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The Prime Minister: I think that I gather from that that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is in favour of maintaining the deterrent, but not necessarily now. On this idea of postponing a decision, all we can do is go on the basis of the advice that is given to us. That advice is that, working back from 2024, when the
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second submarine goes out of service, it will take 17 years to put a replacement together. That is because there is a hugely complicated process of engineering and so on. That is the advice that we have received. I am not a technical expert, and nor is the right hon. and learned Gentleman. The political judgment is ours to make, but the technical advice that we have received is as I have outlined to the House. In those circumstances, I really do not understand on what basis I would stand here and say that we would put the decision back to 2014. The advice that I am receiving is that if we do that it is perfectly possible that we shall not be able to maintain the deterrent, so we shall have de facto taken the decision.

Sir Menzies Campbell: There are other estimates.

The Prime Minister: There may be other estimates, but I have to go on the ones that we have got—I cannot go on the Liberal Democrat one.

As for the reduction from 160 to 100 warheads, again, I do not know on what basis I would make that decision. We have already reduced the number significantly, but the evidence that we have is that we can reduce to 160 without damaging our deterrent. I cannot responsibly go beneath that number, when I have absolutely no basis on which to do that, other than the fact that 100 is a round figure. I cannot do that.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is perfectly right in pointing to historical precedents, and I understand his point, but that is why it is a good idea not to go back there.

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South) (Lab): Those of us who have been here a long, long time find this a case of déj vu all over again. Under a previous Government, I used the same arguments as my honourable and good friend the leader of the Liberal Democrats has used, when my assistant and I wrote the minority report for the Defence Committee. It was a brilliant report, but totally wrong. The arguments that I now hear against Trident were the ones that I used a quarter of a century ago.

One of the arguments was cost. Will the Prime Minister give us a ballpark figure, so that we have an indication of whether the cost of Trident will be as low as £15 billion, as some people hope, or as high as £76 billion, as projected by the Liberal Democrats?

The Prime Minister: The £15 billion to £20 billion cost is for the design, manufacture and infrastructure. In today’s money, that compares with the cost of the previous Vanguard submarines of some £14 billion. It is not as if we have nothing to compare with, and the experience of other nuclear states is also available for comparison. We are therefore reasonably confident of the estimate. Of course, there will be a massive amount of work to be done in the coming years, but my right hon. Friend is absolutely right that the evidence now is very clear that we need to start discussing the design next year. After all, a series of skills will need to be retained, and such highly qualified people will need to know that they will be retained, in order to do the work.

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Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): The Prime Minister promised us a debate, and I welcome the fact that it will run until March. Will he confirm, however, that the decision was not to replace Trident so much as to replace the Vanguard submarines that are its platform? Will he also confirm, as it was not entirely clear to me, that he was announcing in his statement that the United Kingdom was signing up to the United States’ service-life extension programme for the Trident D5 missile system?

The Prime Minister: Yes, we are doing that, as that will allow us to ensure that the missiles have an extended life. After that, we will be in a position to participate in the replacement of the Trident D5 missile. The right hon. Gentleman is also absolutely right that we are effectively talking about replacing the Vanguard submarines. If we want to maintain the submarine-based deterrent, however, we must begin consultation on that now.

Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North) (Lab): I believe that the country will very much support the forthright position adopted by my right hon. Friend in tackling this difficult issue on behalf of the Government and Parliament. A successful conclusion to a healthy debate could do a huge amount to raise the esteem of Parliament. There is still, however, an educational job to be undertaken. All the arguments—there are legitimate ones on all sides—should be expressed, so that people can judge whether Parliament is making the right decision in some months’ time.

The Prime Minister: I totally agree with what my hon. Friend says. One of the reasons that I dealt with the matter at some length in my statement is that there are perfectly legitimate arguments that people should have. I genuinely think that the more that we debate the matter the more people will ultimately see that there are answers to some of the technical points, but, in the end, we are left with a judgment that, very responsibly, we should make as a House of Commons.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): No one seriously doubts that, in the next 30 years, both rogue Governments and terrorist organisations will get access to nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, and will use those weapons to try to change the balance of power against the western world. Against that background, is not it the duty of responsible and democratic nuclear powers—not only the United States but Britain and France—to work together so that the countries of western Europe can make their full contribution towards our collective defence? Were we to give up that power unilaterally, would not that merely bring comfort to our enemies and alarm our friends?

The Prime Minister: I totally agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman, and that is why we will continue to work with other countries in that vein. The NATO summit last week emphasised again that that collaboration is as important as it has ever been. The point about our duty to work together with other countries on nuclear disarmament is absolutely right. Were we to pursue that in any other way, that would go against what we all wish to see.

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Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West and Royton) (Lab): Given a cost of up to £75 billion—including the cost of maintenance over a lifespan of 30 years—how can this proposal be justified in an utterly different, post-cold-war environment, when it will severely restrict much more needed conventional defence expenditure? It will clearly undermine the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, especially for Iran, and it will drain off colossal sums of money from where they are most needed to deal with the real threats that confront us—terrorism, climate change and long-term energy insecurity.

The Prime Minister: Obviously, I do not agree with my right hon. Friend. We will be able to maintain the replacement for Trident with the same percentage of the defence budget for running costs with which we maintain the existing deterrent. The cost that we are giving is the cost of maintaining that submarine capability.

I do not agree with my right hon. Friend that the proposal is contrary to our obligations under the non-proliferation treaty. Article VI states

In other words, there are obligations to pursue negotiations in good faith with other countries. That is precisely why it is clear that we are fully able to maintain our existing nuclear deterrent under the non-proliferation treaty.

Of course, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right to say—as I said in my statement—that the cold war is no longer with us; but the one thing we cannot say is that there are not potentially new and hazardous security threats out there, and in any event there are still major nuclear powers. I agree that it is—let us say—highly improbable, highly unlikely, that we will ever be threatened by any of those powers, but I am certainly not prepared to say that such a thing is impossible to think of. I believe that we must be in a position to protect ourselves against every potential threat, and ultimately I think that giving up our independent nuclear deterrent in what is a very uncertain and insecure world would be irresponsible.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): The Prime Minister pointed out that close co-operation with the United States of America would be very important, not just in terms of politics but in terms of the upgrading of technology. Can he assure us that in the event of the Americans’ improving their missile warhead system in the future, we will have the same kind of access that we have today?

The Prime Minister: The whole purpose of the agreement into which we are entering with the Americans is to give us access to that technological improvement. As the Americans develop the successor to the Trident D5 missile, we will be able to work with them closely and have access to that updated weapon system. Although the deterrent would be used in wholly independent circumstances relating to the United Kingdom, the ability to work with the Americans is very important.

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Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): The Prime Minister is right to remind the House that we are not experts on this subject, but Theodore Postol is. Let me explain for the House’s benefit that Theodore Postol is a professor of physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is also the former United States official responsible for the development and implementation of the Trident II system. He told me at the weekend that the American equivalent of the Vanguard class of submarine, the Ohio class, lasted 45 years despite having twice as much sea time as our boats, and that the Americans are currently converting some of their Trident-carrying boats into cruise-carrying submarines. Does the Prime Minister agree with Ted Postol? Could we not convert some of our boats, and avoid disproportionate expenditure?

The Prime Minister: First, let me tell my hon. Friend that I am delighted to see him back in his place. Secondly, let me tell him that the question whether we could do the same as the Americans has been gone into in a great deal of detail, and I am advised that the answer is no, because their submarines were designed and fitted in completely different way. I am told that the life of our boats cannot be extended for longer than five years.

Obviously some of the issues are highly technical, and, as I say, I am not an expert, but the best advice we have is that it is not possible to do what the Americans are doing because their submarines are different from ours, and that the maximum safe extension for ours is five years. That is why this decision arises now.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): May I follow on from the question from the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle)? Does the Prime Minister agree that just as vital as maintaining our independent nuclear deterrent is protecting the interests of the taxpayer and value for money, particularly since this replacement is going to cost £20 billion, and starting? Should not we have a debate on whether there are other options? After all, the multiple warhead was designed to protect Moscow defences from attack, which is unlikely to occur in the future. Why should we rule out at least consideration of cruise missiles being launched from our attack nuclear submarines? What would that cost? Would it not be a fraction of the cost of this system?

The Prime Minister: For that very reason the White Paper goes into the different systems in some detail. I agree that one of the issues is: should we stick with the submarine-based system, or should we move to some other type of system? All I can say is that, for the reasons given in the White Paper, the submarine-based system is, in my judgment, the most suitable form of deterrent. One can go through the other options, which are all well known. In the debate over the coming months, people can canvass all those different options, but the difficulty is that an aircraft armed with cruise missiles is far easier to intercept and the cruise missiles go at subsonic speeds. In any event, in terms of cost, I am advised that the aircraft would have to be specially designed and that is an enormously expensive undertaking. We could have a surface ship armed with Trident missiles, but that is an easier target. Alternatively, we could have land-based silos. It is
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worth pointing out that America, for example, has land-based silos as well as air-launched and submarine-launched missiles. Its land-based silos are situated in a vast territory—a huge area can be used for that purpose. I do not think that that is practical for us. Therefore, there are very good cost reasons why it is best to stick with the submarine-based missile. This is precisely the type of issue that the next few months will allow us to consider. The White Paper goes through those options in detail—this is why I wanted the White Paper—so that the perfectly legitimate questions that have been raised can be answered.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement, which will be particularly welcomed by those who work in DML and the naval base in Plymouth. Does he agree that on this occasion we are indeed talking about rocket science of the most complex and challenging kind and that the people who design, integrate and make the safety case for this equipment have to have many years of training and experience? For that reason alone, those who call for postponement are simply wrong.

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is entirely right. It is worth pointing out that thousands of people who work in and around her constituency have built up expertise over the years that we cannot afford to lose, and nor can their employers afford to keep those skills extant in circumstances where it is unclear for several years whether we will proceed. One of the reasons why this process will take slightly longer is that the submarine industry in our country and indeed in other parts of the world has contracted, so my hon. Friend’s comments are absolutely right. If we allow those skills to degrade—I think that that would be the most irresponsible thing of all—we will take a decision without ever meaning to take a decision.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): The credibility of Trident in the previous century depended on the belief that we would be prepared to use it if necessary against an overwhelming enemy. Are we seriously to believe that we would ever use that most potent nuclear weapon against the rogue states or terrorist organisations that are the enemies of today and likely to be the enemies of tomorrow? Why will the Prime Minister not at least explore more flexible, more useable and therefore more credible non-nuclear alternatives before taking a final decision?

The Prime Minister: With respect, the whole principle of deterrence is that we do not state the precise circumstances in which we might use that deterrent, since that very uncertainty is part of the concept of deterrence, but we all have to make a judgment about that. Of course, it is possible to say, “Let us get rid of our independent nuclear capability and rely simply on conventional forces.” In the end, I do not think that that is sensible for the reasons that I gave in my statement: first, I do not think that we can say that it is inconceivable in any set of circumstances that we could be subject to a major power's nuclear threat; secondly, we have additional states that are developing nuclear weapons capability, and who can
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say where that capability will lead in years to come? I am, frankly, also somewhat fortified in this judgment by the fact that no other major nuclear power is taking the step of getting rid of its independent deterrent; indeed, it is interesting that France, for example, is in the process of launching a new generation of submarine-based nuclear missiles. Therefore, the whole idea of us at this point in time saying that we will put it out of our power to maintain our independent nuclear deterrent seems to me on balance to be wrong. I do not in the least dispute that it is possible to make the other point of view, but in the end there is a judgment to be made, and we shall all have to make it when the time comes to vote.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): Can the Prime Minister confirm that, in contrast to what happened in 1947, 1961, 1974 and 1980, this Prime Minister and this Government have for the first time ever initiated a public debate on these decisions? Will he also confirm that the Government remain committed to the goal of global nuclear disarmament and will make renewed efforts to secure international negotiations as called for under article VI of the non-proliferation treaty?

The Prime Minister: Yes, I can confirm that, and it is important that we have a full debate because, as is clear, there are different views in all parts of the House in relation to this debate. The trouble is, however, that in the end it comes down to a judgment. The difficulty is that we cannot predict the precise circumstances in which the relevance of our nuclear deterrent will arise; we can only make a judgment about that. The truth is—I think we all struggle with this when coming to a decision—that although the world in which we live has changed dramatically since the 1940s, there is still a threat out there. Indeed, that threat can change, and even be extended in certain dimensions.

Therefore, is it sensible for us to say now—at this point—that we are going to give up an independent nuclear deterrent that has been one of the mainstays of our defence for over half a century? We can debate all the technical, financial and military questions, but we come back to that simple judgment. When I was reflecting on the decision, I reflected on this: what would it be like if I were to come to the Dispatch Box as Prime Minister and say, “We have decided that we are going to give up our independent nuclear deterrent”? I cannot see that; I just cannot see it.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): Given that Scotland has a national Parliament not a parish council, will the Prime Minister give an assurance that he will respect the Scottish Parliament when it votes against the stationing of nuclear weapons in Scotland?

The Prime Minister: I always respect the Scottish Parliament because it is part of the devolution settlement within the United Kingdom, and unlike the hon. Gentleman, I believe that Scotland is stronger and better within the United Kingdom than it would be out of it.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) (Lab): As a Member of Parliament who does not believe in weapons of mass destruction even though they might
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be a deterrent because I do not think that we would ever dare use a deterrent that would destroy the world, I want to know whether the Prime Minister thinks that the money spent on them would be better spent on tackling poverty in Africa—and poverty in this country after last week’s report—and pensions for old people?

The Prime Minister: Again, that is a perfectly understandable judgment for people to come to. Some would say, “Spend this money on conventional defence.” My hon. Friend says, “Don’t spend it on defence at all, but spend it on poverty reduction programmes, or public services in our country.” But in the end the question is: will we make our country less safe if we give up this deterrent? [Interruption.] The purpose of deterrence is not so that we can use it; the whole purpose of deterrence is so that we never have to use it, and that is the reason that we keep it.

Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): In welcoming this hard decision, I ask the Prime Minister to reassure us that he truly understands the philosophy of deterrence, which is complicated and tough. For instance, does he agree that our negotiating position is always strongest when we keep all our military options open, which is the opposite of what we did over Iran?

The Prime Minister: It is very important that we keep all our options open, which is precisely the reason why we are better able to achieve multilateral disarmament if we maintain our own deterrent.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): If the British Government decided to go it alone and to act without our allies, would they first have to seek the approval of our American allies?

The Prime Minister: Our deterrent in its operation is completely and totally independent. As I said, I am not speculating on the circumstances in which we might or might not use our deterrent, but it is completely operationally independent. It is a decision for the British Prime Minister and the British Prime Minister alone.

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley) (Con): The Prime Minister is right to say that this successor submarine must be built with British technology and by British scientists, but does he share the extreme anxiety of Rolls-Royce—one of the main contractors—that not enough nuclear physicists are coming out of British universities with the necessary specialism to enable it to be sure of doing the job that he outlines today? What steps will he take to reverse the decline in physics in schools and universities, so that we can be sure that we have enough British scientists with the necessary security clearance to build these submarines?

The Prime Minister: In the years to come, thanks in part to the fact that we have doubled the science budget, there will be many more opportunities for people in British science. The skills that we require is one of the issues that we will discuss with companies when we begin this process next year.

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