Nuclear Explosions (Prohibition and Inspections) Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:46 pm on 6th November 1997.

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Photo of Mr David Faber Mr David Faber Conservative, Westbury 7:46 pm, 6th November 1997

I thank the Minister for bringing the Bill before the House and echo his warm words of support for the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty. The Opposition welcome the Bill. As he said, it received a fair wind in another place. We recognise that it provides the legislation necessary to ratify the treaty. He has given us a very full and detailed technical explanation of the Bill's contents, for which I am grateful. Like the Government, the Opposition believe that the world will ultimately be a safer place through the signing of the treaty. The signing of the treaty and discussion of the Bill show that the international community can, by acting with determination, while making sacrifices, reap the benefits at the end of the cold war and the desire for a reduction in the nuclear arsenals of all countries throughout the world.

The former Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, said on the very day that he signed the treaty in New York on 24 September last year: It is our firm conviction that this treaty is in the interests of all, and I urge all states to give it their full support. The full support of all states is, of course, crucial to the success of the treaty.

As the Minister rightly said, the signing of the treaty has come after a long process—many decades—of negotiation. Since 1989 particularly, we have seen profound and significant changes throughout Europe. More people than ever now live in democratic societies. The spread of democracy has made war less likely and the curtailment of the arms race ultimately more achievable.

Threats to our society remain, however, and it is only right that we, as a country and as part of the international community, should recognise and be alert to them. The Opposition remain absolutely committed to our nuclear deterrent and to keeping it fully serviced and updated to counter any potential threat we might face.

It is a shame that the Minister of State did not take the opportunity to reassert the Government's—and his personal—support for the retention and upgrading of the nuclear deterrent, given that he and many of his colleagues have called for the cancellation of the Trident programme in the past.

As Baroness Symons pointed out on Second Reading in another place, the implications of the treaty are profound, and the Minister of State rightly reminded us of that. Any deterioration in the Trident warheads will have to be assessed without recourse to nuclear testing. Such requirements will undoubtedly place an ever greater demand on the computer simulation techniques that provide an alternative and on the shared information and technology that we pool with our allies. However, I know that all hon. Members will agree that that is preferable, and that the treaty must succeed in its ultimate aim to do away for ever with nuclear testing, of whatever sort, and thus lead to a steady reduction in the world's nuclear arsenal.

The Minister of State was helpful in his explanation of the mechanisms in the Bill and the organisations that will flow from it for the monitoring and inspection of nuclear weapons, and he answered questions from my hon. Friends the Members for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) and for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant). However, he skirted quickly over the issue of ratification. He said that, to date, 147 countries had signed the treaty. According to the Library, 148 countries have signed the treaty, but perhaps the Library has added a country. Of those 147, only seven have so far ratified the treaty and, of the 44 required to sign to bring the treaty into force, I understand that only Japan has ratified it.

I do not suggest that the vast majority of states have anything other than an intention to ratify the treaty, and it is accepted under international law that a moratorium comes into effect once the process of ratification has begun. Both France and China have now agreed to abide by that understanding. However, problems exist in other countries. The Minister of State mentioned three in particular and I shall turn to those in a moment.

The most important country involved is the United States. Does the Minister of State have any information from his American counterparts about when ratification will take place there? President Clinton recently told the United Nations Assembly that the treaty would be presented to the Senate shortly, but some in American political circles are concerned about several aspects of the treaty, including compliance verification and the safety and reliability of their nuclear arsenal. Clearly, it is important that the rest of the world see that the one remaining super-power takes a strong lead, and I hope that the Minister and his colleagues will encourage American ratification as soon as possible. It is important that we, as another major nuclear power, set a good example, and I assume that the United Kingdom will ratify the treaty as soon as possible after the Bill receives Royal Assent.

On the vexed question of the signature of the treaty by India and Pakistan, it is of primary importance that India signs the treaty, as it is likely that Pakistan would follow suit. On Second Reading in another place, Lord Jenkins of Putney called on the Minister to use Labour's long and, for the most part, friendly relationship with India to push for a resolution to the problem. At that stage, he could not predict the Foreign Secretary's disastrous visit to India this summer and the insensitivity that he showed to the Indian Government.

I was surprised that the Minister of State made no mention of the trip in his speech. Can he tell us anything about the discussions that the Foreign Secretary had with his Indian counterparts? Did he push for Indian ratification, and what response did he get? Baroness Symons referred to the sacrifices made by this country in signing the treaty and to the moral arguments that the Government would bring to bear on India. What were those arguments, were they forcefully made, and what response was received?

The most worrying case is that of North Korea. It is clear that, in spite of repeated warnings from the international community, North Korea continues to develop and improve its ballistic capability. Whether it yet possesses the technology to put nuclear warheads on those ballistic weapons, we do not know. However, we live in dangerous times. Economic deprivation is rife in North Korea, and the leadership is constantly looking for ways to deflect local attention from the domestic crisis. Anti-western rhetoric is usually the favourite course and we have all seen many examples of that.

When the former Defence Secretary, Michael Portillo, visited South Korea in January this year, he made clear the then Government's support for the United States policy in the region. The response in one of the North Korean newspapers was to condemn his bellicose utterances. It continued: Our people and army are keeping a close eye on the British military whipping up war fever in the Korean peninsula.

I understand that the Minister and some of his colleagues may have a problem, because in the past many of them have held strong views on Korea. Indeed, the Minister has gone so far as to describe American troops in South Korea as a major obstacle to peace talks and to call for their withdrawal. Can he tell us about the Government's view of the continuing tension in that country and how it might be persuaded to sign the test ban treaty? Is it now the policy of the Government to stand four square alongside our United States allies in that region?

On Second Reading in another place, Lord Moynihan referred to the real problems that the world faces as a result of the possible proliferation of rogue states. Some such states seem positively to revel in their status as the bad boys of the world. While the specific strategic threat to Europe from a communist Soviet Union may have evaporated, we are only too aware of—and frequently debate—the many localised flashpoints around the world.

The procurement of nuclear weapons by several states could quickly turn localised problems into very real concerns for the international community. Both Iran and Libya appear to be working hard to develop their nuclear capacity and to acquire the technology. In Iraq, the situation is very tense, and it is worrying to suppose that the reason why the Iraqi authorities have suddenly cut access for United Nations inspectors is because they have been close to discovering evidence of a nuclear programme. What are the Government's current views on the stand-off in Iraq? Can the Minister confirm that we also stand four square alongside our United States allies on that issue?

No less a figure than the Foreign Secretary himself once criticised the bombing of Baghdad during the Gulf war because it would make it more difficult to achieve peace and security. I hope that that is no longer his view, because those sentiments now seem out of place and old-fashioned. I hope that we are maintaining good relations with the United States and doing all that we can to support the United Nations inspection regime in Iraq.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield reminded us, the Conservatives are proud of the role played by the previous Government in bringing the treaty to fruition. We will do all we can to support the Government in pushing for ratification by all the states. I look forward to ratification by this country as soon as possible and to the Government playing an enthusiastic role in persuading others to do likewise. Once that is achieved, the treaty can begin to fulfil its vital role.