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24 July 2007 : Column 187WH—continued

She drew attention to the fact that START—the strategic arms reduction treaty—expires in 2009; there is not long to go. She said:

That was an interesting use of language. She went on to say:

Towards the end of the speech, my right hon. Friend said:

In the historical context, my right hon. Friend drew a parallel with people who have stood against impossible odds and achieved something. She cited the example of those who campaigned for the end of the slave trade and quoted William Wilberforce. She cited those who sought the millennium development goals to make poverty history in our society and in our world. Her words at that conference were prescient and important.

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Nuclear weapons were used once in anger—in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. They were mere fireworks compared with the weapons that are now available in the world. Every year on 6 August, Hiroshima day, we have commemorations around the world—I always attend the one in Tavistock square in London—and every year we have aged Japanese guests who come along, who are dying of cancers, as others are dying of cancers, as a result of weapons used more than 60 years ago that are mere fireworks compared with what is now available. Those people are living the legacy of the only use of nuclear weapons. Hiroshima and Nagasaki have dedicated themselves as cities of peace. We should pay tribute to Mayor Ito of Nagasaki, who was tragically murdered earlier this year. He campaigned for peace on behalf of his city.

We came very near to nuclear war in 1962 in the Cuban missile crisis. We came very near to nuclear war between India and Pakistan in 2002. Is it really conscionable that in the 21st century, with all the problems of poverty, hunger, malnutrition, the AIDS pandemic and the lack of sanitation around the world, we should be thinking of spending billions of pounds on developing weapons of mass destruction? Why do we not accept in its totality the NPT that came into force in 1970, the reasons that we signed it and what it commits us to? Why do we not say that our intention, our purpose, is to bring about long-term nuclear disarmament and start by setting an example by saying that this country will not proceed any further with the development of a new generation of nuclear weapons? We could use that to encourage others.

The six-party talks have shown, in the case of North Korea, that it is possible to make progress. There are many people in this Room who would recognise that it is quite possible and, indeed, probable that progress will be made with Iran. If, however, we decide to go ahead with the new generation of nuclear weapons and the US, Russia, France and China do the same, who on earth are we to go to the NPT review conference in 2010 and proceed to lecture people in the rest of the world about why they should not develop nuclear weapons?

This, essentially, is a moral quest with a moral purpose. Millions out there would like to see a better world, as do many in here, and we do not believe that nuclear weapons bring about peace, justice or security. Instead, they bring about danger, the possibility of proliferation and, by their very manufacture and existence, the danger of pollution. The NPT was a seminal treaty, which was promoted by countries that did not have nuclear weapons, did not want them and did not want anybody else to have them. Although the PrepCom meeting in Vienna eventually concluded with a degree of harmony and good purpose, there is no guarantee that the review conference in 2010 will achieve the same, unless the UK, as one of the five declared nuclear weapon states, does all that it can to develop the process of nuclear disarmament. That is why I called for this debate, and I look forward to the contributions of others and to the Minister’s reply. This is an issue for our time; it is one that will allow us to make a real contribution and bring about a more peaceful world.

10 am

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): In politics, timing is everything, so why on earth would Britain broadcast the message this year that it is time to ramp up the
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nuclear weapons race? The Government have shown to our cost that, as I said earlier, they simply do not understand the dynamics of politics in the middle east and North Korea or the evolving terrorist threats. The awesome destructive power of nuclear weapons makes any decision that the Government take a historic one for this country and the world. We have the opportunity to set an example—good or bad—but I am afraid that Parliament has not truly debated or consulted on that decision in the wide manner that its importance demands.

Britain had a unique opportunity, as the bishops’ conference put it, to jump start


The question is whether we should trust the Prime Minister or have a proper, full debate on such a historic decision, rather than just pushing it through, with the Whips driving MPs through the voting Lobbies. All MPs worth their vote want eventual nuclear disarmament, which is our legal responsibility under the NPT. We signed up to that and we should follow through or explain why we will not. The answer to the question whether we should have a proper debate is, of course, a no-brainer, but MPs on both sides of the House were railroaded when the issue was discussed this spring.

Of course, the Government have a grave duty to maintain security, but the burning question is whether their, and indeed the Opposition’s, strident push for even more destructive nuclear weapons platforms and capabilities would provide that security or facilitate less stable countries—some with desperate and dangerous leaders—in taking up the nuclear option. Do such weapons defend us against the evolving, asymmetric threats of terrorism? Mutually assured destruction—MAD—simply does not work as a deterrent against terrorist threats; we can ask any suicide bomber that and we will get a very clear answer.

We have seen a litany of disastrous weapons and major systems procurement decisions in the past decade, and overstretch in the conventional forces is certainly no illusion. Some MPs could therefore be forgiven for thinking that spending money on proven conventional forces would be a lot more effective way of creating a safer world and a safer Britain. The point, however, is that society needs to have a comprehensive debate, and it has not yet had one. Tony Blair said that the cost was about £20 billion over the relevant period, so pundits watching the issue would not be surprised if the cost escalated to £40 billion, given what we all know about cost estimates for major weapons, platforms and systems.

As I said, we could spend some of that money on conventional arms. We could also spend it on tackling climate change to help save the planet from certain and serious damage. Equally, we could spend it on international development to remove some of the inequalities around the world, which drive terrorism in the first place. Trident also raises key domestic questions, and there are serious domestic calls on the money involved—the health service, education and tackling law and order spring readily to mind.

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MPs really can make a difference; we all know that, which is why we come here. However, we need the courage to put our country first, to put people before politics and occasionally to ignore the party Whips and do what we think is right so that we can force the Government to make good decisions, particularly when the matter is so historically important. I made a mistake believing and following the Government on Iraq, but I will not make that mistake so easily again.

Let me make it clear, however, that I am not advocating nuclear disarmament now, unlike the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), who made an excellent speech. I am not a disarmer by nature and I believe in strong defences. I am arguing that now is not the right time to make a decision; in fact, it is totally the wrong time. A decision is not necessary technically and the systems can be extended beyond 2020, when, if we want to look at a nuclear option for the future, there will be new, cheaper and more effective technologies that can be better targeted. There are also better ways to spend the money right now. We as MPs can send a historic message to the rest of the world and really make a difference if we have the courage to do what is right.

10.7 am

Mr. Dai Davies (Blaenau Gwent) (Ind): I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) not only on his speech but on the campaign that he has supported for many years to keep Trident and nuclear weapons on the political agenda.

My constituency boasts Michael Foot and Llew Smith as my predecessors, and they were unilateralists, who campaigned for unilateral nuclear disarmament for many years. I was a multilateralist until relatively recently, but what changed my mind primarily—other than the campaigns by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament—was the reduction of nuclear weapons across the world, including in Britain, Russia and America, as well as the existence of parts of the world without nuclear weapons. Now seems to be the time to take the next step.

The issue of a free vote has been mentioned. As an independent MP, I believe that the most important point is that all hon. Members must go out into their constituencies and listen to their constituents. Then, I would urge the Government to bring the issue back to Parliament and to give Parliament a free vote.

Many things have been said about Trident, nuclear power and nuclear weapons in the past months, including during election campaigns for deputy party leaders. Many Ministers have indicated that there should perhaps be a rethink, and they should be listened to. The most important thing is that we lead as a country to show that there is another way. We must use the disarming of Trident as a negotiating point with countries such as Iran to persuade them that disarmament is the right thing to do.

The Government held a debate that took a matter of hours, but this issue needs debating over a long time. CND has said that the move to renew does not have to be taken for six, seven, 10 and maybe 15 years, so let us have a debate. Let us not fail to talk about this issue for the sake of a matter of months.

The safeguard that nuclear weapons give is a false one. I have written many questions to Ministers asking under what conditions this country would use nuclear
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weapons, and only two answers have come back. The first is, “It is only a deterrent,” but if that is the case, what is the point? The second is, “We’d only use it as a retaliatory measure.” I am sorry, but it gives my constituents no pleasure to think that if 300,000 people were killed by a nuclear strike in this country we would feel better if we killed another 300,000 in another country. That, to me, is no reason for using nuclear weapons.

A point has been made about cost. Estimates from £20 billion to £100 billion have been made—unimaginable, unreachable sums of money. We talk about postcode lotteries for health service care, including cancer treatments. Flood defences, which are in the news at the moment, are among the things that the money could be much better spent on. I urge the Minister and the Government, and all hon. Members, to push for the Trident debate to come back to Parliament at the earliest opportunity, and to make sure that there is a free vote so that our consciences can lead the way.

10.10 am

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on bringing the issue back to the House for debate, and particularly on the questions that he has posed for the Minister to answer. I hope that the Minister, whom I congratulate on her new post, will take up and answer some of the questions that have been put. We appreciate that perhaps subtle but important changes have occurred in the Government in the past few weeks; perhaps we shall receive answers to some of the questions that were not answered in the previous debate in the House.

A question that Members of Parliament are often asked is why they got involved in politics. Two issues in particular provoked me as a young child. One was the famine of 1962 or 1963 in India, and the second was the Cuban missiles crisis. In one case I could not understand how we in the west could be so rich and not help; in the second I could not understand how we in the west could be so mad that our system of defence was, as mentioned earlier, based on the principle of mutually assured destruction. I began to question at an early age the purpose of and need for nuclear weapons. It struck me that there was no moral argument for them. They were just a reaction—a fearful reaction—to the other side.

The politics that brought about the nuclear arsenals that were built up in the 1950s and 1960s has changed. However, the thinking of some of today’s politicians does not appear to have moved on. I think in particular of one Conservative defence spokesman whose argument for maintaining the nuclear deterrent seemed to be that in the early 1980s it was good for hitting the left with, and was popular with voters; it was a policy that should be continued because he was convinced of its popularity with voters. That is virtually verbatim what he said—but I hasten to add that it was not the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), who will probably give us a slightly modified view. It struck me as a rather bizarre argument. Part of the difficulty is that many of the arguments for maintaining nuclear weapons are bizarre.

In relation to the current debate, Gorbachev said:

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That is an argument that we agree with. If hon. Members do not agree with or want to believe that source, they can always listen to Kofi Annan, who said:

That is the argument that the Liberal Democrats have put, and the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) put a similar one. There is no need at this point for the House to have taken its decision to replace our nuclear deterrent.

The Liberal Democrats accept, in the current environment, that there is still the need for a minimum nuclear deterrent, but they also recognise what was particularly highlighted by the hon. Member for Islington, North—that we have legal obligations under the nuclear proliferation treaty to move forward to nuclear disarmament. Even the Government’s own documents have cited the need for nuclear disarmament, although that seems to be contradicted by their actions and other statements.

I want to return to previous debates and some questions that were put to the former Prime Minister. In December he said that under article VI of the NPT

He also stated:

He indicated that the deterrent is best achieved by co-operation with other states. Perhaps the Minister could explain how, in advance of 2010, the Government intend to promote effective and committed co-operation with their NPT partners.

In December the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), who is the Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, asked the then Prime Minister to

The Prime Minister refused to confirm that. He talked of unilateral disarmament, but not of the need to make renewed efforts on the international stage. Will the Minister advise us of the efforts that the present Government intend to make to promote the NPT, and what negotiations they will enter into with other countries, to bring that about?

We accept that there are difficulties over international peace; there are concerns about Iran’s intentions and about North Korea and its intentions. However, we must ask what is the best way forward. Is it to say that we will go ahead willy-nilly with the replacement of the Trident system? Is it not better to be more thoughtful and send out a message that we believe that we still have the right to a minimum nuclear deterrent, but that we recognise that we have obligations under the NPT which require us to try to move forward with multilateral
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disarmament, and which we will honour by making a commitment to reduce our nuclear defence capacity by 50 per cent., with a view to obtaining further negotiations with the other relevant countries and creating a situation in which Iran can be engaged in a non-proliferation treaty and North Korea can feel assured that there is movement towards that? We could then move on to consider other countries that have developed nuclear weapons, and what can be done to reduce the absolute risk of a nuclear conflict.

We should not doubt that such a conflict is a possibility. In the conflict between Pakistan and India a year or so ago, both those countries came perilously close to a nuclear exchange. That would have been a disaster.

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