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Commons Chamber

Volume 458: debated on Wednesday 14 March 2007

House of Commons

Wednesday 14 March 2007

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Social Housing

I have established an independent review into affordable housing under the leadership of Sir John Semple to look at the barriers affecting those seeking affordable housing across all tenures—social, private and private rented. Social housing start targets of approximately 1,500 houses per annum have been achieved in the past three years, and I hope to build on that success in future.

Bearing in mind the fact that getting on the housing ladder is the major difficulty facing our young people, as well as the crisis in social housing, will the Minister tell the House what is the total waiting list for housing in Northern Ireland? How many of those cases are deemed a priority, and how many houses are planned in the next two years to meet that need and tackle the crisis in social housing? That is of the utmost urgency, and the planned 1,500 houses are quite inadequate to meet that need.

In total, about 695,000 properties in Northern Ireland are available for social housing. The current projected build is 1,500 houses per annum, and I hope that we will be able at least to maintain that figure in the next three years and, indeed, with a devolved Administration, increase it. Housing waiting lists are relatively stable. I do not have the figures to hand, but I will make sure that the hon. Gentleman receives them. My purpose in establishing the review under Sir John Semple is to look at the great challenges that we face in Northern Ireland resulting from increased homelessness, which itself is caused by a range of factors such as employment opportunities; high house prices; family break-up; and cultural changes. We need to address those issues. The Semple review will do so, and I hope that we can publish the final results shortly.

Given that average incomes in Northern Ireland are still relatively low while the increase in house prices has accelerated in the past few years, what specific measures has my right hon. Friend taken to assist first-time, aspirational home owners in Northern Ireland so that they can get on the housing ladder?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. We have tried to do several things. We have established and increased the co-ownership scheme to ensure that we provide shared ownership potential in housing. I recently amended the threshold for co-ownership so that it can increase with house price inflation, particularly in hot spots such as Belfast and the north-west of the Province. We have also increased the property threshold for stamp duty to £125,000, so that first-time buyers do not need to make a major up-front financial contribution and can instead put that money towards their capital costs and mortgage payments. It is an important issue, and there is more that we can do. When the report is published shortly, I am hopeful that it will include positive suggestions for action.

I know that the Minister will accept that Northern Ireland house prices have gone up more than house prices anywhere else in Europe—they have increased by up to 40 per cent. in the past year. Does he accept that part of the problem is the high price of land in Northern Ireland for new build? Up to 50 per cent. of the cost of a house is the cost of the site, so the release of land is a critical issue. Because of the slow zoning of the planning service, will the Minister follow John Semple’s suggestion that the Department should give up surplus land and make it available for affordable housing?

I share the hon. Gentleman’s aspirations, and I hope that an incoming Administration—a devolved Administration—can deal with those issues in detail. I have made it clear that I want the provision of Government-owned land for housing purposes to be maximised so that we can provide affordable housing through private sector development and, indeed, social housing. I have undertaken a trawl of Government Departments with surplus land, and, through the Semple report, we will try to ensure that we examine that potential in detail so that we maximise the benefits of reducing the cost of new build by using any surplus Government-owned land as, indeed, is done by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and his Department and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and her Department.

The Minister will be aware that a recent report indicated that house prices have increased by 52.9 per cent. in the past 12 months, for which the Government must bear some responsibility. Awaiting the Semple report is one thing, but we well know that three issues must be addressed. First, planning regulations must be changed to ensure that private development includes mixed tenure; secondly, the ill-fated planning policy statement 14, which forbids any building in rural Northern Ireland, must be immediately withdrawn; and, thirdly, public and brownfield sites should be released for mixed-tenure building. Will the Minister implement those three things immediately without waiting for the results of another investigation?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments. He will know that the Semple report, which will shortly be published in full, addresses many of those issues in its draft form. I hope that the matters that my hon. Friend raises will form part of the challenges facing the incoming Administration on 26 March, because there is much that can be done in relation to planning matters, land use, social housing build and improving co-ownership. I have an agenda for that, but it is the responsibility of the new Administration to take it forward and to respond positively to Sir John Semple’s recommendations. I hope my hon. Friend and his colleagues in the Social Democratic and Labour party will play a significant role in taking forward that agenda.

Tourism

3. How many tourists visited Northern Ireland in the last year for which figures are available. (126337)

I congratulate the Minister on that fantastic figure. When I visited the country and visited the glories of the north Antrim coast, the Giant’s Causeway, Portstewart strand and the wonderful hills of Fermanagh, I noticed the difference from 20 years ago, when there were tanks on the streets of Belfast. What is my hon. Friend doing, particularly for the coastal areas? I noticed that there was nobody on the beaches, although admittedly, it was October. What can we do to diversify tourism in order not only to attract Americans seeking to trace their rich family history and heritage, but to get people to go to the wonderful mile-long white sandy deserted beaches?

May I say that 2005 was the first year since the troubles began that more people visited Northern Ireland than live there. That is a landmark. When the new Executive and Assembly are up and running in a couple of weeks, they can build on that. There is nothing like political stability to attract more visitors to that fantastic landscape. I am sure that achieving a proper political settlement in Northern Ireland will boost visitor numbers enormously. My hon. Friend is right. In a recent poll the Antrim coast road was named the fifth most spectacular view in the world. It came higher in the poll than the Grand Canyon—a reflection of the glories of Northern Ireland. A poll in The Guardian placed it second among the best road trips in the world. There is no doubt that there are glories in Northern Ireland that more visitors need to see, and the best way of ensuring that visitor numbers increase is through a stable political situation and devolved government.

I am delighted that the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) agrees that Northern Ireland is a worthwhile place to visit. I believe that Strangford in my constituency is one of the most beautiful areas of Northern Ireland, but like others, I believe that the Ards peninsula and Killyleagh in particular are not properly marketed for their tourism potential. Does the Minister agree that the draconian planning policy guidelines for the rural areas, which include the coastal areas, are inhibiting the hospitality sector from building hotels and bed-and-breakfast accommodation?

It is interesting to hear the hon. Lady’s views about that. She may be a Minister in the new devolved Government in not too many weeks, and she will have an opportunity then to focus on making the most of the tourism potential in her constituency. I agree that marketing is important, and that it is important to take note of the detailed implications of visitor numbers as they come through and to adjust marketing to make the best of the tourism potential. There is no doubt that that potential exists. There are already 52,980 jobs in the tourism industry and it is clear that that number could increase significantly with proper marketing. If proper services are available, the tourism potential to exploit in Northern Ireland is enormous. I hope the hon. Lady and her right hon. and hon. Friends will shortly have a hands-on opportunity to make that potential a reality.

The next time a Northern Ireland Minister is in Dublin, will he or she visit the Northern Ireland Tourist Board in Nassau street, opposite Trinity? It is unattractive, unappealing and lacking in marketing skills for the beautiful Northern Ireland that hon. Members have described. It is important that such a visit be made in order that we can attract people interlining to the island of Ireland through Dublin to come to the North, and more importantly, to attract citizens of Dublin and elsewhere in the Republic to come to the North. I have seen more appealing funeral homes than that office in Nassau street.

I have visited that office in Dublin, and I cannot say that I recognise my hon. Friend’s description. I accept that it has its limitations, but it certainly did not strike me as looking anything like a funeral home.

Dairy Industry

Recently, dairy farming has been in dire straits, particularly because of the low price of wholesale milk. One of the issues that will affect prospects for the future is the high incidence of bovine TB in Northern Ireland compared with the Republic, where a selective cull has been exceptionally successful. Will the Northern Ireland Office consider that matter and take action to assist dairy farmers in Northern Ireland?

I assure the hon. Lady that animal health issues are a significant priority for my Department. We work very closely with our counterparts in the Republic, and I discussed this issue with Mary Coughlan, the Republic’s Minister for Agriculture and Food, when I met her last year. On a small island such as Ireland, it is important that we have an all-Ireland animal health strategy. If the hon. Lady is particularly referring to the selective cull of badgers, we have a group considering that. As with all such emotive issues, it is best to proceed on the basis of fact and evidence, and we are looking at the lessons that we can learn from the Republic. However, she is absolutely right that big challenges face the dairy sector in Northern Ireland. That is why it requires a full-time Agriculture Minister, who is accountable to local people in Northern Ireland, and I very much hope that one will be in place the week after next.

There are only two ways in which the Northern Ireland dairy industry can remain competitive. One is to produce bulk milk cheaper than alternative suppliers—that option is not open because of limited scale—and the other is to target high-value markets, perhaps through ethical dairy production with integrated supply chains. Does the Minister believe that the dairy industry in Northern Ireland is investing in those areas and not making the same mistakes as the dairy industry here in Great Britain?

My hon. Friend is correct. The industry is over-reliant on exporting powderised milk. The changes to the common agricultural policy in relation to export guarantees, which we entirely support, will mean that that is not an attractive option in future. There must be diversification into higher-value products such as cheese, yoghurt and premium ice cream—for example, the excellent Tickety-Moo ice cream. The Government have a role to play in this, and we can help by making grants available, but essentially it has to be a market-led process. I recently opened a new line at the Dunmanbridge cheese factory, which has risen to the challenge. My hon. Friend is right that such diversification has to be the way ahead.

Given that the average market price across the globe for whole milk powder has risen to some $900, does the Minister agree that it should be a realistic expectation for farmers in Northern Ireland that prices for milk should increase, and increase now?

There is of course a very competitive free market in milk and milk products, and it is not the role of the Government to interfere in that. However, the hon. Gentleman highlights the fact that given that the price of whole milk powder fluctuates wildly, it is folly to stake one’s entire economic development strategy for the dairy industry on what is essentially a global commodity. He is right that prices go up and down. However, I return to the point that I made earlier: the future for Northern Ireland’s dairy industry—which is tremendously important, as dairy products represent 30 per cent. of the value of its agriculture industry—is to diversify into cheese, yoghurt and other high-value products.

I agree with my hon. Friend about diversification, but what is he going to do? We cannot just allow the market to run things for farmers—we need some intervention by Government. Can he tell me what his Department is doing to help them?

Yes, I can. My hon. Friend is correct to say that we need to support the industry in this period of transition, and processing and marketing grants are available from national funds. The extra dairy premium on the single farm payment has also helped the dairy industry to diversify. The factory at Dunmanbridge has benefited to the tune of £500,000 from Government assistance for developing its product line. We stand ready to support the industry as it makes this important transition, but ultimately this must be an issue that the market determines, with Government support.

Political Situation

5. What assessment he has made of the political situation in Northern Ireland following the Assembly elections; and if he will make a statement. (126339)

First, I want to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his election to the Northern Ireland Assembly, and to congratulate all those who signed the roll in the Assembly yesterday. The results of the election issue the clear message that voters want devolution on 26 March. An historic opportunity lies before the Northern Ireland political parties.

I thank the Secretary of State for his good wishes to Members on the Democratic Unionist party Benches. Central to the stunning and tremendous victory of the DUP in the elections was our requirement for delivery by republicans and the Government on a range of outstanding issues, if devolution is to happen. We require delivery by republicans on unambiguous and clear support for policing, the courts and the rule of law. We require the ending of criminality, paramilitarism and all the rest of it. We also require delivery by the Government, not least on a financial package. At the moment, what we are hearing from them falls well short of what will be necessary. Will the Secretary of State assure us and the people of Northern Ireland that an adequate financial package will be on offer to ensure that devolution can be bedded in and that a success can be made of any future Administration?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman; his party did indeed have a stunning victory—he also had one in his own constituency—and I congratulate it on that. It is the case that Sinn Fein needs to deliver—as it is doing, and as its president did on Monday in calling for information about two brutal murders in Belfast to be brought to the police. I want to quote the Belfast Telegraph on this. Interestingly, it says:

“The difference this time is that, although there were reports that the killings had links with republican dissidents, Gerry Adams asked anyone with information to take it to the police. ‘They should co-operate’, he said, ‘to bring the perpetrators to justice.’ Now that as senior a figure as Gerry Adams has urged people to co-operate with police in specific murder inquiries, the barriers that were erected between republicans and the police, over 80 years, are crumbling.”

I agree with the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) that an incoming Executive will have to have a good financial package. The Chancellor is very aware of that, and he will not want to stand in the way of successful devolution on 26 March.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, as we hope that the institutions will shudder to a start on 26 March, financial lubrication would certainly help the process, but that we also need fiscal additives to ensure longer-term better economic performance? Does he also agree that, in making this case to the Treasury, the Northern Ireland parties need to present it by way of long-term plans, not short-term demands? People in Northern Ireland want to see long-term planning that will lead to sustainable institutions delivering differently and better. That is the message that all the parties received, no matter what their manifestos said.

I agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, it was notable that, instead of the old issues dominating the election, water charges, the rating system and academic selection were the key issues on the doorstep and at the ballot box. The message from the people is that they want locally elected politicians to take those decisions, and the Government will assist in providing an environment for that to occur. It is important that the will of the people be respected, and that the Assembly be up and functioning on 26 March.

The Secretary of State will be aware that there were two major election issues on the doorstep: the important constitutional issues, and water charges. The people of Northern Ireland feel great anger and resentment that the Government, who are telling us today what a wonderful future we have, did not give us that wonderful future when they were in office. Why did they not do all these wonderful things that they tell us we should be doing? They missed out very badly.

I say to the Government today that it is no use putting a beautiful engine on the road, saying, “Here is devolution. Here is a wonderful form of government”, if there is not the money to pay for the fuel to run that engine. The Government have a responsibility not only to put the engine on the rails but to supply the people of Northern Ireland with the money. Instead of doing that, they are saying—

I got the impression that the right hon. Gentleman was feeling strongly about water charges. The Chancellor was listening closely to his point, and we will do our best to provide an incoming Executive with the wherewithal they need to have the successful start to devolution that he wants.

May I follow the potential engine driver and ask the Secretary of State to talk to the Chancellor, who is, I think, now listening? Will he tell him that the people of Northern Ireland really are concerned about water charges, and do need a moratorium of at least a year, and not to be double-charged for the privilege?

All that the Government were doing was introducing water charges in Northern Ireland as they are paid in Wales, Scotland and England. The verdict on the doorstep, however, was very clear. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor is well aware of the situation and will no doubt take close notice of the hon. Gentleman’s points.

Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the Alliance party of Northern Ireland on its super-stunning victory and on returning the first ethnic minority Member of the Legislative Assembly, Anna Lo, in the Assembly’s history? Does he accept that the nine-strong united community group is truly committed to the shared future agenda? Will he work with the UCG to ensure that, however unstable any potential Government in Stormont, there will be a stable and progressive Opposition, led by the Alliance, which maximises the chances of a principled shared future and a prosperous Province?

The hon. Gentleman makes his point well. I particularly welcome the fact that Northern Ireland has the first legislator of Chinese origin in the entire United Kingdom, which is a fantastic achievement.

I join the Secretary of State in hoping that on 26 March we see the Assembly and Executive fully restored and exercising powers over the government of Northern Ireland. For that to endure, however, does he agree that the tendency of some republicans to make an artificial distinction between so-called civic and political policing must end, and that there must be a readiness to support the police unreservedly?

Indeed, and that has been made clear by both the president of Sinn Fein and the ard fheis motion. I agree with the hon. Gentleman and am grateful for his support on the objective of getting devolution up and running on 26 March. I am sorry that I cannot congratulate his party on its performance in the elections. It was beaten by the DUP, Sinn Fein, the Social Democratic and Labour party, the Ulster Unionist party, the Alliance, the Green party and the Progressive Unionist party, but at least it beat the Rainbow candidate who stood on a commitment to remove cash from circulation and introduce an electronic currency called the wonder.

At least my party was not afraid to put up candidates for those elections, unlike the Secretary of State’s party.

To return to the policing issue, does the Secretary of State agree that the comments of the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Michelle Gildernew) that she would not report to the police knowledge of the activities of republican dissidents are unacceptable, and that politicians must be prepared to support the police even if it leads to the investigation and arrest of their former comrades?

I think that Gerry Adams’s statement on Monday about the brutal murders committed that day, which I quoted earlier, was very clear. Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, has said that anyone who has information on the McCartney murder should supply it to the police. He has encouraged people to report crimes such as rape, car theft and violence against old people and to co-operate with the police, and he has encouraged republicans to join the police. Those are sea changes of historic proportions, which I know the hon. Gentleman will welcome.

I think the path is very clear. The people spoke on 7 March: they want devolution back. Parliament has spoken: it wants devolution back on 26 March, and we should proceed towards that objective.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

Before I list my engagements, let me say that I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in sending condolences to the family and friends of Warrant Officer Class 2 Michael Smith of 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery, who was killed in Afghanistan last Thursday. He was part of the mission in Sangin to protect the Kajaki dam project. Once again we pay tribute to his heroism, his sacrifice and the work done by him and his colleagues in Afghanistan.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

May I associate myself with my right hon. Friend’s expression of condolence?

My right hon. Friend has made a huge contribution to the peace process in Northern Ireland. Following last week’s election, does he agree that what the people of Northern Ireland want is for their interests to be put first, and for local politicians to get on with the business of forming a Government? Will he confirm that the deadline for devolved government in Northern Ireland remains 26 March, and that that deadline will not change?

As my hon. Friend knows, the deadline is set out in the legislation.

I pay tribute to the leaders of all the political parties, including those in the House, who have played such a prominent part in the politics of Northern Ireland over the past few years. Let me also say that one significant development—in addition to all the other things that are happening in Northern Ireland—is the publication today of the employment figures, which show that over the past few years there have been 100,000 extra jobs in Northern Ireland and a reduction of 30,000 in the number of unemployed people.

What was fascinating, by all accounts, about the election in Northern Ireland was that the bread-and-butter issues—water charges, health, education and the local economy—were prominent on the doorstep. That in itself says a great deal about the modern face of Northern Ireland.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Warrant Officer Michael Smith, killed in Afghanistan last Thursday.

Replacing Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent is in the national interest. A submarine-based alternative is the right answer, and the decision needs to be made now. Does the Prime Minister agree that in a dangerous and uncertain world, unilateral nuclear disarmament has never been and will never be the right answer?

For precisely the reasons that I gave when I made my statement to the House, I think it right that we make the decision now to begin work on replacing the Trident nuclear submarines. I think that that is essential for our security in an uncertain world. It is important for us to recognise that, although it is impossible to predict the future, the one thing that is certain—as I said in my statement—is the unpredictability of it. For that reason, I think it sensible that we make this decision today.

I agree with the Prime Minister. Does he agree that replacing Trident meets both the spirit and the letter of our international treaty obligations? Will he confirm that the last Conservative Government cut the number of warheads, that his Government cut the number of warheads, and that there will be further reductions in the future? Does he agree that, as a result, the argument against replacing Trident on the basis of non-proliferation simply does not stand up?

We are very proud of our record in this respect, and making sure that we reduce the number of warheads is important, as we have said. It may be possible to reduce the number of submarines, although that is a decision that will have to be made at a later stage.

Yes, of course it is important that we conform fully with our non-proliferation treaty obligations, and we are doing so. I think it is possible for us to continue to play our full part—under the non-proliferation treaty—in the multilateral negotiations that I hope will take place over the years to come, so that the world becomes a safer place with fewer nuclear weapons. However, I think that we shall be best able to achieve that if we maintain our nuclear deterrent.

We are discussing this now because the system could take about 17 years to put in place, so the timing is right, the legality is clear and maintaining the deterrent is in our national interest. Because the Prime Minister has the support of the Conservative party, we can work together in the national interest. Will he tell us clearly that tonight’s vote is the vote and that there is no going back after tonight’s vote? Will he also confirm that he will stand by his policy and that he will not appease those in his own party, or the Liberal Democrats, who simply want to run away from a tough decision?

It is precisely because I believe that this decision has to be taken now that we have the vote today in the House of Commons. I entirely understand why people might want to put off this decision, but the fact is that we need to take the decision today if we want to get parliamentary approval for the work that has to begin now on the concept and design phase—of course, the actual contracts for the design and construction are to be left for a later time. If we want to get proper parliamentary authorisation, this decision has to be taken now. I entirely understand and respect the views of those who hold a different opinion on this issue, but I have been pretty clear and firm on it from the beginning, and I think that we should continue to be so.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the petition submitted to Downing street seeking a posthumous knighthood for the late Jock Stein in recognition of his achievements as the manager of Dunfermline, Celtic and Scotland? As this year is the 40th anniversary of Celtic and Stein winning the European cup—the first British team to do so—will the Prime Minister give serious consideration to giving approval for this petition to go online as soon as possible?

Those decisions are not taken by me, and I know that the rules governing posthumous awards are very complex. However, Jock Stein was a great manager, a great Scot and someone who contributed enormously to football and civic society in Scotland.

I join the Prime Minister in his expressions of sympathy and condolence.

I cannot help remembering that the last time the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and the Prime Minister voted together in the same Lobby on an issue of national interest was on Iraq, and that has not proved to be a comforting precedent. Does the Prime Minister accept that the most immediate nuclear threat is from other countries acquiring nuclear weapons? What then will be the role played by his Government at the nuclear non-proliferation review conference in 2010?

We will continue to play a positive role on this issue. However, I must say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that there is absolutely no evidence whatever that if Britain now renounced its independent nuclear deterrent that would improve the prospect of getting multilateral disarmament. On the contrary, I think that the reverse is the case. I must also say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that although of course I understand why he wants to put off this decision—I understand that that is his position—the fact is that the 17-year programme is what has been advised by the experts who advise us on this issue. I recommend that he read the evidence given to the Defence Committee on this very point by Rear-Admiral Mathews. So the 17-year period is clear, and that must be worked back from 2024, which takes us to 2007. That means that we have to take the decision now if we want parliamentary approval for the concept and design phase. I am sure that if we did not seek parliamentary approval but continued with the work on the concept and design phase, the right hon. and learned Gentleman would be standing up and asking why I had not sought such approval.

The Prime Minister surely accepts that a hasty decision to replace Trident is bound to undermine our ability to have influence at the conference in 2010. Should we not now be offering to reduce the number of warheads on Trident in order to give a lead to others?

We are set to reduce the number of warheads, but it is absurd to say that we can somehow put off the question of whether we take a decision now on this concept and design phase. That is absurd because obviously we have to take the advice of the experts, such as the director general who is in charge of this matter in the Ministry of Defence and others, who say to us that it is a 17-year programme and it must therefore begin now if we want to maintain the nuclear deterrent. Therefore, we cannot put this decision off; we have to take it now. I recall that a few days ago, the right hon. and learned Gentleman said on this issue,

“I will not sit on the fence.”

I am afraid that “on the fence” is exactly where he is, and as I think that he will find, it is not a very comfortable place to be.

Q2. Does the Prime Minister share my shock and horror at the stories in the Sunday newspapers about the treatment of injured soldiers? Will he ensure that these hospitals will be fit for purpose, and guarantee that those heroes who come back injured will have the correct treatment and the after-care that they deserve? (127215)

I totally agree with what my hon. Friend says. Many of the stories in the Sunday newspapers were from cases of some months ago, all of which have been investigated and looked into. I want to say this on behalf of the staff of the medical defence services at Selly Oak hospital and those who work elsewhere in our armed forces. They do a superb job for our armed forces, and it is simply not true that the national health service staff who work alongside them do not give excellent care to those who are injured. They do give excellent care, and I can tell my hon. Friend, based on the discussions that I have had with people working at that hospital and on the visits that I have paid to that and other facilities that handle injured soldiers, that there is an immense amount of praise, which never gets any publicity, for the staff who work there and the care that they give. When these stories appear, we should at least balance them with a fairer and I think truer picture of what is actually happening.

May I press the Prime Minister a little further on the point raised by the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle)? As the Prime Minister says, anyone who has been to the Birmingham Selly Oak hospital is hugely impressed by the work that the doctors and nurses do. I have seen it for myself and it is impressive, but surely what matters is not just the quality of care but the environment in which our soldiers are cared for. Is it not the case that when soldiers are injured in battle one day and in a British hospital the next, it is easier for them if they are surrounded by soldiers who have been through what they went through? I know that the Prime Minister has made progress in getting a military managed ward, but when does he expect to have a dedicated military facility in the hospital?

The commitment is precisely to have a military managed ward, and there is such a ward and has been since December of last year. Let me explain why it is important to express the situation in that way. Hospitals such as Selly Oak, to which very serious cases are brought, need the advantage of having the full range of NHS facilities and experts. It is precisely for that reason that the last Conservative Government rightly took the decision to phase out the military hospitals and to replace them with facilities for the armed forces within the NHS. But I totally agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it is important that those who are injured in war are then surrounded by their own comrades, and that they have a sense of their own feeling and sentiment among them. That is precisely what is happening now. I got the latest report from that hospital just a couple of days ago, and if either he or I were to visit it, we would find that the facilities offered to people are very good.

There is a difference between a military managed ward and a dedicated military ward—that is the important point. General Sir Richard Dannatt said yesterday that he has

“every confidence that in three years’ time”—

when the hospital is rebuilt—

“we will not just have a military managed ward, but effectively a dedicated military ward where our people will be exclusively”—

exclusively—

“attended to”.

If it is right for three years’ time, why cannot we do more, quicker?

As I understand it, the point is that there may be beds in some of these wards where the level of care is intensive and high, and where anything between six and eight consultants may be looking after a particular person. But if, for example, there are spare beds within such a ward and the staff are required to look after a civilian patient, it would be wrong to say that such a bed could not be used for a civilian patient. It would also be a very inefficient use of resources. But the whole point is to create the circumstances in which our armed forces who are injured are given the best and highest possible care, and in which they receive that care surrounded by other soldiers and members of the armed forces. General Sir Richard Dannatt said the other day that, having visited those facilities, he was satisfied that they were doing the very best for our armed forces.

Q3. Does my right hon. Friend accept that millions of tenants will benefit over time from this week’s introduction of the first national tenancy deposit scheme? Will he join me in congratulating all those who campaigned long and hard for this important consumer protection measure, including Citizens Advice, Shelter and the National Union of Students? Will he remember to chalk that up as yet another Labour achievement? (127216)

First, I can tell my hon. Friend that I am very happy to welcome the commencement of the tenancy deposit scheme on 6 April. It represents an end to the scandal of the small minority of unscrupulous landlords who refuse to return rent deposits left with them by short-term tenants. I would also say that the work done by Shelter, Citizens Advice and the NUS has been very important. It is good news for vulnerable tenants and students everywhere.

Q4. Tarceva has been deemed cost-effective for certain lung cancers in many European countries and North America, but only for British taxpayers with Scottish addresses. My constituent, Richard Burman, has paid his taxes to the British Treasury all his life, but faces a premature death unless he moves to Scotland. Will the Prime Minister please agree to meet him with his specialists to discuss the problem? (127217)

What I would say is that decisions on whether or not drugs should be available are taken by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. I am afraid that I cannot make a commitment for a meeting, but I am happy to look into the case that the hon. Gentleman mentions and to correspond with him about it.

Q5. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we are to stop the environmental degradation of our planet, it would be better to give ownership of the question and the campaign to the ordinary citizen? Would it not be the greatest mistake if we thought that we could do everything by Government diktat, top down? (127218)

I agree with my hon. Friend. What is important is to have action that is available to the individual citizen. The energy White Paper will detail some of the proposals for that shortly. Secondly, it is important to get international agreement within Europe and then at the G8 plus 5. Finally, it is obviously important—my hon. Friend is absolutely right—that we have practical policy making in this area. That is why I believe that the proposals that we have put forward this week will give us a realistic chance of meeting very ambitious targets. They are certainly preferable to the proposals put forward by the Conservative party.

Is the Prime Minister aware of the extent of the funding crisis faced by Greater Manchester police, which has already seen the loss of some 216 officers? According to the Labour-run policy authority, it faces a financial shortfall of up to £27 million over the next two years. If he is aware of it, could he explain what he is doing to help?

My understanding is that the police in Greater Manchester and elsewhere are getting increases—significant increases—in the amount of funding available. However, the hon. Gentleman will know that the chief police officers came to us and asked for greater flexibility in how the money is used. I think that I am right in saying that there have been almost 1,000 extra police officers in Greater Manchester since we came to office and there are, of course, in addition, the community support officers. It was in response to the request from the chief police officers that we now give them greater flexibility in how they use their funding.

Q6. The Prime Minister must be aware of the tragic situation that is unfolding in Sri Lanka, where Government and Tamil forces have been fighting, displacing hundreds of thousands of people and claiming 4,000 lives in the last 15 months. Because of our very close historical links with Sri Lanka, can the Prime Minister use his good offices to persuade all the parties and factions to recommit to the agreement made in 2002, which was brokered by the Norwegian Government, so that the escalation in violence can be curtailed and peace and tranquillity can return to this beautiful island? (127219)

The issue that my right hon. Friend raises is a very serious and important one and I can assure him that we are in touch at the present time with the International Red Cross and other UN agencies. He is right in saying that the Norwegian authorities have played a significant part in trying to put together a peace process in Sri Lanka. I totally understand the difficulties that the Government there face at present; it is a very challenging situation. We have said to them that we will do all we can to help, but my right hon. Friend is right to say that the only realistic way to get a solution is to come back to the 2002 agreement and make sure that it is implemented. I know that he will also agree that terrorism and violence can never be the way to achieve a negotiated solution.

Q7. Is the Prime Minister aware that my constituents have been waiting two years for the approval of a new community hospital in Braintree? Progress has been stalled as the buck has been passed back and forth between the primary care trust and the strategic health authority. Will he agree to meet me to discuss how we can make progress on this project? (127220)

I am perfectly prepared to meet the hon. Gentleman, because it is obviously a serious issue for mid-Essex and his constituency. However, he will be aware that, at the same time as the proposals on the community hospital are being discussed, there is also discussion on what will be a huge multi-million pound investment by the Government in Broomfield hospital. Over the past few years, he will know that there has been huge investment in the local NHS infrastructure, so I am very happy to meet him to talk about how we can get the benefits of this investment in his constituency and elsewhere in Essex. However, I know that he will be the first to say that the NHS has improved considerably in the last few years.

Does my right hon. Friend understand that today’s motion on Trident effectively commits this country to the possession of an independent nuclear weapons system for the best part of the next 45 years without the House being guaranteed any future opportunity to consider whether it remains the best strategy? Does he understand that many of us accept the need to ensure our ability to replace the Trident system, but none the less believe that in a fast-changing world this House should be guaranteed the chance to revisit that decision at an appropriate point in the future?

I entirely understand my right hon. Friend’s point. If I may put it like this, it is at what I would describe as the reasonable end of the opposition to what the Government are doing. However, let me try to explain why I think we have still got to take this decision today. It is absolutely right that this Parliament cannot bind the decisions of a future Parliament and it is always open to us to come back and look at these issues. He is right to suggest that when we get to the gateway stage—between 2012 and 2014—when we let the main contracts for design and construction, it will always be open to Parliament to take a decision. However, I believe that the reason why we have to take the decision today is that if we do not start the process now, we will not be in the position in 2012 or 2014 to continue with the nuclear deterrent should we wish to do so.

The real dilemma is that we decided rightly or wrongly—but I think rightly—that we should seek parliamentary approval even for the design and concept stage. When we came to the previous Trident nuclear submarine, it was only at a later stage that parliamentary approval was sought. That was much criticised at the time, so we decided that we should seek parliamentary approval at the very beginning of this process. Of course, it is a statement of fact that the gateway takes place at a later stage and in a later Parliament but if we want to spend at least the more limited sum of money now on the concept and design stage, we have to take a decision now.

Q8. Cash for peerages is probably not the biggest disaster of the right hon. Gentleman’s tenure—[Interruption.] (127221)

Order. The House will understand that it is important that I hear what the hon. Gentleman has to say.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. As I was saying, cash for peerages is probably not the biggest disaster of the right hon. Gentleman’s tenure; Iraq is. We have heard concerns already about poor medical treatment for soldiers, lack of body armour and delays in coroners inquests. Indeed, some of my constituents from Stornoway have to pay council tax when they are in Iraq. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that families are having to send food parcels to some soldiers in Iraq because of the lack of 24-hour canteen facilities? Why is this Prime Minister, who was so cavalier in taking this country into Iraq, failing in his duty of care to these soldiers?

I simply dispute that we are failing in our duty of care towards our soldiers. Our soldiers are doing a magnificent job in Iraq. They are doing a necessary job for our security and the security of the wider world. I have to say, even though the hon. Gentleman and I may disagree strongly over the issue of Iraq, it is completely wrong for people to undermine the morale of our armed forces by suggesting that we are deliberately not giving them the equipment they need or the care they need when injured. It simply is not true and it is not right to say it.

The only talk in Crawley for years was the closure of Crawley hospital. Now, under new management, under the primary care trust, there is over £20 million of investment, a new urgent treatment centre opening, and new services every day. Will my right hon. Friend come to see for himself?

I would be delighted to do that. I remember that, before the last election, the Conservative party said that this would never happen and that it would not be done. It has been done. Later today, we will launch the results of the Government’s coronary disease programme over the past few years, which indicate that, since we came to office, over 100,000 lives have been saved as a result of investment and reform. The point is that every bit of that investment and reform, including in my hon. Friend’s constituency, has been opposed by the Opposition.

Q9. Will the Prime Minister tell the House what message he can give to the 7,000 families on Stockport council’s waiting list? When does he intend them to have a decent home? (127222)

It is important, of course, that we invest more in social housing. We are doing that and, as a result of the investment, we are not merely helping people with the refurbishment of their homes, we are building new homes as well. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that there will always be a limit on the resources that we are able to spend, but the Government have put £2 billion into council and social housing over the past few years and we intend to put in hundreds of millions more in the next few.

Q10. I am glad that my right hon. Friend shares my joy in the beginning of the new national tenancy deposit scheme, which will help thousands of my constituents. I am sure that he is also aware that withholding deposits is not the only way that letting agents have of fleecing vulnerable tenants. Will he therefore consider legislation to regulate letting agents? (127223)

We, of course, always keep these issues under review and I am happy to look at the issues that my hon. Friend has raised. I would agree with him, certainly, that the tenancy deposit scheme is a good first step in giving protection to tenants.

The Prime Minister will probably know that the police estimate that the largest ever mass lobby of Parliament took place a few weeks ago, when 1,200 blind people came here to call for a higher rate of mobility allowance. He may also have noticed that more than half the Back Benchers in the House have now signed my early-day motion to that effect. Will he perhaps have a word with the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr. Brown) to suggest that, at a cost of £50 million, it might be something that he could include in his forthcoming Budget and thereby enhance his reputation as a humane and caring Chancellor?

We have obviously increased the payments for mobility allowance over the past few years. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will have heard what the hon. Gentleman has said and I will study carefully the early-day motion. I can give no commitments at this stage, but we will take into account what he says.

Q11. Is my right hon. Friend aware of the great success that our overseas drugs liaison officers have had with seizures of cocaine in Latin America, working with the authorities in those countries? We could prevent much more cocaine—and all the misery that it brings—from ending up on the streets of this country if we invested in more of those drugs officers. Will he look into this matter personally? Tackling the source is the most effective way of combating drug trafficking. (127224)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the liaison officers do a fantastic job. This is an example of liaison co-operation between the different services. The number of drugs seizures is now way above what used to be the case. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and I am happy to look into what more we can do. Obviously, the other measures that we are taking to protect our borders will play a part as well.

What progress is the Prime Minister making on delivering the outstanding issues—many have been supplied by my party to him and his officials—that are essential for the delivery of devolution at some point in the very near future?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are in receipt of the proposals that have been put forward by his party. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is meeting representatives of his party and I will do the same. We will honour the commitments that we have given, and we entirely understand why those proposals are an important part of the overall package to get devolution back up and running in Northern Ireland.

Q12. I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that over the past decade, the number of people killed in road accidents in the United Kingdom has declined. However, is he aware that over the past five years, there has been a very alarming increase in the number of young drivers killed, very often with young passengers as well? Will he have discussions with the Secretary of State for Transport to find out why that is happening, and will he bring forward proposals to stem this tragic loss of life? (127225)

My hon. Friend is right on both points. There has been a dramatic drop in the number of deaths as a result of various measures that have been taken over the past few years. It is sometimes worth pointing out that the number of lives saved, especially young children’s, as a result of some of the road measures that have been taken runs into many hundreds. However, my hon. Friend is also right that a very specific problem has arisen. Discussions are under way in government about what we can do about that and, especially, about what can be done to ensure that we are able to deal with young drivers in either stolen or uninsured vehicles far more quickly than we do at present.

Point of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. A Delegated Legislation Committee has been scheduled for 8.55 am tomorrow to consider the sexual orientation regulations. Unfortunately, the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has not yet considered the regulations. More importantly, the regulations have been revised three times in the past week, so it will be impossible for hon. Members to have considered them by tomorrow morning. Could you, Mr. Speaker, give me any advice on how that Committee could be delayed?

The hon. Gentleman gave me notice of his point of order. The date and time at which a Delegated Legislation Committee meets is a matter for the Chairman. The hon. Gentleman might wish to seek further advice about the options open to him and other Members from the Public Bill Office.

Contraception and Abortion (Parental Information)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require practitioners providing contraception or abortion services to a child under the age of 16 to inform his or her parent or guardian; and for connected purposes.

The rates of unplanned pregnancy, abortion and sexually transmitted infections among under-age children in this country are shamefully high. They are higher than those in most other countries in the developed world, and certainly higher than those in any of our western European neighbours. There is an obvious reason for that: all the indications are that many children are becoming sexually active well before they are emotionally or physically mature. In children under the age of 15, the estimated figure is more than 40 per cent.

The Government have expressed concern about the situation, but their policy direction to try to tackle the problems has been misguided. Sex education in schools focuses heavily on the assumption that under-age children will be sexually active come what may and on providing all the contraception information that they need to avoid pregnancy and infection. However, statistics show that that approach is not working. It has done little to deter pupils from engaging in precocious sexual behaviour. Indeed, the plethora of information on contraception has given encouragement to children through false assurances that there will be no unwanted outcome. That is hardly surprising, as immature young people cannot be expected to make wise adult decisions. Interestingly, most schoolgirls who become pregnant or contract a sexually transmitted infection claim to have used contraception.

The aim of the Government’s teenage pregnancy strategy, launched in 1999, was to halve teenage pregnancies in 10 years. That was a laudable aim, but by 2005 the rate had dropped by only five per 1,000—from the 1998 figure of 46.6 to 41.1 per 1,000. The figure for teenage pregnancies in 2005 reached 7,464 and some new mothers were as young as 13. Even the provision of the morning-after pill free of charge and without parental knowledge has had virtually no effect on numbers. Indeed, it could have been said to have encouraged some girls to increase their risky behaviour. On a visit to one of my local health centres recently I learned that far from using the morning-after pill as an emergency treatment, the same young girls are presenting regularly. Such small progress offers no hope of the strategy achieving its goal by 2009. It is time to try a different approach.

Young people are already surrounded by constant barrages of sexual images on television, in films, DVDs and magazines, and on advertisement hoardings—in fact, almost everywhere they turn. Clothing designed for pre-teenage girls often makes them look like provocative young adults. Sex and relationship education in schools should be used as an opportunity to redress the balance. Girls in particular need real-life warnings about the risks that they are taking with their emotional and physical health, and their future career and employment prospects. If the father of the child is an under-age boy, there will be no wedding and he will not be in a position to provide a home or financial support. The parents of the girl have to step forward, as from this point on full responsibility must be assumed by the girl and she will need their support as never before. How much better it would be if the parents had had the opportunity to divert their daughter from that course of action by being involved at a much earlier stage.

Under-age girls run a very real risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection, which may have a long-term impact on their reproductive lives. Almost 90 per cent. of the children aged between 13 and 15 seeking treatment for sexually transmitted infections are girls. In north-east London, the incidence of chlamydia is one of the highest in the country. That sexually transmitted infection is different in that it is symptom-free, so girls are usually unaware that they have it until much later in life when they are married and have fertility problems that mean they are unable to have a planned family. That often leads to years of distressing fertility treatment with very unpredictable results. One of the main contributory reasons to that condition is too early sexual activity.

Pregnancy often comes unexpected and unplanned and the girl, who is still a child herself and still at school, finds that her life has suddenly taken a different course. A child who has been engaging in adult behaviour suddenly faces serious, life-changing decisions when she does not have the adult skills or resources to cope. Many parents are unaware that their child is sexually active and the news that she is expecting a child of her own comes as a huge shock. The girl may seek advice elsewhere, for example from her GP, a health centre or a family planning service, to avoid facing the music at home.

Advice on abortion may be provided and accepted without the parents’ knowledge. Just a few weeks ago, I received a letter from a constituent who had been required to leave his place of work, find a chemist and buy a tube of antiseptic cream, go to his son’s primary school where the child had grazed his knee, apply the cream and then return to work. Apparently that procedure was too risky to be undertaken without parental involvement. We live in a contrary world that rates the application of cream to a grazed knee, or a visit to the dentist, for which parental consent is also required, as a greater risk than an abortion on a minor.

For parents, the discovery that their daughter had an abortion that might have been avoided if they had not been kept in ignorance can be an even greater shock. The long-term emotional and physical impact of an abortion can be serious, and it is the parents who will provide care and support for their daughter. Those same parents might well have decided to support their daughter in bringing up her child, once they had overcome the initial shock of discovering their child’s pregnancy, and had had time to reflect.

That brings me to the main purpose of the Bill. The provision of lots of sex information has not worked, so sex information should be replaced with sex education. In education about the real risks involved and the likely outcomes, the advice to under-age girls should be to abstain, to wait, to delay, and to resist, rather than to use contraception and believe that they will not come to any harm. Parents need to be part of that process. In 1984-85, under the Gillick ruling, and more recently in the United States, where parental involvement is required, the evidence showed that the number of unwanted pregnancies did not go up, but the number of sexually transmitted infections went down.

The decision to provide contraception or abortion advice or treatment to under-age children must involve the parents. It is the parents who have full responsibility for, and the greatest interest in, their children’s health and welfare and the closest long-term personal bonds with them. Parents have the best opportunity to guide their children to resist peer pressure, and to make wise decisions about their sexual behaviour and their future reproductive lives. Quite simply, parents have not just a right to know, but a need to know.

There is an important caveat in the Bill to protect a child whose parents might be violent or abusive. In those circumstances, where the child finds herself in need of advice, practitioners may appeal to the courts, in camera, for a decision to be made. The Bill would be an important step in trying to reduce the number of unwanted teenage pregnancies and abortions among under-age children. It attempts to do that by strengthening families and entitling parents to be involved in making important decisions.

I oppose the motion and urge the House to decline giving the Bill its First Reading. The proposals made by the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) raise serious issues to do with child protection and patient confidence, and that is aside from their potential impact on the sexual health of the part of the population concerned. I speak from the perspective of a medical practitioner and a long-standing member of the British Medical Association’s medical ethics committee. I place on record the fact that my partner works in sexual health policy for a charity that deals with the subject.

The hon. Lady failed to mention the current rules, and to say what guidance exists for health care professionals in this difficult subject. For example, before providing contraception to young people, health professionals must consider whether the patient understands the risks and benefits of the treatment and the advice given, and must discuss with the patient the value of parental support. Doctors must encourage young people to inform parents of the consultation, and if the patient is unwilling to do so, they must explore the reasons.

It is important for persons under 16 seeking contraceptive advice to be aware that although the doctor is obliged to discuss the value of parental support, the doctor will respect their confidentiality, if necessary, and the fact that they are unwilling to involve their parents, for the reasons given. Before providing contraceptive advice, the doctor must also take into account whether the patient is likely to have sexual intercourse without contraception, and assess whether the patient’s physical or mental health, or both, are likely to suffer if the patient does not receive contraceptive advice or treatment.

Finally, the doctor must consider—this is the key test—whether the patient’s best interests require the provision of contraceptive advice or treatment, or both, without parental consent. It is consideration of the patient’s best interests that must govern a doctor’s behaviour in those difficult circumstances, rather than ideology or unsubstantiated concerns about the public health policy impact of that important requirement for confidentiality, such as those expressed by the hon. Lady.

The guidelines to which I have just referred are the Fraser guidelines and stem from the Gillick ruling in 1985. At the time, the then Conservative Government recognised that the Law Lords deemed their guidance lawful. They instituted a review of their policy and guidelines as a result of the ruling and no significant change was made. The guidelines that I have set out are broadly those supported at the time by the Conservative Government and the then Health Minister, Barney Hayhoe.

When the guidelines were challenged again in the Axon case, the current Government welcomed the fact that their guidelines were clearly upheld. The position that I have set out is supported by the British Medical Association, a number of children’s charities and people involved in the delivery of sexual health advice to young girls.

The hon. Lady said little or nothing about the principle of clinical confidentiality and the rights of children in some circumstances to that confidentiality. She said little or nothing about the potential effect of her proposal on the welfare of individual patients who may be at risk of abuse if their confidentiality is not respected including, on rare occasions, from their parents, sadly. If she seriously thinks that it is an acceptable policy to invite a vulnerable young girl to apply to the court for permission for her parents not to be told when she has clear concerns about her safety, she misunderstands the real world in which some people exist.

It is only on rare occasions that parents are not told or that young people do not involve either their parents or another adult in seeking advice. It is on those rare occasions that we have to have concern, not just for rights and principles, although rights upheld in British common law as well as in human rights law mean that we must have regard to the safety of individual patients. As Brook Advisory Service points out, a father can say, “If you come home pregnant, you’re dead.” That is not just a rumour; it can happen, and we must be very careful when considering the welfare of young girls in that situation.

The hon. Lady based her arguments on claims that I believe to be contentious: that sexual health would be improved if girls were threatened with their private lives being opened up to their parents without their consent, come what may. The evidence for this is poor; I note that her speech lacked any significant references to peer-reviewed literature. On the contrary, there is evidence that there is a deterrent to access by the threat of parents being told. Brook Advisory Service, a frontline provider, did a survey of its clients, two thirds of whom said that confidentiality was the single most important factor that affected whether they were willing to seek help. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service has recognised the real concerns that exist in this area.

There are problems in the current strategy—I accept what the hon. Lady says—but she must recognise the real dangers that exist. As BPAS says,

“We all wish that every teenager could go to their parents to discuss personal issues like contraception, but the reality is that many of them can’t. This may be due to abuse, relationship breakdown, or the parents’ own problems. Some parents have such strong religious convictions that the teenager fears that they will be thrown out of home, or will be forced to marry and bring up a child they don’t want and can’t cope with.”

That is rare, but it is the experience of some. The Bill is also opposed by the Faculty of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.

If the hon. Lady were saying that the Government’s sexual health strategy had not been as effective as we might have liked and that targets may well be missed, we could agree. If her issue was that we wished to reduce all sexually transmitted infections, teenage pregnancies and teenage abortions and, importantly, seek to raise the age of first intercourse, we would agree. The best approach, however, is to continue to improve access to contraception as well as the quality of sex education. I believe—and others support the proposal, including some of those whom I have mentioned—that sex education should be part of the national curriculum. There should be much more effective, earlier access to information in age-appropriate language. It is true that young girls face a barrage of sexualised images, and they are under increasing pressure to sexualise at an early age. I regret that and, indeed, I condemn it, as does everyone on our side of the argument. The answer, however, is not more ignorance, which is what the hon. Member for Upminster has prescribed: it is more information. Other European countries have shown that the earlier provision of clear information in age-appropriate language reduces the number of sexually transmitted infections, pregnancies and abortions, as well as —and this is significant—giving girls and boys the power to resist peer pressure and, in the case of girls, to resist boy pressure, as they have the self-confidence to deal with those difficult negotiations in their teenage years.

I accept that reform is needed, but in an area different from the one proposed by the hon. Lady. We need easier and fairer access to services, and we need better access to sex education. It is regrettable that the only private Members’ Bills that are introduced on the subject seek to limit access to services, rather than improve them. There is a challenge for all Members to seek to liberalise the law on sex education and access to those services, rather than to constrain it.

The hon. Lady’s proposal—I accept that it is well intended—is the wrong way forward. I urge the House to oppose the measure, and to refuse to give the Bill a First Reading.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business):—

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I understand that the draft Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007 are due to be considered as a statutory instrument at 8.55 am tomorrow. That is causing great—

Order. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was in the Chamber when I gave a ruling earlier today on that matter. If he looks at the transcript, he will see my ruling.

Trident

[Relevant documents: Ninth Report from the Defence Committee, Session 2006-07, on The Future of the UK’s Strategic Nuclear Deterrent: the White Paper, HC 225-I, and the Government’s interim response thereto, available in the Vote Office. Fourth Report from the Defence Committee, Session 2006-07, on the Future of the UK’s Strategic Nuclear Deterrent: the Manufacturing and Skills Base, HC 59, and the Government’s response thereto, HC 304 (Session 2006-07). Eighth Report from the Defence Committee, Session 2005-06, on the Future of the UK’s Strategic Nuclear Deterrent: the Strategic Context, HC 986, and the Government’s response thereto, HC 1558 (Session 2005-06).]

We come now to the main business. It will be helpful to the House to know that all Back Benchers will be limited to eight minutes. Because of the high number of applications made by hon. Members on both sides of the House, it is not a day to approach the Chair to ask whether they will be called. I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett).

I beg to move,

That this House supports the Government’s decisions, as set out in the White Paper The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent (Cm 6994), to take the steps necessary to maintain the UK’s minimum strategic nuclear deterrent beyond the life of the existing system and to take further steps towards meeting the UK’s disarmament responsibilities under Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

I must at once declare a potential interest, in that the propulsion system for the existing submarines is manufactured in my constituency.

Let me set out the nature of the decisions that the House is being asked to support today. They are whether or not to take the steps necessary to maintain a minimum strategic nuclear deterrent for the UK—a single system comprising submarines, missiles and warheads—and to take further steps towards meeting our disarmament responsibilities under article VI of the non-proliferation treaty.

Specifically, that will mean a decision to begin a process to design, build and commission submarines to replace the existing Vanguard-class boats. This will necessarily take some 17 years. That is a calculation based on our own experience and that of other allied nuclear weapon states. Moreover, we must also decide whether we will join the American programme to extend to the early 2040s the life of the Trident D5 ballistic missiles which those Vanguard submarines currently carry, and whether we will reduce the number of our operationally available warheads to fewer than 160 by the end of this year.

The United States nuclear posture review that went to Congress in December 2001 estimated that it would take 13 years, not 17 years, to replace a US Trident submarine.

The United States submarines are different from our own. They are differently designed, they have a different design life and so on. That may have been the conclusion of American work; it is not the conclusion of the work that has been done in this country.

Does the Secretary of State accept that all these issues must be subject to review over the years, and that many of us who will support her today reserve the right to review our positions when the warheads are considered in the next Parliament?

As my hon. Friend is aware, we are not making any decision about the warheads in this Parliament, so the matter will inevitably come before a subsequent Parliament.

The decisions that we are asked to make today are serious and weighty, and they are being put before the House following sustained and thorough consideration and debate. Those decisions affect the fundamental security of this country and its people, and they involve significant cost, so it is right that the House should fully debate the Government’s proposals and have the final say on the choice that this country makes.

Is the Foreign Secretary saying that we are making a decision today to keep all our options open, or are we making a decision that would commit a future Parliament to large expenditures when we go through the big gateway decision in due course?

My right hon. Friend will know that that question was raised with the Prime Minister a few moments ago and he answered it clearly. It is the decision of principle that we are required to make today. It is inevitable that there will be future discussions, and there will be decisions down the road as the programme proceeds. But that will not be the case unless we make the decision today.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is possible to believe in both the independent nuclear deterrent and value for money? There is a distressing tendency for Ministry of Defence projects to go over time and over budget. Will she therefore welcome the assurance given to me by the Comptroller and Auditor General this week that he will carry out an innovative exercise and issue an ongoing assurance report on value for money, to ensure that we get real value for money on the project?

Yes indeed. I welcome that, as will the whole House. We rely on the Committee chaired by the hon. Gentleman to sustain that scrutiny.

Since the non-proliferation treaty came into force in 1970, all nuclear weapons states have taken steps to maintain their deterrents. The decisions on which we are seeking agreement today are no different. But the UK has been more open and transparent than any other state in explaining the basis of our decisions in advance to our people and to the international community.

There are four key issues. I will address each in turn. The first is what are we doing to fulfil our obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. The second is whether it is still in the national interest to maintain a nuclear deterrent. The third is why such a deterrent should be in the form that we now propose. The final issue is why we need to make this decision now.

The NPT created two distinct categories of states. Those that had already conducted nuclear tests—ourselves, the US, the Soviet Union, China and France—were designated nuclear weapons states and could legally possess nuclear weapons. All other states-signatory were designated non-nuclear weapons states. Article VI of the NPT imposes an obligation on all states

“to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament”.

The NPT review conference held in 2000 agreed, by consensus, 13 practical steps towards nuclear disarmament. The UK remains committed to these steps and is making progress on them.

We have been disarming. Since the cold war ended, we have withdrawn and dismantled our tactical maritime and airborne nuclear capabilities. We have terminated our nuclear capable Lance missiles and artillery. We have the smallest nuclear capability of any recognised nuclear weapon state, accounting for less than 1 per cent. of the global inventory, and we are the only nuclear weapon state that relies on a single nuclear system. The Prime Minister has announced a further unilateral reduction in our nuclear weapons in line with our commitment to maintain only the minimum necessary deterrent. We will reduce the stockpile of operationally available warheads by another 20 per cent., to fewer than 160 warheads during the course of this year. This will involve the eventual dismantlement and disposal of about 40 warheads. The UK will then have cut the explosive power of its nuclear weapons by three quarters since the end of the cold war. That is more than any other nuclear weapon state has yet done.

I want to be clear about the point that my right hon. Friend is making in comparison with her answers to earlier interventions. Is she saying that today’s decision is a reduction of 20 per cent., or is she saying, as I thought she was, that during the 2012 to 2014 window there will be a decision that can be made by this House to determine whether the 20 per cent. reduction could be increased to, say, 50 per cent.?

That depends, of course, on whether the House votes for this motion. If it does, we are committing ourselves to making that reduction by the end of this year. I hope that that is a reassurance to my hon. Friend. [Interruption.] There is no need for a window; the window runs to the end of this year. If the motion is carried today, we are committing ourselves to that further 20 per cent. reduction in warheads.

Obviously, as the Foreign Secretary rightly said, we are not the biggest player among the nuclear arms powers—and, yes, there have been steps to disarmament. Why, however, would the Government’s position, which is in principle to retain the nuclear deterrent, be a better trigger for disarmament in the 2010 talks than a decision to defer on the basis of reduction now and prospective reduction or abolition of nuclear arms later?

Let me first say to the hon. Gentleman that, as I have already pointed out, we have been disarming over the course of the past 10 years, with singularly little response. There is therefore no evidence whatever for the notion that if we defer this decision, that will somehow magically produce a different response from other players than we have had hitherto. I simply say to him—I apologise if I am offending anybody in the House in saying it—that there are only two credible positions to take today: you are either in favour of this decision or you are against it. The notion that there is an excuse that allows people to get out of the problem today and return to it later is, frankly, escapology.

Before my right hon. Friend moves away from the issue of proliferation, can she give the House an assurance that if we vote for the Government’s motion today, there will be renewed efforts to secure the measures on nuclear weapons disarmament mentioned in article VI of the non-proliferation treaty, particularly to try to get India, Pakistan and the other non-signatories to the NPT into the global nuclear arms control system?

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance without any difficulty. The next step that we hope to take is to bring forward negotiations on the fissile material cut-off treaty. He is also absolutely right that it is extremely important to work with other states that are known to have a nuclear weapons capacity and have not come within the ambit of moving towards disarmament. We will certainly continue such work.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that for the nuclear non-proliferation treaty to be effective, two things are important: first, it has to be enforced; and secondly, non-nuclear states have to be convinced of the logic of it? If someone was in Israel at the moment considering whether to get rid of the nuclear weapons that they have, or if someone was in Iran—I mean a secular Iranian, not Ahmadinejad—wondering whether it is a good idea to acquire nuclear weapons, would it really be logical for them to think that they should not acquire nuclear weapons if the message they get from this country is that we need to prepare for producing the next generation just as an insurance policy for things that we do not know are going to happen?

I will come to that point later in my remarks. I would simply say to my hon. Friend that that is the most dangerous argument of all. It does nothing. Those who want to see nuclear disarmament, and those who are anxious and nervous about the decision that the House is being asked to make today, are doing nobody any service by encouraging the notion that any decision that we make gives an excuse to others, who are, in the case of Iran, signatories to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty—[Interruption.] I hear the words, “He didn’t say that.” No, but it was quite heavily implied. There is no justification for others in the decision that we are being asked to make.

This debate has come about not because of Trident coming to the end of its shelf life but because the Vanguard-class submarines will need to be replaced. Could the Secretary of State clarify how much it will cost to decommission the four submarines and what budget that will come from?

I cannot, offhand, but I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary will able to give the hon. Gentleman the figures later on. There are some figures in the White Paper, but I am not carrying them in my head.

The latest proposal does not change the trend of disarmament that we have been pursuing. I want clearly to spell out to the House what we are not doing. We are not upgrading the capability of the system. We are not producing more usable weapons. We are not changing our nuclear posture or doctrine—in particular, we do not possess nuclear weapons for “war fighting” or tactical use on the battlefield. And we have not lowered the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. Again, I know that there are those who are unhappy with the proposal before the House and who have sought in various ways—outside the House, not just within it—to imply that these are the decisions that the House is being asked to make. They are not. That excuse will not stand.

We have taken other unilateral actions in line with the 13 steps. We have not conducted a nuclear test since 1991. We ceased production of fissile material for use in nuclear weapons in 1995. And all excess fissile material stocks no longer required for defence purposes have been placed under international safeguards. Those unilateral actions have been complemented by active diplomacy on multilateral nuclear disarmament of the kind that my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee, mentioned in seeking an assurance that we would pursue it. We led international efforts on the comprehensive test ban treaty. The UK ratified the treaty in 1998, and our diplomats continue repeatedly to urge other countries to ratify so that it can enter into force. As I said, we have called repeatedly for the immediate start of negotiations in the conference on disarmament in Geneva on a fissile material cut-off treaty.

If what the Foreign Secretary says is internationally accepted, why does Mohamed el-Baradei so fundamentally disagree with her on the impact that it will have on proliferation?

I appreciate that Dr. el-Baradei has of late made a number of remarks about his wish that Governments—nuclear-armed states—should not pursue such measures. However, he knows, as we know, that all nuclear-armed states have indeed taken steps to modernise and keep up to date the weapons and facilities that they have. That is exactly the decision that the United Kingdom is making, no more and no less. I must say to the hon. Gentleman that I have looked to see whether I can discover Dr. el-Baradei making similar comments when other nuclear weapon states made those choices; so far I have not been able to unearth such comments.

Could the Secretary of State give those of us who desperately want multilateral disarmament to succeed an idea of what the chances are for other nuclear states to match our unilateral action in getting rid of all battlefield and tactical weapons?

I cannot speculate on those chances, but these are steps that we thought that it was right to take. We continue to urge them on others, and we will continue to do so through the conference on disarmament. I share the view of many in the House that it is perhaps time for a fresh push on these measures on the international stage. How successful such a push would be remains to be seen, but there have been a series of bilateral agreements since the end of the cold war, which have greatly reduced the major nuclear arsenals. By the end of this year, the United States will have fewer than half the number of silo-based nuclear missiles that it had in 1990. By 2012, US operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads will be reduced to about one third of 2001 levels. Under the terms of the strategic offensive reductions treaty, Russia is making parallel cuts, and the French have withdrawn four complete weapons systems.

Britain remains committed to the abolition of nuclear weapons, and we are actively engaged, and encouraging others to be engaged, in a process that will lead to that goal. But progress will be steady and incremental, and only towards the end of that process will it be helpful and useful for us to include our own small fraction of the global stockpile in treaty-based reductions.

So there is no basis to suggest that we have done anything other than fully comply with our obligations under the NPT. Indeed—I say this to the House with some respect—I regard it as dangerous folly to equate our own record, as some have tried to do, with that of countries such as North Korea and Iran, which have stood or stand in clear breach of their obligations as non-nuclear weapon states under the NPT. There is no legal or moral equivalence between their position and ours. I would urge people, whatever other arguments they might use to oppose the motion, not to use that one, because it undermines the very basis of the treaty itself: that those recognised as non-nuclear weapon states should not seek to acquire nuclear weapons. The international non-proliferation regime is not perfect, but it has prevented the wide-scale proliferation of nuclear weapons. I regard it as dangerously irresponsible to use the excuse that the UK is retaining its weapons to justify others seeking to acquire them, and it runs the real risk of increasing the global nuclear threat, not reducing it.

Does the Secretary of State not think that it might be dangerous folly to use the expression “nuclear deterrent” in this context? Does she accept that these proposals are hardly going to deter Iran and North Korea? Will she explain her policy in the context of its deterring those two countries from continuing with their plans?

We are working on deterring Iran and North Korea from pursuing their present course of action by other, diplomatic, means, as I hope the House would want. I sincerely hope that everyone in the House wants those negotiations to succeed, and wants North Korea and Iran to be deterred from continuing on their present course of action. I really hope that people will not use arguments that suggest that they have every cause to continue.

That brings me to the second of the four pivotal questions. Why does this country need to retain its nuclear weapons? I am inclined to turn the question on its head and ask instead whether this is the time for us to abandon our nuclear deterrent, or to deny future Governments and Parliaments the ability to maintain it. It is true that the cold war has ended. Actually, it had ended before the existing deterrent came into service, as it had been ordered some years before. It is also true that, as of today, we do not identify an enemy with both a nuclear capability and the ability and intent to use it against our vital interests.

However, significant nuclear capabilities and nuclear risks remain. There are still substantial nuclear arsenals; the number of nuclear-armed states has increased, not decreased; and there is a significant risk of new nuclear-armed states emerging. Moreover, several of the countries that either have nuclear weapons or are trying to acquire them are in regions that suffer from serious instability or are subject to significant regional tension. So, there is the potential for a new nuclear threat to emerge or re-emerge.

The Foreign Secretary is absolutely right to say that this is not the time to be giving up our national nuclear deterrent. Does she agree, however, that it is the right time to look at future non-nuclear national deterrents such as hypersonic mass technology, which would give us greater flexibility in enforcing our foreign policy without any nuclear fallout? Has any consideration been given to hypersonic mass technology?

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I do not intend to get drawn down the path of discussing other technologies. We have quite enough to do in dealing with the one that we have in the course of this debate.

The Secretary of State will know that our nuclear weapons have been pointing at nobody since 1994. Does she not recognise that the immediate, and perhaps medium-term, threat comes from those countries that are developing biological and chemical weapons? Does she not think that the money spent on upgrading and renewing our nuclear weapons system would be better spent on dealing with that particular threat, or on ensuring that our troops in Afghanistan were properly equipped with what they need?

I shall come to the proportion of the costs in a few moments. I do not think that the two issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised are mutually incompatible. It is necessary, as he says, to consider the range of threats that this country faces, and the Government are doing that. This is one of them, and we believe that it would be irresponsible of us to ignore it.

If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I must make some progress.

The time scale we must address is not just the next 10 or 15 years, and it does not involve current or recent developments. We are talking about maintaining our ability to keep a minimum independent nuclear deterrent after 2024. To decide not to retain that ability would require us to be confident that, in the next 20 to 50 years, no country with a current nuclear capability would change its intentions towards us and that no power hostile to our vital national interests and in possession of nuclear weapons would emerge. I sincerely regret that I cannot advise either the House or the British people that I believe such confidence would be justified, or that we should remove from future Parliaments the ability to maintain our deterrent.

Given that all three major parties in the House stood at the last election on a platform of maintaining Trident, does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be wrong for us to make a decision today that would prevent the British people from electing a Government at the next election who would either retain or get rid of Trident, by pre-empting such a decision by voting against the Government motion?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely powerful point, and he makes it well. It is indeed the case that the decision of principle that we are being asked to make today could set the course for future Parliaments if we were to reject the motion before the House.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for giving way. She will recall that, in the past, our party and others have campaigned against nuclear weapons and for disarmament. She has made much of the adherence to the non-proliferation treaty, but is it not the case that the message going around the world is that a vastly enhanced delivery system—achieved through a new generation of submarines—will be contrary to the whole spirit of the treaty and likely to encourage proliferation rather than reduce it?

I am sorry to have to say this to my hon. Friend, but that is complete and utter rubbish. We are not here to make a decision about a vastly enhanced system. I must also say to him in all seriousness that if he wants to encourage the idea that we should pursue non-proliferation, it is very unwise to keep arguing that other people are perfectly justified, because of what we are doing, in pursuing further nuclear weapons. I understand and respect the strength of his convictions, but I really think that it is time for people who share those convictions to make up their minds whether they are or are not trying to encourage other states to develop nuclear weapons.

In light of the possible changed threats to this country, does my right hon. Friend agree that whether one lives in Hemsworth, Southampton, Derby or Wolverhampton, it is difficult to pop out to the local supermarket and buy a nuclear submarine as a delivery system? If we delay the decision, however, we might be in that position in the future.

My hon. Friend is entirely right. Some who have commented on these issues have perhaps been misled—this brings me back to my point about the transparency with which the Government have pursued the issue—because in the past the conceptual and design stages have often been pursued behind closed doors. The matter has not been made known to Parliament, and decisions have not been sought from Parliament before continuing such a programme. The programme needs to be pursued for a sustained period of years, and that is the principal reason that the decision must be made today.

No, I must get on.

The deterrent is not an alternative to diplomacy. We will keep pushing for multilateral disarmament, keep working through the United Nations to prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons, and keep encouraging nuclear weapon-free zones, including in the middle east. The wider goal of our diplomacy remains to prevent and resolve all conflict by reducing regional tensions—not least between the Palestinians and Israel—by promoting economic development, and by dealing with underlying insecurities such as an unstable climate and the illegal trade in arms. All of that work will continue.

The third issue lies in the details of the proposals. After thorough and exhaustive analysis, the Government are confident that a submarine system with ballistic missiles remains the most effective and least vulnerable form of deterrent. From that stems the decision to extend the life of the D5 missile. Simply put, it makes no sense to invest in submarines built around the D5 missile unless we have assurance that such a missile will be available after 2024.

The White Paper makes it clear that we will look hard at whether it is possible to maintain our policy of continuous deterrent patrolling with three boats rather than four through improvements in the technology, operational procedures and maintenance schedule of the new class of submarines. However, we will not take irresponsible risks with our capability, as we rely—unlike others—on a single, minimum system.

The judgment that we will need to maintain an operational stockpile of fewer than 160 warheads is based on a professional analysis of the minimum that is required to deter. That analysis does not, in our view, support any of the alternative proposals including those made by the Liberal Democrat party for a reduction to just 100 operational warheads. The claim is made that those proposals are based on expert analysis, but nothing whatever has been done to explain either who the experts were or what the analysis was. We do not believe that such a number would leave us with a credible and effective nuclear deterrent.

Our estimate is that the costs of operating and maintaining our deterrent between 2020 and 2050 will be equivalent to some 5 or 6 per cent. of the current defence budget—similar to the cost of our current deterrent. The procurement cost of the new submarines and associated equipment and infrastructure will be in the region of £15 billion to £20 billion for a four-boat fleet. Those costs would fall principally between 2012 and 2027. We estimate that the procurement costs are likely on average to be the equivalent of about 3 per cent. of the current defence budget over the main period of expenditure—roughly the same as for the Trident programme. That investment will not come at the expense of the conventional capabilities that our armed forces need.

My right hon. Friend has already pointed to the difficulties of delaying a decision on Trident. Does she agree that sourcing the technical capacity to support the existing nuclear provision is a fundamental difficulty and that we need to send a clear signal, both to the academic institutions of this country and the companies that will be involved in the provision of Trident, that we intend to make a commitment, so that they can begin to prepare for that and ensure that we have the expertise to secure our nuclear capacity, both militarily and domestically?

My hon. Friend is entirely right and, if I may say so, displays her engineering expertise and understanding of how the industry works. The decision to be made by the House is not on anything other than the political, strategic and security needs of the country. However, it is also necessary to take into account the industrial implications, and those implications certainly reinforce rather than weaken the case for making a decision now.

If the costs described by my right hon. Friend were exceeded—defence projects have a track record of exceeding their budgets—will she also guarantee that those excess costs would not impact elsewhere in the defence budget?

The whole purpose of the scrutiny to which the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), who chairs the Public Accounts Committee, referred is to make sure that that is not the case. I think that my hon. Friend will find a reference in the White Paper to the costs of the existing system, which, in real terms, are pretty close to identical to the likely costs of the new system. The kind of overrun that he describes has not been the case with that programme.

The Government have a strong record on defence spending. The last spending review increased the defence budget by an average of some 1.4 per cent. a year in real terms. The defence budget for 2007-08 will be some £3.7 billion higher than in 2004-05, and we have kept the proportion of GDP spend on defence pretty steady since 1997 at around 2.5 per cent. That is our understanding and expectation of the level of costs.

No, I must get on. I have been speaking for more than half an hour.

The final question is, why must we make a decision now? Some have suggested that the decision can be delayed. Let us make no mistake—the net result of that would be not to delay the decision, but to run the risk of making it by default. All our advice is that if we do not start the process of designing the new generation of ballistic missile submarines now, it will already be too late.

The Vanguard submarines are due to start to reach the end of their planned lives from 2017 onwards. We are advised that we can—and so, in consequence, we will— extend their life by up to five years. Extending beyond that period would be risky. Let us not forget that submarines comprise our only nuclear weapons system. Some have drawn comparisons, as was done today, with the United States, but its Ohio boats are not the same as our Vanguards—they had a longer design life and have major engineering differences. We must therefore work on the basis that the first of our existing submarines will have to go out of service in 2022, and the second in 2024. By the time that the second goes out of service, we will need to have a fully operational replacement if we are to maintain continuous patrolling.

Our best estimate, also tested against American and French experience, is that the process of designing, manufacturing, testing and deploying a new class of submarines takes about 17 years, which takes us to 2024. That is why we must make a decision now.

The Foreign Secretary has indicated that we must make a decision now to begin the design process for the new submarines. She has also indicated that further decisions, which we are not making today, will have to be made about ordering the submarines, renewing or replacing the warheads or ordering successors to the D5 missile. In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), she indicated that future Governments and Parliaments will have to

“discuss the most appropriate form of Parliamentary scrutiny”

for those decisions. If this Government are still in power when those decisions come to be made, will she indicate whether she believes the most appropriate form of parliamentary scrutiny to be further votes and debates in Parliament on those matters?

I understand entirely my hon. Friend’s point, but he knows that I am a former Leader of the House. No one is less likely to be prepared to commit future Governments and Parliaments to a certain course than a former Leader of the House. I simply draw his attention to the words uttered by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and to the clear facts before the House—the decision in principle must be made today, but the decision on the warheads, for example, will not come in this Parliament. It would be improper for me to bind a future Government or Parliament, but every party in the House will have heard the questions and points raised, and every party will take account of them. I certainly assure my hon. Friend that this Government will do everything that we can to keep the House fully informed and to make sure that the Select Committee is kept up to date.

Incidentally, I have been reading of late comments that the decision was rushed. We announced in 2003, in the White Paper, that this was the time scale within which it would have to be made. I saw suggestions in The Guardian today that other decisions were being made in secret. In fact, they were announced to the Select Committee in November 2005. I believe it was the late Enoch Powell who said that the best way to keep a secret was to announce it in Parliament. Unfortunately, it is proved daily that that is the case.

I am sorry, but I must get on. I am approaching the end of my speech and many Members wish to contribute.

Some Members have sought assurances on whether this is only a provisional decision, dependent on further decisions down the line. Today’s decision does not mean that we are committing ourselves irreversibly to maintaining a nuclear deterrent for the next 50 years, no matter what others do and no matter what happens in the rest of the world. That would be absurd, unnecessary and, indeed, incompatible with the nuclear proliferation treaty. Nevertheless, the strategic case for maintaining the deterrent has been made, and has been laid out perhaps more fully than ever before. It is for the House to decide whether or not it supports that decision of principle. We must make a clear decision that confirms to the British people and the rest of the world that we are not abandoning our deterrent.

Of course, if there were a fundamental change for the better in the strategic environment—in particular, massive significant progress on non-proliferation and disarmament—it would obviously be right for future Governments to look at the issue again, and inevitably they would. As I have said, further decisions will in any case be needed on the precise design of the submarines, on whether we need four or three, on whether to renew or replace the warhead, and on whether to participate in any American programme to develop a successor to the D5 missile. It will fall to future Governments and Parliaments to discuss the most appropriate form of scrutiny for those decisions. As I have said, this Government will ensure that there are regular reports to Parliament as the programme proceeds, and we will give the Select Committee our full co-operation as it maintains its regular scrutiny of these issues.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. On the question of parliamentary scrutiny, I understand that she cannot bind future Parliaments. I noted that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced yesterday that the Climate Change Bill would bind future Parliaments, but I understand that my right hon. Friend is reluctant to do the same. However, will she at least express the opinion to this Parliament that it would be desirable and appropriate for it to be able to take a view at some point in the future—perhaps around the time that the main contracts are let—on whether international circumstances still require us to maintain an independent nuclear missile system?

I do not want to add anything to the words that either my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister or I have already uttered to my right hon. Friend, but I will say to him that I am not sure whether we are at cross purposes. The stage to which he refers is not likely to be reached during the present Parliament. With the deepest respect to my good and right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who is a very fine Minister indeed, he has not of course been Leader of the House. [Laughter.] Yet.

I have made the Government’s case. There are opponents of that case who believe that nuclear weapons are morally wrong, pure and simple. For the reasons that I have given today, while I respect and understand that stance I must say—as a member of a Government charged, above all, with the protection of the people of this country—that it is not my position. Moreover, those whom that stance leads to oppose this decision should, by that yardstick, have opposed all previous nuclear procurements. Some, I know, have; some, I suspect, have not.

To others, Trident is just a waste of money. In one sense, I hope to God they are right. Nothing would please me or the Government more than to have a nuclear deterrent that was never used, and whose use was never even threatened, because a nuclear threat never emerged. But on the facts before us, we—and they—cannot know that to be true or certain, at least for the next 50 years. While such a risk exists, the Government believe that maintaining a minimum nuclear deterrent remains a premium worth paying on an insurance policy for our nation.

I commend the motion to the House.

The Foreign Secretary has made a very powerful speech, and an extremely good case. It was all the more powerful coming from her, in a way, because she was a long-standing member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament—she once spoke of remaining a member of it even if she became Prime Minister—and she is said to have attended the recent Cabinet meeting to discuss these matters and make the decision that she has just explained with deep reluctance. The fact that someone with her long-held views has reached the clear conclusion—in Government, and with all the information available to her—that the British nuclear deterrent must be retained, updated and replaced is in itself an indication of the powerful case for doing so.

The Foreign Secretary has overcome her reservations; others will wish to voice theirs and to ask many serious questions during the debate, but the arguments for the Government’s position are very, very strong. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has always made clear that we will support the Government when we believe them to be right. Let me make it clear, therefore, that given our view of the national interest, the Opposition will unite with Ministers in the Lobby tonight.

It is an interesting theory that the Foreign Secretary changed her mind when information became available, but I think the right hon. Gentleman should bear in mind the fact that she changed her mind before she was in Government and before that information was available to her.

I am just very pleased that she changed her mind. I do not want to go into all the arguments about the particular week in which she did so; I am sure she can explain that to us herself.

There are, of course, important questions about costs, timings, the necessary skills base and the lifespan of some of the equipment involved. I shall turn to those shortly, and perhaps the Secretary of State for Defence will comment on them when he winds up the debate. However, we will support the Government’s motion, although the phrase

“take the steps necessary to maintain… the existing system”

barely does justice to what is being decided: the building of an entire new class of ballistic missile submarines, along with the updating of our Trident missile force, together representing the single most important and expensive procurement of the coming decades. In effect—unless there is, as the Foreign Secretary said, some fundamental and utterly unexpected change in world affairs—this means deciding to replace our nuclear deterrent for another generation, and our vote tonight will be the decision on whether to do so.

The motion also refers to taking

“further steps towards meeting the United Kingdom’s disarmament responsibilities under… the Non-Proliferation Treaty”.

Let me make it clear that those disarmament steps have the strong support of the Opposition. Britain is already unique among the recognised nuclear weapons states, in that we have reduced our nuclear deterrent capability to a single system, Trident. We have reduced the size of our nuclear arsenal by 70 per cent. since the cold war, and the Government rightly propose to make a further reduction in our stock of warheads from 200 to 160. We have only a single Trident submarine on deterrent patrol at any one time, with its missiles de-targeted.

If my right hon. Friend were Foreign Secretary now, what additional steps would he take to try to achieve more multilateral disarmament on the back of our unilateral moves?

I think there is a very strong case for an intensified effort by this country and our allies to strengthen the non-proliferation treaty. I shall say more about that at the end of my speech, and I shall deal with my right hon. Friend’s point then.

For all the reasons I have given, I agree with the Government that their proposals do not breach article 6 of the non-proliferation treaty. That article does not call for unilateral nuclear disarmament, but calls for the pursuit of negotiations in good faith relating to nuclear weapons.

With the end of the cold war, it was understandably hoped that the role of nuclear weapons in shaping the international system might become less relevant. Some people expected that nuclear weapons might be marginalised, or even abolished altogether; but unfortunately, they still have a major relevance 16 years after the end of the cold war. New nuclear weapons states have emerged, and new would-be nuclear powers have appeared on the world horizon.

The truth is that as far as we can see into the future, nuclear weapons will remain part—however much we hope they will be a diminishing part—of the global security setting. The knowledge to build them will continue to exist; they will not be disinvented. This country has set a good example in the reduction of its nuclear arsenal, but we should not think for a moment that if we were to divest ourselves altogether of that arsenal, other nations would be likely to follow suit for that reason, or countries known to be seeking a nuclear weapon would thereupon abandon their programmes.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, my background was heavily affected by the cold war; my parents came from Estonia. In the past, I assumed that deterrence worked. Does the right hon. Gentleman have a view as to whether nuclear weapons truly did prevent a hot war arising between the west and the east, or, in retrospect, does he think that we overestimate the impact of our having had nuclear weapons? I am equivocal about that myself, and I wonder what the right hon. Gentleman thinks about it.

All we can go on is the evidence of history. The hot war—to use the hon. Gentleman’s phrase—did not happen. One of the factors that brought the cold war to a peaceful end was the strength shown by the western alliance—by NATO—not only in having independent nuclear deterrents in Washington, London and Paris, but also in deploying, as an alliance, theatre nuclear weapons, which was highly controversial at the time, as we all remember. The hon. Gentleman should remember that point when he comes to vote this evening.

I was very struck by the speech in the House of Lords on 24 January of Lord O’Neill of Clackmannan, a former colleague in this House who was the Labour party’s defence spokesman in the period when it championed unilateral nuclear disarmament. He said that when Lord Kinnock and other Front-Bench colleagues of the time

“started visiting the decision-making centres of the other nuclear powers—Washington, Paris and Moscow—and spoke to the Chinese in London, we were startled by the indifference with which they greeted our willingness to give up our nuclear arsenal. They felt that it would not be a bad thing, but would make not one whit of difference to their nuclear capability or willingness to participate in disarmament negotiations one way or the other.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 24 January 2007; Vol. 688, c. 1120.]

He added that those experiences marked the beginning of new Labour in foreign and security policy.

For the policy we are currently discussing above all others, it remains the case today that laudable idealism must be leavened with gritty realism. In terms of numbers, there have been large reductions in the American and Russian arsenals, but within the last 10 years we have also seen the Indian and Pakistani nuclear weapons tests, the modernisation of China’s nuclear arsenal, North Korea’s proliferation, the discovery of Iran’s covert nuclear programme and the evolution of Russia’s nuclear doctrine, placing increased emphasis on nuclear weapons to offset its conventional weakness. All that demonstrates that the nature of the long-term threat to the peace of the world from nuclear weapons has changed but has not necessarily diminished. Indeed, according to “Strategic Trends”, an independent view of the future produced by a body in the Ministry of Defence,

“access to technology that enables the production and distribution of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons is likely to increase.”

That view certainly seems to be borne out by what we see around the world.

The right hon. Gentleman is giving a fine exposition of traditional Tory policy in the area under discussion, but does he agree that the key issue—which will be debated today, given that the selected amendment addresses it—is timing? Does he accept the Government’s verdict on the timing? That is an important question, bearing in mind the fact that the Opposition accepted the Government’s argument about weapons of mass destruction, which was found to be fallacious.

Of course, timing is a very important issue. I agree with the Government’s view, and I shall say why shortly if I may proceed with my speech, but I feel that the subject under discussion and the decision to be made are sufficiently important that I need to set out why in principle the Opposition support the decision, as well as our views on the details of the timing.

“Strategic Trends”, the document I was quoting from, states that

“the proliferation of nuclear weapons....particularly to weak and unstable states will increase the risks of more uninhibited, assertive and intemperate behaviour”

by those countries. Furthermore, it states that

“states with nuclear weapons, such as Pakistan, possibly North Korea and potentially Iran will remain vulnerable to instability”,

with the possibility of the collapse of central authority and nuclear material falling into the hands of hostile regimes. In summary, it states that

“accelerating nuclear proliferation will create a more complex and dangerous strategic environment, with the likely clustering of nuclear armed states in regions that have significant potential for instability”.

The decision on which the Government are seeking the endorsement of the House tonight would enable us to have an independent nuclear deterrent until at least the 2040s and possibly into the 2050s. We cannot, of course, see 50 years into the future, but that is the whole point. While none of the existing nuclear weapons powers poses an imminent military threat to the United Kingdom, to retain our deterrent is, in the words of the Defence Committee, to maintain “the prudent hedge” against an unknowable and possibly unpleasant future. It represents a vital ability to deter potential aggressors who will be both more diverse and less predictable than in the past.

The right hon. Gentleman did not mention Israel in his list of nuclear states. Does he accept that Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons is a major destabilising factor in the middle east and that it is encouraging Iran to acquire nuclear capability; and what is his policy on dealing with that matter?

People cite the example of Israel having nuclear weapons, although I suspect that if we had been in Israel’s situation over recent decades we would have wanted to have nuclear weapons, so I am not going to give advice to the Israeli Government about that.

The realistic planning that I have been speaking of has to assume that the UK will continue to be engaged in regional hot spots, including—but not limited to—the middle east, and that British military operations might have to be conducted in the face of local states possessing weapons of mass destruction of some kind. Nuclear capability, even when its use seems remote, significantly enhances confidence in dealing with a potential adversary.

As will of course be pointed out in this debate, we cannot know that any situation will arise in the coming decades where we will need the threat of our deterrent; equally, we cannot know that no such situation will arise—and, indeed, arise quite quickly. Let us think of our predecessors in this House of 100 years ago—of 1907. They were entitled to think that they were living in an age of fairly assured peace and constantly rising prosperity, with nothing more serious than regional wars in the previous half century. They had no inkling that within 40 years they would face the two greatest cataclysms in human history—calamities which could only have been reduced in scale had they been better prepared for them. With the sobering example of previous centuries before us, and with all the evidence in this century—from the middle east in particular—pointing to the next few decades being, if anything, more dangerous than the last few decades, I have to subscribe to the view that the abandonment of our nuclear deterrent would be extraordinarily ill advised, and, indeed, a national act of folly.

The right hon. Gentleman has talked about our predecessors of 100 years ago. Does he accept that his point would be even more powerfully made if our predecessors of 80 years or 70 years ago were mentioned? Understandably after the shocking experience of the first world war, they sought disarmament for the best of motives, but they could not have anticipated the rise of the dictatorships in Germany and elsewhere that plunged the world into an even worse disaster, and which might have been mitigated, or possibly avoided, had the western democracies maintained a strong defensive stance.

The right hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point that supplements mine. In the run-up to that great world crisis in the 1930s, we would have been better able to respond, and to try to avoid it, if this country had been in a position of military strength rather than weakness.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to events of 100 years ago. Of course, 100 years ago we had the British empire. Even when I was at school, the map of the world was coloured red. [Interruption.] Well, I am not as old as some in this Chamber. What we should be discussing is Britain’s role in the world at the current time, with the nuclear issue being a part of that debate.

Of course this debate is about our role in the world at present, which is why I am talking about the middle east, North Korea, Iran and elsewhere. I am simply pointing out that, in deciding on what should be our current role in the world, we have to be conscious of the lessons of history; otherwise, we will repeat some of the mistakes of history, such as that to which the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) has just referred.

I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman is a distinguished historian, but I am sure that 1907—not that I personally was around then—was the time of the great Anglo-German naval arms race. The Dreadnought was the weapon of mass destruction of its time. Does the right hon. Gentleman not accept that that arms race was a contributory factor in causing the awful war that broke out in August 1914?

First, that arms race had not started in 1907. Secondly, we are not talking about an arms race—this country is getting rid of 20 per cent. of its warheads, and it has got rid of 70 per cent. of its previous stock of warheads. We ought to bear it in mind that if the arms race before the first world war had gone in the same direction as current Government policy on the stock of nuclear warheads, there probably would not have been a first world war.

I have nothing but respect for those who wish—

All Members of the House have enormous respect for the right hon. Gentleman and we do understand the arguments that he is putting forward. However, the logic of his position is that if every single state in the world were given a nuclear weapon, the world would be safer. That is nonsense, is it not?

That is not the logic, and it is the reason why we have the non-proliferation treaty, to which we are signatories. Everything that the Government have proposed is in line with that treaty, as is resisting other states developing nuclear weapons. By the way, I have the greatest of respect for the hon. Gentleman, as well; we North Yorkshire MPs have to stick together. However, he must not think that if we announced today our intention not to have a nuclear deterrent in future, other countries—those in Tehran, for example—would say, “What a relief! We are now going to abandon our nuclear intentions.” That is not the way the world works, as he and I know; we simply have to make the realistic decision.

I have nothing but respect for those who wish the world could be free of nuclear weapons—most or all of us do—but our own total disarmament would no more make it so than wishing it so would. Crucially, the absence of our own nuclear weapons would make us more dependent, not less, on the United States of America. It is perhaps a paradox that those who oppose this decision are often among the fiercest critics of the United States; yet, in the ultimate crisis, such people would leave our security wholly dependent on the credibility and resolve of the White House—or of the Élysée—and its readiness to risk everything for the sake of Britain. Can we always be confident of that—that that would apply to the occupant of the White House for decades to come? I do not think that we can have that confidence.

For all these reasons, the arguments in principle for replacing our deterrent therefore seem to me overwhelming. The risks of not replacing it far outweigh the difficulty and expense of doing so. Furthermore, the advantages of a submarine-launched system, which is as invulnerable to attack as any weapons system in the modern world can be, also seem overwhelming. So we support the maintenance of a continuous at-sea deterrent, which until now has necessitated possession of four ballistic missile submarines. We would of course like to know when the Government think it will be possible to decide whether the new class of submarines can operate with only three vessels. The alternative of submarine-launched cruise missiles has also been suggested, but we share the Government’s judgment that that would not only require the development of new technologies, but would require a submarine to be far closer to its potential target to have any deterrent effect. We also share the Government’s view that the possession of ballistic missiles that can be launched from anywhere in the world toward anywhere in the world is an important part of successful deterrence.

Let me make a bit of progress. I want to leave time for other Members.

I hope that the Secretary of State for Defence will say more when he winds up about cost—questions have already been asked about that—on which a fourth submarine would obviously have a major impact. One witness to the Defence Select Committee, Dr. Jeremy Stocker of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, has argued that

“the cost of the new submarines seems very high”,

suggesting that the current fleet of Vanguard-class submarines costs a little under £6 billion at current prices, if the cost of warheads and missiles is considered separately. The Government’s estimate for the new submarines, however, has come in at £11 billion to £14 billion. If these figures are indeed correct, I hope that Ministers will explain in more detail why the costs are expected to be so much higher.

The Government have stated that the cost of UK participation in American plans to extend the life of the Trident D5 missile will be about £250 million. It is not clear whether there will be further costs, in order to extend the life of the missile, if necessary, into the 2040s. We would also be interested to know how much the detailed concept work shortly to commence on the Vanguard will cost. Can the Secretary of State provide an estimate of the cost of the work that will be undertaken in the period of the comprehensive spending review?

Much of this debate will of course turn on a further important issue that has already been raised by Members—whether the decision in principle to design and build a new class of submarines must be taken now. The Government have said that the process will take 17 years, and that because the first two Vanguard-class submarines will come to the end of their service life in 2022 and 2024—even with a five-year extension—the continuous at-sea deterrent cycle could not be maintained after 2024 if the first replacement was not ready by then. It is said that the different construction of the United States’ Ohio-class submarines allows their service life to be extended well beyond that of our Vanguard class. I hope that the Secretary of State will go into more detail on comparable decisions to be made about the life cycle of the new submarines. Are the Government intending to build submarines with a life span of more than 25 to 30 years in future? What trade-offs in terms of capital costs and maintenance are involved? These issues need careful examination in future, but the timetable of the commitment that we are asked to make today is of course determined by the life span of the old submarines, and we have no reason to doubt that the early 2020s are likely to see the end of the service life of the first two.

Others have attempted to argue that past experience suggests that a period of 14 years is necessary to design and build new submarines, rather than the 17-year period claimed by the Government, for which they have given a reasonable justification. The truth must be that we cannot be sure how long it will take up to 17 years, but the eager seizing on 14 years seems suspiciously like grabbing at a date that is just the other side of the next general election. For a party split exactly down the middle on this issue, that is politically understandable, although it is not the way in which this vital national decision can be made by a potential party of government.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for being generous with his time. Does he agree that if we do not go ahead at this stage, the design team that is in place to design the submarines will be dispersed, we will be unable to put a team back together and we will end up having to buy American submarines, thereby not taking advantage of this country’s engineering capability?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very strong point, which I want to add to. However, I have not quite finished with our friends on the Liberal Democrat Benches.

The Liberal Democrat policy paper on this matter said that the period between now and 2014

“should be used to allow a clearer picture to develop concerning the proliferation of states that possess nuclear weapons and their ability to directly threaten Britain”.

The trouble with that is that when we arrived at 2014, we would still not know—even if the world was, against all indications, becoming a more peaceable place—what threats we might face in the 2040s. However, if the world had taken a turn in a more dangerous direction, it would by then be too late to prevent us from having a significant gap for several years in our continuous at-sea deterrent in the mid-2020s. That is like building a house for the next half century and deciding on the basis of the weather in the next few months whether to bother with a roof. That is not a viable policy.

Of course, because the uncertainties in these time scales are so great, the only way to time such decisions is with a sensible precaution, providing a reasonable time buffer. We should have very—

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the cold war earlier. Does he agree with former President Gorbachev, who said that

“A responsible course of action for the…Government would be to postpone the decision on the future of the nuclear arsenal at least until the next review conference of the NPT in 2010”?

For all the reasons that I have given, I do not agree with former President Gorbachev about that. Of course, Russia still possesses some 10,000 nuclear warheads. We are being told to get rid of our 160 warheads, which is the number that will be left. We of course need major contributions to the disarmament process from Russia, and we have seen some in recent years; however, I do not agree with President Gorbachev’s judgment. This country will derive the strongest leverage and the strongest negotiating position from making the decision that we are now asked to make, not from shirking that decision.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the submarines are to be based in Scotland, which has the greatest opposition to the renewal of Trident. Some 80 per cent. opposed it in the last opinion poll. Why should the submarines be based in Scotland; and would he respect the views of the Scottish people as expressed through their Parliament, if it decided to vote against Trident?

These decisions are made on a UK basis, as the hon. Gentleman well knows. I do not think that the people who do such a tremendous job in Faslane and other locations in Scotland would thank him for saying that those facilities should be closed. The decisions are made on a UK basis, and that is the right way for them to be made.

We must have very serious regard for the point made by the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) about the maintenance of the relevant base of industry and skills, noting that the delay between the commencement of the Astute class submarine building programme and its predecessor evidently contributed to delays and higher costs in the Astute programme. The Government rightly intend, subject to satisfactory arrangements, that the new submarines will be built in the United Kingdom. The Defence Committee was advised by Mr. Murray Easton of BAE Systems that

“if there is a further delay, or any delay, in the submarine ordering programme it will have a significant and, I think, catastrophic impact on our ability to design and build and, therefore, for this country to have its own nuclear submarine design and construction”.

That would of course include nuclear-powered conventional submarines as well as nuclear-armed submarines. It seems to us therefore that to wait several years would run not only a strategic risk but a very serious managerial and financial risk that could make the entire programme more difficult and expensive to execute.

Now that I have been speaking for nearly half an hour, I feel that I should try to conclude, so I will not give way again.

The Government are right to avoid a politically motivated delay that would make the programme more expensive, and right too to emphasise that a great deal of work has to be done to ensure that there is what the White Paper calls

“a much greater collaborative effort between the MoD and industry than has been the case in the recent past.”

I hope that the Secretary of State for Defence can assure us not only that the costs involved are necessary, but that the MOD will have the skills necessary to deliver any future submarine programme to time and on budget. I also hope that Ministers will invite the National Audit Office to monitor the contract to protect the public purse. That point has already been made.

Those are the reassurances that we would like to receive from the Government about cost and about the management of the whole industrial process. But our support for taking the decision to begin this work and for taking it now is unequivocal. Taking this decision, which is entirely within our rights under the non-proliferation treaty, in no way diminishes our authority to argue for the strengthening of that treaty—a point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood)—and to try to counter the proliferation of nuclear weapons across the world. This country has an excellent record in that respect, not only in the ways I have already mentioned, but in ratifying the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty and in ceasing production of fissile material for nuclear weapons. We hope that the Government will couple this decision with leading an intensified international effort to improve the non-proliferation treaty. It was signed more than 40 years ago, but the 21st century has produced a combination of challenges that the makers of the treaty could not predict. Those challenges include shortcomings in our ability to detect states covertly developing nuclear programmes; the need to bring new nuclear weapons states, which did not sign the NPT, into a framework where they too contribute to the non-proliferation regime; and how to respond to the rise of an extensive global nuclear black market.

All those problems need work, including the need to secure world stockpiles of nuclear material against theft; to strengthen the proliferation security initiative; and to strengthen the International Atomic Energy Agency. That work should go alongside this decision today. The efforts to help non-nuclear weapons states, such as Iran, with peaceful nuclear technology must be credible, and so must the united international resolve to prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons in defiance of the NPT.

All that work—to prevent black market proliferation and to uphold the non-proliferation treaty—is of huge importance to our national security. But it will also be of huge importance to our security for four or five decades to come, acting within the terms of the non-proliferation treaty, to ensure that the United Kingdom can continue to deploy a weapon of last resort. That is why the Government are right to come to the conclusion that they have and why, if we were in their place, we would do the same. On that basis, the Opposition will support their motion tonight.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me in this debate and allowing me to make a personal statement and contribution. It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). I welcome this opportunity to tell the House—before the media—why I have, after much reflection, concluded that I cannot vote with the Government today and have tendered my resignation.

I thank right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House who have shown me great courtesy during my time as Deputy Leader of the House and in more recent days. I hope that I have discharged my duties diligently. I want to be remembered not so much for being the Government’s representative in this House, but more for being this House’s representative in the Government.

I am especially grateful for the strong support and kind words of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and of his predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon). It has been a privilege to serve this House and to do so with such distinguished colleagues.

My thoughts at this moment are with a former Leader of the House, the late Robin Cook, one of our truly great parliamentarians, who encouraged me to follow him into politics, who came to Edinburgh, South to help to secure my re-election and whose example guides me today. Robin knew that in politics one has to take tough decisions—and few decisions come tougher than resigning from Government. I have taken such a decision, and in doing so, like Robin, I leave the Government with no bitterness.

I am overwhelmed by the messages of support I have received, but in truth, even if I had stood here as a latter-day Thomas Stockmann, I would remain true to my convictions. I have served my Government loyally for a decade, and the same Government have served Edinburgh, South well. From the children in the new school buildings in Gracemount and Liberton, and at Craigour Park and St. Peter’s, to the patients in our new royal infirmary at Little France, we owe this Government a great debt. In my constituency, thousands of local citizens and thousands of people in low-paid jobs have been lifted out of poverty through the leadership of this Prime Minister and the funding provided by this Chancellor; I have been proud to vote through these, and so many other measures.

After reading the White Paper, “The future of the United Kingdom’s nuclear deterrent”, I have concluded that it has no future—that this country has to become a country for peace, not a country for war. We have led the world in campaigning to meet the Kyoto targets. We have led the fight to eradicate global poverty. Now we must lead the world in campaigning for the eradication of the nuclear threat—and we must lead by example. As the poet and essayist Emerson said:

“The real and lasting victories are those of peace, and not of war.”

I have seen colleagues wrestle with their consciences and lose their beliefs. That is not a path that I have chosen to follow.

I have been asked by colleagues whether any inducements have been offered to me to change my mind. Honesty compels me to say that I have. The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) presented me with a complimentary copy of his latest publication in favour of Trident. He even signed it, but alas it came too late, so the efforts of that warmest of cold warriors were wasted on me.

Serving my constituents in Edinburgh, South has always been my priority. It has been a privilege to have served not just the Government, but, I hope, the whole House and my country in various capacities, as Under Secretary with responsibility for competition policy and consumer affairs; for construction and coal miners’ compensation; for small businesses; for enterprise and social enterprises; and, until this week, as Deputy Leader of the House of Commons. Public service is indeed an honourable estate.

It is to this Government’s credit that we have the opportunity to debate this decision, as I said from the Dispatch Box last week. Past Governments took such decisions in complete secrecy, without even consulting the full Cabinet, more out of fear of domestic opposition than fear of giving away our secrets to foreign enemies. I praise the openness of the decision-making process now.

Let me put on record my tribute to our armed services. My father served with pride in the Royal Air Force—in fighter command 85 squadron, flying a De Havilland Mosquito night fighter—fighting the Luftwaffe in the second world war. In my time, I know from chairing a major Kosovo refugee appeal about the tremendous work of our brave forces, saving lives and protecting people in the Balkans; they are the finest fighters and the finest peacekeepers in the world.

I also have direct experience of the cold war nuclear legacy, as I had some ministerial responsibility for our multi-million pound contribution to dismantling Soviet nuclear submarines. It was as a Minister that I visited the naval yards in Arkhangelsk—Archangel—in 2004 and witnessed the terrible legacy of rotting hulks leaking their toxic nuclear waste into the sea. It is so sad that this generation is having to pay for the mistakes of a previous one.

There are those who oppose any spending on defence and our armed services, but I am not one of them. There are those who argue that the decision is premature, but I am not one of them, either. Tough decisions must never be put off. However, there are those who question the wisdom of the £15 billion investment in Trident, and I am most certainly one of them, for I cannot foresee any circumstances in which this country or its territories would be threatened by a nuclear weapons state and we would need to retaliate with a nuclear strike, or where the threat of a nuclear strike by the UK would shape such a state’s actions.

The truth is that we have led the world in decommissioning land mines and now in nuclear weapons. The world is watching us now. Let us be leaders for peace. Whatever the good intentions of the White Paper to ring-fence the budget, I remain concerned that funding will be diverted by future Governments from more pressing defence equipment needs.

I have another fear about the position in 10 or more years’ time—the accelerating impact of global warming. In 1996, I represented Friends of the Earth at the Berlin summit on sustainable development. I believe that current predictions of dramatic, if not catastrophic, climate change by 2050 will be telescoped into a shorter time frame. I fear that rising sea levels will threaten coastal towns long before that time, displacing large populations here in Britain. I believe that we will need every penny available to invest and cope with re-housing and other consequences. Let us incubate the new skills, develop the new technologies and find new ways to fight global warming and climate change. What greater goal can we set our young people?

I now leave the Government over this issue. I recognise that others hold equally sincere but opposite views, which I can respect. Perhaps I am a little self-indulgent in that. But others can still not seem to make up their minds, and of them I am less tolerant. To maintain the present Vanguard submarines and delay a replacement decision is not a credible stance, and I shall not vote for such options. I will, however, vote against the White Paper for the reasons that I have given. I go with a heavy heart, but a clear conscience.

It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths) and I commend him for the courage of his actions and the clarity with which he explained them to the House today.

I should like to address three points: the principle of the nuclear deterrent; the strategic context and the danger of proliferation; and the timing of the decision that we are asked to take today.

Members with differing views will go through the Lobby to support the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett). There will be those who oppose the principle of the nuclear deterrent, some of whom have done so for many years, whereas others have come to that view more lately. Others support the principle of the nuclear deterrent, but abhor the manner and timing of the Government’s conduct of the issue. I believe that both views will be represented among Labour Members going into the Lobby, and both those views are certainly represented among my Liberal Democrat colleagues.

I readily acknowledge that we have had a vigorous debate, conducted in a tone of great respect, in the ranks of my own party; people who have held very strong views for many years continue to hold them. It is not my view, however, that now is the right moment for Britain to give up its nuclear deterrent. In many respects, we face a more dangerous situation now than we have for several decades. In the Vanguard system, we have a nuclear deterrent that, contrary to everything that has been said, is quite new. The youngest of the four submarines was put into service only six years ago, so by common reckoning, the system has about 20 or so years of life ahead of it. The capital costs of the system have been paid for. The moment when dangers loom on the horizon that we have not had to contend with over the past 10 or 20 years is not the right moment for Britain to renounce its nuclear weapons. I wish to put that on the record from the outset.

The Government ask for various practical measures to be taken, but they also ask for a great decision to be taken in principle. The practical measures on which the Government wish to embark are the concept and design work that will keep open the option of having replacements for the Vanguard submarine. The White Paper also refers to participation in the life extension programme for the Trident D5 missiles. If we had before us a simple appropriations motion, seeking the House’s approval to proceed with those practical steps, I would have no difficulty whatever in supporting it—but that is not what the Government are asking.

Harold Wilson said that a decision delayed is a decision made. Both amendments are a fudge because they will allow the decision to be taken at a later date; in fact, they are predicated on a decision being taken at a later date. I therefore urge the hon. Gentleman to say exactly what he thinks should happen to the amendments.

Mr. Speaker has selected one of the amendments, but the two amendments in the names of the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) are sound reasoned amendments. They make the pertinent point that the appropriate moment for the House to take the decision in principle should be at the main gate decision, which we know from the Government’s own White Paper will be taken between 2012 and 2014. The Select Committee also arrived at the view that no final decision needed to be taken until the same time. I say again that if we were simply being asked to take the practical measures to keep the options open until that date, I would have no difficulty supporting it, but that is not what we are being asked to do. We are being asked to make the big decision in principle now.

There has been some wriggling and some discomfort—a question was asked at Prime Minister’s Question Time today—but right hon. and hon. Members should be under absolutely no illusions. The motion on the Order Paper asks the House to support the decisions in the White Paper. Let me quote what the Prime Minister says in it:

“We have therefore decided to maintain our deterrent system beyond the life of the Vanguards… we have to decide now whether we want to replace them.”

It goes on:

“We have therefore decided to maintain our deterrent “

by building a new class of submarines. These are decisions that the House is asked to endorse. It is not a simple appropriations motion, subsequent to which the House will have the opportunity—when the contracts are let and the serious money is spent—for further scrutiny. No, this is a decision in principle.

I understand the difficulty that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues face today. On the assumption that the Government motion is passed, will he give an undertaking that the Liberal Democrats will have a clear position by the next general election? When people vote in it, they need to know whether they will get a pro-Trident or an anti-Trident policy—or will the Liberal Democrats sit on the fence again?

The hon. Gentleman is wrong in thinking that we are in some difficulty today; we are in no difficulty whatsoever. It is perfectly clear to any rational person that this decision does not need to be taken today and we do not therefore feel any discomfort.

One of the things that the Prime Minister said when he produced his statement in December was that there was to be a great debate between then and the House coming to the decision that it is making today. I understand that the Labour party cancelled its spring conference, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that our party had such a debate. We have arrived at a clear position, and if he is interested in it I will be happy to share it with him. The fact of the matter is that we have taken the view that I have already laid out before the House today. We support the deterrent and we will continue to do so. I said that the next thing that I wanted to do was examine the strategic context.

The hon. Gentleman talks about the Liberal Democrats having a clear position, so he presumably does not agree with one of his colleagues who, as I understand it, described the Liberal Democrats’ position as a mishmash and as a compromise to get it through their conference. The hon. Gentleman tells us that if it had been a simple debate on acquisition today, he would have had no problem voting for it, but can he speak so confidently for all those sitting on the Liberal Democrat Benches?

Yes. The resolution of the Liberal Democrats was that these initial steps should be taken. However, I put it to the hon. Lady, who has sent a letter to Liberal Democrats in the past 24 hours, that she would be very well advised to look at the plank in her own party’s eye before she starts to think that she can detect a speck in the eye of the Liberal Democrats.

I will not give way because I am going to move to the second phase of my speech, and I said that I would refer to the strategic environment.

The strategic environment now is potentially more dangerous than it has been for a good many years. We see that Iran and North Korea are taking serious steps to becoming nuclear powers and we know that that will trigger a reaction among their neighbours. In the middle east, Iran’s neighbours are likely to feel that they must follow suit. It is very frightening that a variety of states in that part of the world might become nuclear powers. Similar regional proliferation could reasonably be anticipated if North Korea were to renege on the agreements it has recently made and went ahead with its ambitions to develop a nuclear weapon.

The strategic context is very dangerous, and that makes the forthcoming review conference of the NPT in 2010 all the more important. It should be Britain’s objective to play as constructive, positive and progressive a part as it can at that conference, and we have done that in the past.

The hon. Gentleman began his speech by saying, and he is reiterating now, that this is not the time to give up Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent. Will he clarify for the House in what sort of international security environment his party believes it would be possible to give up the nuclear deterrent?

I hope very much that the efforts that are being made towards multilateral disarmament, to which the Foreign Secretary restated the Government’s commitment and to which the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) restated the Conservative party’s commitment, involve sincere commitments. All sane and rational people should be committed to trying to rid the world of nuclear weapons altogether. If the processes running up to 2010 and those that might reasonably follow from it could stave off the dangers of the specific regional proliferations to which I have referred, and if the Americans and the Russians could get new energy behind the steps that they have already taken to reducing the number of their warheads, we might begin to develop a situation in which it is reasonable for Britain to consider giving up its nuclear weapons. However, there are an enormous number of “ifs” in that and if a week is a long time in politics, seven years is an eternity.