Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

12.42 pm

Lord Powell of Bayswater: My Lords, to avoid any possible doubt, I draw attention to my declaration in the Register of Lords’ Interests, though I do not believe that any of them are directly involved. I join other noble Lords in complimenting the noble Lord,

10 Jan 2008 : Column 966

Lord Wallace, on securing this debate; the subject is extremely important. It is absolutely right that Parliament should discuss it regularly and keep it under review, and that the Government should keep Parliament informed. I am not going to follow the noble Lord, Lord Judd, into the national parks; I very much doubt that I could keep up with him once we got there.

The essence of successful defence is to identify threats in advance and make proper provision to deter or counter them. There may be no immediate or current threat to Britain or Europe from nuclear or other weapons delivered by missiles from the Middle East area, including Iran, but it would be short-sighted not to foresee a fair probability of such a threat in the future. I do not take much comfort from the recent US national intelligence estimate on Iran. Even if Iran has suspended its nuclear weapons programme as such, it continues to produce the fissile material needed for it, and resumption of work on warheads would be a comparatively easy step. Its work on longer-range missiles certainly continues. If Iran develops such weapons, other regimes in the area will follow suit and we cannot ignore the threat that could arise.

Ideally, diplomatic pressure and non-proliferation measures would be the best defence against this threat, but they are patently not working in the case of Iran, any more than they did for Pakistan. Equally, no Government want nuclear retaliation to be the only option for defending against a future threat, so a modest second line of defence, in the form of ballistic missile defence, makes a great deal of sense. Of course, BMD cannot stop nuclear weapons hand-delivered by terrorists, but it is the only possible defence against missiles, if not a foolproof one. It is a useful deterrent because it reduces the chance of such missiles reaching their target, and it forces a country which might consider using them to accept that the chances of success are much reduced, while the likelihood of retaliation is just as great. Bear in mind that all countries that have so far acquired nuclear weapons have also acquired the missiles to deliver them. It is a worthwhile investment.

The idea that the sort of ballistic missile defence system currently proposed for Europe presents any sort of threat to Russia’s vast arsenal of nuclear-armed missiles is frankly nonsensical and the Russians know it. It is, no doubt, the political signal of further western intrusion into what was once Warsaw Pact territory that they dislike. Sacrificing ballistic missile defence is not the way to re-establish relations with Russia. Such a cave-in would simply encourage hard-line tactics on their part in the future. The sensible course is the one on which the Americans are embarked—to discuss with the Russians how they can be included in BMD architecture, without conceding them a veto over where defensive missiles should be sited.

Those defensive missiles have to be based where they can be effective. Since current technology means that they cannot catch up with an attacking missile from behind, they have to be in such a missile’s path in order to intercept it. Poland and the Czech Republic fulfil that criterion. Obviously, those countries will want to negotiate with the US about the terms and

10 Jan 2008 : Column 967

conditions of deployment there. They will certainly, sensibly, want reassurance that an incoming American Administration next year will not simply drop the proposal altogether, leaving them to suffer damage to their relations with Russia for no ultimate advantage. That is likely to mean that it will be some time before deployment can take place, which is time for further negotiations with the Iranians and to come to a sensible arrangement with the Russians.

By far the best place to station such interceptors is the United Kingdom. It is a great pity that the Government are not doing more to secure their stationing here. Hosting them would secure the maximum influence over the circumstances in which they are used, while minimising our financial contribution. It is about as close to a free lunch as one gets in international security. Ballistic missile defence will be the strategic system of the 21st century. I suspect that, 10 years or so from now, we shall end up buying our own missile defence system at much greater cost. I understand that the Government originally considered an offer to host the system, but were reluctant to take on simultaneously the political challenges of replacing Trident and hosting a ballistic missile defence system. They made the right decision about the Trident system. I hope it is not too late to revisit the decision on stationing BMD missiles here and come to an arrangement that is beneficial to the defence of Britain and the rest of Europe, and a system that threatens no one: not the Iranians, not the Russians—no one.

12.48 pm

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire for bringing this excellent debate before us today, for his introduction of it and for keeping this matter, through his questions, constantly before Parliament. He is one of very few people to have done so.

Should we have our own missile defence capability? Should that be within NATO or Europe, or should we simply be an outstation for the US missile defence system? I am simply not qualified to comment on the military aspects of this question. For me, yet again, the loss of Lord Garden, who died last year, is deeply felt in this debate. He not only contributed to debates on this matter, but was very active in getting speakers to inform parliamentarians, of whom I was lucky enough to be one, and encouraged a proper and informed debate among those of us who are interested in these matters. His own view, on record in many places, among them BBC Radio’s “File on Four”, was:

The noble Lord, Lord Powell of Bayswater, said that it was a free lunch, but there is an expression: “There is no such thing as a free lunch”. I would bear that in mind when comparing his comments with the quote I have just given.

Issues of whether the programme makes us more vulnerable or safer, although critical considerations, are not what have brought me to speak today. I have

10 Jan 2008 : Column 968

been encouraged to speak by the abuse of Parliament—the lack of parliamentary involvement in these important decisions. A theme runs through the Government’s approach to this. It is a litany of after-the-event announcements, as enunciated by other noble Lords today. The Government say that they cannot talk about it while negotiations are going on, then that they cannot reveal exactly what is being negotiated as it is of course still confidential. Then, when negotiations are finished, they just issue a Written Statement saying what is going to happen.

My first experience of this was in 2003 when I tabled a Written Question. The reply of the noble Lord, Lord Bach, to Question HL3913 was:

On 15 January 2003, Mr Hoon outlined the Government’s initial reactions to the US request. In 2003, the MoD relented a bit and published a missile defence discussion paper which asked some important questions. Of course, the Government then answered the questions themselves because, in October 2004, they signed an agreement with the US Administration, and merely informed the House through a Written Statement. This prompted the first outrage of the Defence Select Committee:

History then repeated itself last year when the Government again made a decision, to give permission to the US Administration to use Menwith Hill. My honourable friend Norman Baker asked what formal agreement and Memorandum of Understanding was produced. The answer was most unsatisfactory because the agreement was simply given in an exchange of classified letters, and no comment at all was made on the Memorandum of Understanding. I could go on, but other noble Lords have spelt it out. A theme of absolute failure to involve Parliament runs through this.

Again, the Select Committee voiced its concern in absolutely unequivocal terms:

The Select Committee went on to recommend that there should be full parliamentary debate on these proposals, but it has been left to the Liberal Democrats to bring any debate at all, which we are pleased to do. But the Government really must give the other place the chance to debate this in full. At none of these stages before the fait accompli, therefore, has Parliament been give the chance to debate and, I suggest, vote on so critical and important a principle.

My noble friend Lord Wallace suggested that this was an extremely important part of international agreements. I thoroughly agree. Perhaps I am more of what the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, described as a fundamentalist. Probably the only place where I would part company with my noble friend Lord Wallace is that I am unilateralist, and I do not believe in nuclear weapons under any circumstances. It would

10 Jan 2008 : Column 969

take something to persuade me about missile defence. However, these questions need to be debated extremely widely.

Before I close, I also want to pay tribute to the Campaign for the Accountability of American Bases. It operates in Yorkshire near Menwith Hill. It has been the eyes and ears of the public for what is happening there; it first revealed in 1997 that Menwith Hill was to be designated as the European ground relay station. It has continued to raise this issue ever since. Its members have suffered an awful lot of personal aggravation, and I ask the Minister to look into some of the history of this. They have been arrested but not charged, and charged but the charges have been dropped; they would have welcomed those charges being pursued so that they could have had their day in court. In one case, violence was used against a member, and no satisfactory explanation has ever been given for that. However, it has been incredibly important that people on the ground have been there to see what is happening with planning permissions and some of the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Judd.

I wish them well in their campaign. They regularly campaign on Tuesdays outside Menwith Hill to draw attention to the unaccountability of this American base on British soil. Whether the Government ultimately come to the conclusion that we need the missile defence system or not, it must still be on British soil and accountable to the UK.

12.56 pm

Lord Sheikh: My Lords, I am pleased to be able to make this contribution, which addresses one of the most important defence issues facing our world, and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, on securing the debate. It is important that all aspects of these issues are explored in great depth.

I am fully supportive of the principle of a missile defence system in Europe. The threat that we are confronted with through nuclear proliferation underlies the important need to look at such a system very seriously. We must be able to defend ourselves, and while few would wish to see a growth in the number and sophistication of weapons around the globe, it is essential that we have the capacity to defend those values that constitute our national culture against the ever growing threats and dangers. Ignoring the risks is no safe way to reduce the number of weapons or the dangers that we face.

The Government's decision to co-operate closely with the United States, particularly alongside our allies in the Czech Republic and Poland, adds to the protection of the United Kingdom and to the broader region as a whole. Co-operation with the United States on defence issues has proved to be of great value to this country for a long time, and I want to see that continue. That is not to imply that we should become slaves to American foreign policy. We should be able to have a distinctive voice of our own, and evaluate our own contribution to global defence. The important role that NATO has played in our national defence should not be forgotten, and we must ensure

10 Jan 2008 : Column 970

that the proposals in the treaty of Lisbon, soon to be debated in your Lordships’ House, are not allowed to undermine the importance of NATO and our relationship with the United States. A common European defence policy must not be allowed to interfere with the effectiveness of NATO, as our participation and support of NATO is vital for our safety and involvement overseas.

The United States nationwide missile defence system programme was started in October 1999, and resulted in its withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in June 2002. American interest in developing this form of defence system has been extensive and long-standing. Their perception of the danger faced is severe; the possible threat of attacks from other states through ballistic missiles armed with conventional, nuclear, biological or chemical warheads is considered real. The consequence for international security is grave—if we get this wrong, we are included in those at risk.

There has been some negative impact on relations with China and Russia as a consequence of the handling of the missile defence system programme. It is important that ways are found to ensure that no permanent damage is done, and that good channels of communication are kept open. Yet the Government have failed to be as open to the House as would be beneficial on the development of a missile defence system in Europe. Parliament has a right to be treated better, and it does the Government no credit that they have not decided to be more open in their communication on the project. I could cite the example of dozens of parliamentary questions which demonstrate the evasive approach that the Government have adopted in communicating with Parliament. This may seem to be a constant critique on the conduct of this Government, and it is a real shame. With that in mind, it is also a shame that this debate is not being held in government time. Will the Minister update us on the discussions that have been held with her counterparts from the United States, and give a commitment to returning to the House in government time for a further debate in due course?

An example of this is demonstrated by the Government’s indecision. As recently as 2001, the Government were proclaiming that there was,

At the same time, the Government were expressing support for the development of the American programme, and were proactive in co-operation. What is the current position with the radar system at RAF Fylingdales? The site in north Yorkshire has been a part of the United States ballistic missile early warning system since 1963. Can the Minister provide us with further details on the use of RAF Menwith Hill? The Government need to demonstrate greater clarity on the use, by United States forces, of United Kingdom facilities.

The suitability of our defence research capacity is important. We spend significantly less than our allies in the United States on defence research. What is the contribution of research conducted in this country, and by our allies, to the development of a missile defence system? Are we able to deliver our own defence?

10 Jan 2008 : Column 971

To conclude, of course we all appreciate that the defence of our nation is the primary function of government and we need to be vigilant at all times. Yet I kindly ask the Government to be more open. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply.

1.03 pm

Baroness Falkner of Margravine: My Lords, I, too, pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire for securing this debate. It is a sad reflection on parliamentary accountability that the Opposition have to use their time on debates of this matter of national and international significance, which should in any event be discussed in Parliament, on the back of a serious and meaningful dialogue within the whole country. I am not a defence expert so will not go into the scientific arguments of ballistic missile defence, or the merits of these new hit-to-kill systems. My concern is with why the UK has nailed its colours to yet another American mast, of something that I regret is again sailing in the wrong direction, and what this means for international peace and security.

I am of a privileged generation which, had I grown up in the West, would have seen and taken for granted peace throughout my life. In fact, I lived in a part of the world, south Asia, where my father actively served in two of three wars in a space of just over 15 years. I witnessed on television the speech by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto at the United Nations, stating that Pakistan’s citizens—of whom I was one—would eat grass in order to secure their safety from India. This was in the context of developing nuclear weapons. Oddly enough, he had massive support for this and Pakistan’s development was compromised in order for its military-industrial complex to be able to boast of its ranking as a nuclear power. I subsequently lived in the Middle East and experienced the Israeli invasion of Lebanon first-hand. Conflict, at all levels, has been part of the calculation of international relations in my experience.

My noble friend Lord Wallace spoke at some length about the damage this US project has done and will continue to do to the international system. The window of opportunity we saw in the early 1990s, when it appeared that the permanent members of the Security Council could work together, has passed. What we have seen since the late 1990s has been a slow, steady decline of multilateralism in all fields, whether you are talking about trade, good governance and democracy, conflict prevention or security. The danger of this decline is evident. Those of us who take an interest in the Middle East have long despaired of Israel’s unilateralism, usually accompanied with silence from the US, and increasingly from the United Kingdom, too—most recently witnessed in the execution of the air war against Lebanon in 2006. In a region which has seen wars in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982 and 2006—I may have forgotten one or two—the heightened sense of insecurity on all sides calls for powerful nations to be even more careful about nuclear proliferation.

At minimum, some restraint on one’s own capabilities is required, if one is a superpower. Yet there are consequences of unilateralism in a wider context, too. To take the case of Pakistan, of which we have heard a lot in the last few weeks, the strategic long-term question

10 Jan 2008 : Column 972

about US and UK support for the military there is founded on the view that the military being in control of the nukes is preferable to the mullahs being in control of them. We also understand from press reports that, should the military be driven from power, contingency plans are in place for the US to guarantee surgical strikes against Pakistan's capabilities, to eliminate the threat. The informed view in Pakistan is that these operations will be undertaken by India by proxy, if the US does not move first. The death, destruction and future conflict that either of these scenarios would unleash bears some reflection.

Given these contexts, it does not seem entirely surprising that states which feel threatened, and which have seen the lessons of unilateralism go unpunished, are prepared to go their own way. We have seen the US move away from the diplomatic track to one of identification of states that are allies and dangerous rogue states—those that are not allies but must be tolerated and factored into the equation, such as China and Russia. This was set out in the 2001 National Intelligence Council’s report on missile threats in 1999, and formed the background to the current strategy. It was supposedly on this basis that President Bush set out his strategy on the new need for a more ambitious National Missile Defence system, which would address all potential threat scenarios.

I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Powell of Bayswater, is not in his place at the moment. He defended US developments vis- -vis Russia and Russia’s capabilities. Yet the House of Commons Library briefing Ballistic Missile Defence: Recent Developments talks about that estimate from the National Intelligence Council. About Russia, it states:

That is the Americans saying so, let alone anyone else.

In that report, the threats that were initially identified were expected to be from a group of rogue states—North Korea, Libya, Iraq and Iran, as my noble friend Lord Wallace said. We know that diplomacy has been successful in the case of the first two: nuclear weapons have been negotiated away. The third, Iraq, to the extent that it was a threat at all, has been bombed away, which leaves Iran, and we know that the national intelligence estimate of a few weeks ago has cast serious doubt about Iran’s capability—in the near future at least.

With Iran as the sole so-called rogue state which might at some future point be able to target other Middle Eastern states, one cannot see the case for a US defence system to be based on the European mainland, in Poland, the Czech Republic or the UK, as current scenario planning envisages. That leads one to suspect, as Russia does, that the National Missile Defence system is of broader strategic value with other aims than those publicly stated.

10 Jan 2008 : Column 973

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page