CONSERVATIVE
New Forest East

DEFENCE POLICY (FRONT BENCH) – TRIDENT – 22 June 2006

[The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr Adam Ingram): … I want to deal with the future of our Trident nuclear deterrent. It is worth reminding the House that when the Government came to power we initiated a range of changes to our nuclear weapons profile. The UK has an excellent record in meeting our international legal obligations. We have withdrawn and dismantled the RAF's air-launched WE177 nuclear bomb without replacement, so that Trident is our only nuclear weapons system. We have dismantled all our remaining Chevalin Polaris warheads, demonstrating our commitment to irreversible reductions in the UK's nuclear weapons. We have reduced our operationally available stockpile of nuclear weapons to fewer than 200 warheads—a 70 per cent. reduction in the potential explosive power of our nuclear forces since the end of the cold war. We have reduced the readiness of our nuclear forces: only one Trident submarine at a time is on deterrent patrol, carrying 48 warheads, compared with a previously planned total of 96, on several days' "notice to fire", and its missiles are de-targeted. We have signed and ratified the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty. We have also continued to press for negotiations without preconditions, to begin at the conference on disarmament in Geneva, of a fissile material cut-off treaty.

At the last election, we stood on a manifesto commitment clearly stating that we intended to retain this country's current independent nuclear deterrent. That commitment remains. We sent an initial memorandum to the Defence Committee on these issues, which was published in January.]

Dr Julian Lewis: Will the Minister give way?

[Mr Ingram: No. I shall set out the whole of our policy and take it from there.

We currently have no requirement for a new nuclear warhead, nor do we have a programme in place to develop a new nuclear warhead. We did, however, announce last July additional funding for the Atomic Weapons Establishment, the purpose of which was to put in place a programme to ensure that our current Trident warhead remains both safe and reliable.

We have made it clear that decisions on the future of the UK's nuclear deterrent are necessary in the current Parliament. As a consequence, work is under way by officials on risks, threats, options and costs in order to prepare the ground for eventual decisions to be taken by Ministers. It remains the case that no decisions have yet been taken in principle or detail on any replacement for Trident. I stress that any decisions that may be taken on the future of the UK's nuclear deterrent will be fully consistent with our international legal obligations, including those under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

On the role of Parliament in this process, the Prime Minister has repeatedly promised – most recently yesterday at Prime Minister's Question Time – that there will be the fullest possible parliamentary debate on the issue. He has also indicated that the timetable on the way forward should be clearer around the end of the year.]

Dr Lewis: The Minister made much of the commitment in Labour's manifesto to retain our independent nuclear deterrent. I do not think that there has ever been any question of a Government policy to abandon the existing Trident system. The question is not whether they intend to retain it, but whether they intend to replace it. Last night, the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that he would support the retention of our independent deterrent in the long-term. That has been interpreted as meaning replacement, which is why it is on the front pages of the press. Have the Government decided to replace the nuclear deterrent? If they have not, does he think that the Chancellor was talking about retention or replacement?

[Mr Ingram: I do not think that my statement could be any clearer, which is why I wanted to set out the policy in detail. The Chancellor said that he pledged to demonstrate the strength of national purpose in protecting our security in this parliament and in the long-term. He said that we would be

"strong in defence, in fighting terrorism, upholding NATO, supporting our armed forces at home and abroad, and retaining our independent nuclear deterrent."

Let me also quote the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr Lewis). He said that last night's speech was just more spin designed to cast the Chancellor as a statesman. Well, the Chancellor is a statesman. He represents this country at the very highest levels of international negotiations, and he does it exceptionally well. He is not the political pygmy; he is a world statesman. The hon. Gentleman also said that the Chancellor was “reheating” an old pledge to retain the current deterrent, but not committing to replacing the independent nuclear deterrent when it reaches the end of its current life.

Dr Fox indicated dissent.

Mr Ingram: Well, it seems to me that the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr Fox) is asking me something he should ask of his hon. Friend, who has clearly made his mind up on the interpretation of what the Chancellor said.

Mr James Gray: I am disappointed that instead of answering the perfectly reasonable question about the Government's intentions put by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr Lewis), the Minister chose to hand responsibility back, implying somehow that the Conservative party's views on these matters are more important than those of the Labour Government.

Leaving that aside, however, will the Minister tell us one thing? I thought that I heard him say that the Government had not yet decided on the principle of replacing the nuclear deterrent. Will he confirm that they have not decided on that principle? He also said that he would consult the House as widely as possible. Will he confirm whether the Government intend to give a vote to Members of the House of Commons on whether that principle should be endorsed?

Mr Ingram: The hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that it is not in my gift to offer the House a vote; there are procedures that apply.

Mr Robert Flello: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr Ingram: I realise that my hon. Friend wants to be helpful – at least I hope that he does – but he must let me reply – [Interruption]. I assume that Members on the Labour Benches are rising to be helpful because we made a manifesto commitment to retain the independent nuclear deterrent, so I can only assume that they want to say why they support that commitment and why they were proud to be elected Labour MPs on that platform at the last election.

Dr Fox: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Ingram: Let me first answer the question put by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray). I have set out the process and I cannot do so in any other way. Officials are looking at the range of things that have to be done so that they can report to Ministers. Ministers at a senior level in Cabinet will then make the decision. Once a Cabinet decision has been taken it will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was asking for any other process and the one that we have established is clear.

Mr Flello: As my right hon. Friend has recalled our manifesto commitment, perhaps it would be helpful to remind the House what it said, to contrast it with what the Opposition's manifesto said on that point.

Mr Ingram: I knew that my hon. Friend would be an honourable friend because, like me, he was pleased to be elected a Labour Member at the last election on that manifesto commitment about the retention of our independent nuclear deterrent. The programme has an extensive life span, which is why we have invested to ensure its long-term safety and reliability.

Stewart Hosie: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Jeremy Corbyn: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Ingram: I can answer only one question at a time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr Flello) asked whether I had a view about what was in the Conservative manifesto. It is not really for me to say, but I do not think that they even mentioned the matter. We took a brave political decision – they just seem to disappear when things get tough.

Jeremy Corbyn: I thank the Minister for giving way. In his remarks about a possible replacement for Trident, or a new generation of weapons, he said that everything would be done consistent with international treaty obligations, including the non-proliferation treaty. That treaty, signed in 1970, includes a commitment by the five declared powers to long-term disarmament. Can he explain which part of the treaty would be broken if we developed a new generation of nuclear weapons in contravention of it?

Mr Ingram: I was hoping that my hon. Friend would say that he, like me, was proud to stand as a Labour candidate at the last election on our manifesto commitment – I do not think that he resiled from it then. On our international treaty obligations, I have set out what we have done since coming to power in 1997, and made it clear that all times we take the lead in trying to push forward mul ilateral discussions on the NPT and elsewhere. I wish that my hon. Friend could take some pride in what the Government have achieved, instead of constantly trying to undermine us and giving us the benefit of his – although I hesitate to say it – wisdom by explaining the meaning of the treaty. The Government know what the treaty means and we are standing by it.

Stewart Hosie: The Minister spoke about retaining the current nuclear deterrent. The Chancellor's comments about the long-term tend to indicate that there will be a replacement. The Minister said that officials would carry out the necessary risk assessment to make a decision about the future and that there would be parliamentary scrutiny. If I recall the Prime Minister's answer correctly, he said that the decision would come back to Parliament, but will the Minister confirm that there will be parliamentary approval rather than merely a report and parliamentary scrutiny in the normal way?

Mr Ingram: I think that I am right in saying that the hon. Gentleman's party wants to get out of NATO, never mind its non-nuclear stand, although it may be revising that. Of course, if members of the Scottish National party decide to change their policy – as they should – they will come under the nuclear umbrella, so they will have a problem in squaring those views. Perhaps that explains their approach to NATO and to the way in which it tries to deal with problems in the Balkans and Afghanistan.

I have made clear what we said. Our manifesto commitment was clear and the way in which I set out the process for the development of the policy was abundantly clear. It is not inconsistent with anything that anyone has said recently.]

Dr Lewis rose

[Mr Ingram: I want to move on. Members know that I do not run away from debate but I have already been speaking for 45 minutes and I have several other important policy matters to set out. I want to talk about our personnel …]

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[Mr Nick Harvey (Liberal Democrat Defence Spokesman): Last night, we learned that the Prime Minister in waiting believes that the decision must be taken next year – although he seems to have made a decision, despite the fact that key facts have not been made public. Successive Defence Ministers have said only that a decision may be required in this Parliament. Why the sudden urgency? Has the Ministry of Defence changed its position and, if so, on what basis? The former Defence Secretary said in a written answer in March that Ministers had not yet begun to consider the position “in any detail”, so what new analysis has taken place since then? Exactly when will the “fullest possible parliamentary debate” that the Prime Minister promised begin? The truth is that the timetable for replacement seems to have more to do with political considerations than technical ones.

The Americans are proposing to extend the lifecycle of their Trident systems into the 2040s. I do not pretend that we could do that with ease, but it would certainly be possible. In that case, why does the Chancellor suddenly believe that a decision about replacement has to be made in the next few months?]

Dr Lewis: I am listening to the hon. Gentleman very carefully, but I think that the problem is the life of the Trident missile submarines rather than the missiles themselves. The submarines' lifespan will end between 2020 and 2025.

[Nick Harvey: I agree that the problem lies with the submarines, which have a limited lifecycle, rather than with the warhead or the missile. However, the Americans are proposing to eke some extra life even out of their submarines. Although I do not see that we have a great deal of scope to do the same, I do not believe that final decisions need to be made by next spring. If we did everything that we could to extend Trident's lifecycle, a number of years would certainly pass before it had absolutely had to be replaced.

A decision to replace Trident before all the options – as well as their costs, the strategic environment, proliferation implications and security requirements – debate, and all such factors need to be brought into the open. The decision should be taken only after an informed debate and a slow and careful consideration of the issues, not on a political whim ... ]