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Test Ban Treaty: Soviet Offer

Volume 477: debated on Tuesday 24 June 1986

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My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows: To ask Her Majesty's Government why they have not accepted Mr. Gorbachev's offer to agree to verification by seismic monitoring stations inside the Soviet Union as part of a comprehensive test ban treaty.

My Lords, the qualified nature of such offers would not provide adequate levels of verification for a comprehensive test ban treaty.

My Lords, while I thank the noble Baroness for that Answer may I ask her why the Government have not pursued the matter further? Why did they block all measures and all proposals to move towards negotiations in Geneva? Why did they even block an Australian compromise proposal that a draft should be drawn up to outline the objective negotiation? Why do the Government apparently not want to discuss this subject? Is the position really that they do not want a comprehensive test ban?

No, my Lords, that is not the position. I have made clear on this occasion and on many others in your Lordships' House that the crucial question is one of verification.

My Lords, will the Minister be good enough to reaffirm that last July the Government put forward proposals for verification? I should like to know what the Soviet reaction was to that? What have the Soviets done about our proposals?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mellish, for raising that point because last July the United States proposed an exchange of test site observers and invited Soviet observers to visit a United States test site. This goes to the heart of the issue, which is verification, and it is a matter of much regret that the Soviet response so far has been dismissive.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness recall her reply to a recent parliamentary Question—that if negotiations were to be resumed, questions other than concerns over verification would need to be addressed? Will she say what these other questions are and whether they include the need of the American or British Governments to make further tests?

My Lords, I recall the Question that the noble Lord asked a little while ago. The other matters which would have to be dealt with are scope, duration and compliance; but the key issue is verification.

My Lords, will the noble Baroness agree that international scientific advice is that verification techniques are now extremely accurate? Secondly, will she confirm what I thought she said before—that a comprehensive test ban treaty is one of the Government's clear objectives?

My Lords, we should like to see a comprehensive test ban treaty. With regard to the question of verification and recent scientific advances, to which the noble Lord referred, and indeed the claims that verification is not a problem, particularly in the light of advances in seismology, the Government do not agree, and we do not believe that the recent arguments advanced invalidate the conclusions of a United Kingdom paper presented to the Conference on Disarmament in July 1985. For example, these arguments concentrate largely on detection, ignoring problems of discriminating between explosion and earthquake.

My Lords, will the noble Baroness say whether the Soviet Union gave any reasons why they did not take any action or refused to consider our proposals of last July?

My Lords, may I ask the noble Baroness to clarify her reply to me just now? Was she saying that questions other than verification, which would need to be addressed if negotiations were resumed, would not include the need of the United States or British Governments to make further tests?

My Lords, what I said to the noble Lord on the question that he asked me about other issues that have to be raised besides verification on a test ban treaty related to difficult questions such as the scope of the treaty, its duration and its compliance. But the key issue is verification.

On the other point that the noble Lord asked about concerning testing—he has asked about it several times—we are committed to making progress. We are committed to maintaining the effectiveness of our nuclear capabilities; but it is a hypothetical question at the present time to ask what would happen under a test ban treaty.

My Lords, but the question remains: why are the Government even refusing to examine the Soviet proposals for on-site seismic verification?

My Lords, among the most recent developments is an agreement only in principle, though it is not yet confirmed, of the Soviet acceptance of United States monitors. But the Russians apparently are prepared to accept non-official American scientists to start stations in the Soviet Union but are not prepared to talk to the United States Government scientists about verification. The Soviet proposal suggests that non-official US scientists should be admitted to the Soviet Union. The Americans are prepared to agree that Soviet Government scientists should be admitted to the United States. Clearly this is a difference of view, but we hope that there might be a resolution of it.