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UK Military Basing Review

12.30 am

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): A happy St David’s day to you, Mr Benton. It may be worth noting at the start of the debate that Sky Television is reporting the details of military job losses. No written statement is in the Library, so Members of Parliament are only able to learn of those circumstances by watching the media. No doubt the Ministry of Defence and its officials will try to rectify that as a priority.

Like other Departments, the MOD is going through significant spending cuts and, with an outline of the main structural changes to the armed forces and their equipment in the strategic defence and security review, consideration is now being given to what that means for military basing. One major change in future years will see the return of UK service personnel from Germany. With a head count reduction in the Royal Air Force, as well as in its equipment, there will be fewer RAF operating stations. Changes are also in the pipeline for the Royal Navy, which will have a considerable impact on the three services and on the communities where they have been based, often for many decades.

With the most defence-dependent constituency in the UK, I have more reason than most MPs to watch developments closely, and the experience has not been a happy one. The MOD has already announced the closure of RAF Kinloss, with devastating local consequences in Moray, and the sword of Damocles is hanging over neighbouring RAF Lossiemouth. On the day of the SDSR in October, the Defence Secretary told me personally that the decision on RAF Lossiemouth would be taken before Christmas—Christmas 2010. Then, in November, he told me—again, personally—that the military recommendations would be made by the end of February, with a political decision within weeks. As we now know, that has not happened, and a decision and announcement have been delayed until the summer. Frankly, that is no way to run a military basing review, and no way to treat service families and the communities in which they live. The consequences of that dithering and delay has been economic stagnation and uncertainty. It is costing jobs and livelihoods, as well as causing unnecessary economic damage and undermining business confidence.

When the announcement to close RAF Kinloss was made in October, it came as a bolt out of the blue. The MOD decided at a stroke to cancel the new generation of Nimrod maritime reconnaissance aircraft, and with it, its home base at RAF Kinloss. Nearly £4 billion of taxpayer investment was binned and the planes have been cut up for landfill. Now, both the Republic of Ireland and Norway have a greater dedicated fixed-wing maritime patrol capability than the UK, and the UK is without a dedicated ISTAR combat platform to perform vital intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance tasks. Imagine if there were suddenly geostrategic developments, let us say, in northern Africa. Imagine if it was vital to operate long-range flights, to sit off the coast for 8 hours and to monitor all nature of electromagnetic spectrum, while having the ability to image the coast. I guess we will never know how many lives that could have saved, or which operations we could have supported in, for example, Libya, because

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the UK decided to scrap Nimrod while spending up to £100 billion keeping Trident—a weapon system that can never be used.

Meanwhile, back in the most defence-dependent part of the country, local authorities and agencies have had to deal with the consequences of closing RAF Kinloss without any material support whatever from the UK Government. The impact on service families, the local economy and local public services has been devastating. Of course, the UK Government knew that this was going to happen. They knew that this was going to happen because information was provided to them in a detailed report by Highlands and Islands Enterprise. Despite that, support has still not been provided.

Moray is unique in the UK as it is the only part of the country that is facing the prospect of a double RAF base closure. In the first instance, that makes no defence or security sense whatever. RAF Lossiemouth was recently judged by the RAF to be the best base for the next generation of fast jets. Given the wish for better military co-operation by both the UK and Norway, it is worth reminding ourselves that RAF Lossiemouth is the closest base to Norway. Norway wants to maintain and operate the next generation of fast jets in co-operation with the UK, and RAF Lossiemouth is the designated UK base for the same aircraft. RAF Lossiemouth is adjacent to the best training areas, which is a significant consideration, given the cost of flying from bases further away. Given the double runway and facilities, it is also easily able to host different types of aircraft.

The defence case to retain the facility is unsurpassed, which is why it is supported by all political parties and political leaders in Scotland, as well by as the Scottish Government. Few will have missed the public reaction in support of the base. In a unique show of support in the UK, thousands of people marched through Lossiemouth last November. That support continues. Only a few days ago, thousands of people took to the streets of Elgin to welcome home personnel from operations, and I would like to thank all local campaigners, the Moray Task Force and The Northern Scot for their hard work and support.

Reports from within the MOD suggest that the Royal Air Force has already recommended that RAF Lossiemouth should remain. Ministers must listen to that recommendation. Ministers have to understand that closing RAF Lossiemouth is like losing 40,000 jobs in Glasgow, or 400,000 jobs in Greater London. The MOD needs to understand that a double RAF base closure in Moray would be the biggest single economic shock in the north of Scotland since the Highland clearances. RAF Kinloss and RAF Lossiemouth together support 5,710 full-time equivalent jobs in the local economy, which equates to 16% of all full-time employment in Moray. The two bases also generate £158 million a year for the local economy, while RAF households account for 7% of the total population of the region and 8% of its working age population. At least 15% of local NHS staff have partners connected to Moray RAF activity, while in areas such as midwifery, district nursing and cardiology, that figure increases to 25%. Some 30% of hotel business in Moray is RAF-related. Inactivity at RAF Kinloss amounts to the loss of £500,000 a week. Imagine the compounded impact of a double base closure.

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Other parts of Scotland also have cause for concern, with a threat to RAF Leuchars in Fife, to 2nd Division Headquarters at Craigiehall and to Fort George near Inverness. Should Scotland see a reduction from three air force bases to only one, that would constitute a 70% cut in RAF personnel numbers and would leave 40 fewer aircraft. That stands in contrast to the Royal Norwegian air force, which operates more than 110 aircraft from seven air bases; the Royal Danish air force, which operates more than 111 aircraft from three air bases; and the Royal Swedish air force, which operates more than 187 aircraft from seven air bases.

It is widely expected that the MOD will close the operational Army headquarters outside Edinburgh and there are fears of a further reduction in historic battalions. In total, that would leave fewer service personnel in Scotland than there are in the armed forces of the Irish Republic. Unlike many other parts of the UK, Scotland has recently seen a significant defence contraction, with a multi-billion pound defence underspend, base closures and an amalgamation of historic military units.

At the time of the strategic defence review in 1997, there were 15,000 service personnel in Scotland. Under the previous Government, that was cut to 12,000 while, at the same time, manning rose in other parts of the UK. When adding civilian defence job losses to the equation, Scotland lost 10,500 jobs between the 1997 SDR and the 2010 SDSR. MOD statistics show that the defence underspend in Scotland totalled at least £5.6 billion in the same period. That underspend constitutes a 36% budget shortfall. At the same time, there has been an unprecedented concentration of defence spending, manpower and basing in the south of Britain. There are no prizes for guessing where the main training establishments, super-garrisons, command headquarters and largest operational bases are located. They are almost all in the southern half of England. Amazingly, no defence or security logic has ever been outlined by this or any previous Government as to why that should be the case.

This is not what happens in allied countries. To find out what the norm is elsewhere, I travelled to the United States in December to learn how it deals with the same challenges. There, the Department of Defence has clear responsibilities to maintain a defence footprint across the US, and a commitment to defence-dependent communities. The US has an independent Base Realignment and Closure Commission which makes final recommendations on basing that then go for congressional approval. There is also an Office of Economic Adjustment which supports local communities with technical and financial support.

Just in case the Minister wants to say in his reply that there are issues of national security, I would like to draw his attention to the full documentation published by the BRAC Commission and the OEA. In the US, the process seems to be managed well. In the UK, in contrast, military basing reviews are entirely opaque. I should point out that the main policy objective of the Department of Defence when dealing with base closures is to act expeditiously—that has not happened in the UK basing review. The statutory criteria of the commission’s work require it to conduct an assessment of the economic impact on existing communities in the vicinity of military installations, and an environmental impact assessment.

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The commissioners also have to assess whether the results of the closure or realignment process might leave insufficient strategic presence in some parts of the US.

Having gone through a non-partisan, transparent, fully costed analysis, the commission’s recommendations are approved or rejected in their entirety on Capitol Hill. There is full democratic oversight and approval. Where bases are to close, the OEA provides comprehensive support for communities, as its website highlights:

“In today’s economic climate, OEA and federal government support is essential to communities nationwide as they cope with Defense program changes.”

What a contrast with the UK, where the Ministry of Defence seems to take no responsibility whatsoever, where the basing review is an internal MOD exercise which is totally opaque, and where base reviews appear to be ad hoc, financially driven and, frankly, unstrategic.

The Minister now has 15 minutes to enlighten Parliament, the defence world, military families and defence-dependent communities about the UK military basing review. I hope that he will confirm that the MOD will publish all supporting documentation and the full balance of investment appraisals from the UK basing review. If the USA can publish full documentation without compromising security, so can the UK.

I want to leave the Minister and his colleagues with this quote from a recent editorial in Scotland’s biggest selling national daily newspaper:

“In election after election, Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories have warned that the SNP would leave Scotland defenceless. But shutting RAF Lossiemouth will destroy that argument for good, leaving us with far weaker defences than other small European nations. Scotland has no tanks, no heavy artillery, no armoured vehicles, no self-propelled artillery, no armoured personnel carriers, only five helicopters and 12 Snatch Landrovers. If RAF Lossiemouth goes, we would have just one RAF base left.”

Given those circumstances, it is unsurprising that an ever-growing number of people in Scotland are now asking why Scotland does not make its own defence decisions like other normal countries. It is clear to most people that if we were to spend the tax revenue we currently contribute to the MOD, there would be more bases, more equipment, more service personnel and more jobs in Scotland. We would also be able to support conventional defence properly rather than waste money on nuclear weapons. The MOD needs to prove that it is worthy of support from Scottish taxpayers, voters and service personnel. Frankly, at present, it is not fit for purpose.

12.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Gerald Howarth): I commend the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) on securing this important debate. He and I have been on trips together, we are both officers of the all-party Royal Air Force group—I have very much enjoyed his support in that group—and we have conferred many times in the past on these matters. I know that he takes a genuine interest in this subject, not least because, as he said, he has a defence-intense constituency. Of course, I am entirely in sympathy with him, because my constituency of Aldershot is also heavily defence-oriented. He will, of course, point out that it is in the south of England. We cannot move Aldershot—it is in the south of England.

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There can be no doubt that this debate is important to those who take an interest in the future of Her Majesty’s armed forces, and to the constituencies of a number of Members in the House. I see that my hon. Friends the Members for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) and for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) are here. The hon. Member for Moray has therefore rightly set out several concerns which are, understandably, felt by many Members.

In today’s and previous debates, several RAF bases have been mentioned. I would like to put on record the Government’s gratitude for the exceptional work of all those who serve in the RAF. I was commissioned in the RAF volunteer reserve and would have joined the service—I nearly did—had I not had political aspirations. Our gratitude extends to the local communities which have, over the years, given such strong support to the bases from which the RAF operates—a point that the hon. Gentleman made forcefully.

However, given the context of this debate, I would like to focus for the moment on RAF Kinloss and its proud association with the Nimrod. The Nimrod force played a vital role in helping to keep this country secure during the cold war. More recently, it played a key role in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and some RAF Nimrods continue to do so. Kinloss has been the home of Nimrod and those who flew and supported them for nearly 40 years. I am an aviator, and I am acutely aware of the bond between RAF personnel and the aircraft that they service and fly. I understand the shock that was felt when the decision was announced. I know that there is a real sense of loss in the tightly-knit service community, and that seeing pictures of the Nimrods being broken up will have been extremely painful to all of them, as it was to me.

I did not come into government to take such decisions, nor did the Defence Secretary or the Prime Minister. Nor did I come into government to make communities fear for their future as we take difficult decisions on the fate of their bases. The decision to scrap the Nimrod MRA4 programme was one of the hardest we had to take. So how did we come to this situation? That decision must be viewed in the context of the previous Government’s dire economic mismanagement of the public finances. Under the stewardship of the former Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), Labour doubled the national debt and left us with the biggest budget deficit in our peacetime history. Today, we are spending £120 million every single day just to pay the interest charge on Labour’s debt. That is Labour’s legacy.

Elizabeth Truss (South West Norfolk) (Con): I thank the Minister for allowing me to intervene in this important debate. I understand the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Moray about bases in his constituency. My concern, given our deficit, is that costs should be taken into account in the basing review. Given that in January the Minister for the Armed Forces said that it would be prohibitive to move engineering facilities away from RAF Marham, could I ask what is being considered in respect of the joint strike fighter maintenance facilities? We need a long-term decision that will reflect the costs

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and the expertise that has built up in RAF Marham, which employs more people than Kinloss and Lossiemouth put together.

Mr Howarth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I had the benefit of visiting Kinloss and Marham, so I am acutely aware of the assets of both bases. All I can say to her is that final decisions have not yet been made. I will come back to that point later on. Ministers will make the decisions based on military advice as well as detailed investment appraisals. I am afraid that that is as far as I can go to reassure her today.

I shall continue on the economic legacy we inherited. In defence, the consequences of 13 years of the catastrophic mismanagement I mentioned a moment ago are more severe than in any other area. Labour allowed a black hole of £38 billion to build up in the forward defence programme, over half of which was made up of equipment and support, with no plans in place to fund it. Restoring the nation’s finances is not only critical for the health of our economy and for the future funding of public services, but essential for national security, because a weak economy creates a national security risk.

Every Department has had to make its own contribution to reduce the staggering budget deficit we inherited, and the Ministry of Defence is required to shoulder its share of the burden. However, due to the priority we place on security, the defence budget is making a more modest contribution to deficit reduction than many other Departments. Even so, we are not immune from tough decisions. Some of the toughest decisions were about the Royal Air Force’s structure, not least the future of Nimrod.

There is no doubt that the Nimrod MRA4 would have performed an important role. It would have contributed to a wide range of military tasks. We have sought to mitigate the gap in capability through the use of other military assets such as frigates, helicopters, and C-130 Hercules aircraft. We will also request, where appropriate, assistance from allies and partners. However, it is important to remember that the country has been without Nimrod since March 2010. That was when the previous Government withdrew the Nimrod MR2 from service, so this was not a decision of this Government alone.

Why was that necessary? As the hon. Member for Moray knows only too well, the original plan conceived in 1996 was for 21 aircraft to be delivered in 2003—eight years ago. By the time the new Government took office in 2010, the programme had already been reduced to nine aircraft, was almost £800 million over budget and had seen the unit cost of each aircraft rise by 200% from £133 million to £455 million. At the time of the review, a number of design faults had been identified on the first MRA4 aircraft, which would have taken additional time and money to resolve. The headquarters of the contractor, BAE Systems, is in my constituency yet, as the hon. Member for Moray knows perfectly well, that has not stopped me being a vocal critic of its performance on this programme.

As we all know, the decision to scrap Nimrod was not the only difficult decision facing the RAF: the fast-jet fleet of Harrier and Tornado air defence was also affected. The RAF now plans to make a transition to a fast-jet force comprising the Typhoon and the joint strike fighter by 2021. Those were decisions about military capability and priorities. An inevitable consequence was

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that the RAF no longer requires RAF Kinloss and two other bases. I need to emphasise that—no longer required by the RAF. That does not mean that they are no longer required by defence. I will take the opportunity now to say again that we have not yet taken a decision about the long-term future of RAF Kinloss or any other air base as a result of the strategic defence and security review.

As Members will be aware, another major decision of the SDSR was to return to the UK 20,000 service personnel from Germany, with the intention of returning half by 2015 and the remaining personnel by 2020. Like all other parts of the public sector, defence is looking hard at its land holdings to ensure that we are using them as efficiently as possible. We have the cancellation of Nimrod, a rationalised fast-jet fleet, the return of large numbers of personnel from Germany, and a requirement to realise better value for money and efficiencies through broader estate rationalisation.

Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): I have tabled parliamentary questions on the issue of the returning personnel from Germany. I discovered from the Minister for the Armed Forces that there have been absolutely no discussions with Scottish Ministers or the Department of Education in England about the capacity of any of the RAF bases to take the 7,000 children coming back from Germany. Does the Minister not accept that it looks like this is a political decision, not a fact-based decision?

Mr Howarth: The hon. Gentleman makes a point that I am about to make, which is that all I have said adds up to an extremely complex piece of work. He is right. Where the children are to be educated and which base may be best suited to a land army operation are not decisions that can be made on the back of a fag packet. They clearly require considerable thought. I will come on to that again in a moment.

Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): The Minister does not need reminding by me that RAF Lyneham and the neighbouring towns of Wootton Bassett and Lyneham provide all the schools, infrastructure and transport that could possibly be needed for returning troops from Germany, and it will be available to them later this year.

Mr Howarth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for putting that on the record. It looks as though I could organise a competitive tender here, but I am not sure whether his parliamentary allowance could be used to bid to see who would offer the best value to the Ministry of Defence. Having visited Lyneham, I understand the facilities it offers. I reiterate my tribute to the people of Wootton Bassett in his constituency. I have been privileged to see the repatriations with him, and see how the town has been a credit to the whole kingdom for its dignity and the tributes it has paid to the fallen from Afghanistan. As we work our way through these issues, I assure hon. Members that we are well aware of the human dimension—the effect on our own people as they wait to hear how these decisions will affect them and their families.

Angus Robertson: Will the Minister give way?

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Mr Howarth: I will give way, but the hon. Gentleman is taking time out of my winding-up speech.

Angus Robertson: I will be very quick. In the last three minutes, could the Minister, for the first time on behalf of the UK Government, explain the strategic logic behind the over-concentration of UK armed forces in the south of England?

Mr Howarth: I would like to answer the hon. Gentleman in my own way, because I want to come on to that issue in a moment.

Decisions will take into account the implications for Tornado personnel operating in Afghanistan and their families. The Army rebasing I mentioned will take account of all deployments to Afghanistan. We know what this means for local communities. Officials from the Scottish Office, the MOD and the Treasury have met the Moray Task Force and representatives from Fife council, so the idea that the local community has not had input is untrue. However, it is imperative that the defence footprint in the UK is determined by national, not regional, requirements.

It is worth stressing that the defence budget is used to buy the best equipment for the armed forces at the best value for money for the taxpayer. Where the companies are located is not the responsibility of the MOD. Defence is not an exercise in quotas for the regions and nations of the UK. Using the logic of the hon. Member for Moray, we could say that Dorset, Kent or Cornwall have not had their fair share among the English counties. He mentioned southern England, but what about northern England? Once we go down that line, we are on a hiding to nothing. The MOD has an interest in the defence footprint principally in so far as it enables our military functions to be better performed and the UK better defended.

We are the Conservative and Unionist party, so we recognise that all regions have a part to play in the defence of the UK. The hon. Gentleman did a good job in playing down the defence footprint in Scotland, but he is wrong to do so. The MOD has—and will continue to have—a considerable footprint in Scotland. It has a presence in nearly 400 locations and employs nearly 20,000 people. Even if his worst-case scenario came about, Scotland would still have one of three fast-jet main operating bases; one of three Royal Navy bases, which is the largest single-site employer in Scotland; a significant army presence; and a shipbuilding industry with thousands of jobs sustained by contracts for aircraft carriers and destroyers.

We must not forget that Scotland’s extraordinary contribution to the defence of the UK manifests itself today in the presence of the ultimate representation of Britain’s military prowess—her independent strategic nuclear deterrent, which the hon. Gentleman wishes to get rid of. He cannot claim to be a champion of defence jobs in Scotland while advocating that the UK abandon its nuclear deterrent. He claims to be acting in the interests of Scotland, but he knows as well as I do that his party’s policy would leave Scotland bereft of jobs in the defence industry, and vulnerable to nuclear blackmail or, even worse, attack.

Mr Joe Benton (in the Chair): Order. We now move on to the next debate.

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Rail Services (South-East London)

1 pm

Mr David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise once again my concerns, and those of my constituents, about rail services in south-east London. The problems experienced by all rail users, whether daily commuters, pensioners, families or holidaymakers, remain frustrating and annoying for local people.

I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Minister is present and I know that she will listen carefully to the points raised and respond sympathetically. I put on record my thanks for her responses to my letters and questions. She is always constructive on such matters and her letter to me of 31 January was particularly helpful. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson) is present, as is my neighbour the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce). It shows that not only my constituents, but those in Erith and Thamesmead, Bromley and Orpington have had a tough time recently due to poor rail services in the area.

There are four stations in my constituency—Barnehurst, Bexleyheath, Crayford and Slade Green—and they are used to make nearly 5.5 million journeys every year. Some of my constituents also use Abbey Wood, Erith or Welling stations. Because there are no London underground or docklands light railway stations in Bexley, my constituents are more reliant on overground services than people in most other London boroughs. Therefore, when there is a problem with the trains, the only real alternative is to take a bus to a neighbouring borough to catch the tube or DLR.

I would like to make a short positive comment about the buses. Under the leadership of the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, bus services in our area have improved considerably and buses are more frequent, reliable and cleaner than in the past. With the introduction of safer transport teams, which I know the Mayor is keen on, there have also been considerable improvements in safety on the buses. Obviously, there are things that could be improved. I contacted the Mayor and Transport for London about diverting the route of the 96 bus to serve Darent Valley hospital directly. My constituents use that hospital more and more, and it would be helpful for patients and visitors if the buses could be slightly re-routed.

Joseph Johnson (Orpington) (Con): I add my voice to my hon. Friend’s words of support for the Mayor’s bus policy generally and for the improvements to transport within London. There are small areas of criticism: the route of the 320 bus, the extension from Bromley North to Catford, has not worked. I urge TfL to revert to the old route of Biggin Hill to Bromley North, which was very successful.

Mr Evennett: I am sure that that will be noted and taken on board by the relevant authorities.

Rail services in south-east London are part of the integrated Kent franchise, and are currently operated by Southeastern railway. The present franchise agreement started on 1 April 2006 and initially runs until 2012. If Southeastern meets certain targets set out in the contract,

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the franchise may be extended for a further two years until 2014. At the time it was agreed that Southeastern would receive a huge public subsidy of £585 million over the lifetime of the franchise, and promises were definitely made about investment in facilities and improvements.

A written ministerial statement announced the franchise in November 2005. The then Secretary of State for Transport, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), claimed:

“I am satisfied that the competition for the franchise has resulted in a contract that represents very good value for taxpayer. It is a tough contract on which Govia will be expected to deliver.”—[Official Report, 30 November 2005; Vol. 440, c. 34WS.]

That has proven to be wrong. Commuters are paying significantly higher fares, performance is not up to the level passengers rightly expect, and communication is very poor, especially when something goes wrong.

Trains are busier. Since Connex lost the franchise, there are 800,000 more journeys from stations in my constituency every year. As a commuter on Southeastern, I understand the anger that my constituents feel about the service that they pay for. They expect—and deserve—better. The Govia website makes many promises about the improvements that it will bring to the franchise, claiming that trains will be less crowded, more punctual and cleaner, and that there will even be wi-fi access on some stations. However, some of those things have not been delivered, and the improvements that I have requested for local stations have often been difficult to obtain.

In September I held an Adjournment debate about the campaign I started in May 2009 for step-free access at Crayford station. Currently, only the London-bound platform 1 is fully accessible. Platform 2 can be accessed only by a footbridge, and is therefore difficult for those with mobility problems or those who have young children and have problems with the steps. During that debate, I highlighted the numerous problems that I experienced in getting Southeastern to open an existing gate on platform 2 to a pathway that already runs along the side to Station road. The cost of the scheme was minimal, and the only issues concerned the ownership of the land that the path goes through, and making the area safer. All I asked was for Southeastern to open the gate and install an Oyster card point, but initially it decided that it would not proceed with that scheme for financial reasons. After the Adjournment debate, however, and the helpful intervention of the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), Southeastern agreed to install the Oyster machine and open the gate.

That was welcome progress and I would like to put that on the record. At this stage, we are waiting for the transfer of land from the owners, Sainsbury’s, to Bexley council to be completed. That has taken some time because issues such as resurfacing and lighting need to be resolved. Bexley Councillor Linda Bailey is responsible for ensuring that the scheme goes ahead, and I understand that she and the leader of the council will be looking to see what they can do in that area. I have every faith and hope that the matter will be brought to a successful conclusion. I had similar problems with Southeastern when campaigning for step-free access to Barnehurst station. That was easier to achieve, however, and it was much needed and welcomed by local commuters and residents.

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Sometimes, issues with Southeastern are not easily resolved because the company does not take on board the seriousness of the problem. For example, at Barnehurst station—the station I use—the waiting room is open only for a couple of hours late in the afternoon. A similar situation exists at other stations. That is ridiculous because the majority of people do not travel at tea time, between 4.30 pm and 6.30 pm, and constituents have complained.

Southeastern needs to be more proactive in understanding what constituents and commuters want. It is also failing in other important areas and people are becoming increasingly vocal about their displeasure. One needs only to search for comments about Southeastern on Twitter to see what people really think about the services provided. Comments include:

“First train out of Victoria this morning....is filthy”

and there are complaints that the toilets are not clean, and that the service was late or cancelled. All aspects of the service are not up to the standard they should be.

Joseph Johnson: My hon. Friend is generous to let me intervene again. I support his point. There is an urgent need for Southeastern to show more responsiveness to the concerns of constituents. The lift at Orpington, which is so necessary for people with limited mobility, was out of action for eight weeks at the end of last year and the beginning of this year. It took the threat of a wheelchair demonstration by disabled people to get the lift back to working order.

Mr Evennett: It is disappointing that Southeastern is not more proactive when dealing with the problems faced by constituents, the fare-paying public, so as to help to improve facilities and services.

Of course, the main issue that we are discussing today—an issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington and the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead are well aware of and have raised concerns about—is the period of bad weather that we had at the end of last year. Despite the snow being forecast, it seemed that Southeastern was not in any way prepared for it. Trains were cancelled at very short notice, and a reduced service operated. Some stations had no trains stopping at all for long periods. If trains did run, they were very congested and were running with fewer carriages. As a result, many people simply gave up on the trains and tried to find alternative routes to work.

There were also real problems with the information provided to customers. On some days, stations such as Crayford were not manned at all. If station staff were able to make it through the snow to the stations, they were not properly briefed by their managers on the services that were running and where the trains would be stopping. I commend the staff at my own station of Barnehurst. They do a fantastic job; they are friendly, efficient and really nice people. But during that period, when they were asked when there would be a train, they had not been told—they had no information coming through—and they were the first point of contact for people who came to the station to see what was going on.

The Southeastern website was also useless and at times misleading.

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Teresa Pearce (Erith and Thamesmead) (Lab): I thank the hon. Gentleman both for giving way and for obtaining the debate. On the point about the website, constituents came to me saying that the website said that their service was running when it was not and they had unsympathetic employers who said, “I don’t believe you couldn’t get to work because the website says there’s a service running.” Did the hon. Gentleman have the same experience with his constituents?

Mr Evennett: I agree; I had exactly the same experience with my constituents. The website was useless, giving wrong information, which of course fed through to other people, who said, “Well, the service seemed to be running because it said so on the website.” That is a fair point and I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s comment.

All that increased the pressure on station staff, and tempers flared in some circumstances. The communication was absolutely appalling. I cannot understand why that was allowed to happen and why someone from Southeastern was not briefing the local radio stations. I happen to listen to LBC and Magic in the mornings, and they are very good stations, but they had no information at all. Any good organisation would have passed the information to the media, so that they could update people who were getting ready to go to work. On one occasion, I had to drive up to Westminster because I could not guarantee that there would be a train to take me up and bring me back.

Recently, I was privileged to be at a meeting of Kent MPs with Southeastern, which was organised by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant). I was underwhelmed by the excuses offered by its managing director, Charles Horton, and his team. Although some of the blame of course lies with Network Rail, I do not believe that Southeastern has learned the lessons and I am worried about the consequences for passengers. I wrote to the Minister to ask questions about that and am grateful for her response.

However, the poor performance cannot be blamed only on the snow. I believe that the service has got worse since September. I receive regular e-mails and am regularly contacted by constituents on the matter—sometimes when I am travelling with them on our daily commute up to Westminster. The comments are universal. One person said:

“The service/performance is failing…The passengers’ charter is a list of meaningless words.”

I am told that the service is not any better; it is worse. Those are the words of constituents. I, too, have concerns and I share their views.

Some constituents say that the journey is taking longer and that the problem is affecting their job. Punctuality is a real issue. Despite the poor performance, Southeastern has been trying to avoid paying compensation and reducing the cost of season tickets. Regrettably, that is because of the low targets agreed with the previous Government. If punctuality falls below 82% during a 12-month period, Southeastern is supposed to cut season ticket prices by 5%. That means that nearly one in five trains can run late without incurring a penalty. That is poor service and it was a poor agreement at the time. Also, by running an emergency timetable during the period of bad weather, Southeastern was able to distort the statistics by not counting the trains that it should have run. Southeastern is therefore claiming that its

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punctuality was 82.04%—marginally above the season ticket discount threshold. That is a betrayal of commuters and it is unacceptable.

To support its case, Southeastern recently commissioned the university of Sheffield to audit the statistics. Predictably, it found the following:

“As judged against the present validation criteria, the source data, processing and public information for the Passenger’s Charter are satisfactorily accurate.”

I am sceptical about that and I understand from correspondence with the Minister that the rail industry’s national taskforce will be looking into the operation and performance of both Southeastern and Network Rail. I hope that the Minister will look closely into the validity of Southeastern’s figures and perhaps consider an independent audit, taking into account all the matters that I have raised.

Fares have gone up again dramatically because of the agreement that they could be increased by retail prices index inflation plus 3%. That has meant that many people in our area have been clobbered by high fare rises. Again, that seems unfair to me and to my constituents.

So what of the future? There are some welcome developments under way that should help to increase rail capacity and reduce overcrowding. I know that the Minister is working hard to improve the opportunities for travel in and around London and throughout the country. I am a big supporter of Crossrail and hope that it will be delivered on time. I believe that, when the time is right, it should be extended beyond Abbey Wood. We are very keen for that to be done. The hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead has been an advocate for that as well. We are looking forward to having Crossrail at Abbey Wood. There will be more capacity then.

There is the redevelopment of London Bridge station, which should help to relieve some of the congestion problems caused by the bottlenecks. Again, we have to be patient and wait, but I do not want the improvements to be made in the long term—I would like improvements to be made now for our constituents and residents of Bexley and Bromley, so that they can get to work in a more satisfactory fashion.

Information is vital, but that has been the greatest failure of all. However, I am very happy with the approach that the Minister has taken. I hope that she will help me even more this afternoon in her response to the debate, because there is real concern in my area and that of my colleagues about the current operator, the current franchise agreement and the future bidding process. She is reasonable, understanding and usually pretty positive in her approach. I hope that she will look at the transport in south-east London and say that it is not acceptable at the moment and it must improve.

1.17 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mrs Theresa Villiers): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr Evennett) on securing the debate and on his passionate defence of his constituents, particularly his commuting constituents. He is a steadfast campaigner for his

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constituents. I am very much aware of the significant concern expressed about the quality of rail services in south-east London and Kent by my hon. Friend and a number of other MPs, stakeholders and passengers. It is good to see my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson) and the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) here to take part in the debate as well.

I fully appreciate how important rail service provision is in the suburban constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford, where so many people commute into London every day and which I have enjoyed visiting on a number of occasions during the past 10 years or so. As he set out, recent months have seen an overall decline in the reliability of services under the Southeastern franchise, culminating in the huge disruption that occurred during the cold weather episodes at the end of last year. He outlined some of the most troubling examples.

Ministers and officials were in constant contact with train operators and Network Rail throughout the severe weather. I think that we all accept that, unfortunately, some disruption is unavoidable when extreme weather conditions occur, but it is imperative to ensure that lessons are learned from the severe problems that passengers experienced in my hon. Friend’s constituency and elsewhere during the severe weather at the end of last year. That is why we asked David Quarmby to conduct an urgent audit of how our transport networks performed. We now expect the rail industry to act on the findings of that audit.

I have already had many discussions on the cold weather episode with senior representatives of the rail industry and will be meeting them again soon for an update on extending the trial of heated conductor rails, which could make a significant difference to resilience on the third rail networks; strengthening de-icing arrangements; dealing with stranded trains; and, crucially, improving passenger information generally and during times of disruption.

My hon. Friend rightly said that that was exposed as a severe problem during the recent poor weather. Like him, David Quarmby emphasised that electronic information on its own simply is not enough; train operators need to ensure that staff are properly briefed so that they can give passengers as much information as possible about which services are running and what they can expect despite the disruption.

It is imperative that reliability on the Southeastern network improves. It is imperative that the train operator becomes more responsive to its customers, as my hon. Friends the Members for Bexleyheath and Crayford and for Orpington emphasised. I will ensure that their comments on step-free access at Crayford, the waiting rooms at Barnehurst, toilet cleanliness and the lifts at Orpington are passed on to the train operator. The rail reforms that we are considering are designed to give train operators more opportunities to invest in improvements to such facilities, to make them more responsive to passengers and to give them the right incentives to perform reliably and well.

I have asked the rail industry’s national taskforce specifically to consider the performance of Southeastern and Network Rail in Kent. We need improved performance from the operator and Network Rail, as the infrastructure provider, if we are to make the progress that the constituents

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of my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford want. I say that because Network Rail is responsible for about 60% of delays and cancellations on the Southeastern network.

My officials monitor Southeastern’s performance on a four-weekly basis. I met Charles Horton, managing director of Southeastern, on 14 February and I asked him a series of searching questions based on the concerns raised with me by MPs and their constituents, many of which my hon. Friend has echoed. In the coming weeks, I will follow that up with a further meeting with Mr Horton and the Network Rail route director for Kent, and I will expect them to set out how they plan to improve their performance and to respond to the concerns that have been rightly raised in the debate. I will interrogate them on their response to the Quarmby audit and on the lessons to be learned from the cold weather disruption, although I should emphasise that there was already a significant problem before the snow arrived, as my hon. Friend said. I will urgently seek assurances from Network Rail and Southeastern on how they propose to improve overall performance.

Joseph Johnson: In those discussions with the management of Southeastern, will my right hon. Friend please ask when fast trains will stop at Orpington during peak hours? Orpington is a major commuter town, but we do not have fast trains during peak hours. My constituents are on their knees begging for such a service.

Mrs Villiers: I appreciate the importance of that issue. Although my discussions will focus on the reliability of the current service, I am happy to take on board my hon. Friend’s representations, and we will obviously take them very seriously as and when preparations are under way for timetabling changes.

It is important to mention some major capacity improvements, which will be delivered in the years to come. Despite the crisis in the public finances, the Chancellor has prioritised rail, and £18 billion will be invested in rail capital projects during the spending review period. Our ambitious programme will deliver real benefits for rail users across the country, including in south-east London and Kent.

Thameslink is going ahead in line with its original scope, albeit over a slightly longer time frame than originally envisaged. That will virtually double the number of north-south trains and deliver up to 1,200 new carriages. It is too early to say exactly how the programme’s benefits will be shared between different areas, because timetabling decisions are still some way off. However, even those communities that do not benefit directly from the new upgraded services could receive cascaded rolling stock to relieve overcrowding.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford recognised, the coalition has secured the funding to ensure that Crossrail is delivered in its entirety, including the Abbey Wood branch, which was the subject of so many scare stories from our political opponents. The project will deliver a 10% uplift in rail capacity across London and much improved access to jobs for many people across the capital, including south-east London, and in the south-east. It will open up new journey opportunities to docklands, the City, central

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London and our major airports. Furthermore, the Secretary of State recently announced that negotiations had been successfully concluded to allow a station box to be constructed at Woolwich. The coalition’s plans for rail therefore offer real potential benefits for people in south-east London.

I very much recognise the concerns that my hon. Friend’s constituents have expressed about rail fares. The retail prices index plus 3% formula was included in the franchise when Labour let it in 2005. That was to reflect the more than £600 million spent on 618 new rolling stock vehicles and the £93 million of investment in power supply, stations, depots and related infrastructure. Much as I would like to see the RPI plus 3% formula abandoned, that is unfortunately not possible in the current fiscal climate. The deficit we inherited from the previous Government means that we face some difficult choices, including asking passengers to pay a little more to support the massive investment in rail that I have just outlined, although we expect significant elements of that programme to benefit people across south-east London. None the less, it is imperative that the cost of running the railways comes down, because it is too high. Sir Roy McNulty is running an in-depth review into why the cost is so high. For the sake of taxpayers and fare payers in my hon. Friend’s constituency and across the country, we are determined to find the right solutions to deliver a more sustainable financial future for the railways.

My hon. Friend talked about his long-running campaign to extend Crossrail to Ebbsfleet. The route to Ebbsfleet was safeguarded in 2009, and we expect that to remain the case. Safeguarding preserves that option for the future. Of course, our current priority is to press ahead with construction and to deliver the Crossrail project within budget and according to the new timetable. However, we do not rule out the option of extension in the future.

My hon. Friend also raised concerns about the compensation regime that applies to Southeastern. I have not seen evidence that the figures have been dealt with inappropriately, but if any were drawn to my attention, I would of course take action. I recognise the concerns raised by his constituents about the way the compensation regime operates, and we are certainly happy to consider a more robust regime for future franchises that perhaps gives passengers more effective protection.

Mr Evennett: I am grateful for that helpful answer, but Southeastern is so marginally over the figure that one can understand constituents being sceptical.

Mrs Villiers: I am aware that there is a lot of concern and scepticism about the figures, but, as I said, I can reach a judgment only on the basis of the facts that are presented to me. My hon. Friend will appreciate that Southeastern is legally required under the franchise to have its figures independently audited, so we have that safeguard of an independent check on the figures.

In conclusion, it is vital that Southeastern and Network Rail significantly improve their performance on the lines serving my hon. Friend’s constituency and the whole of south-east London, as well as on its routes in Kent. I will continue to press both on the issue, and I very much welcome the opportunity to debate it today.

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1.29 pm

Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair today, Mr Benton, and to secure the debate. Its focus is on the cost issues associated with Trident, and on issues of parliamentary scrutiny. Many other issues are associated with Britain’s possession of nuclear weapons, but I hope that in the short time we have today we shall focus on the aspects I have mentioned.

The background to the matter is of course that in March 2007 the House voted to support the decision taken by the then Government as set out in the White Paper “The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent” to take the steps necessary to maintain Britain’s nuclear weapons capacity after the Vanguard class submarines leave service in the mid-2020s. The motion that was passed also said that we should take steps towards meeting the UK’s disarmament responsibilities under the non-proliferation treaty. I voted against replacing Trident, but I believe the concerns I am raising today are shared by many hon. Members, and probably by Members on both sides of that debate.

After the vote in March 2007, the Ministry of Defence began the first stage of the process known as the concept stage, which was due to end with the initial gate decision point. That was one of the points of scrutiny of the project. The initial gate report was expected in September 2009, but it has still to be published. The decision whether to authorise the construction of the submarines is to be taken at the later main gate scrutiny stage, which was originally scheduled for 2012-14, but following the conclusion of the strategic defence and security review, that has been delayed until 2016, beyond the next general election.

The White Paper published at the end of 2006, which was voted on in 2007, estimated that the cost of the replacement of the system would be between £15 billion and £20 billion at 2006 prices. No updated estimate in current figures has been provided, and today I shall ask the Minister to ensure that one is provided to the House, particularly given that we know from the information that is in the public domain that spending so far is over-budget. Specifically, I understand that the current submarine programme for the Astute class is running 57 months late and £1.35 billion or 53% over budget. Expenditure on the concept phase has also significantly exceeded its budget—£309 million was originally set aside, but spending up to June 2010 exceeded that, with a figure of £570 million. That is an overspend of 84%. The House is right to be concerned, given that the information provided to this place and to the general public seems to show that spending to date has been far greater than originally projected.

The year 2010-11 has £330 million allocated for the Trident replacement programme. An estimated 15% of the submarine cost is due to be spent during the assessment phase prior to the main gate, based on the 2006 figures. That would amount to about £2 billion, using the MOD’s 2006 figure of a requirement of £11 billion to £14 billion for the submarine replacement plans. It is apparent from the concept phase that the cost of the programme is already increasing. The MOD has refused

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to provide annual budget figures for the assessment phase period up to 2016 until after the publication of the initial gate.

There also seems to be no intention to provide Parliament with regular reports of the progress of the programme until after the initial gate. Recent statements by the Secretary of State for Defence have confirmed that orders for major items required in the construction of submarines will be placed prior to main gate, and indeed a response to a recent freedom of information request revealed a plan to place more than £1 billion before the main gate approval in 2016, in relation to the various orders for submarines and matters associated with that work. That information was confirmed in answers to questions tabled by hon. Members. The answers to freedom of information requests, and recent answers to parliamentary questions, seem to show that a large proportion of the first boat will be ordered ahead of main gate, as well as the reactors for the second and third boat.

The 2010-11 budget for Trident replacement exceeds that of the planned budget for the whole of the concept phase from years 2006-08 to 2009-10, although we have yet to reach initial gate. I therefore think that the House is right to be concerned about the costs incurred to date, which seem to be well in excess of the projections and information provided to the House in 2007, when the decision was taken, but also about the lack of parliamentary scrutiny of the programme.

John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does she agree that in any decisions that are taken we do not want to add further to the cost of the programme, and that it would therefore be helpful for the Ministry of Defence to set out the change in the cost profile that has already been conferred by the delay in the main gate decision, and the totality of increased costs that could flow from that?

Katy Clark: I agree, and my contention is that it would be helpful if as much information as possible could be put before the House, so that this place takes the right decisions, and so that whatever decisions are taken in years to come will be based on the fullest information, made available not just to Members of the House but to the general public.

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Is it not about time that the Government published the value-for-money review that was undertaken in 2010? Throughout the defence budget we have cuts that seem to be completely driven by putting the cost down as low as possible; yet here we have a massive overspend. People want to know what value for money we are getting from this atrocious weapons of mass destruction programme.

Katy Clark: I agree with my hon. Friend’s points, and will ask the Minister to publish the value-for-money review that was undertaken in 2010. My hon. Friend has made powerful points: when we see other decisions made by the Ministry of Defence, including cancelled contracts and cuts, it seems that a different approach is taken to the project in question.

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Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this excellent debate, which is generating a lot of interest. Does she agree that a key issue is that the main gate decision in 2016 should be a proper decision? There is real concern that if too much money is spent before then, the next Parliament may not have a proper decision to make. It may be trapped, as the present Parliament has been over aircraft carriers.

Katy Clark: The hon. Gentleman is correct, and I am delighted that he is here today, and, indeed, about the cross-party support that has been raised. An early-day motion has been tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), which highlights some of the issues and the concern that contracts are being made, perhaps, in a way that goes against the spirit of undertakings made in the 2007 debate. That may mean that the decision that Parliament will take later will be tied by the amount of money already spent on the project. That is one reason for some requests that I will make of the Minister today. The first is that we should, as has been mentioned, publish the value-for-money review undertaken in 2010. Equally importantly, we need to ensure that the House has a full debate on the initial gate report and that decisions are taken with its consent.

I urge the Minister to explain some of the figures that I have cited today, particularly why the 2010-11 budget for the Trident replacement has exceeded the planned budget for the whole of the concept phase, which ran from 2006 to 2010. I urge the Government to publish an up-to-date budget for work done during the assessment phase before the main gate decision, and to say how much they plan to spend on orders for construction before the scrutiny of main gate, in view of recent statements and information provided by the Ministry of Defence. Given the clear increase in costs, it is only fair that the Government should publish the estimated full project costs in current prices, as it is clear that the information provided to the House in 2007 will no longer be accurate. Finally, I ask for a full strategic review of the UK’s possession of nuclear weapons before the main gate decision is made and orders for construction begin, and to give MPs the opportunity to debate and vote on the continuation of the programme, based on up-to-date information.

I have consented to the vice-chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), making a short contribution to the debate, and I understand that the Minister, too, has consented. I hope, Mr Benton, that you have no objection to my hon. Friend making a short contribution.

1.41 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I shall be brief, as it is a short debate and we wish to hear the Minister’s reply. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) on securing this debate and on her work for peace in general. I declare an interest. I am chair of the all-party CND group, and the national vice-chair of CND.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, I tabled early-day motion 1477, about the Government’s plans to order steel for the first new Trident replacement. It is important that the Minister has the opportunity to answer this

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point. We were told during an important parliamentary debate in 2007—it attracted a substantial dissident vote by Labour Members against the early replacement of the Trident nuclear missile system—that the initial gate decision would not be taken until this Parliament and that we therefore had nothing to worry about. With the assistance of the excellent CND national office, I recently tabled a large number of parliamentary questions. I shall not refer to them all, but they were answered on 16 February.

I asked the Secretary of State whether steel for the substantial construction of the hull structure of the first boat would be made as a long-lead purchase prior to main gate. The Minister answered:

“Yes. The specialist high strength steel needed for the hull structure for the first boat is included as a long-lead item in the Initial Gate Business Case for the programme.”

I also asked the Secretary of State how much his Department had allocated to the Trident replacement programme in each year between 2010-11 and 2015-16. Those are crucial dates, as that is when initial gate is supposed to happen. The Minister answered:

“Approximately £330 million was allocated to the programme to replace the Vanguard submarine.”—[Official Report, 16 February 2011; Vol. 523, c. 805-06W.]

It seems to me that the Ministry of Defence is running ahead of itself, and well ahead of authorisation by Parliament for spending such sums on preparation for the development of a new submarine and missile system before Parliament has had the opportunity to vote on it. In addition, it was discovered during the previous Parliament that large sums had been spent on upgrading the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston in preparation for the development of the missile systems to go into those submarines.

Personally, I am completely opposed to nuclear weapons. I believe that they are immoral; they are weapons of mass destruction. The world would be a lot better off without them—and this country would be extremely well off without them. However, that is not the point of today’s debate. This debate is about the costs and the decision-making process, and about Parliament’s involvement in those matters.

Every three months, the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Defence commendably report to the House on progress or otherwise in Afghanistan, and we have the opportunity to question them. If the Ministry of Defence is so determined to spend such large sums, there should at the very least be an open debate in Parliament on the subject before those decisions are made. We signed a nuclear non-proliferation treaty many years ago that commits us to making long-term efforts on nuclear disarmament. As well as seeking to prevent other non-nuclear declared states from possessing nuclear weapons, I believe that we should fulfil our obligations under that treaty. I hope that the Minister will explain under what authority that money was spent, why it was spent ahead of a parliamentary decision, and when and if he will make a statement to the House on that expenditure and the purposes behind it.

1.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Peter Luff): I genuinely congratulate the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) on securing this debate.

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In recent weeks, there has been quite a lot of commentary on the replacement submarine programme for Britain's independent nuclear deterrent system, often referred to as the Trident programme. Much of it was incorrect, so I welcome the opportunity to discuss the matter. I doubt whether I shall reassure the hon. Lady on every question, as there is disagreement between us on the principles involved, but I have some good news and some clarification.

Before dealing with the scrutiny of the successor systems to our current nuclear deterrent, and for the avoidance of any doubt—I answer also the points raised by the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn)—let me be clear about the Government’s policy on the nuclear deterrent. The first duty of any Government is to ensure the security of the people. The nuclear deterrent provides the ultimate guarantee of our national security, and has done so for more than 50 years.

The argument is often made that, because there is no immediate threat to the UK, there is no need to replace the current deterrent system; however, if history has taught us anything it is that predicting future events is difficult. We do not know how the international environment will change over the next 50 years. For example, how many people predicted the current speed and the scale of change in north Africa?

Dr Huppert: Will the Minister give way?

Peter Luff: I shall not give way. I have some important points to answer, and I do not have time to take interventions—except, of course, from the hon. Lady.

We cannot be certain that no existential threat to the UK will ever emerge. As a result, we cannot unilaterally do away with this ultimate insurance policy. That is not to say that, when the time is right, we will not move away from nuclear weapons. Our long-term goal is to have a world without them, and we will do all that we can to counter proliferation, to make progress on multilateral disarmament, and to build trust and confidence across the globe.

In our strategic defence and security review, we went further than any previous Government in giving assurances to non-nuclear members of the non-proliferation treaty that we would not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against them. As part of that confidence-building initiative, we announced that our overall nuclear warhead stockpile ceiling will reduce from not more than 225 to fewer than 180 by the mid 2020s. In addition, we announced that over the next few years we will cut the maximum number of nuclear warheads on board each deployed submarine from 48 to 40, that we will reduce our requirement for operationally available warheads from fewer than 160 to no more than 120, and that we will reduce the number of operational missiles carried to no more than eight. None the less, on 9 February, the Prime Minister said:

“I profoundly believe that we should maintain our independent nuclear deterrent. I have looked at all the alternatives over the years, and I am completely convinced that we need a submarine based alternative—a full replacement for Trident—in order to guarantee the ultimate insurance policy for this country. I am in favour of a full replacement for Trident, a continuous at-sea deterrent and making sure that we keep our guard up”—[Official Report, 9 February 2011; Vol. 523, c. 296.]

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I take this opportunity on behalf of the House to pay tribute to the professionalism of all those Royal Navy and civilian personnel who answer this country’s call to operate and support this vital national capability on behalf of us all—seven days a week, 365 days a year. Last year, I visited HMS Vanguard and met some of our dedicated service personnel; I was truly impressed by their commitment. It is important that hon. Members should remember that, as we speak, those men are out there somewhere in the oceans at this very moment providing Britain’s and NATO’s ultimate security guarantee. They and their predecessors have so far provided a 42-year unbroken chain of continuous at-sea deterrence, keeping all of us and our allies safe. It is a fact of life that the current class of Vanguard submarines is ageing, yet while the nuclear threat remains we will maintain a nuclear deterrent. That is why we are continuing with a programme to replace the current deterrent.

One theme that has emerged—it emerged in the hon. Lady’s speech today—from those who do not see merit in this policy is that the Government are embarking on a programme of replacing the Trident system by stealth and that Parliament has not had the opportunity to consider the issue. That is simply not true. In 2006, the previous Administration published the White Paper “The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent,” which clearly set out why the UK needed to renew its deterrent system, what options were available and how much they were likely to cost. The conclusions of the White Paper remain as valid today as they were when they were first published. That paper was scrutinised by the House of Commons Defence Committee and was debated in full in July 2007. The House voted by a significant majority to

“take the steps necessary to maintain the UK's minimum strategic nuclear deterrent beyond the life of the existing system.”—[Official Report, 14 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 298.]

That is exactly what we are doing.

Given the serious economic conditions that we inherited, we decided to commit ourselves to reviewing the Trident replacement programme to ensure that we were spending only the minimum necessary. That is why, in addition to the disarmament measures I have already mentioned, following the value for money review conducted last year, we announced a number of changes to the Trident replacement programme. For the submarine, this included deferring the delivery of the first boat to around 2028 and consequently deferring the main investment decision—or main gate—until 2016. I note the hon. Lady’s call for the publication of the value for money study, but I have to disappoint her. It contains a number of highly classified documents that are not suitable for release. However, all the important conclusions were published in full on page 38, paragraph 3.10 of the Strategic Defence and Security Review.

We were also able to announce our intention to work more closely with industry to improve efficiency in the programme. Since that announcement, we have taken huge steps with our three key suppliers—BAE Systems, Babcock and Rolls-Royce—to develop what we now call the submarine enterprise performance programme, which has three key aims: to retain and develop our world-class design, build and support skills, which are essential for delivering the nuclear programme; to realise significant savings by improving our approach to designing, building and supporting these submarines and, by way

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of example, through the rationalisation of facilities and sharing of resources; and, with industry, to improve our delivery performance. I saw that for myself a few weeks ago when I visited Barrow and Furness with the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), whom I am pleased to see in his place. I was hugely impressed with what I saw and with the dedication of the work force.

The Ministry of Defence, industry and the work force have risen to this challenge, and I have seen a step change in the way in which we are working with industry to ensure that our nuclear programme is delivered successfully. All in all, the decisions we took during the SDSR allowed us to save £1.2 billion and defer a further £2 billion of expenditure over the next 10 years. I can confirm to the hon. Lady that the figures for the total cost of the programme are as quoted in paragraph 3.10 in the SDSR.

“The review has concluded that the overall cost of the submarine and warhead replacement programmes and associated infrastructure”—

the three separate parts of the programme—

“ remains within the £20 billion cost estimate foreseen in 2006 at 2006 prices.”

Therefore, the cost estimate remains valid. However, we did not say that we would do nothing until 2016. As for the reference to the delay of the Astute programme, I have to say that we have learned our lesson the hard way—if one stops doing something it costs a lot to start doing it again. That is the root of the problem and a mistake that we must not make again with its successor.

Let me stress again that we did not say that we would do nothing until 2016. We must be clear about the scale and challenge of this project. A submarine designed to carry the nuclear deterrent ranks with the space shuttle as one of the most complex engineering feats in the world. The submarine has a nuclear reactor; nuclear weapons; steam systems; hydraulic systems; electrical and electronic systems; and computing systems, as well as tactical weapons and sensors. It needs to sustain its crew while remaining submerged and undetected for months on end. It is a tremendous challenge to bring those complex components together, and we have an enormous programme of work to complete if we are successfully to see the delivery of the first boat in around 2028. The first significant milestone in this process is the so called “initial gate” investment point.

At initial gate, we will agree the broad outline design of the submarine and some of the component designs, including the propulsion system, and set out the programme of work we need to complete so that we are ready to start building the first submarine in 2016. We will also agree the amount of material and parts—and for which boats—we will need to buy in advance of the main investment decision, and yes, that will include steel. However, we are not planning to procure any such items for the fourth boat at this point.

The precise value of the steel and the other long-lead items will depend on the final initial gate approval, but it is likely to amount to around £500 million, some way short of the £1 billion that the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) has cited in the past. There is nothing unusual in that; it is normal practice for most large procurement programmes.

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Jeremy Corbyn: The figure I cited was the one that the Minister gave himself, which is £330 million. I asked where the parliamentary authority came from for that expenditure.

Peter Luff: I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman’s figures have been misunderstood by the Department. I was told that he said a figure around £1 billion. The authority comes from the vote in the House of Commons in the previous Parliament, established custom and practice and all complex programmes. If he wants a historical precedent, I am told that we bought the oak for HMS Victory 15 years in advance of building it. This is par for the course in major procurement programmes; there is nothing unusual about it at all.

It is quite simply not true to say that large parts of the build programme will have been completed by main gate, nor is it true to say that we will be locked into contracts and that we will have spent so much that we will have to build the boats when we get to main gate. There is nothing in the current programme that will prevent us from making choices in 2016 about what deterrent capability we want or how many boats we might order. It is self-evident from the decisions that we took during the SDSR to refine the replacement deterrent programme, which allowed us to save and defer £3.2 billion over the next 10 years, that our intent is to pursue value for money rigorously and only commit to expenditure as and when it is required. As agreed in the coalition programme for Government, the Liberal Democrats will continue to make the case for alternatives to a like-for-like replacement. Yes, it is true that the concept phase was extended in January 2010, which involved some extra cost, but some costs will be transferred from the assessment phase to the concept phase as a result.

What of the calls for scrutiny of the initial gate business case? Parliament does not routinely review internal Ministry of Defence business cases and I have not yet heard a convincing argument that suggests that this programme should be any different. The initial gate business case is not a grand strategic assessment; that happened in 2006 with the White Paper and the vote in the House of Commons in 2007. The initial gate business case is a technical assessment that presents design choices and programme analysis that is reviewed and agreed by technical, financial and procurement experts in MOD, Treasury and Cabinet Office. What we have committed to do once the initial gate business case has been approved is publish a report setting out the key decisions that we have taken, update Parliament on the latest assessment of cost, and explain the steps that we will be taking in the run-up to the main procurement decision in 2016. I hope that that reassures the hon. Lady.

As this is one of the largest programmes in Government, it will be reviewed closely as we move towards main gate, both in the Ministry of Defence and more widely across Whitehall. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence announced last week, the Government are doing more to tighten up the Ministry of Defence’s internal processes. The Secretary of State for Defence will chair the major projects review board, which by definition will include the replacement submarine programme, and will receive a quarterly report on our major projects to ensure that they are on time and within budget. Where projects are falling behind schedule or budget we will take immediate remedial measures.

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Those responsible will be brought to account in front of the project board. In addition, we will publish a list every quarter of the major project review board’s “projects of concern”. That way, Parliament, the public and the market can judge how well we and industry are doing in supporting our armed forces while offering value for money to the taxpayers.

Progress on the decisions we have taken during the SDSR, including those on the nuclear deterrent, will be reviewed by the National Security Council. The Government have also established a major projects authority within the Cabinet Office with a specific remit to oversee our portfolio of major projects and assess the health of programmes in it through a combination of quarterly reporting and more focused reviews. The major projects authority will produce an annual report through which Parliament and the public will be able to review our performance. On top of that scrutiny, the National Audit Office has published a report on the deterrent

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programme and, while it is not for me to task the NAO, I would not be surprised if it were to look again at this programme in the run-up to main gate, giving the Public Accounts Committee a chance to do the same thing.

It will be for the next Government to make decisions about scrutinising the main gate decision. For now, I am confident that we are striking the right balance between delivering the programme and ensuring that we are open about how we are performing. As this debate shows, if hon. Members wish to scrutinise the process, there are many avenues open to do that in our parliamentary democracy—many have already been explored by the Select Committee and many other options exist. Our democracy is more secure because of the Trident programme and our commitment to its successor.

Question put and agreed to.

1.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.