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Lord Acton: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, he referred to Mr Ralph Nader in what I took to be slightly jocular terms--I hope that I have not

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misinterpreted that. Is the noble Lord aware that Ralph Nader is the person principally responsible on this planet for safety features in cars, including the wearing of seatbelts? Is he further aware that Ralph Nader may take away from Mr Gore in California sufficient votes to deliver that state to Governor Bush, thereby delivering the presidential election?

Lord Burnham: My Lords, I am well aware of Mr Nader's connection with road safety. I think that he probably knows more about that than he does about ballistic missile defence. However, thank goodness that it is not likely that he will become President of the United States.

12.55 p.m.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, for giving us the opportunity to address this issue today. Slightly in common with the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, I am not entirely sure how far the noble Baroness really expects me to be able to go in taking the arguments forward. However, I agree with the comment made by the Prime Minister in July; namely, that this is,

    "one of the most important issues we shall have to face over the next few years".

I pay tribute to the noble Baroness's longstanding interest in, and detailed knowledge of, the complex issues involved here. I thank, too, the noble Lords, Lord Chalfont, Lord Addington and Lord Burnham, for their contributions and for their fortitude on a Friday afternoon. Like the noble Baroness I, too, hope to see my noble friend and colleague Lady Scotland back with us shortly. However, I should assure the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, that when I speak on this issue, I do so on behalf of both the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence.

Lord Burnham: My Lords, perhaps I may make it clear that I am well aware--indeed, we have pointed it out on many occasions--that any Minister speaks on behalf of the whole Government and not on behalf of his or her department.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, that is excellent. There will be no misunderstanding on that point.

The Government have all along recognised that national missile defence raises some difficult and complex issues and is indeed a highly controversial subject. As has been evident from this debate, the issues go far wider than the question of the future of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Perhaps I may focus first on that question, which has been the starting point for today's debate.

I should begin by saying that, in expressing views on the ABM treaty, Her Majesty's Government have been careful always to stress that the interpretation of it, along with questions about its future, are first and foremost matters for the parties to the treaty, not for non-parties such as ourselves. That is an important

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point and one that was stressed by the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, and again by the noble Lord, Lord Burnham. There is an important distinction in international law here, which needs to be kept in mind when debating this issue. I hope that it explains, at least to some extent, why we have not been and will not be directly involved in negotiations on the future of the treaty. Furthermore, that should explain why we have not put forward proposals of our own on whether or how it might be amended to accommodate the limited national missile defence system which the present United States Administration have been discussing with Russia.

That said, the Government's answer to the question posed in today's debate is straightforward. We continue to value the strategic stability provided by the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. We wish to see it preserved. To a certain extent, our views are somewhat at variance with those expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont.

We have always made it clear that, if the United States did decide to proceed with the deployment of a national missile defence system, we strongly hope that it would be in the context of an agreement with Russia. I should like to assure the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, that our views are well understood in Washington. The noble Baroness referred to remarks made by my noble friend Lady Scotland, but I remind the noble Baroness that President Clinton announced on 1st September that he would not be making a decision to proceed with NMD. He said:

    "Our NATO allies have all made clear that they hope the United States will pursue strategic defence in a way that preserves, not abrogates, the ABM Treaty".

He went on to underline that the present US Administration also strongly favour the preservation of the treaty.

    "Clearly ... it would be far better to move forward in the context of the ABM Treaty".

The current US Administration recognised some time ago that, if this were to be achieved, changes to the present terms of the treaty would be required. This applies to the proposed system as a whole, not only the siting elements of it in this country or elsewhere outside the United States.

Perhaps I may refer noble Lords to the recent report from the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs on weapons of mass destruction, and in particular to the Government's submission to it which set out the position in detail. The Government will respond formally to the report very shortly. I am sure noble Lords will understand that I cannot--indeed, I do not wish to--pre-empt our response to the report.

Since the US recognises that changes to the treaty will be needed to accommodate national missile defence, it has sought to engage Russia in negotiations to that end. A number of rounds of US/Russian discussions on the future of the ABM treaty, and on the equally important issue of further cuts in the US and Russian nuclear arsenals, have taken place over the past few years, as I am sure the noble Baroness and other noble Lords are well aware.

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No one pretends that these talks have been easy--far from it. As noble Lords are aware, Russia remains in principle opposed to a national missile defence. None the less, this process of dialogue has yielded some positive results. In June this year, in a joint statement by presidents Putin and Clinton, Russia acknowledged for the first time that there was a new and growing threat from the proliferation of missiles and weapons of mass destruction.

I should say to the noble Baroness, Lady Park, that, while she may hold opinions about Russia's past, life moves on and differing views are now coming more together.

Indeed, the two presidents recalled that the ABM treaty made provision for joint consideration of changes in the strategic situation which might have a bearing on the treaty's viability. They also noted the importance of the consultative process and reaffirmed their determination to continue consultations in the future to promote the objectives and implementation of the provisions of the ABM treaty.

Since then, Russia and the United States have agreed a series of modest but positive steps under a joint strategic co-operation initiative. For example, they have agreed to establish a permanent joint centre near Moscow to exchange early warning data to minimise the risks of misinterpretation of missile launches. I am sure we all agree that that is a positive step in the right direction. They have agreed also to explore the possibility of co-operation on theatre missile defence, an important point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, to which I shall return in a moment. So there has been some movement forward.

For our part, Her Majesty's Government have welcomed this. We have continued to urge both countries, at the highest level, to keep trying to find a way forward on these difficult areas--namely, the ABM treaty and the START III treaty, to which the noble Baroness referred. From remarks made by my noble friend Lady Scotland and I from this Front Bench, the noble Baroness will be in no doubt about the support that the United Kingdom Government give to that process.

Some commentators have suggested that, despite the United States Administration's wish to proceed with NMD without abandoning the ABM treaty, this outcome is, in practice, unachievable. The noble Baroness did not go quite so far as to say that, but I think I am right in saying that she is clearly uneasy about the future of the treaty, given what the United States Administration have said. Those who veer on that side of the debate have argued that an AMB treaty adapted to accommodate the limited NMD system that the United States has in mind would not be a treaty worth having. That is not the view of Her Majesty's Government.

As noble Lords will recall, the treaty has been amended before. We should not forget that. It is a point which has not been raised today, but the treaty was amended in 1974 and again in 1997 by joint agreement of the parties. We see no reason in principle why it should not be amended again to accommodate

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the kind of limited NMD system that the current United States Administration have proposed without destroying the essence of the treaty.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. The distinction I was trying to make--I apologise if I was not sufficiently clear in what I said--was between the first stage, where it is recognised that the treaty might be amended to permit it, and the later stages, in particular C3 and beyond, where it is quite difficult to see how the treaty could be made compatible with that kind of development.

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