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House of Commons

Tuesday 22 November 1994

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


Northern Ireland

1. Lady Olga Maitland: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what plans he has for British service men in Northern Ireland.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind): As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in Belfast on 21 October: "it is our firm objective to return to exclusively civilian policing"

in Northern Ireland. In the meantime, the armed forces will continue to provide support to the Royal Ulster Constabulary for as long as the security situation makes it necessary.

Lady Olga Maitland: I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that reply. Will he reassure the House that there are no plans to remove troops while the terrorists still possess weapons and that, indeed, the troops will remain in Northern Ireland until a permanent peace is established? Will he confirm--indeed, give a commitment--that when, finally, peace is genuinely established and it is time to consider bringing home some troops, there will be no plans to reduce the overall size of the British Army?

Mr. Rifkind: The precise level of British troops in the Province at any one time must be considered in the light of advice from the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the General Officer Commanding, Northern Ireland. I agree with my hon. Friend that the possession of military hardware by the terrorist organisations must be a major factor in determining the proper level of military presence.

I happily confirm the final part of my hon. Friend's question. Even if we are able, as we all hope, to make a significant reduction at some stage in the military presence in Northern Ireland, that will not result in any further reduction in the overall size of the Army. Instead, it will enable us to deal with particular problems of overstretch and to provide increased opportunities for training, and other opportunities, for our armed forces.


2. Mr. Mullin: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence when he last met representatives of the

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Indonesian Government to discuss co- operation between British and Indonesian armed forces; and if he will make a statement.

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Roger Freeman): My right hon. and learned Friend last visited Indonesia in May 1993 for discussions on security and defence matters of mutual interest. He met the Indonesian Minister of State for Research and Technology for similar discussions when he visited the United Kingdom in June 1993.

Mr. Mullin: It is common knowledge that a huge arms deal is being negotiated with Indonesia. Is the Minister aware that the regime in Indonesia is one of the most odious tyrannies in the world and that it came to power on the back of a bloodbath that has been matched only by Pol Pot in Asia in recent years? Has not much of the hardware that we previously sold to Indonesia been used for internal repression and will not some of the hardware that we are about to sell also be used for internal repression? What assurances can the right hon. Gentleman give the House that that will not happen?

Mr. Freeman: A good deal of what the hon. Gentleman said comprised assertions and I would not agree with him. I shall deal with the three key issues. First, I am not aware of any so-called huge arms deal, other than the already announced 1993 contract for the supply of further Hawk aircraft. Secondly, the Government do not share the hon. Gentleman's judgment that the Government of Indonesia are an odious tyranny. Thirdly, on the use of aircraft against the civilian population-- [Interruption.] I have studied the assertions made by the hon. Gentleman in the House recently, but I can find no evidence to support what he or the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) have said.

Sir Wyn Roberts: Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he has sought and obtained assurances from the Indonesian Government that weapons bought from this country will not be used against civilians in East Timor?

Mr. Freeman: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who exactly states the position as it is now and, indeed, as it has been for the past 20 years under previous Governments. Assurances have been received--

Mr. Mullin indicated dissent .

Mr. Freeman: The hon. Gentleman shakes his head. Why does he not listen to the answer? Assurances have been received that the aircraft in question will not be used against the civilian population.

Mr. Corbyn: Is the Minister aware that, since the illegal occupation of East Timor, more than 200,000 East Timorese people have been killed by Indonesian Government forces? Is he further aware that information has now been published by the Timorese people showing that Hawk aircraft are used to bomb them and their positions? Is that not evidence enough to stop any further arms sales to an appalling regime which has perpetrated such a bloodbath against the Timorese people?

Mr. Freeman: I think that the House would share with the hon. Gentleman the view that any repression of the civil population in East Timor is to be regretted. Representations have been made to the Indonesian Government by my right hon. Friend the Foreign

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Secretary. If the hon. Gentleman will forward any allegations to me for my personal attention, I shall investigate them again.

Compensation Payments

3. Mr. Harry Greenway: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on compensation payments made to women dismissed from the armed forces on the grounds of pregnancy.

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Nicholas Soames): The Ministry of Defence has now dealt with about two thirds of the claims for pregnancy dismissal. Following successful appeals by my Department in July, most awards by industrial tribunals have since been at a more reasonable level. The overall average payment is currently about £10,000.

Mr. Greenway: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. How many women are involved? How much compensation is expected to be paid? What about those service women who have not had babies, for their own or other reasons? How does all this contribute to the defence of the realm and where will it all end?

Mr. Soames: I do not think it would be proper for me to speculate about where it is all likely to end. My hon. Friend raises an important point. Clearly, the judgment that led to the claims was very disturbing for us. Some 4,500 people have claimed and 3,127 of those claims have been settled--more than two thirds. The average payment has been about £10,000. So far, my Department has paid out £32 million. The outcome is likely to be less than £50 million. This has come at a bad time for the defence budget. We have done everything possible to keep the payments at a reasonable level in the interests not only of the defence budget but of the taxpayer.

Mr. Martlew: Surely the Minister must accept that the reality is that, for more than a decade, the Ministry of Defence pursued an unfair and illegal policy of discriminating against pregnant service women. The result of such a sexist policy is that the United Kingdom taxpayer will have to pick up a bill of £50 million for the incompetence of the Conservative Government.

Mr. Soames: That is pretty rich coming from a party that never complained about it. As the hon. Gentleman would know, had he bothered to do the work, anyone who was discharged on pregnancy between 1978 and 1988, before the services introduced maternity leave, can make a claim under a court judgment in 1991. Clearly, the Government did not know that the policy of discharging service women on pregnancy was unlawful; nor did anyone else--otherwise, the lawyers for the pregnancy claimants would have brought the claims at another time. No such claim was pursued until the end of the 1980s. It is a regrettable episode and a waste of an amount of money that we could well do without spending.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman: Does my hon. Friend accept that it is absurd for the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) to describe the outrageous claims as unfair? The women knew when they signed up precisely what the terms were. They signed to that effect. May I

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congratulate the Ministry on appealing and having some of the more ludicrous payments reduced? They are still too much, but the situation is better than it was.

Mr. Soames: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing some sanity to the matter. My hon. Friend is right; in July, the appeal tribunal agreed that some awards were manifestly grossly excessive and issued fresh guidance. That has proved helpful and has reduced the level of awards and settlements from about £25,000 to £10,000. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her support. She brings some clarity to this otherwise absurd issue.

Royal Navy

4. Mr. Byers: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what will be the size of the Royal Navy's surface fleet by the year 2000, under the current plans.

Mr. Rifkind: The Royal Navy's surface fleet currently consists of 98 commissioned vessels, supported by 21 ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.

Mr. Byers: Does the Secretary of State accept that, if that programme is to be achieved within the available budget, value for money will need to be obtained? Does he share my concern that, with the demise of Swan Hunter, if the takeover bids by GEC and British Aerospace for VSEL in Barrow are successful, a monopoly will be created? In those circumstances, and in the public interest, should not both bids be referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission?

Mr. Rifkind: The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I cannot comment on the reference, which is before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. Although we all regret the sad closure of the Swan Hunter yard, Yarrow, Barrow-in-Furness and Vosper are still all building naval ships. We also have civil yards that are capable, in certain circumstances, of building Royal Navy ships. So the Ministry of Defence still has quite a significant amount of choice to meet its needs.

Mr. Viggers: As the question mentions the year 2000, can my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that, by that year, the replacements for Fearless and Intrepid, the assault ships, will be at or near completion? Together with the helicopter carrier, will they not give us the best amphibious capacity we have had for decades?

Mr. Rifkind: Yes. Eleven Royal Navy ships are being built at various yards throughout the United Kingdom. In addition, as my hon. Friend says, we have issued tenders for the design and build of replacements for the two assault ships, Fearless and Intrepid, and for an oceanographic survey vessel--not to mention the batch 2 Trafalgar class submarines. There is thus a heavy programme of building to meet the large needs of the Royal Navy in the years to come.

Mr. Fatchett: Although the House understands why the Secretary of State for Defence cannot comment on the reference to the MMC of the bids for VSEL, can he tell us his own thinking on the matter in the context of future procurement policy? Does not the Department claim that its key criterion for procurement policy is competition? Without such competition to supply the Navy, there is a real danger that the right hon. and learned Gentleman's

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departmental policy will be put at risk. Should he not tell us his views now, instead of hiding behind those of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry?

Mr. Rifkind: Despite the hon. Gentleman's latter comments, may I say that we welcome him to the Dispatch Box as a shadow spokesman on defence?

The Ministry of Defence has made it clear that competition is, of course, an important factor which has benefited the Royal Navy and, indeed, all three services, when procurement needs have been able to be met by competition. We are conscious of the fact that, for all western Governments, procurement is now significantly less than in previous years. Nevertheless, we believe that it is important to ensure value for money to meet the needs of our armed forces. That influences our judgment of these difficult matters.

Mrs. Ann Winterton: Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that the future size of the Royal Navy demonstrates that there is enough warship procurement in the pipeline to sustain two competing warship yards in the United Kingdom beyond the turn of the century? Will he further confirm that such competition will ensure that British taxpayers will be the winners, because they will get the best value for their money?

Mr. Rifkind: I agree with the thinking behind my hon. Friend's question. We very much hope that VSEL in Barrow, Yarrow and Vosper will all continue to meet the needs of the Royal Navy. All three yards are viable assets, and we very much hope that they will continue to build ships for the Navy for many years to come.


5. Mrs. Anne Campbell: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what plans he has to counteract the risks from the increased volume of plutonium on world markets.

Mr. Rifkind: The Government are naturally concerned to ensure that plutonium is not misused. My Department is involved as appropriate in Her Majesty's Government's stringent policies in this area.

Mrs. Campbell: Is not the Secretary of State being extraordinarily complacent about this matter? Is he aware that British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. has opened an office in South Korea and is prepared to offer plutonium to its Government? Does he consider that satisfactory, or is he taking measures to prevent it?

Mr. Rifkind: The hon. Lady should direct questions of that kind to the relevant Minister. I am happy to answer questions relating to the MOD's responsibilities, but I am not clear about why she chose to put that question to me.

Mr. Duncan Smith: I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on his recent speech about the strengthening of the NATO alliance. As for the threat of the illegal transportation of plutonium, does he agree that it supports his view that what is required is to keep the United States heavily linked with us, not least to combat the illegal transfer of plutonium and the nuclear threat?

Mr. Rifkind: I very much agree. NATO recently identified the fact that work to combat the proliferation of nuclear weapons and nuclear materials must have increased priority. The combined forces of the United

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States and the European members of the Atlantic alliance are needed to ensure the maximum impact to achieve that particular objective.

Mr. Llew Smith: Is the Secretary of State aware that, if the thermal oxide reprocessing plant at Sellafield is allowed to operate fully, following its accident in March, it will add 90,000 kg of plutonium to that already stored at Sellafield? That seems to me to be an open invitation to terrorists. When will the Government see sense and ban all trade in nuclear explosives such as plutonium?

Mr. Rifkind: I must give the hon. Gentleman the same answer that I gave the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), who asked a comparable question, addressed to the wrong Department.

Mr. Brazier: Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, although it is most important that we take every possible step to prevent the proliferation of plutonium and other fissile materials, the only way to protect our own population from those potential threats is to maintain our nuclear shield? It comes very ill from the Labour party to lecture us about proliferation when it wants to wind up our own nuclear defences.

Mr. Rifkind: It is, indeed, appropriate for my hon. Friend to remind the House and the country that a large number in the parliamentary Labour party, from the Leader of the Opposition down, either are or have been members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament-- [Interruption.] -- and it seems that most of them present today, if not the Leader of the Opposition, are still proud of that fact.

Land Mines

6. Mrs. Roche: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the export of anti-personnel land mines.

Mr. Freeman: The United Kingdom has not produced or exported anti- personnel land mines for some years.

Mrs. Roche: I thank the Minister for that answer. Will he confirm that that also includes anti-personnel land mines that contain a self- destruct mechanism? Is it not correct that the United Kingdom is still exporting them?

Mr. Freeman: No. The United Kingdom has never possessed such anti- personnel land mines, never had them manufactured and never owned them; therefore, the question is hypothetical. We do not have them and therefore cannot export them. We have in place a unilateral moratorium on the export of land mines that we do possess, which are those that do not have a self- destruct mechanism.

Mr. Robathan: Is my hon. Friend aware of the work of an organisation called the HALO trust, which clears mines in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Angola and, I believe, Mozambique and which has done work for the United Nations? Is he aware that, during its work, it has never found one anti-personnel mine of British origin? Does he not think it rather sad, therefore, that Opposition Members should try to make political capital out of anti- personnel mines and the frightful work that they do in some

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countries, and blame their own Government, when the blame should be laid at the feet of, for instance, the former Soviet Union?

Mr. Freeman: The Opposition totally ignore the need to have our own armed forces properly equipped to defend our country. I agree with both my hon. and learned Friend and the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), who asked the original question, in the sense that I have seen with my own eyes the problem in the Falkland Islands, where mines were strewn indiscriminately by the Argentine armed forces. Those mines will be on the beaches for many years to come.

Dr. Reid: The Minister must know that it is not a question of Opposition Members in any way undermining the capacity of the British armed forces to have the resources that they wish to have. [Interruption.] Some of his hon. Friends at the back are jeering, but they may not have seen the consequences. There are some 800 deaths a month and thousands more are injured because of the estimated 120 million bombs and land mines that are strewn throughout the world. Most of those people are civilians, most of them innocent and many of them children.

If there is no economic interest in the export of mines from this country, why will the Minister not express a Government policy and join President Clinton in calling for a total moratorium on the export of all land mines, including the so-called "self-destruct" land mines? He must know that more than 10 per cent. of them do not self-destruct, and contribute towards the horror and the maiming of innocent civilians throughout the world.

Mr. Freeman: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who appears to accept the rationale for Great Britain to possess land mines and, by definition, self-destruct anti-personnel land mines.

Dr. Reid: What about the export of mines?

Mr. Freeman: I am about to deal with that. No Defence Minister can rule out future possession of that weapon by the United Kingdom's armed forces, which do not possess it at present. As for the United States, I share the hon. Gentleman's view; the United Kingdom Government will work very closely with the United States to establish whether we can negotiate for the world community a ban on trade in, and export of, mines.

Senior Officers (Housing)

7. Mr. Hall: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what assessment he has made of his policy on expenditure on housing for senior officers.

Mr. Soames: All service personnel are entitled to public accommodation appropriate to their circumstances and responsibilities, for which they pay charges. I have made it clear that I will report to the House in due course following the outcome of the reviews we have announced of expenditure on senior officers' residences and the requirement for official entertainment.

Mr. Hall: The Ministry of Defence announced in February that it was conducting a review, but we are still awaiting a reply. Will the Minister acknowledge that, in parliamentary written answers, the MOD has already published the information that £5 million in taxpayers' money is being spent on subsidised housing for 77 of the

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MOD's top brass? The Air Chief Marshal has had £386,000 spent on his home; £205,000 has been spent on the Chief of Staff's home, £260, 000 on the RAF Strike Commander's home and £205,000 on the Air Vice-Marshal's home. That is a large amount of taxpayers' money. Who sanctioned that expenditure? How does the Minister justify the spending of such an amount of taxpayers' money, given that he and his colleagues want to cut £1.7 million from military expenditure? Is this not a case of being penny wise, pound foolish?

Madam Speaker: Order. This is not an Adjournment debate; it is Question Time.

Mr. Soames: The report to which the hon. Gentleman referred is making good progress. We have commissioned an independent external investigation of the circumstances surrounding expenditure on Haymes Garth, one of the properties that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, with a separate and wider audit of expenditure on other official service residences. The report by Sheila Masters is not yet with Ministers; once it has been received, we shall want to give its findings careful consideration, taking account of the work that Sir Peter Cazalet is undertaking in relation to representational entertainment in the armed forces.

It is wrong to trivialise the importance of official service residences. Senior commanders in all three services have important representational roles to play and must undertake a significant amount of official hospitality. It is right for such matters to be dealt with properly, and we intend to ensure that that happens.

Mr. Wilkinson: Does my hon. Friend agree that, in addition to their important command responsibilities, commanders-in-chief fulfil a vital representational role for their armed forces, particularly in their local communities? Would it not be wholly inappropriate if they could not, for example, entertain local mayors, council leaders, heads of industry, Members of Parliament, civil servants, diplomats and even Ministers of the Crown?

Mr. Soames: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who, as a former service man, understands the need for requirements of this nature. He is quite right. The armed services are one of the jewels in Britain's crown; it is wrong to trivialise such important matters, which need to be put on a proper basis so that the House and everyone else concerned can have confidence in the arrangements. I wholly agree with my hon. Friend and assure him that that will remain the case.

Dr. David Clark: Now that the Government have been forced to abort their plans to privatise the MOD's housing stock, how does the Minister plan to make up the shortfall of £500 million in next year's budget? Are we to expect further cuts, or will there be an increase in the MOD's budget?

Mr. Soames: No further cuts are planned in the Ministry of Defence budget in this respect. We will be bringing forward clarification of the plans very shortly and the hon. Gentleman will be the first to hear about it.

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Military Music

8. Mr. David Shaw: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what are the total costs associated with military music training and performances in the current year.

Mr. Soames: We expect to spend approximately £8,750,000 on such training across the three services during the current financial year. The costs associated with military music performances are not recorded centrally.

Mr. Shaw: Does my hon. Friend agree that if Ministers really want to save money in military music training the long-term proposal for civilianisation can be best implemented by basing it in the south barracks at Deal, and that it will be a complete waste of time, money and effort to close Deal in 1996 if civilianisation can be achieved by that time? Does he also agree that we should not be looking at civilianisation in 2000, but that we should bring the date forward?

Mr. Soames: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who made a compelling and formidable speech last night in the Adjournment debate. I regret to have to tell him that there are clear and very compelling financial reasons why we have to remove the Royal Marines school of music from Deal, not least being the cost.

As I have said, the total cost of music training is £8.7 million per year, of which £6.7 million accrues to Deal and £2 million to Kneller hall.That is not good value for money and I am afraid that, however my hon. Friend tinkers with the figures, we will not be able to come to a more satisfactory conclusion. I look forward to meeting my hon. Friend and others of his colleagues in the near future to go through the figures.

Mr. Foulkes: Does the Minister agree that the Deal school of music would have had a greater chance of survival if the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) had spent more time in Deal and less time in Monklands?

Mr. Soames: On the contrary, the hon. Gentleman--who is not an uncharitable man--should know that my hon. Friend has fought, quite rightly, with great vigour and determination for the interests of his constituents, as indeed the hon. Gentleman would have done. His is an outrageous suggestion.


9. Mr. Clappison: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what plans he has to visit Bosnia to examine the military situation.

Mr. Rifkind: I have made several visits to Bosnia. I plan to make a further visit in the near future.

Mr. Clappison: Will my right hon. and learned Friend join me in paying tribute to the skill, professionalism and courage of British service men in Bosnia, both in providing aid and in deterring aggression? Does he agree that they are serving a very important purpose in responding firmly to appalling acts of aggression, which have included the use of napalm?

Mr. Rifkind: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the courage required of British service men, and we had further evidence of it this morning. At 8.15 am two United Kingdom Sea Harrier aircraft, which were

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patrolling on offensive counter air combat operations over central Bosnia observed that two ground-to-air missiles had been launched. The missiles passed two miles from the aircraft and were seen to explode at a height of about 35,000 ft. This serious incident is presently being investigated by UNPROFOR commanders.

Mr. Menzies Campbell: In light of that answer, will the Minister give the House an assessment of how many such missiles are available in the former Yugoslavia, their capability, and the counter-measures available to Royal Air Force air crews in the event that they apprehend that such weapons have been fired at them?

Mr. Rifkind: I can say to the hon. and learned Gentleman that, so far as we are aware, this is the first time that a missile airburst has been observed over Bosnia Herzegovina. Our aircraft have certain facilities which enable them to deal with threats of this kind, but the hon. and learned Gentleman will understand that I do not intend to go into detail about that.

Mr. Bill Walker: When my right hon. and learned Friend visits personnel in Bosnia, will he remember the sheer professionalism of the ground crews and air crews of the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy and the Army on the ground and the fact that these people are commanded by the officers who have been unjustifiably attacked for changes that have been made in their accommodation which they made no decision to make?

Mr. Rifkind: My hon. Friend is right to remind the House that it is the senior officers of our armed forces who have been responsible for some of the splendid achievements of those forces, whether in Bosnia, the Falklands, or the Gulf, in recent years. I believe that their record of service to this country has been outstanding.

Dr. David Clark: Our relief that the Sea Harriers and their pilots escaped unscathed today is tempered by the increasing danger faced by our troops in Bosnia. Will the Secretary of State inform the Serbs that if they take shots at United Nations and United Kingdom planes which are trying to operate Deny Flight they will be bombed further?

Mr. Rifkind: I can give the hon. Gentleman and the House a categorical assurance that the United Kingdom Government would support any measures that are required to ensure the safety of our armed forces and other United Nations forces serving in Bosnia. The United Nations commanders are currently considering the implications of this morning's incident and they will have the full support of the British Government if any action is required as a result of their investigations.

Former Soviet Union (Weapons)

10. Mr. Fabricant: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what assessment he has made of the threat from bacteriological and chemical warfare weapons held in the former Soviet Union.

Mr. Freeman: Her Majesty's Government see no current threat from Russia or other former Soviet Republics. However, Russia inherited offensive chemical and biological warfare capabilities from the former Soviet Union. Her Majesty's Government place a high priority on confirming the elimination of the former Soviet

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capabilities; we are pursuing this objective through discussions with Russia and in multilateral arms control negotiations.

Mr. Fabricant: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his full reply and for alluding to the biopreparat programme which was in place during the days of the former Soviet Union. What action will he take in practical terms to stop the proliferation of not only nuclear weapons, which was mentioned earlier, but germ warfare and biological weapons?

Mr. Freeman: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question and for his minor tutorial. The United Kingdom is making a practical contribution on nuclear weapons. The distinguished British company, GKN, is manufacturing transport containers for moving warheads that are being removed from current Russian use. We have agreed to look at ways in which we can co-operate with Russia to end production facilities for biological weapons. On chemical weapons, I note that the United States is willing to discuss with Russia ways in which its chemical warfare munitions plants can be decommissioned.

Mr. Gapes: In view of the danger of proliferation of chemical weapons, will the Minister announce today that the Government will immediately ratify the chemical weapons convention so as to encourage other countries to go down the same road?

Mr. Freeman: We have signed the convention and my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade is responsible for bringing forward legislation. I can tell the hon. Gentleman and the House that he intends to do so as soon as possible.

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