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24 July 2007 : Column 193WH—continued

10.19 am

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing the debate. He has long had an utterly consistent approach to these matters, and it will not surprise him that he and I disagree on one or two significant points. He has kept his CND badge polished and on public display even in recent years when it has become somewhat unfashionable among leading members of his party to advertise one’s previous membership of that organisation. He is right to point out the importance of this topic.

The non-proliferation treaty represented a bargain in which the non-nuclear states agreed not to acquire nuclear weapons, and to put their civil nuclear programmes under international safeguards. The nuclear states agreed to take action to prevent proliferation, to pursue disarmament negotiations, under article VI, and to allow the easy dissemination of civil nuclear technology. Any assessment of the NPT has to take all sides of that bargain into account.

I do not agree with the hon. Member for Islington, North that the UK should give up its nuclear deterrent. Neither do I agree that there is a comfortable way out of taking the difficult decision whether to renew Trident by postponing it. The Minister will have chapter and verse, but my clear memory of our debate earlier this Session on the renewal of Trident is that all the expert advice from defence chiefs and others was that the lead-in time for the development of a renewed Trident system meant that the decision had to be taken this Parliament if we were to be in a position to renew the deterrent when the current Trident system is likely to become obsolete. For those reasons, I differ from both the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross), and my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink).

It is a pity that earlier speakers did not mention that the UK has reduced its nuclear arsenal by 70 per cent. since the end of the cold war, or that we are the only one of the original five nuclear powers to have limited ourselves to a single delivery system. The US, Russia, China and France have maintained more than one such system.

Bob Spink: Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that we have not become less secure as a result of reducing our nuclear weaponry and launch systems? Does he not, therefore, see any illogicality in his argument? The Opposition have a debate in the main Chamber this
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afternoon on reducing global poverty; does he not think that some of the £20 billion that we are to spend on ramping up our nuclear systems would be better spent on reducing global poverty, as it is global poverty and inequality that are driving terrorist growth?

Mr. Lidington: The growth of terrorism derives from several factors. My hon. Friend might be right to attribute it, in part, to global poverty, and I do not seek to deny the importance of taking national and international action to address that. He knows that our right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition is in Africa this week, highlighting the importance of international development and our party’s commitment to acting to improve the lot of people in the poorest countries. However, any responsible Government, and any party aspiring to government in this country, have to keep at the forefront of their mind their prime duty of looking after the security of the UK population, both nationally and internationally. I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the remarks of the Bishop of Rochester a few months ago, when he acknowledged that the

He also acknowledged that that money could be spent on

but concluded that

Jeremy Corbyn: I hesitate to disagree with a bishop, but something has to be said here. Is not the argument that he has put, which the hon. Gentleman is also putting, one for every country in the world to develop nuclear weapons? Are we made more secure by having nuclear weapons? Is Sweden made more secure by not having them? Surely that is the question that has to be answered.

Mr. Lidington: The problem with the hon. Gentleman’s case is that he sidesteps the fact that the NPT acknowledged that some states were in possession of nuclear weapons, and sought to create a framework under which those states could combat proliferation and work, over time—no deadline was specified in article VI—to reduce their nuclear arsenals and the threat of nuclear war. The treaty also acknowledged that other states did not possess nuclear weapons. All signatories undertook duties to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, but the treaty accepted the reality that they were possessed by existing nuclear states and sought to stabilise that position. I have heard no persuasive argument that the UK’s unilateral disarmament would discourage nuclear proliferation by others. The NPT system has worked pretty well on the whole. In fairness, the hon. Member for Islington, North made some of these points in his speech. South Africa voluntarily gave up its potential nuclear capability, and the former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus gave up stocks of nuclear weapons that they had in their territories.

The Government need to mount vigorous diplomatic action regarding the weaknesses in the current non-proliferation regime. In today’s world, we face new, and probably growing, dangers from nuclear proliferation,
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partly because access to nuclear technology is a lot easier now and partly because it has been around for about half a century and is more familiar to people and organisations than was the case even before the internet made it possible for complex, advanced technology to be transmitted from continent to continent at the click of a mouse. We have also seen the growth of a vigorous black market in nuclear technology in recent years. The Minister will know that A. Q. Khan’s group in Pakistan is believed to have sold nuclear know-how to Iraq, North Korea and Libya. We have also seen, through the examples of Iran and Libya, that countries have been able to conceal nuclear programmes successfully not just for months or years, but for decades.

The Government should press for international action to strengthen the safeguards in the treaty against nuclear proliferation. For a start, countries will be less likely to conceal what they are doing if their programmes are likely to be detected, so we must beef up the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectorate.

There are only about 650 inspectors, whose job it is to police 900 or so nuclear facilities worldwide. By way of analogy, I should point out that Disney World employs more than 1,000 people on security duties for one site. The Government need to consider some serious questions. Is the number of inspectors large enough? Is the IAEA budget of $120 million a year adequate in the face of the growing threat of proliferation? If it is not, what action do they intend to take to bring together their international partners to strengthen the arm of the inspectors?

Secondly, as the hon. Member for Islington, North said, we need to have regard to the importance of the additional supplementary protocols to the NPT. I gather that, so far, only 69 countries have both signed up to such additional protocols and, crucially, brought them into force. The protocols give additional rights of inspection to the IAEA, and there is now a strong case for international agreement to try to make additional protocols the norm for all signatories to the NPT.

We do not have time today to go into the Iranian political and diplomatic situation in detail. As the hon. Gentleman said, it is clear that Iran is no longer implementing the supplementary protocol that it had agreed. The additional protocols do not give the inspectorate the authority to explore some serious matters such as high-explosives testing or the design of missile warheads. In cases such as that of Iran, we need to have a system of additional obligations approved by the Security Council that can be imposed on countries that renege on the supplementary protocols that they have previously agreed to implement.

The North Korean case exposed another possible loophole in the NPT. North Korea was able to build up its civil nuclear programme, give the required three months’ notice of withdrawal from the NPT and then move rapidly towards a weapons programme because it had acquired the knowledge of all the sensitive parts of the nuclear fuel cycle. If we are to address that problem in the current treaty framework, we also need to address the clear obligation in the treaty for the developed countries, in particular the nuclear weapons states, to facilitate the transfer of peaceful, civil nuclear technology
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to other countries that have agreed not to go down the path of developing nuclear weapons programmes of their own.

I fully understand the wish of many countries in the developing world to develop their own civil nuclear programmes. There is a duty on the existing nuclear weapons powers to live up to the expectation of the treaty that everything possible would be done to facilitate the transfer of civil nuclear technology. That could be achieved in various ways: there could be some kind of international partnership whereby a small number of states produce nuclear fuel that could then be made available to others; or there could be a network of fuel banks managed and policed on an international basis. That might enable us both to meet the developing countries’ need for nuclear energy and to prevent countries such as North Korea from getting access to the sensitive parts of the nuclear fuel cycle that might make possible the rapid development of a weapons programme in the future.

Finally, I hope that the Minister will say something about the Government’s approach to the black market in nuclear technology and nuclear weapons. United Nations resolution 1540 calls on every member state to criminalise proliferation action of that type. There is a need for even better intelligence co-operation against proliferation than is in place and for tighter controls on existing stockpiles.

Jeremy Corbyn: Will the hon. Gentleman be able to say anything about his party’s position on the expiry of the strategic arms reduction treaty in 2009 and the danger that between then and the NPT conference there could be the development of a new arms race between Russia and the United States?

Mr. Lidington: I hope that the British Government will do everything possible to try to prevent the development of such an arms race. A new arms race between Russia and the US is in the interests of neither of those countries, nor is it in the interests of world peace. I hope that the recent contacts between the US and the Russian Government about the controversial issue of the anti-missile system lead to an agreement that will defuse the risk of such an arms race.

The NPT and its associated system of controls has, on the whole, served the world well. I hope that the Government will be prepared to acknowledge that in the new situation, given the growing risk of proliferation that we now face, further action is needed to strengthen the existing safeguards. That represents a way forward that is in the interests of the security of the United Kingdom and of international peace.

10.37 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Meg Munn): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing this debate. I thank him and other hon. Members for their kind words of welcome. Many thoughtful and considered contributions were made and we heard many sincerely held views. I shall do my best to respond to all of the many points that have been made. I ask hon. Members to bear with me and wait until I have got well into my speech before attempting to intervene if they fear that I am not going to respond to a particular point. I shall happily take interventions at that stage.

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From the Government’s perspective the timing of the debate could not be better, because, as has been mentioned by several hon. Members, just a month ago the then Foreign Secretary spoke to the Carnegie international non-proliferation conference in Washington to call for a renewed commitment to a world free from nuclear weapons. She received a standing ovation for her speech—my aspirations this morning are somewhat lower, none the less I shall refer to the plan that she set out. The Carnegie speech set out how we as a Government want to reinvigorate the international approach to nuclear disarmament, with the explicit goal of reinforcing the NPT process in the run-up to the review conference in 2010, to which several hon. Members have referred.

I believe that the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) said that the UK has an exceptional record in meeting our NPT disarmament commitments, and we should be clear about that. What are those commitments? Article VI imposes an obligation on all states to pursue in good faith negotiations on effective measures for cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date, on nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament. The NPT review conference in 2000 agreed by consensus 13 practical steps towards implementation of article VI. The UK remains committed to those steps and is making progress on them.

We are disarming. The House heard in March of our decision to reduce the UK’s stockpile of operationally available warheads by a further 20 per cent. to less than 160. Significant as that is, it is just the latest in a series of dramatic reductions in the UK’s nuclear weapons. Since the end of the cold war, the explosive power of UK nuclear weapons will have been reduced by 75 per cent. UK nuclear weapons account for less than 1 per cent. of the global inventory.

We have withdrawn and dismantled our tactical marine and airborne nuclear capabilities and, consequently, have reduced our reliance on nuclear weapons to one system: submarine-based Trident. As hon. Members have said, we are the only nuclear-weapons state to have done that. We have also reduced the readiness of the remaining nuclear force. We now have only one boat on patrol at any one time and it carries no more than 48 warheads. We have not conducted a nuclear test explosion since 1991, and we have signed and ratified the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty. We have ceased production of fissile material for nuclear weapons. We have also increased transparency of our fissile material holdings, and we have produced historical records of our defence holdings of both plutonium and highly enriched uranium.

Our decision to renew the Trident system did not reverse or undermine any of those positive disarmament steps. The UK is not upgrading the capabilities of the system, and there is no move to produce more useable weapons and no change in our nuclear posture or doctrine. The UK's nuclear weapons are not designed for military use during conflicts. They are a strategic deterrent that we would contemplate using only in extreme circumstances of self-defence. Over the past 50 years, the deterrent has been used only to deter acts of aggression against our vital interests, never to coerce others. I fundamentally disagree with the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), because we are not ramping up our weapons.

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Hon. Members referred to timing and whether we needed to make a decision now. The issue was debated at length during the Trident debate, so I do not intend to go into it in great detail today. My right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett) the then Foreign Secretary, said specifically that it would mean a decision to begin a process to design, build and commission submarines to replace the existing Vanguard class boats. That will take some 17 years, so the decision was necessary. It was discussed at great length, and it was appropriate to make it. I shall speak about the cost in a moment.

Bob Spink: If replacing Trident will not increase our capability, why are we doing it?

Meg Munn: Because we are maintaining the existing situation while reducing the number of warheads. Renewal is simply about maintaining the minimum nuclear capability necessary for our security, while we continue to pursue in good faith the conditions for a world free from nuclear weapons. The simple truth is that the UK is implementing its obligations under the NPT, while those states that are developing illicit nuclear weapons programmes are not.

A number of hon. Members referred to cost. The average annual procurement cost represents less than 0.1 per cent. of gross domestic product, and we believe that that price is worth paying to maintain our capability. Since coming to power, the Government have increased investment in many of our public services and elsewhere, so this is not something that should be offset against this matter. Our annual expenditure on capital and running costs of the Trident nuclear deterrent, including the cost of the Atomic Weapons Establishment, from its entry into service in 1994-95 to 2004-05 is in the range of 3 to 4 per cent. of the defence budget.

The UK is not the only nuclear weapons state to have been disarming. We have welcomed the series of bilateral agreements since the end of the cold war that have greatly reduced the major nuclear arsenals. By the end of this year, the US will have fewer than half the number of silo-based nuclear missiles that it had in 1990. By 2012, US operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads will be reduced to about one third of 2001 levels. Under the terms of the strategic offensive reductions treaty, Russia is making parallel cuts. The French have withdrawn four complete weapons systems.

Last year, Kofi Annan said that the world risks becoming mired in a sterile stand-off between those who care most about disarmament, and those who care most about proliferation. He was right. The dangers of such mutually assured paralysis are dangers for us all. Any solution must be a dual one, with movement on both proliferation and disarmament—a revitalisation of the grand bargain that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North set out so well at the beginning of his speech, and which was struck in 1968, when the non-proliferation treaty was established.

Today the non-proliferation regime is under pressure, as a number of hon. Members said. We have seen the emergence of a mixture of further declared and undeclared nuclear powers, and two more countries—Iran and North Korea, which are both signatories to the NPT—present further challenges to the international community.
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Their actions have profound and direct implications for global security, and raise the serious prospect of proliferation across their region.

The Government welcome Iran’s discussions with the International Atomic Energy Association about resolving outstanding safeguarding issues, and we hope for rapid progress. Iran’s suspension of all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities required by UN Security Council resolution remains crucial to restoring international confidence in Iran’s nuclear intentions. It is not complying with that requirement and that is why we are discussing a possible sanctions resolution with our E3 plus three partners. As the UN Security Council has repeatedly made clear, if Iran meets the requirements for a suspension, that will open the way to negotiation with the E3 plus three about a mutually acceptable long-term arrangement. We are working hard to ensure that the matter is taken seriously.

We are not party to the six-party talks process, but we welcome the recent progress and sincerely hope that there will be further progress.

Jeremy Corbyn: The Minister is talking about NPT signatories, but will she say what strategy the Government intend to pursue to try to persuade India and Pakistan to become signatories to the treaty, and explain the situation in Israel, which I understand now has more than 200 warheads, rather more than there are in this country? That is clearly a factor, but not the only one, in the middle east region.

Meg Munn: As my hon. Friend is probably aware, the Government want universalisation of the NPT, and we want everyone to sign up to it. I shall refer to our general approach in trying to reinvigorate the process later in my speech.

Our efforts on non-proliferation will be dangerously undermined if others believe, however unfairly, that the terms of the grand bargain have changed, so we must do more than just have an exemplary record on disarmament to date. As my right hon. Friend the former Foreign Secretary made clear in her speech in Washington, we need a renewed commitment to a world free from nuclear weapons, and a convincing plan. The point is not to convince the Iranians or the North Koreans and I do not believe for a second that further reductions in our nuclear weapons would have a material effect on their nuclear ambitions. The reason for doing more is that the moderate majority of states—our natural and vital allies on non-proliferation—want us to do more, and if we do not do so, we risk helping Iran and North Korea in their efforts to muddy the water and to turn the blame for their own nuclear intransigence back on us.

I shall deal with the point that the hon. Member for Castle Point made about terrorism. International terrorism is a serious and sustained threat, and we must do everything we can to develop a comprehensive strategy to deal with it. However, it is not a matter of choice; we do not have to—nor should we—choose between addressing terrorist threats and nuclear threats, and we cannot choose between dealing either with those threats or with the challenges of climate change. We have to deal with all of them, and we will continue to do so.

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