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Volume 205: debated on Tuesday 3 March 1992

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To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the current position with regard to the Trident nuclear defence programme.

The Trident programme remains on time and within budget. The first submarine, Vanguard, is set to roll out of the Devonshire dock hall in Barrow tomorrow and, following a series of sea trials, will enter service with the Royal Navy in the mid-1990s.

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government have had a consistent and unwavering policy on nuclear deterrence through the strength and use of Trident? Will he also confirm that the Government will place the order for the fourth Trident submarine as soon as possible?

The answer to the second part of my hon. Friend's question is yes. It is our duty to protect our nation against the risk of nuclear attack and nuclear threat. That cannot be done on an on-off basis. We must provide the means, the equipment and the training, and that must be maintained year after year. We cannot take risks. My great concern about the totally ambivalent position of the Labour party is that it is prepared to take risks by not having enough submarines to provide an effective deterrent. That applies even to the minority in the Labour party who believe in the nuclear deterrent. We have heard the ultimate nonsense from the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd), who has said that if a Labour Government order a fourth boat they will not put any warheads on it.

Did the Secretary of State derive some comfort from the authoritative letter in The Times of 18 February from the noble Lord Lewin underlining the need for four submarines for the Trident fleet? Did he also note in the same letter the noble lord expressed the view that it may be possible to adapt Tridents to fill a sub-strategic role? In view of that, did not the Secretary of State pause to conclude that whatever NATO may require, there is no requirement for the United Kingdom to have its own tactical air-to-surface missile?

I am grateful for the hon. and learned Gentleman's support in respect of the fourth Trident boat. I give him credit for that, although I cannot give much credit to his policy of favouring a 50 per cent. cut in defence expenditure, which means that there is not the slightest chance of his being able to pay for the extra boat. At least he is father to the wish, even if he cannot guarantee its achievement.

As for the hon. and learned Gentleman's other point, I have made the NATO position clear before.

When my right hon. Friend goes to Barrow later in the week, will he congratulate Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd. and its work force there on the excellent job that they have done in constructing the vessels to specification and to schedule?

Is not it clear that a party which, a few years ago, was offering to do a deal with the Soviet leadership that would have involved the sacrifice of 100 per cent. of Britain's deterrent in return for only 2 per cent. of the Soviet deterrent cannot be trusted with Britain's defences?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I shall ensure that the message that he has asked me to convey is conveyed tomorrow, when I go to Barrow to mark the roll-out of the first Vanguard submarine. This is a great achievement on the part of all the company's work force, and of not only those who work in Barrow but those employed in the other elements that make up our Trident system. That system will now come into operation, and will be available for the defence of our country for many years.

On Thursday, some of the Secretary of State's officials will give evidence about Trident to the Select Committee on Defence. Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that on 6 March 1991, in answer to question 40, Rear Admiral Pirnie said that Britain could maintain a continuous patrol with three Trident submarines, and that with one submarine in refit we could still maintain a continuous patrol with only two submarines? Is that still the opinion of the right hon. Gentleman's advisers?

That is a complete misintepretation of the original evidence, which related to the period immediately prior to Vanguard's first refit. The hon. Gentleman need not think that there is any military support for the idea that in the past the Navy has argued for a three-boat solution, and he will be given a very rough time by the Navy if he makes such a suggestion. As far as I am aware, no senior officer in the Navy considers it possible to maintain the nuclear deterrent without four submarines —and certainly no senior naval officer would support the suggestion of the Labour candidate for Barrow and Furness that the fourth submarine should be turned into a 17,000 tonne sub-sea supply vessel delivering oil instead of missiles.