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House of Lords

Tuesday, 11th January 2000.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Derby.

Nuclear Weapons

Lord Jenkins of Putney asked Her Majesty's Government:

    How they reconcile their maintenance of nuclear weapons with their claim to support nuclear disarmament.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, the Government pledged in their election manifesto to retain Trident while pressing for multilateral negotiations on nuclear disarmament. That policy was reaffirmed in the Strategic Defence Review. There is no contradiction in this policy. The Government have made clear that when satisfied with progress towards verifiable, balanced reductions in the nuclear arsenals of the major nuclear powers, Britain's nuclear weapons will be included in multilateral negotiations.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer but I think that she will appreciate as well as I that that kind of Answer could mean a more or less permanent situation in which a government is firmly in favour of nuclear disarmament while remaining firmly armed with nuclear weapons. Is not this a somewhat unsatisfactory situation? Does my noble friend know of any reason to believe that it will ever come to an end?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, Her Majesty's Government have been resolute in pursuing nuclear disarmament. But of course one of our most important criteria must be the safety of this realm. We will continue to press our partners to work with us to bring about nuclear disarmament, but we must do so in an atmosphere of safety for this country.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, does my noble friend recollect that when the new agenda resolution was passed by the General Assembly on 13th October the United Kingdom delegate explained his opposition by saying that the resolution was incompatible with a credible, minimal deterrent? Who is to be deterred from what? Is a non-nuclear attack to be deterred by threatening to turn it into a nuclear war? If the deterrent is against a nuclear attack, what was the difficulty in supporting the resolution, which was calling for progress towards multilateral disarmament?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I have answered the question in relation to the new agenda on

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a number of occasions. The answer that I have given in the past remains the same. I shall not tire your Lordships by its repetition.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, accepting that the United Kingdom now has a minimum nuclear deterrent, I ask the Minister whether he can tell us anything about Franco-British conversations, so far on defence co-operation, as to whether the provision of a minimum deterrent might be aided by closer Franco-British co-operation.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I cannot tell the noble Lord anything specific. Your Lordships will know that we are working energetically with our partners. Britain is now the most transparent of all the nuclear powers. We are trying to make sure that we are keeping the numbers to the minimum possible and we are encouraging others to do the same with us.

Lord Burnham: My Lords, the noble Baroness has been fairly robust in her reply to the noble Lord. Can she give an absolute assurance that Her Majesty's Government will retain nuclear weapons so long as they are necessary for the defence of the realm?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I can assure all noble Lords that Her Majesty's Government place the security of this realm at the top of their agenda. We will do nothing that would put this country in peril.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, does not my noble friend appreciate that if all nuclear nations give the same kinds of answers to their respective parliaments there will never ever be any nuclear disarmament?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I do not accept that. We are working with our partners. We have seen change; change is possible. We are leading and urging others to look creatively at what other kinds of change we can bring about for nuclear disarmament. But this is an issue on which we need others to come with us. We cannot do it on our own and we cannot put this realm in danger by so doing.

Task Forces: Accountability

2.39 p.m.

Lord Roberts of Conwy asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether, and, if so, how, task forces are held accountable to Parliament.

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): My Lords, task forces are accountable to Ministers; Ministers are accountable to Parliament. Those task forces classified as non-departmental public bodies are accountable direct to Parliament through their sponsoring department.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for making it clear that these task forces,

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unlike the much maligned quangos, are not established by Acts of Parliament and are not governed by such Acts. They are appointed by Ministers at their whim and are responsible to those Ministers. Is not the whole system open to abuse? Should not the Government make these task forces subject to parliamentary scrutiny, along with the growing army of working groups and special advisers who also spend taxpayers' money?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton : My Lords, I think the move towards task forces is a good thing. It means that, before they make decisions, Ministers can receive advice from beyond only the traditional advice available either within Whitehall or beyond Whitehall in relation to special interest groups. In principle, I believe that this is a good development. It makes for more transparent government and provides a much wider source of advice.

Lord Tanlaw: My Lords, as regards perhaps the most recently instigated task force set up to consider near earth objects, will the Minister tell us whether we will be allowed a debate on this subject when the report is made available in approximately three months' time?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, it is for the Department of Trade and Industry to decide what should take place in relation to the report once it is available and it is for the usual channels to determine whether there should be a debate on the subject.

Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, will the Minister tell us how the Government will evaluate the work of the task forces; namely, whether their work is good, bad or indifferent? The Minister told the House that he thought task forces were a good thing. When will he know whether they are a good thing?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton? My Lords, the role of a task force is to give advice to a Minister, a department or the Government on a particular issue. The success or otherwise of a task force will be determined by the quality of the decision taken by the Minister or government department.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, for two and a half years I had the honour of serving as the vice-chairman of a government task force which completed its work just before Christmas. The chairman of that task force was a Conservative former Secretary of State. In the Football Task Force our experience was exactly as my noble and learned friend has described. We undertook a worthwhile examination of the subject and published four substantial reports. Does my noble and learned friend agree that it is desirable that the reports of task forces--in particular, our task force--should be published by the Stationery Office and made available to Members of this House and those in another place and, indeed, that the contents should be debated here in due course?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, it is for individual departments to determine what is done with

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the results of a particular task force. However, I agree that in many cases it would be both appropriate and helpful for reports from task forces to be published.

Baroness Sharples: My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord tell the House how many task forces have been set up since 1997?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I believe that I have just answered that question in writing in response to the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy. I am grateful to noble Lords for reminding me that the answer is 40. However, I should like to confirm that by reference to the Written Answer that will be published today in Hansard.

Lord Shore of Stepney: My Lords, since my noble and learned friend is in such an informative frame of mind, will he also tell us what is the difference between an advisory quango and a task force?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the difference between a task force and a non-departmental public body is the permanence of the non-departmental public body. If the NDPB is intended to be permanent and to carry out permanent functions, it is not a task force, but a non-departmental public body.

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