I am also very grateful to the noble Lord for straying into the political area. I was not going to do so but he has provoked me. The Conservative Government whom he criticised were the first to create a Minister of State and a whole department of consumer affairs; they also introduced the Fair Trading Act 1973 and the first Consumer Credit Bill, which was carried on by other
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Governments. I subsequently introduced, as Minister of State, the Competition Act, which he supported. Well, well, well, my Lordswe now have a major consumer Bill from this Government, who over the past nine or so years have downgraded ministerial responsibility for consumer affairs from the level of Minister of State to that of Parliamentary Under-Secretary, then to Parliamentary Under-Secretary with mixed responsibilities, and then to having no ministerial person responsible at all. They filleted the Office of Fair Trading, they desiccated the NCC and they condensed the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. I suppose that a deathbed conversion is always welcome.
When news of the Farepak disaster brokehere I definitely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Borriethere was no officially designated consumer affairs Minister in the Government to comment. It fell to Back-Bench MPs and eventually the Chancellor to ask people, as he usually does, to put their hands in their pockets to help people, which they very generously did. I therefore hope that, in Committee, we will find it possible to take steps in Part 4 to regulate the industry. Christmas clubs are very popular; I am not sure that they are the best form of saving for consumers but they certainly need to be regulated.
So we now have, after nearly nine years, a Bill that appears to cobble together a vast range of new duties and powers for a new NCC, the implementation of which will not be helped by the vagueness of some of the drafting, and which will certainly be very costlyas it will have to be if it is to function properlydespite other savings that may be made.
Despite what the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, said, my main concern is to support what my noble friend Lady Wilcox said about the independence of the new NCC and other bodies which may criss-cross around and in front of it. I, my predecessors and my immediate successor, my noble friend the very notable Lady Wilcox, who was an excellent chairman of the NCC, were completely free to investigate whatever we wanted, and we could report and publish our findings without submitting them to the Government. Indeed, I remember the publication of two particularly controversial reports when I was chairman of the NCC. In one, we published the fact that British consumers were at a great disadvantage as a result of the CAP; in another, we called for greater access to justice for consumers. That has subsequently been dealt with under legislation by this Government, for which I commend them.
I turn to the subject of the new NCCs new functions relating to utilities and the Post Office. I am not as unduly concerned as others that they are to come under the same body so long as the NCC is given the manpower and resources for all the new functions, which will be vast and costly. Without them, the task could be overwhelming and could not be carried out correctly. I particularly welcome the NCCs new role of giving advice and pursuing redress in certain defined cases, limited though they are by their definition. Both as a Minister and a chairman of the NCC, one of my major concerns was the lack of this kind of provision across the board. As already
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illustrated, as a result of CABs harnessing the information that they were gaining on doorstep selling, there are now welcome provisions in the Bill to help to deal with that practice. They have come about because of complaints which have been gathered and analysed, and that is why I should like to see something far greater across the board than the provisions that are limited to the utilities.
When I was a Minister, I wanted to introduce an across-the-board scheme of this kind. I was frustrated in that ambition because the cost would have been prohibitive. Perhaps tragedies such as Farepak would have been avoided if greater counselling, advice or gathering of evidence had been available. In my experience, the General Consumer Council for Northern Ireland was free to carry out such functions and it did so very successfully. I am not sure why it has been left out of the Bill, and perhaps the Minister will let us know.
Another of my objectives as Minister was to simplify the law so that consumers knew what their obligations and rights were. To that end, I produced the consumer education pack for schools, which was circulated throughout the system. I took a number of the classes myself and they proved popular and informative, as well as being very cost-effective. Therefore, I am sad that there is no mention in the Bill of a responsibility to carry that forward.
Finally, I wish the NCC very good luck, especially in dealing with British Gas and Post Office complaints. It will need it. It will also need time and patience and, as I have said before, resources.
I am sure that a very interesting Committee stage awaits us. I shall not comment on the estate agents part of the Bill because that area of consumer affairs was never within my remit in the department. Nevertheless, I welcome many clauses in the Bill, which, again, will have to be studied very carefully. No doubt the Minister will enlighten us and help us further in this matter at later stages of the Bill. I hope that by the time he has to oversee the implementation of the Bill, he will have become Minister of State for Consumer Affairs, as this important responsibility warrants.
The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows:
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a Statement about the Government's decision to maintain the United Kingdom's independent nuclear deterrent. There are many complex technical, financial and military issues to be debated in respect of this decision. But none of them obscures or alters the fundamental political judgment at the crux of it. Britain has had an independent nuclear deterrent for the past half century. In that time the world has
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changed dramatically, not least in the collapse of the Soviet Union, the original context in which the deterrent was acquired. Given that this change has occurred, the question is whether it is wise to maintain the deterrent in the very different times of today.The whole point, of course, about the deterrent, is not to create the circumstances in which it can be used, but on the contrary to try to create circumstances in which it is never used. Necessarily, therefore, any analysis of what role it could play in any situation that is hypothetical will always be open to the most strenuous dispute. Ultimately, this decision is a judgment, a judgment about possible risks to our country and its security; and the place of the deterrent in thwarting those risks. The Government's judgment, on balance, is that though the Cold War is over, we cannot be certain in the decades ahead that a major nuclear threat to our strategic interests will not emerge; that there is also a new and potentially hazardous threat from states such as North Korea, which claims already to have developed nuclear weapons, or Iran, which is in breach of its non-proliferation duties; that there is a possible connection between some of those states and international terrorism; that it is noteworthy that no present nuclear power is, or is even considering, divesting itself of its nuclear capability unilaterally; and that in these circumstances it would be unwise and dangerous for Britain, alone of any of the nuclear powers, to give up its independent nuclear deterrent.Notice that I do not say that the opposite decision is unthinkable; or that anyone who proposes it is pacifist or indifferent to our country's defence. There are perfectly respectable arguments against the judgment we have made. I both understand them and appreciate their force. It is just that, in the final analysis, the risk of giving up something that has been one of the mainstays of our security since the war, and moreover doing so when the one certain thing about our world today is its uncertainty, is not a risk I feel we can responsibly take. Our independent nuclear deterrent is the ultimate insurance. It may beindeed, we hope it isthe case that the eventuality against which we are insuring ourselves will never come to pass. But in this era of unpredictable but rapid change, when every decade has a magnitude of difference with the last, and when the consequences of a misjudgment on this issue would be potentially catastrophic, would we want to drop this insurance, and not as part of a global move to do so but on our own? I think not.However, what will happen from today will be a very full process of debate. It is our intention at the conclusion of that process in March of next year to have a vote in this House. We will make arrangements during the process to answer as fully as possible any of the questions that arise. And of course I am sure that the Defence Select Committee, at least, will want to examine the issue carefully. The White Paper, which we publish today, goes into not merely the reasons for the decision but also a technical
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explanation of the various options and tries to cover in some detail all potential lines of dispute or inquiry. I hope, therefore, that we can focus on the decision itself, not the process. Let me now turn to some of the key questions. First, the reason this decision comes to us now is that if, in 2007, we do not take the initial steps toward maintaining our deterrent, shortage of time may prevent us from being able to do so. Necessarily we can only form this view based on estimates, but these are from the evidence given to us by our own experts, by the industry that would build the new submarines and the experience of other nuclear states.Our deterrent is based on four submarines. At any one time, one will be in dock, undergoing extensive repair and maintenance, usually for around four years. The other three will be at sea, or in port for short periods, but at all times at least one will be on deterrent patrol, fully armed. The submarines are equipped with Trident D5 missiles which are US-manufactured but maintained with our close technical and scientific collaboration. The operation of the system is fully independent. A missile can be fired only on the instructions of the British Prime Minister.The current Vanguard submarines have a service life of 25 years. The first boat should leave service in 2017. We can extend that for five years; so in 2022 that extension will be concluded. In 2024, the second boat will also end its extended service life. By that time, we will have only two Vanguard submarines. This will be insufficient to guarantee continuous patrolling.The best evidence we have is that it will take us 17 years to design, build and deploy a new submarine. Working back from 2024, therefore, that means we have to take this decision in 2007. Of course, all these timelines are estimates, but they conform to the experience of other countries with submarine deterrents as well as to our own.Secondly, we have looked carefully at the scope of different options. The White Paper sets them out: for example, aircraft with cruise missiles, but cruise missiles travel at subsonic speeds and building the special aircraft would be hugely expensive; or a surface ship equipped with Trident, but that is a far easier target. Another option is a land-based system with Trident. But in a small country such as the United Kingdom that is immensely problematic and also, again, an easier target. There is no doubt at least on this score: if you want an independent nuclear deterrent for a nation like the United Kingdom, a submarine-based one is best.It is also our only deterrent. In the 1990s we moved to Trident as our sole nuclear capability. Of the other major nuclear powers, the US has submarine, air and land-based capability. Russia has all three capabilities and has the largest number of nuclear weapons. France has both submarine and air-launched capability and has a new class of submarines in development, the last of which is due to come into service in 2010. China
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has a smaller number of land-based strategic nuclear weapons but is working on modernising its capability, including a submarine-based nuclear ballistic missile.We will continue to procure some elements of the system, particularly those relating to the missile, from the United States but, as now, we will maintain full operational independence. The submarines, missiles, warheads, and command chain are entirely under British control, and will remain so after 2024. This gives British Prime Ministers the necessary assurance that no aggressor can escalate a crisis beyond UK control.A new generation of submarines will make maximum use of existing infrastructure and technology. The overall design and manufacture costsof some £15 billion to £20 billionare spread over three decades; are on average 3 per cent of the defence budget; and are at their highest in the early 2020s. As before, we will ensure that the investment required will not be at the expense of the conventional capabilities that our Armed Forces need. It is our intention that the procurement and building will, as now, be done by British industry, with thousands of British, highly skilled jobs involved.However, we will investigate whether, with a new design, we can maintain continuous patrol with a fleet of only three submarines. A decision on this will be made once we know more about the submarines detailed design. No decisions are needed now on the warhead. We can extend the life of the D5 Trident missile to 2042. After that, there will be the opportunity for us to participate in any new missile design in collaboration with the United States, something which will be confirmed in an exchange of letters between myself and the President of the US. Maintaining our nuclear deterrent capability is also fully consistent with all our international obligations. We have the smallest stockpile of nuclear warheads among the recognised nuclear weapons states and are the only one to have reduced to a single deterrent system. Furthermore, we have decided, on expert advice, that we can reduce our stockpile of operationally available warheads to no more than 160, which represents a further 20 per cent reduction. Compared with previous plans, we will have reduced the number of such weapons by nearly half.So we inexorably return to the central judgment: maintain our independent nuclear deterrent or not? It is written as a fact by many that there is no possibility of nuclear confrontation with any major nuclear power. Except that it is not a fact. Like everything else germane to this judgment, it is a prediction. It is probably rightbut certain? No, we cannot say that.The new dimension is undoubtedly the desire by stateshighly dubious in their intentions, such as North Korea and Iranto pursue nuclear weapons capability. Fortunately, Libya has given up its WMD ambitions and has played a positive role internationally; and the notorious network of AQ Khan, the former
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Pakistani nuclear physicist, has been shut down. But proliferation remains a real problem. The notion of unstable, usually deeply repressive and anti-democratic states, in some cases profoundly inimical to our way of life, having a nuclear capability, is a distinct and novel reason for Britain not to give up its capacity to deter. It is not utterly fanciful either to imagine states sponsoring nuclear terrorism from their soil. We know that this global terrorism seeks chemical, biological and nuclear devices. It is not impossible to contemplate a rogue Government helping such an acquisition. It is true that our deterrent would not deter or prevent terrorists, but it is bound to have an impact on Governments who might sponsor them.Then there is the argument, attractive to all of us who believe in the power of countries to lead by exampleas we seek to do in climate change and have done in respect of debt reliefthat Britain giving up its deterrent would encourage others in the same direction. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that any major nuclear power would follow such an exampleon the contrary. As for the new, would-be nuclear powers, it really would be naïve to think that they would be influenced by a purely British decision; more likely they would construe it as weakness.Finally, there is one other argumentthat we shelter under the nuclear deterrent of America. Our co-operation with America is rightly very close. But close as it is, the independent nature of the British deterrent is again an additional insurance against circumstances where we are threatened but America is not. These circumstances, I agree, are also highly unlikely, but I am unwilling to say they are non-existent.In the end, therefore, we come back to the same judgment. Anyone can say that the prospect of Britain facing a threat in which our nuclear deterrent is relevant is highly improbable. No one can say, however, that it is impossible. In the early 21st century the world may have changed beyond recognition since the decision taken by the Attlee Government over half a century ago, but it is precisely because we could not have recognised then the world we live in now, that it would not be wise now to predict the unpredictable in the times to come. That is the judgment we have come to. We have done so according to what we think is in the long-term strategic interests of our nation and its security, and I commend it as such to the House.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I am immensely grateful to the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement. I agree with much of what has been said. I understand that she herself has always been a supporter of keeping a nuclear deterrent, and we on this side have always shared that view. In this dangerous world, we on this side think it foolish to advocate unilaterally abandoning our nuclear shield. If the Prime Minister and Mr Brown
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face down the CND rump on the Labour Benches, my honourable friends in another place will support them.
I address two objections and hope that the noble Baroness will be able to agree with me. First, it is true that the degree of potential nuclear proliferation is currently uncertain. It follows from that that we must redouble our efforts to contain proliferation. Does she agree that replacing Trident does not hinder our efforts to achieve multilateral nuclear disarmament? Is it not therefore quite wrong to say that Britain, by maintaining an existing capacity, would be entering a new nuclear arms race?
Secondly, it is true that future threats are uncertain and that some foreseeable threats are asymmetric, so that massive ICBM retaliation against a foreign power may not be the appropriate reaction. It follows from that that strategic planning should remain under review and our range of responses should be as flexible as possible.
Surely the fact that the world has changed and is changing rapidly is the very case for keeping up our guard. Today's threat is different from that predicted 20 years ago, so today we cannot predict the threat that we will face in 20 years, let alone 50 years on, when the next generation of submarines would go out of service. We need to be prepared for many eventualities.
The decision before us is a momentous one on which this House will expect a full debate. I hope that the noble Baroness will be able to confirm in her response that this House will have the same opportunity as another place to discuss the issue in detail in the coming months.
The decision is about whether to maintain our deterrent by ordering a replacement for our only strategic nuclear system. Our answer to that has been yes. Indeed, we believe that the case is overwhelming. The blunt truth, regrettably, is that a number of states are actively seeking to acquire nuclear weapons and to develop long-range delivery systems.
I cannot agree with the Liberal Democrats that we should delay a decision for years, letting our Trident fleet decay while we wait to see what happens in Pyongyang and Tehran. We cannot rule out conflict with a major state or rogue state armed with an intercontinental capability in the next 50 years. Given that, must we not retain for the foreseeable future a secure, recognised and credible ability to respond conclusively anywhere in the world, should circumstances demand it? Does the noble Baroness agree that the key to a credible system is that the platform is not vulnerable to pre-emptive attack? Can she confirm that all experts agree that a submarine-based system is the least vulnerable and offers necessary security and range?
It is easy to charge that this is all to do with the Prime Minister's desire to leave a nuclear legacy. We have heard that charge from the leader of the Liberal Democrats during his progress through the television studios this afternoon. Can the noble Baroness refute that and assure us that the whole Cabinet shares the Prime Ministers view that we must decide this now?
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On the issue of timing, is not the key to start the design and procurement process, so that the new submarines are available when the old ones go out of service? Would not a further life extension be costly and uncertain, and potentially leave a gap?
Finally, I ask the noble Baroness two specific questions. The first is on the number of submarines. The Prime Minister talked of keeping the decision open on three or four submarines. Can the noble Baroness tell us what, for him, will be the deciding factor? Is it just a matter of design or are there other considerations? The French deterrent, for example, requires four submarines. Secondly, there is the issue of warheads. Does she agree that it is essential that a new Trident should be able to launch ballistic missiles with conventional warheads and cruise missiles and that it should not be exclusively an arsenal of nuclear weapons? On nuclear systems, does she recall that the previous Conservative Government significantly reduced the number of warheads? The incoming Labour Government reduced it further. Now the Prime Minister proposes yet another reduction. Is all the advice from senior military experts that the new total is sufficient to maintain a credible deterrent?
The first duty of any Government is to take the right decisions in the national interest and never to fudge those decisions for internal party reasons. The noble Baroness can be sure that, on questions of national security, whenever the Government put the national interest first, they can count on the support at least of our party.
Lord McNally: My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement. As we are putting our consistency on the line, I can say that, although I have been in a succession of parties, my consistency in supporting the argument for a British nuclear deterrent can be tested. Indeed, I supported it when Mr Blair was wearing his CND badge. As for the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, who seems to have taken a close interest in the development of Liberal Democrat policies, which again I welcome, I remind him that there is a history of the Conservative Party swallowing a Blair-made case hook, line and sinker, only to repent at its leisure. We will be very happy to stand where we are.
This is probably the most important decision that any Prime Minister, and any Government, must take. One is worried about some of the rationale. When the Prime Minister says that our independent nuclear deterrent is the ultimate insurance, one must ask whether that is not an invitation to nuclear proliferation, because almost any country can then seek that ultimate insurance. It is extremely dangerous logic. The Prime Minister has advanced a case today for some reduction in the capacity of our deterrent, but has made a commitment to a very expensive solution to the dilemma.
We agree that now is not the time to abandon the protection that nuclear weapons provide. I should say in passing that, although I have had only a short time
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to look at it, the information as presented looks interestingly clear for the layman to go through. There are important points in it. It says,
we know of no state that has both a nuclear capability and the ability and intent to use it against our vital interests.
It also states,
accurately predicting events over the period 2020 to 2050 is extremely hard.
We are therefore presented with a case in 2006 that is based chiefly, from what I can see, on the argument that it takes 17 years to develop a replacement. I will be interested to see whether all experts think that that is realistic.