National Missile Defence

Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 15th January 2001.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West 12:00 am, 15th January 2001

What recent discussions he has had with his United States counterpart on national missile defence. [143711]

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

We have continued to discuss regularly the proposed United States national missile defence system with the current US Government, and expect to do so with the new US Administration.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

Was not star wars the most expensive and most abject military failure ever? Will not son of star wars violate international treaties and wreck the present stability between east and west on nuclear matters? How could any British Government agree to support a scheme that would try to defend the United States by increasing the risk to Great Britain? Britain's role in any star wars nuclear exchange would be to offer up our country as a disposable target. Would not it be more appropriate to rename son of star wars and call it son of failure, especially as it is supported by the Tory party, which is the party of failure?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I say the same to my hon. Friend as I shall no doubt say to Opposition Members in due course. The Government have not yet reached a decision on this matter, nor should we do so, because the Americans have not reached a decision. Given that there will be a new United States Administration, it hardly seems sensible to commit ourselves to a system that the Americans may or may not commit themselves to.

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Liberal Democrat, North East Fife

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is naive to give uncritical support to a unilateral proposal on national missile defence without taking account of Russian anxiety, the risk to further cuts in strategic nuclear weapons and the potential for a nuclear arms race in Asia led by China and followed by India and Pakistan? Does he further agree that the advent of a new Administration in the White House gives the opportunity for fresh thinking to take account of the nuclear realities of the 21st century, to continue progress towards further cuts in strategic arms holdings, and to provide, if it is viable, protection for all who subscribe to a new regime, including Russia and China? In particular, could not the United States kick-start such a proposal by signing the comprehensive test ban treaty?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the Leader of the Opposition shows a lack of judgment when he blunders about pronouncing on this issue even before the United States has reached a conclusion. That applies equally to the right hon. and learned Gentleman's further observations. It is necessary to consider carefully any proposal as and when it arrives so as properly to protect the best interests of the United Kingdom, and not to reach a conclusion at this stage, whatever it might be.

Photo of Mr Lawrie Quinn Mr Lawrie Quinn Labour, Scarborough and Whitby

I have previously raised with my right hon. Friend the concerns of the communities of the North York moors, including my constituents and those of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) and the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway). Is my right hon. Friend happy to confirm what he has previously told me, that the British people and this place would know first about any proposals on such a defence system, and that the immediate communities around RAF Fylingdales would be included in the process of understanding those proposals? We should be careful to note that, if there is to be a 21st-century bandwagon, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks is the wrong test pilot to drive that bandwagon forward.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I agree with my hon. Friend that, whenever the United States reaches a decision on what type of national missile defence it proposes to develop, it is important for such a system to be carefully considered in the United Kingdom and among our allies. That was one of the reasons why President Clinton decided to defer the proposal to the new Administration who are about to take office. It is obvious that there should be a debate in the United Kingdom, specifically among the people in and around Fylingdales.

Photo of Mr John Wilkinson Mr John Wilkinson Conservative, Ruislip - Northwood

Is not it noteworthy that supporters of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, who included many Labour Members, were vociferous in their criticism of the deployment of cruise missiles in this country because, according to them, it would thereby become more vulnerable? Those same people are now complaining that Fylingdales may be modernised as part of the US's national ballistic missile system, which will make this country less vulnerable. Is it not clear that the Labour party has little interest in national defence?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for saying so, I have always felt that his views were redolent of a different era—or out of date, to use more everyday language. Associating the new Labour party and the Government with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, of which I have never been a member, shows some desperation in his political questioning. I assure him that the Government will take any decision on national missile defence in the best interests of the British people. That will be the sole criterion.

Photo of Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Labour, Workington

Is not the truth that long-range traceable-source missile systems are effectively obsolete in the real world, and that the real threat comes from the container going through the port? Is it not also true that the Tories are divided on the issue and are trying to hide that division, which will surface over the next couple of months? [Interruption.] Oh yes, they are divided.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

There are a great many real threats in the world. My hon. Friend has mentioned two. It is obviously important for nations to defend themselves against those threats, and the Government have always made it clear that we well understand why the United States might seek to defend itself against nuclear proliferation by deploying a national missile defence system. We have always made plain our understanding of the Americans' real concern in that respect, and we have great sympathy for them.

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

Does the Ministry of Defence agree that there is a growing threat to the United Kingdom and its allies from rogue states around the world, armed with ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction? Does the Ministry think that something should be done about that?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

The Government have made it clear that, in the light of a series of careful reviews of the United Kingdom's security, we apprehend no immediate threat to the UK from so-called rogue states or the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Obviously we pay careful regard to the matter, but it is under equally careful consideration in the United States.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that, very recently, President-elect Bush said: It's a sensitive subject for leaders of different countries around the world … requires a lot of discussion and a lot of give and take and a lot of listening. I suggest that the shadow Defence Secretary should do a bit of listening, and give the matter a bit of careful thought. His advice to his own leader might then be a little more thoughtful.

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

It is interesting that the Secretary of State chose not to answer the question directly. He evaded it by talking about immediate threats. He knows that the Ministry of Defence is advising him that there is a growing threat. Does that not explain why he and his colleagues have been going to Washington in the past year and a half, and informing the outgoing Administration privately that they would be willing to let them upgrade Fylingdales, provided that they did not ask the question before the next election?

If that is the Ministry's private view, why did the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), say in March last year: I don't like the idea of a star wars programme, limited or unlimited? Is that not really the public face of the Government's position, although privately they are pretending otherwise?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

All members of the Government have consistently set out our position on national missile defence proposals. The reality is that, in the circumstances, it is best for the British people and best for the country that we respond to a decision by the United States, rather than seeking to anticipate that decision.

As for an assessment of the strategic threat, the hon. Gentleman has had the same opportunity as every other Member to read the relevant documents. They are published, and they set out clearly the Ministry's view that there is no immediate threat to the country's security from nuclear proliferation.

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

Earlier, the Secretary of State said that the Opposition were trying to associate new Labour with CND. Is not the Minister of State whom I quoted earlier still a member of CND? Is not the reality that his public position is now the Government's public face? Scared of denying the United States for fear of losing influence in Washington, they are at the same time scared of telling their own Back Benchers, as well as the French and some of their European counterparts, who are opposed to it, that they are going to do something about it.

Does that not leave us with a Government who increasingly resemble Dr. Dolittle's pushmi-pullyu, hoping that something will turn up before the election?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

The hon. Gentleman will believe what he wants to believe. He will decide what the view of members of the Government should be on the issue in line with his own prejudices. We have seen a good deal of that from him in relation to matters European. I suspect that this is another example of his anti-European attitudes: he is trying to demonstrate that, under the leadership of the Leader of the Opposition, there would be an application for Britain to become the 51st member of the United States.

The reality is that we must deal with the situation as it is. The present and future United States Administration will think carefully before they decide whether to go ahead with national missile defence. President-elect Bush described it as a sensitive subject. It is a matter for regret that the Opposition do not treat it with the same sensitivity.