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26 Mar 2008 : Column 107WH—continued

Mr. Benyon: I link the demonstrations at Greenham Common with what took place at Aldermaston because they often took place on the same day, so it is relevant. However, I maintain that they bore no relation to the time scale of SS20 missile dismantling and the reduction of the threat from the Soviet Union. In fact, if anything, they delayed it because it gave some comfort to the Soviet leadership that there were people in the west who wanted us to disarm unilaterally. The hon. Member for Islington, North can turn to no better adviser on the subject than Nye Bevan, who said, “Do not send me
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naked into the negotiating chamber.” That is the best condemnation of the unilateralist approach that I could ever quote.

Despite the billions of pounds that we funnel into intelligence services and organisations throughout the world, most of the wars that have taken place since 1945 have caught us on the hop and taken us entirely by surprise. They include Yom Kippur, the six-day war—arguably—and certainly the invasion of the Falklands, as well as the invasion of Kuwait and a number of other conflicts in which both sides used large amounts of resources and suffered large numbers of casualties, with appalling consequences.

Those conflicts caught our intelligence organisations completely unaware, and I have no faith that our intelligence services can give us a guarantee that they now have greater ability to foresee aggression by rogue states or groups of rogue states. I would love to live in a world where Aldermaston could be decommissioned because there was no conceivable threat, but we must remember that the time scale for the maintenance of our nuclear deterrent requires us to start developing platforms such as the submarine fleet, which will come into service in 2022 and remain in service until 2050, and that is the period during which we will have to second-guess events.

I have spoken about Greenham Common. I would like to see Aldermaston decommissioned and real jobs replace the growing number of posts that are needed to maintain our nuclear deterrent. However, we must ask ourselves whether we want to second-guess the state of the world in several decades’ time. Can we be sure of our relationships with any other country over that time? Have those who supported CND in the 1980s not learned that unilateralism did not work then and that it will not work now or in the future?

On the point that the hon. Member for Islington, North made about the non-proliferation treaty, I respond that we are going in the right direction. We are perhaps not going as fast as any of us would like, but we will see the number of missile warheads reduced from 200 to 160. I grant that it is still a devastating amount of ordnance, but we are certainly going in the right direction. I have looked as closely at the issue as I can as a layman—I have received advice from the House of Commons Library, the Department and a host of organisations—and I believe that we are very much within the terms of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. I look with interest to see how the Government will approach the next round of talks on it.

I finish by paying great tribute to the people who have worked at Aldermaston over the past 50 years. They have done a difficult job in surroundings that are not at all glamorous. The dedication that they have shown has gone unthanked in many ways, so I was delighted when, at my behest, the previous Prime Minister, Tony Blair, paid tribute to their work in the House. The future of Aldermaston must be linked to our long-term appreciation of the threats faced by Britain and the world. Given that those threats are so uncertain, the excellent work that continues to be done quietly in that part of west Berkshire will remain a beacon for the rest of the world.

3.3 pm

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on the excellent prosecution of his
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case. I also thank the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) for his extensive inside knowledge of Aldermaston.

We must commend and congratulate the peace campaigners on the past 50 years of protest at Aldermaston. Without doubt, they managed to put the nuclear issue at the centre of political debate in the past five decades. They had their first protest meeting in London in February 1958 and their first march at Aldermaston that Easter. They managed to ensure that the whole world sat up and listened to the call for nuclear disarmament, which, in those days, meant unilateral nuclear disarmament. They attracted people from across the political spectrum, including Quakers, church leaders, trade unionists, members of the Labour party and some members of the Liberal party.

That changed the atmosphere in the world, and it changed the debate about nuclear disarmament and the need for nuclear weapons. It was not so long before that the bomb had been dropped on Nagasaki, in Japan, so that was fresh in many people’s minds and fear about the threat of nuclear weapons gripped the world. It is therefore important to recognise that people must be allowed to continue to protest at establishments such as Aldermaston. They must have their free speech protected and their right to protest maintained, and any thought that those rights should be restricted in any way should be sent packing.

As I have said, the debate at that time was all about unilateral nuclear disarmament. In the 1980s, debates split my party, as it was then, and the alliance between those who were in favour of multilateral disarmament and those who were in favour of unilateral disarmament. The debate has moved on considerably since then and seems to be between those who are in favour of putting nuclear disarmament on the agenda and those who would rather brush it under the carpet. That is where the divide seems to be now.

This week, I had a look at the CND website and many of its publications, and the word “unilateral” does not appear that often these days. The debate now is about trying to get disarmament up the agenda and to build as broad a consensus as possible. That is where the hon. Member for Islington, North and my party have common cause. We believe that nuclear disarmament should be at the top of the agenda, particularly leading up to the 2010 talks. In that respect, I have been particularly impressed by Kate Hudson of CND, who takes an inclusive approach to nuclear disarmament. She includes as many people as possible in the debate, in contrast to the exclusive debates of the 1980s, when we had the unilateral tactic, rather than the strategy of trying to achieve disarmament.

The 2010 talks are coming up very soon, and the preparatory talks are being organised. Those talks will give us an important opportunity to consider the work that goes on at Aldermaston. We had quite a successful round of nuclear non-proliferation talks in 2000, and I commend the excellent work that Robin Cook did in that respect. However, 2005 was considered a major failure, and I hope that we grasp the opportunity that 2010 presents to run down nuclear weapons over time.

Last week, the Prime Minister’s security statement included a large section on nuclear disarmament, and
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he had some fine words to say about the issue. He called for the “control and reduction” of nuclear weapons and talked about

He also said that we in Britain

Those are great, fine words, but actions speak louder than words. Last year’s decision to renew Trident was premature, because we all know that it did not need to be made until 2014, when the main gate comes. That is all tied in with Aldermaston, because the new investment there is connected to the renewal of the nuclear deterrent. Obviously, we need to upgrade the facilities at Aldermaston, if we are to have an effective facility there, but there is no doubt that extra investment will tide us well now that we have decided to renew Trident.

At this point, I want to make the Liberal Democrat position clear. We are in favour of nuclear weapons and a nuclear deterrent, but we want to be in a position to negotiate those weapons away over time and, indeed, to be in the best possible position to negotiate them away in time. We regard them as a necessary evil at present, but we should negotiate them away over time. We accept that Aldermaston is part and parcel of the nuclear weapons system, and transportation to Coulport is something that we must accept. However, many questions must be asked about the transportation of the warheads to Coulport and the naval base on the Clyde, and I hope that the Minister will address some of the issues raised by the hon. Member for Islington, North.

It is vital to give everyone in this country absolute confidence that safety is the paramount concern. We need to make sure that the proper systems are in place, and I hope that the Minister will consider some form of independent external assessment for the regime. Obviously, security considerations need to be attended to so that no information can leak about when warheads are to be transported to Coulport, but I am sure that a system could be devised to give people such as the hon. Member for Islington, North and myself the confidence that safety is paramount.

The hon. Member for Islington, North raised the question of the amount of investment going into Aldermaston. It amounts to considerable sums—the figure of £5 billion has been mentioned. That is going on the new ORION laser, which replaces the HELEN laser and the hydrodynamic tester. I was in the fortunate position last year of being able to visit Aldermaston with the Select Committee on Defence. It was a very informative visit, in which top-class researchers showed us around the facilities. It did not mean an awful lot to me as a biologist. It seemed like an awful lot of expensive technical equipment in big caverns. However, there was in reality a lot happening on the site, and it attracts many top-class scientists. Part of the battle is making sure that Aldermaston, which is an essential part of the nuclear weapons system, is not deskilled, and that we attract the brightest and best to that facility, especially when we are, unfortunately, developing civil nuclear facilities in power stations. There will be huge competition for such scientists, and we need to ensure that proper investment is made in the establishment, so that safety standards are maintained and there is absolute confidence in the system.

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I want to mention the sell-off of the British Nuclear Fuels Ltd part of AWE plc. That relates to the partnership between BNFL, Serco and Lockheed Martin. I understand that Serco, which is part of the Babcock Group, in which I have a constituency interest, and Lockheed Martin have been excluded from buying the BNFL part of the partnership. Is that so? Why was it necessary to exclude a well established British company from obtaining a greater stake in Aldermaston?

What plans do the Government have for a new warhead? I have seen written answers that state categorically that there are no plans for a new warhead, but the new facilities at Aldermaston will come in handy when a new nuclear warhead is developed. I want the Minister to explain a bit more about the process of extending the life of the current warheads, whether there are any problems in doing that, and what consideration has been given to any potential new warhead. Will we go down the route of having tactical rather than strategic weapons, which would be a retrograde step because they are more likely to be used?

We accept that Aldermaston is part and parcel of a nuclear deterrent system. I should like to see the day when the facility is run down, because we no longer have nuclear weapons. However, as long as we have them, it is part of the system.

I referred earlier to the premature decision on renewing Trident submarines, and the fact that the main gate decision did not need to be made until about 2012 or 2014. I understand the issues.

Mr. Benyon: I note that the hon. Gentleman has said that we do not need to take the decision until 2014. I do not want to revisit the debate of a year ago, but is he saying that the Navy and everyone who advises on the replacement of those submarines are wrong, and that the Liberal Democrats somehow know better about when we need to start worrying about replacement submarines for the Trident fleet?

Willie Rennie: As I have said, I am a simple biologist and now a simple politician, but it is clear—I am using Government facts—that the main gate decision will be made in 2012-14. That is what the industrialists have told us. To make all the decisions last year was completely unnecessary. We could even have phased the decisions, rather than committing this country to a new round of nuclear weapons and an upgrade of the nuclear submarines, which is not required until 2012-14. The facts clearly show that. It is a question of the point at which decisions are made—whether they are all made now, or whether some can be made later. I am sure that the Minister accepts that the main gate decision will be made in 2012-14.

I raised the premature decision, because it has a significant effect on the 2010 non-proliferation treaty talks. If we go to those talks already committed to a new submarine and having invested considerable sums in Aldermaston, we shall not have much credibility in the talks. By rushing the decision last year, we showed that we do not have much regard for nuclear disarmament. The hon. Member for Newbury said earlier that in an unpredictable world we do not know what is round the corner. The logical conclusion from that is that we must
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always have nuclear weapons, because we can never predict the future. In that case, the Conservative position is Trident for ever. We shall always have nuclear weapons, if we take the view that we can never protect the future.

It is a very sad state of affairs if that is the Conservative party’s position. It is certainly the Labour Government’s position. The Government also claim that they cannot predict the future, so therefore we shall always have a requirement for nuclear weapons. Thus the Prime Minister’s powerful words last week about ridding the world of nuclear weapons are rather hollow. I cannot see a day, if those two parties have their way, when we will have no nuclear weapons in this country, because we shall be unable to predict the future. That is extremely sad. It will be very difficult to go to the NPT talks when we have already made a commitment to spend an extra £4 billion on replacing the nuclear submarines, seven years prematurely.

It is bizarre that leading American politicians lead the way in the debate now, such as former Democrat Senator Sam Nunn, who said recently:

Even Republicans are on board as well. Senator Richard Lugar said:

and Republican Senator Pete Domenici said:

Those people recognise that the issue should be at the top of the agenda. If we are to get to the stage where we no longer need Aldermaston, we shall have to pay attention to those guys in America and put the issue at the top of the political agenda rather than hiding it away in the Prime Minister’s statement on security last week. When was the last time the Prime Minister made a keynote speech on nuclear disarmament? He may have something up his sleeve, but I doubt it. I should like the Minister to respond to my concern and that of my party that the Government do not really regard nuclear disarmament as a top priority. I believe that they should change their mind very quickly.

3.19 pm

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): I shall directly address the point made by the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie), about the long-term future. When he asks of the Conservative party, “Will we always have nuclear weapons?”, the answer is, “Yes, as long as other countries have nuclear weapons too”. That is not a controversial viewpoint; that is the key point about unilateral nuclear disarmament that has resonated throughout the debate for the last half-century.

Twenty-five years ago, when I was working professionally in this sector and was arguing the case both for the replacement of Polaris by Trident and for the deployment of Cruise missiles at Greenham Common and Molesworth, I commissioned a series of opinion polls that asked that
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very question: “Do you think that Britain should continue to possess nuclear weapons as long as other countries have them?” The answer that came in time and again throughout the 1980s, at the height of the second cold war, was as follows: two thirds of people asked said, “Yes, we should continue to have the nuclear deterrent as long as other countries have nuclear weapons”; about one quarter said, “No”; and usually less than 10 per cent. of those asked—it was usually a single figure number—were undecided, because it is indeed a very polarising issue.

A couple of years ago, I asked the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid), the then Secretary of State for Defence, what polling evidence the Government had on such questions. The interesting written answer came back, on 3 November 2005, that the Government had last conducted a poll a few years earlier, in December 2003, and that

So we can see a pattern continuing throughout the decades showing that about two thirds of the British people think that, as long as other countries have nuclear weapons, we should continue to possess them, and I believe that they are absolutely right to think that.

Jeremy Corbyn: I just want to tease out the hon. Gentleman’s logic on this issue. Does he think that all countries everywhere in the world should have nuclear weapons to protect themselves from all the other people that may have nuclear weapons at some point in the future, and does he think that we should conduct an opinion poll to assess the popularity of arming the whole world with nuclear weapons?

Dr. Lewis: I really thank the hon. Gentleman for entering into the spirit of the occasion. He and I have debated these points many times, so my response now will not come as anything of a surprise to him. I do not accept that there is an equality between stable democracies that have certain weapons systems, and lunatic dictatorships, which should not have them. I believe that there is no inconsistency in saying that it is perfectly acceptable for a democracy to be armed with a certain weapons system and a lunatic dictatorship to be denied it. I do not accept that there is an equality between dictatorships and democracies.

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