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Volume 706: debated on Wednesday 14 January 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what work is under way to further the concept of the United Kingdom as a “disarmament laboratory”, as set out by the then Foreign Secretary in a speech to the Carnegie Institute on 25 June 2007.

My Lords, the UK is offering to host a conference of the treaty-recognised nuclear weapon states, and we have supported an independent study of the requirements for a nuclear-free world. The Atomic Weapons Establishment is researching the verification of nuclear disarmament work, including working with Norway and the non-governmental organisation VERTIC. Furthermore, in designing the replacement assembly/disassembly facility at Burghfield, we are considering how we might help to facilitate the future verification of weapons dismantlement.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. I have two follow-on questions. I had understood that part of the AWE’s role in this would be helping to expand the next generation of monitors for verifying the elimination of nuclear weapons on a multilateral basis. Is anything moving on that? Secondly, on 18 December, in the traditional way in which important but embarrassing announcements are slipped out on the last sitting day of Parliament, there was a one-paragraph announcement on the BNFL website that the AWE is now passing to majority American control. Does this have implications for Britain as a nuclear disarmament laboratory?

My Lords, with regard to the noble Lord’s first point, the AWE’s work is very much focused on developing methods of verification. As to whether we are training individual monitors, if I understood the noble Lord’s question correctly, I am not so certain and I shall need to look at that. However, we are working on the methodology of verification. On the noble Lord’s second point, I reassure him that, while the sale of a share of the AWE management company to an American owner is indeed taking place, control of our nuclear programme and sites and indeed strategic control of the management company itself remain in the hands of Her Majesty’s Government.

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord can explain that further. I declare an interest in that I live in Reading on the Thames and discharges from Burghfield and Aldermaston are made into the Thames. People living in that area would certainly want an assurance that there will be no loss of government control and indeed that the controls that already exist will either continue or be improved.

My Lords, let me give the noble Lord the assurance that while the commercial details of the contract remain confidential for sensitive reasons, it is structured in such a way that it is a management contract to ensure the sale of a share of the company that deals with the management of the facilities, which in no way disrupts the British ownership of them.

My Lords, can the Minister say whether the perception that the grand bargain on nuclear disarmament has changed, leading to an effective abandonment of a commitment to disarmament, is accurate, and can he offer guidance on the current steps being taken by Her Majesty’s Government towards nuclear disarmament here?

My Lords, I very much hope that I can reassure the right reverend Prelate that the grand bargain remains. The issue of non-proliferation is at the core of the NPT—disarmament by the existing nuclear powers and the proper protected use of nuclear energy to be available to those who need it. Obviously the bargain needs refreshing in the light of the strategic changes that have occurred in the world, and the growing turn towards nuclear energy as an energy source by many countries. We are much more confident today than we were, say, 18 months ago that the next NPT review conference in 2010 will be able to renew that bargain in a way that will re-establish a framework of nuclear non-proliferation in the world in which we can all have confidence.

My Lords, now that the Secretary of State-elect of the United States has said that the new Administration will send forward the comprehensive test ban treaty for ratification, reopen negotiations for a fissile material cut-off treaty and begin talks with the Russians about how to handle a number of bilateral issues, surely it is time for either the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary to set out the British view on these crucial issues about how we move towards nuclear disarmament, in an overall approach similar to the one that the former Foreign Secretary used shortly before she left the Government.

My Lords, I certainly think that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary in a number of statements have indicated our support for a much more ambitious non-proliferation agenda than in the past. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, has made sure in her role of advising the Prime Minister that we do not lack ambition. It is probably correct that we now face the prospect of an open door that was previously closed, and it is enormously important that we press on it and work with the US as well as our other P5 partners to raise our game on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.

My Lords, in his answer to my noble friend’s second question the Minister said that strategic control of the firm now in effective US ownership remains in British hands. What exactly does he mean by that and how is it exercised?

My Lords, let me assure the noble Lord that AWE sites and assets continue to be owned by the UK Government. The AWE management company is responsible only for the management and operation of the AWE but does it under contract to the MoD. This sale does not affect UK sovereignty or the independence of the UK’s nuclear deterrent. The UK’s strategic requirements and the deterrent programme will continue to be set by the UK Government and we are confident that the change in ownership of AWEML does not alter that in any way.

My Lords, while it is encouraging to hear the significance of 2010, as seen by the Government, and the hopes for it, does my noble friend agree that any international regime that we have so far on the control of nuclear weapons was originally based very clearly on the firm undertakings that the existing nuclear powers would work seriously and effectively for the reduction of their own nuclear capabilities? Can my noble friend assure the House that this will be a priority with the Russians, who have not been helpful of late in this respect, and with the new US Administration?

My Lords, on the latter point we believe that the United States in the statements of eminent former Secretaries of State and Secretaries of Defense has committed itself unofficially, through that defence and foreign policy establishment, to seek a final objective of a nuclear-free world. How that new thinking reflects itself in the position of the new Administration will have to be seen, but we have heard comment on the testimony yesterday of the incoming Secretary of State. Her rumoured appointment of the Under-Secretary in charge of that portfolio is deeply encouraging. There is much to be hopeful for. On the broader question of the P5, one reason that we are trying to get a P5 meeting this year on verification is to make sure that there are no laggards and that all the P5 are moving similarly towards the vision of very sharp reductions with the ultimate goal of a nuclear weapons-free world.