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It is not all gloom and failure. Something like 40,000 warheads have been destroyed since the end of the Cold War, mainly United States and Russian weapons. We in the UK have cut our warheads by 50 per cent since 1997 and have disposed of all our freefall and tactical nuclear weapons. A number of countries—not many, but some: South Africa and Libya—have been dissuaded from continuing on the nuclear journey.

As my noble friend Lady Williams said, the basic principle of the non-proliferation treaty is that, while non-nuclear powers are free to develop civil nuclear power, the nuclear powers commit to pursue and develop significant reductions in their nuclear arsenals. With the expansion of enrichment and reprocessing capabilities, the director-general of the IAEA, Mohamed El Baradei, estimates that 35 to 40 states could have the knowledge to acquire nuclear weapons.

We should take some encouragement from the Prime Minister’s recent speech—the pledge to work towards a world free of nuclear weapons; the step-by-step approach; pledges to set out a “road to 2010” plan, with detailed proposals on civil nuclear power, disarmament, non-proliferation and fissile material security; a role for the development of the IAEA; and the hosting of a conference for recognised nuclear weapons states on nuclear disarmament issues. With the START treaty expiring later this year, there was a welcome commitment to find and to work for a legally binding successor and, finally, if possible, a commitment to reducing the number of UK warheads further, consistent with national deterrents.

The role of Trident has been increasingly questioned today. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, is not with us, but he has written on this subject, which was referred to by the noble Lords, Lord Ramsbotham and Lord Owen. There would be a replacement cost of between £15 billion and £20 billion, and a possible annual running cost of £1.5 billion. Both major parties presently are committed to replacement. The Lib Dem policy is that the Trident nuclear system should be continued and maintained, and its operational life extended. The final decision of any successor system should be taken around 2014 when significant capital spend would begin to be incurred.

However, questions must be asked about the independence of our deterrent, to which the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, referred. Apart from the points that he made, the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment is virtually American controlled. Who is our likely enemy? If we have to use nuclear weapons, the deterrent will have failed. We wonder what instructions are in the sealed letter from the Prime Minister to Trident commanders on missile launch. No one is suggesting that Trident should be given up immediately, but, surely, it could be considered to be used as part of future negotiations, to which the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Guthrie, referred. Perhaps we may be able to develop a joint force with the French. Cancelling Trident would obviously be a momentous and serious decision for this country, which could not be reversed.

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Certainly, at least part of any financial savings must be devoted to building our conventional forces.

On Iran, I can do no better than to quote from the book, Under a Mushroom Cloud, by Emanuele Ottolenghi. He writes:

“Iran has chosen concealment over transparency. Its nuclear programme remains opaque and it continues to prevaricate and deny the international community the opportunity to conclusively verify the real nature of its programme. Iran is not to be sure refusing to co-operate with the IAEA, but it is engaging in an elaborate stratagem of delay, obfuscation and deception”.

Having said that, we must welcome the new American conciliatory tone under President Obama and must not be put off by the initial dismissal of the overtures he has made. I would suggest that the United States must talk to the other major regional powers, apart from attempting to talk to Iran, and involve Syria, Turkey and Russia, which, it is believed, are considering supplying Iran with a substantial, defensive missile shield.

On terrorism, clearly, there are considerable worries about the dirty bomb and the stability of Pakistan, as have been referred to earlier. Only today, there is an article in the Times on the way in which Pakistan seems to have abdicated and withdrawn from the Swat Valley and the Taliban have moved in. Numerous stockpiles remain unaccounted for in the former Soviet Union. Some claim that there is enough uranium or plutonium to make a further 40,000 weapons, to which I believe the noble Lord, Lord King, referred. Security Council Resolution 1540 obliges nations to improve stockpile security and allows teams of specialists to be deployed to other countries to assist monitoring and accounting. We have to expand the IAEA’s budget.

In conclusion, while we cannot disinvent nuclear technology and while, ultimately, I do not believe the world’s superpowers will ever totally give up their nuclear arsenals, we have to speed up the disarmament process, reduce excessive stockpiles, support our Government’s step-by-step approach and take a hard look at our Trident replacement policy. Above all, we have to believe that substantial nuclear disarmament can be achieved in the Obama slogan “Yes we can”.

3.40 pm

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, for raising this debate. I was hugely impressed with the elegant way in which the noble Baroness delivered her speech, which, as my noble friend Lord King said, contained some very complicated points, while only once referring to her notes.

Given the Prime Minister’s recent statement on this issue and the publication of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office policy paper, Lifting the nuclear shadow: Creating conditions for abolishing nuclear weapons, I am particularly grateful for the opportunity to debate, as the noble Lord, Lord Owen, said, this “immensely important” issue. I commend the FCO’s policy paper and helpful two-page summary to the House and very much welcome it. Its launch, by the Foreign Secretary, was the last public appearance of Sir Michael Quinlan. Like other noble Lords who have spoken in today’s debate from both sides of the House, I pay tribute to his unique contribution to these debates.

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The Minister will be aware that we have long called for this country to lead a drive to revive and reinvigorate the non-proliferation treaty. Thirty-nine years after it came into force, it is showing strain. Problems have increased because today much of the WMD technology is 50 years old, and so much more accessible both to states and non-states. We know that up to 40 countries have the technical expertise to produce nuclear weapons. Despite the exposure of AQ Khan, the nuclear black market continues to thrive. My noble friend Lord King, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells and the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Swansea, mentioned the letter to the Times of last June. In that letter, former Foreign Secretaries the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, the noble Lord, Lord Owen, and Sir Malcolm Rifkind, and the former Defence Secretary and NATO Secretary-General the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, argued that,

“During the Cold War nuclear weapons had the perverse effect of making the world a relatively stable place”.

Today, however, nuclear proliferation means that,

This prospect seems all the more real because of the attacks of 9/11 and 7/7, and those against other western targets. These attacks have shown our increasing vulnerability to terrorist assault and opened up the horrific possibility of a nuclear or chemical device being detonated in one of our own cities.

We can see that the NPT is being stretched and is not providing sufficient support because of these developments and strained relations—or complete lack of agreement—between nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states. Discussions with North Korea, for example, involved immense diplomacy, incentives and isolation, which we will now have to direct towards Iran. Furthermore, as high oil prices and concern about climate change mean that people move towards nuclear energy, there is an increasing possibility that countries may obtain nuclear weapons through the nuclear fuel cycle. We have seen this already in North Korea and now Iran may be trying to do the same. We therefore welcome the Prime Minister’s speech of 17 March in which, among other things, he pledged to hold a conference of the recognised nuclear weapons powers, action to strengthen the International Atomic Energy Agency, and a leading role for Britain in tackling proliferation.

It is unsurprising that we should welcome these measures, as they are Conservative proposals. The next review conference of the NPT will take place next year, and we very much hope that real progress will be made, given the failure of the 2005 conference to reach an agreement. We look forward next year to what we hope will be very productive discussions, followed by a substantive agreement that includes a mechanism for safe access to nuclear fuel.

My noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding raised some important issues, particularly the increasingly urgent need to find a mechanism for providing a host of new countries with low-enriched fuel for peaceful use and to enable them to comply with the NPT. Iran is a signatory to the NPT.

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Efforts to revive the NPT will be in vain if we cannot stop Iran from undermining it fatally by acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. President Obama has announced his intention to engage with Iran. Does the Minister agree that this diplomatic strategy must be underpinned by resolute action from the EU as a whole if Iran is to be persuaded to return to negotiations?

It is now well over a year since the Prime Minister said that the UK would seek tougher sanctions both at the United Nations and in the European Union, including on oil and gas investments and the financial sector. Will the Minister say why these sanctions have not yet been adopted? Will he also say what is being done to secure a formal ban on European export credit guarantees to Iran, which subsidise trade to that country?

While we welcome the fact that the Government are adopting so many Conservative proposals, they must also do more in an area which the Prime Minister did not mention in his 17 March speech. Will the Minister say whether the Government are making progress in addressing the financial underpinnings of non-proliferation? There is an utmost need for the Government to ensure that we have the capacity, at a national and international level, to isolate nuclear proliferators from the international financial system. By identifying and blocking these financial activities, illicit nuclear programmes can be slowed down and pressure can be put on the Governments behind them. What action have the Government taken to ensure that government departments have the right expertise and experience to cope with this rapidly expanding area? Given that defence against nuclear proliferation depends in vast part on multilateral action and co-operation, will the Minister say what the Government have done to ensure that we have sufficient capability to help other countries to co-operate with this policy?

We look forward to next week when President Obama meets the President of Russia here in London. We hope that their negotiations will mark the beginning of a new era in the prevention of nuclear proliferation. The noble Lord, Lord Owen, pointed out the importance of new Administrations consolidating progress made by their predecessors.

Finally, I will, in the friendliest way, make an observation about comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, about HMS “Vanguard” and “Le Triomphant”. I understand that, although the two vessels made contact while travelling at a very low speed, no one was injured, the nuclear security of the submarines was not compromised, and both boats returned to their bases under their own power. I trust that the Minister will, so far as he can, correct me if I am wrong.

3.49 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Malloch-Brown): My Lords, let me immediately join all who have paid tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, for the debate today. She has set a tone, which many have matched, of extraordinary historic sweep in describing the development of nuclear weapons since the testing of that first weapon in New Mexico.

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I was forced to reflect that there is probably no other legislative Chamber in the world, except perhaps China, where the average age of the Members is greater than that of nuclear weapons, which gives us a historical sweep not allowed to others. Perhaps that is also what makes many of us so certain that we want to see the age when nuclear weapons, too, are pensionable.

On listening to the debate, I came back to the point that I always come back to in my own mind: the nuclear weapon of the greatest threat to our security and to world security today is no longer very sophisticated nuclear warheads but pirated fissile material. That reflects the fundamental change in global security, the relatively reduced threat of war between states—states being the owners of those high-technology nuclear weapons—and the rising threat of terrorists and other groups taking advantage of asymmetrical warfare to use pirated fissile or other weapons, chemical and others, to bring desperate harm to defenceless civilian populations.

I want to return to that theme later because I do not think that ultimately you can have a view of nuclear weapons separate from a view of the changing nature of security in the 21st century. Let me at this stage pick up on, I thought, the very interesting, if mildly provocative, suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Owen, of a Duff-Mason summary that the Prime Minister might leave on the desk, by implication, for his successor. I would only argue, as I am sure the noble Lord would agree, that such a memorandum which sought to systematise, synthesise and sequence the next steps we need to take would be as much value to the author as to a fresh reader. In that sense I think it is a very good suggestion, even if I hope that it will be Prime Minister Gordon Brown who gets to read that memorandum at some point next year. If there were such a memorandum, I think that it would pick up points made in the debate today.

The first is the enormous importance of securing a safe nuclear fuel cycle in a way that makes nuclear power available to countries that have a legitimate demand for it and are willing to accept the safeguards. That was the purpose of the conference in London last week, to which a number of kind references have been made. In his speech at that meeting, the Prime Minister observed that we would need to build 32 nuclear power plants a year between now and 2050 to achieve our goal of halving emissions and bringing us into line with the climate change commitments that we envisage. It is worth repeating that to remind ourselves of the astonishing challenge we have in terms of the peaceful use of nuclear power and the need to expand access to it on a dramatic scale if we are to go down that road.

I take the point of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, and thank him for having attended that conference. I recognise that there may not have emerged as much clarity on the way forward as we might wish. Some customer countries voiced confidence in being able to continue to access the commercial market. However, as more countries knock on the door—they will very shortly as the need for nuclear energy increases—the

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fuel bank and fuel assurance proposals of the kind that we and others have put forward will become indispensable.

There is progress. Jordan and Turkey, for example, made it clear that they see a valuable role for assurances of supply. We understand that Armenia and Ukraine are likely to become stakeholders in a new international uranium enrichment centre in Russia. Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates have helped to raise the $150 million for the creation of the IAEA fuel bank proposed by the Nuclear Threat Initiative. We have not boiled everything down to one approach, but there is strong progress and we hope that after the conference we can advance it.

Beyond the safer fuel cycle, the issue of weapons and the disarmament example that the UK can or cannot make in terms of Trident is a key next step in the prime ministerial memorandum. The Prime Minister said last week that we would reduce the number of tubes on submarines from 16 to 12. It would not be possible to reduce the number of submarines in service from four to three, because that would not allow us constant coverage at sea. I acknowledge that these are marginal changes that we are contemplating, which fall far short of the prospect that a number of noble Lords properly raised of the retirement of the weapons system.

I share the view that there will potentially come a time and place when this is an extraordinarily important card to play. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, was quoted in the Times as saying that it was the queen on the chess board that we could play at the right time, but that you only play the queen at the very end of the game, when you have secured the right concessions from the other side. In that sense, any changes to Trident would have to be made at the culminating stage of a careful, multilateral bargaining process.

In an era of very tight defence budgets—as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Guthrie, and others, mentioned—it is a significant cost, accounting for about 3 per cent of the defence procurement budget, and on an ongoing basis, about 5 to 6 per cent of the defence budget. At that level, it is an expensive insurance, but not one that necessarily crowds out other vital expenditures. A new Government will need to look at the issues of the military strategies that we are adopting, not just in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the need going forward to project British power in a realistic, plausible way in this new age of failed states and terrorist threats. Simply taking Trident off the books would not solve that: fundamental issues of right-sizing and properly resourcing our military capabilities are not addressed by just removing Trident.

The argument for removing Trident comes entirely from a successful multilateral negotiation the ultimate purpose of which, as so many noble Lords have said today, is a no-nuclear world. On the intermediate steps towards that, we must deal with the issues of doctrine that in some ways provide building blocks. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, talked about the “no first use” issue, and the assurances to non-nuclear states that if they came under nuclear attack, they would be defended. As the noble Lord knows well, we have signed up to three of the nuclear weapons-free zones. Between them,

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we have signed and ratified protocols that provide 100 countries with that essential protection. The great opportunity—I do not pretend that it is easy—comes in forming such a nuclear-free zone for the Middle East. There was at a recent NPT meeting some indication from Egypt of an interest in that, but we are obviously a long way from the countries of that region being likely to be willing to bury the nuclear hatchet and allow us to put those kinds of arrangements in place.

Critical to moving forward is the strength of the institutions involved in this whole area. First among them is the IAEA. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, asked about today’s votes. I know that nothing alerts a politician more than news of an election. There were two votes today in Vienna, and neither the Japanese candidate, Mr Amano, nor the South African candidate, Mr Minty, secured the two-thirds majority of votes cast that is required on the second round; Mr Amano led Mr Minty by 20 votes to 15. We expect that there will be another vote tomorrow to determine the leading candidate, but the fact that neither candidate has secured that two-thirds of votes means that the process is likely to extend for a while. It is worth noting, however, that Mr El Baradei’s term does not expire until the end of the year, so there is still plenty of time to resolve this.

Behind the election of a new director-general of the IAEA is this critical point of resourcing it and giving it the authority to be the broker in the important nuclear issues that lie ahead. We have made contributions, for example, towards its efforts in Pakistan to control fissile material. We have been big supporters of its efforts to increase monitoring in difficult countries such as Iran and North Korea. However, this organisation, together with its director-general, won the Nobel Peace Prize just several years ago, but has perhaps not been given the status and recognition that it needs to perform the increasingly difficult task with which we have charged it—a task that it obviously carries out through a role that is clearly, in some ways, secondary to that of the Security Council. I would argue that it is nevertheless indispensable. In many cases it is a less political forum in which to resolve some issues of monitoring and controls than the council itself.

I turn to the great enchilada of all of this: the NPT. There are important issues, such as the potential progress on a CTBT as well as a non-fissile materials treaty, which have been commented on this afternoon and move us towards the prospect of a more successful NPT review conference in 2010 than we might otherwise have foreseen. Again, however, as has been said, it was only in 2005 that we had a completely disastrous failure of a conference. In some ways, the NPT’s authority hangs by a fairly thin thread. That said, it remains one of the most contemporary and forward-looking treaties, with its balance between the requirement of the five original nuclear powers to engage in a process of extensive disarmament and the requirement upon the no-nuclear powers not to proliferate and gain nuclear weapons. Combined with that, there is the third commitment that there be availability of civilian nuclear power for those who wish to access it. That remains a formidably strong framework on which to deal with these issues.

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While on the one hand we have avoided the kind of proliferation that was feared 40 years ago, where we would have dozens of nuclear powers today, the fact is that a number of regional situations are on the edge—Iran and North Korea have been mentioned this afternoon. The important India negotiation is not, but it shows the difficulties we face: absent a strong multilateral framework there is a risk that we will fall back on single-country solutions to proliferation issues, which, while they may be of value in themselves, as the India one clearly was, undermine the kind of multilateral approach that is so critical to maintaining a secure world and driving towards the eventual goal of a nuclear-free world.

In that regard, I remain of the view that the fact that such formidable figures on both sides of the Atlantic in the field of national security have signed up to the letters and articles promoting the idea of driving towards a nuclear free world has changed the debate. Promising a nuclear-free world is the kind of thing political leaders may have done lightly over many decades, but I do not think that Henry Kissinger or George Schultz have done it lightly, and I suspect not the noble Lord, Lord Owen. In that sense, this has created a very different environment in which we can proceed with the negotiation and conversation. Moreover, if, as the noble Lord, Lord King, said, Sam Nunn talks of the mountain that you cannot see the higher reaches of through the fog, the fact that you know you are climbing the mountain marks a critical change in the direction of discussion and the seriousness of purpose with which you proceed.

In closing, let me come back to the extraordinary importance of an effective multilateral way forward. I began by observing that the nature of insecurity in our world has changed. For now, at least, it is less a threat between states and more of one within states. One has to qualify that by saying that both Iran and North Korea have on occasion made some very old-fashioned remarks about rockets that would reach Europe or North America, so one cannot discount the fact that old threats may resume. One cannot assume that the use of nuclear weapons between states is unlikely for ever. But as we focus on today’s threat, it makes the case for multilateralism more than ever because it is a multilateral negotiation to control nuclear materials and bring down nuclear weapons, move forward on disarmament and, above all, move forward on access to nuclear power. But it is also multilateralism that offers us a means to deal with the broader underlying security threats that shape this. It is within a multilateral approach that we hope we can move forward to find regional security for Iran, and to deal with the issues of North Korea and the Middle East. It is to multilateralism that we look to deal with the grotesque inequalities in the world that fuel so many of the political divisions of our times.

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