Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

We are left with the questions: why now and why this option? I am afraid that there is a suspicion that this is about the Prime Minister’s legacy. One must wonder whether this is a decision to be taken in the dying days of an Administration. We will hear from the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, later. We are told in the newspapers that the Prime Minister-in-waiting will revolutionise Labour policy, clear the decks and change attitudes. So why do we need this decision in what, as I say, are the dying days of the Blair Administration? We have been given the costs, but are they really anything but notional? How much lobbying has gone on by British Aerospace and other defence suppliers?

We agree that there is a deterrent to be had, that there is a war to be fought on terrorism and on crime, and that they are not mutually exclusive. But it is legitimate to ask, as former Home Secretary Charles Clarke has asked, whether the balance is right between the kind of expenditure commitment involved in this decision and the commitment made to the war on terrorism. Further, there is a wide range of legitimate views. We shall hear the view of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, later, but Sir Michael Quinlan said:

The noble Lord, Lord Hattersley, has said that replacing Trident would be an “expensive nonsense”. How we wish that the noble Lord, Lord Hattersley, would occasionally grace us with his presence, but unfortunately I do not think that we pay as much as the Guardian.

The position taken on these Benches is clear. It would be unwise at this time for Britain to abandon its nuclear weapons altogether, but we would extend the life of the present system with a reduction in the number of submarines and warheads. That is certainly not unilateral disarmament, still less is it fence-sitting. The decision to commission a new generation of nuclear-armed submarines may well be the wrong one and certainly it is being taken by the wrong Prime Minister at the wrong time. We need to use this time for a broader look at our foreign policy and security needs, our role in Europe, the reform of the United Nations, and the need to reinvigorate the non-proliferation treaty and to give impetus to nuclear disarmament—and here I echo the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, about the Government’s initiatives, if any, in this area.

4 Dec 2006 : Column 984

As I have said before, this has often been a matter of grave division, certainly on these Benches and on the Benches opposite. The Conservatives have always maintained a bland unity, which makes the present position even more worrying. I do not go as far as Matthew Parris, who called this a,

while going on to express his support very much along the lines that we are arguing. But there is a need for a rational and informed decision to be taken, and I urge the Government to both broaden and deepen the debate so that all options are discussed and consideration of our foreign policy interests is conducted without reliance on concepts such as “buying a ticket to the top table”. This is really a Statement saying, “Don’t send me naked into the conference chamber”, but the response to that from these Benches is that we must have all the available information and a fully informed debate. We must not be bounced or rushed into a decision about matters that are decades away; we should not have to rely on an assurance from the Prime Minister that the decision has to be taken now, even though many reasonable and expert opinions say that there is time and it is necessary to conduct a longer and better-informed debate.

4.23 pm

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I shall start with the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. First, I thank him for his overall support in these matters. This is of course a question of national security and it is important that the parties work together as much as possible. On the question of containing proliferation, we strongly believe that the best way of achieving our goal of a safer world free from nuclear weapons is through consensus. We therefore continue to engage in efforts in this direction both in terms of constraining nuclear proliferation and in terms of disarmament. That is why this Government’s record on disarmament is so important. We shall, of course, keep the strategic planning process under review.

As to whether the House will have an opportunity to debate the issue, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, knows that that is a matter for the usual channels, but I cannot imagine that in this instance the usual channels will say no. The White Paper sets out very clearly the technical issues. It runs through four possible scenarios and points very clearly to the importance of maintaining and upgrading the current system. I can confirm that the whole Cabinet endorses this decision. It is a matter that we have discussed on more than one occasion.

The deciding factor on the number of submarines is basically a technical one. We want the ability to maintain continuous patrolling—that is important to us—and we need to know the design of the new submarine before we can make a decision on numbers. As to the warheads and whether reducing them to 160 will be sufficient, I can confirm that we are moving to that number on the basis of professional advice.

4 Dec 2006 : Column 985

The noble Lord, Lord McNally, raised a number of issues and questions. I agree that the White Paper is very clear. I think that anyone who is not an expert in these matters could read the White Paper and come to a clear understanding of the issues that are being debated and discussed. I note the noble Lord’s comment that now is not the time to abandon our protection.

I thought that I went into the question of why we need to make the decision now when I was reading the Statement, but perhaps I should repeat it. The first of our Royal Navy Vanguard class ballistic missile submarines which carry the Trident D5 missile was launched in 1992 and had an original design life of 25 years. So it will come to the end of its life in 2017. Even if the life of the boats was extended by around five years—the maximum we judge to be prudent—the first two boats would leave service around 2022 and 2024. All the advice and experience that we have shows that we will need 17 years for the concept, design and building of the new submarines, which is why the decision has to be taken by 2007. I know that some will say that the last time around it took only 14 years from the decision to purchase Trident to the first system being deployed, but in the preceding decade a good deal of initial concept and design work had already taken place without commitment. That is why the estimate is 17 rather than 14 years.

We have chosen this option because we think that it will give us the greatest security and the best value for money. It is about getting the balance right. It is not about lobbying by any particular companies; it is about the UK’s security. Yes, it is a judgment, but we have made it on the basis of the information available to us. No other nuclear power is looking at giving up its nuclear deterrent at the moment.

The noble Lord asked about spending the money on countering the threat from terrorism, but he will know that we have an intensive strategy for managing risks from terrorism and we are investing heavily in a range of capabilities to deal with them. But we still need to insure against the range of potential threats that only nuclear weapons can deter, even though new threats such as terrorism have emerged. We know that the deterrent helps to deter some of the worst risks from terrorism, but we would not pretend that it deters all of them.

The Statement made the position clear with regard to costs. The overall design and manufacture costs of some £15 billion to £20 billion are spread over three decades; on average, that is 3 per cent of the defence budget, no more than any other major defence projects would cost. The costs are at their highest in the early 2020s, but if this were spread evenly over these years it would be about £1 billion a year. That is 1 per cent of our total health spending. We spend some £6 billion on our international development budget. It is important to put this project in perspective.

Some of the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, in respect of the rationale for this, the issue of lobbying and the question whether this is about the Prime Minister’s legacy were wholly inaccurate. This is a judgment that the whole Cabinet has come to. We recognise the need to make a

4 Dec 2006 : Column 986

decision now, and the Conservatives have made it clear that they do, too. The Liberal Democrats seem to be saying yes, they want to retain a deterrent, but they do not know what we should be doing.

4.31 pm

Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, I accept that the Government have a commendable record on reducing the nuclear arsenal in this country. However, if their view is that a nuclear capacity is essential to our security, how is it proposed that the non-nuclear powers will be persuaded that it is not essential to theirs, and how will this decision contribute to achieving non-proliferation?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, the framework within which we are working is the non-proliferation treaty. That framework recognises the five nuclear states and makes it clear that other states should not move to nuclear power, but at the same time proposes mechanisms multilaterally for the nuclear states to disarm. That is why we take the position we do on North Korea and Iran. Our best defence is that framework.

Lord Garden: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for relaying the Statement, and for giving us some Christmas reading. Those of us who are enthusiasts for nuclear strategy will study the White Paper with great interest.

In fact, I do not think there is as much difference between the various positions as is being suggested. Those of us who were on a Liberal Democrat working group on this subject reported last week in favour of a submarine-based system. We suggested—as had been suggested when the decision was made on Trident—that three might be more sensible than four. I am glad to see that the Government have done that. We also suggested that there is no magic about the number of 200 warheads; one can come down quite significantly, and that might stimulate some work in arms control.

The area I have problems with, however, and I would be grateful for an answer from the Minister on this, is the timing described in the Statement. The Minister said that the decision on Trident took 14 years. That is true if you take it from 1980, when it was made, to 1994, when Trident became operationally capable. She finessed that into 1992, when it went into the water. Trident was originally lifed for 30 years, and that continued to be stated until only two years ago. It was a 30-year system, which takes us to 2024, not the 2017 that she was talking about. It has the possibility of a life extension of five to six years at relatively low cost. The Americans are extending their Ohio class to a 45-year lifespan. There is not the urgency that is being put about to take the decision.

I do not think we differ, though. When the Minister said there were five years of development-thinking about Trident, presumably she was talking about five years of development-thinking for Trident’s successor. What date are the Government working on for the main gate decision when the real money gets spent? I will be very surprised if it is different from 2014, which we have been suggesting.

4 Dec 2006 : Column 987

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I confirm that the Royal Navy Vanguard class of ballistic missile submarine had an original design life of 25 years. Even if the life of the boats was extended by around five years—the maximum that we judge to be prudent—the first two boats would leave service around 2022 and 2024. The noble Lord will know even better than I do that the United States has different design bases.

Any extension is an issue of security. There is some urgency—we have to make a decision in 2007. A great deal of work has gone into looking at the different options. It is laid out comprehensively in the White Paper. This is a transparent process and we have made it absolutely clear that the House of Commons will have an opportunity to vote on this. We are confident of winning the argument because the White Paper and the supporting fact-sheet show that the arguments are very clear.

Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, I welcome the Statement and the bipartisan approach that it has received in this House and the other place. Sitting on the fence makes no sense at all. The life of the submarines has been extended to meet the current decision’s timescale, with the order for a new submarine next year. Bearing in mind that we had problems with Polaris in the latter period of its life, it would be foolish to try to extend the existing Vanguard submarines even further. Can the Minister clarify the funding of these submarines? In the Statement, it appeared that there would be additional funding, but in response to an earlier question, the Minister seemed to suggest that the money would come out of the ordinary defence budget. Perhaps she could explain whether it will come from the ordinary defence budget or whether there will be additional funds for this very important replacement for the Trident system.

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I hope that I have not confused the House. What I said in the Statement and in response to questions was that this would have no impact on our conventional capability. That is the commitment which has been made. The spending will be, as usual, through the Comprehensive Spending Review; this decision will not have an impact on that.

Lord Hamilton of Epsom: My Lords, it must be right to replace our deterrent, and it has to be right that it is a submarine-borne system. However, £15 billion to £20 billion is an awful lot of money. The Minister says it is 3 per cent of the defence budget, but it is a lot more than 3 per cent of the procurement budget. It is not as if our troops are overblessed with wonderful equipment, and one does not want to see that situation continue. Would it not be more sensible to look at putting a nuclear warhead on a Tomahawk missile and firing it out of a hunter-killer submarine? That must surely be much cheaper and although the range would be less, it would give us the deterrent and it would be submarine-borne.

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I am advised that those are subsonic and would be very easy to shoot down.

4 Dec 2006 : Column 988

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, for those of us who believe passionately in the theory of nuclear deterrence and think that our Trident fleet and its Polaris predecessors have made a contribution to the fact that this country has not had to wage a third world war in Europe, and who do not wish to see the ultimate defence of these islands in the hands of the French or the Americans, today’s Statement by the Prime Minister will be extremely welcome. However, I am a little concerned about one thing. Perhaps my noble friend could consult her colleagues about the idea of having only three boats. There have been occasions when, with a four-boat fleet, we have been within a whisker of being unable to preserve a single boat on station. I was glad to hear her say that the Government were insistent on having something available 365 days a year. I hope that they realise that all sorts of unforeseen contingencies can occur. I for one will take a lot of persuading that we should reduce the number of submarines from four to three.

Baroness Amos: My Lords, my noble friend is quite right. I hope that I made it clear that continuous patrolling is the key and that we have to look at the technicalities and design of any new submarine. We would not reduce their number to three if we could not have continuous patrolling and factor in the unforeseen circumstances about which he spoke.

Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan: My Lords, I congratulate the Government on the Statement. This was a central part of our election manifesto in 2005 and did not appear at that time as any potential part of the Blair legacy. What is more, the process is being conducted in a more transparent fashion than was the case in the late 1970s, when some people in this House were advising the then Labour Government on nuclear matters.

As one of those who started as a unilateralist and found that it did not offer any options in terms of disarmament, I welcome the commitment to a further reduction in the number of warheads. I would certainly be of the view, as I was in 1992 when I had more than a passing interest in these matters on behalf of the Labour Party, that there is a case for reducing from four to three the number of submarines, and that the answer lies in the quality of the maintenance programmes and the ability of our dockyard support to do the business in an effective manner. If those points can be answered, many of us on this side of the House would see us getting the correct deterrent in the correct proportions at a reasonable cost. The public would find that hard to object to, because they have shown in the past that they are in favour of continuing the defence of Britain, regardless of the cost, so long as it is within reasonable bounds.

Baroness Amos: My Lords, my noble friend is quite right. The answer lies partly in the quality of the maintenance programme, but also in the overall technical design of the new submarine. He scored a political hit when referring to those in this House who advised Governments in the late 1970s.

4 Dec 2006 : Column 989

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: My Lords, I too join in the almost-unanimous welcome for this balanced Statement. Will the Lord President confirm that the announced 20 per cent reduction in warheads, on top of the 30 per cent reduction which has already been obtained, is entirely compatible with our obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty? Will she also confirm that the argument that the possession of nuclear weapons is illegal is entirely specious? When the protestors at Faslane took the matter to the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh, it was ruled that they had no case. Most importantly, will she confirm that if we were to follow the advice of the Liberal Democrat leader in the House, we would have protection for our generation, but none for our children and grandchildren? That is an entirely unacceptable way to move forward.

Will the Lord President let us debate this matter? I look forward to exposing the differences in the Liberal Democrats’ statements. We have already heard entirely different statements from the noble Lords, Lord Garden and Lord McNally, which, in turn, were different from the statement of the leader of the Liberal Democrats. They are not at sixes and sevens; they are at sixes, sevens, eights, nines and tens. What we need to discuss is threes or fours, or £20 billion or £25 billion. Let us have a debate as quickly as possible.

Baroness Amos: My Lords, my noble friend is right in saying that what we are proposing is entirely compatible and consistent with our obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. On legality, we fully comply with our obligations under Article 6, which does not establish a timetable for unilateral disarmament, either nuclear or general, and does not state that replacement or updating of currently held systems would be unlawful. Instead, Article 6 places an obligation on all NPT member states to pursue the necessary negotiations to achieve the goal of disarmament. I am proud of what this Government have done with respect to our disarmament obligations.

The issue of a debate is a matter for the usual channels, but I cannot see that they would turn down the possibility. I am sure that many in this House would look forward to having a robust debate with those on the Liberal Democrat Benches.

Lord Cobbold: My Lords, have the Government given consideration to working with the French on the development of the next stage of a nuclear deterrent and sharing the costs?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I know that the French are doing some modernising of their own. I am not aware of us giving consideration to working with the French but, if there is any further information that I can give the noble Lord, I shall write to him.

Earl Attlee: My Lords, can we afford the expenditure profile of the new deterrent, the carrier system and its air group all at the same time? Some in industry are already saying that we cannot afford the carrier system.

4 Dec 2006 : Column 990

Baroness Amos: Yes, my Lords, we can. If noble Lords look back at what was said in the Statement, they will see that the cost is spread over three decades.

Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, if I understand it correctly, Article 6 refers to the need to engage in multilateral negotiations. This is not a question of unilateralism—it is definitely one of multilateralism. Could the Minister say a bit more about the circumstances in which she thinks that it would be possible to engage in serious multilateral negotiations? Is it implicit from the existence of the nuclear five—and now there is also North Korea, India, Pakistan and Israel—that this matter is seriously on the world political agenda?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, we are continuously engaged in multilateral discussions on this issue. My noble friend will know about the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, for example. Discussions are ongoing on fissile materials and bringing an end date to that. We see our responsibilities under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty as twofold: first, to work to ensure that states that are non-nuclear do not move to having nuclear weapons and, secondly, that those states recognised in the treaty as having nuclear weapons are able to move towards disarmament.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I do not think that the Minister has really answered the question that was originally asked by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell. What do you say to those countries that are larger geographically and in population and are under greater threat than this country when they ask why, if Britain needs these weapons for security, they do not need them?

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page