Foreign Affairs and Defence Debate – 26 May 2010

Key Excerpts from Debate on the Address: Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and Defence (Wednesday 26 May 2010)

William Hague (Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office: Richmond (Yorks), Conservative): ….The single biggest foreign policy priority after Afghanistan and Pakistan is to prevent nuclear proliferation in the middle east. Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear  weapons capability could unleash a cascade of nuclear proliferation and significantly destabilise the region. A comprehensive diplomatic offer to Iran remains on the table, but it has refused to discuss its nuclear programme and has forged ahead, announcing its intention to build 10 new enrichment plants and beginning to enrich uranium up to 20%, well above the level needed for the production of civil nuclear power.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North, Labour): I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on his appointment to the post. Does he recognise that as Iran is still a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and-as I understand it-he supports a nuclear-free middle east, membership of the NPT is a vehicle for achieving that goal? Does he not also acknowledge that Israel possesses nuclear weapons and has 200 warheads, so should it not be engaged actively by the western Governments-particularly the big five-in pursuing a degree of nuclear disarmament  on its part, in order to bring about the prize of a nuclear-free region?

William Hague (Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office: Richmond (Yorks), Conservative): The hon. Gentleman will be interested to know-although he may know this already-that one of the proposals on the table at the NPT review conference that is taking place in New York as we speak is to take forward the 1995 commitment to a nuclear-free zone in the middle east, with a conference of all the relevant nations. Therefore, there are the beginnings of an effort to activate this subject in the international diplomatic arena. Of course there is, however, no chance of achieving that objective if Iran succeeds in obtaining a nuclear  weapons capability or in constructing nuclear weapons. So, I hope that the hon. Gentleman, who clearly believes in a middle east free of nuclear weapons, will join me in supporting every possible measure to increase the peaceful pressure on Iran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear  weapons.

The conference to review the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which I just mentioned, began during our election campaign and has entered its final week in New York. In opposition, my party promised decisive UK leadership in this effort if elected, and the coalition agreement pledged an immediate and strong UK role at the conference. So I am pleased to announce today that, for the first time, the Government will make public the maximum number of nuclear warheads that the United Kingdom will hold in its stockpile-in future, our overall stockpile will not exceed 225 nuclear  warheads. This is a significant step forward on previous policy, which was to publish only the number of warheads classed as “operationally available”, the maximum number of which will remain at 160. We believe that the time is now right to be more open about the nuclear  weapons that we hold. We judge that that will further assist in building the climate of trust between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons states, which has been lacking in recent years, and will contribute to efforts to reduce the number of nuclear weapons worldwide. I can assure the House that this disclosure poses no threat to the security of the United Kingdom. Together with similar announcements made by the United States and France, it helps to set standards of transparency that all states with nuclear  programmes should follow.

I can also announce that the Government will re-examine the UK’s declaratory policy as part of the strategic defence and security review. The purpose of our nuclear weapons is to deter attack, and the UK has long been clear that it would consider using them only in extreme circumstances of self-defence, including the defence of our NATO allies. This country has been deliberately ambiguous over the precise circumstances of use, although we have offered some assurances to non-nuclear weapons states. We have decided that the time is right to look again at our policy-the US has done the same in its recent nuclear posture review-to ensure that it is fully appropriate to the political and security context in 2010 and beyond.

David Miliband (South Shields, Labour): On the non-proliferation  treaty, there are two priorities. One is North Korea, which the Foreign Secretary mentioned in passing. Since the joint civilian-military investigation group on the sinking of the Cheonan concluded that a homing torpedo from North Korea sank the ship, and the North Korean state television companies are completely refuting the findings, what action will the Government take in supporting the international community’s efforts to make North Korea take notice?

On Iran, the previous Government were at the forefront of the case for a diplomatic resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue. We support a further UN sanctions resolution, and the right hon. Gentleman will have been pleased to discover that Chinese and Russian support has been added to that of the permanent three-France, the US and the UK-but unity must not be achieved at the price of strength. We will want him to take forward the “sanctions-plus” policy, with a heavy emphasis on the “plus” on human rights and their abuse by the Iranian authorities.

Menzies Campbell  (North East Fife, Liberal Democrat): ….I also wish to deal with the issue of Trident, to which I come as someone who has always been convinced of the utility of nuclear weapons and accepted the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence. We have moved, of course, from mutually assured destruction, through flexible response, to minimum deterrence and weapons of last resort. In fact, the United Kingdom has a good history of nuclear disarmament. When I first took an interest in these matters, as long ago as 1988, we were still talking about nuclear depth charges, nuclear artillery shells and an air-to-surface missile with a nuclear warhead, and we still had free-fall bombs. All those have been dispensed with, so the UK has a solid record on these matters. However, it is illogical not to consider that Trident should be in the full-scale defence and security review. It is a strategic system being excluded from a strategic review, which does not seem to make sense.

Would a reasonable alternative be the Astute class submarines carrying cruise missiles with a nuclear warhead, rather than a full-blown Trident system? Is there not room for far greater collaboration between the French, the United States and ourselves, all three of whom operate a nuclear deterrent based on submarines? Surely co-ordination of patrols could have a considerable impact on the extension of life, to which I have referred, and on the whole question of continuous at-sea deterrence.

Mike Gapes (Ilford South, Labour): ….Clearly, we have this week a very important conclusion-or, perhaps, not a conclusion-to the non-proliferation  treaty review conference. It has become clear already that the processes to get an agreement are proving difficult. The conference on disarmament, which is chaired by the Zimbabwean UN ambassador, could not reach agreement, and its proposals have now been pushed into the general discussions about the sections dealing with non-proliferation in the plenary. The main reason is that the developing world, in particular, wishes to have a timetable under which the declared nuclear  weapons states who are signatories to the treaty will begin the process of taking real measures towards nuclear disarmament. There was no agreement on that timetable proposal, because the United States and France, in particular, did not wish to go down that route, and nor did Russia.

I urge the new Government, in the days that remain, to consider sympathetically how we can assist getting an agreement. It will be a disaster if the 2010 NPT review conference goes the same way as the 2005 review conference. I hope that we can find a solution through Britain, France and the other nuclear weapons states making concrete offers on how they can contribute to the achievement of article VI, under which the nuclear weapons states are to agree to act in good faith to secure real measures of nuclear disarmament. The previous Labour Government did a lot in that way. They did more than any other of the nuclear weapons states, and now we have this new Russia-United States agreement on deep cuts in strategic nuclear warheads. That is very important.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North, Labour): As the Foreign Secretary and others have noted, the nuclear non-proliferation treaty review conference is going on this week in New York. I want to make two points about that.

First, the 1970 non-proliferation treaty places an absolute requirement on the five permanent members of the UN Security Council-the holders of nuclear weapons, of which Great Britain is one-to take steps towards nuclear disarmament. Many of the countries represented at the NPT review talks have not developed nuclear weapons and have no intention of doing so. They feel very aggrieved that the five permanent members of the Security Council continually lecture them about not developing nuclear weapons and about pursuing nuclear disarmament, while at the same time talking about nuclear rearmament. In our case, that means developing a new Trident nuclear submarine system.

I agree with Sir Menzies Campbell that the defence review absolutely must include the whole issue of nuclear weapons and the Trident replacement. The system is very expensive and, in my view, immoral. It will not increase this country’s safety and security, and its cost is so astronomical that there can be no justification for it whatsoever.

However, nuclear weapons cannot be abolished by the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. There was an excellent piece of investigative journalism in The Guardian on Monday that demonstrated how Israel had involved itself in trying to arm apartheid South Africa with nuclear weapons. The fact that Israel has 200 nuclear warheads at the present time means that, unless there is to be an acceptance of nuclear weapons in the middle east, it is very hard to say that no other countries in that region should ever consider acquiring them if they feel threatened.

I do not want any country, in the middle east or anywhere else, to develop nuclear weapons. I absolutely do not want Iran to do so: for that matter, I do not think that it should develop nuclear power, but my personal opposition to nuclear power means that I would say that about any country.

However, a nuclear-free middle east means that a nuclear weapons convention must be developed. Israel and all the other countries in that region weapons would have to involved. When the NPT review talks in New York conclude this week, I hope that the need for a nuclear weapons convention will be accepted. If we do not develop such a convention, the likelihood becomes ever greater that countries beyond North Korea, India, Pakistan and Israel will develop nuclear weapons before the next quinquennial review in 2015.