Nuclear Weapons

Oral Answers to Questions — Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs – in the House of Commons at 2:18 pm on 3rd May 1995.

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Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant , Staffordshire Mid 2:18 pm, 3rd May 1995

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs when he next plans to meet his overseas colleagues to discuss treaty obligations regarding nuclear non-proliferation; and if he will make a statement. [20419]

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Witney

I spoke to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty review and extension conference on 18 April. For 25 years the treaty has been the cornerstone of our efforts to prevent proliferation and it has succeeded in limiting the number of states with a nuclear weapons capability. We therefore want to make the treaty permanent by agreeing in New York its indefinite extension. That is supported by all states of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Europe and north America, and by a growing number of the non-aligned states. To help ensure a successful outcome, we have made a number of moves on security assurances and on ceasing the production of fissile material for explosive purposes.

In the negotiations for a comprehensive test ban treaty, we have dropped our requirement for nuclear tests in exceptional circumstances—the so-called safety tests. The moves that we have made underline our strong commitment to achieving progress on disarmament and maintaining the non-proliferation treaty as an essential guarantor of international security.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant , Staffordshire Mid

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his full and comprehensive answer. Is not the world a far less safe place now than it was 10 years ago? Is it not irresponsible for certain Members of the House of Commons to say, as the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) did only yesterday, that now is the time for this country to disarm unilaterally? Does that not make my right hon. Friend's job more difficult when it comes to negotiating the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and do not such comments demonstrate—following the debate in Westminster hall on Saturday—that the Labour party is just a rabble without a clause?

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Witney

I will not seek to emulate my hon. Friend. I noticed the remarks of the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) in the House yesterday, when he said that nuclear weapons were "expensive, immoral and unjustifiable". That used to be the view of all his party. It is only fairly recently that the Labour party has come to support the Trident programme, as we do.

The hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) has made some cloudy remarks in the past few weeks which suggest that he is moving back towards his traditional position in line with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the hon. Member for Islington, North. Perhaps in our exchanges here the hon. Member for Livingston will be able to show how far and how fast he is moving backwards.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn , Islington North

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that it would be far better if the non-proliferation treaty were renewed only for a limited period, to allow the nuclear weapons states the opportunity to decommission and get rid of their nuclear weapons as a contribution towards world peace? Does he honestly think that Britain equipping four Trident nuclear submarines with a total of 376 warheads is anything but a belligerent act in a world that is desperately looking for peace? Would we not be better served by saying that we will abandon the cost and use of nuclear weapons as our contribution to world peace?

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Witney

We have had an argument on this matter in this country—and rightly so—year after year. I do not say that there is a consensus because the hon. Gentleman is not part of one, but there is an overwhelming feeling that we need to maintain a minimum—and it is a minimum— national nuclear deterrent, as envisaged in the treaty, so there is no pressure on us from abroad from to follow the course that the hon. Member recommends and I would not advise it to the House.

The hon. Member suggests a partial or temporary renewal of the treaty, but a temporary renewal means an uncertain renewal. It means that the risks of proliferation would begin to overshadow the world even more starkly than at present. That is not a good idea.

Photo of Mr Cyril Townsend Mr Cyril Townsend , Bexleyheath

What success did my right hon. Friend and the Prime Minister have in their talks with senior Israeli politicians about nuclear non-proliferation? Does my right hon. Friend recall that it was Israel which first secretly introduced nuclear weapons into the middle east, supported by apartheid South Africa, and it will be very hard to have successful disarmament talks in the middle east until Israel is prepared to admit that it has nuclear weapons.

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Witney

I hope that it may be possible before too long for the Israeli Government to make some move on this. I put it in those terms because I understand the difficulties that the Government of Israel face, just as I understand the criticisms made, for example, by the Egyptian Government of that stance. I am therefore not pressing—and the British Government are not pressing—for the impossible or the unrealistic. However, given the changed circumstances, we think that it would be wise for Israel to indicate a move on this subject.

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook , Livingston

Does the Foreign Secretary recognise that the principal problem in getting agreement to indefinite extension of this important treaty is that the countries without nuclear weapons do not believe that the countries with them have done enough to fulfil their commitment to negotiate disarmament, which was a commitment given by this Government—and not a clouded commitment, but one perfectly clear in article 6? Why have the British Government then opposed the modest proposal for a standing committee to keep progress towards disarmament under review? If the right hon. Gentleman is so satisfied that he can defend the Government's strong commitment to disarmament, why is he trying to avoid something as modest as a standing committee to monitor progress towards disarmament?

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Witney

There will inevitably be continued reviewing and monitoring of progress, as there always has been. I do not think that that is the real obstacle. The real obstacle is not anything that Britain or France do or do not do. It is the one that my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend) referred to regarding the middle east—there is a slightly similar, though larger, obstacle as regards India, Pakistan and China—and regional suspicions across the world. That is the real obstacle to the indefinite success of the treaty. We are trying to wear down those arguments and we have made our own moves in order to meet criticism.

I believe—I hope that the hon. Member for Livingston will find occasions in the future to make this clear on behalf of the Labour party—that the Trident programme which we have in this country is a minimum. If we are to have a national nuclear deterrent at all—and, as I said, there is something near a consensus that we should—we believe that in the present circumstances what we propose, with the limitations that we have announced in the way of the Trident programme, is the minimum that we can have.