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Much of this debate will of course turn on a further important issue that has already been raised by Members—whether the decision in principle to design and build a new class of submarines must be taken now. The Government have said that the process will take 17 years, and that because the first two Vanguard-class submarines will come to the end of their service life in 2022 and 2024—even with a five-year extension—the continuous at-sea deterrent cycle could not be maintained after 2024 if the first replacement was not ready by then. It is said that the different construction of the United States’ Ohio-class submarines allows their service life to be extended well beyond that of our Vanguard class. I hope that the Secretary of State will go into more detail on comparable decisions to be made about the life cycle of
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the new submarines. Are the Government intending to build submarines with a life span of more than 25 to 30 years in future? What trade-offs in terms of capital costs and maintenance are involved? These issues need careful examination in future, but the timetable of the commitment that we are asked to make today is of course determined by the life span of the old submarines, and we have no reason to doubt that the early 2020s are likely to see the end of the service life of the first two.

Others have attempted to argue that past experience suggests that a period of 14 years is necessary to design and build new submarines, rather than the 17-year period claimed by the Government, for which they have given a reasonable justification. The truth must be that we cannot be sure how long it will take up to 17 years, but the eager seizing on 14 years seems suspiciously like grabbing at a date that is just the other side of the next general election. For a party split exactly down the middle on this issue, that is politically understandable, although it is not the way in which this vital national decision can be made by a potential party of government.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I thank the right hon. Gentleman for being generous with his time. Does he agree that if we do not go ahead at this stage, the design team that is in place to design the submarines will be dispersed, we will be unable to put a team back together and we will end up having to buy American submarines, thereby not taking advantage of this country’s engineering capability?

Mr. Hague: The hon. Gentleman makes a very strong point, which I want to add to. However, I have not quite finished with our friends on the Liberal Democrat Benches.

The Liberal Democrat policy paper on this matter said that the period between now and 2014

The trouble with that is that when we arrived at 2014, we would still not know—even if the world was, against all indications, becoming a more peaceable place—what threats we might face in the 2040s. However, if the world had taken a turn in a more dangerous direction, it would by then be too late to prevent us from having a significant gap for several years in our continuous at-sea deterrent in the mid-2020s. That is like building a house for the next half century and deciding on the basis of the weather in the next few months whether to bother with a roof. That is not a viable policy.

Of course, because the uncertainties in these time scales are so great, the only way to time such decisions is with a sensible precaution, providing a reasonable time buffer. We should have very—

Willie Rennie: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hague: Oh well, to be polite I had better give way to a Liberal Democrat.

Willie Rennie: The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the cold war earlier. Does he agree with former President Gorbachev, who said that

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Mr. Hague: For all the reasons that I have given, I do not agree with former President Gorbachev about that. Of course, Russia still possesses some 10,000 nuclear warheads. We are being told to get rid of our 160 warheads, which is the number that will be left. We of course need major contributions to the disarmament process from Russia, and we have seen some in recent years; however, I do not agree with President Gorbachev’s judgment. This country will derive the strongest leverage and the strongest negotiating position from making the decision that we are now asked to make, not from shirking that decision.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the submarines are to be based in Scotland, which has the greatest opposition to the renewal of Trident. Some 80 per cent. opposed it in the last opinion poll. Why should the submarines be based in Scotland; and would he respect the views of the Scottish people as expressed through their Parliament, if it decided to vote against Trident?

Mr. Hague: These decisions are made on a UK basis, as the hon. Gentleman well knows. I do not think that the people who do such a tremendous job in Faslane and other locations in Scotland would thank him for saying that those facilities should be closed. The decisions are made on a UK basis, and that is the right way for them to be made.

We must have very serious regard for the point made by the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) about the maintenance of the relevant base of industry and skills, noting that the delay between the commencement of the Astute class submarine building programme and its predecessor evidently contributed to delays and higher costs in the Astute programme. The Government rightly intend, subject to satisfactory arrangements, that the new submarines will be built in the United Kingdom. The Defence Committee was advised by Mr. Murray Easton of BAE Systems that

That would of course include nuclear-powered conventional submarines as well as nuclear-armed submarines. It seems to us therefore that to wait several years would run not only a strategic risk but a very serious managerial and financial risk that could make the entire programme more difficult and expensive to execute.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hague: Now that I have been speaking for nearly half an hour, I feel that I should try to conclude, so I will not give way again.

The Government are right to avoid a politically motivated delay that would make the programme more expensive, and right too to emphasise that a great deal of work has to be done to ensure that there is what the White Paper calls

I hope that the Secretary of State for Defence can assure us not only that the costs involved are necessary, but that the MOD will have the skills necessary to
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deliver any future submarine programme to time and on budget. I also hope that Ministers will invite the National Audit Office to monitor the contract to protect the public purse. That point has already been made.

Those are the reassurances that we would like to receive from the Government about cost and about the management of the whole industrial process. But our support for taking the decision to begin this work and for taking it now is unequivocal. Taking this decision, which is entirely within our rights under the non-proliferation treaty, in no way diminishes our authority to argue for the strengthening of that treaty—a point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood)—and to try to counter the proliferation of nuclear weapons across the world. This country has an excellent record in that respect, not only in the ways I have already mentioned, but in ratifying the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty and in ceasing production of fissile material for nuclear weapons. We hope that the Government will couple this decision with leading an intensified international effort to improve the non-proliferation treaty. It was signed more than 40 years ago, but the 21st century has produced a combination of challenges that the makers of the treaty could not predict. Those challenges include shortcomings in our ability to detect states covertly developing nuclear programmes; the need to bring new nuclear weapons states, which did not sign the NPT, into a framework where they too contribute to the non-proliferation regime; and how to respond to the rise of an extensive global nuclear black market.

All those problems need work, including the need to secure world stockpiles of nuclear material against theft; to strengthen the proliferation security initiative; and to strengthen the International Atomic Energy Agency. That work should go alongside this decision today. The efforts to help non-nuclear weapons states, such as Iran, with peaceful nuclear technology must be credible, and so must the united international resolve to prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons in defiance of the NPT.

All that work—to prevent black market proliferation and to uphold the non-proliferation treaty—is of huge importance to our national security. But it will also be of huge importance to our security for four or five decades to come, acting within the terms of the non-proliferation treaty, to ensure that the United Kingdom can continue to deploy a weapon of last resort. That is why the Government are right to come to the conclusion that they have and why, if we were in their place, we would do the same. On that basis, the Opposition will support their motion tonight.

2.14 pm

Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me in this debate and allowing me to make a personal statement and contribution. It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). I welcome this opportunity to tell the House—before the media—why I have, after much reflection, concluded that I cannot vote with the Government today and have tendered my resignation.

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I thank right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House who have shown me great courtesy during my time as Deputy Leader of the House and in more recent days. I hope that I have discharged my duties diligently. I want to be remembered not so much for being the Government’s representative in this House, but more for being this House’s representative in the Government.

I am especially grateful for the strong support and kind words of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and of his predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon). It has been a privilege to serve this House and to do so with such distinguished colleagues.

My thoughts at this moment are with a former Leader of the House, the late Robin Cook, one of our truly great parliamentarians, who encouraged me to follow him into politics, who came to Edinburgh, South to help to secure my re-election and whose example guides me today. Robin knew that in politics one has to take tough decisions—and few decisions come tougher than resigning from Government. I have taken such a decision, and in doing so, like Robin, I leave the Government with no bitterness.

I am overwhelmed by the messages of support I have received, but in truth, even if I had stood here as a latter-day Thomas Stockmann, I would remain true to my convictions. I have served my Government loyally for a decade, and the same Government have served Edinburgh, South well. From the children in the new school buildings in Gracemount and Liberton, and at Craigour Park and St. Peter’s, to the patients in our new royal infirmary at Little France, we owe this Government a great debt. In my constituency, thousands of local citizens and thousands of people in low-paid jobs have been lifted out of poverty through the leadership of this Prime Minister and the funding provided by this Chancellor; I have been proud to vote through these, and so many other measures.

After reading the White Paper, “The future of the United Kingdom’s nuclear deterrent”, I have concluded that it has no future—that this country has to become a country for peace, not a country for war. We have led the world in campaigning to meet the Kyoto targets. We have led the fight to eradicate global poverty. Now we must lead the world in campaigning for the eradication of the nuclear threat—and we must lead by example. As the poet and essayist Emerson said:

I have seen colleagues wrestle with their consciences and lose their beliefs. That is not a path that I have chosen to follow.

I have been asked by colleagues whether any inducements have been offered to me to change my mind. Honesty compels me to say that I have. The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) presented me with a complimentary copy of his latest publication in favour of Trident. He even signed it, but alas it came too late, so the efforts of that warmest of cold warriors were wasted on me.

Serving my constituents in Edinburgh, South has always been my priority. It has been a privilege to have served not just the Government, but, I hope, the whole House and my country in various capacities, as Under
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Secretary with responsibility for competition policy and consumer affairs; for construction and coal miners’ compensation; for small businesses; for enterprise and social enterprises; and, until this week, as Deputy Leader of the House of Commons. Public service is indeed an honourable estate.

It is to this Government’s credit that we have the opportunity to debate this decision, as I said from the Dispatch Box last week. Past Governments took such decisions in complete secrecy, without even consulting the full Cabinet, more out of fear of domestic opposition than fear of giving away our secrets to foreign enemies. I praise the openness of the decision-making process now.

Let me put on record my tribute to our armed services. My father served with pride in the Royal Air Force—in fighter command 85 squadron, flying a De Havilland Mosquito night fighter—fighting the Luftwaffe in the second world war. In my time, I know from chairing a major Kosovo refugee appeal about the tremendous work of our brave forces, saving lives and protecting people in the Balkans; they are the finest fighters and the finest peacekeepers in the world.

I also have direct experience of the cold war nuclear legacy, as I had some ministerial responsibility for our multi-million pound contribution to dismantling Soviet nuclear submarines. It was as a Minister that I visited the naval yards in Arkhangelsk—Archangel—in 2004 and witnessed the terrible legacy of rotting hulks leaking their toxic nuclear waste into the sea. It is so sad that this generation is having to pay for the mistakes of a previous one.

There are those who oppose any spending on defence and our armed services, but I am not one of them. There are those who argue that the decision is premature, but I am not one of them, either. Tough decisions must never be put off. However, there are those who question the wisdom of the £15 billion investment in Trident, and I am most certainly one of them, for I cannot foresee any circumstances in which this country or its territories would be threatened by a nuclear weapons state and we would need to retaliate with a nuclear strike, or where the threat of a nuclear strike by the UK would shape such a state’s actions.

The truth is that we have led the world in decommissioning land mines and now in nuclear weapons. The world is watching us now. Let us be leaders for peace. Whatever the good intentions of the White Paper to ring-fence the budget, I remain concerned that funding will be diverted by future Governments from more pressing defence equipment needs.

I have another fear about the position in 10 or more years’ time—the accelerating impact of global warming. In 1996, I represented Friends of the Earth at the Berlin summit on sustainable development. I believe that current predictions of dramatic, if not catastrophic, climate change by 2050 will be telescoped into a shorter time frame. I fear that rising sea levels will threaten coastal towns long before that time, displacing large populations here in Britain. I believe that we will need every penny available to invest and cope with re-housing and other consequences. Let us incubate the new skills, develop the new technologies and find new ways to fight global warming and climate change. What greater goal can we set our young people?

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I now leave the Government over this issue. I recognise that others hold equally sincere but opposite views, which I can respect. Perhaps I am a little self-indulgent in that. But others can still not seem to make up their minds, and of them I am less tolerant. To maintain the present Vanguard submarines and delay a replacement decision is not a credible stance, and I shall not vote for such options. I will, however, vote against the White Paper for the reasons that I have given. I go with a heavy heart, but a clear conscience.

2.23 pm

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths) and I commend him for the courage of his actions and the clarity with which he explained them to the House today.

I should like to address three points: the principle of the nuclear deterrent; the strategic context and the danger of proliferation; and the timing of the decision that we are asked to take today.

Members with differing views will go through the Lobby to support the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett). There will be those who oppose the principle of the nuclear deterrent, some of whom have done so for many years, whereas others have come to that view more lately. Others support the principle of the nuclear deterrent, but abhor the manner and timing of the Government’s conduct of the issue. I believe that both views will be represented among Labour Members going into the Lobby, and both those views are certainly represented among my Liberal Democrat colleagues.

I readily acknowledge that we have had a vigorous debate, conducted in a tone of great respect, in the ranks of my own party; people who have held very strong views for many years continue to hold them. It is not my view, however, that now is the right moment for Britain to give up its nuclear deterrent. In many respects, we face a more dangerous situation now than we have for several decades. In the Vanguard system, we have a nuclear deterrent that, contrary to everything that has been said, is quite new. The youngest of the four submarines was put into service only six years ago, so by common reckoning, the system has about 20 or so years of life ahead of it. The capital costs of the system have been paid for. The moment when dangers loom on the horizon that we have not had to contend with over the past 10 or 20 years is not the right moment for Britain to renounce its nuclear weapons. I wish to put that on the record from the outset.

The Government ask for various practical measures to be taken, but they also ask for a great decision to be taken in principle. The practical measures on which the Government wish to embark are the concept and design work that will keep open the option of having replacements for the Vanguard submarine. The White Paper also refers to participation in the life extension programme for the Trident D5 missiles. If we had before us a simple appropriations motion, seeking the House’s approval to proceed with those practical steps, I would have no difficulty whatever in supporting it—but that is not what the Government are asking.

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