Jeremy Corbyn: It is a pleasure, Sir Roger, to serve under your chairmanship. The debate was called for jointly by me and the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who will speak after me. I am grateful to him for supporting the application to the Backbench Business Committee for today’s debate. For the record, I should explain that he and I hold a slightly different view on the security of the world that has been brought about the presence of nuclear weapons. We have debated this in town and village halls up and down the country on many occasions. No doubt we will continue so to do. I am grateful to him for being prepared to speak, and he is doing so in the spirit of Parliament.
I want to put on the record my thanks to Ben Folley, parliamentary officer of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, for the huge amount of work he has done in preparing information, and to Dr David Lowry, who works for my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) and who is a renowned expert on these issues.
My first question is: why do we have to debate something as fundamental as a mutual defence agreement with the United States in time allocated by the Backbench Business Committee? The answer is that Governments of all hues—this applies to my party, as well as the coalition Government and previous Conservative Governments—have been reluctant to have parliamentary debates on this subject. Indeed, this is the 20th anniversary of the debate on the Consolidated Fund held in 1994, which was started by Alan Simpson, then a Member, at 1.56 am on 15 December. Only two other Members took part at that time of the morning, so it was hardly parliamentary scrutiny.
I welcome this debate, but there cannot be a vote because it is an Adjournment debate. However, the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) has tabled a motion, supported by me and others, which could lead to a parliamentary vote on the mutual defence agreement. I hope that it will.
It is interesting that parliamentary scrutiny of the mutual defence agreement and nuclear weapons has been in short supply going back to the end of the second world war. The National Archives in Kew has a document, “Extracts from a memorandum on the Atomic Bomb from Prime Minister Clement Attlee, 28th August 1945”, which states:
“The only course which seems to me to be feasible and to offer a reasonable hope of staving off imminent disaster for the world is joint action by the USA, UK and Russia based upon stark reality. We should declare that this invention has made it essential to end wars. The New World Order must start now.
All nations must give up their dreams of realising some historic expansion at the expense of their neighbours. They must look to a peaceful future instead of to a warlike past. This sort of thing has in the past been considered a utopian dream. It has become today the essential condition of the survival of civilisation and possibly of life on this plant.”
That was Prime Minister Attlee’s view in August 1945, just after the first nuclear weapons had been exploded at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Seven years later, there was an explosion in Australia by Britain when its first H-bomb was detonated. There was an interesting programme last night on al-Jazeera that showed the return of lands to the indigenous people who were driven off them because of those nuclear tests. The nuclear test veterans are still with us, and are still suffering as a result of the tests.
The then Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, made a statement to the House of Commons on the detonation of that weapon on 3 October 1952. He explained that the temperature at the centre of it was nearly 1 million degrees and the damage it caused, and said that the Government were grateful to the Australian Government for allowing the test. He concluded:
“All those concerned in the production of the first British atomic bomb are to be warmly congratulated on the successful outcome of an historic episode and I should no doubt pay my compliments to the Leader of the Opposition and the party opposite for initiating it.”—[Official Report, 23 October 1952; Vol. 505, c. 1269.]
That was the same Clement Attlee. I am a great admirer of Clement Attlee’s domestic record, but not of a large part of his international record. During questions, Samuel Silverman asked the Prime Minister to explain “the total cost of this experimental explosion, and will he bear in mind that to some of us it is no comfort at all to realise that both major parties in the State are equally responsible for this colossal folly?”
The Prime Minister said that everyone is equally responsible:
“Even if one sits below the Gangway, one does not escape the responsibility.”
Silverman then asked:
“What about the cost?”
Prime Minister Churchill—this is fascinating—then said:
“As to the cost, I have said before, as an old Parliamentarian, that I was rather astonished that well over £100 million should be disbursed without Parliament being made aware of it. I was a bit astonished. However, there is the story, and we now have a result which on the whole, I think, will be beneficial to public safety. As for the future, I think we must be guided by the precedents established under the last régime as to detailed accounts and the way in which the expenditure is recorded.”—[Official Report, 23 October 1952; Vol. 505, c. 1271.]
It is astonishing that, with all the austerity at the end of the second world war, the then Prime Minister managed to spend £100 million of public money without telling Parliament, and apparently without discussing it with his Cabinet, which resulted in the entirely secret development of a British nuclear weapon, the first of which was exploded in 1952. We still had for some time the pretence that Britain had an independent nuclear deterrent.
Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): I commend the hon. Gentleman, and the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) on the other side of the Chamber, for helping to secure this debate through the Backbench Business Committee. Does the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) agree that it is unacceptable for a UK Government of any party to wish to spend £100 billion on through-life costs for Trident renewal, and to do so in a way that is not open and transparent, maintaining the historical tradition of being secretive, and not being prepared to face the consequences of their decisions? It seems that the UK Government will not even turn up at the international conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons in Vienna in December. Does he agree on both those counts that UK Governments of all political persuasions have acted totally unacceptably?
Jeremy Corbyn: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I agree with his points. The secrecy surrounding anything to do with nuclear weapons is completely unacceptable. The fact that the British Parliament has barely debated the mutual defence agreement—I will come to that in a moment—since its existence is serious. The huge expenditure on Trident, at £100 billion, is enormous by any stretch of the imagination. It is my belief—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—that the British Government have no intention of attending the international conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons in Vienna at the beginning of December. I hope I am wrong about that, and I hope that they will attend, because it would simply not be right not to attend.
On scrutiny, the US is a major military and industrial power; that is obvious. It is a very wealthy country—that is equally obvious. The President must send a message to Congress to ask it to approve and renew the amended treaty, and it must debate, vote on and approve it the matter. We have no such transparency in the British Parliament. The Prime Minister or any other Minister still has the ability to use the royal prerogative to override Parliament in this respect, and to approve the treaty, if that is what they want to do. That is why I was so determined that we should have this debate and why I have raised the issue on so many occasions.
Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): I add my congratulations to the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He is talking as though he is surprised about the lack of scrutiny. I am not surprised in the slightest, because if we had any decent level of scrutiny, it would be very clear that replacing Trident is a complete waste of money.
Jeremy Corbyn: I am basically a very optimistic person—in our line of work and with my view on politics, Sir Roger, you have to be an optimist, otherwise you would be very sad. I am optimistic that every Government want to consult Parliament and want Parliament to approve of things, but we have to face the reality that the lack of a written constitution and of a clear delineation of power, particularly on foreign affairs and treaty matters, means that the Government of the day, whatever party it is, does not have to consult Parliament on agreeing a treaty—or, indeed, on going to war—unless we change the relevant legislation. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is a war powers Bill before Parliament, but I do not have much hope of it getting through Parliament, despite my inevitable optimism on all these matters.
Mr John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): Might my hon. Friend not want to question why the Liberal Democrats, who seem to be exerting some influence—undesirable, I would say—over the Trident renewal programme, do not seem to have managed, or even tried, to exert that influence to get this issue debated? Nuclear policy has been debated, as I will say later; my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) made Labour’s position very clear. Why does my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) think that the Liberal Democrats have not insisted on having a debate?
Jeremy Corbyn: The shadow Minister invites me into a difficult situation. I cannot speak on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, nor would they want me to. They apparently wanted a Trident review, with no like-for-like replacement. The review took place, and it is a matter of record and of history.
On the question of this debate, I do not know what pressure was or was not applied by particular Ministers. I know that a number of Back-Bench MPs on both sides of the House believe, as I am sure the hon. Member for New Forest East would agree, that parliamentary scrutiny of all things is important; that is why we are sent here as Members of Parliament. As for the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) on nuclear weapons, he and I have a slightly different history on this matter, and we have debated it.
Mr Spellar: My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there was a Trident review. It came to the self-evident conclusion that if we are to maintain the nuclear deterrent, continuous at-sea deterrence is the only way of doing so, in spite of many fanciful schemes that have been dreamt up by the Liberal Democrats. He has a perfectly straightforward, long-standing and honourable position of being opposed, but where does he think that the Liberal Democrats now stand on the issue?
Jeremy Corbyn: Well, it is—[Interruption.] My friend the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) helps me in this. It is an unfair question. I do not know and I cannot tell, but I hope that the Liberal Democrats and, indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley will come round to the view that nuclear weapons are unsustainable, expensive, dangerous and immoral, and that the world would be a much safer place if the five declared nuclear weapon states stood up to their obligations under the non-proliferation treaty and took steps towards disarmament. This debate is not solely about Trident; it is about the mutual defence agreement. Nevertheless, there is obviously a close connection.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): The hon. Gentleman and I have a very different opinion on nuclear weapons. I understand that the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) will come forward with a different point of view. When it comes to nuclear weapons, I think that if a country has them in their possession, they become a deterrent, and I believe that, by their very existence, they prevent wars in places where there could be wars. That is my opinion, and I believe that it is the opinion of the vast majority of my constituents and the people I speak to in relation to nuclear weapons and nuclear power. What wit does the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) give to the opinion of my constituents who tell me that nuclear ownership is a deterrent?
Jeremy Corbyn: The way I suggest the hon. Gentleman deals with the issue is simply this: there are five declared nuclear weapons states, which all happen to be the five permanent members of the Security Council, and there are three other states that have nuclear weapons that we know of for sure—India, Pakistan and Israel. Then, there are questions about North Korea, which has some nuclear explosive capability. That leaves a very large number of other states that have no nuclear weapons. A considerable number of states have voluntarily given up nuclear weapons, such as South Africa, Argentina and Brazil, and there are others. If weapons of mass destruction were ever used, they could only create an environmental disaster where they go off and an economic disaster across the whole planet—and possibly an environmental disaster for the whole planet with a nuclear winter. They are something that we should not, could not and never would countenance the use of. However, every state, by possessing nuclear weapons, clearly does countenance their use, otherwise they would not possess them. I think security comes from disarmament, not from rearmament, and this is also going to cost us a great deal of money.
The hon. Gentleman and I might not agree on that, but that is a view I strongly hold. It is not just my view, but that of millions of people around the world who do not wish to live under a nuclear umbrella, because they fear it could become a nuclear cloud.
Mr Leech: I add that the countries that own nuclear weapons have all been involved in wars since having nuclear weapons, so it has not stopped them from ending up in some sort of conflict.
Jeremy Corbyn: Indeed; those countries have all been involved in conflicts, and we have come near to the use of nuclear weapons in the case of Korea and in the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. Clearly, their existence poses a threat. When the House debated Trident renewal in 2007, many Members took the view that Britain’s security depended on having nuclear weapons. If that was the case, someone could argue for any country in the world developing nuclear weapons on the basis that that would guarantee its security.
As I have explained, the reality is that the vast majority of nations do not have nuclear weapons and do not want them. Although some are under a nuclear alliance such as NATO, many are not and do not possess nuclear weapons, yet have massive natural resources. Many countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia are part of nuclear weapons-free zones. That is my view.
Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): I appreciate that I will have the opportunity to speak after the hon. Gentleman, but I want to take him back to the point made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). The hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn)said that if nuclear weapons were used, there would be dire effects on the environment and on the planet, but does he not recognise that people who believe in deterrents believe that the nuclear deterrent is constantly in use, because the use resides in the possession, which results in the deterrent effect on any other power against using such weapons against this country?
Jeremy Corbyn: The hon. Gentleman and I have debated that view, and I simply do not agree that they provide security. Yes, they are in existence every day and therefore clearly are potentially a threat to somebody, but it did not do the USA much good on 11 September 2001. Nuclear weapons were not much help on that occasion; nor are they much help in dealing with poverty, environmental disasters and people who are forced to flee and seek refuge elsewhere.
My purpose today is to debate the mutual defence agreement and that, of course, is central to Britain’s nuclear relationship with the United States. I turn to the history of the agreement. The USA had the McMahon Act, which did not allow the sharing of its nuclear or defence information with any other state, notwithstanding the provisions of the NATO treaty of 1948. Britain, which had a very close relationship with the USA throughout the 1940s and ’50s, could not legally share a relationship of nuclear information with the USA. The McMahon Act was then amended, and straight after the amendment was agreed, the mutual defence agreement came into being, by which information and technology is shared between Britain and the USA.
An interesting legal point relates to the use of testing facilities at the Atomic Weapons Establishment Aldermaston and plutonium, which it would be completely illegal to use or test in the USA. I would be grateful if the Minister said whether there is any testing involving plutonium or potential uses of plutonium at AWE Aldermaston, because it is a significant part of the issue.
The mutual defence agreement has been amended a number of times in its history and was most recently renewed, on a regular 10-year cycle, to allow arrangements for the transfer of special nuclear materials and non-nuclear components. The treaty was last extended in 2004 and will be extended a further 10 years from this year. As I have explained, the US Congress debated it earlier; we were not able to debate it.
The next issue relates to what I have just said about the use of AWE Aldermaston, but also to the legality of nuclear weapons and the relationship of the agreement to the non-proliferation treaty, which is the result of an initiative by a previous Labour Government to try to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The treaty has two central themes. One is that all states that do not possess nuclear weapons and that sign the non-proliferation treaty agree not to possess them, take them on board or develop them. The other is that the five declared nuclear weapon states—Britain, France, China, Russia and the USA—agree both to take steps towards disarmament and not to allow the proliferation of nuclear weapons. So it would be interesting to know how Israel managed to get hold of its nuclear weapons and nuclear facilities.
It would also be interesting to know how this Government or any other Government can justify nuclear rearmament within the terms of the articles of the non-proliferation treaty. In a legal opinion released in July 2004 for Peacerights, BASIC—the British American Security Information Council—and the Acronym Institute, Rabinder Singh, QC, and Professor Christine Chinkin of Matrix Chambers concluded that
“it is strongly arguable that the renewal of the Mutual Defence Agreement is in breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty”.
I would therefore be grateful if the Minister said in his reply to the debate what the legal process is in the evaluation of the mutual defence agreement and how he believes that it is compatible with our obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which is coming up for its five-year review in May 2015—unhelpfully, during the general election period in this country. Will he explain exactly what power and what finance have been used, in advance of the Trident replacement programme, to ensure that the British Government have that money available, even though there has been no main-gate decision, which is due to be taken in 2016?
I shall quote from written evidence given to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs by Nick Ritchie of the Bradford disarmament research centre:
“The UK is entirely dependent upon the United States for supply and refurbishment of its Trident II (D5) submarine-launched ballistic missiles… The missiles themselves are produced and serviced in the United States by Lockheed Martin. The UK does not actually own any individual missiles, but purchased the rights to 58 missiles from a common pool held at the US Strategic Weapons facility at the Kings Bay Submarine Base, Georgia. British Trident submarines also conduct their missile test firings at the US Eastern Test Range, off the coast of Florida.”
The obvious point is that the claim that Britain has an independent nuclear deterrent must be treated with the utmost caution, if not derision, when what is quite clear is where the technology comes from, the relationship with the mutual defence agreement, the expenditure involved and the testing facilities that are available for Britain to use in the USA.
Dr Lewis: There is a question of independence in terms not of manufacture, but of control. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it is entirely a matter for the United Kingdom Government whether the deterrent would be fired, as opposed to used—fired in response to a nuclear attack on this country—and that the United States could do nothing to prevent that from happening?
Jeremy Corbyn: That is indeed a very good question. I hope that the Minister can assist the hon. Gentleman with the answer, because it is fundamental. We have been told all my life that we have an independent nuclear deterrent in Britain and that we can operate independently. The mutual defence agreement should not have been necessary in 1958 if that was the case. It clearly was the case before 1958. Whether it was after that, I doubt, and it certainly was not the case at all after Polaris came in during the 1960s. That was a US import, as is the current technology. Could Britain fire off a nuclear weapon independently of the United States? No, I do not believe that it could. I believe that it would require the active participation of the US military and US Administration to undertake that. I simply do not believe that it is an independent nuclear weapon. I hope that this debate begins to raise more of those extremely important questions.
I was referring a few moments ago to the activities at AWE Aldermaston. Stanley Orman, a former deputy director of the AWE, said in 2008 that
“we also devised a technique…of imploding a non-fissile plutonium isotope. Now because it was plutonium the laws in the States would not allow you to implode this even though it was non-fissile, because it was plutonium. So again the American scientists would come across and use our laboratories because they couldn’t use theirs.”
If that is the case, one has to ask this question. Why is this treaty so one-sided that the USA is unable to do some testing in its own jurisdiction and therefore does it in ours, when the mutual defence agreement has received very limited parliamentary scrutiny, apart from today?
Angus Robertson: Has the hon. Gentleman any idea why our colleagues in the United States of America deem it unacceptable to conduct such tests there, but somehow we find it acceptable that they should happen here in the UK?
Jeremy Corbyn: I have many criticisms of the USA, but one thing that I find interesting and admire to some extent is the relative openness of its parliamentary system, compared with ours, and the ability of individual Members of Congress and the Senate to get legislation through. Indeed, legislation prevents such tests from happening in the USA. That is not the case in this country.
Angus Robertson: Just for the record, for people who might be watching this debate and who have not been following the proceedings in the United States, what were the reasons why American law makers opposed such tests being conducted in the United States? I ask that just so that we can understand on what basis UK Governments of both political persuasions have found it acceptable for that happen in the UK.
Jeremy Corbyn: Nuclear weapons have been tested in the USA. They were tested there in 1945, towards the end of the second world war. I am thinking of the Manhattan project. There was the Nevada test range. Since then, there has also been considerable testing, including underground testing, and there are therefore deeply polluted and damaged lands in the west of the USA in particular, just as much as there are deeply polluted and damaged places in the Pacific such as the Marshall Islands or, indeed, in Australia.
There has not been any nuclear testing in the UK itself. We have always done that somewhere else and polluted somebody else’s environment rather than our own. I suspect that the motives behind the legislation that the hon. Gentleman refers to in the USA come from concerns about the environment and health of people, particularly in the western parts of the USA. Indeed, talking to the Western Shoshone people, one can only admire how they have stoically campaigned against nuclear weapons when they have suffered so much because of that.
The Austrian Government have invited every nation in the world to come to Vienna in December to take part in a conference on the humanitarian effects of nuclear weapons. This will be the third conference. The first was held in Oslo; it was hosted by the Norwegian Government. The second was held in Mexico, hosted by its Government. As I said, the third will be hosted by Austria. The last conference was attended by 135 nations, and 155 nations have now signed up to this conference. The Government of New Zealand, which is iconic in giving up nuclear weapons and devices, have headed up an invitation from those 155. Can we really be so discourteous to those 155 countries as to say, “We do not want to come.”?
Angus Robertson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the international conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. He mentioned the fact that the first of those conferences was hosted by the Government of Norway, a member of NATO that now provides the Secretary-General of NATO. Norway, no doubt, will be attending the conference together with other NATO member states and more than 100 other countries. Given the commitment of other NATO countries, other allies and other friends, if they think it is important to turn up at that meeting, it would be much more than a discourtesy if we did not. Why are the UK Government not prepared to join the majority of other states that have taken their responsibilities seriously in understanding the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons?
Jeremy Corbyn: The Government must answer for themselves, if they have decided definitely not to go to the conference. It would be discourteous not to attend, but the answer I received from the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) during Foreign Office questions a couple of weeks ago indicated that he thought the conference was one-sided. Yes, it is a one-sided conference. It will consider the humanitarian effects of what nuclear explosions do, and what they have done in the past. I met the Foreign Minister of the Marshall Islands in New York at the NPT review conference in May. He witnessed a nuclear explosion as a child, and his community has been devastated by successive testing. The community are now taking out an International Court of Justice action against the nuclear weapons states, Britain included, because of the damage that has been done to the community and the islands. Surely, if supporters of nuclear weapons are so confident that those weapons are safe, reliable, usable and so on, they will not be afraid to attend a conference to discuss the humanitarian effects of those weapons on the environment, pollution and the welfare of the entire planet. I quote from the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons:
“The UK is badly out of step with the majority of countries in the world. As one of the few countries with nuclear weapons, the UK has a special responsibility to understand the risks and consequences of its own weapons. By refusing to participate in the conferences on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons held by the governments of Norway and Mexico, the UK gave the impression that it doesn’t care about the catastrophic effects its weapons could have on environment, climate, health, social order, human development and global economy.”
I could not put it better myself, and few others could.
We are debating the MDA at last, and I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee and to the House for giving us the opportunity to do so. I hope that there will be an opportunity to debate and vote on the motion tabled by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion and others that calls for the rejection of the MDA because of its secrecy, because of its transfer of technology of weapons of mass destruction between two jurisdictions and because it will be used as a basis for the renewal of the Trident system. I believe that Parliament will have to vote on the renewal of Trident in 2016, and that will commit us to expending £100 billion on yet another generation of weapons of mass destruction. There has to be a different way to run the world. There has to be a different way to use our technology, resources and skills rather than the highly secretive world of nuclear weapons. The MDA represents all that is wrong about the nuclear relationship between Britain and the USA. That is why I have raised the subject today, and I hope that we can promote a serious public debate about nuclear weapons and their safety.