2015 07 – Parliament Notes

Parliament Notes

by Dick Barry

Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

Tobias Ellwood, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Coimmonwealth Affairs, made the following statement to MPs on 1 June:

The House may welcome a report on the 2015 nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) review conference, held at the United Nations in New York between 27 April and 22 May to review progress and agree future actions against the NPT’s three pillars: disarmament, non-proliferation and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The review conference was a substantive event, which advanced discussion on each of the treaty’s three pillars but concluded without reaching a consensus outcome.

The UK played an active role both in the preparation for the review conference and at the conference itself. As part of its preparations for the review conference, the UK invited certain non-nuclear weapons states and civil society representatives, for the first time, to the UK-hosted P5 conference of nuclear weapon states in February this year. The UK also submitted a revised national report setting out the action the UK is taking to support the NPT. We encouraged and participated in five rounds of informal consultations between Israel and Arab states on a conference on a middle east zone free from nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.

The Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the right hon. Baroness Anelay of St Johns DBE, set out the UK’s approach and progress against NPT objectives on the opening day of the conference. The UK delegation participated actively, both in the main conference and at side events, including on our pioneering verification work and nuclear energy. We engaged constructively in the negotiations throughout, seeking to reach agreement and to make progress on all three pillars of the treaty.

We were disappointed that, despite the progress made in many areas, the conference was not able to find common ground on how to make further progress on the proposed middle east zone free from nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. This issue was the reason that consensus was not reached on the draft outcome document. The UK sought a process which was meaningful and based on arrangements freely arrived at by all states of the region. The proposed text would not have enabled tangible progress to be made and so we were unable to support the draft conclusions. We remain committed to the 1995 resolution on the middle east, the creation of a middle east zone free from nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction, and the steps agreed in 2010 towards that end.

The UK’s commitment to the treaty and to fulfilling our NPT obligations, including under article VI on disarmament, remains undiminished. As a responsible nuclear weapon state and an original party to the NPT, the UK remains committed to creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons. We have reduced our nuclear forces by well over half since the cold war peak and dismantled all of our air delivered nuclear weapons. In 2010 the UK committed to reducing the number of operationally available warheads to no more than 120; we have now achieved this which means that our Vanguard submarines now carry 40 warheads. We also remain on course to reduce our total stockpile of nuclear weapons to no more than 180 warheads by the mid 2020s.

The lack of a consensus outcome neither undermines the treaty nor changes states’ obligations. Of the eight previous review conferences, three have ended without consensus. Throughout, the treaty has remained vitally important for the UK and for the international community as a whole, playing an unparalleled role in curtailing the nuclear arms race and keeping the world safe. The action plan agreed at the 2010 review conference remains valid as a comprehensive roadmap for all NPT states to follow to take forward action on disarmament, non-proliferation and peaceful use of nuclear technology, as do the agreements from 2000 and 1995. The UK will continue to pursue this roadmap, working closely with our partners in the NPT.

Comment: A statement on the non-nuclear proliferation treaty which regrets the failure to make further progress on the proposed “middle east zone free from nuclear weapons” but omits any reference to Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons is not worth the paper it’s written on. All efforts to date to achieve the objective of a nuclear free zone have been directed at Iran. Not a word has been spoken or written about Israel. In a recent statement to the House of Commons Defence Committee, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said that Israel and Saudi Arabia were concerned about the potential of Iran to obtain nuclear weapons, but omitted to say that Israel already possessed them. The west is content for Israel to possess nuclear weapons because it is seen as a friendly ally constantly under threat from its neighbours. Britain and the US are in a state of silent denial on Israel’s nuclear capability.

 

New Nuclear Power

Labour’s Paul Flynn introduced a short debate on nuclear power on 17 June.

Paul Flynn:

I beg to move,

That this House has considered new nuclear power.

Nuclear power was promised as an energy source that would be too cheap to meter. It is now too expensive to generate. If we were planning a nuclear policy from scratch, would we choose to do a deal with two French companies, one of which is bankrupt, while the other, Électricité de France, has a debt of €33 billion? Would we also collaborate with a country with a dreadful human rights record—China, whose national investment department is coming into the arrangement—and with Saudi Arabia, with its atrocious record on human rights, where people are executed on the street? We are left with the dregs of investment from throughout the world—fragile and tainted. The sensible money deserted Hinkley Point years ago. Centrica had an investment of £200 million, and it abandoned it and ran away, because it saw the project as a basket case.

Still, nuclear power has wide support in this House, from almost all parties except the Scottish National party. I hope that this morning the new Minister, whom I welcome to her new work, can apply her distinguished forensic skills to taking a fresh look at the situation. Many people are gravely disturbed by the prospect of new nuclear power. That is particularly so among Treasury civil servants. We are in an extraordinary situation, where there is still public support in spite of Fukushima. One of the main reasons for that is that the British public were “protected” by a skilled public relations operation from knowing the terrible cost of Fukushima—between $100 billion and $250 billion. Radiation is still leaking four years after the event, and tens of thousands of people cannot return to their homes. Other populations were not protected from knowing about Fukushima by an obedient press. However, former lobbyists for nuclear power appeared as independent witnesses, such as Malcolm Grimston, who was on television every day during the Fukushima events, praising the explosions of hydrogen as something of benefit. There is ludicrous PR spin, to the extent that this week two different people from a public relations agency that works for nuclear power rang me up and offered to write my speech for me. They inquired who the Chair would be, as if that might be important. Those are lobbyists and spinners, presenting a favourable case for nuclear power.

Hinkley Point B is a European pressurised reactor. There are some under construction in Finland, France and China. Not one of them has produced enough electricity to light a bicycle lamp. They are all in serious trouble, so why do we continue with our belief in Hinkley Point C? The EPR in Finland was due to generate electricity in 2009. There has been a series of delays, problems and cost overruns, which have themselves now overrun, and the bill is €4 billion greater than anticipated. The possible opening date has been moved year after year and is now set at 2016, at a cost of €8.3 billion. However, other problems have come up. There is another station under construction at Flamanville. It was due to be completed at a cost of €3.3 billion and now has an overrun of nearly €5 billion. There is a serious problem at Flamanville which will affect all the reactors—the carbon level in the steel for the pressure  vessel is too high. That means that the steel is brittle and could crack open, with catastrophic results. That affects the planned reactors in China, Finland, France and of course at Hinkley Point. It is a catastrophic problem and will mean a major delay. There is no way of reconstituting that steel.

The way the deal was done is almost unbelievable. We agreed under pressure, because there were Government promises and political pressure, to do a deal at almost any price to justify Hinkley Point C. We struck a deal for £92.50 per MWh. That is twice the going rate for electricity now, and we said that we would guarantee that deal for 35 years. That was two years ago. Since then, the price of energy throughout the world has gone down a great deal, because of shale gas and the drop in the price of oil. The price we agreed was ludicrous at the time—far too generous. The head of INEOS, the company in Grangemouth, has struck a deal since then with the same company—Électricité de France—for less than half that price. The country was ripped off, and we cannot seem to get out of it. We must do something about the strike price that we agreed.

In the world as a whole, nuclear powered energy generation peaked in 2006. Since then it has been in decline. It has gone down by 10% in Europe. Most energy consultants say that the total cost of the project is indefensible. We omit something from our calculations of historical costs and pretend that nuclear is cheap, when we forget about the cost of waste. In fact we do not know what the cost of the waste from Sellafield is. We are still adding up the bill. The latest estimate for clearing up Sellafield—just one site—is £53 billion. It is thought that the figure will exceed £100 billion eventually. When those costs are added to the historical costs of nuclear power it will not be found to be competitive any more.

Also, we now have alternatives. We are not in a situation where nothing else is available. The world has moved towards renewables, including the clean renewables, to a far greater extent. The Government are to be congratulated on having put forward a package and the money for tidal lagoons in the Severn estuary. An enormous tide of water sweeps up that estuary twice a day. That is vast untapped energy—British, free, eternal and entirely predictable. The technology involved is simple and has been working successfully in France for 50 years, producing the cheapest electricity in the world.

It is a curious thing, but the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in the previous Parliament had an impeccable record on energy some years ago, when he launched the Liberal Democrat energy policy under the heading “Say No to Nuclear”, saying that

“a new generation of nuclear power stations will cost taxpayers and consumers tens of billions of pounds”.

That is absolutely right. He went on:

“In addition to posing safety and environmental risks, nuclear power will only be possible with vast taxpayer subsidies or a rigged market”.

That was the man who, when the red boxes and chauffeur-driven car arrived, changed his mind altogether and did a terrible financial deal to get Hinkley Point on the road. We will be paying for that for many years. The cost of Hinkley Point has been estimated as an additional £200 a year for every consumer in Britain. That is billions of pounds in subsidy over 35 years. The Government have guaranteed £16 billion in subsidy for a technology  that has not been proved to work and is not working anywhere. Almost any alternative is better than pressing on with Hinkley Point. There are older nuclear designs that we could use, but we are heading into a technological jam where there will be difficulties. We are proposing to invest tens of billions in a system that has not been proved to be effective, and has certainly never proved to be economic.

There have been many problems at Flamanville, near Cherbourg, which are not limited to the pressure vessel. There have also been problems with the valves and the whole cooling system, following a warning in April from the French nuclear safety regulator about an excessive amount of carbon in the reactor vessel. That is not a journalist causing trouble but the head of the French nuclear industry talking about a potential disaster in the making.

What is likely to happen in future? There is a nuclear disaster almost every 10 to 15 years, due to various causes. The result of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima has been great fear among the population. That is what happened in Germany, which felt the full force of the truth about Fukushima and sensibly cancelled its whole nuclear programme. Germany is now going into solar power and many other alternatives that are available to us. Tidal power is not available to Germany, but we have that great opportunity ahead.

There will almost certainly be problems in future. Some hazards today were unknown in the past. I recall going to an exhibition called “Atoms for Peace” as a young boy in 1948, when we believed that nuclear would be the answer, but experience has taught us otherwise. The possible accidents range from simple mechanical errors, such as not having enough carbon in the steel, to the simple human errors that happened at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Technical faults also occur, but the greatest risk we now face is terrorism. Older nuclear power stations were not built to withstand terrorist attacks by drones and all the means by which people could attack them. Anyone living anywhere near a nuclear power station must be in a state of anxiety about that possibility, because of the accidents and disasters we have seen.

Fukushima was built to withstand a tsunami, but it could not withstand the tsunami and earthquake that came together. Any of these natural disasters are possible. We have not had a tsunami for some time along the Severn estuary, but we had one in 1607 when part of the area that I represent and the area where Hinkley Point now stands was flooded by a tsunami that came up the Bristol channel. It is believed to have come from underwater activity out in the deep ocean, so a tsunami is unlikely but possible there. We cannot guard against it. Why on earth risk a catastrophic accident when alternatives are available?

I am encouraged to see reports that many civil servants in the Treasury are deeply unhappy about the financial situation of nuclear power. There was a story that if Labour had been elected, it would have turned its back on nuclear power. I believe that to be true. There have been reports in The Times and elsewhere—authoritative reports from serious journalists—that groups in the Treasury are saying that it will be a terrible mistake and a financial catastrophe if we go ahead. May I say to those civil servants that it is their job to speak publicly? We know now what happened in Scotland during the referendum debate, when Sir Nicholas Macpherson decided to leak—to publish—a report of his advice to the Chancellor. His reason for doing so was that he thought the likely effects of Scottish independence would be catastrophic for the country and for Scotland. He justified that leak, which was almost unprecedented among senior civil servants, on the basis that it was in the national interest. He was supported by the head of the civil service, Sir Jeremy Heywood, and condemned by a Committee of this House.

Look at the past; look, for example, at the commercial advantages of the steam-generating heavy water reactor, which produced nothing and was useless, but cost £200 million. That was many years ago. There was also the decision to treat Concorde as a commercial venture that would succeed. There were civil servants who quite rightly opposed those, but the ethos of the civil service is the unimportance of being right. The careers of civil servants who go along with the ministerial folly of the day prosper, while the careers of those who are right in the long term wither. It is different now. There is some heroism in civil servants speaking truth to power and saying to their masters, “This should not go on. There are alternatives. The time has gone for nuclear power.” Civil servants who know the new ethos in the civil service should regard it as their patriotic duty to speak truth, not only to power but to the nation, by saying that the time for nuclear power is over.

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Andrea Leadsom):

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) on securing the debate. New nuclear is an important topic, and Members’ challenges and questions are very much welcomed. I would particularly like to assure the hon. Gentleman that my fellow Ministers and I listen carefully to civil servants’ views. There is no sense in which they are not allowed to give their opinions, and they very much do so. I hope that reassures him. I note his interest, as demonstrated by his recent parliamentary questions on Hinkley Point C, the geological disposal facility, and safety and security at licensed sites. I hope to reassure him further on those topics, but I will first set the scene for the benefits of a new nuclear programme.

Nuclear energy plays a critical role in the Government’s security of supply and decarbonisation goals. The UK’s nine existing nuclear power plants generate around 20% of our electricity. However, all but one of them are currently expected to retire by 2030. Nuclear power is one of the cheaper forms of low-carbon electricity, reducing pressures on consumer electricity bills, relative to an energy mix without nuclear. Nuclear power provides reliable base-load electricity with lifecycle carbon dioxide emissions similar to those from wind power and much less than those from fossil fuels. New nuclear power is a vital part of the investment needed in our electricity sector that will boost the economy, create thousands of jobs and help to keep the lights on.

As set out in the Conservative party’s manifesto, we are committed to a significant expansion in new nuclear in the UK. The Government have prepared the ground for new nuclear power stations through a package of  reforms and regulatory measures that will remove barriers to investment and give developers the confidence to take forward projects that will help to deliver secure, low-carbon and affordable energy. We have also ensured that operators of new nuclear power stations put in place robust plans for the finance and management of their waste and decommissioning from the outset.

We are seeing significant progress. The first new nuclear power station in a generation moved a step closer last year, as the European Commission announced on 8 October 2014 that it has approved the Hinkley Point C state aid case. The Government and EDF are currently in discussions to finalise the contract for Hinkley, which is expected to start generating electricity from 2023. In total, industry has set out plans for five new nuclear projects in the UK for a total of up to 16 GW of new nuclear capacity, providing around 35% of electricity generation.

Paul Flynn:

I would have been grateful if the hon. Lady had left behind her civil service brief, which is the conventional one we know, with much repeated claims. Is it true that the Chinese company is threatening to withdraw its investment unless it has a stake in building Sizewell, Bradwell and Wylfa Newydd? That would mean that the new jobs in nuclear were jobs in China and France, not here, because what it is offering to provide is almost a ready-made nuclear power station, made by Chinese people with Chinese money. We are using investment to create jobs not in this country, but elsewhere.

Andrea Leadsom:

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that each project is taken on its merits. Britain is open for business. We are very keen to see investment from overseas in our new nuclear, but it is very clear that the UK supply chain will provide an enormous amount of the jobs and growth that we are looking for in this country. In total, industry has set out plans for five new nuclear projects. The Government are clear that the UK is open for business. We want to see high-quality investment from overseas. The nuclear programme represents a tremendous opportunity to establish the UK as a key nuclear country, with the potential to export capabilities to other countries. That includes capabilities in decommissioning, in which we are already a world leader. This offers us an opportunity to develop our domestic supply chain and to realise economies of scale. It is also an opportunity to make the UK an even more attractive partner for international research and development collaboration.

Paul Flynn:

This is utter nonsense. The person decommissioning at Sellafield is an American company. We do not have any expertise. Will the Minister give us some idea, looking at the historical cost, of what the cost of cleaning up Sellafield will be? It is already admitted to be £53 billion; it is uninsurable, so the taxpayer has to take the risk; and it will probably cost more than £100 billion, which wrecks her argument that nuclear power has ever been good value.

Andrea Leadsom:

The hon. Gentleman is exactly right to point out that there is an enormous nuclear legacy, which this Government have been committed to sorting out, unlike previous Governments, such as the one that he was part of. The nuclear provision currently stands at £70 billion discounted and £110 billion undiscounted. That is the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s best estimate of the total lifetime costs of the decommissioning mission across the whole estate. Nobody welcomes that cost. Nevertheless, this Government have been determined to get to grips with it and to ensure that the material can be safely, carefully, thoroughly and properly disposed of.

To deliver the ambitious new build programme on time and on budget, a skilled workforce in the UK is essential. The scale of the industry’s new build aspirations, the length of time since the last new build project and the high average age of the existing nuclear workforce mean that it is essential to take action now to prevent skills gaps from developing in the course of the new nuclear programme. The Government recognise that this is a big challenge, particularly with the ongoing need to maintain and decommission existing nuclear power stations, so we have introduced the National College for Nuclear, which will work collaboratively with the wider industry, skills bodies and training providers, and will utilise international best practice to develop an industry-wide curriculum.

Moving on to the vital issues of safety and security, we are confident that the UK has one of the most robust regulatory regimes in the world. As the global expansion in nuclear continues, the UK will ensure that any technology used in this country meets the rigorous safety, security and environmental standards. The importance that we attach to safety is shown through the UK’s independent nuclear regulators—the Office for Nuclear Regulation and the Environment Agency—which ensure, through regular reviews and inspections, that operators are fulfilling their duties and that robust safety and security measures are in place right across the industry.

With plans for 16 GW of new nuclear capacity in the UK, the Government are firmly committed to delivering geological disposal as the safest and most secure means of managing our higher-activity waste in the long term. We need a permanent solution following more than 60 years of producing radioactive waste from various sources, including electricity generation from nuclear power.

Paul Flynn:

The hon. Lady has been very generous to me. I think that she is probably too young to remember the Flowers report in 1968, which said that the nuclear industry in Britain was being irresponsible, because it did not have an answer on waste disposal, and it should not continue. That was 1968. The solution then was to dig a hole and put the nuclear waste in it. In 2015, the British answer is to dig a hole and put the waste in it. There has been no progress on disposal of waste, except at enormous cost.

Andrea Leadsom:

Let me very gently say to the hon. Gentleman that ever since I was a very small child, nuclear has been an enormous personal priority for me. In fact, it was the reason why I went into politics—I did so because of the threat of a nuclear world war—so I am slightly offended by his presumption that I do not know what I am talking about. I can assure him that a geological disposal facility is not as simple as digging a hole in the ground and stuffing a load of radioactive waste in it.

Paul Flynn:

What is it, then?

Andrea Leadsom:

As the hon. Gentleman will know, a geological disposal facility is internationally recognised as the safest and most secure means of permanently managing our higher-activity waste, and countries such as Sweden, Finland, Canada and the USA are also pursuing that route.

I would like to get on to answering the hon. Gentleman’s specific questions. He talked about delays at other sites where there are EPR reactors. I can tell him that officials have visited Olkiluoto to get first-hand experience of the build programme there, as well as the other EPR builds at Flamanville in France and Taishan in China. Experience gained through the EPR family—it is a new technology, as he points out—is now being systematically shared between the three current build sites, and Hinkley Point will become part of that arrangement. Experience in Finland and France, particularly in relation to the order in which key parts of the nuclear island are built and how they are fabricated, has benefited the project in Taishan, such that that project is now running to time and to budget.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the strike price potentially being too high in relation to the EDF plant. I can assure him that our estimate of the future price of wholesale electricity is that it will rise into the 2020s. That has been a careful assessment. Nuclear electricity is a key part of our energy mix. He will know that other technologies also involve a very high cost to the consumer right now. The mix is vital, so we believe that this is not too generous. EDF aims to have the plant up and running in 2023. We expect that, with a significant proportion of our power stations due to close over the coming decades, we will need that level of investment to replace that capacity.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about tidal power. Personally, I am as excited as he is about the prospects for marine and tidal power, but again he will accept, I am sure, that this is another new technology, as yet unproven. We have taken the first steps. We expect it to be a big contributor to our energy mix, but not the only one.

I emphasise that, as Energy and Climate Change Minister, I have two priorities: security of supply and keeping the lights on. In securing those priorities, I want to keep bills as low as possible. With new nuclear in the energy mix, I believe we can achieve all those things. Nuclear power is a low-carbon, proven technology that will increase the resilience of the UK’s energy system and, rather than costing more money, the full nuclear programme will, on current projections, save households about £78 on their bills in 2030.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport West on his attention to this very important subject, but I want to be clear that the Government believe that developing energy from new nuclear is the right thing to do in the UK.

Paul Flynn:

There is time left.This is the normal practice. I just want to say that it was a very disappointing response from the Minister, who stuck to a civil service script that had been carefully manicured and presented by her, with a series of platitudes that we all know about. She is not facing up to the crisis that exists in nuclear power at the moment—

Mr Peter Bone (in the Chair):

Order. Before hon. Members go, I point out that the new procedure asks for the Question to be put. The Minister kindly sat down at the right time, but the hon. Gentleman in charge has talked himself out of that.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Comment: Andrea Leadsom refers to the cost of decommissioning nuclear plant, including clean up of the Sellafield site, which she puts at £70 billion costed and £100 billion uncosted. These are the official estimates from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority over the decommissioning lifetime. They are substatial sums which electricity comsumer will bear through higher prices. And given the history of nuclear cost runs they are likely to be higher than lower. She boasts that Britain’s expertise in decommissioning provides overseas opportunties for similar work. But Britain has a long way to go to solve its own decommissioning of nuclear plant so her optimism is ill founded. She doesn’t say anything about the cost to the consumer of electricity from new build. EDF, for example, have a guaranteed high price for its electricity over the estimated 35 year lifetime of the reactors it will build. Paul Flynn is entranced by the prospect of electricity from the proposed Severn tidal barrage. But this will come at a high price to consumers. Both new nuclear and the Severn tidal barrage will be heavily subsidised by the taxpayer. The latter will generate electricity for about 14 hours a day compared to, barring unforeseen shutdowns due to mechanical and other failure, 24 hours nuclear generation. Andrea Leadsom repeatedly says that Britain is open for business. Open that is to foreign investors and owners, and not only in energy provision. Although here, as in water, foreign ownership dominates the market.

Charles Kennedy and Iraq

The recent death of former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy drew praise from a wide audience for his stance on Iraq. It was implied that he opposed the invasion as a matter of principle. In fact his opposition was practical rather than moral as his speech in the debate of 18 March 2003 clearly demonstrates. A number of interjections during his speech have been omitted in the interests of space.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West):

Following the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle), I acknowledge with thanks, through him, to the right hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) and to all those concerned in all parties in this House, that an honest option has been discussed and agreed in a cross-party way. In the previous debate, the right hon. Gentleman made a powerful contribution to that cross-party basis, which needs to be heard and discussed rationally today.

Although it is sad that we have lost a very good Leader of the House, there is no doubt, having listened to his brilliant resignation statement in the House yesterday evening, that those of us who are supporting the cross-party amendment in the Lobby tonight, as I and my right hon. and hon. Friends will do, have gained a powerful additional advocate for the case that we are sincerely making. Given the events of the past few days and the last few hours, there has been much understandable comment about the drama of the situation. In the next few hours and days, however, we are liable to see even more drama and trauma when what appears to be the inevitable military conflict against Iraq begins. Let us hope, as we all agree, that the conflict can be conducted as swiftly as possible, with the minimum of casualties: first and foremost, clearly, among our forces, but equally among innocent Iraqi civilians, with whom none of us has ever had any quarrel and who have suffered terribly under the despicable regime of Saddam Hussein.

As for those of us who remain unpersuaded as to the case at this time for war, and who have questioned whether British forces should be sent into a war without a further UN mandate having been achieved, there stands no contradiction—as the former Leader of the House and former Foreign Secretary put succinctly last night—between giving voice to that legitimate anxiety and, at the same time, as and when exchange of fire commences, looking to the rest of the country, and to all of us in the House, to give full moral support to our forces. They do not take the civilian political decision in relation to what they are being asked to do, but they must carry out that task in all our names. The shadow Leader of the House expressed that well last night, but, equally, Church leaders, who earlier expressed profound opposition to war in this way at this time, are making the same point. If, later tonight, at the conclusion of this debate, under the democratic procedures that we enjoy in this House, that is to be the decision, it is important that the whole House unites in that genuine support.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire):

Can I therefore take it that if the amendment is lost the right hon. Gentleman will vote for the substantive motion?

Mr. Kennedy:

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, but the answer is no. I will not do so because our consistent line is that we do not believe that a case for war has been established under these procedures in the absence of a second UN Security Council resolution. That is our position—[Interruption.]

Mr. Duncan Smith :

The right hon. Gentleman failed to answer my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack). Will he clear up an inconsistency? On the one hand, he said that he wanted to support the troops, while, on the other, he said that he would not support the main motion. He has a split in his party. The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) has said that

“legally, no new resolution is required for the use of force to implement resolution 687.”—[Official Report, 24 September 2002; Vol. 390, c. 43.]

Lord Goodhart, however, has said that the existing resolutions on the Iraqi situation, particularly 1441, do not authorise armed intervention without a second resolution. Which position is that of the Liberal Democrats, and why do they travel across two separate positions?

Mr. Kennedy:

First, my noble Friend Lord Goodhart spoke with great authority as an international lawyer in the House of Lords debate last night. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) spoke on that issue in September, before resolution 1441 was passed, and 1441 has moved the position on. I want to return to the issue of legality in a moment.

The Leader of the Conservative party chose to open his contribution with one or two remarks about me and my hon. Friends, which is perfectly fair in this debate. In relation to consistency, however, let us remind ourselves about the position of the Conservative party, for instance, on weapons of mass destruction. After Saddam Hussein used such weapons in 1988, the Conservative Government continued to sell arms to Iraq. They provided him with anthrax and other chemical weapons, and they approved the construction of dual-use factories in Iraq. When it comes to humanitarian reasons—

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate):

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. If the right hon. Gentleman is in the act of misleading the House, given that the Scott inquiry made it clear that the Conservative Government did not sell any chemical weapons to the Iraqi regime during the 1980s, how can one make him withdraw his remark?

Mr. Speaker:

I can help the hon. Gentleman. These are matters for debate, and it may be that some hon. Member may be able to rebut the right hon. Gentleman’s case.

Mr. Kennedy:

To be fair, I am in the process of replying to the right hon. Gentleman’s party leader.

If Conservatives speak about the need for consistency on the international stage with respect to humanitarianism, as several have over many months, why did they not support the humanitarian intervention in Sierra Leone or the use of ground troops in Kosovo? Why did they veto 11 United Nations resolutions relating to apartheid South Africa when they were in government?

My concluding remark to the leader of the Conservative party is that if I saw the names of three former Cabinet Ministers who served in the last Conservative Government listed in support of the amendment on the Order Paper, I might try to sort out my own party before I started lecturing other party leaders.

As the activity of our armed forces progresses, legitimate questions—

Mr. Lilley:

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Kennedy:

No, I am not giving way—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker:

Order. The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) is disrupting the speech. Take my word for it: the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) is not going to give way.

Mr. Kennedy:

When it comes to the further engagement of our armed forces, it would be proper for hon. Members to raise legitimate questions, as many have in all parties, on the supply and suitability of equipment, the eventual war aims, the participation of British forces and the bombs that might be used. It would be right to ask whether we would desist from resorting to cluster bombs or depleted uranium. It would also be right to ask about the longer term role that we hope British forces will play, if the war ensues, in the humanitarian and reconstruction roles on which they have such a distinguished track record. That is why we have supported the UN route, and it will be a source of great regret if the motion is passed because British troops will be put into action.

There are, however, two specific things on which the Government are right to expect and deserve significant credit over the course of the past six months. The first is that they were instrumental in persuading a reluctant United States to go down the UN route. Everything that I have been party to and privy to over the past six months persuades me that that is the case. The second is that the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and other seniorcolleagues have been consistent in emphasising to the Americans and others the primary need to re-establish a meaningful middle east peace process.

What makes this week so sadly ironic is that the very moment when the Bush Administration at last embraced the fresh urgency over the middle east peace process was the very time when they chose to abandon the UN route. Let us face it, having taken the decision to abandon the UN route, the sudden embrace of the middle east peace process with refreshed urgency arouses the suspicion among many that the two are not unconnected and, perhaps, that if they are willing to do one, they may be willing to abandon the other or to go lukewarm at a later stage.

Mr. Kennedy:

I shall give way to the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) first.

Jim Knight:

I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, although it is tempting to ask why he gives way to some hon. Members and not to others. He pays tribute—rightly, in my view—to the Prime Minister for engaging with the United States, but he also believes that it is right to release them into isolationism, which makes progress on the middle east settlement less likely. Why is that?

Mr. Kennedy:

I do not accept that thesis, and I shall explain exactly why. It is best summed up by the words used by Kofi Annan over the past few days. In the absence of a further explicit United Nations resolution, which is obviously the position in which we find ourselves, he remarked last week:

“The legitimacy and support for any such action will be seriously impaired. If the USA and others go outside the Council and take military action it will be not be in conformity with the Charter.”

That raises very serious questions on which we should reflect. Only yesterday afternoon, the Secretary-General said:

“If the action is to take place without the support of the Council, its legitimacy will be questioned” and the international support will be diminished. We are right to reflect on those considerations.

Mr. Robert Jackson:

The right hon. Gentleman has not answered the question asked by the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight). Having quite correctly praised the Prime Minister and the Government for the influence that they have exerted on the middle east peace process, will he please explain how his vote tonight will contribute to maximising British influence on that process?

Mr. Kennedy:

I think that I have responded to that. It is best for the process to proceed through the auspices of the United Nations itself. If we undermine the legitimacy and authority of the United Nations, that cannot assist us in re-establishing the middle east peace process.

Although I have never been persuaded of a causal link between the Iraqi regime, al-Qaeda and 11 September, I believe that the impact of war in these circumstances is bound to weaken the international coalition against terrorism itself, and not least in the Muslim world. The big fear that many of us have is that the action will simply breed further generations of suicide bombers.

Mr. Mohammad Sarwar (Glasgow, Govan):

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the reason for the failure of the United Nations and diplomacy is not the threat posed by the French, Germans, Russians, Chinese and the international community, but the American Administration of hawks and oil merchants who have no intention of finding—and no reason to find—a peaceful resolution to the crisis?

Mr. Kennedy:

There is great anxiety in the country, especially about the more hawkish elements of the Bush Administration. If the people of this country were given the choice of whom they would prefer to vest their trust in, they would undoubtedly go for the present Secretary-General of the United Nations rather than the President of the United States.

Last night, the Foreign Secretary told the House that everyone knew what they were signing up to on resolution 1441. However, we should consider what the British and American ambassadors said when they secured that unanimity. The British ambassador said:

“Let me be equally clear in response, as a co-sponsor with the USA of the text we have just adopted, there is no ‘automaticity’ in this resolution.”

The American ambassador—his counterpart—said:

“If there is a further Iraqi breach . . . the matter will return to the Council for discussions as required”.

With China, France and Russia, as permanent members, not acknowledging that an automatic trigger has taken place, it is clear that people agreed to resolution 1441 on different bases. The historians will have to judge why that came about, but that is the position in which we find ourselves. To circumvent the continuing legitimate task of the weapons inspectors, who say, and who have been instructed unanimously in the name of the international community, our own countries included, that they should be given extra space, to cut that process short, will cause all the international disorder, tension and potential chaos that we are warning against and have been for quite some time.

Before launching an almighty assault upon Iraq, is it not better to pursue the course of disarmament on the ground in the presence of weapons inspectors? No matter how sophisticated modern technology, even compared with at the time of the last Gulf war, is it not more precise to have weapons dismantled in the presence of inspectors rather than so-called precision bombing trying to take them out?

There is huge public anxiety in Britain. That is the mark of a fundamentally decent society. All of us, whatever our views, whatever our parties, know that the kind of people contacting us are very different from many of those with whom we deal regularly. They are the kind of people who say, “I have never contacted a Member of Parliament before,” or “I’ve never been politically active before.” They are the kind of people who have never gone on a march or attended a vigil before. Another significant point is that, whether or not they agree with the Prime Minister, only a tiny fraction ever call into question his sincerity in this matter. I have never done so and I do not do so today. But much as they detest Saddam’s brutality, they are not persuaded that the case for war has been adequately made at this point, they are worried about the new doctrine of regime change, they are wary of the Bush Administration’s motives, and they do not like to see Britain separated from its natural international allies.

The cross-party amendment is the correct amendment. It is tabled at the correct time, and, if passed, would send the correct signal. It is on those grounds that the Liberal Democrats will vote for it tonight.

Comment: In his speech Charles Kennedy makes it abundantly clear that he would support military action against Iraq if a second UN resolution in support of such action could be secured. This is/was a bizarre position given his warning about the consequences of military action. He said: “Although I have never been persuaded of a causal link between the Iraqi regime, al-Qaeda and 11 September, I believe that the impact of war in these circumstances is bound to weaken the international coalition against terrorism itself, and not least in the Muslim world. The big fear that the action will have is that it will simply breed further generations of suicide bombers.” Just how military action without a second UN resolution would differ in its end effects from military action approved by a second UN resolution is not explained by Kennedy. Did he really believe that the latter would create a benign result? Apparently so, as he refers to the “impact of war in these circumstances”, that is without a second UN resolution.

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