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House of Commons

Monday 3 July 2000

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair8]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Missile Defence System

1. Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): What recent representations he has received on the proposed US national missile defence system and its effects on the UK. [127255]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): We have received a number of representations recently on the proposed US national missile defence system. The United States President has not yet decided whether to begin deployment of the proposed system. We would not expect a request for the use of facilities in the United Kingdom until after any such decision has been made. We have made it clear that we would consider such a request carefully in the light of circumstances at the time, including the implications for the defence of the UK.

Mr. Corbyn: May I ask the Secretary of State to cast his mind back to May, when the five declared nuclear

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powers--all of whom are permanent members of the Security Council--stated as their long-term aim the global elimination of nuclear weapons and total disarmament? Does he not think that the American proposal for a national missile defence system, with outlying stations based in the Pacific ocean and the UK, is not only an escalation of the danger of nuclear conflict, but flies in the face of the non-proliferation treaty? Instead of waiting for what President Clinton may or may not decide on Friday, on the basis of whatever tests are going forward, should we not say--here and now--that we shall have no part in any global extension of nuclear weapons or nuclear missile defence systems, but that we shall work wholeheartedly for worldwide nuclear disarmament? Does he not think that the proposed siting at Fylingdales in Yorkshire turns this country, once again, into a nuclear aircraft carrier for the US?

Mr. Hoon: No, he does not. My hon. Friend is getting rather ahead of events. As yet, there is no US proposal as such. The US has not taken a decision and has not made any formal request to the UK. In those circumstances, I do not need to answer his question about Fylingdales.

Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East): Is the right hon. Gentleman clear about the nature of the long-term threats that motivated the US Congress to pass its national missile defence Act? Does he consider that such threats might apply also to this country and to Europe? Is he aware that the technological and aerospace committee of the Western European Union, together with his hon. Friends the Members for Leigh (Mr. Cunliffe) and for Sunderland, North (Mr. Etherington) and myself, is visiting the US in two weeks' time precisely to investigate those issues and to report back to the Assembly?

Mr. Hoon: The UK recognises US concerns about the threat--specifically that posed in the short term by North Korea. That is why there is a differential reaction in Europe. Inevitably, North Korea could not threaten Europe in the short term. Our current assessment is that there is no significant threat to the UK from weapons of

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mass destruction. However, I must emphasise that we continue to monitor developments closely. Obviously, we must have regard to the protection of UK interests should such a threat emerge.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): Does the Secretary of State really believe that there is a serious threat to Seattle from North Korea, when North Korea has trouble with the missiles it has targeted on South Korea? At this time of rapprochement, does that not mean that what is going on is not a perceived threat, but the perceived greed of the American defence industry, which wants to make more profits from a new arms race which will impoverish the planet even more and put us in great danger? The Secretary of State said that he had received no formal approach from the US. What approaches has he received?

Mr. Hoon: I do not accept the way in which my hon. Friend puts his question. It is not for the UK to make assessments of the degree of threat perceived by the US, but there is a widespread recognition that North Korea is developing a capability that would undoubtedly pose a threat to the US. As for our position, it remains that we do not identify a current threat to the UK. However, it is important both that we monitor the situation and that we ensure that the UK's interests are properly protected.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): I have some sympathy for the Secretary of State--I hope that he will accept that remark in the spirit in which it was meant. On one side of him are the US Government and his own Ministry of Defence, who tell him that there is a serious threat and a need to show some leadership on the matter because of the threat from rogue states. On the other side are his own Foreign Office, led by the two CND supremos, his right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz), and the French Government who are utterly opposed to the proposal. Now we hear that most of his Back Benchers give him no support either. Do we not have the right to expect Her Majesty's Government to show some leadership in this matter--as they would traditionally have done--and to make up their minds? Instead of that, they twist and turn, leaving us with one simple policy, Mr. Micawber's view--they hope something will turn up.

Mr. Hoon: I anticipate that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) would take as a criticism the statement that he represented the majority of Labour Back Benchers. Let me make it clear that the Government continue to monitor carefully developments of the situation. As yet, there have been no specific or formal requests from the US. There is no division of opinion in the Government on our approach to such matters. It is vital that we should give support to the US, if necessary, while recognising--as the US has done--that it is for the international community to decide on these matters and to make its views known to the US before any decision is taken to deploy.

European Defence

2. Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South): What progress has been made since the Helsinki summit in improving European defence co-operation. [127256]

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The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The package of measures endorsed by EU leaders at the recent Feira summit marks further practical progress on the European defence policy. In particular, we have successfully taken forward the commitment to improving European capabilities made at Helsinki, and agreed proposals to develop a close European Union-NATO relationship which recognises the key role of European allies that are not members of the EU.

Ms Taylor: Is my right hon. Friend aware of the recent statements made by Strobe Talbott, a member of the Senate Defence Committee? He said that

Does my right hon. Friend, like me, also take comfort from the words of Lord Hurd of Westwell, a former Conservative Foreign Secretary? He said:

Will my right hon. Friend state once again in the House that the European security and defence identity does not threaten or undermine the relationships that we have with the United States and that it does not in any way, shape or form alter the fact, the operation or the continuance of NATO?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have great difficulty in understanding why the Opposition persist in decrying this development because any sensible commentator--my hon. Friend has mentioned some--undoubtedly recognises that strengthening the Europeans' contribution to NATO means that NATO itself will be stronger. I do not understand why Opposition Members have difficulty with that concept unless it has something to do with their knee-jerk opposition these days to anything to do with the European Union. In case it does, may I remind them of at least part of their policy? The European democrat group, of which the Conservative party is a member, has said:

Even the Conservative party does not seem quite sure what its policy is these days.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Can the Secretary of State give the House the assurance that any European defence identity will proceed on the basis of an intergovernmental and not a supranational legal basis?

Mr. Hoon: Yes, I can give that assurance. I assume that, as a former member of the European democrat group, the hon. Lady will approve of the policy that the Government have set out.

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