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House of Commons

Tuesday 13 June 1989

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Buckinghamshire County Council Bill

[Lords] Order for consideration, as amended, read.

To be considered tomorrow.

Kingston upon Hull City Council Bill

[Lords] As amended, considered.

To be read the Third time.

Oral Answers to Questions


Soviet Union (Arms Reductions)

1. Mr. Bill Michie : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what assessment he has made of the Soviet Union's latest planned cutbacks in its European conventional forces as announced during the recent visit of United States Secretary of State, James Baker.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. George Younger) : We welcome the announcement of specific proposals on conventional armaments by the Soviet Union, and particularly its inclusion figures on tanks and armoured troop carriers.

Mr. Michie : Does the Secretary of State agree that President Gorbachev's latest proposals are of major importance and that reductions of 10 to 15 per cent. at the lower levels possessed by both sides, and a further 25 per cent. reduction are very much in line with NATO's proposals on tanks, troop carriers and artillery? Surely the Government must now consider further reductions in helicopter and combat aircraft and nuclear weapons in Europe.

Mr. Younger : Yes, it is encouraging that the Warsaw pact's latest proposals fit in well with proposals made earlier by NATO, and that it is now prepared to consider all combat aircraft--at least we hope that it is-- in a further round of discussions. That is encouraging and justifies all the leadership that has been given by NATO in these matters.

Mr. Beaumont-Dark : Does my right hon. Friend agree that at the present time we are having many fine words, as we had from the Chinese only a few weeks ago, and that all may be well if Mr. Gorbachev survives, but his problems are where hundreds of people are being killed in Uzbekistan? This may not happen, but we should not be taken in too easily. Does he further agree that Britain's

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defence is more important than just giving in when we do not know whether, in the end, Mr. Gorbachev will be the saviour or the victim?

Mr. Younger : My hon. Friend is correct. We hope that Mr. Gorbachev will continue to be successful in pursuing his reforms in the Soviet Union, but until he has delivered reductions in the Warsaw pact's enormous level of armaments, we must keep our defences strong in order to be sure that we can defend ourselves against any attack.

Mr. O'Neill : What is the importance of force-to-space ratio arguments now that we are seeing the prospect of considerable reductions in conventional defence, and what is the importance of forward defence now that we are talking about drastically reducing both sides' conventional arsenals?

Mr. Younger : The importance of both those points cannot be under- estimated. In the first case, the force-to-space ratios, which could be dramatically altered if there are reductions of the kind that we hope to see, will entail a great deal of careful military advice being made available to the negotiators, and that we have set in hand. Forward defence is a particularly important matter for NATO because, being an alliance of free democratic peoples, we are obliged to do our best to defend every inch of NATO's territory, and we must be able to do that in the future as we have in the past.

Mr. Wilkinson : In making his assessment, will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that the United Kingdom's air assets could be as well deployed to the flanks--to the reinforcement of Norway and the southern flanks of the alliance--as to the central front so that the overall arms control equation on the central front is not the only matter to be taken into account?

Mr. Younger : I agree with my hon. Friend. Britain's contribution to the defence of NATO's territory goes much wider than the central front. We shall have to give the maximum support to the negotiations in the CFE talks at Vienna and, when the outcome of those is known, we shall have to consider the best way in which to implement what we hope will be large reductions.


2. Mr. Andrew F. Bennett : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the progress of the Trident programme.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Tim Sainsbury) : The Trident programme continues to make good progress within budget. We are confident that completion of the programme's various elements will be achieved on time to meet the in-service date of the mid- 1990s.

Mr. Bennett : Does the Minister agree, given that the cost of Trident is escalating, that its warheads are years behind the times, that there are problemss in making the missiles work, that there seem to be problems with the Faslane development, and that the Government have not even thought about the command and control system for the whole set-up, it is ridiculously naive of the Government to assume that it will work--even if the Russians were to wait until we have a system? Is it not also naive of my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Labour Front Bench to

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assume that we can negotiate away such an inadequate system? Would it not be better to scrap it now and save the £10 billion plus?

Mr. Sainsbury : The hon. Gentleman is entitled to his fantasies. I thought that normally fantasies are dreamt up but the hon. Gentleman appears to read his. Nevertheless, they bear no relation to reality.

Mr. Hind : Will my hon. Friend confirm that he has no intention of scrapping the fourth Trident submarine? Will he tell the House what long- term effectiveness the Trident submarine force would have minus one quarter of its deployment?

Mr. Sainsbury : I am glad to tell my hon. Friend that we are not at the stage of scrapping it, but certainly we are contemplating ordering it in due course. If there were not four Trident submarines, we would not be able to guarantee always to have one on patrol, as is necessary and as we have done with Polaris submarines ever since they were first commissioned.

Mr. Douglas : Can the Minister give an indication of when he is likely to order of the Trident force? Will he further confirm that an in- service date of the mid-1990s means that a Trident force would be unlikely to be in possession of missiles much before mid-1993?

Mr. Sainsbury : As to the hon. Gentleman's latter point, it would be better if I were not drawn on the precise date. Normally, we do not give such dates. One does not have to be very up in military matters to deduce the in-service date expected, and the date that the hon. Gentleman mentioned is certainly the sort of time scale that we have in mind. The tender for 07 is currently under consideration and the order should be placed before the end of the year.

Mr. Speaker : Mr. David Shaw.

Mr. Shaw : Question No. 4, Mr. Speaker.

Soviet Union (Nuclear Weapons)

4. Mr. David Shaw : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what evidence his Department has that the Soviets are dismantling their nuclear artillery weapons systems.

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Archie Hamilton) : NATO allies are still considering a number of options for adjusting remaining nuclear forces following the INF agreement. Among those options is the possible deployment to Europe, including the United Kingdom, of additional longer-range dual-capable aircraft from the United States. However, no decisions have yet been taken-- [Interruption.] I have answered the wrong question. I apologise. I shall now answer Question No. 4. I did not realise that the hon. Gentleman-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order. I have heard that done before.

Mr. Archie Hamilton : There is no evidence to suggest that the Soviets are dismantling any of their nuclear-capable gun artillery systems.

Mr. Shaw : Is not my hon. Friend concerned that there is still a massive superiority of Soviet forces in relation to conventional and chemical weapons and to short-range nuclear forces? Is he not concerned that some of the so-called removal of front-line nuclear weapons by the

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Soviets may turn out to be removal just for the purpose of maintenance and that they will be returned to the front line? Does he not feel that we should still be on our guard?

Mr. Hamilton : Yes, I totally agree with my hon. Friend. I remain as concerned as he that there is certainly no reluctance on the part of the Soviet Union to update all their systems, whether conventional or nuclear, and to ensure that they are fully modernised. He is right that there are plans to withdraw a very small number of the Soviet's nuclear-capable artillery but that it may be redeployed in some other form.

Mr. Flannery : Does not the Minister get the message, especially after seeing the 1 o'clock news, that Germany, which is much nearer the front line than we are, greets Mr. Gorbachev as someone who is more popular than any other international statesman? When will the Government stop basing their foreign policy on the assumption that the Russians are about to attack us at 2 o'clock next Wednesday afternoon? Do not the Government realise that the world is a changed place? It is about time that the leading figures on the Government Front Bench, and even the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister, get their act together and did something decent internationally.

Mr. Hamilton : The Government's defence policy is not based on the assumption that the Soviets are about to attack us any minute, but on the capability of the Soviet forces and those in the Warsaw pact. We have seen dramatic changes in the foreign policy of the Soviet Union in the past few years and we could see other dramatic changes in quite a different direction. If we did, where would we be if such a massive capability existed in the Soviet Union?

Mr. David Martin : Can my hon. Friend confirm that in the past five years alone, 95 per cent. of Soviet short-range nuclear missiles have been updated?

Mr. Hamilton : It is quite true that there has been an extensive modernisation programme of short-range Soviet systems.


6. Mr. Fatchett : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on future deployment plans for the F111 in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Archie Hamilton : United States air force F111 aircraft are currently stationed at two airfields in the United Kingdom : the 20th tactical fighter wing at RAF Upper Heyford and the 48th tactical fighter wing at RAF Lakenheath. These aircraft represent an important part of NATO's deterrent capability. No decisions have yet been taken to change the number of F111 aircraft stationed in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Fatchett : Is the Minister aware that the Dutch Minister has announced to the Dutch Parliament that there is to be an increase in the number of F111s sited in the United Kingdom and that there has already been an agreement between the United Kingdom authorities and the United States Government? Is the Minister calling the Dutch Minister a liar or is he not giving this Parliament the information that it deserves?

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Mr. Hamilton : I am not aware of what the Dutch Minister said. However, I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that no agreement has been reached on the issue of stationing more F111s in this country

Mr. Baldry : Is my hon. Friend aware that I have a letter from a senior member of the United States Congress armed forces committee which states in clear terms that that committee has not yet even begun to consider the Department of Defence's requests for new facilities at RAF Upper Heyford? Against that background, are not some of the assertions given by groups such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, about more F111s coming into the United Kingdom at the moment, a distortion of the truth?

Mr. Hamilton : Yes, my hon. Friend is quite right : they certainly are a distortion of the truth. The only work that has been carried out at Upper Heyford has been design work, which was merely to assess what sort of costs we were talking about. In practice, there has been no approval, either by the British Government or Congress for the work to go ahead.

Mr. Rogers : The Opposition are confused by the Minister's answer-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order.

Mr. Rogers : According to the Hansard of the Dutch Parliament, the Defence Minister said that there had been an argument between this Government and the Americans. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) asked : who is telling lies? After the Wintex operation, the West Germans also have grave doubts about the efficacy of the F111s stationed in this country, particularly because their limited range means that most of them would land on West Germany. Did the Minister discuss the enhanced employment of the F111s with the West Germans before coming to an agreement with the United States?

Mr. Hamilton : The hon. Gentleman's question is based on the wrong premise. We have not reached any agreement with the United States on this and the United States has not put forward any proposal to us. It may have ideas of its own on the matter, but it has not yet come to Ministers for approval and there is no question of us having given approval.

Soviet Union (Nuclear Weapons)

7. Mr. Thurnham : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence whether his Department will be responding to the Soviet proposal to withdraw 500 nuclear warheads from eastern Europe.

Mr. Archie Hamilton : We welcome the Soviets' announcement that they will withdraw 500 nuclear warheads from eastern Europe, but believe that this probably represents as little as 5 per cent. of the total number of Soviet nuclear warheads deployed within the European theatre. In contrast, since 1979 NATO has withdrawn 2,400 nuclear weapons from Europe, leaving only approximately 4,600 within the theatre. The Soviet Union will therefore have to make further very substantial reductions if they are to come down to the size of NATO's nuclear stockpile in Europe.

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Mr. Thurnham : I welcome the Russian proposals, but is it not vital for us to keep up our nuclear guard in the face of the continuing massive superiority of Communist forces, both conventional and nuclear? In view of the ruthlessness of the Communist leaders in Peking, does my hon. Friend think that it is time that the Labour party got into step with NATO policy?

Mr. Hamilton : Yes. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The recent summit confirmed NATO's support for flexible response, which is an incredibly important part of our deterrent effort in NATO. In opposing that concept, Labour is out of step with all the other nations in Europe at present. It rings rather hollow when we are told in the current election campaign that Labour party members are such good Europeans when they are the only people out of step on defence.

Mr. Heffer : Does the Minister think that--just for once--the Government might deliver a positive response to the Soviet Union? Is it not clear that Gorbachev has his own problems in the Soviet Union, and that the response from the West should be positive to help him out against those generals and others who--like generals in this country--are clearly wedded to concepts of war rather than of peace?

Mr. Hamilton : Great responses have been made : that is why we have entered into serious negotiations in Vienna. We cannot be said not to be responding. It is clearly much simpler for the Soviets to make unilateral gestures because of their present enormous superiority in armaments, which enables them to make great demonstrations of slashing numbers.

Warsaw Pact Forces

8. Mr. Jack : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence how many bombers, fighter bombers and fighters he estimates that the Warsaw pact could currently deploy ; and what resources the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation has at its disposal to counter this threat.

Mr. Younger : We estimate Warsaw pact holdings of light and medium bombers, fighter bombers, fighters and reconnaissance and electronic warfare aircraft stationed in Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals as 8,250 aircraft, compared with 3,977 such aircraft for NATO.

Mr. Jack : Can my right hon. Friend reassure aerospace workers in my constituency that, in the light of recent discussions at the NATO summit, high-quality aircraft such as the Tornado and European fighter aircraft will still be needed to meet the threat that he has identified? Can he also reassure me that he does not expect there to be a barrier to the completion of the EFA project from the still outstanding decision on its radar?

Mr. Younger : Certainly I can. First, the aircraft will be needed to replace the aircraft at present covering us in that role. Secondly, it seems likely that if, as we hope, we achieve great reductions in the amount of armaments, there will be an overwhelming need for the highest possible quality.

Mr. Cohen : Are not the majority of NATO aircraft dual-capable, that is nuclear as well as conventional? Does that not apply to a far lower proportion of Warsaw pact

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aircraft? If the Warsaw pact has more aircraft overall, why does not the Minister hurry to secure an agreement on a much lower level of aircraft on both sides?

Mr. Younger : That is precisely what we are trying--very successfully--to do. We have been proposing enormous reductions in common ceilings for all those weapon systems for a long time, and at long last the Warsaw pact is beginning to catch up with the West's initiatives.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith : In view of my right hon. Friend's answer to the original question, does not the disparity in the strengths of the respective air forces of the Warsaw pact and NATO merely underline the necessity for us not only to retain our strength in dual-capable aircraft but for us positively to welcome the presence of the American air force in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Younger : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is no doubt that the existence of an alliance of free democratic nations--which is what NATO is--requires a balanced system of defence to ensure that no attack against any member of that alliance could succeed. All that is in place now. If, as we hope, that can be achieved in future with much lower levels of armaments, sound defences will still be necessary to back up our freedoms and democracy.

United States Secretary of State for Defence

9. Mr. Roy Hughes : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence when he next intends to meet his United States counterpart and what issues he plans to discuss.

Mr. Younger : I met Mr. Cheney at the meeting of NATO's defence planning committee last week and I hope to meet him again in the near future to discuss a wide range of matters of mutual interest.

Mr. Hughes : Will the Secretary of State consider telling Mr. Cheney that we welcome the force reduction proposals recently made by President Bush and now call for urgent talks with the Soviet Union about nuclear reductions in Europe? Meanwhile, will Her Majesty's Government consider abandoning their nuclear modernisation proposals and get down to serious and meaningful negotiations?

Mr. Younger : It would be extremely foolish to do that, although I realise that that is the established policy of the Labour party. I welcome warmly President Bush's initiative, which has made it clear that we in the West wish to see a reduction in the level of armaments. We have made it quite clear--with the support of every single one of our NATO allies, including all those that have Socialist Governments--that we believe that, for the foreseeable future, nuclear deterrence will remain our defence. For that reason, we do not think that it would be sensible to start negotiations for the reduction of nuclear weapon systems until the complete implementation of any reductions under the CFE.

Mr. Dickens : Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that the arms control talks that are now taking place are possible only because the West is able to speak from a position of military strength and that it is most important,

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in this violent and troublesome world, to keep our defences intact, to maintain them, to update them and to keep close to our NATO allies?

Mr. Younger : I totally agree with my hon. Friend. If anyone does not agree, I should have thought that it would have been completely clear to him that this policy has stood us in good stead in recent years and has also been instrumental in bringing the Warsaw pact to the negotiating table. As a result, we see the prospect of a substantial reduction in the level of armaments. That is proof to me that NATO policy has worked dramatically well.

Mr. Wallace : Can the Secretary of State confirm that at the meeting last week to which he referred a decision was taken to reaffirm the 3 per cent. per annum real increase in NATO defence spending? Did the Secretary of State and Mr. Cheney suggest the extent to which they expect the respective countries to reach that target, and was any consideraton given to how that would be consistent with NATO's arms control objectives?

Mr. Younger : There was a short debate on the subject at last week's meeting. As the hon. Gentleman has correctly said, there was unanimous agreement that the 3 per cent. should be kept as a target. It has never been a target that every nation has reached, but most nations have reached it at one time or another. For that reason, it has been a vey good yardstick with which to judge various members' performances within the Alliance. We think that it is valuable to keep it for the future.

Departmental Cost-effectiveness

10. Mr. Stevens : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what his Department has achieved since 1979 in cost-effectiveness.

Mr. Sainsbury : Since 1979, my Department has significantly reduced manpower numbers and the size of the defence estate and has launched a range of other initiatives aimed at improving cost-effectiveness. These have included a greater use of competition in the procurement of defence equipment, an extensive programme of contracting out support services, and a wide range of efficiency studies, including some 20 efficiency unit scrutinies. The Department is currently engaged in an exercise to achieve a cumulative improvement in efficiency of 2.5 per cent. per annum during the three years ending in March 1991.

Mr. Stevens : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his reply. One of the impacts of the Ministry of Defence's procedure has been to bring a great many more companies on to the defence list of contractors. That has been particularly helpful in areas such as the west midlands, especially to smaller companies to which special priority has been given by the Ministry of Defence. Can my hon. Friend say a little more about the impact of these value-for-money programmes on the effectiveness of his Department?

Mr. Sainsbury : I am happy to confirm what my hon. Friend says about the value that we attach to ensuring that we have as many contractors as possible on our suppliers' list, particularly small contractors. We are continuing with

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the programme of presentations and publicity to suppliers to encourage them to come forward and tender for Ministry of Defence business.

Mr. Tony Banks : The Minister's first reply was a lot of old bull-- [Interruption.] It is absolute bull.

Mr. Speaker Order. That is not a very elegant word.

Mr. Banks : I am not a very elegant person-- [Interruption.] Tory Members should sit down and take it. When will the Minister do something about the hoarding of land by the Ministry of Defence and all those empty properties? By what right can the Government possibly attack local authorities for having empty properties when his Department has more empty properties than any other Department? When will the Minister do something about that?

Mr. Sainsbury : I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman, who is known for his interest in the arts, clearly does not have much interest in mathematics as an efficiency saving of 2.5 per cent. per annum is clearly too much for him to comprehend. There has been reference to the Department's slowness in disposing of surplus land and I cannot pretend that it has been a perfect performance in the past. The report to which he refers recognises that measures are beng taken to improve performance in future.

Mr. Conway : Is not my hon. Friend's attitude towards cost- effectiveness in procurement ably demonstrated by the Government's support for the Vickers option for the next generation of main battle tanks, which includes the engine manufactured in Shrewsbury by Perkins, which uses 50 per cent. of the fuel of any of its main competitors? Does not that determination to support British engineering at its most able demonstrate the Government's loyalty to British engineering and to cost-effectiveness?

Mr. Sainsbury : I am happy to confirm to my hon. Friend that cost in use through life cost is a very important part of the assessments we make in taking procurement decisions. Fuel efficiency is one of the factors to which we give high priority in taking those decisions.

Mr. Rogers : Part of the Government's justification for the cancellation of Nimrod was the promise of a 100 per cent. offset deal. It is now 130 per cent., but it was 100 per cent. at the time. Perhaps the Secretary of State could check that. In view of the very limited amount of offset work that hat been received and is outlined in the third report of the Defence Committee, does the Minister now think that the cancellation of Nimrod was cost-effective?

Mr. Sainsbury : I am sorry that the Opposition are having such difficulty with their mathematics. The figure is 130 per cent., not 100 per cent. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the third report which is rather complimentary to the programme, including the statement in paragraph 67 :

"Boeing have expressed full commitment to the offset programme ; and, extrapolating figures so far available, they may well meet their offset obligation by 1995."

Warsaw Pact (Nerve Gas)

12. Mr. Harry Greenway : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what information he has on the Warsaw pact nerve gas capability ; and if he will make a statement.

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Mr. Archie Hamilton : The Soviet Union is the only member of the Warsaw pact to have acknowledged that it has an offensive chemical warfare capability, although we believe that such weapons have been produced by other Warsaw pact countries. On its own, it possesses the largest and most sophisticated chemical warfare capability in the world and nerve agents are just one of the types of agent declared to be in its stockpile.

Nevertheless, we find it difficult to accept a number of the Soviet Union's statements about its own and its allies' chemical warfare activities. We estimate that the Soviet stockpile of chemical warfare agents is several times larger than its claim of only 50,000 tonnes. There is an obvious need for the Soviet Union to make available much more information about its chemical warfare capabilities if the confidence necessary for a global chemical warfare ban is to be established.

Mr. Greenway : Does my hon. Friend accept that the West disarmed totally of chemical and nerve gas weapons in the 1950s, but received not a single reciprocal response from the Soviet Union, which is believed to have nearly half a million tonnes of chemical weapons? Does he agree that a similar disarmament of nuclear weapons would be a disaster and would encourage the Soviet Union and its allies to stockpile all the more, to our detriment?

Mr. Hamilton : Yes. That is absolutely right. It is an example of unilateral disarmament clearly not having worked. We did that some 30 years ago and there has been no reciprocal action on behalf of the Soviet Union. My hon. Friend is quite right to say that we would be in great danger if we got rid of our own nuclear weapons, as we are living in a world where more nations are acquiring nuclear capability.

Mr. Brazier : Can my hon. Friend confirm that those weapons give the Warsaw pact forces an overwhelming advantage, not only because they are extremely effective, but because the fact that Warsaw pact forces have them and NATO has hardly any means that the defensive counter-measures we have to take put our own troops at an enormous operating disadvantage?

Mr. Hamilton : Yes. My hon. Friend is right. Wearing the suits that are necessary to be immune from those weapons inhibits much of what our troops can do as fighting men.

Multiple Launch Rocket System

13. Mr. Pike : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what proposals exist for the multiple launch rocket system to be capable of firing short-range nuclear weapons.

Mr. Archie Hamilton : The United States announced its choice of the M270 multiple launch rocket system as a launcher for a successor missile to Lance to NATO's high level group on 5 December, publicly confirming this decision the following day. The nuclear missile for the launcher has not yet been selected. The choice of launcher and missile are national United States decisions. At the recent NATO summit, the Allies recognised the value of the United States development programme and agreed to deal with the question of the introduction and deployment of a follow-on to Lance in 1992. The Alliance also recognised that ground-based missiles would be needed in Europe for as long as could be foreseen.

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Mr. Pike : Will not proposals to arm the MLRS with nuclear warheads as well as conventional warheads make any future verification arrangements arising from any future treaties extremely difficult? Should not those proposals, therefore, be condemned? Will the Minister give the assurance today that MLRS to be deployed by Britain will not have nuclear warheads?

Mr. Hamilton : No. I certainly do not think that the proposal should be condemned. It is an important part of our flexible response and, as I said earlier, NATO is aligned with that concept. It has also been agreed at the recent summit that there will be no third zero on short-range nuclear forces. That was why the word "partial" was so important in terms of the reductions with which NATO was prepared to go ahead at the recent summit.

Mr. O'Neill : Does the Minister recall that the Secretary of State said on 30 January in answer to a question on BBC news that there would be a decision on the modernisation of Lance by the summer time? Now that that has been delayed until 1992, does the Minister take that as a success for British negotiation at the summit or as a failure?

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