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11 Nov 2009 : Column 92WH—continued

5.21 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I welcome today's debate, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) for securing it and for introducing it as he did. My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) summarised the situation in her intervention; any country that goes down the road of possessing or developing nuclear weapons brings on itself enormous costs and thereby denies opportunities to many other people. India and Pakistan both have an enormous number of poor people, and the obvious calculation is that money spent on developing weapons of mass destruction aimed at each other inevitably denies education, health and clean water to much of their populations. We should be fully aware of that, and not afraid to say it.

I declare an interest in that I have been a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament all my life, and have no plans to leave it. I am a national vice-chair, and chair of its parliamentary group. On its behalf, I attended the preparatory committee for the NPT review in New York earlier this year. That review was very different from previous ones that I attended in Vienna and elsewhere. They were almost desultory, in that the five declared nuclear weapons states turned up, restated their position on the non-proliferation treaty and then proceeded to state the exact opposite-that they had no intention whatever of fulfilling their obligations under the treaty to begin steps towards disarmament. People often went away from those events in a frustrated frame of mind.

Two PrepComs have made a difference: the one in 2000 and the last one in New York. The one in New York was so different because of the completely different approach by the United States. The US ambassador, Mrs. Gottemoeller, made her position clear on behalf of President Obama, and read out a lengthy letter. In addition, this year President Obama in his Prague speech envisaged-as far as I can recall, for the first time by a US President-a world free of nuclear weapons. Sadly, he went on to say that it would not happen in his lifetime, and as he is such a young man, that is deeply depressing. Nevertheless, he was prepared to take that step and suggest that there could be a significant difference.

The New York review was fascinating, interesting and hopeful. The previous year's review in Vienna had been a series of ritual condemnations of Iran, and each speaker tried to outdo the others in the rituality of those condemnations. This time, there was a much more serious approach towards dialogue, understanding and developing the non-proliferation treaty.

There are problems with the NPT, which I will come to, but also opportunities. It was an amazing document of its time. It was amazing to achieve a commitment from the five declared nuclear weapons states in 1970
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that they would take steps towards eventual disarmament, and that all the other signatory nations would not seek to develop or possess nuclear weapons. It has been effective in a number of ways, and some countries deserve particular praise. I am thinking mainly of South Africa, and its denial of a nuclear weapons programme following the election of President Mandela, and its total disavowal of nuclear weapons, so that Africa can become a nuclear weapons-free zone. A similar process happened in Argentina, and other countries, which deserve particular credit, such as Ukraine, have moved away from the nuclear route. We should recognise that some countries have made a fundamental step towards nuclear disarmament.

However, there are problems with the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Its membership is restricted to the five declared nuclear weapons states, and to the majority of the rest of the world's states who do not possess nuclear weapons and are not attempting to acquire them. Those who have nuclear weapons outside the nuclear non-proliferation treaty are denied membership, and that category clearly includes India, Pakistan and Israel.

I deeply regret the fact that India and Pakistan have developed nuclear weapons. With the current instability, particularly in Pakistan, there is serious cause for concern about the safety of those nuclear weapons. As my hon. Friend said, they have been an enormous economic burden on both countries. However, the issue is a south Asian one in that both countries developed those weapons because of animosity towards each other, and they are targeted at each other and not at anyone else. It would be unbelievably crazy to use them because if one side fired a nuclear weapon at Lahore or Delhi, the people who died would not have known which weapon killed them because the effect would be the same on everyone. One hopes that there can be a continuing good relationship between India and Pakistan, de-escalation, and eventually agreement on mutual disarmament. We should support and encourage that.

The situation in Israel is slightly more complicated because it is not a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and has never sought to be. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central pointed out that Israel's possession of nuclear weapons makes the concept of a nuclear-free weapons zone in the middle east extremely difficult. There are also problems with many of the neighbouring countries, which believe, understandably, that if Israel has nuclear weapons and the west cannot persuade it to disarm, they may feel pressure to develop them one day. I had a similar conversation to that of my hon. Friend, with ambassadors from a number of countries, particularly Egypt.

There are some interesting signs, and I want to quote from a document that may be of some interest. The Paris summit of Mediterranean countries was held on 13 July 2008, under the co-presidency of the French Republic and the Arab Republic of Egypt and in the presence of Israel, which was represented by its then Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert. It discussed the issue of peace within the region, and said that it was in favour of

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the chemical weapons convention, the biological weapons convention, the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty, and so on.

The document goes on to say:

the convention on certain conventional weapons-

and so on.

The reason why I quote from that document is that at that conference, which was hosted by France and attended by Britain, there was participation by Israel that appeared to envisage a process towards some degree of nuclear disarmament or adherence to some kind of international convention. We should seize on that and try to encourage Israel in that direction, because the implications of not achieving nuclear disarmament by Israel are that the pressure is then on in other countries, from the military, from industries and from lots of super-nationalist people, for those countries-be it Egypt, Iran or anywhere else-to develop their own nuclear weapons. No one wants that; no one wants that armament happening.

The problem of the lack of capability of the NPT to bring about disarmament must be dealt with. Therefore, I strongly advocate that the Government recognise what President Obama is doing in calling together the nuclear weapons states-I assume, and perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will confirm whether I am correct, that that would involve all the countries that possess nuclear weapons outside the NPT-in the pursuit of a nuclear weapons convention. That has been strongly supported by the Canberra commission, by Australia and others. The idea would be that a weapons convention involves all states and has a series of phases for the elimination of the weapons.

The convention would outline a series of five phases for the elimination of nuclear weapons: first, taking nuclear weapons off alert; secondly, removing weapons from deployment; thirdly, removing nuclear warheads from their delivery vehicles; fourthly, disabling the warheads and removing and disfiguring the "pits"; and fifthly, placing the fissile material under international control. It seems to me that the way forward, towards nuclear disarmament, must be a combination of next year's NPT review and what can be achieved from that and the participation by the five declared states and all the others, and of promotion of and support for the concept of a nuclear weapons convention that can help to achieve that degree of disarmament.

Bob Spink: The hon. Gentleman is making quite a bit of sense-we do not always agree-but he is speaking generally. May I press him to be specific? Does he, like me, believe that Britain's rush towards replacing Trident is inconsistent with the NPT, which we signed in 1970?

Jeremy Corbyn: I was coming to that anyway, but I agree with what the hon. Gentleman says in that respect. I therefore ask the question: what contribution is Britain
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making? Britain is not the biggest holder of nuclear weapons anywhere in the world; it does not have the largest number of warheads. It is, on one level, secondary to the big holders of nuclear weapons, which are primarily Russia and the United States. Nevertheless, we hold nuclear weapons; we are one of the five Security Council members; we are one of the five declared nuclear weapons states. The Minister will be well aware of the strength of parliamentary feeling concerning nuclear weapons and the strength of feeling in our own party, but also of the strength of feeling concerning the whole programme of Trident replacement, the vote that took place in the House on replacement of the submarine system, the initial gate decision that has to be taken and the final decisions, which I assume will be taken in the next Parliament.

I hope that, as part of our contribution towards the NPT review conference next May, we shall do a number of things. One is to say that we are not proceeding with the incredibly expensive replacement of Trident. Greenpeace and others estimate the cost to be £76 billion upwards over its 25-year lifespan, which is £3 billion a year. I am thinking of the message that that gives the rest of the world when perhaps we are on the threshold of nuclear disarmament-that is the atmosphere and the opportunity. Therefore, not to proceed with replacing Trident would be a very good thing.

I recognise the taking of submarines off patrol. I recognise the reduction in the number of warheads. I recognise the Government's willingness to develop an arms reduction laboratory and to take part in a number of serious discussions and conversations about a nuclear-free world. That is welcome and a change, but we must take a significant step ourselves. The NPT review starts on 3 May next year, when I suspect that everyone in this Room will be busy doing other things. I would love it if whoever the British Government send to the NPT review were prepared to say that we are not proceeding with Trident, that we are prepared to take part in a nuclear weapons convention and that we recognise the importance of achieving a nuclear-free world.

The implications of not doing so are very serious. We should never forget just how evil and immoral nuclear weapons are. They are a weapon of mass destruction. They cannot be targeted at an individual military establishment or a specific bridge or whatever. A nuclear weapon is, by its very nature, blind to who it kills and what it destroys, because it is so huge. The nuclear weapons used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which were tiny compared with today's weapons, killed several hundred thousand people in the first few hours and many more in the years to come through the fallout and the results of that explosion. The weapons available today could wipe out this planet several times over. Is it a good idea to have them? Obviously not. Is it a good idea to disarm? Obviously, yes. Is there a process available to do that? Yes, there is. The process is the NPT; the process is the nuclear weapons convention, but above all, it requires a sign and a commitment from the five declared nuclear weapons states that they are prepared to move towards disarmament and to envisage a nuclear-free world.

None of the threats that are around, of instability and all those issues, can be solved by the possession of nuclear weapons, but the more we have big, powerful
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nuclear weapons, the more others are encouraged to develop them. I am not in favour of any country developing its own nuclear weapons, be it North Korea, India, Pakistan, Israel or Iran. I am therefore in favour of an inspection regime that inspects all civil nuclear power facilities, and above all I am in favour of an openness about and the inspection of fissile material, so that there is no production of fissile material that can then be converted into weapons-grade plutonium. It is very important to achieve those things, and we achieve them through dialogue, inclusion and a nuclear weapons convention.

I hope that the Minister can give us some optimistic news, that Britain will play its full part in the run-up to the NPT review conference and that there will be a further parliamentary debate on this issue in the early part of next year, so that we can have some parliamentary input into that. Members of Parliament have a role to play; we have an important part in the debate and the message that we give out can be very important.

I hope above all that this country does not go down the road of replacing Trident and creating a new generation of nuclear missiles, but says yes, we are prepared to take the step necessary to take away the threat of a nuclear holocaust around the world, because that is the direction in which we should go. If we miss the opportunity at the NPT review conference next year, rearmament around the world and proliferation of nuclear weapons could-I hope that it does not-follow, so this debate is timely and important and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central for securing it and for what he said today.

5.39 pm

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) for introducing the debate. His remarks were calm and considered, but he was also extremely knowledgeable in his presentation of the facts. Given that this is such an important issue, which rouses considerable passions, he deserves quite a bit of credit for that. The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), too, deserves credit. I always listen carefully to what he has to say, although we do not always agree. However, his passion and the incredibly detailed information that he has fully embraced are quite incredible. I am glad that he goes to the non-nuclear proliferation treaty meetings and the NPT conferences; I hope that the various Governments there will have listened to him, because he has a considerable amount to contribute.

I have been enthralled by today's debate, although I am not sure that my speech will reach the standard of previous contributions. However, I shall try my best. What is different this time about the period in advance of the NPT review is the contributions made by significant figures in America. It is all about politics, relationships and trust, so the leadership that we have in place is crucial. Senators Sam Nunn and Bob Graham, and William Perry, George Schultz and Henry Kissinger-significant figures from the American establishment-are not normally associated with this kind of debate. Having them take part is of great assistance.

We constantly praise President Obama. His tone, his demeanour, his approach and his emphasis on these matters is impressive. He has opened doors that his
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predecessors slammed shut and padlocked, determined never to open them again. We can now have sensible discussions rather than megaphone diplomacy with Russia, Iran, North Korea and China; and even France is being considered for discussion, a country that the Americans were never greatly enamoured with in previous years. I believe that President Obama, too, deserves credit.

I pay tribute, as I said, to the hon. Member for Manchester, Central for introducing this timely debate. It is important that we consider these issues.

Tony Lloyd: I would not normally intrude into such a speech, but the hon. Gentleman may have missed paying tribute to someone else-as, indeed, I did. One country that sometimes gets obscured in the process is China. Its premier, Hu Jintao, has stated that China also supports the international community in developing long-term plans, including the conclusion of a convention on the complete prohibition of nuclear weapons. It is not only the conventional list of people involved in the debate; it includes other interesting but important characters.

Willie Rennie: China is looking beyond its borders. In the past, it was quite isolationist. It is now looking abroad-to a certain degree controversially so with Africa-but if it is operating in a more global sense there may be opportunities. With a man like Obama at the helm, and with the great support of the establishment in America, we might well make significant progress.

I also pay tribute, uncharacteristically, to a constituent of mine-the Prime Minister. He deserves credit for the priority, time and consideration that he has given to the matter. He has made a number of high-profile keynote speeches, and made specific contributions to the debate. I agreed with him when he said that

He has come up with a disarmament package, and has been considering the technology and a nuclear bank. However-there is always a "but"-the foundation upon which he is building that dialogue is fractured.

The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), who is no longer in his place, mentioned the debate of a few years ago on the renewal of Trident. We made the case strongly at the time that such a decision was premature. We did not need to make it then. We thought that the main gate was a more appropriate time. However, it is not simply a party political debate for us in this country; we are also sending out the message to partners throughout the world that we are carrying on regardless.

The Prime Minister also spoke of cutting the number of missile tubes from 16 to 12, but for a number of years the Trident submarines have all operated on 12, so it was not a substantial commitment. He must be careful that his commitments are substantial and recognised. The audiences that listen to such debates and hear such commitments understand the details. Another important matter is the strategic defence and security review. Not to include Trident in that review will again send the poor message to the rest of the world that we are carrying on regardless. None the less, the Prime Minister is committing time and political capital to the issue, which is what it deserves. Along with the major figures in America, we might therefore make some progress.

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