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4 Mar 2010 : Column 336WH—continued

I am old enough to remember the Cuban missile crisis. I remember the real fear of the students, and particularly the lecturers, at the university of Edinburgh institute of animal genetics, where I was studying. I have lived most of my life during the cold war, and there is no doubt in my mind that the threat of nuclear war was very serious for these islands, for Europe and indeed for the whole world. It was John F. Kennedy who said that if we did nothing, there would be a considerable number of nuclear states. He reckoned that it would be about 25 in the 1970s. That has not happened, and I believe that it is largely because of the grand bargain, as the Government and the Select
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Committee have called it-namely the non-proliferation treaty between the nuclear weapons states and the non-nuclear weapons states.

We have, of course, the official nuclear weapon states and the unofficial nuclear weapon states, but I shall not elaborate on the implications of that, because of the time. I am glad that reference has already been made to the state visit by the President of the Republic of South Africa, as this is a good time to acknowledge that South Africa took a conscious decision to abandon its nuclear weapons.

The NPT is, as the Government have described it, a grand bargain. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) admirably made the point that the agreement of the US to sell nuclear fission material to India was a major undermining of the treaty. India, of course, is a non-NPT country. These are challenging times. As I said, North Korea claims to have manufactured nuclear weapons. Only on Monday, Yukiya Amano, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, stated that his organisation could not confirm that all nuclear material in Iran is being used for peaceful activities because Iran had not provided the agency with the necessary co-operation. In addition, the threat of terrorist efforts to acquire nuclear weapons and materials is a continual concern nowadays.

The Government's document "The Road to 2010" makes a valuable contribution. I pay tribute to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, whose report I referred to in our last debate on nuclear weapons proliferation-an Adjournment debate on 9 July last year that I initiated. Since then, of course, the Government have published not only "The Road to 2010" but their response to the Select Committee's report. The latter is an excellent document, containing a good range of material. In their response, the Government reiterate their support for a nuclear-free middle east. A few moments ago, I referred to unofficial nuclear weapons states, but it would help if the Minister were to set out the Government's view of progress towards a nuclear-free middle east. Reference has already been made to Iran.

It is important that we see movement from the United States toward ratification of the comprehensive test ban treaty. The policy of President Obama, reiterated last month by his Vice-President, is that the US should ratify the treaty, but that may not be straightforward, because ratification would require 67 votes in the Senate.

There are many important issues to be covered in May: disarmament, safeguards, consequences for treaty violation and consequences for withdrawal from the treaty are among them. There is also a need for a fissile material cut-off treaty. That is being considered by the conference on disarmament, the arena where the matter is discussed, but I understand it has hit the doldrums.

If I may take issue with just one word of the Committee's report it would be the use of the word "critical" in relation to the forthcoming review conference. The word is used by both the Government and the Select Committee. My fear is that it implies that if the review conference does not succeed, that is the end of the treaty, but as has been pointed out, the review conference five years ago was a total farce. We do not know what will happen in May, but to use the word "critical" is a little dangerous, because when it comes to the spread of nuclear weapons to various states, there is no other game in town. We desperately hope that progress will be made because
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that is so important for the future of this country and of the world, but we have to bear in mind that we need to move forward. We certainly do not want to encourage the idea that, if things do not work out in May and we do not make the progress that we all want, the NPT will be redundant.

3.33 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I am pleased that we are having this debate today. I shall be brief, because we hope to vote in the main Chamber on the reform of Parliament at 4 o'clock. I think that reforming Parliament would be a really good idea, if it meant that we could debate subjects such as this at greater length and in the main Chamber. I acknowledge that the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs has made enormous efforts to produce a substantial document. It is a credit to the Committee and the Select Committee system. I pay tribute to the Committee for that, yet we are debating the report in Westminster Hall with only half a dozen or so Members present. It therefore will not gain the public attention that it deserves. We will have to return to these matters in the next Parliament. The Select Committee system is crucial to democracy, as it holds the Government to account. I thank the Committee for its work. The report, as they say, is a rattling good read, if a rather long one.

Following the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang), it would be wrong of me to make any comments about nuclear disarmament without mentioning the enormously important work done by the late Michael Foot. I am very sad at his departure. I have fond memories of him. When I first came to the House, he was the leader of my party. He was pleased that I had become an MP, because he was no longer the worst-dressed Member-someone else had taken over. I always found Michael's contributions amazingly passionate. I attended numerous rallies-CND and others-at which he spoke, and he never lost his passion, commitment, faith and hope. We should remember Michael for all that he did.

I will be extraordinarily brief. As national vice-chair of CND and chair of the CND parliamentary group, I want to make a few brief remarks in respect of nuclear disarmament. As every other Member has mentioned, the nuclear non-proliferation treaty comes up for its quinquennial review in May in New York. Unfortunately, the start of the review coincides with the probable date of a general election and the certain date of the local elections in this country, so no Minister will attend the start of the conference. However, as it runs for four weeks, they may be able to attend the latter part of it. It is a very great opportunity to make enormous progress, and such opportunities do not come around very often.

There have been previous reviews. The 2000 review, in which the late Robin Cook had a big influence on British participation, made a lot of progress, but the last one made no progress at all. One hopes that this year's one will. I attended the preparatory committee in New York last year, and was impressed by the level of engagement by the US, Russia and China. Such engagement has not been so obvious before. Clearly, a great deal of progress could be made. Will the Minister say what position the UK is hoping to take at the conference itself and what we intend to get out of it?

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My next point is more difficult. The non-proliferation treaty has been successful and has discouraged a lot of proliferation. It has within it an inspection regime, which is very important, and a requirement under article 6 for the confirmed holders of nuclear weapons-Britain, France, China, the USA and Russia-to undertake steps for credible and meaningful disarmament. The late Fred Mulley, who was a British Minister in 1968, made great play of the fact that he and the Government were committed to article 6. I hope that we will reiterate that commitment and, at the very least, suspend a decision on the replacement of Trident. I would prefer that Government went much further and said that they simply will not replace Trident, as their contribution to nuclear non-proliferation.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): That is an absolute starting point of any new Government. As such, should it not be something that we discuss during the general election?

Jeremy Corbyn: Absolutely. It is a starting point and something I shall be discussing in the general election when I put my case to the people of my constituency, as all other Members will do. I think that there is a moral, economic, diplomatic and political case for not replacing Trident.

My last point is that the NPT does not include India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel. India and Pakistan need to be engaged as never before in peace talks, negotiations and disarmament, because of the danger of the spread of the Afghanistan war into Pakistan and the clear threat to peace in that region. North Korea is part of the six-party talks, and one hopes that those talks will bring it back into the NPT fold.

Finally, I come to a middle east nuclear-free zone. I know that the Government are formally committed to a nuclear-free zone in the middle east. The Mediterranean declaration included some statements about weapons of mass destruction in that region to which Israel signed up. Israel is not a party to the NPT or any other disarmament convention. I do not think that Iran should have nuclear weapons. I do not like its human rights record. There should be as much engagement as possible with the country to prevent the forces that want to develop nuclear power and nuclear weapons from gaining greater control. I hope that we can ensure some sense in that by putting all possible pressure on Israel to join in some kind of disarmament process. It does not matter what badge is applied-we can call it a nuclear weapons convention-but a process that involves every country that has nuclear weapons has to be the way forward.

There is no moral case for nuclear weapons. They are incredibly dangerous. People are still dying in Japan from the only time that nuclear weapons were used in anger, more than 60 years ago. Do we want that legacy for our grandchildren as well?

3.40 pm

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): I join in the tributes to the late Michael Foot. He was a fantastic campaigner for peace and nuclear disarmament and it is right that hon. Members should mention him at the start of their remarks.

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I welcome the Foreign Affairs Committee's report, which is one of the best pieces of work that I have seen from that Committee. That is not to say that other works have not been very good, but this report is extremely timely and authoritative. I also welcome the way in which the Government have responded to it even if I, like the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), do not agree with everything that the Government have said. I praise the Government, from the Prime Minister down, for publishing "The Road to 2010" and for being very proactive in the disarmament debate; they deserve some credit for that.

There is a large degree of cross-party agreement on this issue. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) has made one or two speeches, which I have taken the trouble to read-[Interruption.]

Hywel Williams (in the Chair): Order. There is a Division in the House. I understand that it is the first of several, although how many is unclear at present. I therefore propose that we suspend for 15 minutes. I ask right hon. and hon. Members to return immediately after this Division, at which time it might be clearer how many there will be and we can decide how to proceed.

3.41 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.55 pm

On resuming-

Hywel Williams (in the Chair): I understand that there is to be a number of Divisions, so I propose that we suspend the sitting until 10 minutes after the last vote in the House. I appeal to right hon. and hon. Members to come back at that point.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

4.31 pm

On resuming-

Mr. Davey: It is good to be back, Mr. Williams.

Before the Divisions, I was saying that there is a large degree of cross-party consensus as we approach the nuclear non-proliferation treaty review conference in May. There are one or two differences between my party and both the Tories and Labour on Trident, and I will mention them at the end of my contribution, but first I shall focus on the issues on which the parties agree.

I want to press the Minister about how the Government intend to handle the fact that the conference will start just at the culmination of the British general election campaign. Is it intended to keep the Opposition parties informed-what does he envisage? Given that it is a critical conference, we want to ensure that the British voice is heard loud and clear, so it would be helpful if he gave us some assurance on that point. My noble Friend Baroness Williams of Crosby has been very much involved in these matters-indeed, she has even advised the Prime Minister on them-and I am sure that she could be one avenue of communication on our side, if that would be helpful.

As we approach the eighth review conference in New York, there is a far more positive mood, as has been mentioned by other speakers in the debate. Part of that is the timing in relation to what is going on in the rest of
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the world and international affairs. The election of Obama has made a very big difference, and talks have taken place between the US and Russia. Before all those events, however, some of the arguments made on the Republican side of American thought-such as Kissinger, Shultz, Perry and Nunn in their famous letter to The Wall Street Journal in January 2007-were looking ahead to the possibility of a world without nuclear weapons. That debate has really transformed the way that a lot of people think about the issue, and we should give credit to those individuals for their analysis of the intellectual underpinnings of the concept of a nuclear deterrent. They have shown that the ideas that characterised the nuclear debate in the cold war era have less application in the 21st century, when there are failed states, rogue states and potential threats from terrorists using nuclear materials. That analysis has helped to underpin the shift in thinking on nuclear weapons.

Of course, one can put the negative side of the argument. In Iran and North Korea, we see serious threats to the non-proliferation regime. I wanted to press the Minister on how the British Government will approach the problem posed by so-called break-out states, whereby states such as Iran can be within the nuclear non-proliferation treaty regime, even though they may be in breach of some of the rules and there may be proposals for sanctions against them, and so on. There is a danger that those states are getting right to the wire and that they then will break out of the non-proliferation regime when they have got very close to becoming a nuclear state, having kept within the strict rules up to that very moment. The Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), touched on that question: are the Government willing to allow legal changes to be made to the treaty to create sanctions for countries that do so? Sanctions are automatic and would not require a UN Security Council debate at what might be a fraught, tense moment. They are a signal in advance about what will happen and thus act as a deterrent.

I agree with much that other speakers said, particularly about the importance of the US Congress ratifying the comprehensive test ban treaty. That is probably the biggest step that the Americans could take. In relation to the British Government, however, I want to put on record some Liberal Democrat concerns that hark back to the debate in the House a year or two ago on the renewal of Trident.

We still believe that that decision was taken far too soon. Much of the evidence that we have heard from experts in the industry and the military indicates that it did not need to be taken at the time. The Government could have considered anything from a strategy of life extension to changing the continuous at-sea patrols to lengthen the life of submarines. A number of strategies could have been adopted to avoid the need for that decision. The reason why we were so concerned about the decision is that the conference was upon us. Britain's having made that decision seems to go against the spirit of the times and the leadership that we must show before the conference.

We would like the Government to discuss the matter in future, depending on what happens at the conference. The Liberal Democrats are seriously considering and being advised on the idea that our own deterrent, if we should need one, should not be a cold war relic such as
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Trident, but a replacement that is not like for like. It needs a lot of study in legal and military terms, but our initial work suggests that it is possible.

Apart from that important strategic disagreement about our nuclear weapons and approach to the conference, I believe that the Government deserve credit, particularly for the money that they have put into verification technologies. We know that they have worked with Norway and brought the non-governmental organisation VERTIC into that work, which is incredibly significant. If they continue to pursue that work, they will have our support.

4.38 pm

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): I thank the Select Committee and congratulate it on a first-class report. The report and the Government response-which, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) said, is rather more comprehensive than some departmental responses to Select Committee reports-provide what amounts to a formidable work of reference for anyone interested in the challenges of the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and how British policy in particular has evolved.

Both the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), the Chairman of the Committee, and my right hon. Friend addressed their remarks with the seriousness and depth of information that the subject deserves. I was particularly interested by what my right hon. Friend said about the need for attention to be paid to questions of both intermediate and tactical nuclear weapons. I agree that we must not forget those issues in our initial concentration on the talks between the United States and Russia about strategic weapons.

I have heard Senator Nunn say publicly that many senior military officers in the United States army have grave doubts about the efficacy of tactical nuclear weapons. His argument is that the generals believe that such weapons are never likely to be used and therefore soak up a huge amount of resources, both in terms of expenditure and the men needed to guard the weapons on the battlefield, that could better be employed elsewhere in the United States defence budget.

I see challenges arising in the attitude of Russia. I understand that Russia is seriously concerned about the inferiority of its conventional forces. It faces a demographic crisis, with the numbers of young men of military age falling in future decades. There must be a risk that Russian Governments will rely on tactical nuclear weapons to counter a balance of forces that tilts against their interests. My right hon. Friend is correct that we must press forward with the agenda that he described, despite the difficulties.

As several speakers have said, the review of the non-proliferation treaty, which is due to commence in May, is of great importance. My party has long taken the view that it is vital to our national interest that the NPT review should succeed. The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) was kind enough to draw attention to the speeches of my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) that suggested a number of specific measures that the United Kingdom should advocate in the conference.

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