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6.24 pm

Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk): I congratulate the Select Committee on producing such a well-rounded report that gets to the heart of this important issue. The report left no stone unturned; it looked comprehensively into the threat posed by the proliferation of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and at the ways in which that threat could be countered; it looked into the major treaties and conventions, controls and agreements; and it looked into some new initiatives that are meant to counter the threat.

Hon. Members will inevitably have different views on aspects of the report. I recognise the refreshing honesty of the hon. Members for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) and for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson), and the genuinely held views of the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge).

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No one can doubt the thoroughness with which the Select Committee approached these complex subjects. I therefore warmly applaud its work and especially that of its distinguished Chairman, the right hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson).

The speeches this afternoon have been universally thoughtful and reflect original thinking. We agree with many of the Committee's recommendations--for example, on the need to play an active role in international efforts to curb the proliferation of small arms. However, in the short time available I should like to focus my remarks on the broad issues of weapons proliferation and ballistic missile defence, especially in view of recent important developments--most notably, the new Administration in Washington.

Such a debate is not new. More than a decade ago, when talking about the need to counter the emerging threat of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them, former United States Senator Sam Nunn said:

So what are the facts? The Select Committee notes scepticism in some quarters about the extent of the threat posed by the possible acquisition of weapons of mass destruction by so-called rogue states.

Overall, I agree with the view of the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) that the threat of global nuclear war is now smaller than in the past. I certainly recognise that various treaties have played an important role in that, as the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) said. Nevertheless, it remains the case that the United States Defence Department has estimated that at least 30 countries now possess, or are in the process of acquiring and developing, capabilities to inflict mass casualties and destruction, using nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, or the means to deliver them.

The Select Committee notes some of the possible threats. Despite improvements on the Korean peninsula, to which the right hon. Member for Swansea, East referred, and irrespective of whether we label North Korea a rogue state or merely a state of concern, it is believed that the country has been building and selling long-range missiles, has chemical and biological warfare capabilities and may have diverted fissile material from nuclear weaponry.

Iran, with foreign assistance, is buying and developing longer-range missiles, already has chemical weapons and is seeking nuclear and biological capabilities. This week, Russia and Iran signed their first co-operation pact since the 1979 revolution in Iran. Does the Minister share the concern that that may open a door to Iran's acquiring advanced conventional weapons and sensitive military technology?

Mr. Savidge: Many hon. Members are anxious about the very fact that Russia and Iran are having those discussions, perhaps as a response to their concerns about

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national missile defence. That is why many of us are worried that NMD may increase proliferation, rather than reduce it.

Mr. Spring: I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, which he also made in his speech, but I disagree with him, and I shall address the issue in a moment.

Iraq, which had developed chemical and biological weapons and associated delivery means and was close to having a nuclear capability before the 1991 Gulf war, may have reconstituted those efforts since the departure of the United Nations inspectors from Iraq in late 1998. On 25 February, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported Iraq's success in systematically cheating international controls to build up an arsenal of chemical weapons and a missile capability that could hit targets in Europe.

I shall echo the extremely clear and articulate theme taken up by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) and say that also looming on the horizon is the prospect that such terror weapons will increasingly find their way into the hands of individuals and groups of fanatical terrorists or self-proclaimed apocalyptic prophets. The followers of bin Laden have, in fact, already been trained with toxic chemicals.

Regrettably, it is all too clear that a nation that wants to develop ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction can now obtain extensive technical assistance from outside sources. So, despite our counter-proliferation policies, our efforts have merely slowed, not stopped, such proliferation. When the anti-ballistic missile treaty was signed in 1972, only nine nations had a ballistic missile capability. Today, almost 30 years later, more than 30 nations have such a capability. The post-cold war environment has proved more open to proliferation activities.

Indeed, the Prime Minister has described nuclear proliferation as

and said that

The historical perspective and the dangers were well illustrated by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis).

What is the Government's answer to the problem? The Foreign Affairs Committee states:

That position is worth noting, but the other two positions are a great deal clearer. In Europe, as hon. Members have rightly observed, there is strong opposition to current US thinking on ballistic defence, notably on some of the grounds that we have heard in the debate--such as the alleged contravention of the ABM treaty. Indeed, some Ministers--notably the former Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, now the Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe, and perhaps even the Foreign Secretary--share such views. However, do they really believe that missile defences present a bigger threat to world peace than despotic states armed with weapons of mass destruction? The US position is also clear. Since the Select Committee wrote its report, the change of Administration in the US has led to an even firmer stance in favour of missile defence.

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Ballistic missile defence--global missile defence as opposed to national missile defence--has significant potential advantages for Britain. It would provide protection for the UK civilian population from the growing dangers posed by missile proliferation, thereby providing insurance against the failure of our nuclear and conventional deterrents. It would provide protection for UK expeditionary forces in a much-changed security landscape and it would provide a similar assurance to our American ally. If Europeans wish the US to be committed to international engagement, it is in Europe's interest for America to feel secure. Ballistic missile defence could also provide the most promising element in a new approach to arms control.

Dr. Starkey: Will the hon. Gentleman pursue the logic of one of his points? Was he suggesting that, in the hypothetical case in which British troops are operating abroad and are threatened by a non-nuclear power, he would use our nuclear weapons against that state?

Mr. Spring: The whole point of having a deterrent is to deter. We have a global role and we wish to have the capability to back that up directly and indirectly. That is the point that I am making.

On this issue, I part company with the Select Committee's conclusions. Britain should seize the opportunity to influence US thinking and should do so in Britain's interests. However, the current UK Government remain attached to keeping quiet for fear of upsetting one faction or another within their own political party. Therefore, there has been no proper response to the dangers posed by the proliferation of missiles and weapons of mass destruction other than the promise to intensify the diplomatic means that have already proved inadequate.

The Government claim that they do not need to take a decision because the type of system that the White House wants still has to be decided. However, the issue is not the type of system but the principle of missile defence, on which the US is firmly decided. What is needed is a firm statement of support for this principle, and I hope very much that the Minister will provide that today.

The Foreign Secretary was reported as saying in The Daily Telegraph on 5 February:

ballistic missile defence--

He was wrong. The developments that potentially threaten US security could also threaten UK security. It is for Britain to determine whether ballistic missile defence can enhance our security. It is irresponsible to continue to ignore the opportunity to shape and influence such a crucial debate. A programme will probably be developed, on which British lives and interests may come to depend. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) observed in a thoughtful contribution, we are not required to pick up the bill for all development work at this stage.

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Conservatives have made it clear that we will take a lead in building support in Europe for co-operating with the United States on the development of ballistic missile defences.

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