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Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is also important that the Government pressurise other countries to sign the NPT, including Israel, which has nuclear weapons but has so far refused even to admit to ownership of them, never mind signing the treaty?

Dr. Strang: My hon. Friend makes a fair and valid point. We want all Governments to sign up to the treaty, and having done so to live up to the spirit and letter of it. I take his point absolutely.

I am sure that the Minister is as disappointed as I am, and indeed the whole world is, about the failure to make progress at the millennium summit. The question is: where do we go from here? For most of my life, the dominant international reality was the existence of the cold war. I well remember the build-up of nuclear weapons by the Warsaw pact and NATO. I am just old enough to remember—I was a student at the time—the genuine fear that permeated the people of this country during the Cuban missile crisis. We were very conscious of the continued, remorseless build-up of nuclear weapons on both sides. I remember the deep concern aroused by the deployment of intermediate range nuclear weapons in Europe—the Soviet SS20s and the US Cruise missiles. There was a very real risk that nuclear weapons would be used, starting with the intermediate range nuclear weapons and escalating quickly to the massive intercontinental ballistic missiles. Civilisation as we knew it would have been annihilated. Thankfully, those days are well behind us.

The years in which we live now arguably provide a window, when we should be able to make genuine progress to avoid nuclear proliferation, to reduce nuclear stockpiles and the number of countries with nuclear weapons, and, ultimately, to abolish nuclear weapons. In that context, the events of the past few months are deeply regrettable. If the world's leaders do not effectively grasp the issue and make genuine progress, a future generation, if not this one, could pay a heavy price.

7.49 pm

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) on securing the debate. Before addressing the specific issues that he raised, I thank him for highlighting the continuing value of the non-proliferation and disarmament regime. His excellent analysis shows why the non-proliferation treaty continues to be the cornerstone of United Kingdom counter-proliferation policy. He also demonstrated the regime's overall success in averting the future that President Kennedy envisaged in 1963. I, too, remember the Cuban crisis. I remember thinking that it was not fair—I had just got into my stride and Aberdare was about to be obliterated. It was not a promising scenario.
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As my right hon. Friend reminded us, it is an important moment to reflect on the significance of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Iran is restarting its nuclear conversion programme, with the threat of restarting the nuclear enrichment programme. There can be only one reason for that. It has nothing to do with civil nuclear power and everything to do with creating a nuclear bomb. As my right hon. Friend said, there are already enough of those around without adding to the number of nations that possess those lethal weapons.

That said, the non-proliferation and disarmament regime continues to face genuine and pressing challenges. In response, the Government have consistently sought to work with our international partners to strengthen all three pillars of the treaty. In 2005, the highest-profile, but by no means the only forum for pursuing that effort was the review conference in May. As my right hon. Friend knows, it was thrown off course by procedural wrangling, and, as a result, there was no agreement on substance. As he hinted, a small group of countries at the review conference—the revcon, as it is known—seemed determined from the outset to ensure that was the case. In a multilateral format, which relies on consensus, the tactic can win the day even when the majority of states present seek to achieve genuine advances. That was the case in New York in May.

Jeremy Corbyn: I know that the Minister has had a tiring day, so I am grateful to him for giving way. Does not he agree that it would greatly help the non-proliferation cause if Britain did not announce the redevelopment of the Trident submarine system or some replacement for it, but said that we adhered to the NPT and the goal of eventual nuclear disarmament by all states?

Dr. Howells: My hon. Friend has been in this place long enough to know that I will not answer that one.

Jeremy Corbyn: Come on.

Dr. Howells: I say to him that the Government take the question seriously. Considering what we should do about the continuation and possession of a nuclear deterrent is a serious matter, which we shall tackle seriously. However, in this evening's debate, I should like to try to answer some of the questions posed by my right hon. Friend.

My right hon. Friend asked whether the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr. Kofi Annan, had edited or altered the form of words that might originally have been agreed for his speech. I am informed that the language of the treaty had been clear for some days, if not weeks, before Kofi Annan made his speech. It was Mr. Kofi Annan, no one else, who altered his speech, and there were no indications that he was under any pressure to do so. As far as I know, that is a very authoritative account of the procedure that occurred at that time, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will accept it. I have met Mr. Annan on several occasions, and he is certainly not someone who can easily be swayed when it comes to saying what he intends to say. He is a fine diplomat who is known for his integrity.

While the review conference did not conclude with a substantive final document, there is general agreement
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that there was a lot of good, detailed discussion of ways in which the treaty could be strengthened. We hope that these ideas will be taken up actively in other forums. I take my right hon. Friend's point about the hopes that we had for the millennium summit as the most important of those forums, and I understand his disappointment with the review conference that preceded it and with the failure to agree a form of words.

However, I am trying to answer my right hon. Friend's most important question, which is: where do we go from here? I would say to him that we must use whatever forum is available to take forward this hugely important problem. He told us that no single problem was more important than this one, and I am sure that we would all agree. How can we imagine a world in which people were trying to live after a nuclear holocaust? There would not be one. This is a problem that we have lived with all our lives, and I want my right hon. Friend to know that we intend to try to strengthen the nuclear non-proliferation treaty in whatever way we can, using whatever venue we can to pursue that aim.

There were proposals at the review conference on measures to discourage withdrawal from the treaty. These drew widespread support, including from the European Union. The EU also played its part in setting out a progressive non-proliferation agenda through its agreement on and promotion of a forward-leaning common position on the non-proliferation treaty.

Although our primary focus from a disarmament and non-proliferation perspective this year was, rightly, the NPT review conference, the disappointing outcome gave us added incentive to make strenuous efforts to remedy this at the UN world summit in September. That was why my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary agreed to take part in the initiative, promoted by his then Norwegian colleague, designed to generate broad support for a forward-looking non-proliferation agenda.

Indeed, in the second week of the UN conference, I attended a meeting of the Norwegian group, and a great deal of passion was generated in the attempts of all the countries represented there to break through the dam of unwillingness to make progress on the language of the non-proliferation statement. I agree with my right hon. Friend that it was a great shame that we were unable to make progress there, despite the strength of that group. During our presidency of the European Union, we have also worked hard to secure European support for strong and meaningful commitments on non-proliferation and disarmament.

Although it was again disappointing that the summit was unable to agree on commitments to disarmament and non-proliferation, I cannot entirely concur with my right hon. Friend's assessment that the summit was therefore a failure. The Norwegian initiative, in which we participated, obtained the support of more than 80 countries—more than was achieved by any other means. So I hope that my right hon. Friend does not feel entirely gloomy about this. There is a great feeling that we can take this issue forward. He will know, as I do, that there is a great deal of work to be done, especially with the non-aligned members, some of whom were very intransigent on the question of the language. There is room there to celebrate success for the cause of nuclear non-proliferation.
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As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has commented, if the reforms and commitments agreed at the summit are fully implemented, it will represent a major advance for the UN and the international community. The lack of an outcome on non-proliferation, regrettable though it is, should not detract from those real gains. Achieving full agreement on all the reforms put forward was always going to be very difficult. Rather than posturing getting in the way of results, that reflected the ambitious agenda and divergence of views between UN member states on many issues. The UK, in our presidency of the EU, worked to achieve the most extensive set of reforms possible, and we will continue to do so. Sadly, however, despite hard work by the UK in both its national and EU presidency capacities, pre-summit negotiations on non-proliferation issues proved very difficult.

As my right hon. Friend said, that outcome was certainly a disappointment. But we should not be misled into believing that it heralds the collapse of the NPT—I do not believe that my right hon. Friend believes that, and I certainly do not. Nor does it mean the collapse of the non-proliferation regime more widely. We believe that the challenges to the regime have served to bolster support for it rather than to undermine it. We share that commitment with the overwhelming majority of states and we will continue to use all available international forums to build consensus to strengthen the regime.

My right hon. Friend drew our attention to a number of valuable initiatives in this regard, many of which the UK wholeheartedly supports. For example, we are taking every opportunity to encourage all states to adopt the International Atomic Energy Agency's additional protocol, and are actively working with others to formulate appropriate incentives for countries to forgo fuel cycle facilities. Both have formed part of the activity of the G8 during the United Kingdom's presidency. While we fully recognise the right of states that are in compliance with their obligations under the NPT to use and benefit from nuclear technology, as set out in article 4, it is clear that the nuclear fuel cycle presents particularly acute proliferation risks, which is why we have been promoting controls on the transfer of sensitive technology to be implemented in an objective and non-discriminatory manner.

There are some very interesting proposals for fuel supply assurances, to establish either "real" or "virtual" banks of nuclear fuel, with some element of international involvement. I know that my right hon. Friend is very interested in some of those possibilities. It is far from straightforward, however, as one can see from the fact that Governments and experts have been trying to find a solution to this for some years. A number of complicated technical and political issues remain to be resolved, but I believe that there is now increasing international political will to reach an agreement on the way forward.

The IAEA general conference last month demonstrated a particularly good spirit of co-operation and determination among states to strengthen non-proliferation and address other issues such as the peaceful use of nuclear technology. Those are very important building blocks. The UN First Committee, which is currently in session, the UN Security Council
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resolution 1540 committee and the G8 global partnership are all forums in which we are actively participating. I hope that my right hon. Friend will allow me to reassure him sincerely—
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The motion having been made after Seven o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

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