Missile Defence

Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 29th October 2001.

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Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen Labour, Leyton and Wanstead 2:30 pm, 29th October 2001

What discussions he has had with the US Administration on missile defence since July; and if he will make a statement.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

What recent discussions he has had with his US counterpart on national missile defence.

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

I discussed missile defence with the United States Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, most recently on 22 August. There have been regular contacts between officials. I have consistently made it clear that we share US concerns about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery, and that we shall continue to work together to tackle the potential threat with a comprehensive strategy. However, it remains the case that the US has not decided how it wishes to proceed with missile defence and has made no request for the use of facilities in the United Kingdom.

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen Labour, Leyton and Wanstead

What does the Minister know about the implications for missile defence of the Shanghai agreement between Presidents Bush and Putin and indeed of President Bush's visit to China? Even if some type of deal is done between those states, will not the United States's missile defence project make the world a far more dangerous place—not only because of an increase in the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons in non-nuclear states, the direct militarisation of states and the likelihood of more non-state terrorists undertaking asymmetrical attacks, but because of an increase in the proliferation of nuclear weapons—

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. There is only so much that the Minister can take.

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

I am sure that my hon. Friend welcomes the discussions that have taken place between the United States and Russia on a range of different subjects, probably most of which he mentioned in his question. What is important is that both Russia and the United States have set out their thinking on missile defensive systems. We have encouraged both countries to engage in a constructive dialogue such as has taken place between NATO members and Russia. Those discussions will continue and we strongly support them.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

Would not the world be a far safer place if the star wars money were invested in conflict resolution and confidence-building measures between the nations? Star wars has been accurately described as a Maginot line in the skies. Can the Secretary of State explain how a terrorist or other enemy armed with the Ebola virus or the smallpox virus would be affected by star wars and could be persuaded not to turn our cities into biological Armageddons?

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

My hon. Friend is knowledgeable about these matters, and he knows that in fact the specific proposals we are discussing on missile defence are not the star wars proposals of a previous United States President. How the United States proposes to spend its taxpayers' dollars is obviously a matter for the United States. As for my hon. Friend's more specific question, I simply do not accept the argument that fanatics who are prepared to take lethal chemicals in a suitcase into public places are any less dangerous, or require us to be any less on our guard, than those who are prepared to launch ballistic missiles. I do not find that argument at all persuasive.

Photo of George Osborne George Osborne Conservative, Tatton

The Secretary of State is being a bit less clear than the Prime Minister was last week when he bluntly said:

"I do not agree with those who are opposed"—[Hansard, 24 October 2001; Vol. 373, c. 273.]

to ballistic missile defence, including the 200-odd Labour Members who signed an early-day motion against it. If the Government are committed in principle to ballistic missile defence—which is what the Prime Minister's press secretary said before the summer—will the Secretary of State now have the courage of his convictions and stand up and make the case for ballistic missile defence in principle?

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

We have set out our position very clearly on a number of occasions. If the hon. Gentleman has followed the subject closely, he will be aware that the United States is considering a range of different ways of dealing with the threat. In those circumstances, it makes sense for the United Kingdom to await a specific proposal from the United States and a specific request.

Photo of David Tredinnick David Tredinnick Chair, Statutory Instruments (Joint Committee), Chair, Statutory Instruments (Select Committee), Chair, Statutory Instruments (Select Committee), Chair, Statutory Instruments (Joint Committee)

Did the right hon. Gentleman, in his discussions on missile defence, consider the situation in Israel and Palestine, where missiles and projectiles have been going to and fro? Did he consider the possibility that there would be much less need for a missile defence system if there was an effective settlement in Palestine and the Palestinian territories adjacent to Israel? Is he aware that that issue is the key concern of most Arab nations?

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

That is an ingenious way of asking a foreign policy question. Nevertheless, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is important that we find a way back to the negotiating table in relation to the middle east peace process. The Prime Minister, the President of the United States and other members of the international community have accordingly been using their efforts, both directly in the region and by telephone, to achieve the types of discussion that are necessary to reinvigorate the peace process.

Photo of Michael Clapham Michael Clapham Labour, Barnsley West and Penistone

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the research findings of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are evaluated and considered in any further discussions that he has with the USA? As he may be aware, those findings suggest that if a rocket from what is considered to be a rogue nation were taken out by a missile at the boost stage, although the missile might well disable the rocket, the warhead itself could continue zinging through the sky and land in Europe. The findings also suggest that even if a laser could be fitted on a 747 aircraft, although the laser might disable the rocket, the warhead itself might be left to go zinging across the sky. Will he ensure that that is discussed, and will he impress upon the Americans that, if the research is evaluated and found correct, that would make Europe a much more dangerous place?

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

I am aware of research into the implications for the boost phase means of providing for missile defence. That is why the United States is looking at a range of alternatives. There are those who recognise the benefits of boost phase, in that it is possible to hit a larger vehicle travelling more slowly, but as my hon. Friend has pointed out, other difficulties result from that. That is why such a careful evaluation of the respective merits of the options available is being undertaken.