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House of Lords

Wednesday, 21st May 1997.

The House met at half-past two of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Hereford.): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Lord Gilbert

The Right Honourable John William Gilbert, having been created Baron Gilbert, of Dudley in the County of West Midlands, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Carrington and the Lord Healey.

Lord Hardie

The Right Honourable Andrew Rutherford Hardie QC, having been created Baron Hardie, of Blackford in the City of Edinburgh, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord McCluskey and the Lord Sewel.

Several Lords--Took the Oath or Affirmed.

The Lord Chancellor: Leave of Absence

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): My Lords, before the commencement of business, I take the opportunity to inform the House that I am to attend a meeting with the Prime Minister and the Cabinet on Thursday morning, 22nd May 1997, when the House will sit. Accordingly, I trust that the House will grant me leave of absence.

Nuclear Weapons: Reduction

2.54 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether, having regard to their commitment to nuclear disarmament, they will support the gradual internationally agreed and verified reduction of nuclear weapons to zero, as recommended by the Canberra Commission.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, the Government will press for multilateral negotiations towards mutual, balanced and verifiable reductions in nuclear weapons. When satisfied with verified progress towards our goal of the global elimination of nuclear weapons, we will ensure that British nuclear weapons are included in multilateral negotiations. We are considering how best to implement this policy.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that excellent Answer. May I seek to

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clarify a point? Inevitably, in such negotiations there is a stage of agreement and a stage of implementation. May we assume from her Answer and from what she said in her notable contribution to the debate on the humble Address (col. 131) that that is recognised and that the reservations as regards the British nuclear weapon will apply to the second stage? May we also assume that the Government will wish to be fully represented in the first stage of agreement, but will be making reservations about our specific implementation of such an agreement in the second stage of the proceedings? Perhaps I may give an example of what--

Noble Lords: No!

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, then I shall leave my noble friend to give an example, instead of trying to anticipate what she might say.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, our goal is clear: the global elimination of nuclear weapons. As I said a few moments ago, the Government are considering the best way that we may implement that policy.

Earl Howe: My Lords, does the Minister accept that there is one major obstacle in the way of complete nuclear disarmament and that is the simple fact that nuclear weapons cannot be disinvented? Does she also accept that in the context of NATO's strategy of preventing war, the United Kingdom's minimum nuclear deterrent makes an important contribution to that strategy?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the Government have made it clear that we will retain Trident, while our overall objective will be the global elimination of nuclear weapons. Our overall objective remains a strong defence against the new security challenges and against the challenges of the post-Cold War world.

Lord Gisborough: My Lords, if the object of total elimination were achieved how would Her Majesty's Government guard against a country with no such weapons making them without anyone else knowing?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, we wish the negotiations to be on the basis of a verifiable scaling down of nuclear weapons. In relation to countries which as yet do not have nuclear weapons, we will be urging them to sign the comprehensive test ban treaty and to do so as soon as possible.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, perhaps I may seek further clarification from my noble friend. Part of the second stage of the implementation may well be that the United Kingdom will seek to secure a reduction in the larger stockpiles of the United States and Russia before implementing any reduction in our weaponry. Is that the kind of action that the Government might reasonably have in mind?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, in recent years, the United States has made tremendous

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reductions in its nuclear forces through bilateral agreements with Russia. The two countries have also agreed to begin early talks on further reductions through the START process. The Government are firm in their commitment to strong defence links with the United States across the board. I reiterate what I said to my noble friend earlier; the implementation process will be a matter for further consideration.

Lord Chalfont: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the possession of nuclear weapons is a deterrent not only against their use by other people but against other forms of aggression, including the use of weapons of mass destruction such as chemical and biological weapons? Have the Government really thought this through? Have they understood that in the total absence of nuclear weapons everyone is at the mercy of the strongest, those prepared to commit aggression and to bully with conventional weapons and with other weapons of mass destruction? Have the Government really thought this one through?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, not only have the Government thought that one through but I think that the people of the United Kingdom have had the opportunity to think that one through and, indeed, did so by voting in the way that they did in the last election, when there was a very clear commitment in our election manifesto to the global elimination of nuclear weapons.

Lord Swinfen: My Lords, will the Minister tell the House how we can be certain that a country does not have nuclear weapons nor has the capability of manufacturing such weapons?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, perhaps I may stress the point that I made in my original Answer. We shall proceed on the basis of verifiable reductions in nuclear weapons. The verifiable element is extremely important and I stress it to noble Lords when answering their questions.

Water Supplies

3 p.m.

The Earl of Drogheda asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What plans they have to ensure an adequate water supply for the United Kingdom in the foreseeable future.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for the Environment and Transport (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, Her Majesty's Government are determined that this country should have a world-class, reliable, water-efficient and environmentally sustainable water industry. At the water summit meeting in London on 19th May, the Deputy Prime Minister announced a 10-point action plan for the

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industry in England and Wales, including the setting of tough mandatory leakage targets to help to secure those goals.

The Earl of Drogheda: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does she agree that the most effective way to reduce domestic consumption would be the metering of water--in fact, mandatory metering? There would be nothing illogical in that. No one questions the propriety of metering gas and electricity. Should it be considered very unfair on poorer households, might not charges be made on a sliding scale whereby the unit cost would rise in proportion to the amount of water used?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, the Government remain opposed to the compulsory metering of water. We believe that water metering has a part to play but there are other areas in which we can tackle the reduction of demand for water. As part of the 10-point plan, the Government are committed to review the whole system of charging for water. We shall look at how metering works at present and examine particularly the basis of water charging and the fact that it is based on rateable values which are now nearly 25 years out of date.

Lord Brabazon of Tara: My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is rather illogical to demand that water companies reduce leakage by an enormous amount and at the same time hit them with a windfall tax which will take away from them the money they could spend on curing leakages?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I do not believe that anyone else would consider it illogical to demand that the water companies tackle what is probably the greatest problem in relation to water supply in this country; namely, leakage. As regards the windfall tax, I am sure noble Lords will understand that that is a matter for my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

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