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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 24 July 2007

[Miss Anne Begg in the Chair]

Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Roy.]

9.30 am

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I welcome the opportunity to have this debate and hope that at the end of it the Government will give some good news on their future strategy towards non-proliferation. I congratulate the Minister on her appointment and welcome her to the debate.

On 14 March, the House voted on the Trident issue after a long debate. An unprecedented number of Labour Members voted against a renewal of the Trident nuclear submarine system. That reflected public opinion and the views of the large number of people who contacted MPs about the issue. Nuclear arms and proliferation is not a dead issue; it is very much a live one. I want to tease out the Government’s view on the non-proliferation treaty system and what their strategy is leading up to the next five-yearly review in 2010.

It is worth setting out some of the background to the non-proliferation treaty. It was envisaged in 1968 and was promoted by Ireland, among a number of other non-aligned countries, many of which had completely neutral foreign policies. I shall quote from the original documentation. The five declared nuclear weapon states, which were the United States, the Soviet Union, France, China and the United Kingdom, all eventually signed the treaty and agreed that nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices could

They agreed not to receive, manufacture or acquire nuclear weapons or to seek to receive any assistance in the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Some important statements were made and considering the treaty was signed in 1968 at the height of the cold war, it was a seminal document that countries had courage to sign up to.

The second pillar of the non-proliferation treaty was disarmament. The five declared nuclear weapon states were committed to a process of long-term disarmament. That is the heart of the issue: the five declared nuclear weapon states agreed that they would not provide the technology to enable the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the other countries who signed and who were not nuclear powers agreed not to adopt nuclear weapons in any way.

The third pillar of the treaty was the peaceful use of nuclear energy. I am completely opposed to nuclear power because it is dangerous and dangerously polluting, but it is not illegal under the terms of the NPT for a country to develop its own nuclear power industry. That is one of the issues that is at the heart of the current debate concerning relations with Iran.

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Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend and I have slightly different views on nuclear power, but not on nuclear weapons. It has effectively been proposed that there should be multilateral control of Iran’s ability to reprocess material for use in its nuclear industry. If that can apply to Iran, why cannot it apply to every other country, so that we develop the ability of individual countries to use materials, which could be used against the betterment of man, more positively?

Jeremy Corbyn: Indeed. Negotiations with Iran are based on Iran’s wish to develop its own nuclear power industry and on whether that is a precursor to developing nuclear weapons. Clearly, nuclear power and nuclear weapons are inextricably linked; it is impossible to have nuclear weapons without nuclear reactors and a nuclear power industry, but it does not follow that by having a nuclear power industry and nuclear power reactors we get nuclear weapons. I disagree with my hon. Friend on very few things, but we do disagree on that particular subject. However, I am sure that we completely agree on the issue of nuclear weapons, which is important.

I shall set out what has happened since the NPT was signed. It grew from quite small beginnings, but there is now an impressive list of countries who have signed the non-proliferation treaty. It almost reads—I stress almost—like a list of members of the UN. The list is formidable in every conceivable way and we should be proud and supportive of that. Over the years since the original NPT was signed, countries that have tried to develop nuclear weapons have subsequently renounced the use of nuclear weapons completely. I am thinking, for example, of South Africa, which under the apartheid regime and possibly with the assistance of Israel, tried to develop a nuclear weapons system. There are uncorroborated reports that South Africa may have tried to test such weapons and it was certainly attempting to develop a weapons system. It is to the eternal credit of the African National Congress Government and former President Nelson Mandela that South Africa completely renounced the development, use and consideration of nuclear weapons in any way. We should remember that as one of Nelson Mandela’s great contributions during his time as President. Argentina and Brazil also decided that they would not pursue any nuclear weapons options and a number of the former Soviet republics, particularly Ukraine, have done likewise. That has encouraged the development of nuclear-free zones around the world, particularly in Latin America. There is also an African nuclear-free zone and a developing central Asian nuclear-free zone.

Some countries have developed nuclear weapons and they are either not signatories to the NPT, have renounced the NPT, or never sought to sign the NPT in the first place. One such country is Israel, which it is reported has around 200 nuclear warheads. The reason that we know about Israel’s nuclear weapons programme is that Mordechai Vanunu bravely told the world about it, after which he was spirited out of Britain into Italy. After the revelations that he made to The Sunday Times, he was taken from Italy to Israel where he was tried at a military court. He then spent 18 years in prison as a result, 13 of which were in solitary confinement. When he was finally released from prison, he was put under restrictive powers by the Israeli courts and has now been sentenced to a further period of imprisonment for
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talking to foreign nationals while living utterly peacefully in Jerusalem. Indeed, I am one of the people whom he has met since he came out of prison. I hope that the Minister will indicate whether the Government continue to think that Mordechai Vanunu should be given complete freedom to travel and to lead a normal life.

Miss Anne Begg (in the Chair): Order. We may have to suspend the sitting because there is a problem with the sound. I am now informed that the sound is back on.

Jeremy Corbyn: It would indeed be a shocking business if there were an attempt to silence a debate on nuclear weapons.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): It’s not MI5 is it?

Jeremy Corbyn: My hon. Friend tempts me down the road of conspiracy theories.

Tragically, India and Pakistan have both developed nuclear weapons. Both have a delivery system and a testing capability and the nuclear stand-off between India and Pakistan in 2002 was one of the most serious threats to world peace since nuclear weapons were developed. I hope that India and Pakistan will eventually sign the non-proliferation treaty and undertake mutual nuclear disarmament because their weapons are designed as much to attack each other as anyone else. Obviously, I hope that that happens, but I must say that the existence of nuclear weapons in India and Pakistan is encouraged in part by the rewarding of nuclear technology to India by the United States, after President Bush’s recent visit. If we are serious about the non-proliferation treaty, countries that develop nuclear weapons should not be rewarded for doing so, but should be put under the utmost pressure to undertake nuclear disarmament.

Allegedly, North Korea has also developed nuclear weapons, around which there has been a great deal of publicity. Nuclear weapons were an aim of the North Korean regime, which has carried out a nuclear test, although there are doubts about whether it was a fully-fledged nuclear weapon. Clearly, however, North Korea had an aim and a wish to develop nuclear weapons, which is quite bizarre for a country racked by such poverty, economic difficulties and isolation. It must also be said, however, that the talks with North Korea undertaken very patiently by the six-party group have had a very interesting effect. Only last week, we saw the first delivery of fuel oil shipments to North Korea, in return for which it deactivated part of its nuclear development programme. North Korea is to be congratulated on that, and the rest of the world should use this opportunity to develop engagement rather than hostilities with North Korea, in order to encourage it down the path of disarmament. Surely, that would be a good way forward.

Lastly, I want to mention Iran, which, I suspect, will dominate much of the debate. Obviously, Iran is an oil-rich country and, at the moment, wishes to develop a nuclear power industry so that it has energy supplies for the future. That is its stated aim. I do not agree with nuclear power, but Iran is legally entitled to develop it.
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It is a signatory of the non-proliferation treaty and is now judged to be in breach of a supplementary protocol, which allows instant inspections of its facilities. As a result, sanctions have been applied and Iran is becoming increasingly isolated throughout the world. The rather bellicose language used particularly by the United States towards Iran is unfortunate and dangerous for the region as a whole.

Dr. Gibson: I share my hon. Friend’s abhorrence of nuclear weaponry and have no time for nuclear power, which, as he said, Iran is in the process of developing. Is it not incongruous that, under the aegis of the United States, the International Atomic Energy Agency has withdrawn from Iran technical co-operation on 55 fronts, which means that it has to turn to other countries for high-class technology and expertise, which might not be up to the standards that we are used to in the west? For example, if those involved in Chernobyl were to advise Iran, would we not have fears about their knowledge not being quite up to the mark? Someone once said of the control room at Chernobyl that it looked like someone had thrown dials into a bag and tossed it against a wall.

Jeremy Corbyn: My hon. Friend is far more of an expert on this subject than I am, and there is a great deal of merit in what he says. If a country develops nuclear power, but there is an accident or disaster, we all suffer. Nuclear fallout does not respect national boundaries. I can think back to debates in this House after the Chernobyl disaster, when a lot of people happily sat back and said, “Well, it is all the fault of Soviet technology”. The reality was that thousands of people were terminally affected by the fallout—not only those around the plant, but in Scandinavia and, indeed, this country, despite the fact that we are a very great distance from Chernobyl. That is the reality of a nuclear power system failure.

Therefore, if Iran is denied high-quality nuclear technology, and resorts to that which has far less certainty and safety, we are all at risk, not least the Iranian people and those in neighbouring countries. I urge the Minister, in her response, to tell us that the attitude taken—

Miss Anne Begg (in the Chair): Order. We have had a request from the sound person: the position where the hon. Gentleman is standing is creating a problem, so will he move to the next microphone? That should solve the problem.

Jeremy Corbyn: To the left or the right?

Miss Anne Begg (in the Chair): I leave that entirely up to the hon. Gentleman.

Jeremy Corbyn: I can assure the audience that this is a tactical move to the right only.

When the Minister replies, I hope that she will help us on the question of relations with Iran. During the hostage crisis earlier this year, I was quite relieved that the bellicose language used against Iran up until that point was toned down a great deal. In the end, diplomacy triumphed and there was no military stand-off. Surely, that must be the way forward, and I hope that she will tell us that the Government intend to engage with Iran,
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rather than continually attack and criticise it. I accept that there is much to criticise in Iran concerning human rights and political rights and developments, and it is correct that those criticisms be made, but to start a quasi-military or, ultimately, military conflict would be disastrous for the whole region, particularly given the horrors in neighbouring Iraq.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): The hon. Gentleman has secured a very important debate at a key time in our history. Actually, it is a historic debate on a very important question. Does he think that the question of Iran, and of the middle east generally, shows that the British Government and the Americans do not understand the political dynamics in those areas? Is he aware of comments made by the Iranian envoy to the IAEA, Mr. Ali Asghar Soltanieh? He said:

under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Does that not pose an important question?

Jeremy Corbyn: Indeed. I shall return to the NPT system in a few moments, but yes, that is an important point: we should abide by the NPT, if we expect others to do the same. The other point that the hon. Gentleman made concerning internal politics in Iran is an important one as well. We hear some incredibly simplistic reports of what goes on in Iran, and everything that the President says and the language that he uses is taken as the gospel according to the whole country. It simply is not like that. There are different power centres in Iran; the political President is one, but there are many others. We should try and understand a little bit more about the country. I commend to anyone interested in Iran Rageh Omaar’s films on the BBC about life and attitudes in Iran. It is a huge, proud and important country resting on the Persian tradition, and the simplistic remarks about and attacks made on it do no good at all; in fact, they do a great deal of harm. We should have some respect for the history and position of that country.

The purpose of this debate is to tease out the Government’s position on the development of a peaceful nuclear process. The Government are quite keen, apparently, on developing nuclear power stations. I am not! But in a sense that is a separate debate from the one surrounding nuclear weapons. However, the assertion that we have an independent nuclear deterrent has been questioned by many of us for many years, both in this House and in the wider peace movement in this country. I do not believe that we have an independent nuclear deterrent, but that it relies entirely on technology and information from the United States to be fired or used. In reality, we are a subdivision of the US when it comes to nuclear weapons. However, that does not stop us spending vast amounts of money on our existing nuclear weapons, the development of the Aldermaston facilities and the putative replacement of the Trident system, which could cost as much as £70 billion. That was one of the big issues—it was not the only one—in the debate on 14 March.

I hope that the Government will recognise that if we are serious about our signing of the NPT all those years ago, committing us to long-term nuclear disarmament, as well as committing all those declared non-nuclear-weapon states to not developing such weapons, it is up to us to
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use this historic opportunity to say that we will go no further with the Trident project and that instead we will accept the terms of the NPT.

I had the good fortune, because I am one of the national vice-chairs of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, to attend the NPT PrepCom—the preparatory committee meeting—in Vienna in April and early May this year, and I did so with great interest. I spoke at length with my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) at a seminar that was conducted in parallel to the conference and I listened very carefully to the statements made by the Russian delegation, the United States delegation, many other delegations, the European Union and the British representative who spoke at the same session.

Let me quote from the statement made by Ambassador John Duncan, the head of the UK delegation to the first preparatory committee. He said:

He went on to explain that the UK Parliament voted to support that decision. He said:

The next part was, to me, the most interesting. Ambassador Duncan said:

The interesting thing was that nobody, at that stage, had accused Britain or anybody else of being hypocritical; it was the ambassador who brought up the question of hypocrisy, which was somewhat surprising to us. He then fairly pointed out that Britain had reduced its number of nuclear warheads considerably.

I was interested in Ambassador Duncan’s statement and I was obviously pleased that he was at the committee and able to make the statement, but if he or, indeed, the delegation recognises that we are likely to be charged with hypocrisy, let us lance the boil and not go there. Let us say that we fully support all the principles of the NPT, which includes us not developing nuclear weapons or continuing with the replacement of Trident.

As I understand it, the 14 March vote was a vote in principle; it did not commit us to expenditure. I would be grateful if the Minister, when she replies to the debate, could explain exactly how much money has been spent on the development of a possible replacement for Trident and what is being invested now at Aldermaston in the development of further nuclear bomb-making facilities.

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Dr. Gibson: I do not know whether my hon. Friend was lucky enough to hear the speech by the previous Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), at the Carnegie foundation in Washington, in which, again, it was pointed out that nothing was for ever in terms of British foreign policy, warheads and so on, and that we are now moving to a state in which, independently, there is consideration of how far we can go and the fact that the deterrent effect may be different in different countries. So there was a chink of light from the previous Foreign Secretary, too. I just have this wonderful feeling that something is opening up and I am sorry that she lost her job.

Jeremy Corbyn: I have always known my hon. Friend to be a brilliant man, but he has read my mind on this occasion.

Mr. Drew: Or even the script.

Jeremy Corbyn: Not the script because there is no script—I cannot do scripts. I was indeed about to refer to the speech by the former Foreign Secretary to the Carnegie international non-proliferation conference on 25 June. In my view, it is a very interesting, very seminal speech and extremely well put. I shall quote a couple of extracts from it, because I think it important that the House understands what she said.

My right hon. Friend talked about the possibilities of long-term nuclear disarmament and quoted Kofi Annan. She went on to say that

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