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26 Mar 2008 : Column 113WH—continued

By way of example, I cite the attitude that we had towards Russia when it was a totalitarian Soviet state, and that we had when it ceased to be one. As soon as the dictatorial and aggressive element went out of the Russian political system—perhaps temporarily but hopefully permanently, despite recent adverse indications—we straight away stopped worrying about the Russian nuclear arsenal, except in one respect. Because we were no longer afraid that the Kremlin might use that arsenal aggressively, we began to worry instead that remnants or elements of that arsenal, including individual nuclear devices, would leach out and into the hands of other groups and regimes that would not hesitate to use such weapons aggressively if they could get their hands on them. So what matters is not the nature of the weapons themselves, but the nature of the regimes or groups that control
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them. It is perfectly acceptable for democracies to have these weapons while denying dictatorships the same right.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): I also want to tease out the hon. Gentleman’s logic a bit further, because I presume that he will now go on to make the justification for Aldermaston and the nuclear weapons systems as a deterrent. However, if the democracy of the UK can have them but the mad dictator General Galtieri could not, can he explain why the deterrent factor did not work regarding the invasion of the Falklands?

Dr. Lewis: I am absolutely delighted to explain that point to the hon. Gentleman in the following terms; indeed, if he would like to investigate them in more detail, they are fully covered in an essay that I distributed at the time of the debate on Trident last year. I am only sorry that he did not read it on that occasion; had he done so, he would not have had to ask me this question. The answer is that nuclear weapons deter a certain kind of threat—they deter countries from menacing us with weapons of mass destruction. They may deter some countries from menacing us in other ways, too, but they cannot be relied upon to do so. There was never the slightest possibility—and General Galtieri knew it—that we would use nuclear weapons in response to such a level of aggression as the invasion of the Falklands.

However, that is not to say that, just because nuclear weapons could not deter a conventional invasion of the Falklands, they serve no purpose. What the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie) should ask himself is this. Supposing that we had had no nuclear weapons and that General Galtieri had had even a small number of them, would we then have dared to respond conventionally to his conventional invasion of the Falklands? The answer to that question is almost certainly not.

Let us return, however, to the main subject of the debate, which is Aldermaston. I wanted to start off by addressing the question put squarely by the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife, and tell him what he wanted to discover about Conservative party policy. I think that I have done that in no uncertain terms.

Therefore, let me say belatedly, Mr. Jones, what a pleasure it is to take part in this debate under your chairmanship. The last time that I served in Parliament under your chairmanship was on that memorable Welsh Affairs Select Committee from 1997 to 2001. You were a superb Chairman of that body, and I am sure that you will go on to establish an even more outstanding reputation as a Chairman on the Speaker’s panel, as you evidently are intent on doing.

It is quite extraordinary that we should have embarked on the winding-up speeches in a debate on the future of nuclear weapons with something like 40 minutes still left to run, in a debate that was due to last one and a half hours. One could never have envisaged that happening in the past, and I must say that the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) made a gallant attempt to explain this in advance—one might call it a sort of pre-emptive strike—by referring to the visit of President Sarkozy this afternoon. Dare I add that the visit of Madame Sarkozy this afternoon must be a huge draw away from Westminster Hall?

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However, I think that the reality of the lack of interest in this debate on the part of the vast majority of Members lies somewhere else. It is that most people know that this argument is over. They know that the Labour party is not going to do what the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), one of its most prominent Back Benchers and a former shadow Foreign Secretary, said it would not do: it is not going to revisit the site of “the suicide”. What he was referring to, as we all know, was

That is the manifesto of 1983, when the Labour party, under the leadership of Michael Foot, committed itself to getting rid of all our nuclear weapons while other countries continued to possess them. That commitment was a crucial factor in a landslide defeat for Labour in 1983, which was repeated in 1987.

The “suicide” to which the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton referred in the debate last year about nuclear weapons was the electoral suicide of the Labour party, and the Labour party is not going back there. The reason why it is not going back there is the figure that I quoted earlier, which has been so astonishingly consistent for so long in opinion poll after opinion poll, showing that two thirds of the British people think that it would be “suicide” to give up nuclear weapons while other countries continue to possess them.

Jeremy Corbyn: Since the hon. Gentleman is speaking for the Conservative party, perhaps I can bring him round to what its views might be on the non-proliferation treaty and the review conference coming up in 2010, because we are, after all, committed to long-term nuclear disarmament by our being a signatory to that treaty. All Governments have claimed adherence to that treaty.

Dr. Lewis: The hon. Gentleman and I ought to consider going on the stage as a professional double act, because he seamlessly carries me forward in my argument. He has referred to article 6 of the non-proliferation treaty, which I shall now read out, as I do in all debates on this issue. It states:

The last part about

is always left out when CND supporters quote article 6, as it means worldwide conventional disarmament. Article 6 requires us to do three things, one of which is to end the nuclear arms race at an early date. Britain has never been involved in the nuclear arms race, and nor have France or China. Each of those three of the five recognised nuclear powers in the non-proliferation treaty regime has followed a policy of minimum strategic nuclear deterrence, which means that we are content to have a tiny proportion of nuclear devices, in comparison with the superpowers, because we know that having even that small number is enough for strategic nuclear deterrence purposes. Russia and the United States were involved in the nuclear arms race, not the UK.

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Article 6 also requires us to try to negotiate a treaty for worldwide nuclear disarmament and for worldwide conventional disarmament. Nothing in the article requires us to give up all our nuclear weapons before other countries do the same or before achieving a world Government to prevent an outbreak of conventional war on a grand scale—and by God, it was on a grand scale before nuclear weapons came along. Many more people were killed by conventional weapons in world wars one and two than died in Japan in August 1945. I venture to suggest, although I shall never be able to prove it, that many more would have been killed in “world war three” by conventional weapons or other countries’ nuclear weapons if the good people of Aldermaston, as well as the scientists, the people in the Royal Navy and the people in the Royal Air Force before them who constitute the strategic nuclear deterrent of the United Kingdom had not done their work so well. I appreciate the opportunity that the hon. Member for Islington, North has given me to pay tribute to the real peacekeepers of the cold war and, I trust, the post-cold war period—the men and women of Aldermaston and of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force before them.

I shall conclude soon, but first I shall address a few of the points that the hon. Gentleman made. He talked about the cost of Aldermaston. I refer him to a written answer that I received in December 2006 when I asked the Secretary of State for Defence

The answer was that they had ranged between

Of course, 3 per cent. or 5.5 per cent. of the annual defence budget is a large sum of money, but as a proportion of the defence budget, it is small. If there is a strategic justification for a weapons system, what more justification can one have than that it will deter others from using such a weapons system against one? Then, it is a small price to pay.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) on his excellent speech and the way in which he focused on the fundamental point about the unpredictability of conflict. He was absolutely right to pick on the conflicts that he mentioned: super-sensitive Israel was taken by surprise in 1973, and we were taken by surprise by the invasion of the Falklands in 1982. He was right to say that everyone was taken by surprise in 1990 when Saddam attacked Kuwait. He could also have mentioned that the world’s only superpower was taken by surprise by 9/11 in 2001. I could cite examples from further back in history to show that when warfare breaks out, more often than not, it has not been predicted. It is a big mistake to assume that because weapons can do terrible things, the good guys should get rid of them regardless of what the bad guys do.

Finally, I shall address the Liberal Democrat contribution. Of course, CND says little about unilateralism these days, and tries to blur it in a general point about nuclear disarmament; it has always done that. I remember Bruce Kent arguing that he was both a unilateralist and a multilateralist, but one cannot be both. Either we keep nuclear weapons as long as other countries have them, or we say that we are going to get rid of them
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whether other countries have them or not. We cannot marry the two, and I know on which side of the argument my party and I stand on this life and death issue.

3.36 pm

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): Thank you, for presiding over our debate, Mr. Jones.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing the debate, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on this issue. He will be aware that the atomic weapons establishment is not only about Aldermaston and Burghfield, but that important work is also conducted at the nearby Blacknest facility. Many people are unaware of the invaluable contribution that Blacknest makes to the verification of nuclear test bans in support of the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty organisation.

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the contribution that AWE’s work force, suppliers and partners have made to its success over nearly 60 years of operation. It is a world-class centre of scientific and engineering excellence, staffed and supported by individuals who are dedicated to the delivery of vital outputs in a safe, secure and efficient manner.

Mr. Benyon: Just down the road from AWE, on an industrial estate in the town of Thatcham, is a centre of excellence that is also doing wonderful work to police the nuclear test ban treaty. The International Seismological Centre is close to Aldermaston, and I ask the Minister to add it to Blacknest while he is showing his appreciation for the work done there.

Mr. Ainsworth: I was not aware that there was a separate facility doing the seismological work; I thought that it was done at Blacknest. The hon. Gentleman obviously has much more local knowledge than me, so I bow to him in that regard.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North will be aware of the recent speculation about the safety arrangements at AWE, and I assure him that safety is of paramount importance at all times. The AWE is subject to rigorous safety regulation and licensing by the nuclear installations inspectorate, and the Ministry of Defence has its own internal defence nuclear safety regulator. The AWE has an excellent safety record, which is underpinned by clear safety assurance arrangements within a highly regulated environment.

My hon. Friend and other hon. Members talked about the convoys, and all kinds of lurid stories have been told about the possibility of accidents and so on. However, my hon. Friend knows, and we must make it clear that, first, the convoys are essential; secondly, they are kept to a minimum and, thirdly, there is a separation of material to ensure that no armed material is moved. The risk of an explosion would thus be non-existent. The encasement of the material is such that it would take an awful impact to do any damage at all.

I am more than happy to consider outside verification of safety procedures, as the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) suggested, although he recognised that a lot of risks are involved. The convoys have been deliberately targeted and are the subject of ongoing attack. I will do nothing that reduces the safety of the convoys. Their security must be taken into account along with any desire for an additional layer of inspection.

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Jeremy Corbyn: The point made by the Liberal Democrat spokesman and me is that there ought to be an independent inspection following any incident. We are all naturally suspicious of internal investigations in any field where the results remain internal. External independent examination is simply a matter of good practice. The Minister is aware that there have been incidents and safety concerns. None of us wants accidents or disasters, but we want some degree of transparency and independence in inspection.

Mr. Ainsworth: There have been incidents. My hon. Friend said that there have been 67, so the idea that this all takes place in secret and nobody can find out about it is put down by his knowledge that there have been 67 incidents. I would have thought that fact shows that a rigorous reporting regime is maintained to ensure that every single incident, no matter how minor, is reported and logged and the information made available through parliamentary procedures. It therefore finds its way into the public domain.

As I said, I would not be unhappy in principle to see outside verification. I accept what my hon. Friend says about the unease with internal investigative procedures. However, that must be balanced against the fact that convoys have been deliberately and consistently targeted over a period of time. The security of the convoys, the routes that they take, the time that they leave and the methods that they use are essential to their safety. That must be put on the other side of the balance.

The AWE takes its responsibilities to the environment seriously. It works closely with the Environment Agency, which monitors its environmental operations. More widely, AWE is committed to implementing measures that will make a real difference in a range of areas, such as energy efficiency, water usage, recycling and habitat protection.

In the strategic defence review of 1998, the Government made a clear commitment to maintaining the effectiveness and safety of the nuclear deterrent. That included making the necessary investment in facilities at AWE. In 2006, we outlined our commitment to continue the programme of investment at AWE to ensure that we maintain the existing warhead for as long as necessary and to enable us to develop a replacement warhead if that is required. That important investment will continue into the next decade and is expected, at its peak, to be the equivalent of about 3 per cent. of the current defence budget.

In compliance with the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty, we are committed to maintaining the existing Trident warhead stockpile safely and effectively throughout its intended in-service life without recourse to nuclear testing. That commitment is supported by replacement facilities such as those necessary for handling high explosives, enriched uranium and non-nuclear warhead components. My hon. Friend complains about some of the expenditure at AWE, but in part it is used towards our commitments under the nuclear test ban treaty.

Notwithstanding its pivotal role, AWE is, as my hon. Friend is aware, one organisation among the many that contribute to maintaining the UK’s nuclear deterrent. Our four Vanguard class submarines maintain the UK’s posture of continuous at-sea deterrence with one submarine armed and on continuous patrol at all times.

I assure my hon. Friend that the Government recognise the democratic right of individuals to participate in lawful and peaceful protest. Such activities have taken
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place at AWE and other defence establishments for many years, and I have no doubt that they will continue—possibly with his participation—in the years to come. However, any protester action that could compromise the safety or security of our establishments will always necessarily be dealt with appropriately.

On Easter Monday, approximately 1,400 protesters assembled and marched around the perimeter fence at AWE Aldermaston.

Jeremy Corbyn: There were 5,000.

Mr. Ainsworth: That is arguable. There were no reported offences and no arrests were made, although two people were arrested the previous day for breaching the establishment byelaws. The policing was a joint operation and an effective job was done. The protesters were allowed to protest in a peaceful and safe manner and operations at AWE were not impeded. I echo the acknowledgement of Thames Valley police in respect of the co-operation that they received from the organisers of the protest in maintaining a peaceful and lawful demonstration.

Jeremy Corbyn: There was good co-operation between Thames Valley police and the organisers. The demonstration went extremely well, but I dispute the numbers. There were 5,000 tickets sold for coaches to the protest and, as far as I am aware, they were pretty much full. The figure of 1,400 shows the usual optimism of the police. However, the day passed off extremely well and the protest was very effective.

Mr. Ainsworth: I have never known an occasion when the organisers of a demonstration and the police have agreed on the number of people who turned out. I do not think that will change in the future.

I assure my hon. Friend that we remain committed to working towards a safer world in which there is no need for nuclear weapons. However, we must ensure that we protect ourselves and future generations appropriately and effectively against possible future nuclear threats. The Government’s commitment to meeting our obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty has been reiterated many times, most recently by the Prime Minister when, last week, he announced the publication of the Government’s national security strategy:

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