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Mr. O'Neill : Does the Minister recognise that we are signatories to the non-proliferation treaty, but cannot be signatories to the first Start treaty, although we could well be signatories to the second Start treaty? Have the Government given any consideration to making British nuclear weapons available in the second round of arms reduction talks, following the early completion of the present round between the Soviet Union and the United States?
Mr. Cryer : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I asked a supplementary question to question No. 10 on the United Nations non- proliferation treaty. The Minister denied that Britain was a signatory to the treaty. Is it possible to allow a correction to Hansard to be made by the Minister because he was incorrect? I know that he is new to the job, but he should be accurate. We are signatories to the treaty. The Minister was corrected by my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill), but the record in Hansard will be misleading. It will show the Minister to be incompetent and will suggest that Britain is not prepared to honour clause 6 of the treaty which obliges us to get rid of nuclear weapons.
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Archie Hamilton) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I said that Britain was not covered by the treaty ; I did not say that we are not a signatory to it.
Mr. Neubert : My right hon. Friend has regular discussions with his United States counterpart on a wide range of defence issues. However, the United Kingdom has not been approached about the possible deployment of United States chemical weapons in the United Kingdom.
Ms. Quin : Will the Government urge the United States to make a speedy response to the recent Soviet announcement on the elimination of chemical weapons stocks? Will they also urge the United States to come up with a timetable for disposing of its own stocks rather than building them up, as seems to be happening at present?
Mr. Neubert : The hon. Lady should not forget that the Soviet Union has the largest and most sophisticated chemical weapons capability in the world. For 18 years, between 1969 and 1987, the United States observed a moratorium on the production of chemical weapons with no response from the Soviet Union. In fact, it was only 18 months ago that the Soviet Union acknowledged that it had any. The Russians have a long way to go, but I am sure that the United States, like Britain, will be glad of their response.
Mr. Key : Does my hon. Friend agree that the rapid progress being made in talks on chemical weapons has a great deal to do with the Government's initiative in the exchange between scientists at the chemical defence establishment at Porton Down and its Russian equivalent last year?
Mr. Neubert : My hon. Friend is right to point to that sequence of events, but it was disappointing that on our bilateral visit to Shikhany we were refused the opportunity to inspect a building that was clearly part of a chemical weapons complex.
Mr. Neubert : The United States is right, as we are, to be concerned about the possibility of Libya acquiring a chemical weapons capability. That regime is a self-proclaimed sponsor of international terrorism and the prospect of it having chemical weapons must be of concern to all of us, including, I hope, the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Latham : Is not the only honourable policy to be followed that which Britain followed many years ago--to destroy all stocks of these abominable weapons as soon as possible? Should not any country thinking of building chemical plants abandon the idea immediately?
Column 680However, the American moratorium met with no response and there is always doubt about the effectiveness of such unilateral measures.
Mr. Heffer : Why do the Government always have a negative response to anything that comes out of the Soviet Union? Is it not clear that Mr. Gorbachev has the generals and others breathing down his neck while he is trying to get rid of weapons of all kinds in order to help Russia's economy? Is it not about time that the Government gave a positive response to what Mr. Gorbachev is doing?
Mr. Neubert : We and the Americans have given a positive welcome to what the Soviets have proposed, but, as I have made clear, they have a long way to go and we shall want some assurance, particularly about verification, before we can be satisfied that their proposal will meet the objectives that we all seek.
Mr. Devlin : Are not consultations urgently needed with the American Defence Secretary on the possibility of chemical weapons falling into the hands of terrorist organisations, particularly as one state seems happy to hand over all types of weapons to terrorists? Should not we be intervening to stop that as soon as possible?
Mr. Neubert : My hon. Friend is right. We have close consultations with the Americans on that issue because the proliferation of such weapons in Third world countries which take a different view is a matter of concern to both our nations. The United Kingdom and the Americans are seeking a comprehensive global and verifiable ban, and that will be the best thing.
Mr. Boyes : I welcome the Minister to his new post, particularly after his six years of silence while I have been a Member of the House. I hope to hear some words of wisdom from him, including an undertaking to ask the United States for a commitment to destroy all the 155 mm shells that they have armed to deliver chemical agents on to the battlefield.
Will the Minister also ask the United States to cancel the sixfold increase in the budget for the manufacture of the Big Eye bomb and to match the Soviet Union in a series of unilateral and bilateral steps to eliminate all the obscene and horrendous chemical weapons by the end of 1989?
Mr. Neubert : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks. It must be for the Americans to dictate the pace and choice of their weapons policy. They are keen to achieve a comprehensive ban. It was President Reagan's initiative that brought about the Paris conference last weekend. Their good faith is not in doubt.
12. Mr. Wareing : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what are the implications for a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation short-range modernisation programme of President Gorbachev's proposals for military reductions.
13. Ms. Short : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what are the implications for a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation short-range modernisation programme of President Gorbachev's proposals for military reductions.
Mr. Archie Hamilton : President Gorbachev's proposals for a reduction in Soviet conventional forces, if implemented in full, will be a welcome step towards removing the Warsaw pact's significant conventional superiority. However, NATO's requirement to retain the full range of capabilities, nuclear and conventional, in support of its strategy of flexible response, will not change. In order to maintain deterrence at the minimum level of forces, Alliance capabilities must be kept effective and up to date.
Mr. Wareing : Does the Minister agree that the Montebello decision, rather than short-range weapons, is outdated now that we have the Gorbachev proposals? When will the Prime Minister be big enough to match the proposals? If it is possible to remove troops and tanks from central Europe, is it not time to withdraw nuclear weapons too?
Mr. Hamilton : As the hon. Gentleman knows, at Montebello it was agreed to reduce nuclear stockpiles and remove 1,400 shells. However, at the same time, it was agreed that it was necessary to put forward proposals to update our short-range nuclear systems and that is what we are examining now.
Ms. Short : During the afternoon we have constantly heard welcomes for President Gorbachev's disarmament initiatives together with the response that we intend to do nothing in return. Could we think again and be more imaginative and generous? The Minister knows that the plan for short-range modernisation is dividing NATO and is deeply unpopular in Germany. Here is a chance for us to reciprocate, to say that we shall not modernise, but will attempt to achieve further disarmament. Or are the Government not really in favour of multilateral disarmament?
Mr. Hamilton : I must put the hon. Lady right about the deep unpopularity. An agreement was reached to update short-range nuclear systems in October last year. Therefore, there is unanimity on that. If we made other gestures of reductions, we would, merely widen the imbalance between the number of Warsaw pact forces and our own. This is a first step and is welcome, but we want to see subsequent steps which will continue to reduce the imbalance between the forces of both sides.
Mr. Gerald Howarth : It would be churlish not to welcome the latest Soviet proposals. However does my hon. Friend agree that so long as the Soviet Union maintains its present enormous numerical advantage over NATO, and while the Gorbachev era is still at an early stage, it would be the height of folly for the West to be lulled into a false sense of security and to beat its swords into ploughshares?
Mr. Hamilton : My hon. Friend is correct. The Soviet Union still maintains an aggressive first strike capability in Europe. We must see a change to a defensive posture. That has not yet happened. We must judge the Soviet Union not by what it says but by what it does and by the factual situation in Europe.
Column 682treaty? Is that not the prime reason why we must press ahead with modernisation, while welcoming any steps that the Russians may genuinely take to lower tensions?
Mr. Ian Bruce : Will my hon. Friend agree that we have short-range nuclear weapons because of the very large disparity in conventional forces in the field? Will he further agree that while Mr. Gorbachev's proposals are welcome, we would wish to see actual and real reductions before we could ever think of reducing our modernisation programme?
Mr. Hamilton : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are at present talking in terms of proposals and we have not seen any changes on the ground. We must wait until we see those come through and see subsequent reductions as a result of the conventional stability talks which should be going ahead this year.
Mr. Smith : Many families in this country are this month facing increases in their mortgage repayments of between £50 and £100 a month. For how long will millions of home owners have to suffer as a result of the Chancellor's blind determination to use one weapon and one weapon only--interest rates--to control the explosion of credit which the Government have themselves helped to generate?
The Prime Minister : The Chancellor puts as top priority the reduction of inflation-- [Interruption.] I notice that this question is asked by a member of a party which during its term in office never got inflation below 7.4 per cent. The top priority must be the reduction of inflation, and the interest rate weapon is the main one. I should also point out that the Chancellor has a more than balanced budget--unlike the position under Labour Chancellors--and that, too, is a significant feature in his fiscal stance.
Mr. Hanley : Those affected by the tragic air disasters that have occurred in the last few weeks, in Scotland and in the east midlands, will be grateful for the interest and compassion shown by the Prime Minister in visiting the sites so promptly. Will she do all she can to guarantee to keep the skies as safe as possible for those who travel by air and for those who live under the flight paths?
The Prime Minister : I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks. Of course I went to the scene in all cases of recent tragedies and of course we all thank most earnestly the wonderful emergency services--the ambulances, doctors, nurses, police and armed forces who have been helping. They are different teams on each occasion. They are all excellent.
The most difficult thing, as my hon. Friend points out, is giving condolences to the bereaved. There is very little one can do to comfort them, except to be there and know that they realise how much we feel for them. We all want the skies to be safe. There will be a fuller statement on both these matters later, after Question Time.
Sir Russell Johnston : Returning to the question of interest rates, will the Prime Minister reflect on the fact that interest rates in West Germany, which has no oil reserves, are at 3.5 per cent. as against our 13 per cent. plus? Surely part of the reason for this must be related first to an imprudent budget and secondly to our continued failure to join the European monetary system.
The Prime Minister : No. It is due to years and years of discipline in the German financial system, with the German people accepting that they must, above all, have policies which keep inflation down and that they must watch their unit labour costs accordingly.
Sir Hector Monro : Will my right hon. Friend accept that the people of Lockerbie and bereaved families from many countries deeply appreciate her two visits to the town and her support and comfort to all concerned? Will she accept that the visits of her Ministers to the town were also welcome, and that the fact that right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House attended the memorial service was also much appreciated? Meanwhile, the thoughts of Lockerbie are with Kegworth and the British Midland casualties.
The Prime Minister : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Those of us who went had the greatest possible respect and admiration for the way in which the people of Lockerbie and the local services met the appalling tragedy which befell them one evening, and similarly, for the excellent way in which the people of the east midlands tackled their great tragedy. It is almost impossible to think that we should have two such tragedies in such a short time. If anything was obtained from the disasters it was the marvellous spirit that arose in tackling the problems.
Mr. Cohen : Will the Prime Minister comment on her new proposals for the poll tax? We all know that folk are about to be hammered and hounded for the poll tax. Why should they not resist when the message from the Government's supporters, honoured by the Prime Minister, is "Can pay, won't pay"?
The Prime Minister : I quite understand that the Opposition oppose the community charge because they do not want readily available criteria by which Labour local authorities can be judged on their extravagant expenditure.
Mr. Curry : As John McCarthy spends his 1000th day in captivity, will my right hon. Friend reassure the families of British hostages held in the middle east that the Government will use all honourable means, eschewing contact with terrorists, to guarantee their release?
The Prime Minister : Yes. Our thoughts are very much with the British hostages and their families, particularly at this season. As my hon. Friend knows, we follow up every possible lead on their whereabouts. Our ambassador in Beirut is particularly active in that, but he knows that it is not easy to find answers to those most difficult subjects. My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary, during his visit to the Gulf has made it quite clear that we think that the hostages should be freed and that now is the time to do it. The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave) did the same at his recent meeting with the Iranian Foreign Minister. As my hon. Friend said, we shall not pay ransoms or do deals for hostages. Any civilised nation should do the utmost to see that hostages are released.
Mr. Kinnock : First, I strongly commend the efforts so far made on behalf of Mr. McCarthy and others and urge upon the Prime Minister further similar efforts to achieve the result which every civilised person must want.
Secondly, is the Prime Minister willing to allow GEC to fall into foreign hands?
The Prime Minister : The right hon. Gentleman will know precisely what is the law passed by this House on any proposed merger. [ Hon. Members :-- "Answer the question."] I must act in accordance with the law passed by the House. Under the provisions of the Fair Trading Act 1973, the Director General of Fair Trading has a legal responsibility to advise the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on whether a merger should be referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is required to take into account the advice of the director general in reaching a decision on whether to refer a bid to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. The right hon. Gentleman should be very much aware that we have to follow the law passed by the House.
Mr. Kinnock : I am well aware of the law and the interpretation which the Government have successively put upon the law. I am also aware of the activity of Sir Gordon Borrie. Surely the Government have a view about an issue of such strategic industrial and technological importance. Will the Prime Minister give us the Government's view? Does she consider that it would be in the national interest for GEC to fall into foreign ownership?
The Prime Minister : The right hon. Gentleman is inviting me to prejudge the result of a legal process which, by law, we must undertake. Is it his policy that we should be able to override the law passed by this House just because he asks us to do so?
Mr. Page : As it is impossible to wipe out the knowledge of how to make nuclear weapons, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether, if every country with nuclear weapons were persuaded to remove that capability and if a conventional war broke out and we were winning, she could give a guarantee that the opposition would not use that knowledge of how to make a nuclear weapon to redress the balance-- [Interruption.] --
The Prime Minister : History has shown that conventional weapons are not sufficient to ensure the defence of freedom in this country. If ever they were totally abolished and a conventional war were to break out again, the race would be on to see who could gain nuclear weapons first and we should be back in the same kind of position that we were in at the end of the last war. Nuclear weapons have kept the peace for 40 years. We should not abandon them until we are sure that we have something even safer to protect us and to deter any aggressor.
Mr. Boyes : Does the Prime Minister share the concern of Opposition Members that the Government's target take-up of 60 per cent. for family credit has not been reached and that the take-up is currently below 40 per cent.? What do the Government intend to do about that? Will the Prime Minister look especially at form FC1, which has 16 pages, 13 sections and almost 200 questions? That form is unacceptable, unnecessarily complex and should be simplified as a matter of urgency.
The Prime Minister : The hon. Gentleman is aware--we have debated this subject before--that it is our intention to do everything possible to increase the numbers of those who can claim family credit to obtain it. We have looked carefully and recently at the numbers of people who do not claim family credit. Generally we found that those families that could expect a substantial amount from family credit claim it and that those who do not claim are those who are only on the margin. That is the broad, general conclusion. We do our level best to see that all who are entitled can claim.
Mr. Conway : During the course of her busy day, will my right hon. Friend take time to speak to the chairman of the anti-British Broadcasting Corporation about the "Panorama" programme that was screened last night, which showed a Sinn Fein spokesman, with an actor's voice dubbed over, attempting--pathetically--to justify
Column 686the murders of Light Infantry soldiers last year? Will my right hon. Friend ask the chairman of the BBC when the widows and children of those murdered are likely to get a right of reply?
The Prime Minister : My hon. Friend has made his own point effectively and I have no doubt that it will be noticed in the appropriate quarters. I well remember the letter that I received from the mother of a soldier who has been murdered. Referring to the electronic media she stated :
"They talk about the freedom of the press and the media. Where is freedom of my son?"
Mr. Pike : Does the Prime Minister recognise that in the first seven months of this financial year, the Burnley office has used only 17.1 per cent. of the money available in community care grants under the new social fund and that that figure is higher than the figures for some other offices? Does she further recognise that many people in this country are suffering extreme poverty and deprivation as a result of the new system? Will she also acknowledge the words of her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services to the Select Committee on Social Services just before Christmas and undertake to hold an urgent review of the procedures and the rules to ensure that such people get the help to which they are entitled as speedily as possible?
The Prime Minister : We are anxious that people should get the help to which they are entitled. That is the way in which the local offices discharge their duties and the appropriate appeal procedures. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the enormously increased resources that have been made available for all the social security services, going up from about £17 billion 10 years ago to £50 billion this year--an increase of 38 per cent. in real terms. That is what the Government have been able to do to increase the amount of money available for the poorest section of our community.
Mr. Brazier : As my right hon. Friend comes towards the end of her first 10 years as Prime Minister, will she confirm that during that time we have had exactly 10 Budgets--not one more--and that the reason we enjoy so much greater prosperity today is precisely that the Government have consistently stuck to clear, long-term aims, rather than bending to the latest fashion in economics?
The Prime Minister : Yes, I warmly endorse that. We shall keep the reduction of inflation as the top priority. I am the first to accept that it is the steady and right economic policies which have greatly increased the prosperity of the people of this country and the amount going to the social services, and which have kept us with a staunch and sure defence.
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