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Lord Peston: And unusual!

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, it may be unusual but it is a greater pleasure for that. There are, however, certain aspects of the Bill which worry one, although it gives me pleasure to reflect on what has been achieved. It occurred to me--I think, reasonably--that the methodology which has achieved success here might conceivably be adapted to deal with other matters, particularly as regards the means of mass destruction. The example of what has been done in the area that we are discussing ought to be followed in the nuclear field. That has never happened. All other kinds of methodologies have been tried but we have never achieved a convention, and the ratification of a convention, in the nuclear field. I hope the methodology that has been used in the area we are discussing will at least be considered as regards the nuclear field. I believe that everyone would agree that the dangers inherent in the nuclear field are even greater than those which we face in the area we are discussing.

With that in mind, I had the intention of putting down a provision which all your Lordships would recognise as a probing amendment in order to sound out the Government as to whether they thought that lessons could be learnt from their experience in this area which might be adapted and used in the other area I have mentioned. One cannot properly propose such a course of action at Second Reading; it is a matter for the Committee stage. I devised an amendment for that purpose. Of course such an amendment would not be pressed to a Division; I would not even vote for it myself in such a context. However, such an amendment is often used in order to explore the Government's thinking on a matter. Indeed I believe that an amendment of this kind is one of the most useful tools of the Committee stage.

However, I committed a grave error in letting the Public Bill Office know of my intention before the event. I was a little surprised to receive a note from the clerk who was concerned with the matter which stated that he could not accept the amendments because they were not relevant. My first amendment sought to amend the Title of the Bill--for the purpose of the probing discussion--so that it became the "Nuclear and Chemical Weapons Bill". I envisaged withdrawing the amendment after the exploratory discussion had taken place and that would have been the end of the matter as we should have had the necessary discussion.

However, the clerk--quite properly from his point of view--said that the amendment was not relevant to the Bill as this is a Chemical Weapons Bill. However, the Bill also concerns one of the means of mass of destruction. Therefore it is relevant to compare what is achieved in this Bill with what has been done in other fields and ask ourselves whether we can learn any lessons from the Bill. One can follow such a course ideally in the way I have described; indeed, one cannot do it in any other way. If the Government were to say

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at this point that they had no objection to such a discussion, nor to informing us about one or two points which might be to our advantage, the technical objection which, quite correctly, has been raised could not, I believe, be raised now. I believe that, if I had tabled the probing amendment instead of bothering the clerk about it, it would have been dealt with without any problems.

I hope that, when the noble and learned Lord, Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, replies to the debate, he will say that he does not mind being probed on this question in the form of an amendment, in the full knowledge that, after the discussion has taken place, the amendment will certainly be withdrawn. What else could I do with it except withdraw it? Under the circumstances that I have outlined, the clerks may agree that there is no objection to putting down this probing amendment.

7.40 p.m.

The Earl of Halsbury: My Lords, this Second Reading tonight finds me in a rather nostalgic mood. Some 70 years ago, not yet having obtained my majority, I sat on the steps of the Throne listening to my father discussing the dangers of chemical warfare on a Motion arising from an accident in a chemical factory in Germany. The Leader of the House in those days, the great grandfather of the noble Viscount who leads our House today, as I remember, took my father to task for alarming the public mind. But my father was unashamed about that because he relied on a model of the gassing of a square mile of central London that I had built him while still a schoolboy. It was a lovely model. I knew nothing of Reynolds numbers or the numeracy of turbulent phenomena. I should love to describe to noble Lords how I made the model and how it worked, but time is late and your Lordships' time very valuable. We have another debate to follow, so I forbear to do so.

My father's attitude was very much that of Lord Fisher, the first Sea Lord before World War I: hit first, hit hard and keep on hitting. It is only the fear of retaliation which keeps the peace. That was a point of view well expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew. However, it was also expressed in the post-nuclear age by Robert Oppenheimer, the chief executive of Los Alamos, who said that the United States and the Soviet Union were like two scorpions in a bottle, each anxious to sting but each terrified of being stung.

The construction of chemical weapons was a blot on the chemical industry; and the chemical industry is only too anxious to remove that blot by promising full co-operation in the execution of this Bill. Compared with mechanical engineering, the chemical industry is--if I may so call it--a bit sneaky. You cannot take a motor bicycle to pieces and reconstruct it as a sewing machine or a typewriter. But that is what chemical operators are continuously doing, for everything which goes on in the way of a chemical reaction is a disassembly of a selection of some of the 92 elements that exist, and it is reassembly in another form.

That is why inspection of what goes on must be an essential part of chemical weapons control. As I said, the chemical industry will co-operate in the necessary

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inspection, subject to one condition only. There must be confidentiality of peaceful processes under development by competitors for the future.

In praising the willingness of the chemical industry to co-operate, I must also acknowledge, as the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, said, the help of the Royal Society of Chemistry, of which I have the honour to be a fellow, and in particular its executive officer for parliamentary affairs, Mr. Stephen Benn, who has been most helpful in providing us with our various briefs.

Broadly, I think that the convention is right. We must patrol ubiquitously for toxic chemicals. We must also patrol for the precursors of those chemicals. What about the precursors of those precursors? I think that that would be going a little too far--we should be trying to inspect everything under the sun. Owing to the volatility of chemical variability, when it comes to tracing compounds back to their ultimate sources--they are usually hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen--we might, without very great care, find ourselves having to patrol people for the production of water.

A point of principle is this. Who will help run the convention? The question of an advisory council has been raised by the right reverend Prelate and others. All I can say to that is no, no, no. I know how advisory councils work; I have been on them. What we want is a Select Committee of both Houses of Parliament with a scientific adviser in attendance to sort out any points that are unclear, technically as regards chemistry. I could easily recommend the secretary of the science policy advisory committee at Sussex University, who has drafted many of the documents which have reached your Lordships.

In scrutinising the Bill, I considered its Long Title and early clauses. A Bill proceeds from the general to the particular. The most general aspect of a Bill is its Long Title. We postpone the title of the Bill in Committee so that we can raise matters that are not strictly speaking covered by the Long Title before settling what the title should be. As regards one or two items in the early sections of the Long Title, I should like to propose counter examples to the parliamentary draftsman. Prior to proposing them as amendments in Committee, I should like to ask him where we stand on the different counterparts. Otherwise I believe that we may end up looking for precursors to precursors in a rather frustrated spirit.

I could take time by giving examples of some questions that arose in my mind. However, I simply ask the noble and learned Lord to give me facilities for talking to the parliamentary draftsman, possibly with my own scientific adviser.

I wish the Bill success. I support it in all its particulars. Such criticisms that I have are purely friendly criticisms.

7.48 p.m.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, perhaps I may respond to the noble Earl by saying how much we welcome his reminiscences. It has been a salutary reminder to your Lordships of the time the issue has

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been under discussion. I am pleased that I now have the opportunity to introduce to your Lordships' House this Bill which allows there to be a proper control in the United Kingdom within the wider context of the convention to which I have already made reference. The noble Earl's expertise in these matters is always welcome in your Lordships' debate.

I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, was a little unkind in suggesting that this matter might have been more appropriately handled by the Foreign Office. Certainly as regards the wider issue of the convention, and what was originally to be contained in it, I can see some force in that argument. But after a long period of gestation--some 20 years--it is important for Parliament to introduce into the law of the United Kingdom provisions which will enable us to ratify that convention. It is a critically important convention, being the first treaty to provide for a verifiable world-wide ban of an entire class of weapons of mass destruction. It is very important. I very much hope that we shall move swiftly towards a world-wide ratification of it. But clearly in such matters, where sovereign states are involved, they cannot be compelled to ratify. However, one hopes that at the very least with the United States and Russia concluding their ratification, hopefully in the relatively near future, others will be shamed into joining in. There are obvious states where there will be difficulty in securing ratification and compliance, as the noble Lord will appreciate. However, if nothing else, it is worth recalling the evidence of the Chemical Industries Association which I understand was provided to this House and to another place. It stated:


    "If the United Kingdom failed to be one of the 65 signatory states, this would have a serious effect on the trade relations of many United Kingdom companies that trade in chemicals".

So even if that is nothing more than a practical argument, I hope that some states will realise why they should comply.

The noble Lord, Lord Peston, put to me for confirmation a number of points on the facts and timings. His understanding of the position and the figures entirely coincides with mine. He asked whether we needed more publicity for the Bill. I should be delighted to give it as much publicity as possible, but we are alive to the point that he made. We are considering what further publicity will be appropriate when the Bill passes into law, as I hope it will.

One matter with which both he and the right reverend Prelate were concerned, as was the noble Earl, is whether there should be not only an advisory committee but whether it needed to be established on a statutory basis with the express provisions within the Bill. Our view is that the national authority will need advice from many sources. It is doubtless a matter to which we shall return in Committee, but we think it is mistaken to believe that the authority will obtain all the advice it needs from a single committee, however expert that committee might be. We will need advice on the implementation of the convention in the United Kingdom, how the burden which the regulations place on business and academia might be minimised and how compliance monitoring arrangements of the national authority can be made more effective. For those areas

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of advice we intend to establish an advisory committee. We hope that a single committee will be able to provide the advice that the national authority will need on those subjects. However, it is a new regime and we must be able to modify the arrangements in the light of experience.

I mention one particular matter for your Lordships to consider before we return to the Bill at Committee, if we do so. There are difficult questions about commercial confidentiality. Information coming from commercial research might not readily reach the type of advisory committee that some have in mind. One would not wish to be in a position where those who held that information were not prepared, for fear of disclosure, to bring the national authority along with them.

The noble Lord, Lord Peston, asked a number of questions relating to what he understood might be technical problems in the United States. My understanding of the position is that the destruction of existing chemical weapons is complex, expensive and dangerous. It is no surprise that a country such as the United States, with an enormous stockpile, may face technical difficulties. But we believe that there is no reason to doubt the ability of the United States to fulfil its obligations under the convention.

The noble Lord was also concerned that there might be an effect on research, the point having been raised in briefing that he received. We have already announced that we plan to introduce a system which will considerably reduce the burden of licensing for small users of the Schedule 1 chemicals. I stress that those chemicals are the most toxic and include the most potent chemical weapons agents. I do not believe that it would be right to have no controls at all on the chemicals. We propose to issue an open general licence which will enable research using the chemicals and in quantities of up to five grammes a year. Possession and use of the chemical within the limits will be subject only to registration with the national authority. I trust that that will reduce the burden on small users to what we believe would be the bare minimum.

Finally, I was asked a number of questions by the noble Lord, Lord Peston, on the article that appeared in the Mail on Sunday and perhaps I may comment on it. The Bill is intended to implement a convention which addresses the problem of chemical warfare. That is war between states. It is not intended to deal with terrorism. Measures to counter terrorism are the responsibility of the Home Secretary. However, some of the measures in the Bill--though aimed at implementing the convention--would also help those agencies involved in anti-terrorism. The chemicals procured by the Mail on Sunday are dangerous chemicals, readily enough acknowledged, and as such are scheduled chemicals under the Chemical Weapons Convention. However, those chemicals are also in regular industrial use. Declaration of them is required under the two schedules and the quantities are indicated in the schedules when they have to be declared.

The controls result from the consensus reached during international negotiation of the treaty where it was decided not to have more onerous controls. We have

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signed the treaty and we believe that our task is now to implement its provisions. The Bill does not provide for full-scale licensing of all scheduled chemicals; it would be out of proportion to the threat from chemical weapons in this country which we see as low. However, the prohibition on chemical weapons is not limited by quantities. Any person who was to hold the chemicals other than for a permitted purpose would be committing an offence under the Bill and would be liable on conviction to a sentence of up to life imprisonment. So while the position may be rather different at present, once the Bill is implemented a severe regime would be in place.


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