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Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I do not think there is any difference between the noble Baroness and Her Majesty's Government on the point that this is a very difficult issue. It involves not only complex political questions but very complicated technical questions. But Her Majesty's Government hope and believe that, with goodwill on both sides, this is not an impossible position for the two governments. Let us hope that they are able to take their discussions forward.

What is more, we and many of our friends and allies share US concerns about the growing threat posed by the proliferation of missiles and weapons of mass destruction. We do not believe that any responsible government can afford to ignore the problem. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Addington, that we are trying to find a way forward on these closely related issues which preserves the positive momentum of recent years on international arms control.

As the Prime Minister explained:


Agreement on a way forward on these closely related issues is, in our view, not only possible but strongly in our interests.

President Clinton's decision not to proceed with NMD deployment at the present time means that any such decision will now be left for his successor to take, as the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, indicated. The Government welcome that decision and the measured terms in which President Clinton set it out. The President made it clear in his announcement that research and testing would continue. We would expect his successor, whoever that might be, to want to visit the question of actual deployment in due course.

But we cannot know at this point whether--or, indeed, when--President Clinton's successor will decide to proceed with the deployment of a national missile defence system. As the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, said, we cannot know precisely what form the system he might choose to deploy would take. Nor can we know what the international political background to such a decision might then be.

These would all be vital considerations for us should the US approach us at that point with a request to make use of any facilities in this country for NMD purposes. That is why, when asked whether the United

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Kingdom would agree to any such request, the Government have all along said that they would have to consider it carefully in the light of the circumstances in which it was made. We believe this approach has been an eminently sensible one. I make it clear today that we intend to stick to it.

In the meantime, we want to try to take the opportunity afforded by President Clinton's decision to defer deployment to make some progress in international dialogue on this issue. We shall continue to encourage the United States and Russia to discuss the matter bilaterally.

We shall also continue to promote debate in NATO on NMD. A certain amount has been made of the public comments of some NATO allies on NMD. One or two noble Lords referred to the allegedly more robust views expressed by some of our allies. However, I can assure the House that the discussions in NATO so far have been entirely serious and constructive. They have increased the understanding of all the allies of the issues and arguments involved. We want to build on this positive start. We shall continue to work more widely internationally to fight missile proliferation.

There have been some positive developments in this area in the past week. A few days ago we reached agreement with our partners in the missile technology control regime on a new code of conduct for ballistic missiles. This is the first ever draft international agreement covering missile proliferation. It is an important step in the right direction, which we hope will attract widespread support and adherence.

Last week, a senior team of North Korean officials visited Washington, for the first time, to discuss, among other things, the future of their long-range missile programme--again, an important step in the right direction. Not a massive one, but an important one.

A number of points were raised by the noble Baroness in regard to the Russian arsenal, about which I shall write to her. However, I think that she is aware of the steps Her Majesty's Government have taken in regard to that. I should remind her--as did the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont--that we are aware of China's concerns about NMD. But, as the noble Lord said, it is worth noting that China decided in 1998 to invest significant funds in the modernisation of its nuclear arsenal, but not necessarily connected with NMD.

The points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, about theatre missiles are equally important. Indeed, they are the focus of the present research work we are doing nationally. They are also the focus of a feasibility study that we and our allies in NATO commissioned earlier this year. At this stage we still judge that it would be premature to decide on acquiring missile defence either for our deployed forces or to protect UK territory. It is an issue on which further work is being undertaken.

A point was raised about assessing threat. We assess that there is no significant ballistic missile threat to the United Kingdom at present. To answer the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, we recognise that both the threat and the technology to counter it could

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change very rapidly. That is why we have ruled nothing out, and why we continue to monitor developments closely. I hope that that gives the noble Lord the assurance that he was seeking.

The Government are convinced that the approach that we have followed hitherto of seeking to promote calm, measured international dialogue on what is an important, complex and sensitive issue, is the right one. That approach has already borne significant fruit and we believe that it is the one that is most likely to secure eventual agreement.

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Of course, we are happy to continue to engage in discussion with your Lordships. However, I say particularly to the noble Baroness that some of the issues raised in regard to assessing risk can be discussed in detail only on the basis of highly sensitive information--information that is intelligence-based and security sensitive. There will always be a point, particularly in discussing risk, when Her Majesty's Government must ensure that whatever is said from these Benches puts the security of the United Kingdom before everything else.

        House adjourned at twelve minutes past one o'clock.


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