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14 Mar 2007 : Column 305

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Will the Foreign Secretary give way?

Margaret Beckett: If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I must make some progress.

The time scale we must address is not just the next 10 or 15 years, and it does not involve current or recent developments. We are talking about maintaining our ability to keep a minimum independent nuclear deterrent after 2024. To decide not to retain that ability would require us to be confident that, in the next 20 to 50 years, no country with a current nuclear capability would change its intentions towards us and that no power hostile to our vital national interests and in possession of nuclear weapons would emerge. I sincerely regret that I cannot advise either the House or the British people that I believe such confidence would be justified, or that we should remove from future Parliaments the ability to maintain our deterrent.

Mr. David S. Borrow (South Ribble) (Lab): Given that all three major parties in the House stood at the last election on a platform of maintaining Trident, does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be wrong for us to make a decision today that would prevent the British people from electing a Government at the next election who would either retain or get rid of Trident, by pre-empting such a decision by voting against the Government motion?

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend makes an extremely powerful point, and he makes it well. It is indeed the case that the decision of principle that we are being asked to make today could set the course for future Parliaments if we were to reject the motion before the House.

Jeremy Corbyn: I thank the Foreign Secretary for giving way. She will recall that, in the past, our party and others have campaigned against nuclear weapons and for disarmament. She has made much of the adherence to the non-proliferation treaty, but is it not the case that the message going around the world is that a vastly enhanced delivery system—achieved through a new generation of submarines—will be contrary to the whole spirit of the treaty and likely to encourage proliferation rather than reduce it?

Margaret Beckett: I am sorry to have to say this to my hon. Friend, but that is complete and utter rubbish. We are not here to make a decision about a vastly enhanced system. I must also say to him in all seriousness that if he wants to encourage the idea that we should pursue non-proliferation, it is very unwise to keep arguing that other people are perfectly justified, because of what we are doing, in pursuing further nuclear weapons. I understand and respect the strength of his convictions, but I really think that it is time for people who share those convictions to make up their minds whether they are or are not trying to encourage other states to develop nuclear weapons.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): In light of the possible changed threats to this country, does my right hon. Friend agree that whether one lives in Hemsworth, Southampton, Derby or Wolverhampton, it is difficult to pop out to the local supermarket and
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buy a nuclear submarine as a delivery system? If we delay the decision, however, we might be in that position in the future.

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend is entirely right. Some who have commented on these issues have perhaps been misled—this brings me back to my point about the transparency with which the Government have pursued the issue—because in the past the conceptual and design stages have often been pursued behind closed doors. The matter has not been made known to Parliament, and decisions have not been sought from Parliament before continuing such a programme. The programme needs to be pursued for a sustained period of years, and that is the principal reason that the decision must be made today.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Will the Foreign Secretary give way?

Margaret Beckett: No, I must get on.

The deterrent is not an alternative to diplomacy. We will keep pushing for multilateral disarmament, keep working through the United Nations to prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons, and keep encouraging nuclear weapon-free zones, including in the middle east. The wider goal of our diplomacy remains to prevent and resolve all conflict by reducing regional tensions—not least between the Palestinians and Israel—by promoting economic development, and by dealing with underlying insecurities such as an unstable climate and the illegal trade in arms. All of that work will continue.

The third issue lies in the details of the proposals. After thorough and exhaustive analysis, the Government are confident that a submarine system with ballistic missiles remains the most effective and least vulnerable form of deterrent. From that stems the decision to extend the life of the D5 missile. Simply put, it makes no sense to invest in submarines built around the D5 missile unless we have assurance that such a missile will be available after 2024.

The White Paper makes it clear that we will look hard at whether it is possible to maintain our policy of continuous deterrent patrolling with three boats rather than four through improvements in the technology, operational procedures and maintenance schedule of the new class of submarines. However, we will not take irresponsible risks with our capability, as we rely—unlike others—on a single, minimum system.

The judgment that we will need to maintain an operational stockpile of fewer than 160 warheads is based on a professional analysis of the minimum that is required to deter. That analysis does not, in our view, support any of the alternative proposals including those made by the Liberal Democrat party for a reduction to just 100 operational warheads. The claim is made that those proposals are based on expert analysis, but nothing whatever has been done to explain either who the experts were or what the analysis was. We do not believe that such a number would leave us with a credible and effective nuclear deterrent.

Our estimate is that the costs of operating and maintaining our deterrent between 2020 and 2050 will be equivalent to some 5 or 6 per cent. of the current defence budget—similar to the cost of our current deterrent. The procurement cost of the new submarines
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and associated equipment and infrastructure will be in the region of £15 billion to £20 billion for a four-boat fleet. Those costs would fall principally between 2012 and 2027. We estimate that the procurement costs are likely on average to be the equivalent of about 3 per cent. of the current defence budget over the main period of expenditure—roughly the same as for the Trident programme. That investment will not come at the expense of the conventional capabilities that our armed forces need.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): My right hon. Friend has already pointed to the difficulties of delaying a decision on Trident. Does she agree that sourcing the technical capacity to support the existing nuclear provision is a fundamental difficulty and that we need to send a clear signal, both to the academic institutions of this country and the companies that will be involved in the provision of Trident, that we intend to make a commitment, so that they can begin to prepare for that and ensure that we have the expertise to secure our nuclear capacity, both militarily and domestically?

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend is entirely right and, if I may say so, displays her engineering expertise and understanding of how the industry works. The decision to be made by the House is not on anything other than the political, strategic and security needs of the country. However, it is also necessary to take into account the industrial implications, and those implications certainly reinforce rather than weaken the case for making a decision now.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): If the costs described by my right hon. Friend were exceeded—defence projects have a track record of exceeding their budgets—will she also guarantee that those excess costs would not impact elsewhere in the defence budget?

Margaret Beckett: The whole purpose of the scrutiny to which the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), who chairs the Public Accounts Committee, referred is to make sure that that is not the case. I think that my hon. Friend will find a reference in the White Paper to the costs of the existing system, which, in real terms, are pretty close to identical to the likely costs of the new system. The kind of overrun that he describes has not been the case with that programme.

The Government have a strong record on defence spending. The last spending review increased the defence budget by an average of some 1.4 per cent. a year in real terms. The defence budget for 2007-08 will be some £3.7 billion higher than in 2004-05, and we have kept the proportion of GDP spend on defence pretty steady since 1997 at around 2.5 per cent. That is our understanding and expectation of the level of costs.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Will the Foreign Secretary give way?

Margaret Beckett: No, I must get on. I have been speaking for more than half an hour.

The final question is, why must we make a decision now? Some have suggested that the decision can be delayed. Let us make no mistake—the net result of that would be not to delay the decision, but to run the risk
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of making it by default. All our advice is that if we do not start the process of designing the new generation of ballistic missile submarines now, it will already be too late.

The Vanguard submarines are due to start to reach the end of their planned lives from 2017 onwards. We are advised that we can—and so, in consequence, we will— extend their life by up to five years. Extending beyond that period would be risky. Let us not forget that submarines comprise our only nuclear weapons system. Some have drawn comparisons, as was done today, with the United States, but its Ohio boats are not the same as our Vanguards—they had a longer design life and have major engineering differences. We must therefore work on the basis that the first of our existing submarines will have to go out of service in 2022, and the second in 2024. By the time that the second goes out of service, we will need to have a fully operational replacement if we are to maintain continuous patrolling.

Our best estimate, also tested against American and French experience, is that the process of designing, manufacturing, testing and deploying a new class of submarines takes about 17 years, which takes us to 2024. That is why we must make a decision now.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): The Foreign Secretary has indicated that we must make a decision now to begin the design process for the new submarines. She has also indicated that further decisions, which we are not making today, will have to be made about ordering the submarines, renewing or replacing the warheads or ordering successors to the D5 missile. In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), she indicated that future Governments and Parliaments will have to

for those decisions. If this Government are still in power when those decisions come to be made, will she indicate whether she believes the most appropriate form of parliamentary scrutiny to be further votes and debates in Parliament on those matters?

Margaret Beckett: I understand entirely my hon. Friend’s point, but he knows that I am a former Leader of the House. No one is less likely to be prepared to commit future Governments and Parliaments to a certain course than a former Leader of the House. I simply draw his attention to the words uttered by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and to the clear facts before the House—the decision in principle must be made today, but the decision on the warheads, for example, will not come in this Parliament. It would be improper for me to bind a future Government or Parliament, but every party in the House will have heard the questions and points raised, and every party will take account of them. I certainly assure my hon. Friend that this Government will do everything that we can to keep the House fully informed and to make sure that the Select Committee is kept up to date.

Incidentally, I have been reading of late comments that the decision was rushed. We announced in 2003, in the White Paper, that this was the time scale within which it would have to be made. I saw suggestions in The Guardian today that other decisions were being made in secret. In fact, they were announced to the Select Committee in November 2005. I believe it was
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the late Enoch Powell who said that the best way to keep a secret was to announce it in Parliament. Unfortunately, it is proved daily that that is the case.

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): Will the Foreign Secretary give way?

Margaret Beckett: I am sorry, but I must get on. I am approaching the end of my speech and many Members wish to contribute.

Some Members have sought assurances on whether this is only a provisional decision, dependent on further decisions down the line. Today’s decision does not mean that we are committing ourselves irreversibly to maintaining a nuclear deterrent for the next 50 years, no matter what others do and no matter what happens in the rest of the world. That would be absurd, unnecessary and, indeed, incompatible with the nuclear proliferation treaty. Nevertheless, the strategic case for maintaining the deterrent has been made, and has been laid out perhaps more fully than ever before. It is for the House to decide whether or not it supports that decision of principle. We must make a clear decision that confirms to the British people and the rest of the world that we are not abandoning our deterrent.

Of course, if there were a fundamental change for the better in the strategic environment—in particular, massive significant progress on non-proliferation and disarmament—it would obviously be right for future Governments to look at the issue again, and inevitably they would. As I have said, further decisions will in any case be needed on the precise design of the submarines, on whether we need four or three, on whether to renew or replace the warhead, and on whether to participate in any American programme to develop a successor to the D5 missile. It will fall to future Governments and Parliaments to discuss the most appropriate form of scrutiny for those decisions. As I have said, this Government will ensure that there are regular reports to Parliament as the programme proceeds, and we will give the Select Committee our full co-operation as it maintains its regular scrutiny of these issues.

Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Margaret Beckett: I will give way to my right hon. Friend, but he must be absolutely the last.

Mr. Denham: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. On the question of parliamentary scrutiny, I understand that she cannot bind future Parliaments. I noted that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced yesterday that the Climate Change Bill would bind future Parliaments, but I understand that my right hon. Friend is reluctant to do the same. However, will she at least express the opinion to this Parliament that it would be desirable and appropriate for it to be able to take a view at some point in the future—perhaps around the time that the main contracts are let—on whether international circumstances still require us to maintain an independent nuclear missile system?

Margaret Beckett: I do not want to add anything to the words that either my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister or I have already uttered to my right hon. Friend, but I will say to him that I am not sure whether
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we are at cross purposes. The stage to which he refers is not likely to be reached during the present Parliament. With the deepest respect to my good and right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who is a very fine Minister indeed, he has not of course been Leader of the House. [Laughter.] Yet.

I have made the Government’s case. There are opponents of that case who believe that nuclear weapons are morally wrong, pure and simple. For the reasons that I have given today, while I respect and understand that stance I must say—as a member of a Government charged, above all, with the protection of the people of this country—that it is not my position. Moreover, those whom that stance leads to oppose this decision should, by that yardstick, have opposed all previous nuclear procurements. Some, I know, have; some, I suspect, have not.

To others, Trident is just a waste of money. In one sense, I hope to God they are right. Nothing would please me or the Government more than to have a nuclear deterrent that was never used, and whose use was never even threatened, because a nuclear threat never emerged. But on the facts before us, we—and they—cannot know that to be true or certain, at least for the next 50 years. While such a risk exists, the Government believe that maintaining a minimum nuclear deterrent remains a premium worth paying on an insurance policy for our nation.

I commend the motion to the House.

1.44 pm

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): The Foreign Secretary has made a very powerful speech, and an extremely good case. It was all the more powerful coming from her, in a way, because she was a long-standing member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament—she once spoke of remaining a member of it even if she became Prime Minister—and she is said to have attended the recent Cabinet meeting to discuss these matters and make the decision that she has just explained with deep reluctance. The fact that someone with her long-held views has reached the clear conclusion—in Government, and with all the information available to her—that the British nuclear deterrent must be retained, updated and replaced is in itself an indication of the powerful case for doing so.

The Foreign Secretary has overcome her reservations; others will wish to voice theirs and to ask many serious questions during the debate, but the arguments for the Government’s position are very, very strong. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has always made clear that we will support the Government when we believe them to be right. Let me make it clear, therefore, that given our view of the national interest, the Opposition will unite with Ministers in the Lobby tonight.

Mr. Salmond: It is an interesting theory that the Foreign Secretary changed her mind when information became available, but I think the right hon. Gentleman should bear in mind the fact that she changed her mind before she was in Government and before that information was available to her.

Mr. Hague: I am just very pleased that she changed her mind. I do not want to go into all the arguments
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about the particular week in which she did so; I am sure she can explain that to us herself.

There are, of course, important questions about costs, timings, the necessary skills base and the lifespan of some of the equipment involved. I shall turn to those shortly, and perhaps the Secretary of State for Defence will comment on them when he winds up the debate. However, we will support the Government’s motion, although the phrase

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