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House of Lords

Thursday, 8th December 1994.

The House met at three of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by

the Lord Bishop of Coventry.

Chemical Weapons Convention: Consultation Document

Lord Mayhew asked Her Majesty's Government:

    When they propose to introduce legislation to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Earl Ferrers): My Lords, legislation to enable the United Kingdom to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention will be introduced as soon as parliamentary time and other government legislative priorities permit. My right honourable friend the President of the Board of Trade announced today in a Written Answer that the Department of Trade and Industry will issue a discussion document early in the New Year to canvass the views of industry on the implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention in the United Kingdom.

Lord Mayhew: My Lords, will the noble Earl agree that this country has done more than any other to bring about this admirable convention; and that 16 countries have now ratified but Britain has not? What is the reason for this delay? Presumably, it is a matter of a short Bill; both Opposition parties have made it clear that they will give it a fair wind; and it cannot be claimed that the legislative programme is overcrowded with important measures. What is the reason for this?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord on a number of points: first, the United Kingdom has indeed played a major part over a period of 20 years in getting this convention agreed to, and Britain has signed it. The noble Lord said that 16 states had ratified. In fact, the number is 17. But he will also understand, I am sure, that when the convention comes into operation it will have quite an effect on industry. It is necessary to discuss with industry the best way of setting about this. I can assure the noble Lord that the legislation will be introduced as soon as it can be.

Lord Ennals: My Lords, can the Minister clarify one point? He said that there is to be a discussion paper. Will that paper be published before legislation, or will deal with how the measure will be implemented? Will he accept from me that there are many of us who feel that Britain ought to ratify this measure at the earliest possible moment and that, for the reasons already given by the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, we ought to be taking the lead? Is there not a danger with a discussion paper that there will be a long delay before there is legislation?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I hope that there will not be a long delay before the legislation is brought forward. The noble Lord will be only too well aware of the

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pressures that are experienced by any government in respect of legislative timetables. I have given the assurance that we will introduce this measure as soon as is reasonable.

The consultation document will contain the outline of our proposals for the implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and it will seek the views of industry. It will cover issues that are important to industry such as declarations; the way in which industries will be inspected; and respecting commercial confidences.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is in the nature of things that when legislation affects industry there are bound to be people who are opposed to it? As it has long been the Government's policy that this legislation should be put into effect, would it not be much more encouraging and satisfactory for the Government to complete their legislative programme, put this legislation through and then discuss it afterwards? They are often ready to do that on other occasions; why not do it now?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, that is a most extraordinary suggestion from the noble Lord. He will recall that periodically the Government are blamed for not taking account of people's views before they introduce legislation. We are doing the sensible thing and taking account of people's views.

The Lord Bishop of Coventry: My Lords, can the noble Earl inform the House of steps that are being taken by Her Majesty's Government to achieve full international application of effective intrusive inspection and verification measures with regard to chemical and biological weapons?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I think I can give an assurance to the right reverend Prelate that the inspection and verification of the way in which countries operate is an essential part of the convention. It will first come into operation 180 days after 65 countries have ratified. The chemicals in which Britain is interested are not those in Schedule 1, which will come into operation immediately, but those listed in Schedule 2 which will be banned when the schedule comes into force three years later. Ensuring that countries behave fairly and properly is an essential part of the convention.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, will the Minister tell the House what he meant by "consulting industry"? Does he mean that industry in this country is heavily involved in the export of chemical weapons or with the manufacture for the home market of chemical weapons?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, as the noble Lord will know, there are certain chemical weapons which are deeply offensive. The constituent part of those weapons can also be a chemical which is used by industry. One example is phosgene, which as a gas is very offensive, but which is used perfectly correctly in the plastics industry. We want to make sure that industry is not

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affected adversely in relation to the activities that it is perfectly legitimate for it to undertake, but that it does not sell or use such materials for weaponry purposes.

Lord Kennet: My Lords, the noble Earl said that there must be time for consultation with industry, which is very comprehensible. But should we take it that among the 16 or 17 countries which have ratified there are not also industrial powers?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I can only answer for Her Majesty's Government. I do not know what happens in the countries which have ratified. They have their own methods of ratification and doubtless some of them have their own methods of consultation.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, does the noble Earl recall that I asked a similar Question early in the summer? Is it not the case that, if we do not ratify the convention by next month, there could be some very harmful implications for British industry?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I am aware that the noble Countess asked a similar Question. I am not aware that if we do not ratify within a month there will be serious implications, for the reason that the chemicals that are in Schedule 1, as I explained earlier, are the ones which operate immediately the convention comes into force. We have no industries which use those Schedule 1 chemicals for weaponry purposes. Therefore, they will not be affected. Our industry is concerned in the main with Schedule 2 chemicals, which operate three years later.

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, the Minister said that the Government wish to canvass industry's views to find out which industries, if any, are adversely affected—I hope that I quote his words accurately. If industry (whatever "industry" may be) comes back to the Government and says, "We are all adversely affected", do the Government intend to drop the ratification proposal?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, if I may say so, that is also a very curious question from the noble Lord. I said that the Government intend to ratify, and they will ratify. What I said that we intend to do is to discuss with industry the methods by which the implementation will take place. There is nothing sinister and nothing wrong about that.

Cot Deaths

3.14 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What further steps they are taking to avoid child cot deaths.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Cumberlege): My Lords, responding on the 18th November to media speculation about the causes of cot death, the Chief Medical Officer issued a statement which reiterated the earlier advice given to health professionals and parents

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during the Back to Sleep campaign. On 30th November he announced the composition of an expert group which has been formed to steer further work on cot deaths by the department.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, is the Minister aware that most people will welcome the Government's decision to set up that group to look again at the question of whether toxic gases from cot mattresses can in fact contribute to child death? Is she further aware that the anxieties of many parents would be allayed if they could have a specific undertaking that that committee would look into the levels of antimony in human tissues, especially as the original committee failed to do so adequately?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, the original committee made a very thorough investigation. Its findings were that there was no causal link between the antimony found in cot mattresses and those babies who suffered sudden infant death syndrome. The terms of reference of the new group are to review the findings of the Turner Report—the report to which I referred—in 1991 and to see whether there are any subsequent data on the hypothesis linking antimony with unexplained deaths in infants. It is to advise the Chief Medical Officer on what further studies should be undertaken to investigate postulated causal relationships between chemicals and cot deaths. I hope that that covers the point.

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