Chemical and Biological Weapons

Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 11th July 1989.

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Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott , Hackney North and Stoke Newington 12:00 am, 11th July 1989

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what is his estimate of the United States stockpile of chemical and biological weapons (a) currently and (b) over the next five years.

Photo of Sir Archie Hamilton Sir Archie Hamilton The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

It would be inappropriate for me to comment in detail on the defence capabilities of an ally. However, the United States is a party to the 1972 biological weapons convention. This prohibits the development, production and stockpiling of biological weapons.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott , Hackney North and Stoke Newington

Is it not the case that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics has stated exactly what its stockpile is and that the United States of America is threatening to increase its stockpile of chemical weapons?

Photo of Sir Archie Hamilton Sir Archie Hamilton The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

For a long time the Soviet Union would not say how big its stockpile was, and it was only the other day that it came out with the figure of 50,000 tonnes, which does not tie in with any of our estimates. We estimate that the stockpile is several times larger than that, but it is difficult for us to say with any exactitude, because a complex calculation is involved.

The United States produced no chemical weapons for 18 years, from 1969 to 1987, but that unilateral moratorium was not matched by the Soviet Union.

Photo of Mr Dudley Smith Mr Dudley Smith , Warwick and Leamington

An earlier supplementary question referred to Mr. Gorbachev's speech last week to the Council of Europe about chemical weapons. Is it not more important than ever that the Soviet Union's words should be matched by deeds?

Photo of Sir Archie Hamilton Sir Archie Hamilton The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

Absolutely—and we are watching with interest to see whether the Soviets adhere to their commitment to get rid of their existing stocks of chemical weapons. There is not much sign of it at present.

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen , Leyton

Has not the United States planned a large increase in its stock of binary chemical weapons? Is there a danger that other countries will say, "If the United States can do it, we can do it, too"? It is the proliferation argument all over again. Should not the Minister advise those countries to go for a global chemical weapons ban?

Photo of Sir Archie Hamilton Sir Archie Hamilton The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

The hon. Gentleman is right, and that is exactly what we are doing: we are going for a global chemical weapons ban, which is what we all want to see. We must remember, however, that the United States went into the manufacture of binary chemical weapons because the Soviet Union refused to stop manufacturing chemical weapons. It continued to manufacture them throughout those 18 years and built up vast stocks, and eventually the United States felt that it could not stand by any longer.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier , Canterbury

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Soviet Union's stocks of chemical weapons are much larger than those of the West? The Soviet Union has 14 factories, compared with just one in America. Will he also confirm that the Soviet Union continues to refuse to allow an inspection by the West of its facility at Shikhany, notwithstanding the agreement that it made with us?

Finally, will my hon. Friend confirm that all the questions that Opposition Members have asked recently have related to our weapons, rather than to the much larger stocks held by the Soviet Union?

Photo of Sir Archie Hamilton Sir Archie Hamilton The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

My hon. Friend is right. The Soviet stocks are very large and, as I said earlier, the Soviets admitted only recently to having any stocks of chemical weapons at all. It was very disappointing that they were unable to show us a large plant at Shikhany which we were sure was involved in the manufacture of chemical weapons; they said that it was a purely commercial organisation with no defence interest. That gives us some idea of their lack of straightforwardness on the issue.

Photo of Mr Roland Boyes Mr Roland Boyes , Houghton and Washington

There is no doubt that the Americans are spending billions of dollars on chemical weapons and delivery systems. Nevertheless, President Bush is on record as saying that he wants to be remembered for ridding the world of chemical weapons; 75 senators have signed a note saying that they want the President to increase his efforts to cut world stockpiles; and last week a senior military man at NATO told me, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) and other hon. Friends—we were discussing flexible response—that although nuclear weapons might be used first, in no circumstances would chemical weapons be used first.

In contrast, the Prime Minister is on record as saying that the security of NATO depends on the right mix of nuclear, conventional and chemical weapons for all circumstances. This Government and this Prime Minister are prepared to use the most obscene, horrendous and universally condemned weapons first, which demonstrates that once again they are out of step with both British public opinion and the opinions of our allies.

Photo of Sir Archie Hamilton Sir Archie Hamilton The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I am afraid that I do not quite understand the purpose of that question. Is the suggestion that my right hon. Friend said that we were prepared to use chemical weapons first? I do not see how that would be possible, as we have none.