Backbench Business — Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference

Margaret Beckett Chair, National Security Strategy (Joint Committee), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the forthcoming nuclear non-proliferation treaty review conference.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for finding time for this debate, which follows the most recent meeting of representatives of the P5—the declared nuclear weapons states—which took place in London a couple of weeks ago. That was the continuation of a process initiated by the recent Labour Government, and this debate in turn is followed by the NPT conference itself for which, sadly, the ministerial segment will, for the second time in recent years, occur after this Parliament has been dissolved.

Last Thursday marked the 45th anniversary of the entry into force of the NPT. Designed in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, and on the basis of near universality with 189 signatories, the NPT is a global grand bargain, whereby nuclear weapon states commit themselves to disarming, non-nuclear weapon states agree to remain nuclear weapon free, and all have access to civil nuclear power. This grand bargain has served the international community well for the past 45 years by helping to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, holding the nuclear weapons states to account, and promoting the peaceful use of nuclear energy, something which has assumed greater importance as the threat of climate change has called into question the continued use of fossil fuels.

Since the treaty was signed, global stockpiles of nuclear weapons have fallen by more than two thirds and several countries have given up their nuclear weapons programmes. Unfortunately, the review conference held in 2005 failed to agree a final document, raising concerns about the future of the NPT. Perhaps in consequence, and not long after, an initiative was taken in the United States by two Republican and two Democrat elder statesmen, Henry Kissinger and George Schultz with Bill Perry and Sam Nunn, calling for greater progress from the nuclear weapons states on their disarmament commitments, which the NPT itself urges them to pursue. Following their initiative, I, as Foreign Secretary, gave a speech to the Carnegie international non-proliferation conference in 2007, outlining our Government’s disarmament agenda: our decision to further reduce our operationally available warheads to the very minimum we considered viable to maintain an independent nuclear deterrent; and our commitment to a substantial programme of work, to the practical steps which would be needed to underpin moves towards a world free of nuclear weapons, to working on transparency and confidence-building measures between nuclear weapons states, and, indeed, others, and to the technicalities of verification, particularly methods of verifying commitments on warheads.

The then Defence Secretary Des Browne addressed the conference on disarmament in 2008 and proposed closer co-operation between the five official nuclear weapons states, including not just regular meetings of Government representatives of the P5, but scientific and technical collaboration and co-operation, and meetings among those scientists. Therefore, when President Obama spoke in 2009 of his ambition to work towards a world free of nuclear weapons, there was growing international political momentum for serious discussion about nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation and about strengthening the NPT.

Following all these events, the four American spokesmen contacted me to press us to set up in this country a group like theirs to continue to address these issues. We set up a group called, rather infelicitously perhaps, the Top Level Group, composed of people of all major parties and none, including a number of former Chiefs of the Defence Staff. The present chair is Alistair Burt, who is in his place.

More recently, however, the momentum we saw in that period has been waning. This year’s review conference could decide whether that momentum once again gathers steam or grinds to a complete halt, as unfortunately many have come to expect. Many argue that the NPT has been tested to breaking point by failure of the process to deliver disarmament by the nuclear weapons states; by North Korea’s withdrawal from the treaty and its nuclear weapons programme; by the threat of a potential Iranian nuclear capability; and by the fact that nuclear armed countries, India and Pakistan, sit outside the treaty regime, along with Israel, which refuses to acknowledge that it possesses nuclear weapons.

In 2010, with that momentum for change in the political air, the last NPT review conference agreed a 64-point action plan. Unfortunately, progress on the plan has been limited at best. There was, for example, agreement to hold a conference on a WMD-free zone in the middle east to be held in 2012, a zone which has been long sought and is widely agreed to be desirable. Indeed, the Finnish diplomat Jaakko Laajava was appointed to promote and facilitate such a gathering and has made strenuous efforts to do so over these intervening years. Nevertheless, that conference has not taken place and looks unlikely to occur in the near future.

Several other key initiatives identified in the action plan also remain stalled, including substantive dialogue between the P5 states. The recent London meeting has resulted in a glossary of agreed terms, but this joint P5 process has been limited in terms of further substantive disarmament efforts. In particular, and sadly, there has been no progress on ratifying the comprehensive test ban treaty or the fissile material cut-off treaty.

In spite of this, there have been some positive developments since 2010. The US and Russia signed and ratified the new START treaty, limiting the numbers of deployed strategic nuclear arsenals of the two largest nuclear powers, and despite current tensions this treaty still remains in force. The UK has further reduced the numbers of warheads deployed on its submarines; three nuclear security summits, instigated by President Obama, have now taken place; and a new initiative on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons use has seen growing interest and participation from states and civil society.

Angus Robertson SNP Westminster Leader, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

The right hon. Lady is making a powerful speech. Will she say a little more about the series of international conferences on the humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons? There have now been three, and record numbers of states have taken part. Does she agree that we should welcome the participation of the UK, even although it only followed a decision by the United States to attend? Does she also agree that every future conference should, as a matter of course, be attended by the UK?

Margaret Beckett Chair, National Security Strategy (Joint Committee), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

It is not for me to bind future Governments, much as I would like to do so, but of course I welcome the initiatives and discussions on the humanitarian impact. To be frank, I am not sure that we need to say a great deal, because the potential humanitarian impact of a nuclear weapons exchange is clear to all. I would say to the hon. Gentleman, however, that we did push the United Kingdom Government to participate in the previous humanitarian conference. I hope that I am not breaching any confidences in saying that it was a matter of concern for us in the Top Level Group that when we in the Government promoted the notion of the P5 working together more closely on these issues, the last thing we wanted was for that to result in a lowest-common-denominator approach whereby if some of the P5 did not wish to attend, none of them would do so.

We were therefore very pleased indeed when our own Government decided to attend the humanitarian conference. The hon. Gentleman is probably chronologically correct to say that that followed the decision by the United States to do so, but I think he is being a little unfair to the present Government—perhaps uncharacteristically at this stage of the Parliament—by implying that that was the only reason that they decided to go. We had been pushing for them to do so, and we had been conscious that they were not reluctant to attend. We are very glad that the partnership of the UK and the US attended. That was the first time that any of the P5 countries had participated in the humanitarian initiative, and along the trajectory of the events now taking place the negotiators are continuing to work hard to secure a deal with Iran on its nuclear programme.

There have thus been a few positive developments, but it is clear that more needs to be done. Concerns have been raised at every review conference of the NPT, and they continue to be raised, about the failure to implement many of the commitments agreed—and those agreements were often hard-fought. It is critical that we reiterate and reinforce the importance of the treaty to the international community and the global nuclear regime. Many take the opportunity of the review conferences to question the viability and role of the treaty and the effectiveness of the UN disarmament machinery. I can perhaps understand some of those concerns.

The humanitarian impacts initiative has been seen by some as a means to circumvent the slow progress by the nuclear weapon states on their NPT disarmament obligations. There is a danger that the NPT bargain will begin to fracture unless all members, nuclear and non-nuclear, work in good faith to implement the provisions of the treaty. The nuclear risks that we face today are growing, not falling, and it is vital—as the American Secretary of State, John Kerry, said a few days ago—that we work to strengthen the NPT, not to undermine it.

We need urgent progress in several areas. The US, China, Israel, Pakistan, India, North Korea and other countries that have not yet ratified the comprehensive test ban treaty should do so as soon as possible, allowing it to come into force. The long stalemate in the Geneva disarmament conference on a fissile material cut-off treaty must be overcome to allow for a prohibition of the production of the basic materials required to manufacture nuclear explosive devices. Global leaders also need to stay focused on nuclear materials security: locking down the materials that can be used to build a bomb should be among the highest priorities of Governments, and officials must work to build an effective global system to track, protect and manage them. I fear that, unless we face up to our responsibilities and seek collectively to address these challenges, we are likely to face an even more dangerous and unstable nuclear future.

Sir John Stanley Chair, Committees on Arms Export Controls (formerly Quadripartite Committee)

This is a necessary and timely debate, and I should like to congratulate Margaret Beckett on securing it. Like many others on both sides of the House, I had until recently been moderately optimistic that we were winning the battle against nuclear proliferation. We had seen South Africa, and Libya under Gaddafi, coming out of the nuclear weapons business. We had also seen a substantial swathe of the former Soviet Union countries—now supposedly, and hopefully, independent sovereign states—no longer having nuclear weapons stationed on their soil.

More recently, however, I have become concerned that the battle that we were winning appears to be in danger of going into reverse. On the Korean peninsula, the North Korean regime under Kim Jong-un seems determined to try to acquire a nuclear weapons capability. If that happens, I fear that it will call into question the nuclear weapons possession policy of, say, the Japanese Government. In south Asia, we have the wholly unresolved question of the nuclear weapons situation between India and Pakistan. In the middle east, whatever the outcome of the current negotiations on Iran, I believe that the Iranians will try to maintain a break-out capability. I understand from recent conversations with Ministers in Saudi Arabia that if Iran does break out and obtain a nuclear weapon, we cannot rule out the subsequent possession of a nuclear weapon by Saudi Arabia.

This debate is therefore necessary and important. We should not forget, when it comes to weapons of mass destruction, that we still have a chemical weapons convention that is not being adhered to or acceded to by key countries, including Egypt, Israel and North Korea. We also have a convention on biological and toxin weapons that remains without a verification regime, which leaves that convention resting on paper and on trust. I was grateful to the Minister for sending me, in my capacity as Chair of the Committees on Arms Export Controls, a copy of the Government’s national report to the 2015 nuclear non-proliferation treaty review conference. I have to say that I found the report strong on the pluses, but rather limited on the more negative aspects of nuclear proliferation—some key issues and problems were skated over and others were not referred to at all.

I should like to pick out some key issues from the Government’s report. As the right hon. Lady has said, the comprehensive test ban treaty is of key importance;

as we all know, it is not possible to have a truly effective nuclear weapon unless it has been subject to testing. I agree entirely with what the Government say in their report:

“The UK recognises the CTBT as a key element of the global disarmament and non-proliferation architecture”.

That is absolutely correct, and it is a matter of immense frustration to all of us that we still have eight remaining countries whose ratification of the CTBT is necessary in order to bring the treaty into force: China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and the USA. I hope the Government will take the opportunity of the review conference to try to mobilise the maximum possible international pressure on those countries to secure their accession to the all-important CTBT.

The Government devote two paragraphs in their report to the planned—I stress that it is still no more than planned—fissile material cut-off treaty. I find those paragraphs most disappointing. The Government do not even skate over the real problem; they omit any mention of it, which is deeply regrettable. We all know why negotiations on the FMCT have not even commenced —why they have been stalled for years in the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. It is simply because neither India nor Pakistan can reach agreement on what should be the treatment of their existing fissile material stocks. Those two countries and their disagreement have put into baulk the start of any negotiation on the FMCT. That is coupled with the fact that the Conference on Disarmament works on the basis of “consensus”, which everybody chooses to interpret as unanimity only. I simply do not understand why the Government fail to indentify that in their report as the key stumbling block.

The Minister will doubtless say in his reply, “There’s no need to worry, because the FMCT Group of Governmental Experts is going to resolve the deadlock.” I believe that is considerably optimistic and it may prove to be purely wishful thinking. In the Committees on Arms Export Controls, we have recommended to the Government that they should set a deadline for negotiations to start. In the absence of a deadline, there seems to be a compelling case for starting the negotiations in another forum, perhaps in a specially constituted commission, possibly within the United Nations. It is imperative that the negotiation of this treaty begins and is not subject to permanent delay as a result of the obstruction created by just two nations.

Given the key importance of missile technology control in preventing nuclear proliferation, I was disappointed that the Government make no mention of the Missile Technology Control Regime in their report. There are key holders of nuclear weapons that remain outside the MTCR, including China, India, Israel and Pakistan. Will the Minister tell the House whether or not the Government are actively seeking those countries’ membership of the MTCR? That information would be of great use to the House.

Another key nuclear non-proliferation organisation, which I am glad to say is referred to in the Government’s report, is the Nuclear Suppliers Group, of which, again, some key nuclear weapons holders are not yet members. I am referring to India, Israel and Pakistan. Will the Minister tell the House whether it is the Government’s policy to try to seek the membership of those countries to the Nuclear Suppliers Group?

On the hoped-for middle east weapons of mass destruction free zone, the Government’s report makes all the right noises. It says:

“We look forward to convening an inclusive conference on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction…as soon as the practical arrangements for that conference are agreed by the states of the region.”

The key issue here, and the catch in the Government’s wording, is that the conference will not take place until the practical arrangements for it are agreed by the states of the region. The point here of course is that Israel and Iran will not and have not managed to reach agreement over the terms of their participation in such a conference. On that I certainly agree with the Government that without the participation of Iran and of Israel, there would be little purpose in having such a conference.

Finally, I am pleased that the little known but increasingly important additional non-proliferation scheme, the UK’s academic technology approval scheme, at least gets one paragraph in the Government’s report. The scheme, rightly brought in by the previous Government and continued by the present Government, enables us to debar students from UK universities if they are considered to pose the greatest risk by access to subjects that could lead to the proliferation of knowledge about weapons of mass destruction.

When the scheme was introduced by the previous Government, it was limited solely to debarring students from abroad coming to study at UK universities. Even when it was brought in, that decision was possibly somewhat questionable. But today, I suggest that the limitation of the scheme solely to those from abroad is really wholly non-sustainable in security terms. We have a threat level in the UK that is almost unprecedented. We know that we have hundreds of young people, who, most regrettably, have chosen to go to fight for Islamic State terrorists in Syria and Iraq, and it has been widely reported that substantial numbers of those have now returned to the UK.

The Committees on Arms Export Controls have, in successive reports, advocated that the Government extend the academic technology approval scheme to cover those who are in the UK, and not just merely students from abroad. Inexplicably, the Government have so far refused to accept the Committees’ recommendation, and I urge the Government in strong terms to do so given the current threat that we now face.

In conclusion, I wish the Government well in trying to achieve a substantive and effective outcome of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty review conference. They most certainly need to do so, as we are living in an increasingly dangerous world.

Lindsay Hoyle Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Panel of Chairs

Order. I have four people who have indicated that they wish to speak. If we go up to 13 minutes but no more, we will get everyone in on the same time.

Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

I am pleased we are having this debate and congratulate my right hon. Friend Margaret Beckett on her initiative in applying for it through the Backbench Business Committee. I hope that it sets a precedent so that whenever a major treaty discussion is coming up the Government take part in a serious debate in the Chamber to set out their stall ahead of the conference and allow Members of the House to put their points of view.

To follow what was said by Sir John Stanley, who spoke powerfully and effectively, let me say that there are massive dangers facing the world with nuclear weapons. There are dangers of proliferation, so we have a huge responsibility in the forthcoming NPT review conference to decide what we will do about it and what role we will take in the conference.

I have attended previous NPT review conferences and some of the preparatory committees, or PrepComs, which happen every year. There is a five-year review and an annual PrepCom. I remind the House that the initiative in setting up the nuclear non-proliferation treaty system came in part from a previous Labour Government led by Harold Wilson in an era when there was hope that the declared nuclear weapons states could, by their own actions and the actions of others, bring about overall disarmament in this world.

Although there are many cynics around, the NPT system has worked quite well. It has two important pillars. Let me take the second first, which is that the signatories to it that are not in possession of nuclear weapons must undertake not to develop them, use them or seek to have them in any way. By and large, that has been successful. Indeed, some former nuclear states, such as South Africa, have disavowed nuclear weapons and made themselves into non-nuclear states.

Crucially, the five permanent members of the NPT, which are the same as the five permanent members of the Security Council, must do the following under article VI:

“Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

Britain is committed to those words of the treaty and in the run-up to the review conference should therefore consider two points. The first is the good work that has been done by so many states to divest themselves of nuclear weapons and bring about nuclear weapon-free zones, such as in Africa and Latin America. Central Asia has achieved a great deal and should be congratulated on that. The second is the role we seek to play in that and how we bring about further nuclear disarmament around the world.

The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling was right to point out that previous review conferences, led by the late Robin Cook, by my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby South and by others, consistently made a strong case for a weapons of mass destruction-free zone conference to be held for the middle east. It is crucial that that conference takes place. I have attended previous review conferences and PrepComs in which the inability of the secretariat to convene such a conference—the Finnish Government have been tasked with that—has led to threats and walk-outs from the review conference, although not from the treaty system, because people are concerned that that conference has not taken place. At the last review conference and the last PrepCom every single nation attending, including Iran—Israel is not a signatory to the NPT—agreed that the conference should take place and once again the Government of Finland and others were tasked with ensuring that that happened. So far, it has not.

If that conference does not take place and there is not some progress on general disarmament across the middle east, the consequences, as explained by the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling, are obvious. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and many other countries have the resources, whether they want these weapons or not. What about Egypt? We can think of many examples of very wealthy countries in the region that could either buy the nuclear technology or develop it in concert. If there is not a general agreement on disarmament across the region that includes Israel and Iran, we will see the start of a nuclear arms race with incalculable dangers to the rest of the world. I hope that when the Minister winds up he will say that the talks that have taken place with Iran and the Government’s close relationship with Israel will put a great deal of pressure on this year’s review conference to set the date when the middle east conference can take place so that we can begin that process. I do not underestimate the difficulties, but if it does not take place, the dangers will be huge. One should not run away with the idea that everyone in Israel or Iran wants nuclear weapons, or wants to use them, or believes that their security comes from nuclear weapons. There are substantial bodies of opinion in both countries that there is a different way forward in the region.

A parliamentary delegation from Iran are visiting the House this week; I met them earlier this evening. They are very welcome. We will have a discussion with them on Wednesday morning. I hope that talks with them will focus on the nuclear issue—I am sure that they will—and human rights in Iran; that ought to be part of the dialogue. We should have that dialogue with all countries.

The dangers are so obvious. I hope that in his speech the Minister will outline the view that the UK Government will take in New York. Now that we are apparently into fixed-term Parliaments, every time there is a non-proliferation treaty review it will coincide with the British general election. That is more than unfortunate, because clearly it means that Ministers cannot attend at least the early part of the conference. If there is a change of Government—most of us hope that there will be—only some time on will the new Minister, or newly appointed Minister, be able to attend. The coincidence in the dates is very unfortunate indeed.

The humanitarian effects of nuclear weapons have been referred to. Three conferences were held on this: one by the Norwegian Government in Oslo, a second in Mexico, and the third, more recently, in Vienna, hosted by the Austrian Government. I attended the conference in Vienna, along with my right hon. Friend Dame Joan Ruddock and Angus Robertson, who is speaking for the Scottish National party tonight. We took part in a very interesting round-table discussion for parliamentarians on the humanitarian effects of nuclear weapons.

If anyone is ever in any doubt about the need to move on from a dry, strategic debate—from “Nuclear this, nuclear that” and “Threat here, threat there”—I ask them to read the documents that were presented to the conference, and to think of the videos that we saw, about what the effect would be of one nuclear explosion anywhere in the world. There is the effect on the local climate and local economy, and the death of very large numbers of the population living anywhere near the explosion. There are also the catastrophic effects of multiple explosions, including a nuclear winter that would damage the climate and life chances of the entire planet. We are dealing with not battlefield bombs, but weapons of total destruction; that is what a nuclear weapon is for.

The Austrian Government were very serious about the conference, organised it extremely well, and gave a great deal of time and space to scientists and others to speak, and then to Governments to speak on the second day. I was delighted when the British Government announced that they would attend, along with the US Government. I wish that China, France and Russia had also been there. I suspect that they were there in observer capacity, at least; there was certainly a very large number of people observing that conference.

I was quite disappointed by the British Government’s statement at the conference. I ask colleagues to think for a moment of the atmosphere when the South African representative outlined why South Africa gave up its nuclear weapons, and how the continent of Africa became a nuclear weapon-free zone, and to think of the moral strength that gave South Africa at the conference. That was followed by the British saying that we needed to keep nuclear weapons for our own security. If we need to keep weapons for our own security, we have to be very clear where the threat is coming from and what security the weapons bring us, given that they increase the danger of nuclear proliferation around the world.

Before I conclude, I will quote a very small part of the interesting Austrian pledge made at the conclusion of the conference:

“Austria calls on all states parties to the NPT to renew their commitment to the urgent and full implementation of existing obligations under Article VI, and to this end, to identify and pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons and Austria pledges to cooperate with all stakeholders to achieve this goal”.

The pledge goes on to say that Austria

“calls on all nuclear weapons possessor states to take concrete interim measures to reduce the risk of nuclear weapon detonations, including reducing the operational status of nuclear weapons and moving nuclear weapons away from deployment into storage, diminishing the role of nuclear weapons in military doctrines and rapid reductions of all types of nuclear weapons”.

Thank you, Austria. Well done for that.

Angus Robertson SNP Westminster Leader, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his contribution and for stating the position of the Austrian Government and so many of the other countries that took part in the conference. Given where the UK’s nuclear deterrent is in relation to its lifespan, is it not possible for the UK to embrace the opportunity to follow the courageous moral lead of South Africa and say, “Rather than wasting £100 billion on a new generation of Trident submarines, why not play a positive role in the world towards disarmament by scrapping the Trident programme?”

Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

I agree that this would be an opportunity for us to say, “We have looked at the dangers of nuclear proliferation. We recognise our obligations under article VI and we are going to fulfil them this time.” If we go ahead with spending £100 billion, plus whatever the design and redesign costs are, we commit ourselves to a massive expenditure, and to flying in the face of the spirit and moral purpose of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

I do not suggest cutting the expenditure in order to throw large numbers of people out of work in this country. What I say is, “Cut the expenditure to invest in high quality engineering. Use those skills—they are brilliant skills—to make other things that do not destroy the world, but instead help to build the world, and we pledge ourselves in the direction of a nuclear-free future.” I believe these things are possible and we have a particular obligation to bring that about.

If the five permanent members refuse to move in the direction that they ought to, who are we to criticise India and Pakistan for not reaching an agreement? Who are we to criticise any other state that wants to develop nuclear weapons? If we want a nuclear weapons-free world, it is possible. We have a responsibility to play a role in that. I hope that when the Minister speaks, he will tell me that he and I will meet in New York. I will be there as an NGO representative. I do not expect to be a representative of any Government after the election. There is relief on the Front Bench. However, I will certainly be in New York because I want to see real progress on nuclear disarmament. It is possible if people have the courage to do it.

Lindsay Hoyle Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Panel of Chairs

Order. I suggest that speakers limit themselves to nine minutes now. We have an extra speaker.

Julian Lewis Conservative, New Forest East

I will do my best, Mr Deputy Speaker.

I always like to start on a point of agreement with Jeremy Corbyn where I can, and I can certainly agree with him that whenever there is a major conference of this sort coming up, it is only fit and proper that it should be debated in advance on the Floor of the House of Commons. Therefore, he can always count on me to assist him from my very different point on the disarmament versus deterrence spectrum, and Margaret Beckett can count on me to assist her, as I did on this occasion, to obtain the debate. I shall always approach the Backbench Business Committee for these debates, just as the hon. Gentleman has always assisted me when I wanted to have a debate about the importance of Britain’s strategic minimum nuclear deterrent. That, I am afraid, is as far as the points of agreement go.

In the brief time available I will take up a number of the differing suggestions and arguments that we have heard so far. “Who are we to criticise this, that or the other country for obtaining nuclear weapons if we persist in renewing ours?” I’ve got news for people who use that sort of argument: countries that are on the verge of obtaining nuclear weapons are not going to take a blind bit of notice of exhortations or criticisms from the likes of us. When countries acquire nuclear weapons, it is the result of a hard-headed reading of their own strategic interests. They do not do it by reference to whether a peaceful democracy that has a minimum nuclear deterrent, as we do, decides to keep hold of it.

Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

What seriously worries me is the fact that Russia has declared that we are an enemy and also suggested that, if necessary, it will use nuclear weapons to pursue the problems it faces abroad. That worries all of us.

Julian Lewis Conservative, New Forest East

It certainly does, and to show the ecumenical nature of that concern, let me quote from a recent article in The Herald of Glasgow by a former Labour Defence Secretary, later the Secretary-General of NATO, Lord Robertson:

“Those people seduced by the SNP’s obsession with abolishing Britain’s nuclear deterrent should perhaps Google the Budapest Memorandum of December 1994. They would see there a document representing the deal struck when Ukraine, holding the world’s third largest nuclear weapons stockpile, agreed to give them up in return for solemn security assurances from Russia, the US and the UK.

These countries, with France and China as well, promised to a) respect Ukrainian independence and sovereignty in its existing borders, b) to refrain from the threat or the use of force against Ukraine, and c) to refrain from using economic pressure on Ukraine in order to influence its politics. Don’t these promises look good in the light of the carnage we see on our TVs every night?

Yet that is what Ukraine got in return for unilaterally disarming. Some bargain. And it is legitimate to ask this; would Crimea have been grabbed and Eastern Ukraine occupied if the Ukrainians had kept some of their nukes?”

John Spellar Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman rightly draws attention to the Budapest memorandum, for which the United Kingdom has a degree of responsibility. Does he not therefore find it extraordinary that the British Government are hardly involved in the talks on the future of Ukraine?

Julian Lewis Conservative, New Forest East

I am not sure that we want to start discussing the foreign policy dimension of this now. The only reason I brought Ukraine into this particular debate was in order to focus on the impact on its future of its one-sided disarmament in return for unreliable and undeliverable guarantees from other countries.

There are two ways of looking at the state of defence, armaments, security and peace in the world. The way to which I subscribe was summarised by an inter-war chairman of the League of Nations disarmament commission, Salvador de Madariaga. He was writing about disarmament, which was very much in vogue in the early 1970s. This is what he wrote in 1973:

“The trouble with disarmament was (and still is) that the problem of war is tackled upside-down and at the wrong end… Nations don’t distrust each other because they are armed; they are armed because they distrust each other. And therefore to want disarmament before a minimum of common agreement on fundamentals is as absurd as to want people to go undressed in winter.”

I must point out that the hon. Member for Islington North, being typically objective about the matter, quoted article 6 of the non-proliferation treaty in full. That is very important, because often it is quoted only in part. I wish to focus my remaining couple of minutes on article 6. It states:

“Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date”.

In so far as that affects Britain, it can be seen that we do not engage, and never have engaged, in a nuclear arms race. We have a policy of possessing a minimum strategic nuclear deterrent. Indeed, over the years, successive Governments—both Labour and Conservative—have reduced the number of warheads in that deterrent. And what direct response has there been to each and every one of those unilateral reductions? A big, fat zero. The ending of the nuclear arms race certainly applies to Russia and the United States, but it does not apply to China, Britain or France, because none of us has ever engaged in it.

Article 6 goes on with a commitment to

“nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

That leads me to my final substantive point. There has been a lack of emphasis on the overall picture of what is recommended by article 6. It recommends not only a nuclear-free world, but a conventional arms-free world, so that we do not end up in a situation whereby countries get rid of all of their nuclear weapons and leave conventional arms bristling in the hands of the protagonists. We do not want to create a situation where, unless we are crazy, we abolish one type of deadly weapons system—whose use lies not in the firing of it, but in the possession of it so that nobody starts firing any such weapons—and replace it with a world that is riven by all the old rivalries that bubble away beneath the surface and that would rise to the surface once again if the threat of the balance of terror is removed.

When we get to that happy state—when we have a world Government and the lion lies down with the lamb—we can be absolutely confident that the moment has come to get rid of those nuclear weapons and, while we are at it, get rid of the navies, the armies, and the air forces as well. Some might say, “That’s nonsense. We don’t want to get rid of those conventional forces, because aggressors would take advantage of that against victim countries.” However, if that is what we think those aggressors would do if we get rid of all our conventional arms, we should ask ourselves what they would do if, without resolving those tensions and rivalries, we get rid of the nuclear stalemate and open up the world once again for conventional slaughter on a massive scale.

John Woodcock Labour, Barrow and Furness

It is always a pleasure to follow Dr Lewis. Indeed, I have followed him far more often during my five years in Parliament than I ever envisaged I would when I first entered the House. I have also found myself in agreement with him far more than I had expected. May I implore him, however, not to use again the analogy of going around undressed in winter? That would make for a happier experience for everyone in the Chamber.

I want my party and my country to lead the way on non-proliferation. I am deeply proud to be sitting next to my right hon. Friend Margaret Beckett, who as Foreign Secretary made Britain the very first country in possession of nuclear weapons to sign up to the ambition of global zero. That was a hugely important moment. The question is not whether but how to advance the cause of non-proliferation and disarmament.

Had I known that I would be following the hon. Member for New Forest East, I would have calibrated my arguments, because I want to make exactly the point that he has made. Under the previous Government, as the hon. Gentleman has said, the United Kingdom did many laudable things on non-proliferation, including, unlike any other member country of the P5, the reduction to a single platform. That is often not taken into account in the debate about submarine renewal: every other nation has other platforms, but we have gone down to a single platform, hugely reduced our stockpiles and de-targeted our weapons system. But what progress has there been? It is very hard or impossible to show how that has advanced the cause of non-proliferation, despite our good intentions in doing it.

To those who think that further unilateral gestures could kick-start some new move towards a nuclear-free world, I would say that that is just a fundamental misconception of what motivates states to acquire nuclear weapons. They do so not because they fear that America or the United Kingdom will launch a nuclear strike against them, but either to protect themselves from their nearer neighbours or to be able to threaten them.

If we are to accept the idea that a unilateral gesture could bring further progress, we must be able to answer this question: if the United Kingdom and America decided tomorrow to give up their nuclear weapons, would the world be more safe or less safe, and would we be less likely to have a nuclear catastrophe? It is unquestionably the case that instances of nuclear blackmail or threats of a nuclear catastrophe that destroys the world would be very significantly more likely if America and the United Kingdom were simply to get rid of their weapons without securing disarmament by other nations, particularly Russia.

That is why my party will never return to the days of the unilateralism of the 1980s. We will never accede to the demands of the Scottish National party and disarmers in other parties. It is a shame that Angus Robertson has vacated the Chamber after making his fatuous and wrong point about nuclear weapons. We will not do so, because it would be irresponsible and would set back, not advance, the cause of non-proliferation.

Although some people would try to argue otherwise, there is no conflict between my spending most of the day in Barrow shipyard with my hon. Friend Ian Lucas, a shadow Defence Minister, looking at the programme for renewing our deterrent submarines, and my standing here to advocate the best course to advance non-proliferation.

If we decided not to proceed with renewal, that would be precisely such a grand unilateral gesture. It would be deferred, perhaps by two decades, but it would mean that the United Kingdom abrogated its responsibility to its own citizens and those in allied countries under the UK’s nuclear umbrella in Europe.

Adam Afriyie Chair, Members’ Expenses Committee

The hon. Gentleman is making a very solid case about our participation in the treaty. Outside the general agreement across the House on maintaining our nuclear deterrent, could we not make good headway on fissile materials, the transfer of academic technology and the Nuclear Suppliers Group?

John Woodcock Labour, Barrow and Furness

Yes, exactly. The hon. Gentleman makes very well the point on which I shall finish in a moment.

Such a gesture would not only abrogate our responsibility to our NATO allies, but would harm, not help, the push for disarmament by giving away the prospect of the UK being part of a future binding multilateral deal that reduced the nuclear stockpiles and nuclear capability of other nations. We must be honest and realistic about the environment in which the treaty will be discussed, and understand that without the renewal of constructive engagement with Russia there is no prospect of the great breakthrough that we ultimately need.

It is essential to pursue all the measures that have been mentioned by Government Members and my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby South, both because they are important in and of themselves, and because they send the clear signal that we will never deprioritise the need for nuclear disarmament. Any future Labour Government will remain committed to the goal of global zero. We will do the right and responsible thing while the world remains unstable and while potential adversaries, such as Russia, are greatly increasing their nuclear capabilities, rather than engaging in meaningful discussions on scaling them back. We will push for change and for the binding multilateral deal that is the only way we will achieve our ultimate goal of global zero.

Alistair Burt Conservative, North East Bedfordshire

I add my thanks to Margaret Beckett for securing the debate and the Backbench Business Committee for allowing it. I agree with all colleagues who have spoken about the need for and importance of this debate.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Derby South for referring to my role in convening the Top Level Group of UK parliamentarians for multilateral nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. I commend the work of the European Leadership Network with which we are associated and that of its director, Ian Kearns, who has produced a very good briefing for us, which contains conclusions and a letter of statement about the steps that are needed to make the 2015 review conference successful. I commend that briefing to the Minister and to the House. I may return to it if there is time later, but I doubt there will be.

I was in the happy position of being the Minister responsible for this issue at the time of the 2010 NPT conference. I had the experience that was described by Jeremy Corbyn, of arriving as a new Minister and after just two weeks having to address the Security Council and take part in negotiations. I do not say that I negotiated, because I did not, but I did take part in the negotiations that were going on in the conference.

May I put on the record my thanks to all those who are involved in the NPT and the arms control team in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office? I thank Ambassador John Duncan, who was there in my time, Jo Adamson who succeeded him and Mark Lyall Grant. The work that is done by our mission at the United Nations in New York and by our team in Geneva is first rate.

Being at such negotiations gives one a sense that this whole business is not about grand gestures but about hard graft. Romantic though I am, and although on occasion I lean in the direction that the hon. Member for Islington North espouses on a number of different causes, my romantic nature comes to an end in dealing with this business, and I am much more on the realistic side set out by my hon. Friend Dr Lewis. My experience not just of the NPT but of the arms control treaty is that success is gained through hard graft and much detailed work. A lot of that work is unsung and is done behind the scenes. It is negotiated by people who appreciate each other’s positions. The grand gesture is left to those outside. The detailed work that maintains our security is more likely to be done by those who share the same interests and some of the same fears.

The role of non-governmental organisations and others in the conference is genuinely important. Often, their ideas are not quite as fanciful as their rhetoric makes out. They are pretty hard-headed and know what can and what cannot be achieved. They are a necessary part of the process because they nudge us along. At the end of the day, reality kicks in and they are usually sensible enough to know what can and what cannot be achieved. I pay tribute to them. I met a number of them in New York and subsequently. They play a valuable role.

The moment we leave our senses at the front door and opt for the grand gesture, we are to some extent at risk. There are places in politics where one can take a risk and if it does not work, so what? There are other places where taking a risk means putting oneself and others in peril. My sense of those negotiations and my hope for the next stage is that we remember that but keep going.

I have three observations on the treaty. First, on more than one occasion I have described the WMD-free zone in the middle east as the most optimistically titled endeavour I have ever come across, but it is really important. As the Minister knows, it was one of the keys to getting that 2010 agreement where a number of middle eastern countries—not least Egypt—were keen for progress to be made. I have always shared the aspirations of those who believe that it is worth keeping going in this endeavour. If it happens, it will be a symbol of confidence in the region and add to it, but that will not happen unless the confidence is there. The work done by my friend Jaakko Laajava has been intense, and I know that he has every support from the United Kingdom. That the initiative has not happened is not a dodge; it is because the necessary confidence must be slowly and carefully built up. As we see in negotiations with Iran, and in Israel’s concerns about its security, that will not happen unless painstaking work goes on, but it is important not to lose sight of the importance of this endeavour and to press ahead with it.

Secondly, the right hon. Member for Derby South referred to the NPT as a “grand bargain”, which it is, and there are rights all round. Part of that decision in 2010 was to reaffirm the inalienable rights of all parties to the NPT to the peaceful use of nuclear energy. That applies as much to Iran as to anybody else. The current

process to convince Iran—as well as the need for others to abide by the treaties if Iran is to abide by its part—is equally important. That is why I believe that the work being done on that deal at the moment, which will involve recognition of Iran’s right to civil nuclear power, will be an important part of what is being done.

Thirdly, let me mention the humanitarian aspect. I slightly regret the fact that when I was in office I did not sign up to the humanitarian conference that took place in Mexico. I was very undecided, and in the end I was persuaded by the argument that it was some back-door attempt to get a convention and that we would lose what the NPT was about. I am not so sure that that is really the case, and I am pleased that the Minister agreed to this year’s conference. Just a few months ago someone from one of the non-governmental organisations said something that I agreed with about why such a conference is important, which was that my generation grew up with the idea of what nuclear war could be.

I am young enough to remember some of the old films, and the CND debates and cruise missiles and all that they meant in ending the cold war, and everything we achieved. I remember the awful films that the hon. Member for Islington North referred to, the destruction we saw in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the terrible warnings, but a generation is growing up now that has no knowledge of that whatsoever. It is history; it is not what it was for us, which was the threat that when we went to bed we did not know what might happen the next day. To remind the world of what could happen seems not fanciful but important, not so that people leap in the air and say, “We must have none of these things”, but to make us realise why we must continue this progress and get somewhere with what the NPT grand bargain means and that that involves multilateral nuclear disarmament. I commend those who work on those different aspects to remind us of that.

In conclusion, at the end of the day this will not be a matter of legalese and what is in a treaty. It is a matter not of law but of will, and the world has not yet demonstrated the will for this, although the patient hard work is designed to get there. It is not about the detail but about the trust that will lead to the final stages of what work on the treaty has been about. It is not about the substance of negotiations but what is going on off-conference. It is about Ukraine, Iraq and Iran; it is about Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. It is about all those things that are happening off-side, because that plays into the confidence that is needed. I therefore very much agree with the conclusion of an article in The Economist last week:

“But for now the best that can be achieved is to search for ways to restore effective deterrence, bear down on proliferation and get back to the dogged grind of arms-control negotiations between the main nuclear powers.”

When it comes down to dogged determination to get the best deal, I know that the Minister is supported by the best team in the world who will do their best to ensure that we and all others succeed in the eventual aim of this grand bargain.

Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

I believe that this debate is about to take a turn that we have not seen in recent years. It has been very difficult to discuss Trident in this Parliament. Although I hope and will do all I can to make sure that colleagues in my party in Scotland are re-elected, the message I see day after day is that we are likely to have a group of people here who have put the ending of Trident at the top of their agenda. That will be a very significant change in this place. The suggested alternative of a grand coalition, if it went ahead, would not include many Labour Members.

The cost of Trident is £100 billion over its lifetime. Last week, a £5 billion increase in the cost of the clean-up in Sellafield was announced. On the same day, the news that we had sold our share of Eurostar was given headline treatment. It was sold for a seventh of the increase in the cost of the clean-up of Sellafield. The cost of clearing up the waste from Sellafield, mostly from the weapons we have created, will eventually cost more than £100 billion. These are vast costs. If we have in the new Parliament a phalanx of Members who put a very high priority on the elimination of Trident, we will have a public debate. I believe that that public debate will have a very significant effect.

John Spellar Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

Yet again, my hon. Friend repeats the £100 billion figure. Would he mind telling us how much a year that actually represents?

Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

Taken over the period, I have given the accepted figure. I am not going into the details. I know the arguments, but the figure is realistic. The costs are enormous, but for the waste it is even greater. Forget about the cost of Trident, just concentrate on the cost of the clean-up that is going on at the moment. The clean-up of Sellafield has just been nationalised by the Government. The Labour Government actually privatised it some seven years ago.

It is a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend Margaret Beckett, who I heard on “Desert Island Discs” say that her greatest regret in a very distinguished parliamentary career—I had the great honour of being part of her team with Robin Cook in the late ’80s on the different subject of social security—was that progress has not been made on nuclear disarmament. I think there is a mistaken impression that there are those who believe in getting rid of all weapons overnight. That has never been the aim of the anti-nuclear movement. The aim has been to progress towards countries reducing their stockpiles and reducing the risks, until eventually there are probably just two nations possessing nuclear weapons: America and Russia. I believe that is the likely way ahead.

Dr Lewis has been making speeches on this subject for many years. I believe he is in a state where he ignores from his calculations the existence of the United States and regards us as the key player. That is only right if we believe we are back in the gunship days of the 19th century. If there is an attack on the Baltic states, they will not come looking for us to defend them; they will look towards the United States. The NATO countries met in my constituency in September. Of those 28 nations, how many are nuclear powers? Just three of them. The rest are not. The belief that we must punch above our weight—a hangover from Victorian times—has done us much damage. We did it in Iraq and Helmand. We punched above our weight, spent beyond our interests and died beyond our responsibilities.

I received a letter today from the Minister about the event on Friday to recall the heroism of those who died in Afghanistan, saying we had to be grateful to them because they reduced the threat of terrorism in Britain. No they did not—our being in Iraq and Helmand increased the terrorist threat. We did not get rid of the Muslim bodies threatening us; we multiplied them. We went from small organisations in one or two countries to a threat in many countries throughout the world. I was once expelled from the House for saying that Ministers were not telling the truth when they said to our soldiers, “Go to Afghanistan and you will stop bombs coming to the streets of Britain.” It was never true. It was never true when Tony Blair said he was going into Iraq to stop terrorism.

We have this whole mismatch—this idea that the threats in the world can be held back by nuclear weapons—but the threats are very different. We cannot hold back terrorism with nuclear weapons. We cannot hold back global warming with nuclear weapons. We cannot provide clean water to our planet with nuclear weapons.

Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

But we can hold back the Russians from firing their weapons at us with nuclear weapons, and they have declared they are prepared to use them.

Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

Does the hon. Gentleman really believe that the Russians would do that, knowing they would be committing suicide and that they would be attacked by America, not us? This is the delusion. We do not believe that the 28 countries of NATO, protected by America’s weapons, will ever be attacked by Russia with nuclear weapons. Thank goodness, we have had this long period of 70 years during which, by luck and good management, no nuclear weapons have been dropped—well, four were dropped over Palomares, and one of them has never been recovered, but we have never had a situation where a nuclear event seemed likely, with all the consequences that my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn mentioned but about which we have forgotten: of a global winter and other horrors.

We have to learn lessons and unite the world. There are many reasons to be optimistic. John Kerry has said:

“All countries…profit when there is smart, continuous action in the direction of nuclear disarmament.”

President Obama has said:

“The United States seeks the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons”.

On 6 February, at the conference organised in London by the Foreign Office for the P5, the UK, the US, Russia —significantly—France and China, the P5 issued a statement saying:

“At their 2015 Conference the P5 restated their belief that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty remains the essential cornerstone for the nuclear non-proliferation regime and the foundation for the pursuit of nuclear disarmament, and is an essential contribution to international security and stability.”

For goodness’ sake, can we not proceed positively by seeking disarmament and trying to build confidence among the nations, instead of wallowing in the old cold war antagonisms and fantasies about our supreme position among the family of nations? That is not our position. We should pursue what realistic chances there are to reduce the tension and great danger from nuclear weapons.

John Spellar Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend Margaret Beckett on leading this debate and on her role in these issues over many years, not to mention her role in our party in a number of positions. She set the tone for the debate by the way she introduced it. It has been a good humoured, but extremely well informed debate.

My hon. Friend Paul Flynn was right to mention a degree of optimism. If we look back to when the nuclear non-proliferation treaty was originally drafted, we see that the expectations for the spread and proliferation of nuclear weapons were far worse than has been the outcome. What happened is certainly not perfect, but it is much better than was anticipated.

We have seen significant reductions in weapons worldwide, and particularly among the arsenals of Russia and the United States, which reflects the theme running through the debate that disarmament follows confidence, rather than confidence following disarmament. Many fewer countries than anticipated, although still too many, have proliferated, and Britain has played a prominent role in that, which we should not underestimate.

Under the previous Labour Government, in which I served as a Defence Minister, we cut the number of operationally available warheads from 300 at the time of the ’98 strategic defence review to fewer than 160 by the time of the 2010 general election. We reduced the number of warheads carried by submarines from 96 to 48, and we withdrew the WE177 nuclear capability from service. It is important, too, that there has been a cross-party priority for the UK to continue on that path, and I am pleased that the current Government have continued in that vein, and that the UK has been one of the most transparent of the nuclear powers in dealing with that.

As I indicated, the relationship between the US and Russia is the crucial one in nuclear negotiations. Those countries are the clear and indispensable leaders, I suppose one could say, with the overwhelming majority of nuclear capability. Reference was made to the strategic arms reduction treaty and to the on-off discussions that go on. Considerable developments have taken place, such as a substantial amount of nuclear material being removed not only from the United States but with the co-operation of the United States and Russia—yet things are not necessarily heading in the right direction.

We need to be concerned about the expansion of Russian capability and a major modernisation of Russia’s strategic forces—involving the deployment of two new types of sea-launched ballistic missiles, a new class of ballistic missile submarines, a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile; and work on a new bomber and long-range cruise missiles. Sir John Sawers recently indicated that Russia is prepared to use those weapons in certain circumstances. So while there are some encouraging trends, the trends are not all in one direction.

Dr Lewis reminded us that the prospect of nuclear war is horrific, but that conventional war is pretty awful as well. A number of Members, including Alistair Burt and my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn, mentioned Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the fire bombings in Tokyo consumed huge numbers of lives, as indeed did the fire bombings in Hamburg, and we have recently heard more controversy over what happened in Dresden.

The horrors of civil war in Syria show that it is not only state-on-state conflict that can cause such tragedy and devastation. It can happen in well-armed civil wars, as well. Nor is it only in this or the previous century that we have seen these horrors. It was not a general during this or the 20th century who aptly said “war is hell”. It was General Sherman, who had seen more than enough of that during the American civil war, which led to huge loss of life and injury.

As the hon. Member for New Forest East rightly said, countries do not distrust each other because they are armed, but are armed because they distrust each other. That applies to nuclear issues as between India and Pakistan. The issue is not their possession of nuclear armaments, but the incessant pressure that they exert on each other and the great distrust that exists between them. I was very encouraged by the fact that embarking on discussions with Pakistan was one of the first acts of the new President Modi in India. That process will not be easy, but it is enormously important. The same applies in the middle east: disarmament will proceed from confidence, not confidence from disarmament. That is why it is so crucial for peace talks to be restarted, notwithstanding the difficulties that have arisen along the way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newport West repeated what has been said in other debates that have been based on the proposition that nuclear weapons are an inappropriate response to many of the very real contemporary threats that we face, such as terrorism, insurgencies, cyber-attacks and climate change. Of course, they were never designed for that purpose. That is not their role. They are focused on state-on-state conflicts.

In Europe, given the increasing assertiveness of Russia, we are starting to see the re-emergence of that scenario. It is not only the actions in Ukraine that are causing concern; they are merely the most extreme symptom of a number of problems that have been manifesting themselves. There are, for instance, increasing pressures on countries in the “near abroad”, especially the Baltic states. I am pleased that the Government have responded by engaging in military co-operation with those states, along with other NATO countries. There are the cyber-attacks by which Estonia has been hit particularly badly. NATO is currently discussing whether a significant cyber-attack constitutes an article 5 attack on a member state. There is also increased maritime activity, especially submarine activity. Let me depart briefly from the slightly more bipartisan attitude that I have adopted in this debate, and say that I think it was absurd for a country that is as dependent as ours on its sea lanes for both trade and security to lose its maritime patrol capability. We have also seen the testing of our aviation defences, which has been very well publicised recently.

Incidentally, it is not just the United Kingdom that is experiencing such problems. They are also being experienced by, for example, the Scandinavian countries. There is a genuine public debate across a wide part of the political spectrum in two countries that have maintained a position of neutrality, Sweden and Finland, about whether they should consider a relationship with, or even membership of, NATO.

While being cautious, we should also be constructive. Indeed, as one of the P5, we have a special responsibility to be so. That is why—as a number of Members have mentioned—my hon. Friend Vernon Coaker and my right hon. Friend Mr Alexander wrote to the Prime Minister in November 2014, urging him to ensure that the United Kingdom was represented at the Vienna conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons in December. I agree with the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire that that was a difficult and delicately balanced decision, but I think that it was the right decision, because engagement is important.

That is also why it is important for Britain to play a constructive role in working for a nuclear-free world by not removing itself from the equation through nuclear disarmament, and why, at the Labour party conference, we committed ourselves to a minimum credible deterrent delivered through a continuous at-sea deterrent, while taking a leading international role in pressing the agenda of global anti-proliferation. Contrary to the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North, ours is not a unilateralist party. The Scottish National party, whose members are conspicuous by their absence—they seem to have plenty to say, but they did not actually participate in the debate, apart from one Member who intervened—want to abandon our nuclear capability, while still applying to be part of a nuclear alliance in NATO.

As a number of Members said, the NPT review is coming up at a very inconvenient time. International conferences have taken place at inconvenient times in the election cycle. Potsdam was slightly disrupted by that, with one Prime Minister at the beginning and another at the end—a very welcome change, of course, and an encouraging precedent—but we should still be engaged, and the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire rightly mentioned the officials, the sherpas, who will be working on that. As he rightly concluded, a successful conference will not be achieved by grand gestures; it will be achieved by dogged determination, and although many of the details may seem arid, they are hugely important and relevant. We pay tribute to the officials for their work, and I hope that we have indicated that the UK and this House as a whole are determined that those discussions should succeed. We remain alert, but we also remain positive to working towards achieving a nuclear-free world and a safer world.

Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

May I begin by joining others in paying tribute to Margaret Beckett and to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this informative, detailed and constructive debate to take place? I have an interest in the Top Level Group, which has been mentioned a couple of times. Back in May 2011, it contacted me, to my surprise, because I thought perhaps this was an invitation to join it. It is an elite group for senior parliamentarians. I was not being invited to join, of course, but I was invited to chair a meeting taking place in the UK with Senators George Shultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn—sadly, Henry Kissinger could not make it—for the launch of the film “Nuclear Tipping Point”, which the right hon. Lady might be familiar with. That was my introduction to the issues we have been discussing today. They are of such importance that I am very pleased we have had this debate, but, as has been said, the timing of the conference could not, perhaps, have been worse.

The right hon. Lady reminded us that this is now the 45th anniversary of the NPT, and of the importance of access to civil nuclear power. My right hon. Friend Sir John Stanley—who sends his apologies for not being in his place as I understand that there are engineering works on his line—raised a number of issues that I will do my best to cover, and if I do not manage to address any points I will write to him and other Members. He mentioned the comprehensive test ban treaty, and I pay tribute to him for the work he does as chairman of the Committees on Arms Export Controls.

Jeremy Corbyn has debated these matters on many occasions in this Chamber. He talked about this debate being a precedent. I concur: it is important that we have a debate prior to these conferences. He also mentioned the Iranian delegation that is in the UK—in London. I will meet it as well.

My hon. Friend Dr Lewis once again demonstrated his expertise in this area. He spoke of the Budapest memorandum and the comments Lord Robertson made, a reminder that that was a political commitment, not a legal obligation, and of the consequences of obligations not being honoured.

I recently visited Ukraine with John Woodcock, a pleasurable visit during which we learned about that country and the challenges it faces. I pay tribute to the work done at the shipyard in his constituency, which has served our Royal Navy for so many years.

My right hon. Friend Alistair Burt speaks with some authority on these matters, being the only former Minister on the Government Benches who has gone to one of the conferences, because of the timing of these events. He mentioned both the Top Level Group—I am pleased he is now chairing it—and the European Leadership Network. He paid huge tribute to the Foreign Office in this context, and I am glad that he did so. I would certainly echo those comments. He mentioned the role of the non-governmental organisations, and I am pleased to say that they are now participating more in these conferences. They play an important role in adding to the debate. He also made an astute observation about the changes in the generational view of the threat, in regard to what we grew up with during the cold war and to how the present generation perceive the threat.

Paul Flynn has not changed his views. He made a number of points, and I am sure he will not be surprised to learn that I did not really agree with any of them. As I have said, I will do my best to write to any hon. Members whose questions I have not managed to cover today.

This Government remain a firm supporter of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and of its three pillars: disarmament, non-proliferation and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The NPT has been a major factor in keeping the world safe since it came into force in 1970, curtailing the nuclear arms race. It remains at the centre of international efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and ultimately to create a nuclear weapon-free world. All but a handful of the world’s states have now acceded to the NPT, but these accomplishments are not enough, and the treaty will continue to face challenges, as we can see from the nuclear weapons ambitions of North Korea and Iran.

The Government acknowledge that there is frustration at the perceived slow pace of global disarmament and at the delay in convening a conference on a middle eastern zone that is free from weapons of mass destruction. Agreeing an outcome at this year’s review conference will certainly be challenging. Despite that, we remain confident that consensus can be reached and that the NPT can be strengthened. Consensus proved possible in 2010 when states agreed an action plan setting out a framework for balanced progress across all the three pillars. That was a real achievement and we hope that the review conference will confirm its continued relevance.

We are committed to doing what we can to bring all sides together and to underlining our commitment to the NPT. I am sure that the House will therefore welcome the fact that, despite the small matter of the forthcoming general election, the Prime Minister has asked the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my right hon. Friend the noble Baroness Anelay of St Johns, to speak during the opening week of the review conference. In addition, our ambassador to the conference on disarmament and a team of cross-Whitehall officials will play an active role during the negotiations.

Let me outline some of the ways in which we have made progress. First, on disarmament and deterrence, no one in the House should be in any doubt that the UK supports multilateral nuclear disarmament, negotiated in a step-by-step manner. We have made tangible progress unilaterally, and we have steadily reduced the size of our own nuclear weapons stockpile, by well over 50% since the cold war peak. We now have just one delivery system, provided by four ballistic missile submarines. We have made further progress since 2010. The Secretary of State for Defence recently announced that the UK had reduced the number of warheads on each of our deployed Vanguard class ballistic missile submarines from 48 to 40, and the number of operational missiles on each of those submarines to no more than eight.

The Government have also set out their desire to reduce our total nuclear weapons stockpile to no more than 180 by the mid-2020s. We estimate that our warhead inventory now stands at approximately 1% of the global total. This openness reinforces our belief that the UK is the most forward leaning and transparent nuclear weapons state. In this vein, the House will recall that we recently revised our national report to the NPT, detailing our progress. In addition, the UK has led the way on nuclear disarmament verification research. This includes our ground-breaking work with Norway, as well as a long-running programme of work with the United States. We look forward to the continuation and expansion of that work in the next review cycle.

Multilateral nuclear disarmament will be achieved only if all states are committed to creating a world without nuclear weapons that is safer and more prosperous for all. Globally, we have come a long way, but more than 17,000 nuclear weapons still remain. We cannot uninvent them, nor can we rule out a future nuclear threat to the UK. Our own reductions have not always encouraged other states that possess nuclear weapons to follow our example, nor have they influenced those seeking a nuclear weapons capability to abandon their attempts. This Government will therefore retain a credible and effective minimum nuclear deterrent for as long as the global security situation makes that necessary. That includes a posture of continuous at-sea deterrence, known as Operation Relentless. We have delivered that without pause since April 1969. It is the UK’s most enduring operation and, as both a Minister and an Army reservist, may I pay tribute to the families and the crew of the Royal Navy and all those involved? Continuous at-sea deterrence is the best way to deter the most extreme threats, including nuclear blackmail and a nuclear attack against the UK, our vital interests or our NATO allies.

Secondly, on the P5 process and the P5 conference, which have been mentioned by right hon. and hon. Members, relations between Russia and the west have become increasingly strained over the past year, as hon. Members will doubtless be aware. None the less, the UK is committed to a cool but hard-headed approach with Russia. The UK has therefore continued to advocate dialogue between all nuclear weapons states; building trust and mutual confidence are essential first steps towards achieving our goal of a world without nuclear weapons, even during these testing times. The P5 process has therefore continued. We must not forget that before the dialogue was initiated by the UK in 2009 the five nuclear weapons states did not get together as a group to discuss nuclear disarmament issues. The UK hosted the sixth P5 conference in London last month and we believe that this engagement is beginning to deliver. I would recommend the statement I made to the House on 12 February to those who wish to read in more detail about the conference outcomes.

Thirdly, let me deal with the humanitarian impacts of the use of nuclear weapons. The House will recall that the UK participated in the most recent conference in Vienna, mentioned by right hon. and hon. Members, on the humanitarian impact of the use of nuclear weapons. Ministers took that decision in part because we recognise the importance that many NPT states and hon. Members of this House attach to this initiative. It was also done because we share the deep concern at the humanitarian consequences that could result from the use of nuclear weapons. Let me make it clear that we hope never to use nuclear weapons, but we do aim to deliver a deterrence effect at all times, and we would consider using our nuclear weapons only in extreme circumstances of self-defence, including the defence of our NATO allies. That is why we work to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and their technology, and to keep weapons safe and secure.

Julian Lewis Conservative, New Forest East

I entirely agree with the thrust of the Minister’s argument, but may I urge on him a change in terminology? I would prefer it if he would talk about “firing” nuclear weapons when he is referring to “using” them, because on our side of the argument we believe that they are used every day to keep the peace and prevent other nuclear powers from blackmailing us.

Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I do not want to get caught up in the nomenclature, be it firing, launching or something else, but I understand the thrust of what my hon. Friend is trying to say.

Let me conclude on the conference. Our attendance in Vienna did not mean a deviation from our support for a step-by-step approach to multilateral disarmament. Some in the international community would like to force the pace of disarmament in a way that does not take into account wider security considerations, such as trying to set a fixed timetable for disarmament. We do not support that.

Fourthly, let me deal with the middle east weapons of mass destruction-free zone, which my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire said was an interesting description. The UK certainly resolutely supports the goal of the middle east zone free from weapons of mass destruction and the 1995 NPT resolution on the middle east. We also remained committed to convening a conference on such a zone, as was mandated in 2010 by the very conference that he attended.

Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

Will the Minister assure the House that the UK delegation to New York will make real efforts to try to ensure that there are side meetings and so on to try to bring about this conference, because the dangers of it not happening are huge?

Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. New York presents the next opportunity for us to ensure that we push these points forward. It is sad, as Members have said, that we have not been able to move on this matter. Many Members spoke passionately and with concern that, if we do not seek a resolution on this, we could see further proliferation, with nations deciding to turn their back and to seek to arm.

There has been real progress at the consultations over the past couple of years. Remaining differences can be bridged with political will on both sides. We regret that, to date, further consultations have not proved possible, and we accept, sadly, that a conference will not take place before the review conference. As the hon. Gentleman points out, New York might be the opportunity for us to reconvene on this matter.

Alistair Burt Conservative, North East Bedfordshire

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the idea of the facilitator, Mr Laajava, to have these consultations resulted from his not being able to secure the conference itself? The consultation, far from being a step away from the conference and therefore something to criticise because it was not getting to the end that we wanted to reach, was a necessary step to build the confidence that would allow the conference to take place. My friend Jaakko Laajava is to be commended for what he is trying to do.

Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I certainly agree that, given the work that has been done in the past two years, there are grounds for cautious optimism. We can work towards that in New York at the UN General Assembly.

Turning to the fissile material cut-off treaty—the FMCT—the Government want negotiations on fissile material cut-off as soon as possible, and we continue to work with partners at the conference on disarmament to press Pakistan to end its block on the start of negotiations.

The comprehensive test ban treaty was mentioned by a number of Members. The UK has long been a supporter of the comprehensive test ban treaty, and it was one of the first countries, along with France, to ratify the treaty in 1998. We continue to push for the eight remaining annex 2 states to ratify the treaty through bilateral discussions.

In conclusion, the UK remains deeply committed to the NPT and the principles for which it stands. In many ways, our aims for the review conference are simple: to uphold the NPT across its three pillars along with the web of regimes and controls that complement it; to deter non-compliance and see greater adherence to safeguards; to continue to work for the universalisation of the treaty, bringing the remaining few into the international non-proliferation architecture; to underline again our commitment to the goal of a world without nuclear weapons and to zero tolerance of proliferation; and to continue to support the global expansion of civil nuclear activity to high standards of safety and security, and in line with non- proliferation obligations. This Government are clear that we will maintain a credible and effective minimum nuclear deterrent based on a continuous at-sea deterrence for as long as the global security environment makes that necessary.

Margaret Beckett Chair, National Security Strategy (Joint Committee), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I thank all those who have welcomed this debate, particularly the tone of it. I also thank the Minister for his commitment that such a debate should always precede the review conference in future. I think that everyone has accepted that establishing and maintaining trust is key and that the best way to do that is through the P5 process and other such steps, which continue that hard negotiation and detailed work to which Alistair Burt referred. I echo the praise that has been uttered by Members on both sides for our team of officials, but say how much I think it will be a help to them for it to be as clear as it has been in this debate that there is cross-party agreement, across this House, on the importance of this issue, on Britain’s role in trying to help maintain the process of the NPT review conference and on improving and sustaining that vision of a world free of nuclear weapons to which all of us adhere.

This has been a constructive debate. I welcome all those who have participated and it seems to me that maintaining the vision to which so many have referred is the key to maintaining progress.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the forthcoming Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference.