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Mr. Savidge: Is the hon. Gentleman supporting what the shadow Defence Secretary said on the "Today" programme when he acknowledged that the Conservatives expect to pick up a bill for the system in due course?

Mr. Spring: We have made it plain that we wish to co-operate with the United States Administration. We want to be closely involved in the discussions and the process. At this stage, the costs are subjective. However, it is important that we co-operate because it is in our national interest to do so. In view of the fact that the United States has serious doubts about the European Union's defence capabilities, it is crucial that this country co-operates closely with the United States at this critical stage.

Mr. Menzies Campbell: It would be disingenuous--or, perhaps, even worse--if we were to indulge in the discussion that the hon. Gentleman describes without having made the financial provision necessary to participate in a system of NMD, should that come about.

Mr. Spring: The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that the Americans will go ahead with the system. They have made it clear that they will finance it. Conservatives will discuss the extent and quality of our relationship with them when we win the next general election.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): Look--even he is laughing.

Mr. Spring: I am not laughing. However, it is good to see laughter on such solemn faces and to hear the hon. Gentleman, who is not usually so quiescent. He has been uncharacteristically mute throughout the debate and I am pleased that he has sprung to life.

We have a golden opportunity jointly to face the threat of the 21st-century menace. It would be wrong to decline it. I conclude by paying tribute to a remarkably high- quality and informative Select Committee report, which, in many respects, will act as a benchmark for discussions on important issues.

6.38 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Brian Wilson): It has been a good debate, which was rounded off nicely by the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) referring to the outcome of the next general election, whenever that might be. It was worth waiting to see that laugh pass across his face when he spoke about winning it. That brightened up the evening.

I should like to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) and members of the Foreign Affairs Committee. All Members who contributed to the debate agreed that the report is a substantial and penetrating work, which I welcome. I do not say that simply because almost every recommendation supports or commends the Government's policies, but

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because in producing the report, the Committee has focused attention on one of the key security challenges facing the international community today. The debate has performed the same function, so I welcome it, too.

The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is a key security challenge. It is important, when we debate the options, that we do not forget the circumstances. We are acutely aware of what we seek to counter.

The good news is that since the end of the cold war, one threat has been dramatically reduced--that of a strategic nuclear exchange between superpowers. Russia and the United States have made major reductions in their nuclear weapons stockpiles and continue to discuss further cuts. We see that as a very high priority, and we continue to urge other nuclear weapons states to follow our lead by reducing their arsenals to the lowest possible levels. Ten years after the cold war ended, we can also see more clearly the new security threats that are emerging. As many hon. Members have recognised, those threats are more complex but they pose no less of a challenge. The spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and the missiles that can deliver them is foremost among them. We need to reinforce our efforts to understand and deal with this new security environment.

Inevitably, there have been several references to Iraq. That is scarcely surprising because Iraq's pursuit of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in many ways symbolises the new threats that we face. The Government and the Select Committee are of one mind about the continued importance of containing Saddam, and I do not need to spell out to anyone here what he is capable of, as the use of chemical weapons against his neighbours and the Iraqi people tells the whole story eloquently.

More than two years has passed since Iraq made it impossible for United Nations weapons inspectors to continue their work. No Member of the House is naive enough to believe that Iraq is not seeking to take advantage of their absence to pursue its ambitions to acquire weapons of mass destruction. It is a regime that belatedly and reluctantly admitted hiding chemical and biological weapons and missile parts in the desert, in railway tunnels and even in fridges in private homes. It is sobering to recall that UN inspectors remain unable to account for 4,000 tonnes of precursor chemicals used for chemical weapons, 610 tonnes of chemicals used in the production of the deadly nerve gas VX and some 31,000 chemical munitions. The list goes on. We cannot afford to ignore Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capacity. Britain will not abandon its efforts to persuade Iraq to meet its obligations under the relevant resolutions. To do so would not only expose Iraq's neighbours and its own people to renewed threats from chemical and biological weapons, but threaten arms control and non-proliferation efforts in the middle east more widely and around the world.

I said that Iraq is a symbol of the proliferation threat, but the Committee highlights other threats in its report. It mentions Iran, on which it shares the Government's specific concerns about reported Iranian efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. Iran is also developing long-range missiles. The Committee's view is that the reformist cause in Iran and progress in the middle east peace process are keys to ensuring that Iran abides by its non-proliferation

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commitments. The Government agree, which is one reason for our continued demonstration of high-level support for the reformist policies initiated by President Khatami's Government.

Mr. Wilkinson: Everybody shares the Minister's hopes, and I am sure that all those who have read the Select Committee's excellent report are in total agreement that diplomatic and political efforts to modify the extremely dangerous policies of regimes such as those in Iran and Iraq are essential. Is it not also the case, however, that wise democratic states, such as the United States and ourselves, ought to take precautionary measures of a defensive kind against the offensive technologies being designed by Iran and Iraq, and ballistic missile defence is therefore a wholly wise and sensible policy?

Mr. Wilson: As I am sure the hon. Gentleman expects, I shall come to that aspect of the debate. No one would suggest that it is not prudent to have defensive policies. Much of the debate has concerned the nature of those policies, and in a few moments I shall set out the Government's thinking.

I remind hon. Members that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office last month became the first British Cabinet Minister to visit Iran since the 1979 revolution. Her visit focused on drugs trafficking, but we hope that it will also be a major step in widening the range of contacts on issues of mutual concern. Discussion of non-proliferation issues with Iran is an important part of that dialogue.

The Select Committee expressed concern about the situation in south Asia. I am grateful for its recognition and backing for our efforts to support India and Pakistan in turning back from the dangerous path that they have chosen. We regret that progress, as measured against the requirements of Security Council resolution 1172, remains negligible. We are particularly concerned that neither country has yet made any move to sign the comprehensive test ban treaty. Britain, with like-minded countries, will not relax its efforts to promote compliance with Security Council resolution 1172. We shall continue to take every suitable opportunity to press our concerns on the Indian and Pakistani Governments. We shall also continue to encourage them to resolve the issues that still divide them.

Finally, on regional issues, the Select Committee highlighted North Korea, to which a number of references have been scattered through our debate. The Government have supported strongly the efforts of the United States to halt North Korea's nuclear and ballistic programmes, thereby putting an end to destabilising North Korean missile exports. With our European partners, we are providing practical support for those efforts through the European Union's participation in the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation, KEDO.

Progress in relations between the two Koreas, and between North Korea and the United States of America, enabled us to establish formal diplomatic relations with Pyongyang last year. We have made it clear to the North Koreans that we expect our advanced dialogue with them to address proliferation issues. Recently, we have seen an increase in North Korean rhetoric against the new American Administration, including threats to unfreeze its nuclear programme and end its moratorium on missile

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testing, which is deeply disturbing. We do not want last year's progress to be reversed, so we urge North Korea to choose engagement, not isolation.

I turn to missile defence, on which we have had a high-quality debate within a debate, especially in response to the Select Committee's in-depth examination of the subject. I should like to touch first on the threat, because we should not lose that focus. Our concerns about missile proliferation are significant and growing. Forty countries have some sort of ballistic missile, 19 countries produce cruise missiles, and 50 countries have acquired cruise missiles. Those lists continue to grow. Many of those countries have weapons of mass destruction skills and capabilities, including countries in regions of great tension. Yet missile capabilities are developing beyond levels that seem reasonable for purposes of self-defence. The pursuit of longer-range missiles is of particular concern because it raises the spectre of a truly global threat.

Since publication of the Select Committee report, the United States has elected a new President, who has made clear his commitment to a missile defence system. In response to the different views expressed by hon. Members in our debate, I should like to set out our position on American plans. In doing so, it may help if I put missile defence in context. President Bush has emphasised that his proposals for a limited missile defence arise from concerns about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles. It is intended to counter threats from countries that cause concern and from accidental launches. President Bush has said that missile defence is one defensive element of the United States response to that proliferation. It will supplement, not supplant, other ways of reducing the threat.

We share American concerns about such proliferation and recognise the role that missile defences can play as one part of a strategy to obstruct and deter it. However, it is important to recognise that President Bush has made it clear that no decisions have been taken on the development or deployment of a specific missile defence system. He has emphasised that, before coming to a decision, the US will want to consult NATO allies, Russia and others.

We welcome that approach. The Prime Minister has made it clear that the Government will continue to work closely with the American Administration as they develop their thinking. We will do so as close allies with common strategic interests. Deeply felt concerns have been expressed today about the possible implications of missile defence which, of course, we recognise. The aim is to find a way through that addresses those concerns and United States objectives. In our view, such a way through is most likely to be achieved--this goes back to the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East at the beginning of the debate--through constructive engagement with the United States. That is the course that we are taking and urging others to take. Consultation, not confrontation, should be the way ahead. The same approach is urged upon us by the Committee.

Some Members have spoken today about a new arms race, and those fears are understandable. There were interesting comments from the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley), and concerns were expressed by my hon. Friends the Members for Greenock

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and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) and for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) and others, but those fears need not be realised.

President Bush has spoken of his wish to reduce substantially the number of US nuclear weapons, and has directed the Pentagon to review that area of policy. Doubtless, the focus of that review will be to establish the defence rationale--to quote the phrase used by the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling--that underlies the proposal. That is a pertinent question. We applaud the review, which should be an important step in progress towards the Committee's hope for reductions by all nuclear weapons states to minimum deterrent levels.

The issue of the use of facilities in the United Kingdom was raised by several hon. Members. As President Bush has made clear, it is too early to determine whether US plans will involve sites in this country. Any possible request will not be identifiable until after the President has considered his options and determined which type of system, if any, to develop. It would clearly be premature to speculate on what the US may propose.

Missile defence gets the lion's share of media attention, but it is important to remember that there are other tools in the counter-proliferation armoury. Multilaterally, we support the missile technology control regime, which co-ordinates export controls against missile proliferation. It has been a success over the years, but export controls cannot do the whole job. Britain was therefore one of the initiators of work among MTCR members to develop a draft international code of conduct against ballistic missile proliferation.

The code, which was adopted by all MTCR members in October last year, offers a set of confidence-building measures, including verification, aimed at promoting transparency in respect of missiles. We are engaged with our partners in promoting the draft code more widely among the international community. We hope that it will be formalised and adopted before too long. It could eventually form the first step towards an international instrument against missile proliferation, joining the other multilateral treaties about which my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) spoke.

In its report, the Committee examined the performance of various international instruments, including the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, the chemical weapons convention and the biological and toxin weapons convention. It made a number of recommendations, and I am happy to say that the Government agree with the thrust of all of them. The non-proliferation treaty is the cornerstone of the international nuclear non-proliferation regime. It is easy to forget that in the 1960s it was commonly assumed that, by the end of the 20th century, the number of states deploying nuclear weapons would be well over a score. The fact that that nightmare has not come to pass is due in no small part to the non-proliferation treaty.

The achievement of last year's NPT review conference in reaching consensus on a final document was a considerable achievement. It was the first time that that had happened since 1985. I welcome the Committee's recognition of that achievement and the part played in it by the UK. I pay tribute to the personal role of my predecessor, now the Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe, my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain).

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We are engaged in seeking to implement the agreements reached in New York last year. I have already referred to the need for further reductions in Russian and US arsenals. Our other priorities must be the implementation of the comprehensive test ban treaty and the start of negotiations in the conference on disarmament on a fissile material cut-off treaty. It is disappointing that discussions in Geneva remain deadlocked on that issue.

I am conscious that I should leave a few minutes at the end for my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East, so I shall say a quick word about the chemical weapons convention and the biological and toxin weapons convention. The CWC remains a landmark arms control treaty--the first occasion on which an entire category of weapons was prohibited on a verifiable basis. It has proved successful. Only four years after coming into force, 143 states are party to it. The Foreign Affairs Committee urges the pursuit of universality and the Government agree. We continue to urge all non-signatories to ratify the convention, especially those in regions of tension such as the middle east. The European Union is conducting a renewed round of diplomatic lobbying to that end.

The chemical weapons convention is a good model. Its success has prompted the international community to open negotiations on a protocol to the biological and toxin weapons convention to improve confidence and compliance and to deter potential proliferators.

I have described the importance that we place on the international conventions, which have proved their worth over the years. However, we are not starry eyed. We support universality, but we realise that some states will always choose to remain outside the mainstream. We support robust verification provisions, but Iraq showed that the determined proliferator can evade the most intrusive inspections. We therefore continue to place importance on rigorous enforcement of export controls on items that are related to weapons of mass destruction and on multilateral co-ordination of such controls through, for example, the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

In answer to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde made about a successful outcome of the conference on small arms and light weapons, we firmly support Sir Michael Weston as the UK and EU candidate for the conference chair. That issue should be resolved soon--if possible, by the end of the third meeting of the preparatory committee in New York later this month. That is all I can say about small arms in my winding-up remarks.

We have had a good, comprehensive debate, with extremely informed contributions from all parties. Again, I pay tribute to the Committee's work. I undertake to write to hon. Members about any points that I have not tackled.

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