relation to the humanitarian initiative undertaken by a number of non-nuclear weapons states. The Minister will be aware of the conference that took place in Oslo earlier this year. He has had to address many parliamentary questions, including some asked by me and by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North, asking why Britain did not attend and engage in that event. The Minister will be aware that that initiative explored issues to do with how we stop nuclear weapons proliferating and stop the political situation in which states can justify acquiring and developing nuclear weapons, by using the same arguments that we use in this country.

I should like the Minister and the Government to say what they intend to do now to put this issue at the top of the political agenda. He will appreciate that the possession of nuclear weapons by any country and the development of this technology means that it is more likely that these weapons of mass destruction will be used. As we lead towards our upcoming discussions on whether to renew Trident, Britain should be actively engaged in that process and, indeed, be a leader of the move towards a nuclear-free world.

As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. I have listened with great interest to what has been, perhaps inevitably, a somewhat polarised debate. It is fair to say that hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber —my hon. Friends the Members for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) and the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis)—although they reach very different conclusions about the approach to nuclear weapons, approach the issue from a position of great integrity and with a real desire to ensure that we never revisit the horrors of the only use to date of nuclear weapons in conflict, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the second world war.

I have great respect for the views expressed by everyone who has spoken in the debate. I do not share the pessimism of the hon. Gentleman’s closing remarks. I was with him for quite a bit of his speech, up until he said that we will never see an end to nuclear weapons unless we see an end to conventional weapons and a world Government. Perhaps taking the opposing view—that we will achieve a world without nuclear weapons—is idealistic, but I think it is important that we have that in mind as an end goal. After all, each of the parties to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty—he cited article 6—has undertaken to pursue in good faith negotiations on the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to achieve nuclear disarmament. Having signed up to the treaty, we have committed ourselves to making progress on that front, even if we think that the end result will be a long way off; it comes down to the speed and passion with which we pursue those negotiations.

The official Opposition believe that the UK must continue to press for multilateral negotiations towards mutual, balanced and verifiable reductions in nuclear weapons and to work towards total elimination of our nuclear arsenal and all others. Those efforts must include working with the International Atomic Energy Agency to develop assurances of supply for nuclear fuel that provide energy security without the need for proliferation of sensitive enrichment technology. I do not intend to talk about nuclear power—it has been discussed in previous debates in Parliament—but it is part of the issue.

When the Labour party was in government, we committed to reduce the number of operationally available warheads to fewer than 160, so the UK has now reduced its nuclear arsenal by 75% since the end of the cold war, and we welcome the Government’s announcements on reducing both operationally available warheads and the overall weapons stockpile. The UK now accounts for less than 1% of the global stockpile of nuclear weapons. We have the smallest arsenal of the five recognised nuclear weapons states, and we are the only state to reduce to a single nuclear deterrent system.

On Trident and the need for an independent nuclear deterrent, Labour’s continuing objective is to play an active and constructive role in an international effort to achieve a world free from nuclear weapons. Any future Labour policy will seek to take disarmament further by reducing the number of deployable and stockpiled warheads, but Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent has been the cornerstone of our peace and security for more than half a century. In today’s world, so long as there are other countries with such capabilities and the security landscape is characterised by instability and uncertainty—we have heard about the situation in Pakistan, North Korea’s missile tests and the unpredictable situation in Iran, despite the election this week of a new President—it is right that the UK retains an independent nuclear deterrent. However, we want the UK to have the minimum credible deterrent, in line with our international obligations and strategic security requirements, and we want to ensure that we achieve maximum value for money within that chosen platform.

I will address some of the countries of concern that pose a possible nuclear threat. In the past year, international talks on Iran’s nuclear programme have achieved little, resulting in harsher sanctions. On Monday, the head of the IAEA reported that sanctions have not been successful in slowing Iran’s ability to enrich uranium. We welcome the commitment of Iran’s new President, Hassan Rouhani, to greater nuclear transparency, of course, but those words must be backed up with progress on the ground.

The Russian Foreign Minister has reported in the past few days that Iran is prepared to suspend the most sensitive parts of its nuclear programme, which could be welcome news, but we must be cautious. The new President was head of Iran’s national security council for 16 years, and he was Tehran’s key nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005. It is fair to say that he did not demonstrate any great enthusiasm for transparency on Iran’s nuclear capability when he was in those positions.

On North Korea, there has been a ratcheting of tensions in the past year or so, with the launch of two rockets carrying satellites in 2012, which was widely seen as an attempt to test its missile technology. The launch was met with global condemnation, including from North Korea’s closest ally, China. The UN Secretary-General condemned the launch as a violation of United Nations Security Council resolution 1874.

In February 2013, North Korea conducted its third nuclear test in seven years, and there has been rhetoric from Kim Jong-un about a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the USA and threats against South Korea. I was in South Korea for a UK-Korea Forum for the Future conference last week, and one of the key messages that we gave to our Korean hosts was on our admiration for their calm response to those threats. Obviously, South Korea is used to such threats, as there has been conflict between the two countries for many years, but its response helped to dampen the tension in the area.

I would be grateful to the Minister if he updated us on his assessment of the situation. The North Koreans pulled out of the talks that were due to take place on the grounds that the South Koreans were not sending sufficiently senior people. That seems to be an issue that could quite easily be resolved. What conversations, if any, has he had to try to ensure that those talks go ahead?

The security of existing stockpiles in countries such as Pakistan and Russia remains an ongoing concern. The IAEA has reported more than 100 nuclear smuggling incidents since 1993, 18 of which involved highly enriched uranium, which is the most dangerous product on the nuclear black market. Does the Minister have anything to say on how we are trying to address such smuggling incidents?

I was interested in what my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North had to say about the middle east nuclear-free zone, for which he has been campaigning for some time. He tabled an early-day motion on that in 2010. I understand that the hopes of having a conference this year have been somewhat derailed by the situation in Syria. Will the Minister comment on whether we can push for that conference to take place?

The Minister attended the NPT review conference at the UN last year, and it was reported that a five-year action plan spanning the three pillars of the NPT was agreed by consensus. The next NPT review conference will be in 2015. What progress have the Government made on drawing up their objectives? What do they hope to achieve at that conference?

The Trident alternatives review is set to publish its report before July, and the Government will have an opportunity to assess whether to cut the number of Vanguard submarines from four to two. Late last month, the Financial Times reported that the review will conclude that any alternative to Trident will either be impractical or more expensive. I assume that the Minister will want to wait until the review is published before commenting in detail, but I would be interested if he could answer a few questions. How much time and money is being spent by the MOD on the review? Will it be published as a Government document or, as it was inspired by Liberal Democrat members of the coalition, will it be published under their auspices? What consideration will be given to the review before the finalisation of the Conservative party manifesto?

Finally, I want to mention Government efforts to reduce their own nuclear stockpile. In 2010, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs informed Parliament that the UK had 225 nuclear warheads; he also signalled that the coalition would downgrade their importance in UK military strategy. What efforts are being made on that front?

I echo the remarks of hon. Members: it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan.

If anyone wanted to listen to as good and clear an exposition as possible of whether the United Kingdom should have nuclear weapons, they could do a lot worse than listen to the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis). It is clear to all of us in the House, having known them for a long time, that not only do they know what they are talking about, but they continue to conduct the debate on a serious issue in exactly the sort of terms that we would want for an argument of such seriousness. As the years ebb and flow, it remains uncertain which argument will dominate at any particular stage in British politics and the like. That the reasons for and against are put so clearly is of benefit to all of us in the House, so I very much appreciate the hon. Member for Islington North calling for the debate, and the way in which he led it, as well as the way in which all other colleagues who have spoken contributed.

As always, we need to go a little way down memory lane. The first time that the hon. Member for Islington North and I debated the subject was when we were both councillors on Haringey council in 1981; he was either proposing or part of a movement to declare the borough a nuclear-free zone. Probably the first time that I came across my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East was when he was campaigning with Tony Kerpel and others in the anti-CND movement about the same time. Both have proved their point: Haringey has, mercifully, been free of attack since the council declared it a nuclear-free zone—

Absolutely. To that extent, the hon. Gentleman was absolutely right in how he conducted the case.

The world has of course benefited from the case put forward so ably by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East. It is a case with which I am broadly in agreement: our possession of nuclear weapons has contributed to the peace of the world, provided it has been allied to a commitment, demonstrated by successive Governments, to rid the world steadily of nuclear weapons through measures of mutual confidence. I appreciate the restatement of the Opposition position by the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who echoed the position of successive Labour Governments and reiterated the 2007 commitment, made under a Labour Government, to proceed with Trident. In general, I accept that she has restated a relatively common position. The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) made a strong contribution on the side of those who challenge such an opinion, but, again, in a moderate way and recognising the responsibilities of the United Kingdom not only to its own defence, but to the mutual defence with which it is associated through its various treaty obligations.

In the time allotted, I will do my best to do justice to the contributions. I am not sure, however, which part in “Les Mis” we would all take. “Who am I?” Well, I am the Minister responsible for counter-proliferation, but at least I am not “On my own”, and I am grateful for the support I have had from colleagues in putting together these remarks. Enough of this.

The United Kingdom is a firm supporter of the non-proliferation treaty, which we believe is the cornerstone of the international non-proliferation regime. Of course, the NPT faces challenges and pressures, such as the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran, the risk of a nuclear terrorist attack and the spread of sensitive nuclear technology. We must also remember, however, that the consensus outcome of the 2010 NPT review conference, with agreement of the cross-pillar action plan by 189 state parties of the NPT, was a real achievement and a boost for multilateralism. We are now halfway through the five-year review cycle. Looking ahead to the review conference in 2015, we need to ensure that we deliver against our action plan commitments.

In response to the question of the hon. Member for Bristol East, we in the Government take our action plan obligations seriously, on all three pillars of the NPT, which are nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation and peaceful uses, and our role as co-convenor for the conference on the establishment of a weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the middle east. I will say a little more about each of those.

On disarmament, under the first pillar of the NPT, the United Kingdom is committed to the long-term goal of a world without nuclear weapons. Successive UK Governments—the hon. Lady can take pride in her party’s achievements—have played an active role in helping to build an international environment in which no state feels the need to possess nuclear weapons. I take the opportunity to highlight the UK’s strong record on disarmament. In our 2010 strategic defence and security review, we announced reductions in the number of operational warheads and our overall stockpile. I remember making some of those announcements in New York at the time of the 2010 conference. We announced, for the first time, the total size of our nuclear warhead stockpile, and gave a new, stronger security assurance that the UK would not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states party to the NPT. Those announcements meant that the UK has been more transparent than ever about our arsenal in a declaratory policy that we believe will assist in building trust between nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states, and contribute to efforts to reduce the number of nuclear weapons worldwide. We continue to call on other nuclear weapon states to take reciprocal steps.

In essence, as we all know, the NPT is a grand bargain between nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states. It is essential, and at the heart of our disagreements with Iran in particular, but not only Iran, that both sides keep that bargain, otherwise mutual confidence is not there. If we do keep the bargain, we can make progress towards the world we want to see. China’s involvement in the P5 process—in particular, its leadership of the P5 working group on nuclear terminology—is a positive indication of China’s interest in engaging in efforts to help enhance understanding on nuclear matters. That and Russia’s involvement in the P5 plus 1 talks with Iran indicate that, despite difficulties and disagreements in some areas, the consensus on nuclear issues and nuclear disarmament is quite strong under the overall NPT umbrella.

The Minister is talking about non-nuclear states and the work of nuclear states. He is aware of the Oslo conference and humanitarian initiative, and of the New Agenda Coalition disarmament statement; will he have the opportunity to outline the Government’s approach to such initiatives from non-nuclear states to encourage nuclear disarmament?

I will indeed; I will come to that in a moment. Our groundbreaking work with Norway, a non-nuclear state, on the verification of warhead dismantlement has been the first time that a nuclear weapon state has engaged in such an open way with a non-nuclear weapon state on such a sensitive issue. I hope that we have also been active in building the conditions for further progress on disarmament. The United Kingdom instigated the P5 dialogue between nuclear weapon states in 2009 to help build the trust and mutual confidence to take forward further progress. The hon. Lady is right that as part of the action plan—though it was not a commitment—there was much discussion about the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons and, therefore, the Oslo conference.

Of course we recognise that any use of nuclear weapons would have grave humanitarian consequences—it is unthinkable. The best way to prevent such an event is to make progress on multilateral disarmament, on counter-proliferation and on improving the security of non-nuclear materials and facilities. Our decision not to attend the Oslo conference on humanitarian consequences does not change any of those commitments to the goal of a world without nuclear weapons. We believe, however, that the energy behind the humanitarian campaign could have been more effectively channelled through existing processes, by helping to tackle blockages, and by making progress in the practical step-by-step approach that includes all states that possess nuclear weapons. Only in that way can we realistically achieve a world without nuclear weapons. That is the reason why we and the other P5 members chose not to attend.

It is true that the P5 did not attend, but will the Minister give us some indication of the attitude to the invitation that I understand has been extended to attend the Mexico resumption of the conference in the early part of next year?

The hon. Gentleman is right. Officials from our embassy in Mexico City held a meeting with Mexican officials on 31 May. We were informed that they do indeed intend to hold a conference in early 2014 with a focus on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. We have made no decision on whether to attend that conference, but we will continue to engage with Mexican officials on the shape of it.

I want to speak about some of the states mentioned by colleagues during the debate. On the second pillar of the NPT, Iran and North Korea pose the most immediate challenges to the non-proliferation regime. The actions of both countries must not be allowed to threaten international peace and security. The UK remains deeply concerned about Iran’s continuing nuclear activities in violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions and in defiance of the resolutions of the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Iran’s nuclear programme has no credible civilian explanation, and we believe that it wants a nuclear weapons capability. Those aspirations are incompatible with Iran’s obligation under the NPT. A nuclear-armed Iran would bring the risk of a nuclear arms race and further conflict throughout the region. The NPT could unravel and the dangers facing us and other countries would multiply. We want a peaceful, diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue. We urge Iran to engage constructively on the basis of the confidence-building proposal presented by the E3 plus 3, and to take the concrete steps that would pave the way for negotiations on a comprehensive settlement.

As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said, clearly the election of Iran’s new President has the possibility of introducing a new element into a complex equation. If that were the case, there would be a warm welcome from the United Kingdom, but the evidence suggests that it is sensible to wait and see what such an approach might be. The hon. Member for Bristol East was able to give some background on President-elect Rouhani that indicates that his position may not be the easiest, but it is still early days, and any opportunity will be warmly welcomed. The security and peace of many people is dependent on Iran recognising its obligations under the NPT and satisfying the concerns of the international community. If those steps can be taken, there may be an opportunity to de-escalate. No one and no state would welcome that more than the United Kingdom.

The Minister is being generous in giving way again. Could we not use the opportunity of new President Rouhani’s election to open some sort of dialogue with Iran? I do not want Iran to have nuclear weapons any more than anyone else, but does the Minister realise that the alarm bell of Egypt leaving the NPT process is very serious for the whole region? Urgency is required to kick-start the nuclear weapons-free middle east conference that, sadly, was not held in Helsinki last year.

Before turning to the weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the middle east, I want to pick up the hon. Gentleman’s point. The opportunity for dialogue is genuinely there. The House knows that relations between Iran and the United Kingdom have been reduced to the lowest level, but they are not absolutely nil. Everyone knows about the talks that are proceeding on the nuclear issue, so the opportunity for dialogue exists. I do not believe that anyone in Tehran believes that they would not have the opportunity of putting something new into the mixture if they wanted to, in relation to the President’s position, when it becomes established, so we will wait and see. I want to make it clear that our side would welcome movement, but equally let me say, in response to the concerns of those whose responsibilities we share, that there has to be evidence. However, the opportunity will be there.

I will speak briefly about North Korea before turning to the weapons of mass destruction free-zone in the middle east. The United Kingdom condemns in the strongest possible terms North Korea’s continued development of its nuclear weapons programme, which is in direct violation of UN Security Council resolutions. We continue to urge North Korea to return to credible and authentic international negotiations, to abide by its obligations under relevant UN Security Council resolutions and to abandon all nuclear weapons programmes in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner.

To what extent the regime plays games with the international community and its neighbours is almost impossible to tell. The hon. Member for Bristol East rightly asked about the prospects for new talks. We welcomed the news last week that North and South Korea were considering talks on the future of the industrial complex and other issues. Although it has not proved possible to hold talks this week, we continue to hope that both sides will remain open to future dialogue. It is certainly something we encourage as best we can.

Turning to the weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the middle east, I want to put on record again my strong commitment to it. I have met facilitator Jaakko Laajava on several occasions. I like him, and he works incredibly hard on one of the most unforgiving briefs in the middle east, of which there a few. He has worked tirelessly to try to bring nations together. As a co-convenor of the conference, we support it and we want it to happen. I would like an indicative date, and I back Jaakko Laajava’s attempts to try to create that. His method has been to try to bring the parties together conditionally to discuss where it might go, but that has not suited Egypt and other Arab states that have made their concerns very clear because they were disappointed that the conference did not happen last year. So were we, but patient building together will be required to get there.

We would very much appreciate the re-engagement of Egypt and all other Arab states, and I regularly raise that in my bilateral conversations. Proceeding with this is part of the bargain that I mentioned earlier; it was part of the bargain that achieved the statement in 2010. Those who are committed to this can be assured that the United Kingdom will make all efforts, but ultimately it will depend on confidence all round, and will include the United States, Israel and the Iranians. It is interesting that they are all in the process, and the facilitator continues to talk to all, which is important. That is our position and we continue to try to drive that process on. The fact that Israel and Iran are part of it is one encouragement in a difficult area.

Hon. Members would be disappointed if I did not touch briefly on the deterrent and Trident. Our position remains that maintaining the UK’s nuclear deterrent beyond the life of the current system is fully consistent with our obligations as a recognised nuclear weapon state under the NPT. It does not require unilateral disarmament, nor does it prohibit the maintenance of a nuclear weapons systems currently held by any nuclear weapon state. The UK has an excellent record in fulfilling its disarmament obligations under the NPT, maintains only a minimum nuclear deterrent and, we believe, is the most forward-leaning of the five nuclear weapon states. In that context, I reaffirm the United Kingdom’s position on the deterrent.

My party’s position on Trident remains that which was approved by Parliament in 2007. The Government are committed to maintaining the UK’s continuous strategic nuclear deterrent, and renewing it through the submarine replacement programme. A decision on the number of submarines to be procured will be taken in 2016.

In May 2011, the then Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), announced the initiation of the review of the costs, feasibility and credibility of alternative systems and postures for maintaining a minimum credible nuclear deterrent. The purpose of the review is to help to fulfil the coalition Government’s programme, which states that:

“we will maintain Britain’s nuclear deterrent, and have agreed that the renewal of Trident should be scrutinised to ensure value for money. The Liberal Democrats will continue to make the case for alternatives”.

The Government are fulfilling that pledge and that promise. Already, significant costs have been identified as being able to be taken out of the Trident programme, giving rise to £3.2 billion of savings and deferrals over the next 10 years. It is important that it is cost-effective. We will deal with the alternatives when that comes through, but for maintenance of the Government’s consistent position at the moment, the deterrent remains in place. Our commitment to a cost-effective Trident also remains in place, and we will await the alternatives, when they come up.

I suspect that the debate will continue, and the fact that it will be continued in good heart between knowledgeable colleagues on the Back Benches helps those on both Front Benches.

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).