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nuclear warheads available to this country puts us in breach of those articles. Also, specifically, the agreement appears to put us in breach of article I.

It is worth reminding the House what article I says:

"Each nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly".

Yet that is precisely what the agreement sets out to do. The agreement also puts us in breach of article VI, which reminds us of our further obligations:

"Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament".

For the past 25 years of the non-proliferation treaty, the United Kingdom Government have not participated in any nuclear arms reductions whatever. In fact we are now one of the few countries that appear to be moving in the opposite direction.

Will the Minister explain how he sees the renewal of the agreement as consistent either with the existing NPT or with the extension negotiations that will take place in a few months' time? And how does he see it as consistent with the agreement, or accord, recently signed at the Budapest summit? The Budapest document contains a simple statement on the principles governing non-proliferation: "The participating states strongly believe that the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and missiles to deliver them poses a threat to international peace, security and stability, and hereby affirm their commitment to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons".

Yet the list of exchanges which have taken place under the agreement, and the intention to continue that agreement for a further 10 years, sets the United Kingdom off on a practical path that will render both of those agreements worthless. They will not even be worth the paper that they are written on because the practical consequences of our agreement is to disregard our wider international agreements. The Government attempt to do so in ways that systematically deceive the House, the country and the international community.

The agreement also has some phenomenally dangerous and destabilising implications for the prospects of the signing of a comprehensive test ban treaty. Non-nuclear weapon states, which are being asked to subscribe to a treaty that will effectively exclude them from ever being nuclear weapons states, are already asking what the nuclear club will do in return. It is no longer acceptable for the nuclear powers to say, "We will act as a stabilising force and we will protect you," because the wars across the globe have made it clear that no such deterrent or stabilising force is particularly credible at the moment.

Many of the non-nuclear states, or the "maybe" nuclear states, are looking much more seriously at the argument that we have been using for a long time. They are saying, "If it's okay for you to have nuclear weapons, it should be okay for us. If you don't want us to go down that path, the quid pro quo must be that if we don't secure and obtain nuclear weapons, you have to stop testing."

One of the big issues in that dialogue is the extent to which the nuclear states have a technical capability now which no longer requires us to physically test nuclear weapons. That testing can be carried out by computer modelling in ways that allow for the refinements and upgrading of our weapons systems to improve--and I use

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"improve" in parenthesis--and increase their effectiveness and the diversity of ways in which they can be used. That, in itself, is an act of proliferation. Seen through the eyes of the non-nuclear world, it is not a stand-still situation. However, this agreement is the bedrock on which we can continue acts of selective proliferation for ourselves while we seek to deny others access to the nuclear club. It has been a serious error of judgment and a serious dereliction of duty for the Government to think that they could simply ratify an extension of such an agreement without giving the House an opportunity, in Government time, to raise fundamental questions about the ethics, advisability and acceptability--in global terms--of moving along that path. Given the opportunity, the House may have wanted to say that it is time to let the agreement lapse. If the world required a gesture from the United Kingdom, one of the most important suggestions that we could have made is that we would cease to be involved in this bilateral exchange of high-level nuclear information.

The agreement also raises questions, as a process, about ways in which the Government might use the Ponsonby rule, to ratify other treaties which would have equally profound effects on the governance of this country, and the place of this country internationally, and which would pass through the House without Parliament having the right to debate, disagree or even register an opinion on the implications of some of those proposals.

I end with several fairly simple questions that I would like the Minister to answer. Will he arrange an open debate, in Government time, on the set of implications contained in any proposal to renew and extend the agreement? Will he supply to Parliament and to the Select Committees on Defence and Foreign Affairs the information that has been supplied to similar committees in the United States Congress and Senate? Will he set out the detailed costs of all aspects of the 1958 agreement, including the administrative costs, and also the barter and loan arrangements that have been built into it? Will the Minister set out the details of all the jowogs and eivrs that currently exist? The eivrs are the official visits and consequent reports. I should like him to do that so that Parliament is again treated to information in precisely the same terms available to the American Congress, and to the American people under their Freedom of Information Act.

Will the Minister explain how the signing of an extension to the agreement will contribute, first, to the Budapest summit commitments that the Government entered into--specifically in terms of preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons; secondly, to the implementation of article 1 of the non-proliferation treaty; and, thirdly, to making progress and offering reassurances to other states in relation to the signing of a CTBT?

Will the Minister explain also whether the bottom line realities of the agreement that he proposes to have renewed are that, without the agreement, Britain does not have an independent nuclear deterrent but that, with the agreement, we have a policy that gives us no independence? What we have is an umbilical link between the United States and the United Kingdom, in which this country and the House have become the nuclear lackeys of the American nuclear arms programme.

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The agreement is essential to the underpinning of the £30 billion costs of the nuclear arms programme with which this country is saddled. It is part of the process which underpins our nuclear servitude and the nuclear instability that threatens the planet. This is a dreadfully high price to pay for nuclear dependence and a dreadful price that the country and Parliament has had to pay for its systematic deception for almost 40 years.

2.36 am

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) on his perseverance in trying to obtain this debate and on what he has just said. I echo his requests for information from the Government. Over the years that I have been a Member of the House, the Consolidated Fund debate has been a useful way for hon. Members who wish to uncover what the Government want to hide to pry a little into what is going on. If this is to be the last Consolidated Fund debate that keeps us up all night, I hope that, when we exchange it for time which might be much more convenient on a Wednesday morning, it will be just as easy for people such as my hon. Friend to prod and pry into matters that the Government want to keep secret.

Although I am pleased that my hon. Friend has obtained this debate, it is an absolute disgrace that we have to debate this matter in such a way. If the treaty is important, and if it is the key to the whole of the Government's strategy of nuclear deterrence, why is a Minister not prepared to stand at the Dispatch Box and set out why we should have the treaty and its benefits? Instead of trying to smuggle it through without debate, if it is so central to the Government's policy, they should have been prepared to say, "These are the benefits to the United Kingdom. As a result of the treaty, we really have an independent nuclear deterrent."

Although it is an abomination, at least the Government should be prepared to set out why they want such a position and what the benefits to the United Kingdom are. They should say how, as a result of the treaty, even if we have political disagreements with the United States, it will still be contractually bound to supply us the with things that we need to keep the nuclear deterrent independent. A Minister should tell us proudly what the benefits are, instead of having to be dragged to the House to answer questions.

I should have thought that the Minister would set out clearly what the cost to the United Kingdom will be. It is one of the fundamental principles of Parliament that we should be given information about costs, and that the Government should set out to justify them. Again, it is extremely difficult to find out what the costs are. The Leader of the House has suggested that the arrangement has no cost implications, but he does not put a very convincing case--obviously there are cost implications.

What are the safety implications of the arrangement? We know that materials are to be transferred. I think that the Minister owes the House an assurance that the transfer of fissile material between the two countries carries no safety implications at all.

The Minister must assure us that the arrangement contains nothing that has breached, or will breach, the nuclear non-proliferation treaty in any way. We are extremely keen for other country's nuclear industries to

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be inspected and regulated to ensure that they are not likely to breach the treaty or pose an international threat. It is fundamental that the British Government try to show--if they can-- that we have not breached the treaty.

The Government should set out reasons why the agreement does not make it more difficult for us to renegotiate the non-proliferation treaty. It is in everyone's best interests to renew the treaty and get it to work effectively. While they are making other countries give cast-iron undertakings, the Government should be prepared to say that they have not breached the treaty and that the agreement will not weaken our negotiating position. The Government have not made such a statement and I hope that the Minister will at least attempt to produce that information in his reply to the debate.

It is sad that the Government treat the arrangements with so much secrecy. Much more information is available in the United States. I accept that the Government do not want to put details about the design of a nuclear triggerhead before the Parliament, but I do not understand why most of the information in the arrangement cannot be revealed to the House.

When we want to establish an effective deterrent, we tell people what we have and what we are capable of doing with it. If we do not inform people of our capabilities, the implication is that we probably do not have anything to act as a deterrent. That has been the case with most nuclear deterrents in recent years. It is quite clear that the Polaris submarines are not functioning effectively and that their whole deterrent effect has crumbled. That is why the Government want to pretend--it is the emperor's new clothes syndrome--that things are operating well when they are not. The Minister should tell the House whether the agreement is operational and whether all the details are in place, but I understand why he is not prepared to do that.

The Government must set out the answers to key questions. Are we still dependent on the United States for the design of the triggers for the nuclear weapons? Are they being designed at Sandina; if so, is it specified in the arrangements and how does that fit in with the nuclear non- proliferation treaty? Will we be able to say during the treaty negotiations that there has been no transfer of information and nuclear capabilities, which I understand is in breach of the non-proliferation treaty?

What will our officials say during treaty negotiations? Can they prove that we are not dependent on the transfer of the trigger design? Can they prove that there is no collaboration and no transfer of fissile material between the two countries? Unless we are prepared to be open and above board about our dealings with the United States in negotiations on the non- proliferation treaty, I do not see how we can expect other countries to assure us that they are not transferring information or trying to develop their own nuclear systems. It is fundamental that the Government can convince not only the House but the world that we have not been in breach of the non-proliferation treaty and that we will have no difficulty in signing up to future sections of it.

We must set out the details, for which my hon. Friend asked, of all the collaborations. What the British and United States Governments have been doing--and whether what they have been doing has been in any way a breach of the treaty--must be set out clearly in the record. I also suggest that the cost must also be set out clearly.

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I want to leave plenty of time for the Minister to respond to the debate, because the main complaint from Opposition Members is about the Government's unwillingness to put forward their case. I make a final plea for openness about the negotiations. The Government ought to be proud to tell us what they are doing. The Opposition may be critical--I certainly am--of the Government's approach, but the Government ought not to be ashamed of what they are doing if they believe in the nuclear deterrent. If they believe in it, they should be prepared to put it forward as a positive policy. They should tell us the benefits and the costs, and they should certainly be able to guarantee to the House that the agreement will not make the non-proliferation treaty more difficult to negotiate and will not lead to the world becoming a less safe place.

I shall certainly listen with considerable interest to what the Minister says, although I do not accept that that will be an adequate response in one of the key areas of Government policy. We ought to have a proper debate in Government time in which a Minister sets out what he claims to be the benefits of the agreement.

2.46 am

Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) on his ingenuity and persistence in obtaining this debate, which is important because it may be- -I hope that it will not be--the only opportunity that the House has to discuss the agreement. I cannot identify myself with everything that my hon. Friend said, not least because of his criticism of poor old Ponsonby, whose rules we are the victims of tonight. In his day, Ponsonby was a man after my hon. Friend's heart--and my heart--and he introduced the rules precisely to extend openness. If we find the rules restrictive this morning, it is because the need for open government has moved on since 1924. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) that it is quite unacceptable that the agreement should be debated at such an hour and in such circumstances. If we believe in openness in government, it must be necessary to have a proper debate in Government time with the full text of the agreement in front of us. That, of course, is what my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) has requested from the Government. We do not regard this debate as a substitute for that, nor do we regard it as fulfilling the terms of my hon. Friend's request to the Foreign Secretary, expressed in his letter of 13 December.

The debate focuses on one article of the agreement, although I welcome the fact that it has strayed more widely. We shall continue to press for a real debate. In doing so, we are not expressing our determination to object to the agreement or to its ratification in an amended form. That is a reasonable inference, although we cannot be sure, because of the obscurity with which the agreement has so far been treated, that the agreement has played an essential part in maintaining Britain's nuclear weapons system. We are insisting that there is an opportunity for scrutiny, and not one that is focused on or confined to article III of the agreement.

Although I have no means of knowing whether the explanation offered by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South is correct, it is worthy of note that there was a five-month delay between the agreement being reached and its being laid before Parliament. That

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may mean that the Government find themselves in difficulty; if so, it is, sadly, a problem of their making. Our desire for proper parliamentary scrutiny of the agreement cannot be constrained by difficulties of the Government's own making.

My hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham, South and for Denton and Reddish drew attention to the non-proliferation treaty; the conference on its extension will, I hope, take place next year. It is essential that we devise an extended non-proliferation regime that commands the means and the legitimacy for it to fulfil its objectives. Those objectives have been put on the record by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South, who reminded us of the full text of article VI of the treaty, which expresses the objective of nuclear disarmament. The Government and Opposition support that objective, as we do the treaty.

The division of the world into nuclear and non-nuclear weapons states, under the terms of the existing non-proliferation treaty, was only possible as a temporary expediency. The

business-as-usual-attitude towards its ratification is a slightly disturbing sign of what the Government's real attitude may be to that treaty. My hon. Friend for Nottingham, South is right that the agreement is open-ended, particularly its exchange of information clauses. It would be useful to be given a thorough explanation of why the treaty requires amendment and what circumstances led to the drafting of article II of the revised agreement. We have been told in a parliamentary answer that the terms of that article have been operating in practice for some time, but it is important to know the circumstances that led to that necessity.

My hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham, South and for Denton and Reddish asked some perfectly proper questions. For example, has the agreement allowed for the exchange of information about warhead design or the exchange of advice or information relevant to that design? Has information on trigger systems--on fusing and firing systems for nuclear weapons--been passed to us as a result of the agreement? It would be perfectly proper if it had, because it is covered by the terms of the agreement. It seems right and sensible at this juncture, as we are considering more openness about and verification of nuclear proliferation, that the Government should at least be clear about that exchange of information.

Under the terms of the agreement, both parties to it may have passed information arising out of weapons tests to each other. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South asked the perfectly fair question whether that is reconcilable with the test ban treaty. If it is, how much stronger would the Government's position be if they made that clear? It is in our national strategic interest that that point is made plain. If there is no difficulty in reconciling that agreement and the obligations entered into under the test ban treaty--that may be the case--it is in our national interests that that is made clear. That would strengthen the hand of our negotiators at the treaty conferences next year, which will deal with the extension of the test ban treaty and the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. My hon. Friends are right to draw attention to the terms of article I of the non- proliferation treaty, which used the word "indirectly". The agreement makes it clear that nuclear weapons "as such" and information about weapons "as such" cannot be exchanged under the terms

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of the agreement. Is there any possibility of a breach of the non-proliferation treaty because of "indirect" exchanges of information about or relating to nuclear weapons systems? If, since 1970, when the NPT obligations were entered into along with the agreement that runs side by side with them, there has been no problem of reconciliation, how much stronger our position would be in convincing the non-nuclear weapons states of our good intentions and in creating additional legitimacy for our negotiating positions if that could be demonstrated. By not having a debate to clarify these matters, we have a missed opportunity from the Government's point of view. It would be helpful to have an assurance tonight that no action will be taken under the agreement in future that would contradict the terms of the test ban treaty.

Article III is the basis of the important point to which my hon. Friends have drawn attention: was weapons grade plutonium handed to the United States under the terms of the agreement? It would be proper, within the terms of the agreement, if that had taken place. If there were such an exchange, unless the material was subject to the special exemption clause for civil use--that is provided for in the agreement--it must be presumed that the exchange was for the purposes of defence planning and military uses. Under the terms of the agreement, unless there is a special exemption for civil use, all other uses of article 3 bis must be presumed to be for defence and military uses.

The original terms of article V are as follows:

"Except . . . as may be agreed for civil uses, . . . the information communicated or exchanged, or the materials or equipment transferred, by either Party pursuant to this Agreement"

shall be used by the recipient party exclusively for

"the preparation or implementation of defense plans in the mutual interests of the two countries."

So the argument that exchanges may have been for civil uses is one of exception. The normal exchanges of information and material that are provided for under the agreement are and must be

"for the preparation or implementation of defence plans in the mutual interests of the two countries."

That is extremely important, and it is only right that my hon. Friends wish the Minister to take up the matter.

Amendments are proposed under the terms of the revised agreement. There is a slight but significant change in the wording that is provided for in the third article of the revised agreement. What is the purpose of the amended wording? Does it carry any significance? What is the need to distinguish between "arranging" for something and "providing" for something? We have become used to the terminology of "provision" in other areas of the Government's activities. Is it implied that the terms of the agreement as proposed to be revised would allow other parties than the Government performing the functions or exchanging the materials that are provided for in this part of the agreement?

It causes us concern that the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority was a party named in the agreement, and the Government, in making the agreement, were making the agreement on behalf of what was in 1958 the Atomic Energy Authority, and which has now become two Government organisations--British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. and the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority. It would be useful, if that curiously worded amendment is being tabled, to have some explanation of why that was necessary.

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Are the terms of the agreement, as proposed to be amended, capable of allowing for direct bilateral exchange between those agencies of the Government and the United States of America? Are the provisions of the agreement exercisable by British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. and by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority? What part might that play in any privatisation proposals for those agencies, and in the present format that those agencies now have? "Arrange for" rather than "provide" could imply a loosening of terms, precisely to allow companies and enterprises that are not part of the Government to exercise powers under the agreement. That is an important point, and the Government should clarify it.

We are moving, necessarily, to an era of greater openness in defence matters. Indeed, if we, the nuclear weapons states--Britain is one and, for some time, will remain one--do not exercise openness in our doings and dealings, we shall never convince the non-nuclear states to remain so. That is an argument that was made firmly by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish, and in that regard I associate myself equally strongly with his remarks.

The control of proliferation is at the heart of our own security needs and the existence of scrutiny and verification is essential, now that the technologies of war and peace are so similar. To debate those issues openly --to have a frank exchange on what is implied by the obscure terms of those agreements--is not only right in terms of parliamentary accountability but a necessity for our future security, and it is in our national strategic interest.

3.1 am

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. David Davis): I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) on obtaining the debate, if not on the time at which he obtained it--we would all sometimes like to debate in the daytime. It might be helpful to begin with several points of clarification for the benefit of the hon. Members for Nottingham, South, for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) and for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cousins). I fear that they are labouring under several

misapprehensions, with regard both to the nature of the 1958 Anglo-United States mutual defence agreement and to the procedures under which the 1994 amendment has been laid before the House, and under which it will, in due course, be ratified.

The hon. Gentlemen who raised the matter appear to allege that the Government have not followed the procedures by proceeding with ratification before the House has had a chance to debate the issues. I do not believe that that is so.

I begin by discussing the procedure by which the agreement has been laid before the House--the Ponsonby rule. I noted that the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central spoke favourably about Mr. Ponsonby. Hon. Members will be aware that the Ponsonby rule, which dates back to 1924, is a convention of the House and does not impose any legal obligation on the Government. The rule states--I quote from page 215 of the 21st edition of "Erskine May":

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"when a Treaty requires ratification, the Government does not usually proceed until a period of 21 days has elapsed from the date on which the text of the Treaty was laid before Parliament by Her Majesty's Command. This practice is subject to modification, if necessary, when urgent or other important considerations arise." There have certainly been occasions on which the Government have proceeded with ratification of an agreement before those 21 days have elapsed. For the agreement in question, the period of 21 days elapsed on 1 December, as I think that the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central noted.

Under the Ponsonby rule, there is no obligation on the Government to wait those 21 days, but, as we have done in this case, we would always seek to do so unless there were pressing reasons to the contrary.

Nor does the Ponsonby rule oblige the Government to hold a debate before a treaty is ratified. The procedure is obviously different when ratification of a treaty entails new UK legislation or the amendment of existing legislation. That is, of course, a different matter, but it does not apply here.

There has also been a suggestion that the 1958 agreement entails a financial obligation on the part of the UK, and therefore that the House is entitled to a debate before ratification. That is a red herring.

The Ponsonby rule does not refer to financial commitments; nor, and in this case more importantly, does the 1958 agreement entail any explicit financial commitment by the UK. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has been misinformed on both counts, and I shall elaborate. But to summarise this point, we could therefore have completed the ratification procedure already. As I have just said, we are not even obliged to wait for the 21 days.

Nevertheless, I can confirm that, out of respect for the House, we have deferred the exchange of notes which will constitute ratification until after the debate. I hope that the House will accept that the Government have behaved entirely properly in the matter.

I come now to the substance of the 1958 agreement.

Mr. Simpson: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Davis: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall not give way because I want to make an intricate argument. He made some complex points which I want to try to answer this evening. I come now to the substance of the 1958 United Kingdom-United States mutual defence agreement and the objections that the hon. Member for Nottingham, South has to it. He originally raised his objection to the ratification of the 1994 amendment during business questions on 1 December. He argued then that the House should have the opportunity to debate the amendment because, unless ratification were stopped, the Government would be committed to a bill of some £20 billion to the United States for the servicing, maintenance, operation and decommissioning costs of the Trident programme. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is misinformed on that point. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has since informed the hon. Gentleman, neither the 1958 mutual defence agreement nor the amendments now under consideration involved any financial commitment by the UK. Neither the agreement nor the amendments

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commit the UK to purchase any goods or services from the United States. It certainly is not an agreement that commits the UK to pay the operating costs of Trident.

The hon. Gentleman referred to a number of costs. As far as I am aware, the sort of costs that he talked about are mostly covered under the defence estimates votes as a different issue altogether. It might be of assistance to the House if I were to explain what the 1958 agreement is for and why we are renewing it. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for repeating in part what I am sure he will already know from reading the text of the amendments, Cm 2686, which was laid before the House on 21 October.

The background to the 1958 agreement is to be found in the United States Atomic Energy Act of 1946, the so-called McMahon Act, which prevented the United States from sharing atomic energy information with other states. Although a new Atomic Energy Act was passed in 1954, which permitted full exchanges of information on civil aspects of atomic energy and even limited exchanges on military uses, in order to facilitate a full nuclear relationship with the UK, the United States Administration considered it necessary to enter into a formal agreement for co-operation on the uses of atomic energy for mutual defence purposes, the so-called mutual defence agreement. In view of the United States Atomic Energy Act, which would otherwise limit severely the scope of our bilateral co-operation, the agreement has to have legal force in the United States. But the nature of the agreement is such that it does not require legislation for the UK; hence the procedure for ratification to which I already referred.

The amendments that have been laid before the House amend the one element of the agreement, article III bis, which requires regular renewal and adds a new paragraph to article VI.

If I may leave my text for a second, the hon. Gentleman referred to article II. Speaking from memory, that deals with the accounting arrangements that have been common practice in the past and are important in these days of nuclear smuggling. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman if I am wrong about that.

Article III bis concerns the two-way exchanges of special nuclear materials and other products. It requires periodic amendment to ensure its continuing relevance and validity.

The new paragraph F of article VI, which is set out in full in Cm 2686, includes strengthened obligations on both parties to follow adequate materials control and accountancy procedures in respect of nuclear materials transferred under the agreement. It also provides for consultation between the United Kingdom and the United States on these arrangements.

Both we and the United States already operate rigorous and effective materials control and accountancy arrangements, but we believe that it is correct that we should acknowledge explicitly the existence of those arrangements in the text of the agreement. Given the recent international concern about the need for rigorous materials control and accountancy procedures, I am sure that the House will welcome the explicit acknowledgement of our arrangements in the mutual defence agreement.

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I think that it is clear why the hon. Gentleman sought a debate on the amendments to the mutual defence agreement. His intention became apparent towards the end of his speech. He challenged the very existence of our nuclear deterrent programme and the basis of our bilateral co-operation on nuclear matters with the United States of America. The House will not be surprised to learn that we are not prepared to accept those challenges. We intend that Trident will provide a minimum strategic nuclear deterrent for the United Kingdom. Our strategic deterrent provides the ultimate guarantee of our national security and contributes to NATO's strategy of war prevention.

The hon. Gentleman said something in his speech that was, in fact, wrong. I am sure that he did not mean to mislead the House, so I shall correct what he said. He implied that there had been no reduction--indeed, he implied that there had been an increase--in the UK's level of nuclear capability during the past few years. The fact is that we have eliminated our maritime tactical nuclear capability, we have reduced the number of nuclear bombs carried by aircraft and announced that they will not be replaced when they are withdrawn from service, and we have decided that Trident will carry fewer warheads than originally envisaged--thereby keeping the available explosive power to a level similar to that which existed previously. The overall effect is to reduce the total explosive power available by about 25 per cent., which is quite a significant change.

The other matter raised by the hon. Gentleman related to our attitude to the comprehensive test ban treaty. We are committed to negotiating an effective, verifiable and affordable CTBT. The agreement does not inhibit that commitment. We believe that there are good prospects for achieving an effective treaty. I am afraid that I missed a very small part of the hon. Gentleman's comments, but I understand that he referred to the alternative, so-called non-testing methods of ensuring the viability of nuclear weapons. For as long as the United States moratorium on testing continues, we are committed to not doing any further tests of our own. We are looking at the non-testing systems.

Mr. Simpson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way on a point of clarification?

Mr. Davis: Yes, if it is a point of clarification.

Mr. Simpson: Is the Minister saying that the joint working group dealing with co-operation on computer modelling is no longer working? United States records list that group as being operative. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that it is now subject to the moratorium?

Mr. Davis: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall not be drawn into the detail of these matters. I shall consider his point after the debate and if I can give him an answer, I will. However, I cannot make an outright promise to do so.

It is now widely accepted--although perhaps not by the hon. Gentleman-- that, during the cold war, NATO's nuclear forces were essential in ensuring that major conflict never occurred. They removed any rational basis for an adversary believing that a war could be fought in Europe and won. So we should not think lightly of dismantling a stable and secure framework for maintaining peace. Risks and uncertainties still exist. We are forging new relationships with Russia and the other countries of the old Warsaw pact. That process will be

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helped by the stability provided by NATO's strategy for peace and security, including its minimum nuclear deterrent.

However, we cannot be sure that the positive trends that we have witnessed are irreversible. Other risks may develop. We cannot afford to wait for potential threats to become real before we respond, given the time lead and lag in such decisions. Our deterrent is, and will remain, operationally independent and under the absolute control of the British Government. We have undertaken that the system will be operated in defence of NATO, but have reserved the right to use it independently should supreme national interests so require. Therefore, we believe that our independent nuclear deterrent remains our ultimate guarantee of national security as well as a fundamental element of the defence of the alliance of which we are proud to be part. We will not accept that that should be put into question by a procedural objection to the agreement that forms the basis of our nuclear defence co-operation with the United States of America. I should emphasise that we are not alone in that perception. Our allies continue to reaffirm that European security and stability are enhanced by the continued possession of nuclear forces by the United Kingdom and France. I am sure that the House will wish to reflect on those fundamentals, and not on the misinformed and misguided attacks of the hon. Member for Nottingham, South on the mutual defence agreement.

Mr. Bennett: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It seems discourteous of the Minister, with 15 minutes of the debate left, not to allow interventions. It suggests that he is frightened to answer the questions. It is particularly discourteous that he has not answered all the questions that we raised about the non-proliferation treaty. I simply think that you ought to--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse): Order. The hon. Gentleman knows full well that that is not a point of order for the Chair. It is a matter for the Minister.

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3.16 am

Mr. David Shaw (Dover): I begin by thanking my colleague and friend the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Technology, whom I have known for many years. I feel that I should apologise for requiring him to be up at this late hour. I believe that this is one of the last debates that is likely to be heard in the House of Commons on the present basis.

The history of this august building in which we have the great privilege to work goes back some 900 years. It is interesting that we are about to debate what may take us forward to the next 100 years in a way that may transform lives in a way that probably no one in the past 900 years except those who have been alive in the past couple of decades might have fully comprehended.

The development of the Internet and the information super-highway is certainly an exciting development. On a scale of one to 10, many would certainly rate it a 10. It is probably a little short of that in terms of human development, but certainly an enormous change in our lives will result from the Internet and the information super-highway. Subject to any copyright restrictions of Hansard , I hope to be able to place a copy of this debate on the Internet in the next fortnight. I hope that will be seen and read by as many as 30 million people, instead of the small number of hon. Members in the Chamber now, at 3.15 am.

People who get carried away with Internet and become over-endowed with excitement are known as techies or techno nerds. They say Internet will make politicians obsolete. I hope that that will not happen. I do not subscribe to their vision of the future, which is that 40 million people or more will vote by electronic means, on television. We are a long way from that.

However, there will be enormous changes, and opportunities for people to express opinions and views. The Government's world wide web server on Internet allows the public to convey views and comments to the Government and Ministers.

I believe that I was the first Member of Parliament to subscribe to Internet, in April this year. I have found it an interesting experience, and I hope that those subscribers with whom I have corresponded have done so. I hope that those of my constituents who are also subscribers, particularly schoolchildren, will find the project of benefit and use.

It is incumbent on me to present a mini glossary of information super- highway terms. The language may be obscure now, but it will become common parlance in future--words and abbreviations such as bandwidth, megabytes, WWW, or world wide web, WAIS, or wide area internet search information service, ARCHIE, GOPHER, TCP/IP, FTP or file transfer protocol, e-mail-- electronic mail--and hypertext. The latter will become common terms when establishing a world wide web page.

The information super-highway offers enormous employment and business opportunities, and this country must take a lead even if Internet did not start and develop here. Internet is also an attractive means for pupils and students to learn, obtain information and exchange ideas. My four-year-old son spent part of the summer communicating with four-year-olds and older children in Colorado, Nebraska and California.

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