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Atomic Weapons Establishment Aldermaston

Volume 474: debated on Wednesday 26 March 2008

I am pleased to have secured this debate. We are a thin audience this afternoon; others have obviously found President Sarkozy’s attendance in the House a greater attraction than a debate on the future of Aldermaston, but there you go. I declare an interest in the matter: I am the national vice-chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and have been for some time. Indeed, I have been a member since the age of 15.

I was at Aldermaston on Monday afternoon, when a large demonstration of CND supporters and opponents of nuclear weapons surrounded the establishment at 2.30 pm to commemorate 50 years since the first Aldermaston march, to show our concerns about Aldermaston’s phenomenal cost and its continuation as a site for the development of nuclear weapons, and to protest against this country’s possible nuclear rearmament, to which I shall come in a few moments. The chair of CND, Kate Hudson, said in a New Statesman article on 20 March that

“you—like I on a recent visit—will probably be stunned by the sheer size of the buildings that are being constructed at the site. The new facilities will house a range of equipment, which will be used to simulate the effects of nuclear testing—so that new warheads can be developed without actually contravening the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which outlaws nuclear tests.”

She then goes on to describe the development of the new computer and all the costs associated with it.

I want to draw the House’s attention to a number of issues concerning Aldermaston, but I shall first go into a little of the history of Britain’s involvement with nuclear weapons. Britain was involved in the Manhattan project during the second world war; indeed, Sir William Penney was central to the project. After the war, the British were denied access to US nuclear secrets under the McMahon Act and the US refused to pass back many of the nuclear secrets developed at Los Alamos by British and other scientists during the second world war, so instead, the British set up Fort Halstead in the north Kent downs near Sevenoaks. It was an old 1892 fortress, one of a ring of fortresses around London. In 1950, the site was moved to a farm at Aldermaston, near the former RAF base. For many years, Ordnance Survey maps did not recognise AWE Aldermaston—it was just put down as Aldermaston farm—so demonstrators going there would look for the farm, and then they would see that massive place used to develop nuclear weapons.

Aldermaston is a huge facility by any stretch of the imagination. I have been there on many occasions for various demonstrations and have always been concerned by its size, but I am concerned above all by its cost and purpose. Nuclear weapons are expensive and extremely controversial. The nuclear weapons expenditure planned for AWEs between the financial years 2008-09 and 2010-11 amounts to £2.65 billion: £800 million in the forthcoming year, rising to £900 million and then £950 million. Over those three years, the Trident replacement programme will add up to another £900 million and other expenditure a further £2 billion, leading to a total expenditure on nuclear weapons of £5.8 billion in the next three years, excluding present running costs. Those are phenomenal amounts of money.

On 30 October, after I asked a question about additional funding and what it meant, the Secretary of State for Defence confirmed the figures that I just mentioned for additional funding from 2008 to 2011. The strategic defence review stated that AWE running costs in 1997-98 were £302 million. We are seeing a large increase in expenditure at AWE Aldermaston, and the intention in forthcoming years is to spend even more on it. The total spend on new investment from the main Ministry of Defence budget will be £1.35 billion. There are many other figures that I could quote, but I wanted to give those as examples of the huge expenditure on AWE Aldermaston and the development of nuclear weapons.

A number of issues have been raised by people who live in the area, environmental campaigners and others about the environmental impact of nuclear weapons, particularly the issue of Aldermaston and related facilities at Burghfield in Berkshire and the transport of weapons after development to the Clyde naval base, which is, obviously, a long way away. According to an MOD assessment dated 15 December 2004 and released to the then Green MSP Mark Ruskell in 2005, there was a risk of an “inadvertent yield” from a nuclear warhead, resulting in lethal doses of radiation. It said that “multiple failures” triggered by a vehicle pile-up or aircraft crash could mean that

“the nuclear weapon may not retain its single point safety nature”.

That is the main barrier to an accidental nuclear explosion. The MOD said that the risk was extremely low, and therefore acceptable

“when balanced against the strategic imperative to move nuclear weapons.”

The risk of an inadvertent yield, or a small nuclear explosion, was confirmed in a second MOD assessment obtained under freedom of information law and published in New Scientist in July 2006. The assessment again related to the danger of an explosion caused by an accident. A response to an FOI request by an anti-nuclear group confirmed that there was serious risk of a terrorist attack on the nuclear bomb convoy. David Wray, the MOD director of information, said on 4 May 2006:

“Such an attack…has the potential to lead to damage or destruction of a nuclear weapon within the UK and the consequences of such an incident are likely to be considerable loss of life and severe disruption both to the British people’s way of life and to the UK’s ability to function effectively as a sovereign state.”

That is pretty chilling stuff.

Another report, published in July this year, revealed that bomb convoys have suffered 67 safety incidents during the past seven years, including mechanical faults and equipment failures. The safety of nuclear bomb convoys is not,

“as far as I am aware,…subject to any independent regulation. The MOD will tell you that the convoys are regulated by their own internal regulators. In ‘Fact Sheet 6’ on nuclear safety provided by the MOD”

for a meeting,

“it states: ‘Where the Ministry of Defence is exempt, or the law does not apply, the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator…provides independent internal regulation of the nuclear propulsion and weapons programmes, using near-identical processes and standards.’”

At the very least, we should be asking for independent external assessment of the risks involved and the dangers to the community. The report from which I am reading also raises many questions about the safety of Coulport and Faslane, but that is not part of today’s debate, although it is clearly linked to what we are discussing.

Moving on to the future of AWE Aldermaston, a great deal of money is being spent to develop that bomb-making facility. The warheads are transferred to Clyde and fitted to British nuclear submarines, which are then sent out on patrol. They form part of our ill-named independent nuclear deterrent. I have two huge concerns: first, about the development of the Aldermaston site, about safety at that site and the one in Burghfield and, in particular, about the danger from polluted waste from the building leaching into ground water and other bodies of water. The second concern is about the clear dangers involved in moving nuclear explosives along ordinary roads around the country—from Aldermaston several hundred miles to Scotland. We need to consider the huge safety issues involved.

What is it all for? This country is a signatory to the treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, signed in 1970, which requires signatory states that are not nuclear powers or holders of nuclear weapons not to own or develop them, or cause them to be developed. In many cases, it has been fairly successful in achieving that aim. Those countries that are declared nuclear weapon states—China, Russia, France, Britain and the United States—are required to take steps towards eventual disarmament and to promote disarmament. I would argue, therefore—this argument has much legal back-up—that the development of a new generation of nuclear weapons, the expansion of the bomb-making facility at Aldermaston and the huge costs involved are in breach of the principles behind the non-proliferation treaty, because it requires us to move in the opposite direction. We are not moving in the opposite direction, but in the direction of developing a new generation of nuclear weapons.

Last year, when the House debated the replacement of the Trident nuclear submarine fleet, we were assured that Britain adhered to the non-proliferation treaty and that there would be a further vote in the House on the development of a new generation of nuclear weapons. The figures that I just quoted indicate that we are spending several hundred million pounds every year on AWE Aldermaston, where a huge capital programme is going on that appears to be making way for the development of a new generation of nuclear weapons. None of that was subject to a debate in this House, other than in the debate on the Trident fleet. However, as I understand it, there has been no specific debate on the levels of expenditure at AWE Aldermaston. I hope that the Minister can throw some light on that and on the associated safety considerations.

We are talking about a facility that has grown like Topsy since the early 1950s, when it was opened as a research establishment before passing over entirely to AWE. There is now a large degree of public sector involvement in its development and running, hence the murkiness and secrecy surrounding it. Many brilliant people work there. When pressed, the Government often say, “Yes, we adhere to NPT; yes, we are in favour of nuclear disarmament; yes, we are in favour of peace negotiations; and yes, we would like a decommissioning laboratory to be developed.” What plans are there to use that skill, brilliance and intelligence at Aldermaston and elsewhere to provide a facility for nuclear decommissioning, rather than nuclear construction? Clearly, the skills are there to achieve that.

It seems to me, as it seemed to many others at Aldermaston on Monday, that we live in a world deeply divided between rich and poor that faces enormous environmental consequences from climate change and other massive problems. Does the fantastic level of expenditure on the development of atomic weapons at Aldermaston actually do anything to make the world a safer or more secure place, or does it merely feed huge sums of public money into the arms industry to create nuclear weapons? I hope that the Minister will say that we will never use them, but if that is the case, why have we got them in the first place? I remain committed to nuclear disarmament, because I do not believe that such weapons make us safe or secure. In fact, they make life more dangerous for the entire planet.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Will he give us his opinion on nuclear power? Some, including myself, suspect that the new efforts to develop nuclear power are not about energy—that is not the best way to deal with the global energy challenge—but about producing fuel for a new generation of nuclear weapons? That might not be true, but it is my suspicion.

That is slightly wide of the question of AWE Aldermaston, but as my hon. Friend points out, there is a question about the weapons grade plutonium required for nuclear weapons, which can come only from reactors used in the civil nuclear power programme. I have always been very suspicious of the way in which we promote the development of nuclear power in this country, of our overt and covert subsidies of the nuclear power industry and of the fact that, however it is dressed up and presented, nuclear waste remains dangerous, live and lethal for at least a millennium. Exactly the same argument applies, therefore, to the waste produced in developing nuclear bombs, and to the whole manufacturing process. We cannot un-invent nuclear power and weapons and nor can we wish away the waste that we already have, but we can stop producing more of it, which I believe would be an important way forward.

In two years’ time, the non-proliferation treaty review conference takes place in Switzerland, and the preparatory committee, which meets every year, will meet at the end of April and beginning of May this year. When the British Government present their case to the preparatory committee, I hope that they will indicate that we will curtail the development and expansion of AWE Aldermaston and not develop a new generation of nuclear weapons, and that instead, we will offer the facilities for a decommissioning programme for other countries that also want to divest themselves of nuclear weaponry. That is not pie in the sky—it was hinted at in a speech made by the then Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), and in recent remarks by the Secretary of State for Defence.

I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say, and I hope that he will recognise that the debate about the development of nuclear weapons is important, given the levels of public money involved and the environmental impact. However, it is particularly important when one considers what we are actually doing at AWE Aldermaston: developing weapons of mass destruction. They do not make for a safer or more secure world but, I believe, for an infinitely more dangerous one.

It is very nice to serve under your watchful eye, Mr. Jones, for the second time today. I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing the debate. Although he and I come at the issue from very different directions, I, like him, must declare an interest.

Last year, when we debated the replacement of Trident, the right hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), now the First Minister of Scotland, in response to an intervention from the Conservative Benches, asked how we would like to have a facility like Faslane on our doorsteps in the Thames valley. If I remember rightly, I invited him into my bedroom—not something that I expected to do when I entered the House—because from there one can see, just across the valley, the rooftops of AWE Aldermaston. I own land in that part of the world, close to the AWE and extending right up to the fence of the Royal Ordnance factory in Burghfield. In that part of the Thames valley—Kennet valley—we have become very used to such facilities over the past half century. Not only do we have Aldermaston and Burghfield, but Greenham Common, where American cruise missiles were so memorably based back in the 1980s, is just up the road. I may refer to that later in the context of Aldermaston.

The AWE facility is in my constituency, and I suspect that shortly it will overtake Vodafone to become my constituency’s largest employer. I am a great supporter both of the centre of excellence that it has become, and of many of the wonderful people who work there and live locally. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Islington, North went to my constituency; I hope that next time he visits, he will let me know and we can have a debate with local people about that important facility in their area.

What first strikes people when they visit the AWE is the great emphasis on safety. Almost the first thing that I did when I was elected was to request a visit, with the assistance of the Minister’s predecessor; its purpose was to see the safety procedures for myself and be reassured, as best I could as a layman, that the site was as safe as possible for local people.

I was also shown around the museum, which is a horrific catalogue of weapons of mass destruction. Let us not forget that is what we are talking about. Whatever our views on nuclear weapons, they are horrific weapons of destruction, but in fact the man who showed me around was enthusiastic. When he showed me a small device that an aircraft could deliver in a battlefield scenario, I asked, “What would happen if the plane that was training with them crashed?” His reply was one of the best euphemisms I have ever heard; he said, “Don’t worry about that, sir. The casing on this device is designed to withstand a multi-penetration insult.” I have never come across a more fantastic euphemism than that, so I wrote it down in my book when I got home.

Nevertheless, we must remember what we are talking about: probably the most important issue that can affect the future of mankind, alongside climate change. The Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, as I have already said, is a centre of excellence for science and engineering. Although I wish it did not need to exist, let us look at that positive fact, because an enormous amount of the skills from the work at Aldermaston have gone on to assist in the civil areas of science, plasma physics, engineering and many other civilian developments. Many of those advances would not have come about but for the dedication and professionalism of the work force at Aldermaston. The new Orion centre, which is possibly one of the new buildings to which the hon. Member for Islington, North referred, offers fantastic opportunities for non-nuclear weapons-type development of science and engineering, and I understand that there are great plans to involve a range of civil organisations in the work that takes place there.

As I said earlier, I wish that the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston did not need to exist, but let us consider what is going on in the world in which we live. Let us talk about proliferation. We see the development of nuclear weapons in countries such as India and Pakistan, and in other areas such as Iran and North Korea. Who are we to say what kind of world we will be living in over the next 20, 30, 40 or 50 years, which is the time scale for the replacement of the Trident submarine fleet? No one in this place or beyond can second-guess exactly what kind of world we will be living in, and I cannot identify a single state or group of states that, as we sit here today, we would wish to threaten with our nuclear weapons. However, there may come a time when the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons might just secure the future for our children or their children.

May I gently remind the hon. Gentleman that all of Africa, all of Latin America and most of central Asia have already declared themselves nuclear weapon-free zones and have no plans whatever to develop such weapons or to invite people in to develop them? They see that as their contribution to peace in the world. Does he not agree that we should think about doing the same?

The hon. Gentleman has a problem with the whole concept of nuclear weapons, and we must disagree. I believe that the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons was one reason why we were able to face down the Soviet threat and to win what many people refer to as the cold war. I shall come on to the benefits of that in terms of Greenham Common, but it is simply not good enough to say that there are regions of the world which have stated, as we sit here today in 2008, that they have no intention of developing nuclear weapons. It is perfectly possible to acquire from other countries the ability to deliver some sort of nuclear device some time in the future, and I do not want to second-guess or gamble with our future interests or those of future generations, as members of CND seem able to do on a whim.

I do not want to interrupt the hon. Gentleman’s speech, but will he explore a little more the so-called deterrent effect? I think it has been massively overstated, but if it is so important, surely Iran should have nuclear weapons to deter other people from attacking it.

The hon. Gentleman is entirely wrong. We do not want potential rogue states developing nuclear weapons.

I am talking about a deterrent in terms of how we managed up until the 1980s.

Let us look—[Interruption.] I shall discuss why I believe that deterrents work. If the hon. Gentleman wants a living, breathing example of the peace dividend and the success of the policies of—he will not like me saying this, but I believe it is true—President Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in facing down the SS20 threat from the Soviet forces in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, he should go to Greenham Common. On the site, he will see a decommissioned base, the longest runway in Europe, which has been ripped up to form the basis for the Newbury bypass, more jobs in peacetime industries, small businesses, and high-tech industries. That is no thanks to the peace women who stood at the door—

—or to the muddled thinking of CND, but with great thanks both to visionary leaders of the west and, I concede to the hon. Gentleman, to President Gorbachev.

We are moving off the point and I shall be ticked off in a minute, but I shall give way a final time.

Since the hon. Gentleman mentions Greenham Common, he should remember, as he acknowledges, that the long-running Greenham women’s peace camp was a beacon for peace campaigners throughout the world; it changed atmospheres and attitudes, and attracted people from throughout the world. Surely, it is in part a tribute to them that Greenham Common is no longer a nuclear base but mainly a park.

I link the demonstrations at Greenham Common with what took place at Aldermaston because they often took place on the same day, so it is relevant. However, I maintain that they bore no relation to the time scale of SS20 missile dismantling and the reduction of the threat from the Soviet Union. In fact, if anything, they delayed it because it gave some comfort to the Soviet leadership that there were people in the west who wanted us to disarm unilaterally. The hon. Member for Islington, North can turn to no better adviser on the subject than Nye Bevan, who said, “Do not send me naked into the negotiating chamber.” That is the best condemnation of the unilateralist approach that I could ever quote.

Despite the billions of pounds that we funnel into intelligence services and organisations throughout the world, most of the wars that have taken place since 1945 have caught us on the hop and taken us entirely by surprise. They include Yom Kippur, the six-day war—arguably—and certainly the invasion of the Falklands, as well as the invasion of Kuwait and a number of other conflicts in which both sides used large amounts of resources and suffered large numbers of casualties, with appalling consequences.

Those conflicts caught our intelligence organisations completely unaware, and I have no faith that our intelligence services can give us a guarantee that they now have greater ability to foresee aggression by rogue states or groups of rogue states. I would love to live in a world where Aldermaston could be decommissioned because there was no conceivable threat, but we must remember that the time scale for the maintenance of our nuclear deterrent requires us to start developing platforms such as the submarine fleet, which will come into service in 2022 and remain in service until 2050, and that is the period during which we will have to second-guess events.

I have spoken about Greenham Common. I would like to see Aldermaston decommissioned and real jobs replace the growing number of posts that are needed to maintain our nuclear deterrent. However, we must ask ourselves whether we want to second-guess the state of the world in several decades’ time. Can we be sure of our relationships with any other country over that time? Have those who supported CND in the 1980s not learned that unilateralism did not work then and that it will not work now or in the future?

On the point that the hon. Member for Islington, North made about the non-proliferation treaty, I respond that we are going in the right direction. We are perhaps not going as fast as any of us would like, but we will see the number of missile warheads reduced from 200 to 160. I grant that it is still a devastating amount of ordnance, but we are certainly going in the right direction. I have looked as closely at the issue as I can as a layman—I have received advice from the House of Commons Library, the Department and a host of organisations—and I believe that we are very much within the terms of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. I look with interest to see how the Government will approach the next round of talks on it.

I finish by paying great tribute to the people who have worked at Aldermaston over the past 50 years. They have done a difficult job in surroundings that are not at all glamorous. The dedication that they have shown has gone unthanked in many ways, so I was delighted when, at my behest, the previous Prime Minister, Tony Blair, paid tribute to their work in the House. The future of Aldermaston must be linked to our long-term appreciation of the threats faced by Britain and the world. Given that those threats are so uncertain, the excellent work that continues to be done quietly in that part of west Berkshire will remain a beacon for the rest of the world.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on the excellent prosecution of his case. I also thank the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) for his extensive inside knowledge of Aldermaston.

We must commend and congratulate the peace campaigners on the past 50 years of protest at Aldermaston. Without doubt, they managed to put the nuclear issue at the centre of political debate in the past five decades. They had their first protest meeting in London in February 1958 and their first march at Aldermaston that Easter. They managed to ensure that the whole world sat up and listened to the call for nuclear disarmament, which, in those days, meant unilateral nuclear disarmament. They attracted people from across the political spectrum, including Quakers, church leaders, trade unionists, members of the Labour party and some members of the Liberal party.

That changed the atmosphere in the world, and it changed the debate about nuclear disarmament and the need for nuclear weapons. It was not so long before that the bomb had been dropped on Nagasaki, in Japan, so that was fresh in many people’s minds and fear about the threat of nuclear weapons gripped the world. It is therefore important to recognise that people must be allowed to continue to protest at establishments such as Aldermaston. They must have their free speech protected and their right to protest maintained, and any thought that those rights should be restricted in any way should be sent packing.

As I have said, the debate at that time was all about unilateral nuclear disarmament. In the 1980s, debates split my party, as it was then, and the alliance between those who were in favour of multilateral disarmament and those who were in favour of unilateral disarmament. The debate has moved on considerably since then and seems to be between those who are in favour of putting nuclear disarmament on the agenda and those who would rather brush it under the carpet. That is where the divide seems to be now.

This week, I had a look at the CND website and many of its publications, and the word “unilateral” does not appear that often these days. The debate now is about trying to get disarmament up the agenda and to build as broad a consensus as possible. That is where the hon. Member for Islington, North and my party have common cause. We believe that nuclear disarmament should be at the top of the agenda, particularly leading up to the 2010 talks. In that respect, I have been particularly impressed by Kate Hudson of CND, who takes an inclusive approach to nuclear disarmament. She includes as many people as possible in the debate, in contrast to the exclusive debates of the 1980s, when we had the unilateral tactic, rather than the strategy of trying to achieve disarmament.

The 2010 talks are coming up very soon, and the preparatory talks are being organised. Those talks will give us an important opportunity to consider the work that goes on at Aldermaston. We had quite a successful round of nuclear non-proliferation talks in 2000, and I commend the excellent work that Robin Cook did in that respect. However, 2005 was considered a major failure, and I hope that we grasp the opportunity that 2010 presents to run down nuclear weapons over time.

Last week, the Prime Minister’s security statement included a large section on nuclear disarmament, and he had some fine words to say about the issue. He called for the “control and reduction” of nuclear weapons and talked about

“ultimately freeing the world from nuclear weapons”.

He also said that we in Britain

“are ready to play our part in further disarmament.”—[Official Report, 19 March 2008; Vol. 473, c. 927.]

Those are great, fine words, but actions speak louder than words. Last year’s decision to renew Trident was premature, because we all know that it did not need to be made until 2014, when the main gate comes. That is all tied in with Aldermaston, because the new investment there is connected to the renewal of the nuclear deterrent. Obviously, we need to upgrade the facilities at Aldermaston, if we are to have an effective facility there, but there is no doubt that extra investment will tide us well now that we have decided to renew Trident.

At this point, I want to make the Liberal Democrat position clear. We are in favour of nuclear weapons and a nuclear deterrent, but we want to be in a position to negotiate those weapons away over time and, indeed, to be in the best possible position to negotiate them away in time. We regard them as a necessary evil at present, but we should negotiate them away over time. We accept that Aldermaston is part and parcel of the nuclear weapons system, and transportation to Coulport is something that we must accept. However, many questions must be asked about the transportation of the warheads to Coulport and the naval base on the Clyde, and I hope that the Minister will address some of the issues raised by the hon. Member for Islington, North.

It is vital to give everyone in this country absolute confidence that safety is the paramount concern. We need to make sure that the proper systems are in place, and I hope that the Minister will consider some form of independent external assessment for the regime. Obviously, security considerations need to be attended to so that no information can leak about when warheads are to be transported to Coulport, but I am sure that a system could be devised to give people such as the hon. Member for Islington, North and myself the confidence that safety is paramount.

The hon. Member for Islington, North raised the question of the amount of investment going into Aldermaston. It amounts to considerable sums—the figure of £5 billion has been mentioned. That is going on the new ORION laser, which replaces the HELEN laser and the hydrodynamic tester. I was in the fortunate position last year of being able to visit Aldermaston with the Select Committee on Defence. It was a very informative visit, in which top-class researchers showed us around the facilities. It did not mean an awful lot to me as a biologist. It seemed like an awful lot of expensive technical equipment in big caverns. However, there was in reality a lot happening on the site, and it attracts many top-class scientists. Part of the battle is making sure that Aldermaston, which is an essential part of the nuclear weapons system, is not deskilled, and that we attract the brightest and best to that facility, especially when we are, unfortunately, developing civil nuclear facilities in power stations. There will be huge competition for such scientists, and we need to ensure that proper investment is made in the establishment, so that safety standards are maintained and there is absolute confidence in the system.

I want to mention the sell-off of the British Nuclear Fuels Ltd part of AWE plc. That relates to the partnership between BNFL, Serco and Lockheed Martin. I understand that Serco, which is part of the Babcock Group, in which I have a constituency interest, and Lockheed Martin have been excluded from buying the BNFL part of the partnership. Is that so? Why was it necessary to exclude a well established British company from obtaining a greater stake in Aldermaston?

What plans do the Government have for a new warhead? I have seen written answers that state categorically that there are no plans for a new warhead, but the new facilities at Aldermaston will come in handy when a new nuclear warhead is developed. I want the Minister to explain a bit more about the process of extending the life of the current warheads, whether there are any problems in doing that, and what consideration has been given to any potential new warhead. Will we go down the route of having tactical rather than strategic weapons, which would be a retrograde step because they are more likely to be used?

We accept that Aldermaston is part and parcel of a nuclear deterrent system. I should like to see the day when the facility is run down, because we no longer have nuclear weapons. However, as long as we have them, it is part of the system.

I referred earlier to the premature decision on renewing Trident submarines, and the fact that the main gate decision did not need to be made until about 2012 or 2014. I understand the issues.

I note that the hon. Gentleman has said that we do not need to take the decision until 2014. I do not want to revisit the debate of a year ago, but is he saying that the Navy and everyone who advises on the replacement of those submarines are wrong, and that the Liberal Democrats somehow know better about when we need to start worrying about replacement submarines for the Trident fleet?

As I have said, I am a simple biologist and now a simple politician, but it is clear—I am using Government facts—that the main gate decision will be made in 2012-14. That is what the industrialists have told us. To make all the decisions last year was completely unnecessary. We could even have phased the decisions, rather than committing this country to a new round of nuclear weapons and an upgrade of the nuclear submarines, which is not required until 2012-14. The facts clearly show that. It is a question of the point at which decisions are made—whether they are all made now, or whether some can be made later. I am sure that the Minister accepts that the main gate decision will be made in 2012-14.

I raised the premature decision, because it has a significant effect on the 2010 non-proliferation treaty talks. If we go to those talks already committed to a new submarine and having invested considerable sums in Aldermaston, we shall not have much credibility in the talks. By rushing the decision last year, we showed that we do not have much regard for nuclear disarmament. The hon. Member for Newbury said earlier that in an unpredictable world we do not know what is round the corner. The logical conclusion from that is that we must always have nuclear weapons, because we can never predict the future. In that case, the Conservative position is Trident for ever. We shall always have nuclear weapons, if we take the view that we can never protect the future.

It is a very sad state of affairs if that is the Conservative party’s position. It is certainly the Labour Government’s position. The Government also claim that they cannot predict the future, so therefore we shall always have a requirement for nuclear weapons. Thus the Prime Minister’s powerful words last week about ridding the world of nuclear weapons are rather hollow. I cannot see a day, if those two parties have their way, when we will have no nuclear weapons in this country, because we shall be unable to predict the future. That is extremely sad. It will be very difficult to go to the NPT talks when we have already made a commitment to spend an extra £4 billion on replacing the nuclear submarines, seven years prematurely.

It is bizarre that leading American politicians lead the way in the debate now, such as former Democrat Senator Sam Nunn, who said recently:

“Reducing the risk posed by weapons of mass destruction is not the agenda of one political party. It is a deeply held desire by leaders of vision and courage of every political stripe. We hope that others who are concerned about these issues will work with us on the large area of common ground that exists to find ways to reduce risks associated with these weapons.”

Even Republicans are on board as well. Senator Richard Lugar said:

“The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is the number one national security threat facing the United States and its allies”,

and Republican Senator Pete Domenici said:

“We have a very simple choice: we can either spend money now to reduce the threat or spend more money in the future to defend ourselves after proliferation has occurred.”

Those people recognise that the issue should be at the top of the agenda. If we are to get to the stage where we no longer need Aldermaston, we shall have to pay attention to those guys in America and put the issue at the top of the political agenda rather than hiding it away in the Prime Minister’s statement on security last week. When was the last time the Prime Minister made a keynote speech on nuclear disarmament? He may have something up his sleeve, but I doubt it. I should like the Minister to respond to my concern and that of my party that the Government do not really regard nuclear disarmament as a top priority. I believe that they should change their mind very quickly.

I shall directly address the point made by the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie), about the long-term future. When he asks of the Conservative party, “Will we always have nuclear weapons?”, the answer is, “Yes, as long as other countries have nuclear weapons too”. That is not a controversial viewpoint; that is the key point about unilateral nuclear disarmament that has resonated throughout the debate for the last half-century.

Twenty-five years ago, when I was working professionally in this sector and was arguing the case both for the replacement of Polaris by Trident and for the deployment of Cruise missiles at Greenham Common and Molesworth, I commissioned a series of opinion polls that asked that very question: “Do you think that Britain should continue to possess nuclear weapons as long as other countries have them?” The answer that came in time and again throughout the 1980s, at the height of the second cold war, was as follows: two thirds of people asked said, “Yes, we should continue to have the nuclear deterrent as long as other countries have nuclear weapons”; about one quarter said, “No”; and usually less than 10 per cent. of those asked—it was usually a single figure number—were undecided, because it is indeed a very polarising issue.

A couple of years ago, I asked the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid), the then Secretary of State for Defence, what polling evidence the Government had on such questions. The interesting written answer came back, on 3 November 2005, that the Government had last conducted a poll a few years earlier, in December 2003, and that

“Overall, some 66 per cent. agreed that the UK should retain nuclear weapons while other countries retain theirs, with 21 per cent. disagreeing”.—[Official Report, 3 November 2005; Vol. 438, c. 1261W.]

So we can see a pattern continuing throughout the decades showing that about two thirds of the British people think that, as long as other countries have nuclear weapons, we should continue to possess them, and I believe that they are absolutely right to think that.

I just want to tease out the hon. Gentleman’s logic on this issue. Does he think that all countries everywhere in the world should have nuclear weapons to protect themselves from all the other people that may have nuclear weapons at some point in the future, and does he think that we should conduct an opinion poll to assess the popularity of arming the whole world with nuclear weapons?

I really thank the hon. Gentleman for entering into the spirit of the occasion. He and I have debated these points many times, so my response now will not come as anything of a surprise to him. I do not accept that there is an equality between stable democracies that have certain weapons systems, and lunatic dictatorships, which should not have them. I believe that there is no inconsistency in saying that it is perfectly acceptable for a democracy to be armed with a certain weapons system and a lunatic dictatorship to be denied it. I do not accept that there is an equality between dictatorships and democracies.

By way of example, I cite the attitude that we had towards Russia when it was a totalitarian Soviet state, and that we had when it ceased to be one. As soon as the dictatorial and aggressive element went out of the Russian political system—perhaps temporarily but hopefully permanently, despite recent adverse indications—we straight away stopped worrying about the Russian nuclear arsenal, except in one respect. Because we were no longer afraid that the Kremlin might use that arsenal aggressively, we began to worry instead that remnants or elements of that arsenal, including individual nuclear devices, would leach out and into the hands of other groups and regimes that would not hesitate to use such weapons aggressively if they could get their hands on them. So what matters is not the nature of the weapons themselves, but the nature of the regimes or groups that control them. It is perfectly acceptable for democracies to have these weapons while denying dictatorships the same right.

I also want to tease out the hon. Gentleman’s logic a bit further, because I presume that he will now go on to make the justification for Aldermaston and the nuclear weapons systems as a deterrent. However, if the democracy of the UK can have them but the mad dictator General Galtieri could not, can he explain why the deterrent factor did not work regarding the invasion of the Falklands?

I am absolutely delighted to explain that point to the hon. Gentleman in the following terms; indeed, if he would like to investigate them in more detail, they are fully covered in an essay that I distributed at the time of the debate on Trident last year. I am only sorry that he did not read it on that occasion; had he done so, he would not have had to ask me this question. The answer is that nuclear weapons deter a certain kind of threat—they deter countries from menacing us with weapons of mass destruction. They may deter some countries from menacing us in other ways, too, but they cannot be relied upon to do so. There was never the slightest possibility—and General Galtieri knew it—that we would use nuclear weapons in response to such a level of aggression as the invasion of the Falklands.

However, that is not to say that, just because nuclear weapons could not deter a conventional invasion of the Falklands, they serve no purpose. What the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie) should ask himself is this. Supposing that we had had no nuclear weapons and that General Galtieri had had even a small number of them, would we then have dared to respond conventionally to his conventional invasion of the Falklands? The answer to that question is almost certainly not.

Let us return, however, to the main subject of the debate, which is Aldermaston. I wanted to start off by addressing the question put squarely by the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife, and tell him what he wanted to discover about Conservative party policy. I think that I have done that in no uncertain terms.

Therefore, let me say belatedly, Mr. Jones, what a pleasure it is to take part in this debate under your chairmanship. The last time that I served in Parliament under your chairmanship was on that memorable Welsh Affairs Select Committee from 1997 to 2001. You were a superb Chairman of that body, and I am sure that you will go on to establish an even more outstanding reputation as a Chairman on the Speaker’s panel, as you evidently are intent on doing.

It is quite extraordinary that we should have embarked on the winding-up speeches in a debate on the future of nuclear weapons with something like 40 minutes still left to run, in a debate that was due to last one and a half hours. One could never have envisaged that happening in the past, and I must say that the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) made a gallant attempt to explain this in advance—one might call it a sort of pre-emptive strike—by referring to the visit of President Sarkozy this afternoon. Dare I add that the visit of Madame Sarkozy this afternoon must be a huge draw away from Westminster Hall?

However, I think that the reality of the lack of interest in this debate on the part of the vast majority of Members lies somewhere else. It is that most people know that this argument is over. They know that the Labour party is not going to do what the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), one of its most prominent Back Benchers and a former shadow Foreign Secretary, said it would not do: it is not going to revisit the site of “the suicide”. What he was referring to, as we all know, was

“the longest suicide note in history”.

That is the manifesto of 1983, when the Labour party, under the leadership of Michael Foot, committed itself to getting rid of all our nuclear weapons while other countries continued to possess them. That commitment was a crucial factor in a landslide defeat for Labour in 1983, which was repeated in 1987.

The “suicide” to which the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton referred in the debate last year about nuclear weapons was the electoral suicide of the Labour party, and the Labour party is not going back there. The reason why it is not going back there is the figure that I quoted earlier, which has been so astonishingly consistent for so long in opinion poll after opinion poll, showing that two thirds of the British people think that it would be “suicide” to give up nuclear weapons while other countries continue to possess them.

Since the hon. Gentleman is speaking for the Conservative party, perhaps I can bring him round to what its views might be on the non-proliferation treaty and the review conference coming up in 2010, because we are, after all, committed to long-term nuclear disarmament by our being a signatory to that treaty. All Governments have claimed adherence to that treaty.

The hon. Gentleman and I ought to consider going on the stage as a professional double act, because he seamlessly carries me forward in my argument. He has referred to article 6 of the non-proliferation treaty, which I shall now read out, as I do in all debates on this issue. It states:

“Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes 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 under strict and effective international control.”

The last part about

“general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control”

is always left out when CND supporters quote article 6, as it means worldwide conventional disarmament. Article 6 requires us to do three things, one of which is to end the nuclear arms race at an early date. Britain has never been involved in the nuclear arms race, and nor have France or China. Each of those three of the five recognised nuclear powers in the non-proliferation treaty regime has followed a policy of minimum strategic nuclear deterrence, which means that we are content to have a tiny proportion of nuclear devices, in comparison with the superpowers, because we know that having even that small number is enough for strategic nuclear deterrence purposes. Russia and the United States were involved in the nuclear arms race, not the UK.

Article 6 also requires us to try to negotiate a treaty for worldwide nuclear disarmament and for worldwide conventional disarmament. Nothing in the article requires us to give up all our nuclear weapons before other countries do the same or before achieving a world Government to prevent an outbreak of conventional war on a grand scale—and by God, it was on a grand scale before nuclear weapons came along. Many more people were killed by conventional weapons in world wars one and two than died in Japan in August 1945. I venture to suggest, although I shall never be able to prove it, that many more would have been killed in “world war three” by conventional weapons or other countries’ nuclear weapons if the good people of Aldermaston, as well as the scientists, the people in the Royal Navy and the people in the Royal Air Force before them who constitute the strategic nuclear deterrent of the United Kingdom had not done their work so well. I appreciate the opportunity that the hon. Member for Islington, North has given me to pay tribute to the real peacekeepers of the cold war and, I trust, the post-cold war period—the men and women of Aldermaston and of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force before them.

I shall conclude soon, but first I shall address a few of the points that the hon. Gentleman made. He talked about the cost of Aldermaston. I refer him to a written answer that I received in December 2006 when I asked the Secretary of State for Defence

“what the running costs have been of the strategic nuclear deterrent in each of the past 10 years”.

The answer was that they had ranged between

“3 and 5.5 per cent. of the annual defence budget.”—[Official Report, 4 December 2006; Vol. 454, c. 87W.]

Of course, 3 per cent. or 5.5 per cent. of the annual defence budget is a large sum of money, but as a proportion of the defence budget, it is small. If there is a strategic justification for a weapons system, what more justification can one have than that it will deter others from using such a weapons system against one? Then, it is a small price to pay.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) on his excellent speech and the way in which he focused on the fundamental point about the unpredictability of conflict. He was absolutely right to pick on the conflicts that he mentioned: super-sensitive Israel was taken by surprise in 1973, and we were taken by surprise by the invasion of the Falklands in 1982. He was right to say that everyone was taken by surprise in 1990 when Saddam attacked Kuwait. He could also have mentioned that the world’s only superpower was taken by surprise by 9/11 in 2001. I could cite examples from further back in history to show that when warfare breaks out, more often than not, it has not been predicted. It is a big mistake to assume that because weapons can do terrible things, the good guys should get rid of them regardless of what the bad guys do.

Finally, I shall address the Liberal Democrat contribution. Of course, CND says little about unilateralism these days, and tries to blur it in a general point about nuclear disarmament; it has always done that. I remember Bruce Kent arguing that he was both a unilateralist and a multilateralist, but one cannot be both. Either we keep nuclear weapons as long as other countries have them, or we say that we are going to get rid of them whether other countries have them or not. We cannot marry the two, and I know on which side of the argument my party and I stand on this life and death issue.

Thank you, for presiding over our debate, Mr. Jones.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing the debate, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on this issue. He will be aware that the atomic weapons establishment is not only about Aldermaston and Burghfield, but that important work is also conducted at the nearby Blacknest facility. Many people are unaware of the invaluable contribution that Blacknest makes to the verification of nuclear test bans in support of the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty organisation.

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the contribution that AWE’s work force, suppliers and partners have made to its success over nearly 60 years of operation. It is a world-class centre of scientific and engineering excellence, staffed and supported by individuals who are dedicated to the delivery of vital outputs in a safe, secure and efficient manner.

Just down the road from AWE, on an industrial estate in the town of Thatcham, is a centre of excellence that is also doing wonderful work to police the nuclear test ban treaty. The International Seismological Centre is close to Aldermaston, and I ask the Minister to add it to Blacknest while he is showing his appreciation for the work done there.

I was not aware that there was a separate facility doing the seismological work; I thought that it was done at Blacknest. The hon. Gentleman obviously has much more local knowledge than me, so I bow to him in that regard.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North will be aware of the recent speculation about the safety arrangements at AWE, and I assure him that safety is of paramount importance at all times. The AWE is subject to rigorous safety regulation and licensing by the nuclear installations inspectorate, and the Ministry of Defence has its own internal defence nuclear safety regulator. The AWE has an excellent safety record, which is underpinned by clear safety assurance arrangements within a highly regulated environment.

My hon. Friend and other hon. Members talked about the convoys, and all kinds of lurid stories have been told about the possibility of accidents and so on. However, my hon. Friend knows, and we must make it clear that, first, the convoys are essential; secondly, they are kept to a minimum and, thirdly, there is a separation of material to ensure that no armed material is moved. The risk of an explosion would thus be non-existent. The encasement of the material is such that it would take an awful impact to do any damage at all.

I am more than happy to consider outside verification of safety procedures, as the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) suggested, although he recognised that a lot of risks are involved. The convoys have been deliberately targeted and are the subject of ongoing attack. I will do nothing that reduces the safety of the convoys. Their security must be taken into account along with any desire for an additional layer of inspection.

The point made by the Liberal Democrat spokesman and me is that there ought to be an independent inspection following any incident. We are all naturally suspicious of internal investigations in any field where the results remain internal. External independent examination is simply a matter of good practice. The Minister is aware that there have been incidents and safety concerns. None of us wants accidents or disasters, but we want some degree of transparency and independence in inspection.

There have been incidents. My hon. Friend said that there have been 67, so the idea that this all takes place in secret and nobody can find out about it is put down by his knowledge that there have been 67 incidents. I would have thought that fact shows that a rigorous reporting regime is maintained to ensure that every single incident, no matter how minor, is reported and logged and the information made available through parliamentary procedures. It therefore finds its way into the public domain.

As I said, I would not be unhappy in principle to see outside verification. I accept what my hon. Friend says about the unease with internal investigative procedures. However, that must be balanced against the fact that convoys have been deliberately and consistently targeted over a period of time. The security of the convoys, the routes that they take, the time that they leave and the methods that they use are essential to their safety. That must be put on the other side of the balance.

The AWE takes its responsibilities to the environment seriously. It works closely with the Environment Agency, which monitors its environmental operations. More widely, AWE is committed to implementing measures that will make a real difference in a range of areas, such as energy efficiency, water usage, recycling and habitat protection.

In the strategic defence review of 1998, the Government made a clear commitment to maintaining the effectiveness and safety of the nuclear deterrent. That included making the necessary investment in facilities at AWE. In 2006, we outlined our commitment to continue the programme of investment at AWE to ensure that we maintain the existing warhead for as long as necessary and to enable us to develop a replacement warhead if that is required. That important investment will continue into the next decade and is expected, at its peak, to be the equivalent of about 3 per cent. of the current defence budget.

In compliance with the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty, we are committed to maintaining the existing Trident warhead stockpile safely and effectively throughout its intended in-service life without recourse to nuclear testing. That commitment is supported by replacement facilities such as those necessary for handling high explosives, enriched uranium and non-nuclear warhead components. My hon. Friend complains about some of the expenditure at AWE, but in part it is used towards our commitments under the nuclear test ban treaty.

Notwithstanding its pivotal role, AWE is, as my hon. Friend is aware, one organisation among the many that contribute to maintaining the UK’s nuclear deterrent. Our four Vanguard class submarines maintain the UK’s posture of continuous at-sea deterrence with one submarine armed and on continuous patrol at all times.

I assure my hon. Friend that the Government recognise the democratic right of individuals to participate in lawful and peaceful protest. Such activities have taken place at AWE and other defence establishments for many years, and I have no doubt that they will continue—possibly with his participation—in the years to come. However, any protester action that could compromise the safety or security of our establishments will always necessarily be dealt with appropriately.

On Easter Monday, approximately 1,400 protesters assembled and marched around the perimeter fence at AWE Aldermaston.

That is arguable. There were no reported offences and no arrests were made, although two people were arrested the previous day for breaching the establishment byelaws. The policing was a joint operation and an effective job was done. The protesters were allowed to protest in a peaceful and safe manner and operations at AWE were not impeded. I echo the acknowledgement of Thames Valley police in respect of the co-operation that they received from the organisers of the protest in maintaining a peaceful and lawful demonstration.

There was good co-operation between Thames Valley police and the organisers. The demonstration went extremely well, but I dispute the numbers. There were 5,000 tickets sold for coaches to the protest and, as far as I am aware, they were pretty much full. The figure of 1,400 shows the usual optimism of the police. However, the day passed off extremely well and the protest was very effective.

I have never known an occasion when the organisers of a demonstration and the police have agreed on the number of people who turned out. I do not think that will change in the future.

I assure my hon. Friend that we remain committed to working towards a safer world in which there is no need for nuclear weapons. However, we must ensure that we protect ourselves and future generations appropriately and effectively against possible future nuclear threats. The Government’s commitment to meeting our obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty has been reiterated many times, most recently by the Prime Minister when, last week, he announced the publication of the Government’s national security strategy:

“Britain will be at the forefront of diplomatic action on nuclear weapons control and reduction”.—[Official Report, 19 March 2008; Vol. 473, c. 927.]

The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife tries to say that the Government do not give commitments to multilateral nuclear disarmament. All politicians have crafted words around the issue and in a minute I will attempt to expose the hon. Gentleman’s words. The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), speaking for the Conservatives, said that Britain should maintain its nuclear weapons until and unless every other country gets rid of theirs. The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife, said that he would spell out the Liberal Democrat position: they want to negotiate the weapons away over time. Is there any difference between what has been said by the spokesmen for the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats? There is no difference in substance, only in word-smithing and emphasis. There is an attempt to blind with words, but what on earth is the difference between saying that we will try to negotiate nuclear weapons away over time, and saying that we will maintain them as long as other countries have theirs?

I will give way to the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife so that he can explain that point.

As the Minister knows, this debate is about political priorities, and how much time, effort and political capital are put into certain issues. The Government and the Conservatives briefly mention disarmament, but their priority is to defend the nuclear weapons system and the need for it. I wish that they would spend a bit more time talking about disarmament and putting it at the top of their priorities and efforts, so that we could have a nuclear-free world rather than just talk about it.

My emphasis is different from that of the hon. Member for New Forest, East when defending our position against that of other countries, but surely there is logic in looking at the world as it actually exists, not as we would want it to be, in considering the effects of any decision that we take. If that is not sensible, I do not know what is.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) asked, “If there is a deterrent value to nuclear weapons, why not Iran?” I can only say that we must look and think seriously about the possible effect of an Iranian nuclear weapon. Would it make the world or the middle east safer places? Would it discourage proliferation? What would be the response of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other countries in the middle east? There would be massive destabilisation.

What has been the reaction to the UK’s significant reduction in our holding of nuclear weapons since the Labour Government came to power? Very little, because nobody has really felt threatened by our nuclear weapons. Yes, for good reasons, we have managed to encourage other people to look at their own responsibilities and we have managed to reduce our nuclear weapon capability to one system and to reduce hugely the size and power of the deterrent to the absolute minimum possible, but we have done so without having a huge effect elsewhere or a response from other nations, because other nations do not feel that we threaten them. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently made a speech in Geneva about some of the practicalities of making multilateral nuclear disarmament a reality. It is all right talking about it in some grand way, but developing systems and methods of verification in which all countries, irrespective of their capability, can have confidence is extremely important if we are to enable the reality of multilateral nuclear disarmament at any future point.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North asked why we cannot get AWE people working on those aspects of the nuclear debate. They absolutely do—they are already there. The work that is being done in Blacknest, along with what was proposed by the Secretary of State and the work that we are doing with Norway, which is a non-nuclear power, to try to develop methods of verification that will enable confidence in genuine multilateral disarmament are real contributions to taking the debate forward.

What is the Minister’s reaction to the problem that in the non-proliferation system that he says the Government support three nuclear weapon states—Israel, India and Pakistan—are not signatories to the non-proliferation treaty? Is it the Government’s position to encourage all three to join the non-proliferation system? Also, does he think that the increase in nuclear warheads in Israel is a destabilising factor in the whole middle east region?

My hon. Friend has probably spent more time on the matter than I have, but my understanding is that Israel does not acknowledge that it has nuclear weapons. Of course I will encourage all states to join the international system to try to develop confidence and capability in a framework in which we can tackle nuclear proliferation and, I hope, move towards a situation where we could, at some point, achieve a nuclear-free world, but that is an optimistic look at the future.

Meanwhile, as we said clearly in the discussion on the White Paper last year, we must be aware of the defence needs of the UK in an uncertain world. It takes time to develop nuclear weapon capabilities and delivery platforms such as submarines, yet if we look back 10, 15 or 20 years, we can see that there were completely and utterly unpredictable developments. We only have to look backwards to see that we cannot look forward. The climate is very uncertain, and the future is not clear. Unless we wish to deprive a future generation of the ability to protect itself with a nuclear deterrent, we have to take decisions well in advance. That is why I thought at the time that the Liberal Democrat motion to replace the submarines, but not yet, was so disingenuous.

Does the Minister accept that his own documentation on the issue clearly states that the main gate for the construction of nuclear submarines is between 2012 and 2014?

We go through a process with all defence procurement, and main gate is part of it. An awful lot of work needs to be done before main gate, and I hope the hon. Gentleman does not think that work ought to go ahead without parliamentary approval. To suggest that we do not need to approve decisions until we come to main-gate decisions is not tenable.

The Liberal Democrat argument is appallingly disingenuous. Apart from anything else, the submarines have to be designed, and it was spelled out absolutely clearly why a process of 17 years from beginning to end was necessary. The only point the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife could make that could possibly stand up would be, “Okay, Parliament will have a debate and vote to design the things, but then it has to have another debate and vote to decide whether to start building them”—in other words, the main gate that he keeps wittering on about.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North raised a point that I need to respond to—he would want me to put this on the record. The UK produced a new design of nuclear weapon to coincide with the introduction into service of the Trident system. The warhead was designed and manufactured in the UK by AWE, although it was decided on cost-effectiveness grounds to procure certain non-nuclear warhead components from the United States. The design is likely to last into the 2020s, although we do not yet have sufficient information to judge precisely how long it can be retained in service.

No decisions have yet been taken on whether, or how, we will need to refurbish or replace the warhead. Such decisions are likely to be necessary during the next Parliament. To inform them, we will undertake a detailed review of the optimum life of the existing warhead stockpile and analyse the range of replacement options that might be available.

The spending on AWE—I shall try to reassure my hon. Friend about this, if nothing else—does not pre-empt such decisions. They are yet to be taken, and will be taken in the manner that I have just explained. I thought that he would want me at least to put that on the record.

To sum up, I am pleased to have been able to respond to the debate on this important issue. We are focused on maintaining the right balance between a commitment to strive towards a world free of nuclear weapons, and the need to protect our citizens in an unsafe and uncertain world. Within that context, AWE has served our nation and our allies well, and I am sure that the skill and dedication of its work force, suppliers and partners will continue to serve us in the future.