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Nuclear Weapons

Volume 817: debated on Wednesday 12 January 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to reconcile differences between nuclear possessor states and non-nuclear possessor states at the Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

My Lords, the United Kingdom recognises its responsibilities as a bridge builder among nuclear weapon and non-nuclear weapon states at the 10th review conference on the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. To support discussions, we are submitting working papers on transparency, verification and peaceful uses. We will host side events including a joint P5 event on doctrines and policy.

I thank the Minister for his response and wholeheartedly welcome the recent P5 affirmation of the Gorbachev-Reagan principle. But in an unstable world where nuclear proliferation is a growing threat and widespread arsenal modernisation is a reality, these words must be backed up by actions—since the grand bargain of the NPT is that non-proliferation can be successful only if pursued in tandem with disarmament. Would the Government consider initiating a P5+ process to allow nuclear weapon states and non-possessor states to work collaboratively on key areas of concern? Mindful of the upcoming TPNW first meeting of states parties, will he explain the strategy for engaging constructively with the concerns underlying the TPNW in preparation for the forthcoming NPT conference in the common cause of disarmament?

My Lords, within the NPT, as the right reverend Prelate will know, there are three key strands: disarmament, non-proliferation, and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Like him, I recognise the importance earlier this month of the P5 declaration. The UK was instrumental in getting that over the line. We are looking forward to the review conference of the NPT, which was unfortunately delayed because of Covid, but I understand it will now take place in August. On the issue of nuclear against non-nuclear states, through the P5 format we are engaging directly with those countries. With the exception of four or five countries, everyone else has signed up to the NPT and we have a structured programme of engagement. On the TPNW specifically, the UK firmly believes that the only way to achieve a world without nuclear weapons is through gradual multilateral disarmament, and the best way to do that is through the NPT.

Picking up that last point, can the Minister explain how the Government support multilateral disarmament initiatives while announcing in the integrated review an increase in the number of nuclear warheads the UK can hold?

My Lords, the announcements that we made in that respect are totally consistent with our obligations under the NPT. Specific elements and aspects within the NPT ensure that we meet those obligations. Requirements within the NPT ensure that all countries that have signed up to it fulfil their obligations, and the United Kingdom does just that.

My Lords, will the Minister accept how welcome it was that the Government —perhaps a little belatedly—agreed to the P5 statement that

“a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”

which was issued last week? What do the Government intend with regard to the strategic dialogue among the P5 for achieving a reduction in the risk of nuclear war? What is the timetable for further meetings and what content are the Government putting into that dialogue?

My Lords, first, I do not agree with the noble Lord. The United Kingdom was actually central in its convening role in pushing for the P5 statement and we were delighted that all countries committed. Notwithstanding many of the issues that we debate in your Lordships’ House, there needs to be a recognition that all five countries signed up to this, and we take direct encouragement from that. We work in a structured way with other P5 members in relation to other countries. For example, we work closely on issues that are currently under way in Geneva, through the JCPOA discussions on Iran, and on issues around the DPRK to ensure that we focus particularly on the non-proliferation element.

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that, every hour of every day and every night, somewhere in the world one of our Trident submarines is on patrol, ready to respond should our supreme national interest so require? And I mean “on patrol”, not on the way out or on the way back.

I am sure that I share with my noble friend and everyone in your Lordships’ House a real admiration for all elements of our military, including our naval assets. Of course, I cannot discuss specific operational aspects, but I can say to my noble friend that we have one of the best militaries, and indeed navies, in the world.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked the Minister how he could justify the increase in the number of warheads. He says that that is in line with our commitments under the NPT. If that is the case, what actions are Her Majesty’s Government actually taking to look for disarmament? The Minister said that we support multilateral disarmament, yet we seem to be increasing our armaments. So what, in practical terms, are we doing to meet our commitments?

My Lords, on the specific point about our own capacity, ultimately of course we retain our defensive capacity. Referring back to the P5 statement, it was encouraging that all countries have underlined the importance of the defensive nature of being nuclear states. On specific aspects of what we are doing, we have, for example, recently had discussions with other countries, including the likes of New Zealand, specifically looking at elements of the NPT. We also ensure that we look at issues of disarmament through regular reviews, ensuring that bodies are set up to review the capacity of countries to develop nuclear weapons and ensure that they do not do so. We work together with our P5 partners to ensure that that remains the case.

My Lords, exactly how are the Government proposing to meet the cost of the 40 additional nuclear warheads referred to in the integrated review—or are they to be funded out of the already overstretched defence budget?

My Lords, on the specifics of that question, I will of course defer to my colleagues at the Ministry of Defence and will write to the noble Lord. But, as he will be aware, in the recent review that took place we increased our defence spending, and that was long overdue.

My Lords, Nikita Kruschev said that, in the event of a nuclear war, the living would envy the dead. The noble Lord has said that the P5 have rightly said that there should be no first use of nuclear weapons and that this would lead to mutually assured destruction. Having said that, the noble Lord has also referred to rogue states, such as North Korea—the DPRK. Can he tell the House more about its development of hypersonic missiles, its use of submarines and the threats that it is making to its neighbours?

My Lords, first, on the P5 element, all countries have sustained their position on nuclear weapons being a defensive mechanism —I stress that point again. The noble Lord rightly raised the current issues in the DPRK. It is clear that the missile test that recently took place was in direct contravention of the UN Security Council resolutions, and we are undertaking discussions on that element directly with our UN colleagues.

My Lords, would the Minister agree that the reason we have not had a world war since 1945 is nuclear weapons? Would he also agree that we should have some pride that our nation has only one system for nuclear weapons and have reduced them to an absolute minimum—to such a scale that I think we had to say that we would get some more weapons while we were doing a changeover? However, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, that we really must get methods of engaging with countries such as Russia because, otherwise, something will go wrong. The nuclear clock is moving towards midnight, and we must really strain ourselves to get links with these countries so that something does not go wrong. There is no doubt that, for example, if we did not have nuclear weapons at all and Russia had them, with Mr Putin there, it would go ahead and do what it wanted. We really have to make that effort.

My Lords, on the point raised by the noble Lords, Lord Hannay and Lord West, I agree that we must continue to engage. As the Minister for the United Nations, I recognise that where we have issues of disagreement with other nuclear states, including Russia, it is vital that we continue to engage, and we are doing just that. While they are specific not to the nuclear issue but to the wider security situation in Europe and Ukraine, we are today holding meetings through our NATO partners. My colleague, Minister Cleverly, is present. He will meet, among others, the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister to discuss security issues.

On the noble Lord’s first point, that nuclear weapons have ensured that we have kept peace in Europe, and on his second, that we have the best forces, my answer to him is yes and yes.

My Lords, the P5 statement that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought is of course hugely welcome, but it did not repeat a phrase used in earlier, similar statements that reaffirmed denuclearisation as an “unequivocal undertaking”. Does the Minister agree that that is the case?

My Lords, what I can say to the noble Baroness—and as the noble Lord, Lord West, has pointed out—is that the primary aim of nuclear weapons being in the armoury of any country, including our own, is to be a deterrent. We have achieved that objective, but we must work together as P5 members to ensure the key elements: that for those countries that have nuclear weapons we look towards disarmament and that for those countries that do not have nuclear weapons we look at non-proliferation.