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Nuclear Weapons

Volume 633: debated on Tuesday 26 March 2002

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2.53 p.m.

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will move in the United Nations or the Security Council for the globally enforced abolition of nuclear weapons.

My Lords, the Government have made it clear that we are committed to the ultimate goal of verifiable global nuclear disarmament. We continue to press for mutual, balanced and verifiable reductions in the numbers of nuclear weapons worldwide. When we are satisfied that sufficient progress has been made to allow us to include British nuclear weapons in multilateral negotiations without endangering our security interests, we shall do so.

My Lords, my noble friend has given the affirmative Answer that I hoped for. As he says, the Government have long been committed to the idea of getting rid of nuclear weapons. Is not the time now right to follow the suggestion of the International Court of Justice to initiate discussions in the United Nations with a view to committing all the nations concerned to nuclear disarmament?

My Lords, I know of my noble friend's long-standing interest in this matter. We are currently preparing for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty preparatory committee, which will be held in New York from 8th to 19th April. That treaty is very much the cornerstone of the Government's policy and has been for a number of governments. My noble friend will acknowledge that the goal will not be achieved overnight or by means of resolutions; it will be achieved by a long and sometimes arduous process of small steps. That is what the Government have been doing. He will know from the letter that he received from my noble friend Lady Symons following his previous Question on the subject that the Government have taken a substantial number of steps. A copy of that letter has been placed in the Library.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, does the House a great service by his persistence in raising this vital issue? Does he also agree that in this age of suicide bombers and rogue states, with the nonproliferation doctrine under severe pressure and with huge leaps in technology in anti-missile defence, the entire doctrine of mutual nuclear deterrence has now reached a crossroads? Does he further agree that your Lordships' House is an ideal place in which to debate the issue thoroughly and put the new choices before the British public? Will the Minister press his noble and learned friend the Leader of the House, the usual channels or whoever needs to be pressed to get us debating that as soon as possible after Easter?

My Lords, the noble Lord knows that it is beyond my competence to deliver the precise agenda for the House. I very much agree that this House is extremely good at having extended debates on such issues. We had a very good debate last night on international terrorism, with particular reference to Afghanistan. Yes, the world has changed since September 11th and we need to be constantly vigilant in assessing the situation post that date.

My Lords, while we await that debate with some anxiety, will my noble friend confirm that the non-proliferation treaty rests on an undertaking by the nuclear powers to negotiate in good faith to bring about the end of nuclear weapons? Does he agree that that undertaking has not been honoured and that we might find that the non-nuclear powers will wonder whether this is perhaps a one-sided arrangement? Is not the time to save the world while there is still a world to save?

My Lords, my noble and learned friend rightly draws attention to the central importance of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. I repeat that it is not fair to say that this Government have done nothing. I am sure that my noble and learned friend was not saying that. He was talking about the nuclear powers generally. We have taken a number of important steps. We have signed and ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, we continue to promote its entry into force and we continue to press for negotiations to begin at the conference on disarmament on a fissile material cutoff treaty. Those are all important steps. I would not be so presumptuous as to overstate the Government's position, but the steps that we have taken have been important and have been an example to other states. With people such as my noble and learned friend pressing me and the Government, further steps will be taken in the direction that he would welcome.

My Lords, in view of the meeting that is anticipated between Mr Putin and President Bush in the summer, at which those matters will be further discussed, is it the Prime Minister's intention to raise the issue of nuclear non-proliferation with President Bush at his Texas meeting shortly?

My Lords, the relationship between the USA and Russia has obviously been even more important since the events of September 11 th. Indeed, their close co-operation on a number of important issues has given cause for mild optimism. I am not able to give the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan. an answer on the precise nature of the agenda for the meeting between the Prime Minister and the President. As he will know well enough, however, although great significance always attaches to this type of summit, the simple truth is that regular communication between friendly heads of government is, in a sense, far more important than the dramatic hype that sometimes attaches to such meetings. It is the regular communication between the two men that is important.