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Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell) (Lab):
Harold Wilson said that a decision delayed is a decision made.
Both amendments are a fudge because they will allow the decision to be taken at a later date; in fact, they are predicated on a decision being taken at a later date. I therefore urge the hon. Gentleman to say exactly what he thinks should happen to the amendments.
Nick Harvey: Mr. Speaker has selected one of the amendments, but the two amendments in the names of the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) are sound reasoned amendments. They make the pertinent point that the appropriate moment for the House to take the decision in principle should be at the main gate decision, which we know from the Governments own White Paper will be taken between 2012 and 2014. The Select Committee also arrived at the view that no final decision needed to be taken until the same time. I say again that if we were simply being asked to take the practical measures to keep the options open until that date, I would have no difficulty supporting it, but that is not what we are being asked to do. We are being asked to make the big decision in principle now.
There has been some wriggling and some discomforta question was asked at Prime Ministers Question Time todaybut right hon. and hon. Members should be under absolutely no illusions. The motion on the Order Paper asks the House to support the decisions in the White Paper. Let me quote what the Prime Minister says in it:
We have therefore decided to maintain our deterrent system beyond the life of the Vanguards... we have to decide now whether we want to replace them.
We have therefore decided to maintain our deterrent
by building a new class of submarines. These are decisions that the House is asked to endorse. It is not a simple appropriations motion, subsequent to which the House will have the opportunitywhen the contracts are let and the serious money is spentfor further scrutiny. No, this is a decision in principle.
Mr. Borrow: I understand the difficulty that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues face today. On the assumption that the Government motion is passed, will he give an undertaking that the Liberal Democrats will have a clear position by the next general election? When people vote in it, they need to know whether they will get a pro-Trident or an anti-Trident policyor will the Liberal Democrats sit on the fence again?
Nick Harvey: The hon. Gentleman is wrong in thinking that we are in some difficulty today; we are in no difficulty whatsoever. It is perfectly clear to any rational person that this decision does not need to be taken today and we do not therefore feel any discomfort.
One of the things that the Prime Minister said when he produced his statement in December was that there was to be a great debate between then and the House coming to the decision that it is making today. I understand that the Labour party cancelled its spring conference, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that our
party had such a debate. We have arrived at a clear position, and if he is interested in it I will be happy to share it with him. The fact of the matter is that we have taken the view that I have already laid out before the House today. We support the deterrent and we will continue to do so. I said that the next thing that I wanted to do was examine the strategic context.
Emily Thornberry (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman talks about the Liberal Democrats having a clear position, so he presumably does not agree with one of his colleagues who, as I understand it, described the Liberal Democrats position as a mishmash and as a compromise to get it through their conference. The hon. Gentleman tells us that if it had been a simple debate on acquisition today, he would have had no problem voting for it, but can he speak so confidently for all those sitting on the Liberal Democrat Benches?
Nick Harvey: Yes. The resolution of the Liberal Democrats was that these initial steps should be taken. However, I put it to the hon. Lady, who has sent a letter to Liberal Democrats in the past 24 hours, that she would be very well advised to look at the plank in her own partys eye before she starts to think that she can detect a speck in the eye of the Liberal Democrats.
The strategic environment now is potentially more dangerous than it has been for a good many years. We see that Iran and North Korea are taking serious steps to becoming nuclear powers and we know that that will trigger a reaction among their neighbours. In the middle east, Irans neighbours are likely to feel that they must follow suit. It is very frightening that a variety of states in that part of the world might become nuclear powers. Similar regional proliferation could reasonably be anticipated if North Korea were to renege on the agreements it has recently made and went ahead with its ambitions to develop a nuclear weapon.
The strategic context is very dangerous, and that makes the forthcoming review conference of the NPT in 2010 all the more important. It should be Britains objective to play as constructive, positive and progressive a part as it can at that conference, and we have done that in the past.
Dr. Fox: The hon. Gentleman began his speech by saying, and he is reiterating now, that this is not the time to give up Britains independent nuclear deterrent. Will he clarify for the House in what sort of international security environment his party believes it would be possible to give up the nuclear deterrent?
I hope very much that the efforts that are being made towards multilateral disarmament, to which the Foreign Secretary restated the Governments commitment and to which the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) restated the Conservative partys commitment, involve sincere commitments. All sane and rational people should be committed to trying to rid the world of nuclear weapons altogether. If the processes running up to 2010 and those that might reasonably follow from it could stave off the dangers of
the specific regional proliferations to which I have referred, and if the Americans and the Russians could get new energy behind the steps that they have already taken to reducing the number of their warheads, we might begin to develop a situation in which it is reasonable for Britain to consider giving up its nuclear weapons. However, there are an enormous number of ifs in that and if a week is a long time in politics, seven years is an eternity.
If a week is a long time in politics, seven years is a very long time and we are making this decision seven years before, according to the Governments own White Paper, a final decision will be taken and, on the estimation of the Defence Committee, seven years before a decision needs to be taken. We will do enormous damage to Britains role and the part that we can play at the 2010 conference if, before that conference takes place, we declare that we will remain a nuclear power until 2055. We will forgo any opportunity whatever to play a leading part at that conference and be a force for good.
Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: I note what the hon. Gentleman says, but is not the reality that to maintain the deterrent that we have now, we have to send a clear signal to those involved in the industry and in the execution of the work that we have a long-term commitment? If we do not give them that, we will not retain the skills and our capacity. Without that, we can have no future deterrent and we will remain vulnerable to those powers across the world that will continue to develop their nuclear capacity. Unfortunately, because we will not have the knowledge of what they are doing, we will fall even further behind. Is that not an invidious position in which to place this country?
Nick Harvey: We need to establish a policy for Britain and not for British Aerospace. With respect to the hon. Lady, I believe that British companies are guided by the basis of the contracts that they sign. If we sign a contract approving their doing the concept and design work, they will be rather more interested in that than in our sending some signal. In the process of sending the signal that she wants to be sent, we will send a signal right around the world that Britain was going to remain a nuclear power until 2055. The workers in British Aerospace will be rather more interested in the contract that the Government sign than they will be in getting the signal of the sort that she suggests.
I refer back to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) made earlier. Former President Gorbachev was exactly on the mark when he said that Britain should not make a decision before the 2010 NPT conference. He added:
The UK Governments rush to deploy nuclear missiles whose service life would extend until 2050 is...astonishing.
We are sleepwalking towards disaster...worse than thatwe are asleep at the controls of a fast-moving aircraft. Unless we wake up and take control, the outcome is all too predictable.
He went on that to say that if Britain took the decision to renew our system now to take us through to 2055, it would inhibit and damage the part that we could play. [ Interruption. ] Yes it is what he said; it is pretty much exactly what he said.
Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): The hon. Gentleman talked about receiving signals, but did he receive the signals given to the Defence Select Committee by the Royal Navy? It clearly understands the strategic importance of keeping our industrial base in this unique field and choreographing the important work that has to be done on our attack submarines as well as on our nuclear submarines. Does he understand that the delay that his party is calling for would deeply damage our skills base and its ability to continue this important work?
Nick Harvey: The hon. Gentleman misunderstands me. I have not called for any delay in the programme of building. I acknowledge the Governments timetable, I have talked to British Aerospace and I have been to Barrow and discussed the implications. I have not called for the build to take place at a different time from what the Government say; I am talking about the point at which Parliament should approve it. In my view, the approval of Parliament should be given at the final main-gate decision when the big money is going to be spent and when the contracts are going to be let. I am not saying that the bill would be any later than the hon. Gentleman would wish it to be.
Nick Harvey: The hon. Gentleman says that it is a cop-out and the Defence Secretary rises to his feet. If it is a cop-out, how come that is exactly the way in which the Thatcher Government did it with Trident? When they came to the House and said that they were going to embark on the Trident programme, the concept and design work had already been done, as the White Paper acknowledges. I am calling for the same procedure to be adopted at that stage next time as it has been this year. We have already heard from Members that much of the concept and design work for Trident was carried out in secrecy because the Government did not even want certain members of the Cabinet to hear about it. I applaud the Government for the openness of this procedure. It is good that there has been a White Paper and that there is a parliamentary debate. But they are not asking us to approve the concept and design; they are asking us now, seven years before they are going to let the contracts, to take a decision on the whole thing. It may be the last opportunity that we get for the best part of 50 years.
This is the first time that I have heard a Liberal Democrat spokesman say in a debate that a decision does need to be taken now. I have always understood the Liberal Democrats position to be that this was not the right time to the make the decision. Will the hon. Gentleman make it clear to the House that if the position that he is now arguing is not that we should go back to the way in which things were previously done, it is quite avowedly that we should make a decision about the design and concept of a new fleet of submarines,
but that we should not do that in any way that is informed by principlebecause the principle does not need to be addressed now? That is what he is saying.
Nick Harvey: What I am saying is that the final approval of Parliament should be given at the point at which the contract is going to be let, when the money is going to be spent and when we reach the point of no return, as was said by the Defence Committee in its report and is said, in effect, in the White Paper from the Government. There is nothing particularly radical about that view. It is what the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead say. It is the meaning of the amendment that has been selected, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Hemsworth. It seems a perfectly rational view. It is one that many external commentators have picked up on. The Financial Times leader this morning commends exactly that course of action.
Let me make it perfectly clear to the Secretary of State for Defence that I am not objecting to the initial contracts for concept and design work, or the missile extension programme. They are perfectly responsible and if that was what we were being asked to debate today, there would not be any need to divide or go into different Lobbies, but that is not the issue. The Government are asking Parliament to write a blank cheque now and to forgo any further say on the matter for seven years and let the Government go on. We have not even had the detailed costings for the designs. It is a ridiculous stage at which to ask Parliament to make its final decision.
Nick Harvey: No, I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman. I have not finished making the point that the non-proliferation treaty requires us to act with all sincerity to try to bring about disarmament. I would have liked to hear a lot more from the Government, and to see more in the White Paper, about how they intend to take that agenda forward. I acknowledge the steps that have been taken. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks was right to document them in his speech. They are all good progress. But the next significant round of multilateral disarmament negotiations will be the 2010 NPT review conference. I agree with the Select Committee, whose recent report deplored the lack of a convincing narrative from the Government on their strategy for that conference. We have not heard that narrative from the Government. If the Government on the one hand suggest that we should take a decision now that would make us a nuclear power until 2055, they should on the other give a far more convincing account of how they intend to push forward the course of multilateral disarmament, in the light of that decision.
Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that he has read appendix A of the White Paper, the two information sheets on non-proliferation issues that accompanied it, and the reply to the House of Commons Select Committee, which lists succinctly the non-proliferation effortsboth done and to come.
Nick Harvey: I have certainly read those documents, but, as I have just outlined, I remain unconvinced and I believe that the Select Committee remained unconvinced. It would not have issued a report in the terms that it did if it did not remain unconvinced. As I have already explained, the need for the final decision to be taken now has simply not been mapped out or explained by the Government in a way that I, or the Churches, or the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, or all the organisations that are lobbying us, find remotely convincing. [ Interruption. ] I say to the Secretary of State for Defence that there are a variety of external commentators who are looking at this matter and even those that clearly have a view on the principle of the issue, such as CND, are making the same point about timing as the Churches, the Financial Times and others. That point was also made in the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test and the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen.
It is absolutely right that the ultimate political decision should be taken at the latest possible time. The Royal United Services Institute last week also made the point that a variety of decisions will be made over the next decade. It said:
During that period further decisions will be required before the bulk of procurement money is actually committed, at which stage the decision will be binding.
There is a reason the Government are so keen to have the matter decided now and it is entirely political. They suggest that we are the ones who have the political difficulty. I do not think so. This is straightforwardly an arrangement between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor to deal with the issue and put it to bed before the handover of power. The Prime Minister has a vision of himself as having saved the Labour party from unilateralism through the creation of the new Labour project, and his determination in bouncing the House into the decision now is to try to ensure that, as part of his legacy, that decision has been made and the Labour party in the country is bound up in his vision of Britain for another generation to come. In effect, his objective is to continue to rule the Labour party from beyond the political grave. The decision is not necessary at this time and it is an outrage that the House is being asked to make it at this time. We should take the decision in 2014, when the contracts are let, and I will vote accordingly this evening.
notes the Governments decision, as set out in the White Paper The Future of the United Kingdoms Nuclear Deterrent (Cm 6994), to take the steps necessary to maintain the UK minimum strategic nuclear deterrent beyond the life of the existing system and to take further steps towards meeting the United Kingdoms disarmament responsibilities under Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but believes that the case is not yet proven and remains unconvinced of the need for an early decision.
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