Select Committee on Defence Written Evidence

Joint memorandum from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, British American Security Information Council and Greenpeace


  1.  We have shared a great deal of time with the Committee over the last few months, witnessing much of the oral evidence and reading the written evidence that the Committee has received. In a number of cases we have given evidence ourselves. Whatever the Committee's final report concludes, and regardless of the outcome of the substantive debate, we should like to congratulate you on the manner in which you have conducted this Inquiry in the most difficult circumstances.

  2.  In this spirit, we would like to try and help the process, in its final stages, by offering some thoughts mainly around issues that we consider to be unanswered or that have arisen since the relevant Committee sessions.

The consultation process

  3.  You have made it clear on several occasions that you do not see the Defence Committee's work as a substitute for the public consultation offered by the Government. We suspect (given the amount of time that you have all spent on this) that you will have some clear idea of just what scale and style of consultation would really have been appropriate. We do hope that your final report will re-emphasise that you have not been conducting the Government's consultation for them. This point has taken on a very contemporary feel, in the light of the High Court judgment with regard to nuclear power. You may know that at least one organisation is currently waiting Leading Counsel's Advice in relation to the consultation on the Trident replacement White Paper.


  4.  We do not need to emphasise the lack of clarity from the MoD so far as both the historic costs and forecast costs of a replacement are concerned. The exchange between the Committee's Chairman and the Secretary of State in the final session was an astonishingly frank admission that previous costs had been seriously understated. You will appreciate the obvious point (and there are many others) that without a further explanation as to how and why these costs were understated we can have little confidence that the problem is not ongoing. (We tried for several days to get the MoD to clarify the period covered by "previous administrations" but still have no answer.)

  5.  As a further illustration of this difficulty may we point out that the White Paper states page 29: 6,7 "The disposal of the Vanguard submarines is still some way off and it is therefore too early to estimate the possible decommissioning costs", and yet there are some parliamentary answers and evidence elsewhere that suggest such costs have been taken into account. (This has an uncanny similarity to the High Court's particular concern that disposal of nuclear waste had not been properly addressed in the Government's energy review.)

  6.  We also believe that the Secretary of State's assertion, that all the procurement costs of new platforms and weapons will not come from the MoD budget, begs as many questions as it answers.

  7.  Indeed, at this stage we hope that you would agree that Parliament and the public would have been better served if the Committee had been able to restrict itself to the genuine defence issues involved rather than having to cover a lot of other territory. It is for this reason that we have written to the Rt Hon Edward Leigh MP suggesting that the National Audit Office should be asked to conduct an Inquiry into the true costs of British nuclear weapons at least from the commencement of Trident procurement onwards. There would also be a good case for the Treasury Committee to examine all the estimates and forecasts arising from the White Paper. (We would be happy for the Committee to see our letter to Mr Leigh if he is agreeable.)

  8.  Before we leave the question of costs it must have occurred to the Committee that this debate would have been clearer if it had started after both the outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review is known in the summer, and the Naval Base Review. We do wonder to what extent the MoD and, indeed, BAE Systems are trying to prejudice some elements of that exercise.

  9.  The very recent comments by Sir Jonathon Band, First Sea Lord, are clearly addressed to the Comprehensive Spending Review and it is interesting that Sir Jonathon does not have three or four new SSBNs on his wish list as well as the two carriers. Maybe this is because he has absorbed Mr Browne's promise that the SSBNs will not come from the MoD budget. But on the other hand he may be recognising that they way things are looking for the next 20 or 30 years he is not going to get both.

The Foreign Affairs Committee

  10.  During the Committee's last session with the Secretary of State, the Chairman suggested that perhaps the entire replacement should be charged to the Foreign Office. We appreciate Mr Arbuthnot's wit, but "many a true word...". It is deplorable that the Foreign Affairs Committee has not visited this area since the publication of the White Paper and has effectively left the Defence Committee to deal with all the complexities arising from the evidence of Professor Sands QC and his think tank adversaries. If there was more time for consultation then a thorough exploration of international diplomacy, the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), international law covering weapons of mass destruction and all related matters could have been dealt with.

New warhead

  11.  At the end of the Committee's last session, Mr Browne stated that he did not have "a mature view" as to whether a new warhead would be consistent with obligations under the NPT. Although it is true that the matter is speculative, the Committee must understand the implications since the Chairman would not ask irrelevant questions.

Impact on non-proliferation

  12.  Over and beyond the technical and academic debate there is the crucially important issue as to how this decision by the British Government will affect the intentions and conduct of other nuclear or potentially nuclear states. This enters the world of the highest diplomacy with its own key players and language and it would be naive not to understand that the White Paper was preceded by an informal diplomatic offensive in various quarters. But there is some evidence of serious concern and we offer you in particular a transcript of an interview conducted by the BBC with Ambassador Abdul Minty of South Africa (which unilaterally decommissioned its nuclear weapons capacity). We are hoping that Ambassador Minty will visit the UK in the next few weeks and make himself available for further discussion.

Skills and technology base

  13.  On 8 February the Government published its response to the Committee's third report. Much of the Government's response is simply to reiterate previous evidence. It does not offer any meaningful suggestions as to what the future cost of SSNs will be without SSBNs contributing to the "22 months drumbeat" of production. The Committee made it clear that there should be an agreed contract price for the two Astute Class submarines already under construction but the MoD have simply responded "negotiations on prices for Astute Class submarines hulls 2 and 3 are concluding and will be subject to formal approval by the MoD and BAES". If such an announcement really is imminent, all the more reason for no further decisions to be taken until this crucial information is known and digested. In response to the concerns that the Committee expressed in relation to the Atomic Weapons Establishment and the MoD, clarifying what additional investment is intended, there is simply further repetition of existing information and the suggestion that the investment for the forthcoming year (commencing April) "will be determined over the next year, following this year's Comprehensive Spending Review". We consider this to be another very good reason for pausing before plunging in any further.

  14.  We are sure that the Committee will have noticed that Professor Garwin's views reflect widespread opinion in the nuclear defence community that the decision that the Government is pressing for now is premature.

  15.  Reading the questions from the Committee, as well as the evidence, and noting the views of some directly interested parties from the trade unions and geographical communities that are affected, we feel that the most genuine and strongly held support for the Government's position arises from the view that a particular British skill base and the town of Barrow in Furness are likely to "die" unless there is a commitment to new SSBNs almost immediately.

  16.  We are sure that the Committee will bear in mind the current standing of BAE Systems in public perceptions. While not all the criticism may be justified we believe that the public will be deeply disturbed when they make the connection. We have been surprised that so many members of the House had not understood that the main contract for these boats was intended to go to the same company that has sustained so much unfortunate publicity of late.

  17.  Since there has been such genuine concern for the future of Barrow we are surprised that the White Paper makes no binding commitment to procurement within the UK and it will be a dreadful irony if misguided parliamentary votes perceived as a commitment to Barrow eventually result in a UK based construction plan that provides insufficient work to satisfy Barrow or in the purchase of boats from Connecticut.

Alternative economic development at Barrow

  18.  It may also be the case that amongst all the formidable and well-researched information offered to the Committee, some very simple truths have not been sufficiently stressed. The "save Barrow by SSBNs" argument cannot be a long-term strategy for an isolated town that already suffers the comparative deprivation and poverty that it does. 3,500 jobs (and still declining) do not sustain a community of this size. In this particular case it may well be that Members of Parliament with their constituency knowledge can see things more clearly than the industry experts. Does anyone think it would be of general assistance in attracting major new manufacturing or service industries to their own area if this investment had to be located in the vicinity of a nuclear installation building submarines for launching nuclear weapons. The security measures, the secrecy, the health hazards (real or imagined) and the labour market conditions (comparatively high remuneration within an area of high unemployment) make the prospect highly unlikely.

  19.  Alongside enquiries by the Public Accounts Committee, Treasury Committee, Foreign Affairs Committee and further work by your own committee, it would be a tremendous contribution if the Trade and Industry Committee were to investigate the particular argument about jobs and skills. Some serious examination of the studies by Arms Conversion experts and others, and the opportunities that exist for R&D and manufacturing in the renewable energy sector in areas suffering a decline in heavy steel fabrication, are long overdue. It is not difficult to calculate that the MoD's highest estimate of the jobs dependent on Trident replacement, divided by Government's lowest figure for the total cost, indicates that as a job preservation scheme this is coming out at over £2 million per job. With that sort of money on offer, would any Member of Parliament opt to have it spent on an industry whose indefinite continuation would be beyond doubt a fundamental breach of the commitments to multilateral nuclear disarmament, given by every British government for decades.

  20.  In conclusion, we hope that the Committee will reaffirm its previous view that a decision at this time is premature. The Government must prolong the period of consultation for sufficient time to resolve the many matters that the Committee itself has pursued.

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