Chemical Weapons

– in the House of Commons at 10:55 pm on 24th April 1995.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Chapman.]

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes , Ilford South 11:01 pm, 24th April 1995

I wish to raise the question of the chemical weapons convention and the threat from chemical weapons.

In January 1993, after 20 years of negotiations, the chemical weapons convention was opened for signature. It bans the development, production, possession, transfer and use of chemical weapons. In last year's "Statement on the Defence Estimates'', the Ministry of Defence described the chemical weapons convention as a major step forward in enhancing world stability". To date, 159 countries have signed the chemical weapons convention. That shows the depth of international commitment to outlawing such weapons. Thirty-one states had not signed as of the end of March, including Egypt, Angola, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Syria and Taiwan. They must be persuaded to do so.

This treaty is clearly in our national security interests, because it reduces the risk of British troops being subjected to chemical attack when deployed overseas, whether on national, NATO or United Nations peacekeeping operations.

Recently, the world has seen the awful horrors of terrorist chemical attack on civilians in Japan. That shows the relative ease of making chemical weapons, as well as the problems of preventing their use, but it also demonstrates the need to impose much tighter controls on the trade in chemicals and the purposes to which they are put. That is why Japan is now rushing to pass the legislation necessary for it to ratify the convention.

The chemical weapons convention cannot enter into force until 180 days after the 65th state has deposited its instrument of ratification with the United Nations Secretary-General. The earliest date on which the convention could have entered into force was 13 January this year. It has yet to do so, because, to date, only 27 states have ratified the convention. They include Australia, France, Germany, Norway, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland—all of which are industrialised countries, many of them with significant chemical industries and facilities, which will be greatly affected by the convention.

Surprisingly, given our own proud record in successful negotiation of the chemical weapons convention, and our signature of the treaty at the earliest opportunity in January 1993, this country and Her Majesty's Government have not yet ratified the convention. Why not? Before Britain can ratify the convention, legislation needs to be introduced which, among other things, must provide rights of access for international inspectors to commercial chemical facilities, for verification of compliance. The Department of Trade and Industry is responsible for introducing the necessary legislation.

In a written answer last year, the President of the Board of Trade said:

Primary legislation is required to enable the United Kingdom to ratify the chemical weapons convention."—[Official Report, 8 December 1994; Vol. 251, c. 297.] At the Group of Seven economic summit in London, in 1991, the United Kingdom and its G7 partners reaffirmed their intention to become original state parties to the convention"— that is, to be among the first 65 signatories to ratify.

In the 1993 Gracious Speech, the Government said that they would

work for the effective implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, to prevent proliferation of weapons of mass destruction".—[Official Report, 18 November 1993; Vol. 233, c. 7.] Yet, more recently, when asked if it remains Government policy for Britain to become an original state party of the convention, Ministers have avoided restating their earlier commitment.

In a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), on 26 September 1994, the Secretary of State for Defence said:

We certainly hope to be among the first 65 states to ratify the convention. It does not appear to be the Ministry of Defence that is delaying United Kingdom ratification, because, in last year's "Statement on the Defence Estimates," the MOD actually expected"— the CWC

to enter into force at the earliest possible date in 1995". In a written parliamentary answer earlier this year, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces said:

Once fully implemented it will make a significant contribution to international security."—[Official Report, 27 February 1995; Vol. 255, c. 437.] At the end of 1993, the Prime Minister confidently asserted: The United Kingdom played an active role in the negotiations leading to the opening for signature of the chemical weapons convention … The United Kingdom signed the Convention in January 1993 and we intend to ratify the chemical weapons convention at the earliest possible opportunity."—[Official Report, 16 December 1993; Vol. 234, c. 795.] That was 16 months ago.

Are Her Majesty's Government seriously telling the House that there has not been an opportunity to introduce that legislation since then? Is the Foreign Office responsible? Is it the Foreign Office that is resisting ratification? No. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is rightly proud of its performance in this field. Its memorandum to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in February this year stated:

The chemical weapons convention … after 20 years of negotiation, was a landmark for proliferation and arms control in the post-Cold war era. The UK played a major part in its negotiation, and it intends to ratify the CWC as soon as the necessary implementing legislation is in place". Is it, perhaps, because the legislation is likely to be met with resistance from the civil chemical industry? Again, no; the Chemical Industries Association has been clear in its support for the chemical weapons convention. It wants to ensure that the United Kingdom is an original state party, able to play a full part in shaping the control regime and able to ensure that it will not suffer the trade discrimination that might arise if the UK remained a non-party.

Perhaps there is some other explanation. Might there be some detrimental consequences for Britain's chemical and biological defence establishment at Porton Down? Again, no; on the contrary, it will continue to conduct research into protective measures against chemical attack and will also play a central part in the new arms control regime.

Is it, perhaps, because legislation is likely to prove controversial? Again, no; presumably, on this issue, the Government could expect to carry all their Back Benchers with them, and both Labour Front Benchers and the Liberal Democrats have pledged their broad support for the legislation. During business questions just before Easter, the shadow Leader of the House offered the Labour party's full co-operation in getting legislation through the House.

Is it because the legislation is likely to prove complex and to require a great deal of preparation? I do not think so—not according to the paper presented by the Government to a regional chemical weapons convention seminar in Brno in the Czech Republic in June last year. It stated:

Our legislation will be quite short and we think its preparation will be quite straightforward. The President of the Board of Trade has said that the necessary Bill will be introduced as soon as parliamentary time and other Government legislative priorities permit."—[Official Report, 8 December 1994; Vol. 251, c. 297.] The excuse of finding it difficult to fit a Bill into the legislative programme may be a fair one over a short period of a few months, but surely not over a two-year period. That leaves me asking whether it is all about a sense of priorities. In that case, perhaps we should look at the President's words when he was Secretary of State for Defence. On 8 May 1985 he told the Defence Select Committee: I can only tell you the priorities we … in this Government have—to secure agreement to the limitation and, hopefully, the abolition of chemical weapons. Yet, 10 years later, when the right hon. Gentleman has the opportunity to carry that legislation through to fruition, he fails to act. Why? Could it be something to do with his aversion to imposing regulations and controls on industry? Surely, in this area that would be misguided and contrary to the security interests of our country.

I would have thought that people in general might think that, following the Post Office fiasco, the right hon. Gentleman would have welcomed the opportunity to introduce a simple piece of legislation that could be relied on to receive widespread support from his Back Benchers and, perhaps, unanimous support from both sides of the House.

At least the right hon. Gentleman's Department has begun work in preparation for the entry into force of the convention and the UK is playing a full part in the preparatory commission in The Hague that has been charged with the task of developing detailed administrative and verification procedures in preparation for the entry into force of the convention.

As I understand it, the British embassy in The Hague has two people at first secretary level playing major roles in the work of the commission and six British citizens have posts in the organisation for the prohibition of chemical weapons, which is the provisional technical secretariat. One of them is its head. After it comes into effect, that organisation will monitor the implementation of the convention.

However, as the Royal Society of Chemistry and others have pointed out, if the UK fails to be among the first 65 countries to ratify the convention, that will have serious detrimental consequences for personnel, for employment and for Britain's influence within the convention. In the words of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs report entitled "UK Policy on Weapons Proliferation and Arms Control in the Post-Cold War Era", a failure to ratify amongst the first 65 member states would mean that few, if any, UK nationals would be employed as inspectors or in the Technical Secretariat, at any rate in the first instance, and might prejudice the UK's right to a seat on the Executive Council. The Committee said other things that were strongly critical of the Government. It said:

there is a risk that the UK's diplomatic efforts to promote the Convention may be undermined by its own apparent reluctance to ratify … it is clear that a number of detailed points of importance to the UK chemical industry remain to be resolved in relation to the scope of the Convention and it is important that the UK interest is adequately reflected in discussion of these. At the end of January this year, the Department of Trade and Industry issued its discussion document, and responses should have been returned by 31 March. No doubt, the results will be useful to the Department, but, after the UK signed the convention, why did two years elapse before the consultation document was issued? Surely, the Government conducted consultations before they agreed to sign the convention, and what were they doing between January 1993 and January 1995?

On 18 January this year, the Foreign Secretary told the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs that legislation was not likely in the present Session of Parliament. That would mean that our Government would not intend to introduce the necessary Bill until at least November 1995, nearly three years alter we signed the chemical weapons convention.

It looks fairly certain that that convention will not come into force until 1996, but by the end of this year, we are likely to be a lot closer to 65 countries having ratified. By delaying until the next Session of Parliament, the Government risk either not being an original state party or having to scramble to put the Bill through to spare them the embarrassment of being left behind. That is hardly a dignified position to have got Britain into—a leading proponent of the chemical weapons convention being one of the last to ratify.

Why is the DTI prepared to risk tarnishing the country's admirable record in chemical arms control? The reasons still remain obscure. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office wants the treaty ratified as soon as possible. The Ministry of Defence wants it. DTI officials want it and they are preparing for it. The legislation is straightforward and could be passed quickly. The main Opposition parties support the Bill's principles. Even the Chemical Industries Association is quoted as saying that it believes that the UK chemical industry is overwhelmingly in favour of ratification. We are not the cause of delay—we need the convention to show that we are not [involved in making clandestine weapons]". Given all that, why has it been necessary to ask the Minister to come to explain his Department's reluctance to introduce required legislation? One might have expected the DTI to do that months ago and to trumpet the move as proof that our Government were committed to chemical weapons disarmament and to the tremendous achievement of securing the convention.

When it eventually comes before the House, the Bill will need to provide powers for an effective, transparent and properly accountable national authority to oversee the country's compliance with the treaty. It is important that a country such as Britain, which has an excellent record on chemical weapon disarmament and which is not likely to be suspected of building chemical weapons, nevertheless demonstrates that it is taking seriously the job of putting in place effective mechanisms to prove its compliance.

Photo of Ian Taylor Ian Taylor , Esher 11:18 pm, 24th April 1995

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) on the way in which he has presented his case and, indeed, on securing the Adjournment debate in the first place as it gives me my first opportunity since I became a Minister to speak in the House on this subject. I am delighted to do so and can confirm that the Government fully endorse the convention and have every intention of ratifying it.

The hon. Gentleman made an extended point, so perhaps I can reverse the usual order of ministerial replies in order to avoid running out of time before I get to the key part. I disagree with the official who said to whatever conference it was that this might be only a simple procedure. There are complexities. The Bill covers a subject matter that is more complex than may be widely realised and we discovered some points during the Department of Trade and Industry's consultation period with industry earlier this year which, as the hon. Gentleman said, finished on 31 March. We are now reviewing the conclusions, and I shall deal with them in a moment.

It might help the House and the industry if I were to say that the intention is, at a fairly early date, to publish a draft of the Bill. That will enable those affected by it or those who take an interest in it to comment on the provisions before they are formally introduced. It is a wise precaution and certainly one that I advocate. I am entitled to say on behalf of the Government that that is our intention after consultations across Government Departments. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, although I am a Minister at the Department of Trade and Industry, other Departments take an interest in the matter, but we are all of one mind in wanting to try to make progress.

Work is going ahead to prepare the necessary legislation and, as I said, we intend to publish a draft of the Bill with a view to introducing it in the 1995–96 Session. I have noted the hon. Gentleman's comments about this not being a matter of controversy between the parties. I welcome that as I can envisage the Bill having a speedy passage. I am sure that that would please him and the other hon. Members who take a considerable interest in the Government's achievement, with support from Opposition Members, in signing the convention in the first place in 1993.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow

If we had to wait until the 1995–96 Session, how would the Minister respond to the Royal Society of Chemistry's third cause for concern in relation to parties in certain industrial chemicals that are defined in the CWC under Schedule 2 and Schedule 3 as being dual-use compounds and the trade in them? Might not it create difficulties if we did not proceed immediately?

Photo of Ian Taylor Ian Taylor , Esher

It would not create difficulties until a period after the coming into force of the whole treaty. We are well aware of that and one of the things that came out of the consultation between January and the end of March was that we should listen to industry's worries. However, I am satisfied that that possibility will not arise thanks to the timetable that I have announced this evening. Indeed, any of the outstanding points touched on by the Select Committee about the way in which the treaty is defined and implemented in this country could be dealt with during consultation on the draft Bill rather than when it is debated in the House. That would then simplify the procedure in the House.

I welcome those parts of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee's report that refer to the chemical weapons convention. Clearly, I am not this evening going to reply formally to the report on behalf of the Government—that must await the normal channels—but I have read the sections that are relevant to this debate.

The hon. Member for Ilford, South gave the correct background to the convention and I do not wish to go over it again. In the time that remains I shall highlight some matters that may be of interest to anyone who may be listening at this early hour of the evening or who is a devotee of Hansard because I should like to provoke a much wider debate on the subject.

The chemicals involved fall into different categories. Clearly, schedule 1 contains the most toxic chemicals, including many of the agents themselves. These chemicals have few alternative applications. The UK must not possess on aggregate more than 1 tonne of schedule 1 chemicals and all holdings must be justifiable for research, medical, protective or pharmaceutical purposes. Schedule 2 contains chemicals that, although toxic, have some legitimate industrial uses. Schedule 3 contains chemicals that occur commonly in industry, but which can be used in the production of chemical weapons, such as phosgene which is also used in plastics.

The discrete organic chemicals category covers carbon-based chemicals which are widely used in industry. International discussions in the preparatory commission continue to tighten the definition, which is important for industry as a whole.

In our view, the chemical weapons convention provides an effective and powerful verification regime which we warmly welcome. Declarations are required periodically from companies and others using chemicals of concern. As the hon. Gentleman said, inspection will be undertaken by an international inspectorate based in The Hague, there being two sorts of inspection: a routine inspection which will check declarations of the scheduled chemicals, and challenge inspections which will be undertaken at 12 hours' notice at any site where there are grounds for suspecting that it is in breach of the convention. Challenge inspections can be requested by any state party.

Trade controls will be imposed progressively. Initially, trade in the most toxic chemicals—those in schedule 1—will be controlled. Schedule 2 chemicals will be controlled after three years. I hope that that background is of help.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the international body which will be set up—the organisation for the prohibition of chemical weapons—and which will be based in The Hague. The main function of its staff will be the inspections to which I have just referred. The preparatory commission working in The Hague on the detailed arrangements for implementation is a commission in which the British Government are playing an active part; we will continue to do so. My announcement tonight about timing underlines the fact that we are confident that we shall have a considerable influence in the discussions that are rolling forward.

The CWC enters into force six months after 65 countries have ratified it. As was mentioned, 27 countries have ratified it so far. The Russian Federation and the United States have not yet moved to ratification. Obviously, we are interested not only in their timetables, but in encouraging as many other countries as possible to move forward. We have been influential in trying to talk both to countries that have signed and are likely to move slowly towards ratification and to countries that have not yet signed the convention, but which might be encouraged so to do.

From my departmental point of view, I mention that the DTI will be the national authority which each state is required to set up as a focal point for the implementation of the convention. It is inevitable that the controls required by the convention will affect industry. The Government have kept in close touch with the representatives of the chemical industry during the negotiation of the convention and continue to work with industry to ensure that, in the compliance process, we keep the burdens on business to the minimum necessary. That is welcome.

We are preparing reporting forms and information for the industry, as far as this can be done on the basis of decisions taken in the preparatory commission. Industry has given us its views in the consultation period, which was designed to let all firms that were affected come forward with their views and to seek industry's views on points in relation to declaration procedures. We have found that industry particularly wants to avoid avoidable burdens and wants other burdens to be minimised. Strict measures are needed to preserve commercial confidentiality. Definitions must be precise and industry will need guidance during inspections. I am confident that as the DTI will be the national authority, the discreet and confidential nature of DTI civil servants will safeguard the interests of industry in relation to confidentiality.

In all the discussions that are going ahead, both in this country and through The Hague, the British Government are doing their job. I do not accept the strictures in the Foreign Affairs Select Committee report, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, because I believe that the timetable that I have announced will satisfy it and does not in any way undermine our diplomatic efforts to promote the treaty. I am satisfied therefore that we shall continue to be influential and that our voice will be heard on unresolved industry matters. We are a participant in the discussions in The Hague. Indeed, we chair the expert group on industry issues in The Hague.

I do not believe that we shall fail to be part of the first 65 countries. Therefore, I believe that we shall have a seat on the executive council, although I am aware of and shall be watching the rate of progress in the next few months. I can confirm to the hon. Member for Ilford, South that I am aware of the consequences of late ratification, which is why, as a new Minister, I have endeavoured to make as speedy progress as possible. Therefore, I think that we shall be a founder state party to the convention.

In the last couple of minutes of the debate, may I mention one area of concern which has been raised with me in correspondence, although the hon. Member for Ilford, South did not raise it tonight? I have been asked whether the ratification of the convention, which is coming into force, will make terrorist attacks impossible. The obvious answer to that, I am sad to say, is no. There is no convention yet invented which can avoid or prevent terrorists from carrying out deeds such as those that we have recently seen in Japan. I must confirm that this convention by itself will not be sufficient to remove the threat of those terrorist activities. Clearly, in as much as certain highly toxic chemicals will be brought under control or destroyed, access to certain chemicals will be made more difficult. On the other hand, some chemicals can be manufactured—in small quantities but nevertheless creating a danger to the public.

Ultimately, it is possible to continue to make certain agents, of which sarin is an example, from chemicals which, because of their wide commercial applications, fall outside the convention's controls. Defence against chemical terrorism depends on good intelligence, vigilance and public support, as does defence against other forms of terrorism. The police and other agencies have served us well, but my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary will be keen to see what we can learn from the experience of others and especially from recent events in Japan. There is contingency planning in existence for responding to a wide range of terrorist attacks, including chemical ones.

I am grateful for the opportunity to reply.

Photo of Ian Taylor Ian Taylor , Esher

I am about to run out of time, so I shall not give way. I hope that I have clarified the timetable to the satisfaction of the hon. Member for Ilford, South. I am determined that the Government should be at the forefront of this very important—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Twelve midnight.