|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): May I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new post? As he is new to it, may I ask him to study the report of the Quadripartite Committee that was published just before the election? It refers specifically to China in some detail.
John Reid: I am aware of the report, but I cannot say that I have read it verbatim. However, on the advice of my hon. Friend, who, from our past discussions, I have always found wise on these matters, I shall return to it.
We will have big decisions to make quite apart from those on Iraq, Afghanistan and other areas of operational disposition of our troops. One was raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Islington, North and for Sunderland, South, and they were visibly and helpfully assisted by the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes. I refer to Trident and the continuation of our nuclear deterrent. I think that we have been pretty open about that. The defence White Paper in 2003 indicated clearly that it was likely that decisions on whether to replace Trident would be needed during this Parliament and that we were taking steps to keep options open until a decision point was reached, and that continues to be the case.
It would be irresponsible of me to speculate from the Dispatch Box within days of arriving in my position about exactly what decisions might be needed, or exactly when they will be needed. However, I shall keep
18 May 2005 : Column 248
the House informed about the matter, as we have tried to do in the past. As I have been asked questions today, I confirm to the House that no decisions on any replacement have been taken in principle or otherwise. However, it is likely that such decisions will have to be taken during the course of this Parliament.
Mr. Mullin: Will my right hon. Friend give me an assurance that before any irreversible decisions are taken, proper discussions will take place in the House about the merits of a new generation of nuclear weapons?
John Reid: My hon. Friend has answered that question himself by raising the matter several times during today's debate. I have no doubt that a matter discussed in the first debate in the House will be raised continually. Obviously the Government will listen to hon. Members on both sides of the House before taking the decision that we are elected to make in the course of discharging our responsibilities. I do not think that I can be more specific than that because the decisions that must be taken and the exact time frame in which that must happen are not yet clear.
Mr. Mullin: I want to avoid the situation that occurred in the latter days of Mr. Callaghan's Government, when a decision was taken without most of the Cabinet or the House being informed. Labour Members discovered that a decision had been taken only when Tory Defence Ministers revealed some years later that a decision had been taken under the Callaghan Government. We do not want that to happen again, but I am sure that it will not, will it?
John Reid: Not if it is up to my hon. Friend or me. Without going into specifics, I can tell him that we do not regard the development of the Chevaline project as a role model for decision making by this Government.
Jeremy Corbyn: I congratulate the Secretary of State on his new appointment. He will no doubt have heard earlier contributions to the debate. I specifically raised the non-proliferation treaty conference in New York that is going on at present. Will he give us some indication of whether the UK Government's position is to support a reiteration that there should be no new nuclear weapons and the ultimate removal of all nuclear weapons, including those held by the five declared nuclear weapon states?
John Reid: Our policy has not changed on either of those issues. Of course we would all like a world in which there were no threats and thus no requirement to develop a response to threats. However, we live in a world in which there are such threats. I shall deal with this matter in detail at a later stage, but we must decide the best way of handling our response to them. We have tried to do that over the years and our policy remains exactly what it has been on nuclear weapons and deterrents, although of course we must deal with the changing nature of threats. I give my hon. Friend the assurance that I think he and his colleagues want: as the discussion develops, we will try to keep the House informed in a way that will satisfy hon. Members.
Sir Menzies Campbell:
The Secretary of State will remember, as I do, endless debates provoked by the then
18 May 2005 : Column 249
Conservative Government in an attempt to embarrass the Labour Opposition about whether the fourth Trident submarine should be constructed at Barrow-in-Furness. Those debates were, frankly, hopeless as a basis for discussing nuclear policy. He knows, too, that nuclear policy is arcane and sometimes pretty difficult to grasp. Will he give an undertaking that when allowing the House to reach what will be a significant decision, he will, without breaching secrets or anything of that kind, make as much professional information as possible available to hon. Members? Will he assure us that there will be no question of people scrambling to find information that is available to Ministers, but no one else?
John Reid: Let me say two things. First, the idea that a decision of that nature could be taken in all contexts without an open and continual discussion in this House and elsewhere, including the United States, is not realistic. I think that it will be open and continual. Of course, when it comes to nuclear deterrence and other matters relating to this country's security, it is not possible to put everything into the public domain. We have found from our experience over the past few years that when we try to do that and ensure that the sanctity of some of the information is retained, it is easy for people to accuse us of misrepresenting the information that is in the public domain. It is a continual challenge, but I think that the process will be much more open than people perhaps think.
Secondly, the great debate on the fourth Trident submarine and so on took place in an entirely different context. The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife will remember that it took place in the context of a Labour party that was accused of having a defence policy that was basically "Surrender. Hands up." Those days are long gone, just as the days when Labour was regarded as a party of economic incompetence and the Tories were regarded as a party of economic competence and as strong on defence have gone.
We know what the contrast is now. We introduced a £3.7 billion increase in defence expenditure under my predecessor, now the Leader of the House. We know that we have reconfigured the British armed forces, with all their failings, in the strategic defence review, which was lauded internationally as well as here. We know that during the election there was no debate whatsoever on defence[Interruption.] Perhaps the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes can contain himself for a second while I finish.
People contrast that record with the 29 per cent. cut in real terms in defence expenditure that took place under the previous Government in the terrible days running up to 1997 and with the flip-flopping over Iraq, when the defence policy of the Leader of the Opposition appeared to be determined by him wetting his finger and sticking it in the air to see which way popular opinion was going. The whole context has changed. There is a degree of confidence in the Government's posture on defence. I can give a degree of confidence to my colleagues that we will, as part of a Government who are
18 May 2005 : Column 250
confident in our willingness and ability to defend our country, discuss such matters a little more openly than might otherwise have been the case.
In the context of what we have said about the non-proliferation treaty and my right hon. Friend's response to the questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), will he confirm that there is no preparation at the Atomic Weapons Establishment Aldermaston for the construction of a facility to make any new nuclear weapons, free-fall bombs or anything similar, and that all decisions will be in the open before such construction work begins?
John Reid: My hon. Friend posits something that envisages a qualitative and quantifiable watershed between the maintenance of facilities, whereby they are updated and rendered continually safe so that our existing nuclear deterrent is made more effective, and a new weapon. The world does not work like that any more than one day we will have capitalism and the next we will have socialism, but my hon. Friend and I have argued about that as well. I do not think that the world develops like that.
The reality is that the preparations necessary to maintain a nuclear deterrent in a safe condition, which is constantly updated to meet new threats in terms of accuracy and new technology, are an integral part of what might becomeI do not say will becomeone possible avenue for one of the many alternatives that we might have to consider if are going to update, replace or modernise our nuclear deterrent. That is as honest an answer as I can give to my hon. Friend. In the real world, there is no such complete gap.
Talking of the real world, I have managed to deal with only three areas and I have been questioned on 15. If I may, I shall be much quicker in dealing with some of the others, but that does not mean that I do not regard them as major issues.
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|