Porton Down to check on illicit weapons trade

Porton Down, the Ministry of Defence's chemical and biological research centre, is to play a leading role in verifying that British companies are not illegally making or exporting chemical weapons.

But the Government plans to exempt the Wiltshire centre from legislation making chemical weapons illegal. The only public scrutiny of government departments will be through ministerial accountability to Parliament.

The Government has taken the unusual step of publishing draft legislation before introducing the Bill to Parliament. The deadline for comments on the draft expires this weekend.

However experts say the legislation is not tough enough to measure up to the international Convention on Chemical Weapons and may lead to difficulties. Nicholas Sims, of the London School of Economics, said "most of the elements of national implementation of the CWC are ... absent from the draft Bill."

Just 10 civil servants within the Department of Trade and Industry are to be responsible for monitoring more than 500 companies and 2,000 sites which employ lethally toxic chemicals that have a dual military-civilian use. The civil servants will constitute the "national authority" required by the CWC, which is supposed to keep track of the movements of all these chemicals and to investigate any discrepancies.

Porton Down's military experts will advise and assist the "national authority" in monitoring scientific developments that might lead to new types of chemical weapons.

According to Professor Julian Perry Robinson of the University of Sussex, this raises two problems. "The first is ensuring that CBDE [Porton Down] is not unduly selective in what it chooses to tell the national authority - that it does not hold back information about, for example, some attractive new chemical-weapons possibility." In 1975, he said, the US Senate discovered that the CIA's Technical Services Division had retained stocks of a toxic weapon in breach of the Biological Weapons Convention.

The second problem was "whether Porton actually has the requisite reach into the industrial, academic and other worlds where there is leading- edge research".