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5.44 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): When my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) spoke earlier, he outlined the consequences of using nuclear weapons. They have been used only once in aggressive wartime—in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in 1945. Last month, we had a large demonstration in Trafalgar square against the replacement of Trident nuclear missiles. We had a video link-up with the mayor of Hiroshima, who pleaded with us to do everything that we could not to develop a new generation of nuclear missiles in this country, because people in his city were still dying as a consequence of the weapons that were used more than 60 years ago. That is the consequence of nuclear weapons.

This morning, I had an e-mail from the mayor of Salt Lake City, speaking on behalf of the Western Shoshone tribe. He pointed out that in the past Britain and the United States have undertaken tests in Utah, which have resulted in a large increase in cancers, thyroid cancers and all the health problems that go with them. Developing nuclear weapons—never mind using them—involves consequences for people’s health.

I remind the House that a few years ago we debated with great earnestness the situation in Iraq in relation to weapons of mass destruction. A nuclear weapon is automatically a weapon of mass destruction. It cannot be targeted individually at a military target. It can be used only to destroy a whole area and to kill a very large number of people. It has no deterrent effect whatsoever. We are promoting this position largely through a sense of vanity, rather than anything else. If we pass the resolution tonight to endorse the Government’s position, we will be set on a road that is both costly and illegal.

I want to make two points about the law relating to this issue. There is something called international humanitarian law and there are two important principles that are part of it. First, there is the general rule that a party to an armed conflict must always seek to distinguish between the civilian population and the combatants. A weapon that is incapable of drawing such a distinction is unlawful under international humanitarian law. A nuclear weapon cannot, by its very nature, make that distinction. Secondly, there is the principle that a party is entitled to use only that force that is required to achieve a legitimate military objective. A weapon that is bound uselessly to aggravate the suffering of combatants is unlawful under international humanitarian law.

When the Foreign Secretary spoke earlier, she took great pains to tell us that we were adhering to the principles of the non-proliferation treaty. I would argue strongly that we are not. The whole point behind the treaty is to stop the proliferation of weapons. If we develop a new generation of nuclear weapons, what moral authority do we have to say to any other country in the world that they cannot develop a generation of nuclear weapons? I ask the House to think who has greater moral authority around the world: the spokesperson for the British Government or Nelson Mandela on behalf of the people of South Africa, which unilaterally gave up its nuclear weapons and any pretence thereto?

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I would also make the point that in 1996, the International Court of Justice ruled that

We face an important decision tonight. Either we endorse this vast expenditure, or we encourage a public debate that I believe will come down on the side of sanity, sense and peace in the world, and we do not go ahead with this vast expenditure that can lead only to a more dangerous world.

5.48 pm

Anne Milton (Guildford) (Con): I will be brief. [ Interruption. ] I will have to be brief. That is four seconds gone.

There is considerable misunderstanding in the House about what we are deciding. The Foreign Secretary’s comments that we are not committing ourselves irreversibly to a nuclear deterrent, but are taking steps to maintain a nuclear deterrent beyond the life of the existing system, are important. When the Secretary of State for Defence sums up, he cannot emphasise that strongly enough. I had the privilege of visiting HMS Clyde last year as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. No one who visits there could fail to be outstandingly impressed by the professionalism of our armed forces. That professionalism equips members of the Royal Navy not only to spend 90 days at the bottom of the sea—not something that I would relish—but to deliver the extraordinarily impressive security arrangements that I saw. My visit clarified some of my thoughts about whether we continue to need a nuclear deterrent.

There is clearly much on which hon. Members agree. Although this sounds like motherhood and apple pie, it is important to make the point that none of us wants to have a nuclear deterrent. We would all wish that the resolution of conflicts throughout the world could be brought about by negotiation. However, we live in the real world, and the real world has become less safe. I was not a Member of the House when the decision on the invasion of Iraq was taken. I regret that decision deeply, and I believe that its repercussions will be with us for many years to come. However, none of us can predict with any certainty the threats that this country will face over the next 20 years.

There are three points that I would like the Secretary of State for Defence to clarify in simple terms that can be understood by hon. Members, especially those who have concerns about the proposal. We need a justification for why the decision needs to be taken now. I have something in common with the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), in that I am utterly confused by the Liberal Democrats’ position.

We need to know whether the replacement of any part of the deterrent will remain solely and completely in the control of the UK. We also need to know whether the process would harm or compromise any part of the non-proliferation treaty. Will we continue to pursue a reduction in nuclear weapons and will multilateral disarmament continue to be our aim?

My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) probably summed up my view almost word for word: with some unhappiness, it is yes to the decision tonight. However, I was especially
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struck by a point that he raised about dependence on the US. If we do not want to be entirely dependent on the US, we need our own nuclear deterrent under our own control.

We have had a thoughtful and interesting debate. This is one of those times when I wish that the public were watching. We have heard heartfelt contributions on a subject that is at the centre of what we are all here for—the security of the United Kingdom and its citizens.

5.52 pm

Mr. David S. Borrow (South Ribble) (Lab): Twelve months ago, when the Defence Committee started its first inquiry on Trident, I adopted a fairly sceptical approach. However, several issues have become clearer to me over those 12 months, principally the question of the timing of the decision. Believe me, if I thought that it was reasonable to delay the decision until after the next election, I would be voting for that tonight and I would have been urging the Select Committee to make that one of its recommendations. However, we must consider the industrial base and skills that are required. All the advice that we received from the UK military said that the process would take 17 years. Our first report questioned why the time period was 17 years rather than 14 years, which was the case at the time of the 1980 decision. We have heard a good explanation for that—although the initial design and conceptual work had been done prior to 1980, it has not yet been done at this stage.

I am surprised by the attitude of the Lib Dems. They have made it clear that they support that design and conceptual work. If they felt that they were being bounced into making a long-term decision to commit themselves to four boats between 2012 and 2014, they had the opportunity to table an amendment providing simply that they would agree to the initial design and conceptual work. I have read the amendment that most Lib Dem Members have signed, but such a provision is not in there. It seems that a lot of people are playing the “I’m a multilateralist, but I want to avoid making a decision” card.

I remember knocking on doors in the 1980s when the Labour party had a unilateralist position. I was comfortable with that, but it seemed to me that while some people were passionately in favour of that position—they would put up posters and deliver leaflets, and they wanted a Labour Government who would get rid of nuclear weapons unilaterally—many lifelong traditional Labour voters shuffled away, would not look one in the eye and ended up voting for the Social Democratic party, which was largely made up of ex-Labour people who had joined because they did not feel happy with our unilateral position, and then for the Liberals.

In 1989, Labour changed its decision at its party conference, and many of us found that difficult. However, I have fought four general elections, and won three of them, on party manifestos that promised to retain Trident and to take a multilateral approach. The Labour party’s approach is that we will get rid of nuclear weapons only through negotiations, in which we say that we will put our nuclear weapons in the pot if other nuclear states do the same. That is the policy on which all three major parties fought the 2005 election.

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It would be undemocratic if we made a decision today that made it impossible for the people of this country to elect, in three years’ time, a Government who could build a new Trident successor. If the White Paper had put forward the view that we should not replace Trident, I would have expected an honourable Government such as ours to recommend that the design work and work on the initial concept still went ahead, so that if, in three years’ time, a Government were elected who wanted to retain the nuclear deterrent, they would have the capacity to do so. If we do anything other than back the Government motion tonight, we will go against the manifesto commitment that more than 600 Members—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order.

5.56 pm

Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): It would be easy to convince ourselves in this debate that the world would be better off without nuclear weapons—we could all agree with that. We could also easily convince ourselves that we could do something more productive with £15 billion or £20 billion, but neither of those points are the issue. We have a responsibility not to decide the issue in a way that makes us feel better, but to make the decision that we think is best. I accept that that is difficult, because we are trying to develop a response to the security threats of the next 20, 30, 40 or even 50 years, which we cannot foresee. The point has been made that it is impossible to predict the world of the 2050s.

Hon. Members who spoke against the motion said that the most important threat that we face is not a nuclear power; it is climate change or world terrorism. I am sure that they are right, but who, 30 or 40 years ago, would have predicted that those would be the primary threats? The answer is very few people indeed. We have to project forwards, and ask whether we hon. Members are making similarly inaccurate predictions. Our judgments are based on educated guesswork. In some cases, it is highly educated guesswork, but it is guesswork none the less. In those circumstances, I prefer to err on the side of caution. If we do not know what threats we face, surely we must do our utmost to be ready for everything.

Even if the threats of today are those that we will face in the next 30 or 40 years, it is hard to argue that we face an increasingly safe world. It is quite the reverse. Some nations, which have already been mentioned, are developing nuclear capacity, so it is a spectacularly inappropriate time for Britain to be abandoning its nuclear deterrent. I do not accept the argument that that is not what we are discussing today; it is exactly what we are discussing. If we defer the decision, we may find that it is taken out of our hands. We cannot choose between keeping the deterrent and updating the deterrent; it is one and the same thing, because a deterrent that is out of date is no deterrent at all.

I shall briefly deal with the main arguments against the motion. The first is that we set a bad example by renewing Trident and that we weaken our hand as regards non-proliferation. I do not accept that, and I do not believe that we are in breach of our non-proliferation obligations by renewing what we already have; that is not proliferation. I do not accept that we weaken the message that we send, or that we send the wrong message.
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The wrong message to send would be a refusal to renew Trident. At this moment in history, that would send precisely the wrong message—a message of weakness when we need to project strength. It would also be a message of complete irrelevance, because I do not believe for a second that if our country gave up what amounts to 1 per cent. of the world’s stockpile of nuclear weapons, it would affect anyone’s judgment in any way.

Secondly, I do not accept that the decision is precipitate; this is the right time to make it. We should err on the side of caution. If we do not take the decision today, we could find that our manufacturing and expertise capacity has been diminished to the point where we cannot make another decision when we want to do so.

I shall vote cautiously. I will not take chances with our national security, nor will I play political games with it. I shall vote for the Government’s motion.

6 pm

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): Had I been asked to deliver this speech 35 years ago when I was a young, idealistic student, I would have taken a different view and given a different speech. There are a number of reasons why I have changed my position. My support for the new programme is not based simply on its economic benefits for the south-west defence-based industries, although understanding the complexity of the procurement process and the nature of their highly skilled work has informed my position.

As we have heard in powerful speeches from colleagues in all parties, there are a number of key issues and questions. Do we need the deterrent? What is the threat now that the cold war is over? Are there legal arguments against the ongoing programme? They are good questions. Many colleagues pressed the point about where the future threat lies. Is there a threat? I do not know, but we cannot take risks. None of us is psychic. We do not know what the threat will be in 20, 25 or 50 years’ time. We cannot work on the assumption that we will be able to get by on our stock of conventional weapons if a threat emerges at some future date. Leaving until later a decision on the go-ahead for submarines capable of launching the missiles—the decision is about giving the go-ahead for the submarine procurement process—could leave the UK facing an enemy with one arm tied behind its back.

We cannot rely on diplomacy to get us out of any future confrontation. It would not be rational to do so. Relatively recent history shows that such an option could leave our nation exposed. In the 1920s, following the war to end all wars, disarmament was the preferred option, for reasons we all understand. However, military dictators stepped in to fill the vacuum, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) described earlier, because certain western democracies were seen as vulnerable. Diplomacy failed us then, and we were not prepared. It took the Herculean efforts of armament workers in the UK who rushed to produce weapons, as well as the incredible bravery of our service personnel against enormous odds, particularly in the early years of the war, to get us to the point where victory was possible.

Delaying the decision would be disastrous on defence grounds. Abandoning the programme may be a desirable outcome for many colleagues in this place and could be welcome in other quarters—probably foreign Governments who have no nuclear weapons and no desire to build
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them. However, there is no evidence to suggest that such a course of action would encourage others to follow our lead. I can see no way in which it would give states developing nuclear weapons—North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, India or Israel—any reason to stop their programmes. Indeed, it could have the opposite effect.

In Plymouth, a city associated with the armed forces and one of the cities most heavily bombed during world war two, we understand the deterrence process. Equally, we understand the importance of the SSBN—ship submersible ballistic nuclear—programme to the economy of our city and the wider south-west, as well as to the UK’s maritime industrial base. My colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy), has already made that case well. I can but reiterate the point that the importance of a decision to continue with Trident—on what is generally seen throughout the House as the most effective delivery platform for the missiles—cannot be overstated.

What we have in Plymouth is unique and what the defence industry requires is also unique. Admittedly, our skills could be used in other fields, but only the Ministry of Defence buys submarines and wants maintenance programmes for them. In Plymouth, we have the skills. Submarines cannot be conjured out of thin air if the strategic position changes at a future date. They cannot be built in the same way as fighter planes were rushed out in the second world war.

No one can feel comfortable in a world where nuclear weapons exist, but we do not live in a secure world environment. Twenty years down the line, I certainly do not want to have to explain to a population threatened by a state with nuclear weapons that we do not have the capability to respond.

6.04 pm

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): The question before the House is very simple. We are being asked whether we want the Government to proceed with the preparation of the continuation of our nuclear deterrent in some years’ time or not. Any amendment or rejection of the motion will mean that the House has instructed the Government not to continue with the concept, work on and preparation of the submarines.

A lot of this debate has turned on the question of the timing and the Select Committee, of which I am a member, looked at the issue carefully. Professor Garwood has been mentioned, among others, as someone advocating the idea that we had space for delay. The Committee considered this and other evidence and not a single member was convinced.

The misunderstanding arises from the different ways in which the two respective powers—Britain and the US—use the submarines. We simply have four submarines; at any time, we have one at sea, one in refit, one going to operations and one spare. That is the way in which we operate. The Americans have a very large number of submarines. We took evidence from Rear Admiral Andrew Mathews, who is director general, nuclear. He made it perfectly clear that we operate in a different way. The lifetime of the submarines is shortened because we use them more intensively and rely upon using them more intensively. To get, as he put it, one from four is much more difficult than two or three from 14, which is what the Americans do.

Moreover, we can extend the life of the submarines to 25 or 30 years, but their reliability declines over the
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period. Because the Americans have that spare capacity in their much greater build, they can afford that redundancy and unreliability. We cannot, if we are to maintain our deterrent. That is why the decision needs to be taken today.

My only other comment is about the strategic context. The hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) said that the world was watching us today. The one way of making sure that the world will watch us no longer and give us no influence is to wantonly throw away the influence we have. By wantonly throwing away possession of our nuclear weapons, we will give something for nothing. I commend the speech of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) who dealt with the proliferation point extremely well. If we throw away our weapons, the world will watch us no more and will take no interest in anything that our Government have to say.

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