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Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention

Volume 688: debated on Monday 22 January 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What is their assessment of the final declaration of the sixth review conference on the biological weapons convention.

My Lords, the Government believe that the final document of the sixth review conference represents some very positive steps for the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. States parties reached an agreement that reaffirmed the prohibitions against biological weapons and took decisions on further collaborative work to strengthen implementation of the convention. The Government believe that the outcome of this conference represents a significant success for multilateralism in the non-proliferation and disarmament field.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that encouraging Answer. Can he confirm that the contrast with the obstructionism encountered at the previous review conference in 2001 is due in very large measure to the patient work of the United Kingdom team? While I welcome the long-awaited implementation support unit, does not the fact that its functions are specifically listed and its mandate expressly confined to those functions indicate that there is still some distance to travel? Can my noble friend assure the House that the Government will persevere in their well doing?

My Lords, I thank my noble and learned friend for his comments. The contrast between the previous conference and this one could not be more stark, and it has occurred because we have been very persistent in seeking this success. The programme for the next few years, which was well defined at the most recent conference, offers a great deal more prospect for further successes. We shall pursue them with the greatest rigour.

My Lords, can the Minister explain what measures the Government have taken to ensure that biological agents and toxins, which are dangerous and relevant to this convention, are protected and safeguarded to prevent their falling into the hands of potential terrorists? Can he also say what legal constraints are presently available to control access to and handling of such agents and toxins?

My Lords, in this country the handling of such agents and toxins is very well constructed under current legal provisions. We feel that we have as high a degree of security as we can achieve, but we obviously want to see that extended internationally. Consequently, in the follow-up to the agreements of this conference, further discussions will take place internationally in 2007 on ways and means of enhancing national implementation of those very questions elsewhere, including the enforcement of national legislation, strengthening of national institutions and co-ordination among national law enforcement institutions. Success in these areas in this country could be less than adequate if others do not follow the same path.

My Lords, in the Statement that the Minister repeated to the House on 8 January on the sixth review conference, he reported that agreement had been reached among the states parties to make a concerted effort to persuade other countries to join the convention. What are the Government doing to implement that, particularly with respect to the 12 members of the Commonwealth which have not yet become parties to the convention?

My Lords, as one of the depositories of the convention we have consistently, under all Governments, regarded it as a responsibility to argue if necessary with those in the Commonwealth and elsewhere who have not yet signed. We have urged the other two key players in this respect, the United States and Russia, to do the same. I suspect—without being unkind to others—that we are the most vigorous and vociferous in pursuing that objective.

My Lords, was any progress made at the review conference towards agreeing, or making progress towards, international verification procedures to ensure that people are actually sticking to the obligations that they entered into? Does he agree that without such procedures it is a very fragile construct indeed? Was any progress made towards developed countries being in a position to help developing countries in the case of a biological warfare incident afflicting them?

My Lords, both the United Kingdom and the European Union remain ready to support a verification mechanism, but I have to acknowledge that there are no signs that the international climate has changed enough to permit universal agreement on verification. I greatly regret that. That was certainly the case at the review conference, which, as noble Lords will know, operates by consensus. On the second question, there has been a good deal of agreement on how scientists in individual countries can co-operate in dealing with emergencies that arise. That kind of technical knowledge may very well prove critical in such an event.

My Lords, is the Minister satisfied that we have an adequate national response plan in this country in the event of a biological attack?

My Lords, I can say directly that the civil contingency planning and the drawing together of the various agencies which would be required are pursued with the greatest vigour. No one could ever be complacent in this day and age given the sorts of things that tragically happen, but I believe that we have worked through most of the more realistic options, and some of the less realistic options, and that we are in a pretty robust condition.

My Lords, the technical demands of the convention are said to be too difficult for some of the weaker states parties, which need help in submitting confidence-building measures, for example, and effective criminal legislation. Are Her Majesty’s Government prepared to help those weaker states, particularly those in the Commonwealth, to comply with their obligations under the convention?

My Lords, in our encouragement of those who have not yet signed or who express difficulties about the weaknesses, we have been consistently prepared to provide specialist help and programmes which I believe should serve the functions that my noble friend seeks. Not everyone is as open to receiving help as perhaps they should be out of prudence. None the less, we are open to providing that help.