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I must at once declare a potential interest, in that the propulsion system for the existing submarines is manufactured in my constituency.

Let me set out the nature of the decisions that the House is being asked to support today. They are whether or not to take the steps necessary to maintain a minimum strategic nuclear deterrent for the UK—a single system comprising submarines, missiles and warheads—and to take further steps towards meeting our disarmament responsibilities under article VI of the non-proliferation treaty.

Specifically, that will mean a decision to begin a process to design, build and commission submarines to replace the existing Vanguard-class boats. This will necessarily take some 17 years. That is a calculation based on our own experience and that of other allied nuclear weapon states. Moreover, we must also decide whether we will join the American programme to extend to the early 2040s the life of the Trident D5 ballistic missiles which those Vanguard submarines currently carry, and whether we will reduce the number of our operationally available warheads to fewer than 160 by the end of this year.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): The United States nuclear posture review that went to Congress in December 2001 estimated that it would take 13 years, not 17 years, to replace a US Trident submarine.

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Margaret Beckett: The United States submarines are different from our own. They are differently designed, they have a different design life and so on. That may have been the conclusion of American work; it is not the conclusion of the work that has been done in this country.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State accept that all these issues must be subject to review over the years, and that many of us who will support her today reserve the right to review our positions when the warheads are considered in the next Parliament?

Margaret Beckett: As my hon. Friend is aware, we are not making any decision about the warheads in this Parliament, so the matter will inevitably come before a subsequent Parliament.

The decisions that we are asked to make today are serious and weighty, and they are being put before the House following sustained and thorough consideration and debate. Those decisions affect the fundamental security of this country and its people, and they involve significant cost, so it is right that the House should fully debate the Government’s proposals and have the final say on the choice that this country makes.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): Is the Foreign Secretary saying that we are making a decision today to keep all our options open, or are we making a decision that would commit a future Parliament to large expenditures when we go through the big gateway decision in due course?

Margaret Beckett: My right hon. Friend will know that that question was raised with the Prime Minister a few moments ago and he answered it clearly. It is the decision of principle that we are required to make today. It is inevitable that there will be future discussions, and there will be decisions down the road as the programme proceeds. But that will not be the case unless we make the decision today.

Several hon. Members rose—

Margaret Beckett: I shall give way to the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), then I shall make progress.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that it is possible to believe in both the independent nuclear deterrent and value for money? There is a distressing tendency for Ministry of Defence projects to go over time and over budget. Will she therefore welcome the assurance given to me by the Comptroller and Auditor General this week that he will carry out an innovative exercise and issue an ongoing assurance report on value for money, to ensure that we get real value for money on the project?

Margaret Beckett: Yes indeed. I welcome that, as will the whole House. We rely on the Committee chaired by the hon. Gentleman to sustain that scrutiny.

Since the non-proliferation treaty came into force in 1970, all nuclear weapons states have taken steps to maintain their deterrents. The decisions on which we
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are seeking agreement today are no different. But the UK has been more open and transparent than any other state in explaining the basis of our decisions in advance to our people and to the international community.

There are four key issues. I will address each in turn. The first is what are we doing to fulfil our obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. The second is whether it is still in the national interest to maintain a nuclear deterrent. The third is why such a deterrent should be in the form that we now propose. The final issue is why we need to make this decision now.

The NPT created two distinct categories of states. Those that had already conducted nuclear tests—ourselves, the US, the Soviet Union, China and France—were designated nuclear weapons states and could legally possess nuclear weapons. All other states-signatory were designated non-nuclear weapons states. Article VI of the NPT imposes an obligation on all states

The NPT review conference held in 2000 agreed, by consensus, 13 practical steps towards nuclear disarmament. The UK remains committed to these steps and is making progress on them.

We have been disarming. Since the cold war ended, we have withdrawn and dismantled our tactical maritime and airborne nuclear capabilities. We have terminated our nuclear capable Lance missiles and artillery. We have the smallest nuclear capability of any recognised nuclear weapon state, accounting for less than 1 per cent. of the global inventory, and we are the only nuclear weapon state that relies on a single nuclear system. The Prime Minister has announced a further unilateral reduction in our nuclear weapons in line with our commitment to maintain only the minimum necessary deterrent. We will reduce the stockpile of operationally available warheads by another 20 per cent., to fewer than 160 warheads during the course of this year. This will involve the eventual dismantlement and disposal of about 40 warheads. The UK will then have cut the explosive power of its nuclear weapons by three quarters since the end of the cold war. That is more than any other nuclear weapon state has yet done.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): I want to be clear about the point that my right hon. Friend is making in comparison with her answers to earlier interventions. Is she saying that today’s decision is a reduction of 20 per cent., or is she saying, as I thought she was, that during the 2012 to 2014 window there will be a decision that can be made by this House to determine whether the 20 per cent. reduction could be increased to, say, 50 per cent.?

Margaret Beckett: That depends, of course, on whether the House votes for this motion. If it does, we are committing ourselves to making that reduction by the end of this year. I hope that that is a reassurance to my hon. Friend. [ Interruption. ] There is no need for a window; the window runs to the end of this year. If the motion is carried today, we are committing ourselves to that further 20 per cent. reduction in warheads.

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Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Obviously, as the Foreign Secretary rightly said, we are not the biggest player among the nuclear arms powers—and, yes, there have been steps to disarmament. Why, however, would the Government’s position, which is in principle to retain the nuclear deterrent, be a better trigger for disarmament in the 2010 talks than a decision to defer on the basis of reduction now and prospective reduction or abolition of nuclear arms later?

Margaret Beckett: Let me first say to the hon. Gentleman that, as I have already pointed out, we have been disarming over the course of the past 10 years, with singularly little response. There is therefore no evidence whatever for the notion that if we defer this decision, that will somehow magically produce a different response from other players than we have had hitherto. I simply say to him—I apologise if I am offending anybody in the House in saying it—that there are only two credible positions to take today: you are either in favour of this decision or you are against it. The notion that there is an excuse that allows people to get out of the problem today and return to it later is, frankly, escapology.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): Before my right hon. Friend moves away from the issue of proliferation, can she give the House an assurance that if we vote for the Government’s motion today, there will be renewed efforts to secure the measures on nuclear weapons disarmament mentioned in article VI of the non-proliferation treaty, particularly to try to get India, Pakistan and the other non-signatories to the NPT into the global nuclear arms control system?

Margaret Beckett: I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance without any difficulty. The next step that we hope to take is to bring forward negotiations on the fissile material cut-off treaty. He is also absolutely right that it is extremely important to work with other states that are known to have a nuclear weapons capacity and have not come within the ambit of moving towards disarmament. We will certainly continue such work.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that for the nuclear non-proliferation treaty to be effective, two things are important: first, it has to be enforced; and secondly, non-nuclear states have to be convinced of the logic of it? If someone was in Israel at the moment considering whether to get rid of the nuclear weapons that they have, or if someone was in Iran—I mean a secular Iranian, not Ahmadinejad—wondering whether it is a good idea to acquire nuclear weapons, would it really be logical for them to think that they should not acquire nuclear weapons if the message they get from this country is that we need to prepare for producing the next generation just as an insurance policy for things that we do not know are going to happen?

Margaret Beckett: I will come to that point later in my remarks. I would simply say to my hon. Friend that that is the most dangerous argument of all. It does nothing. Those who want to see nuclear disarmament, and those who are anxious and nervous about the decision that the House is being asked to make today, are doing nobody any service by encouraging the notion
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that any decision that we make gives an excuse to others, who are, in the case of Iran, signatories to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty —[ Interruption. ] I hear the words, “He didn’t say that.” No, but it was quite heavily implied. There is no justification for others in the decision that we are being asked to make.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): This debate has come about not because of Trident coming to the end of its shelf life but because the Vanguard-class submarines will need to be replaced. Could the Secretary of State clarify how much it will cost to decommission the four submarines and what budget that will come from?

Margaret Beckett: I cannot, offhand, but I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary will able to give the hon. Gentleman the figures later on. There are some figures in the White Paper, but I am not carrying them in my head.

The latest proposal does not change the trend of disarmament that we have been pursuing. I want clearly to spell out to the House what we are not doing. We are not upgrading the capability of the system. We are not producing more usable weapons. We are not changing our nuclear posture or doctrine—in particular, we do not possess nuclear weapons for “war fighting” or tactical use on the battlefield. And we have not lowered the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. Again, I know that there are those who are unhappy with the proposal before the House and who have sought in various ways—outside the House, not just within it—to imply that these are the decisions that the House is being asked to make. They are not. That excuse will not stand.

We have taken other unilateral actions in line with the 13 steps. We have not conducted a nuclear test since 1991. We ceased production of fissile material for use in nuclear weapons in 1995. And all excess fissile material stocks no longer required for defence purposes have been placed under international safeguards. Those unilateral actions have been complemented by active diplomacy on multilateral nuclear disarmament of the kind that my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee, mentioned in seeking an assurance that we would pursue it. We led international efforts on the comprehensive test ban treaty. The UK ratified the treaty in 1998, and our diplomats continue repeatedly to urge other countries to ratify so that it can enter into force. As I said, we have called repeatedly for the immediate start of negotiations in the conference on disarmament in Geneva on a fissile material cut-off treaty.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): If what the Foreign Secretary says is internationally accepted, why does Mohamed el-Baradei so fundamentally disagree with her on the impact that it will have on proliferation?

Margaret Beckett: I appreciate that Dr. el-Baradei has of late made a number of remarks about his wish that Governments—nuclear-armed states—should not pursue such measures. However, he knows, as we know, that all nuclear-armed states have indeed taken steps to modernise and keep up to date the weapons and facilities that they have. That is exactly the decision that the United Kingdom is making, no more and no less. I must say to the hon. Gentleman that I have looked to
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see whether I can discover Dr. el-Baradei making similar comments when other nuclear weapon states made those choices; so far I have not been able to unearth such comments.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Could the Secretary of State give those of us who desperately want multilateral disarmament to succeed an idea of what the chances are for other nuclear states to match our unilateral action in getting rid of all battlefield and tactical weapons?

Margaret Beckett: I cannot speculate on those chances, but these are steps that we thought that it was right to take. We continue to urge them on others, and we will continue to do so through the conference on disarmament. I share the view of many in the House that it is perhaps time for a fresh push on these measures on the international stage. How successful such a push would be remains to be seen, but there have been a series of bilateral agreements since the end of the cold war, which have greatly reduced the major nuclear arsenals. By the end of this year, the United States will have fewer than half the number of silo-based nuclear missiles that it had in 1990. By 2012, US operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads will be reduced to about one third of 2001 levels. Under the terms of the strategic offensive reductions treaty, Russia is making parallel cuts, and the French have withdrawn four complete weapons systems.

Britain remains committed to the abolition of nuclear weapons, and we are actively engaged, and encouraging others to be engaged, in a process that will lead to that goal. But progress will be steady and incremental, and only towards the end of that process will it be helpful and useful for us to include our own small fraction of the global stockpile in treaty-based reductions.

So there is no basis to suggest that we have done anything other than fully comply with our obligations under the NPT. Indeed—I say this to the House with some respect—I regard it as dangerous folly to equate our own record, as some have tried to do, with that of countries such as North Korea and Iran, which have stood or stand in clear breach of their obligations as non-nuclear weapon states under the NPT. There is no legal or moral equivalence between their position and ours. I would urge people, whatever other arguments they might use to oppose the motion, not to use that one, because it undermines the very basis of the treaty itself: that those recognised as non-nuclear weapon states should not seek to acquire nuclear weapons. The international non-proliferation regime is not perfect, but it has prevented the wide-scale proliferation of nuclear weapons. I regard it as dangerously irresponsible to use the excuse that the UK is retaining its weapons to justify others seeking to acquire them, and it runs the real risk of increasing the global nuclear threat, not reducing it.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): Does the Secretary of State not think that it might be dangerous folly to use the expression “nuclear deterrent” in this context? Does she accept that these proposals are hardly going to deter Iran and North Korea? Will she explain her policy in the context of its deterring those two countries from continuing with their plans?

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Margaret Beckett: We are working on deterring Iran and North Korea from pursuing their present course of action by other, diplomatic, means, as I hope the House would want. I sincerely hope that everyone in the House wants those negotiations to succeed, and wants North Korea and Iran to be deterred from continuing on their present course of action. I really hope that people will not use arguments that suggest that they have every cause to continue.

That brings me to the second of the four pivotal questions. Why does this country need to retain its nuclear weapons? I am inclined to turn the question on its head and ask instead whether this is the time for us to abandon our nuclear deterrent, or to deny future Governments and Parliaments the ability to maintain it. It is true that the cold war has ended. Actually, it had ended before the existing deterrent came into service, as it had been ordered some years before. It is also true that, as of today, we do not identify an enemy with both a nuclear capability and the ability and intent to use it against our vital interests.

However, significant nuclear capabilities and nuclear risks remain. There are still substantial nuclear arsenals; the number of nuclear-armed states has increased, not decreased; and there is a significant risk of new nuclear-armed states emerging. Moreover, several of the countries that either have nuclear weapons or are trying to acquire them are in regions that suffer from serious instability or are subject to significant regional tension. So, there is the potential for a new nuclear threat to emerge or re-emerge.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): The Foreign Secretary is absolutely right to say that this is not the time to be giving up our national nuclear deterrent. Does she agree, however, that it is the right time to look at future non-nuclear national deterrents such as hypersonic mass technology, which would give us greater flexibility in enforcing our foreign policy without any nuclear fallout? Has any consideration been given to hypersonic mass technology?

Margaret Beckett: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I do not intend to get drawn down the path of discussing other technologies. We have quite enough to do in dealing with the one that we have in the course of this debate.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): The Secretary of State will know that our nuclear weapons have been pointing at nobody since 1994. Does she not recognise that the immediate, and perhaps medium-term, threat comes from those countries that are developing biological and chemical weapons? Does she not think that the money spent on upgrading and renewing our nuclear weapons system would be better spent on dealing with that particular threat, or on ensuring that our troops in Afghanistan were properly equipped with what they need?

Margaret Beckett: I shall come to the proportion of the costs in a few moments. I do not think that the two issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised are mutually incompatible. It is necessary, as he says, to consider the range of threats that this country faces, and the Government are doing that. This is one of them, and we believe that it would be irresponsible of us to ignore it.

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