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House of Lords

Thursday, 22nd April 1999.

The House met at three of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Ely.

Fissile Materials: Proposed Treaty

Lord Archer of Sandwell asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What steps they are taking to encourage the negotiation of a fissile material cut-off convention.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, we have had useful discussions in recent months on the substantive issues involved in a fissile material cut-off treaty with a range of interested countries. We are frustrated that actual negotiations on such a treaty have yet to begin at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. Our Ambassador there has been working hard to find a way of breaking the deadlock in the Conference on Disarmament over this year's programme of work.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, I share my noble friend's disappointment that her enthusiasm has not met with greater encouragement. However, the Government announced in their strategic defence review that they proposed to place surplus stocks of weapon-grade plutonium under international control and have therefore declared their confidence in an international authority. Despite the set-backs, does the Minister foresee a time when all weapons of mass destruction will be placed under the control of an international authority? May we then look forward to a more law-abiding and safer world for our grandchildren?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I believe that the Government have set a good example. We now publish information about all United Kingdom stocks of plutonium and highly enriched uranium. We have announced that all fissile materials surplus to defence requirements will be placed under EURATOM safeguards and made liable to inspection by the IAEA.

There are a number of priorities. One is the fissile material cut-off treaty, as we discussed. However, we also wish to see entering into force the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which 152 countries have so far signed, the ratification of Start 2 and negotiations on Start 3, which is of great importance.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, can the Minister say how far matters have proceeded in Russia, particularly in relation to factories and research centres producing nuclear material, following the visit by the

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Foreign Secretary a few weeks ago during which he raised the matter in Murmansk, where he was concerned about the deterioration of nuclear submarines?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the noble Baroness is right in saying that the Foreign Secretary has raised these issues. The Government have also done everything they can to encourage the Russian Duma to ratify Start 2. I am bound to say to the noble Baroness, with all the sensitivity I can on this subject, that at the moment the Duma is probably not entirely in a receptive frame of mind on some of these issues.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, what steps have the Government taken to build on the progress made by the previous administration, which announced the UK's cessation of the production of fissile material for explosive purposes at the non-proliferation treaty review and extension conference in April 1995?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I had hoped that I had answered that specific point when dealing with the supplementary question asked by my noble and learned friend Lord Archer. It is true that in 1995 the then Foreign Secretary announced that we had ceased production of fissile material. It is important to note the additional steps taken under the current administration to publish information on UK stocks of both highly enriched uranium and plutonium, to put fissile material surpluses under the EURATOM safeguards, and to enable the IAEA to carry out inspections. Therefore, we have built on the useful start made by the previous Foreign Secretary in 1995 in a way in which I hope the noble Baroness will find constructive.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, with the reduction in the number of nuclear weapons in the British arsenal, do we have a surplus of fissile material, both enriched uranium and plutonium, and would not the best method of disposal be to recycle it through our civil nuclear reactors?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, as I have indicated, there is a surplus which, as regards our defence requirements, will be placed under EURATOM. We will also ensure that the IAEA has access for inspection purposes. Yes, there is a surplus, but it has been placed under the safeguards that I have indicated.

Lord Kennet: My Lords, can the noble Baroness inform the House which, in the opinion of the Government, of the following three groups of countries are most to blame for the delay in setting up a regime? First, is it those which hold nuclear weapons legally under international law, including ourselves? Secondly, is it those which hold them illegally? Thirdly, is it those which do not hold them at all but look as though they would like to?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I really do not believe that it is sensible to apportion blame, as my noble friend urges me to. Her Majesty's

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Government have built on the very useful start that was made in 1995 in relation fissile material. They have signed up to the CTBT and are urging all other countries to do so. Moreover, we are also urging other countries which have not yet become signatories to the conventions on biological and chemical weapons to do so. It is better for those of us who want to see the elimination of those weapons of mass destruction to concentrate on the positive elements which we can take forward and not to look too much at who we can blame most.

Lord Elton: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the nuclear fleet at Murmansk, referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, represents a large and increasing threat of a major environmental disaster? Is it not possible to move to reduce that danger without waiting for everybody to sign up to that convention?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, when we discussed this issue before, I was able to tell your Lordships that it is a matter of very great concern to my right honourable friends the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister. We are looking at ways in which we can try to help the Russians deal with what we all recognise may be a very great environmental threat.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, I recognise that the Duma finds this a delicate moment to pass the Start treaty, but it has succeeded in finding delicate moments for the past four years at least. The Americans, the European Union and ourselves have given money to the Russians over the past six years, as far as I remember, to reduce those dangers; for example, the nuclear submarines. Have any accounts ever been put forward in respect of that money? Have we received any explanation for the fact that it does not seem to have worked?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I shall have to write to the noble Baroness about accounting for the money which has been spent. However, we are considering positive measures to try to help the Russians with what we all perceive to be a possible environmental danger which would affect not only that country but other countries too. Of course, there are delicate moments but some really are more delicate than others.

Burma: EU Common Position

3.10 p.m.

The Earl of Sandwich asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What progress they have made with their European Union partners in strengthening the European Union Common Position on Burma.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, EU Foreign Ministers will discuss renewal of the EU Common Position at the General Affairs Council on 26th April. The Common Position was strengthened

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when it was last renewed, in October 1998. We have regular contacts with EU partners about possible changes to the Common Position but there has been no recent consensus on further measures.

The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that refreshingly honest reply. Will she join me in paying tribute to Aung San Siu Kyi, the legitimate Burmese leader, who has shown remarkable and exceptional courage in the past few months, especially following her bereavement? Will the Minister also join Aung San Siu Kyi in saying that the position in Burma has deteriorated continually in the past few months: 120 members of parliament are in detention. Will she agree also with Aung San Siu Kyi that concrete measures and more urgent attention should be given to that by both the European Union and the United Nations?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I agree with the noble Earl. There has been no improvement in the political or human rights situation in Burma. The SPDC continues to detain democracy activists and to force them to resign from their political parties. In January about 200 students and about 50 LLD youth members were sentenced to up to 52 years. Ethnic minorities continue to cross into Thailand. There are now about 115,000 people in the refugee camps. I am sure that the whole House will agree with what the noble Earl said about Aung San Siu Kyi's courage and would wish to send her our great sympathy on the death of Michael Aris. I am sure we all agree that both she and Michael Aris were quite extraordinarily brave in the stand that they took.

I am happy to say that our ambassador has been in close touch with Aung San Siu Kyi in recent months over the tragic humanitarian case of Dr. Aris. At one point, he was seeing her almost every day.

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