Backbench Business - Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference


The UK parliamentary debate on the NPT on 9 March was opened by former Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, but sparsely attended by members of the House of Commons. While some MPs evoked Britain's role in the NPT and P5 as justification for retaining nuclear weapons and modernising Trident, others highlighted the humanitarian impacts and called for UK participation in negotiations to ban and eliminate all nuclear weapons globally.

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8.10 pm

Margaret Beckett (Derby South) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the forthcoming nuclear non-proliferation treaty review conference.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for finding time for this debate, which follows the most recent meeting of representatives of the P5—the declared nuclear weapons states—which took place in London a couple of weeks ago. That was the continuation of a process initiated by the recent Labour Government, and this debate in turn is followed by the NPT conference itself for which, sadly, the ministerial segment will, for the second time in recent years, occur after this Parliament has been dissolved.

Last Thursday marked the 45th anniversary of the entry into force of the NPT. Designed in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, and on the basis of near universality with 189 signatories, the NPT is a global grand bargain, whereby nuclear weapon states commit themselves to disarming, non-nuclear weapon states agree to remain nuclear weapon free, and all have access to civil nuclear power. This grand bargain has served the international community well for the past 45 years by helping to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, holding the nuclear weapons states to account, and promoting the peaceful use of nuclear energy, something which has assumed greater importance as the threat of climate change has called into question the continued use of fossil fuels.

Since the treaty was signed, global stockpiles of nuclear weapons have fallen by more than two thirds and several countries have given up their nuclear weapons programmes. Unfortunately, the review conference held in 2005 failed to agree a final document, raising concerns about the future of the NPT. Perhaps in consequence, and not long after, an initiative was taken in the United States by two Republican and two Democrat elder statesmen, Henry Kissinger and George Schultz with Bill Perry and Sam Nunn, calling for greater progress from the nuclear weapons states on their disarmament commitments, which the NPT itself urges them to pursue. Following their initiative, I, as Foreign Secretary, gave a speech to the Carnegie international non-proliferation conference in 2007, outlining our Government’s disarmament agenda: our decision to further reduce our operationally available warheads to the very minimum we considered viable to maintain an independent nuclear deterrent; and our commitment to a substantial programme of work, to the practical steps which would be needed to underpin moves towards a world free of nuclear weapons, to working on transparency and confidence-building measures between nuclear weapons states, and, indeed, others, and to the technicalities of verification, particularly methods of verifying commitments on warheads.

The then Defence Secretary Des Browne addressed the conference on disarmament in 2008 and proposed closer co-operation between the five official nuclear weapons states, including not just regular meetings of  

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Government representatives of the P5, but scientific and technical collaboration and co-operation, and meetings among those scientists. Therefore, when President Obama spoke in 2009 of his ambition to work towards a world free of nuclear weapons, there was growing international political momentum for serious discussion about nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation and about strengthening the NPT.

Following all these events, the four American spokesmen contacted me to press us to set up in this country a group like theirs to continue to address these issues. We set up a group called, rather infelicitously perhaps, the Top Level Group, composed of people of all major parties and none, including a number of former Chiefs of the Defence Staff. The present chair is the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who is in his place.

More recently, however, the momentum we saw in that period has been waning. This year’s review conference could decide whether that momentum once again