Strategic Defence Initiative

Oral Answers to Questions — Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 18th February 1987.

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Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace , Orkney and Shetland 12:00 am, 18th February 1987

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what is his assessment of the policy implications for the United Kingdom of an early deployment of the strategic defence initiative; and if he will make a statement.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Howe Mr Geoffrey Howe , East Surrey

The policy implications of deployment would include those identified in the agreement reached by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and President Reagan at Camp David in 1984. Meanwhile, the strategic defence initiative remains a research programme. No early deployment of strategic defences appears to be in prospect.

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace , Orkney and Shetland

Given that the Foreign Office is reported to have said that the United States is willing to continue consultation with its European allies on arms control issues, including any possible conflict between SDI and the anti-ballistic missile treaty, does the Foreign Secretary of State not think it important that Her Majesty's Government should clarify their position as to the interpretation of that treaty in relation to deployment and to testing and development? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman take this opportunity to say that the Government support the narrow interpretation of the treaty?

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Howe Mr Geoffrey Howe , East Surrey

The House will understand the importance which Her Majesty's Government and the Alliance attach to the ABM treaty. The interpretation of it—I emphasise the word "interpretation"—is a matter for the two signatories to the treaty. The way in which it has been applied is a matter of importance, quite apart from whatever the lawyers may say. The House will recollect the statement made by Secretary of State Shultz to the North Atlantic Assembly in October 1985 drawing attention to the distinction between the broad and the narrow interpretation. He then said: our SDI research program has been structured and, as the President has reaffirmed last Friday, will continue to be conducted in accordance with a restrictive interpretation of the Treaty's obligations. That is the basis on which the research programme has been conducted heretofor. Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said: If they change what has hiterto been understood to be the interpretation, yes, we do ask for consultation because that has considerable effect upon the arms control negotiations that are taking place in Geneva". Thus far, quite apart from the lawyers' analysis, the programme has been conducted on the basis of the narrow interpretation. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it clear, as I have done—she said this at the Anglo-Italian summit last week—that our main message to the United States is please consult your other allies in NATO on this matter of vital importance to us all.

Photo of Mr Cyril Townsend Mr Cyril Townsend , Bexleyheath

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that may of us who support the concept of anti-missile defence and the need for Britain to take part in the research programme have grave reservations about the way in which President Reagan launched this initiative and are extremely cautious about early implementation without the widest possible consultation within the NATO Alliance?

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Howe Mr Geoffrey Howe , East Surrey

I understand that the programme gives rise to a wide divergence of views on both sides of the House. The one thing about which there is unanimous agreement is the importance of the ABM treaty and of consultation about any change in the way in which it is applied.

Photo of Mr Eric Deakins Mr Eric Deakins , Walthamstow

Do the Government oppose the early or subsequent deployment of the SDI? If so, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman explain why?

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Howe Mr Geoffrey Howe , East Surrey

As was agreed between my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and President Reagan at the first Camp David meeting, deployment would in view of treaty obligations have to be a matter for negotiations. As I said in my original answer, deployment is not a matter about which any decision has been taken. No decision is imminent or likely to be imminent for a considerable time.

Photo of Mr Anthony Kershaw Mr Anthony Kershaw , Stroud

Will my right hon. and learned Friend impress upon the American Government the importance of having an agreed interpretation of the treaty? Should we rely upon Mr. Shultz's interpretation, or on that of Mr. Adelman, who is now temporarily in charge?

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Howe Mr Geoffrey Howe , East Surrey

It has been made clear that because of the importance of the ABM treaty as part of the framework within which arms control negotiations are being conducted there should be agreement about the interpretation or at least the basis on which the treaty is being applied and interpreted.

Photo of Dr David Owen Dr David Owen , Plymouth, Devonport

As the Foreign Secretary knows, the Secretary of State for Defence has already made the Government's position clear. He said: we very much welcomed the US commitment to pursue its SDI research programme in accordance with a strict interpretation of the ABM treaty".—[Official Report, 19 February; Vol. 92, c. 336.] Why is the right hon. and learned Gentleman so shy of reaffirming the view that he, the Foreign Office and the Secretary of State for Defence have constantly put forward, namely that the strict interpretation is being applied? The United States has already told the Soviet Union in Geneva that it wishes to change the interpretation. Why will the Foreign Secretary not say that that is a retrograde step and a retrospective interpretation of the treaty, which the British Government do not support?

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Howe Mr Geoffrey Howe , East Surrey

The right hon. Gentleman need not go as far back as 1986 or to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to seek affirmation of our endorsement of the President's application of the narrow interpretation. I made the same point in my speech to the International Institute a fortnight ago.

I repeat what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said to the House yesterday: If they change what has hitherto been understood to he the interpretation, yes, we do ask for consultation because that has considerable effect upon the arms control negotiations that are taking place in Geneva".—[Official Report, 17 February 1987; Vol. 110, c. 764.]

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Howe Mr Geoffrey Howe , East Surrey

It is wrong for the right hon. Gentleman to assert that a change has been made. Some are arguing for change, but it is clear that no change has been made. It is equally clear that it is important that consultation should take place.

Photo of David Heathcoat-Amory David Heathcoat-Amory , Wells

Does my right hon. and learned Friend recall the speech that he made on SDI to the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies in 1985, when he raised a number of doubts about SDI and, in particular, about the instability that might result from deployment of a partial defensive system? Has my right hon. and learned Friend had answers to the important questions that he raised in that speech, particularly with regard to the possible vulnerability of our continent of Europe if a defensive system were to be deployed by the United States?

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Howe Mr Geoffrey Howe , East Surrey

I well remember the important speech that I made—it was rather a good one—and I made another on the same topic two weeks ago. Clearly, those important questions still require consideration as the SDI research programme proceeds on both sides of the iron curtain. For that reason, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agreed with President Reagan that SDI-related deployments should be a matter for negotiation because of the importance of the ABM treaty.

Photo of Mr Denis Healey Mr Denis Healey , Leeds East

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that Mr. Shultz said that the United States believes that the broad interpretation of the ABM treaty is justified, even though for the time being—he said this some time ago—the United States will, in its conduct, adhere to the strict interpretation? Has the right hon. and learned Gentleman made any response to the gratuitous insults that were heaped on him by Mr. Perle and Mr. Adelman every time he suggested that the Reagan Administration should stick to the undertakings that they gave the Prime Minister at Camp David? Why has the Prime Minister consistently undermined the right hon. and learned Gentleman's efforts and those of the Secretary of State for Defence to persuade the United States to adhere strictly to the terms of the ABM treaty? The right hon. Lady said yesterday that she had no right to have a view on this because she had not read the negotiating record. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that if the United States were to carry out tests in its star wars programme in outer space it would violate the ABM treaty and seriously jeopardise all hopes of disarmament?

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Howe Mr Geoffrey Howe , East Surrey

The right hon. Gentleman is right to remind the House, as I think I did earlier, that the United States—not only Mr. Schultz, but others—has contended that the broader interpretation is one that can be upheld. It also said that it would continue to conduct the SDI research programme within the narrower interpretation — [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) persists, rather uncharacteristically, in interrupting from a sedentary position. I must tell him that the White House spokesman has made it clear, and it has been reaffirmed since, that no decisions have been made on development and deployment. That has been affirmed today by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence after his meetings in Washington yesterday. It is a matter of importance about which consultation is clearly necessary and will clearly be forthcoming.

As for the allegedly insulting observations of Mr. Adelman and others, after 12 years in opposition to the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) I am well inured to resisting absurd and insulting remarks of every kind. I brush them aside with the contempt that they deserve.