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Nuclear Deterrent

Volume 449: debated on Monday 24 July 2006

I welcome the decision to allow Parliament a vote. I hope that its timing will allow for not only a full and informed debate in Parliament but proper public consultation. Given that a vote solely on options for a nuclear deterrent would be inadequate, will the Secretary of State clarify whether it will be on the substantive question of whether the UK retains a nuclear deterrent?

I can give the hon. Gentleman a specific and clear answer: there will be a vote. I have not at this stage determined the question. I will not be in a position to help him until the threats, risks, options and costs are worked out and the Government reach a view to inform the debate that is already taking place.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not join all the other people who suggest that the Government should not reach a view and that we will have a remarkable debate in this country in which Ministers or the Government are the only ones who are not allowed a view. Every time one expresses anything that approximates a view, everybody suggests that the debate has been closed down. There will be a debate—indeed, it is already taking place—the question will emerge, and there will be a vote on it.

My right hon. Friend is right that we should have a vote following a debate. However, the debate should be informed. He has been asked once what estimates he will contribute to the debate. Although he may not have them now, what is his prediction for the month when we will get estimates that allow us all to take part in an informed debate?

A substantial amount of information about the current position is in the public domain. Almost every day, I answer a raft of questions that are designed to tease out individual pieces of information that can inform the debate. The Government’s position could not be clearer. We have set a timetable for around the end of the year and we will have an open and transparent debate. The Government have said that we will publish a White Paper to inform the debate. In my view, it must contain the components to answer all the questions, but only once the risks, threats, options and costs have been worked out. What is the point of my standing here speculating until those matters are worked out?

I do not want to be too helpful to the Secretary of State but it is obvious to me that the Government will be in favour of a new generation of weapons of mass destruction, that the Conservative Opposition will support the new generation of weapons of mass destruction and that the Scottish National party will oppose them. Would not it be helpful to know the Liberal Democrats’ position?

I cannot answer for the Liberal Democrats—they can answer for themselves when the time comes. It comes as no surprise that the Scottish National party is opposed to continuing—if it comes to that—with a nuclear deterrent. The SNP is opposed to NATO. Its defence policy is not clear apart from complaining about British soldiers, whom it does not intend to support in future.

I warmly welcome the Government’s commitment to holding a vote on this extremely important issue; they are not being given sufficient credit for that, just as they were not given sufficient credit for holding a vote on the war in Iraq. We need an informed debate, however, and one of its most important aspects will be the nature of the security threat that this country will face, which will be very different from those that we have faced in the past. What information will Back Benchers be given to enable them to make the correct decisions?

My hon. Friend can look forward to having the opportunity to consider the available evidence on the nature of the risks and threats to our defence and security that we might face over the next 20 to 50 years. It will be the Government’s duty to reflect on the full range of threats to the security of the nation, so as to inform the nation and its parliamentarians about the decision that they will need to make on how we configure our defence for that very uncertain future.

There is consensus between the Government and the Opposition—it probably does not include the majority of Labour Back Benchers or the smaller parties in the House—on the need for a new deterrent, but it will be essential to our debate that we understand the alternatives between what might be described as an expensive option and the cheaper options. Some of the options might have been discarded by the Government when they made their proposals. Will they make it clear to the House what those discarded proposals are, so that we have the opportunity to debate them as well?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that there will be no hiding, discarding or non-publishing of information. The Government want the fullest possible informed debate on this issue. When options are considered and discarded, I will accept the responsibility for explaining why that has happened, if indeed it comes to that. The problem with hon. Members asking such questions at this stage is that I always have to qualify my answers by saying that the risks, threats, options and costs have not yet been assessed, and that no recommendations have been made to any member of the Government. I am therefore not in a position to explain to the hon. Gentleman what the shape of the White Paper will be. However, it seems to me that it ought to take into account the geopolitical side as well as the military issues.