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House of Commons

Tuesday 27 February 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

PRAYERS

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

PRIVATE BUSINESS

Kent County Council Bill [Lords]

Order for consideration, as amended, read.

To be considered on Tuesday 6 March.

Medway Council Bill [Lords]

Order for consideration, as amended, read.

To be considered on Tuesday 6 March.

Oral Answers to Questions

FOREIGN AND COMMONWEALTH AFFAIRS

The Secretary of State was asked--

US National Missile Defence

2. Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North): What recent discussions he has had with the US Administration on national missile defence. [149702]

11. Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): What recent discussions his Department has had with the US Administration in relation to national missile defence; and what assessment he has made about the implications of any such involvement for the UK. [149712]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Keith Vaz): My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is today attending the NATO North Atlantic council in Brussels, with the new United States Secretary of State, Colin Powell.

My right hon. Friend recently held discussions in Washington with Vice-President Cheney, National Security Adviser Rice and Secretary of State Powell on a range of issues, including national missile defence. Those discussions, and those that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had last week with President Bush, clearly demonstrated the constructive approach being taken by the Bush Administration. The US Administration reaffirmed their commitment to a national missile defence system, but stressed their willingness to take their time to consult allies, Russia and others. They confirmed that no

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decision had yet been taken on the development or deployment of a specific system. It is therefore too early to assess any implications for the United Kingdom.

Mr. Savidge: Does my hon. Friend recognise that the report by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs on weapons of mass destruction reflects concern across the political spectrum at the dangers of national missile defence, not least to the arms control process, and support for the Government, urging caution on the issue? Will he reassure us that there is no foundation for media reports stating that the Government have cut a deal to assist, encourage or advocate NMD, as that could undermine our policies and principles, our national interest and global security?

Mr. Vaz: I understand what my hon. Friend says, but the fact is that we made our position clear at the discussions between the President of the United States and the Prime Minister, and I can do no better than to quote from the joint communique:


The United States of America is our closest ally and our strongest friend. It is important that we should discuss those matters with the US Administration. It is also important that they should consult ourselves and others, as they have agreed to do. We shall proceed on that basis because that is in the best interests of transatlantic security.

Mr. Simpson: My hon. Friend will know that, on 3 July last year, the Secretary of State for Defence told the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs that there was no significant threat to the United Kingdom from an attack by a rogue state. Why would we wish to change that position by making ourselves the most obvious target if we were to become the front-line partner of the American star wars initiative? Why has the United Kingdom invested more than £100 million so far in the star wars technology--a project that not only would breach the ABM treaty, but would have no international support across the developed world?

Mr. Vaz: Throughout my hon. Friend's career in politics he has had a long-standing commitment to the views that he has just expressed. The Government's position is absolutely clear. There is no difference between what the Secretary of State for Defence said last year and what the Prime Minister and President Bush said at Camp David last week, which is that there is a common threat. If our closest ally feels vulnerable, it is right that we should listen carefully to its concerns. There is no specific proposal on the table, as my hon. Friend knows. There is ample scope for consultation, and we have made it clear that we will look carefully at those very serious and sensitive matters. It is extremely important that we work with our allies to ensure that those matters are resolved. There is no significant threat to us, but there is a common threat that affects the security of a number of countries.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle): On the subject of national missile defence and the phantom

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European army, will the Minister inquire of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs why they appear to say one thing to the President of the United States and another thing to leaders of European Union countries? Is he aware that the French have a rather good ambassador in Washington who is having tremendous fun every evening dining out in political circles and reading out the conflicting messages that 10 Downing street is sending to Europe and to Washington?

Mr. Vaz: I am not responsible for what the ambassador does in his leisure time; I am responsible for telling the House that there is confusion because of the activities of the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith). He travels like a weasel to Washington, giving out old draft documents and insulting the American Administration. The situation is clear and was set out by the President and by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at the Camp David meeting last week. I remind the hon. Gentleman of what was agreed in the joint communique. It said:


As the hon. Gentleman knows, and as we have said on numerous occasions, NATO remains the cornerstone of our defence policy. No matter what confusion the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green wishes to sow wherever he goes, that remains the position.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): The Vale of York is between Fylingdales and Menwith Hill, although neither is in my constituency. Before the Government consider any application from the United States on the national missile defence policy, will the Minister tell us what discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Defence on what the cost of upgrading those two listening stations would be?

Mr. Vaz: I have had no discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence on that matter.

Mr. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): As my hon. Friend the Minister knows, I represent the constituency of Scarborough and Whitby, which is very close to Fylingdales. The people of my constituency will welcome very much the consultation that was implied by the communique that was issued at the weekend. However, will there be any consultation with local people in the North Yorkshire moors area, should there be any further developments? Will there be any consideration of the fact that the base at Fylingdales is in a national park? Will that have any bearing on any potential developments at the site?

Mr. Vaz: I have listened to my hon. Friend and I can do no better than to pass on his comments to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): I welcome the generous compliment that the Minister has just bestowed on the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, my hon.

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Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green. He will be delighted to know that he has got up the Minister's nose to such an extent.

Why does the Minister not abandon his waffle, dither and procrastination and just admit to the House that the reason why he will not tell us clearly whether he and the Government are, in principle, in favour of national missile defence as a protection against the antics of rogue states is that the Ministry of Defence and his Department are irreconcilably split? Is it not the case that the Secretary of State for Defence can see the merits of such a system but that CND man--the Foreign Secretary, who consistently championed one-sided disarmament throughout the 1980s--remains feeble, passive and hopeless on this subject?

Mr. Vaz: I do not understand why the hon. Gentleman is working himself up into such a lather. The position is very clear. We recognise that there is a threat, as the President of the United States said to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister last week. As the ally of the United States, we will be consulted, as others will be. That is the way forward. No specific proposal is on the table but when such a proposal is available for discussion, it will be discussed in the proper way. There is no difference between any members of the Government on that point; there is one specific policy that deals with the need to work with our allies, to be consulted by them and to move forward on this issue.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East): Is it not clear that the Opposition must be bitterly disappointed at the outcome of the meeting in Washington because it was so obviously a success? On missile defence, my hon. Friend must know that the United States Administration is dropping the word "national." Although the conclusions of last August's Foreign Affairs Committee have been adopted, is it not clear that the Bush Administration's concept of such defence has moved on from a land-based strategy to a sea-based or space-based strategy? If that is technologically feasible, how long will it take before such a system becomes operational?

Mr. Vaz: There is no timing on that because no specific proposal is before the House. As for my right hon. Friend's first point, he is absolutely right; there were tears in central office last weekend when it was seen how successful the meeting had been between the Prime Minister and President Bush. The joint communique dealt with a number of crucial issues, including the President's support for the European security defence initiative and the support of our Government for consultations on NMD.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): The Minister's smug complacency takes the biscuit. The only weasels are those who sit on Labour Benches. Last week, the Prime Minister undoubtedly left the President of the United States with the impression that he would support the missile defence programme. However, on this side of the Atlantic, as reported in the Danish press, the Foreign Secretary reached an agreement with the Foreign Minister of Denmark last month that neither country would give the United States any indication that it was prepared to provide sites for the radar installations that are necessary for the missile shield to function. Is it not about time that the Government showed some leadership on the matter

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rather than saying one thing in Europe and another thing in Washington? Is it not the truth that the only things to put in the box marked "handle with care" are the Government's promises?

Mr. Vaz: It is very sad when Opposition spokespersons prepare their supplementary questions before they hear the answers to earlier questions. The hon. Lady will know that she is completely wrong. Her question goes to the heart of the way in which the Opposition want to deal with the policy; they provide misinformation to everyone, causing massive confusion. The fact is that no decision has been made. An agreement was reached at Camp David last week that there should be consultation between the United States and the United Kingdom, and further consultation with allies and with Russia. That remains the position.


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