National Missile Defence

Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 19 March 2001.

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Photo of Mr David Atkinson Mr David Atkinson Conservative, Bournemouth East 12:00, 19 March 2001

What his latest assessment is of the impact of the United States proposal for a national missile defence on UK defence policy. [1527071

Photo of Mr Huw Edwards Mr Huw Edwards Labour, Monmouth

If he will make a statement about the US national missile defence proposal. [152711]

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

The United Kingdom shares the United States concerns about the problem of missile proliferation and will continue to work with that country in tackling it. It is clearly not in Britain's interest for our closest ally to feel vulnerable to attack. We understand the role that missile defence can play as one element of a response. However, until the US makes specific proposals, it remains premature to reach judgments about the impact on UK defence policy, although, as we have made clear, we want to be helpful to our closest ally.

Photo of Mr David Atkinson Mr David Atkinson Conservative, Bournemouth East

The Secretary of State said that he shared the United States assessment of threat. When the Western European Union's Technological and Aerospace Committee went to Russia last month, we found that Russia also shared that assessment. Will the right hon. Gentleman now take a robust lead in promoting discussion in NATO between the United States, Russia and our European allies on shared missile defence, which would deter any rogue state that has weapons of mass destruction from threatening to deploy them?

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

We have already held several discussions in NATO about missile defence; I am sure that they will continue. We have encouraged the United States to discuss Russia's problem with Russia, which also suggested a proposal for missile defence. NATO is evaluating that. That process will continue, and it is sensible for all the countries to consider carefully the offensive and defensive systems that are designed to deal with nuclear proliferation.

Photo of Mr Huw Edwards Mr Huw Edwards Labour, Monmouth

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is unease about the US missile defence system? Does he also agree that it is reckless for the Conservative party to give unfettered support to the project at this stage, when discussions are continuing between the US and other NATO partners?

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

I do not recognise my hon. Friend's description of the UK Government's position. We have made it clear that it is sensible for discussions to take place among allies in NATO. We have always encouraged the US to hold discussions with Russia and China. Discussions with Russia are under way. However, we have also said that we should not rush into such a project. It should be considered calmly and responsibly, in full consultation with allies. I am delighted that the US has adopted that position.

Photo of Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith Conservative, Wealden

We all accept that it will take some time before a system is developed. However, why has the Secretary of State got such a hang-up about accepting the principle of the US programme? I understand from his comments that he has not accepted it.

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

I am sorry if the right hon. Gentleman misunderstood my remarks. He mentioned a programme; although the previous US Administration made a proposal, the new US Administration have not proposed a specific programme. We have made it clear to the US that we want to be helpful when it makes a specific proposal. However, at Camp David, President Bush said: As to whether there will be sites or no sites in the United Kingdom, that's too early to determine, because t have yet to propose to the Prime Minister what will work. It makes sense for the UK, as the United States closest ally, to work closely with it and to be helpful if it makes a specific proposal. However, it makes no sense to respond until the US has made its proposals in its defence interests clear.

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

The Secretary of State is engaged in the new Labour process of sending different messages to different groups in the hope that they do not speak to each other. I know that the Ministry of Defence has told him that he must make a decision. There is a threat, which is likely to grow in the next four to five years, to the UK. The question for the Government is, therefore, not whether the Americans feel threatened, but whether a threat to the United Kingdom is developing. If they agree that there is such a threat, they should say that they support ballistic missile defence in principle. They said that about the euro, why cannot they say it about the defence of the UK?

Perhaps the Government fear splits. I have a long list of Labour Members who oppose and work to destroy Trident. The list includes the hon. Members for Leyton and Wanstead (Mr. Cohen) and for Crawley (Laura Moffatt), who are members of the Select Committee on Defence. The Labour party is therefore split and worried about the election.

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

I sha11 deal with the hon. Gentleman's substantive point about the threat. While we have always recognised that there is a potential threat to Britain's deployed forces and we would want to investigate and examine it to seek ways of protecting the deployed forces, we have not yet been advised that there is any threat to the United Kingdom today.

I have set out this matter in the House on a number of occasions. I am intrigued that, despite my doing so, the Opposition have decided that there is a threat. I would be interested to know the source of their intelligence on that matter, if "intelligence" is not too strong a word in this context. We continue to monitor the situation, and the Government would certainly report to the House should our perception of any such threat change. However, for the moment, as I have made clear on many occasions, there is no assessment of any threat to the United Kingdom.