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Commons Chamber

Volume 528: debated on Wednesday 18 May 2011

House of Commons

Wednesday 18 May 2011

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Independent International Commission on Decommissioning

1. When he expects to receive a final report on armaments from the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. (55379)

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to begin by paying tribute to David Cairns, the former Member for Inverclyde, who died recently. He served as a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office for a short time in the run-up to devolution in 2007, and was liked and respected in all parts of the House. I speak for many in Northern Ireland in passing on our sincere condolences.

The British and Irish Governments have been presented with the IICD’s final report, which focuses on commissioners’ experiences and lessons learned. I am considering the report with my counterpart in the Irish Government and we will publish it in due course.

I thank the Secretary of State for his reply, and may I associate myself with the condolences he expressed?

When the Secretary of State announced the dissolution of the IICD and the Independent Monitoring Commission at the end of March, he thanked the commissioners for the crucial part they played in assisting Northern Ireland’s transition to a peaceful, stable and inclusive society. Given developments since, what plans does he have to continue the work previously undertaken by those bodies?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question and her comments. I would like to put on record our thanks to General de Chastelain, Brigadier Nieminen and Andrew Sens for the work they have done over the years. We intend to keep Parliament updated on developments, probably by written statements.

May I pay tribute on behalf of my colleagues to the late David Cairns, former Northern Ireland Minister, for the excellent work he undertook during his time in that post, and pass on our sympathies to his family?

I am sure the Secretary of State will join me in congratulating the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Garda on the recent Northern Ireland weapons finds in East Tyrone and South Armagh. Will he give an assurance that the amnesty previously offered under the decommissioning legislation to those handing in, and in possession of, such weapons will no longer apply, and that anyone caught in possession of weapons will be brought before the courts and any evidence arising from examination of the weapons will be used in prosecutions?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question, and I entirely endorse his comments on the co-operation between the PSNI and the Garda and the recent arms finds in Tyrone. The amnesty to which he refers expired in February 2010, and we have no plans to reintroduce it. There is no place for arms in today’s Northern Ireland. Everyone can pursue their legitimate aims by peaceful democratic means, and those caught with arms will go through the due process of law.

Security Threat

2. What discussions he has had with the Northern Ireland Executive on the level of security threat from dissidents. (55380)

Close co-operation with the Northern Ireland Executive plays a major part in our efforts to counter the threat from terrorism in Northern Ireland. This involves regular discussions with the Executive’s Justice Minister. I look forward to continuing work with the new Executive in the coming weeks and months on the security, economic and community aspects of this problem.

First, may I thank the Secretary of State for his tribute to David Cairns, whom I served with as a Northern Ireland Minister some years ago?

The Secretary of State will know that the PSNI is making good progress in capturing weapons and Semtex, but, with more than 100 bombings in the last year alone, I believe it is clear that supply is coming from outside Northern Ireland. Will he work with the Executive, the Home Office, the Irish authorities and, indeed, international authorities to ensure that he does everything possible to stem the supply of such material from outside Northern Ireland?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question, and pay tribute to his work on Northern Ireland. He is absolutely right that we must make sure that at every level of government we work to stem the flow of fresh arms into Northern Ireland. We now have unprecedented co-operation. That is the case not only between the Westminster Government and the Northern Ireland Executive—I pay tribute to all those who have recently been elected to the Executive, and I am delighted that David Ford, whom I spoke to this morning, has been re-elected—but there is also exceptional co-operation with the Garda. I discussed this matter with the Home Secretary yesterday as well, so we are clearly working at all levels.

May I also pay tribute to David Cairns on behalf of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs? I had the honour of working with him on a number of Committees and always found him to be extremely efficient and courteous.

All Members will recall the show of paramilitary strength by men in balaclavas over the Easter period, which brings shame to Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State give an update on what is being done to pursue those who obviously have common cause with those who were threatening violence?

I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee for his remarks. As he will have seen over the weekend, the police investigation into those shocking scenes at Easter took its course, and in one case charges were laid against Marian McGlinchey. I took the decision to revoke her licence as she was charged under the Terrorism Act 2000. I spoke to the chief constable this morning. The police investigations continue, and I am confident that the PSNI will bring further charges when there is sufficient evidence.

Will the Secretary of State accept—I am sure he will—that the outcome of the recent Assembly and council elections in Northern Ireland showed a clear endorsement of moving Northern Ireland forward and a clear rejection of those who would use violence, whose philosophy is to wreck Stormont and drag us backwards? Will he give a clear commitment to work closely with the security forces, the police and the new Minister of Justice in Northern Ireland to protect society and do whatever is necessary to protect all of us from dissident terrorist threats?

I wholeheartedly endorse the right hon. Gentleman’s comments; there is absolutely no place for the pursuit of any political aim by physical violence in Northern Ireland. I congratulate all those who were elected to the Assembly and to the Executive. Obviously, on this particular issue, I congratulate David Ford, to whom I spoke this morning. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that we will keep up the very closest co-operation with the Stormont Executive on this issue.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s action on the revocation of the licence of Marian McGlinchey—or Marian Price, as she was known—as it sends out a clear signal to those who would threaten violence. Will the Secretary of State give us his assessment of the number of people he believes are involved in dissident terrorism? What is his assessment of the current level of police and other resources deployed to combat that threat?

I am not sure that the number of those involved is as important as their capability. The right hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that these people are continuous in their efforts to attack not just the police, but completely innocent members of the general public who are going about their day-to-day business. Although these people are small in number, as we saw in the recent elections, they do have capability and we do not underestimate the threat. That is why we endorsed £50 million of spending last year, and we managed to negotiate an extraordinary settlement of a further £200 million over the next four years. We are absolutely determined to stand by Northern Ireland and do the right thing.

I join the Secretary of State and hon. Members in their tribute to David Cairns. He was a much respected Minister when Labour were in government and a much loved colleague and friend. Our deepest sympathy goes to his family and his partner, Dermot.

It would be remiss not also to take this opportunity to put on the record the fact that the Queen’s extraordinary visit to Ireland at the moment is an enormous success. It is as healing as it is inspiring. The visit both symbolises the peace process and represents the next step in that process. The process is still necessary, as dissident republican groups pose new threats to the police and the public; just this Monday, a coded bomb warning brought huge disruption to central London. What is the Secretary of State’s evaluation of the capability of this growing number of dissident terrorists, not only in Northern Ireland but here in Britain?

I entirely endorse the right hon. Gentleman’s comments on the significance of Her Majesty the Queen’s visit to the Republic of Ireland. It is a wonderful way to end the current President of Ireland’s two terms and it is a wonderful, ringing endorsement of the normality between our two nations. Significantly, the right hon. Gentleman and I are not in Ireland this morning; we are here answering questions in Parliament. This is an endorsement of the tremendous progress that has been made and a sign of how we will move further forward. On the question of capability here, we do not like to get into operational matters but, as he knows, we do not underestimate the threat of these groups and we have done a significant amount in the past year to bear down on them.

The threat, none the less, has clearly heightened, not only in Northern Ireland, but here in Britain. We must all ensure that in Northern Ireland, as well as here in Britain, no part of government resides in just hoping for the best; realism is as vital a tool in containment as is prevention. As part of that realism, the British Government must continue to recognise their responsibility in addressing the sectarian legacy of the troubles. What is the Secretary of State’s response to Co-operation Ireland’s bid for £20 million from the British Government—not from the Assembly—to ensure that in Northern Ireland the big society is more than just aspiration?

Again, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. We increased the threat level from moderate to substantial in Great Britain last year and we are doing what we think is necessary to work closely with the authorities not just in Northern Ireland but in the Republic and to bear down on this issue. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that this is a policy of containment long term and we need to break the cycle. We are extremely interested in the projects run by Co-operation Ireland, such as that in Kilwilkie, but many of these projects are also run by the devolved Administration. As I mentioned in my reply to the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), we will discuss this work with the new devolved Ministers. I had a meeting with the chairman of Co-operation Ireland this week and I shall see him in Dublin later in the week.

Personal Protection Training

3. Whether he has reviewed the personal protection training plan for Government workers and VIPs in Northern Ireland in the light of recent trends in terrorist activity; and if he will make a statement. (55381)

The Government regularly review the guidance issued to staff on personal security and make them aware of any changes in the terrorist threat. The Chief Constable is responsible for the operational provision of close protection, which can include Government workers and VIPs.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his reply. Can the Minister assure the House that, following the terribly sad death of Constable Kerr, specific training methods are being put in place to help protect VIPs, policemen and the like against the threat of under-car booby-traps?

Yes, I can. My hon. Friend will know, as he did many tours in Northern Ireland, that the enemy to personal security is complacency. It is incumbent on all those employed by the state in one way or another to be vigilant at all times. The Chief Constable goes to bed thinking about the security of his policemen and women and he wakes up thinking about them, too, as do we in the Northern Ireland Office.

The Minister will be aware that a small number of civilians work in security establishments in Northern Ireland, particularly in areas with a high dissident terrorist threat. He should also be aware that I wrote to him some three months ago about one such person who was trying to get a personal protection weapon to ensure his safety as he went to and from his work. Will the Minister ensure that he gets in touch with the Chief Constable to ensure that person’s safety, in so far as that can be guaranteed, in the light of this threat?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We take applications for PPW licences extremely seriously and they are looked into in great detail and independently assessed. I am aware of the case to which the hon. Gentleman refers and we will get back to him once we have all the necessary details.

Bill of Rights

As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, progress on this issue has been difficult in the absence of any agreement within Northern Ireland on how best to proceed. We want to see the issue resolved and we will be taking the views of the new Executive, political parties and others in Northern Ireland on how best to move matters forward.

I am grateful for that answer. I want to pay my own tribute to the late David Cairns, who was a fine Minister and a fine man.

With a new Executive and new Assembly in Northern Ireland, and as this issue is a fundamental part of the Good Friday agreement and the political process over the years, will the Minister undertake to try to seek consensus among all the political parties in Northern Ireland as soon as he can?

The Secretary of State and I have been very clear. We said we would return to this after the election of the new Assembly, which has now happened. The right hon. Gentleman might not be aware of the commission on a UK Bill of Rights, and the Lord Chancellor has written to the First Minister asking for two people from Northern Ireland to advise on the implications for Northern Ireland. The Executive need to initiate a parallel process to come to some consensus on what specific rights that recognise Northern Ireland’s particular circumstances might look like.

When members of the United States Congress asked the same question, perhaps not as elegantly as it was phrased by my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), the Prime Minister replied in a letter that he stood “ready to facilitate agreement”. Will the Minister tell me what steps he and the Secretary of State have taken in the past six months specifically to facilitate this agreement?

We have talked to a number of people, not least the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, and we are currently advertising for replacements. The Secretary of State and I have been quite frank and have said that we want to return to the issue after the election and to move forward on it, which the hon. Gentleman’s party, I point out gently to him, did not do for 12 years.

Union (Referendum)

5. What his policy is on the treatment of any request by a Northern Ireland political party for a referendum on the future of Northern Ireland as part of the Union; and if he will make a statement. (55383)

No such request has been made to the Government. The policy and legal position on this issue is set out in the Belfast agreement and the subsequent legislation, the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

I thank the Minister for his answer. He will be aware that Sinn Fein raised the issue of a referendum in the recent Assembly elections. May I push the Minister a little further and ask what mechanisms would be used to deal with any future request for a referendum?

I do not want to dwell on the hon. Gentleman’s domestic situation in Scotland—it is not the same in Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State has the right to hold a referendum at any point and he has a duty to hold one if it appears there is likely to be a majority for a united Ireland. It is quite clear in the Belfast agreement, but no such situation arises in Northern Ireland. Indeed, we very much hope that the new Executive will concentrate on bread-and-butter issues such as the economy rather than issues that seem to be of interest in Scotland.

Does the Minister recognise that dissidents try to make the argument on the ground in nationalist areas that those of us who support the Good Friday agreement have gone derelict on Irish unity? Does he recognise therefore that he has to treat with validity those of us who make the case for framing progress towards unity? Will he confirm that in the event of a referendum the British Government would play no part in imposing or opposing any free choice that would be made by the Irish people?

The hon. Gentleman’s party’s position is well known and I pay tribute here again to the way in which his party has embraced the ballot box and the democratic process. In a referendum, that would be for the people of Northern Ireland to decide. I can do no better than support the words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—it is probably a career-advancing thing to do—who, in a speech in May 2010, stated clearly and unequivocally:

“I will never be neutral on our Union. We passionately believe that England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are stronger together, weaker apart”.

I believe that, as Aristotle said, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Terrorism (Powers of Detention)

6. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on powers to detain terrorist suspects. (55384)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are in regular contact with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary regarding this issue. The Government are absolutely clear that reducing the maximum pre-charge detention period to 14 days will strike the right balance between civil liberties and the need to protect the public from the terrorist threat.

I thank the Minister for his reply. David Cairns was a fine colleague and I join all those who have paid tribute to him this morning.

The recent detention of three terrorist suspects in Northern Ireland for periods of 13 and 14 days indicates that the Government are right to bring in arrangements to extend the maximum period of detention beyond 14 days in exceptional circumstances. Given the likely pressures of those circumstances, does the Minister agree that the mechanism for implementing those arrangements needs to be both swift and straightforward?

The Minister does very much agree with what the right hon. Gentleman has just said in his usual responsible manner. The right hon. Gentleman is on the Joint Committee that is scrutinising the draft emergency legislation. I agree with everything he has said and I urge him to make his point very forcefully. The principle is right and we must make certain that, if necessary, we can enforce that principle swiftly whether Parliament is sitting or not.

I welcome the decision by the Secretary of State to revoke the licence of Marian Price. Is he as concerned as I am that the courts would have granted bail to the Old Bailey bomber on charges of support for an illegal organisation? What sort of message do our courts send out if they seem to take a softly, softly approach to confronting dissident republican terrorists?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that justice is a devolved matter. I believe that my right hon. Friend acted extremely swiftly and that he was right to do what he did. The legal process will take its usual course.


Like many in Northern Ireland, I believe that we need to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy and boost private sector growth and investment. The Government will work closely with the Northern Ireland Executive to help make Northern Ireland a beacon for foreign investment and growth.

Enterprise zones in England are an exciting opportunity to grow the private sector, and I hope they will be delivered in my constituency by the Welsh Assembly Government. Will the Secretary of State update the House on what progress is being made in Northern Ireland to deliver such an innovative opportunity?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the question. I have been travelling to Northern Ireland for nearly four years and wanting to turn the whole of Northern Ireland into an enterprise zone, making it an attractive place for investment and building on all the advantages that it now has. On my hon. Friend’s specific question, enterprise zones as described in the Budget are now in devolved hands and I hope the devolved Ministers grasp the opportunity with both hands. [Interruption.]

Order. There are far too many noisy private conversations taking place in the Chamber. The House must hear Mr Sammy Wilson.

Recently the Irish Republic abolished air passenger duty, which has put at risk cross-Atlantic flights from Northern Ireland and had an impact on the tourist and investment strategy of the Executive. Ironically, that was done as a result of loans facilitated by the UK Government. Will the Secretary of State ensure that in the renegotiation of those loans or any further loans, conditions are attached that stop the Irish Republic gaining such competitive advantage?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his re-election, and re-election to his Ministry. He is right that maintaining good, cheap and quick transport links between Northern Ireland and the rest of the world is vital. I have discussed APD with Treasury colleagues. A consultation is going on and I would like to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss how we work together on the matter. In meetings with the Government in Dublin, I will also raise the issue.

West Lothian Question

8. What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the establishment of a commission to examine the West Lothian question. (55386)

I discussed the matter recently with the Minister with responsibility for political and constitutional reform, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper). The Government will establish a commission this year to consider the West Lothian question.

Does the Minister agree that, given the complexity of the West Lothian question, no time should be lost in establishing the commission?

The programme for government promised to establish it in this Parliament, so the answer is yes.

Security Threat

9. What assessment he has made of the security threat from dissident republicans; and if he will make a statement. (55387)

The threat level in Northern Ireland remains at severe. Despite the overwhelming community rejection of their murderous strategy following the despicable murder of Ronan Kerr last month, the terrorist groups continue to pose an indiscriminate threat to the lives of police officers and the general public, who just want to go about their lives without fear, disruption or intimidation.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments, but may I have a reassurance that everything possible is being done to make sure that those people are apprehended as quickly as possible?

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that we take the threat extremely seriously. We do not underestimate it. As I said earlier, we endorsed an extra £50 million package last year for the PSNI and we have negotiated an exceptional four-year plan of £200 million over the coming years. I know that Matt Baggott, the Chief Constable, to whom I spoke this morning, is already putting those funds to very good use. We are determined to bear down on that small number of wholly unrepresentative, dangerous people.

Legacy Issues

10. Whether he plans to provide further direct funding for projects to deal with legacy issues in Northern Ireland. (55388)

This Government funded the four public inquiries into legacy cases, which were set up under the previous Government, so that they could be completed as soon as possible. I am currently considering what, if any, further role the Government can play in dealing with the past in Northern Ireland.

A successful and prosperous future for Northern Ireland requires the Government to deal responsibly with all outstanding issues related to the peace process. Does the Secretary of State intend to honour all those outstanding issues?

Yes, I understand the tone of the hon. Gentleman’s question. We endorse the agreements. We made that clear, as our record over the past year shows, but we also recognise that the past continues to be an issue. That is why I am continuing to talk to a wide range of groups, as is my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, to see whether we can find a way forward on which we can work with the Executive.

Does the Secretary of State agree that a coherent and comprehensive strategy to deal with legacy issues is vital if we are to build a stable future for the people of Northern Ireland?

I could not quite hear the hon. Lady’s question, but I think I got the gist of it. As she knows, it is not easy to achieve consensus on this issue, which is why we are carrying on this listening exercise and talking with a wide range of groups, and I am very happy to talk and listen to her.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to Marine Nigel Mead from 42 Commando Royal Marines, who was killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan on Sunday. He was a selfless, enthusiastic and committed Marine who has made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of our country. Our thoughts must be with his family, his friends and his colleagues.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, this afternoon I will be travelling to Dublin as part of this week’s historic state visit by Her Majesty the Queen.

May I associate myself and my constituents with the Prime Minister’s words of condolence?

Under rules introduced in 2003, illegal migrants who manage to avoid the authorities for 14 years can apply for permanent stay, have full access to the welfare system and even obtain a British passport. Given that in the past eight years nearly 10,000 such migrants have won such rights, and with an estimated half a million illegal immigrants in Britain today, will the Prime Minister seek to change those rules and restore some sanity to Britain’s border controls?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We have pledged to break the link between temporary migration and permanent settlement in the UK because we believe that settling in Britain should be a privilege, rather than an automatic right for those who have evaded the authorities for a certain amount of time. We are going to consult on further measures, including the future of the 14-year rule he mentioned, and make announcements later this year. We have already announced that there will be tighter rules for those wanting to settle here, and have already implemented a new income and English language requirement for skilled workers who have been here for more than five years.

May I start by joining the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Marine Nigel Mead from 42 Commando Royal Marines? He showed exceptional bravery and courage, like all our troops in Afghanistan, and our thoughts are with his family and friends.

The role of the Justice Secretary is to speak for the nation on matters of justice and crime. This morning he was on the radio suggesting that there were “serious” rapes and other categories of rapes. Would the Prime Minister like to take this opportunity to distance himself from the Justice Secretary’s comments?

First of all, let me say that rape is one of the most serious crimes there is, and it should be met with proper punishment. Anyone who has ever met a rape victim and talked with them about what that experience means to them and how it stays with them for the rest of their life could only want it to have the most serious punishment possible. The real disgrace in our country is that only 6% of rapes reported to a police station end in a conviction. That is what we have to sort out. I have not heard the Justice Secretary’s interview, but the position of the Government is very clear: there is an offence called rape and anyone who commits it should be prosecuted, convicted and punished very severely.

Let me tell the Prime Minister what the Justice Secretary said this morning. He was asked about the average sentence a rapist gets. The interviewer said, “A rapist gets five years,” and then the Justice Secretary said in reply, “That includes date rape, 17-year-olds having intercourse with 15-year-olds”. He went on to say that there were categories of “forcible rape” and “serious rape”. The Justice Secretary cannot speak for the women of this country when he makes comments like that.

As I said, I have not heard the interview, but the point is this: it should be a matter for the court to decide the seriousness of the offence and the sentence that ought to be passed. I served on the Sexual Offences Bill under the last Government, and we looked at all the issues about whether we should try to differentiate between different categories of rape—and I seem to remember that one of the right hon. Gentlemen now sitting on the Opposition Front Bench was leading the debate for the Government. We decided, as a House of Commons, not to make that distinction. What matters is this: do we get more cases to court, do we get more cases convicted, and do we get more cases sent down for decent sentences? That is the concern we should have.

When the Prime Minister leaves the Chamber, he should go and look at the comments of the Justice Secretary—and let me just say to him very clearly: the Justice Secretary should not be in his post at the end of today. That is the first thing the Prime Minister should do. The second thing he should do is to drop this policy, because this policy, which they are defending, is the idea that if you plead guilty to rape you get your sentence halved. That could mean that rapists spend as little as 15 months in prison. That is not an acceptable policy, and the Prime Minister should drop it.

I think that what the Leader of the Opposition might be doing is jumping to conclusions on this issue. The point is this: there is already a plea bargaining system in Britain, for one third, and we are consulting on whether to extend the system to make it even more powerful. We have not yet decided which offences it should apply to, or how it should be brought in, because there is a consultation, but the aim of plea bargaining—it is worth remembering this, because plea bargaining is used in very tough criminal justice systems, such as America’s—is to ensure that more people get prosecuted, more people get convicted, and it actually saves the victim from having to go through a court process and find out at the end that the culprit is going to submit a guilty plea at the last minute. That is what the Government are looking at, and when we have listened to the consultation we will announce our conclusions—but he needs to be patient until we do that.

We are getting used to this. As we saw on health, when there is a terrible policy the Prime Minister just hides behind the consultation. Frankly, it is just not good enough. Let me tell him what people think of this policy. The judges are saying the policy is wrong, End Violence Against Women is saying that it is the wrong policy, and his own Victims Commissioner says that the policy is “bonkers”. I know that he is in the middle of a consultation, but I would like to hear his view on this policy, which he should drop.

The terrible fact that the right hon. Gentleman refers to is that only 6% of rape cases are prosecuted and end in a conviction. That is after 13 years of the Labour party running the criminal justice system, so that is the improvement we want to see. He wants to know my view: my view is get out there, convict, prosecute and send these people down for a decent period of time. That is what we should be doing. Rape is such a serious offence, so he should wait for the outcome of the consultation, rather than just jumping on the bandwagon.

This is about the way the Prime Minister runs his Government, because yesterday the Justice Secretary said that this

“proposal is likely to survive”—[Official Report, 17 May 2011; Vol. 528, c. 150]

the consultation, and the prisons Minister was defending the policy. People are rightly angry about this policy; they think that it is the wrong policy. All I am asking is something very simple: why does not the Prime Minister give us his view?

I have given you my view, and I will give you my—[Interruption.] I have. I want to see more people prosecuted and convicted for rape, and we are going to take steps to make sure that happens. But I will give you my view on something else—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Yes, which is this: I think there is merit in having a plea bargaining system, which we have already—and which should be discretionary, to try to make sure that we convict more. What we had under the previous Government was a mandatory release of all prisoners, irrespective of what they had done. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] Yes, the right hon. Gentleman sat in the Cabinet that let 80,000 criminals out of prison. That was not a discretionary policy; it was a mandatory policy—and it was a disgraceful policy.

Does the Prime Minister not realise what people are thinking of him on crime? Before the election he made a whole series of promises, and now he is breaking them one by one. He was out of touch on anonymity for rape victims, and now he is out of touch on sentencing for rape. He is cutting the number of police officers—cutting 12,000 police officers. Why does he not go back to the drawing board on crime, and get rid of his Justice Secretary?

Talking of broken promises, I remember the Leader of the Opposition saying at his party conference, about Ken Clarke:

“I’m not going to say he’s soft on crime.”

Well, that pledge did not last very long. One of these days the Labour party is going to realise that opposition is about more than just jumping on a bandwagon and picking up an issue; it is about putting forward a serious alternative and making some serious points. [Interruption.]

This question is by way of contrast, Mr Speaker. In harmony with the priority being given by the Government to strengthening relations with the Commonwealth, does my right hon. Friend attach importance to the particular role of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and will he do his best to find a way of marking that when the centennial conference of the CPA takes place in London in July?

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising this issue. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association is an important part of the Commonwealth. For the celebration of that anniversary I have had an extremely attractive invitation to go along and say a few words, and I will certainly see whether I can.

Q2. Why is the Prime Minister giving private and confidential NHS prescription records of 9 million British citizens to multinational private companies that will no doubt show no mercy with that information? (55954)

What we are trying to do is clean up the mess of Labour’s NHS IT programme, which cost billions of pounds and is still struggling. We are desperately trying to get it under control and make sure we can save money to put into health care.

Q3. Will the Prime Minister join me in sending a message of support to Tony Blair’s former speechwriter, Peter Hyman, who is seeking to set up one of the coalition’s excellent new free schools in east London? [Interruption.] (55955)

It is funny that Labour Members do not want to listen to Tony Blair’s speechwriter, as they listened with such rapt attention for so many years to what he said. I welcome the free schools policy, and I very much welcome what Peter Hyman is doing in trying to establish a free school. I think this is an excellent policy. Yesterday we had a new policy from Labour when the shadow Education Secretary said that just because he is opposed to the free schools policy, that does not mean he is opposed to every free school. We are back to the days of John Prescott, being told that we cannot have new good schools because everyone might want to go to them. We are back to old Labour.

Does not the visit of Her Majesty the Queen to the Irish Republic this week demonstrate not just her own personal courage in carrying out such a visit in the face of severe dissident terrorist threats, but also, whatever reservations some of us may have about one particular aspect of her visit, the extent of the improvement in relations between the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom, of which Northern Ireland is a proud part, as well as a recognition of Northern Ireland’s status? Is it not also an opportunity to build on co-operation to fight the dissident terrorists who still plague us in Northern Ireland and in the Republic?

The right hon. Gentleman is right in every respect. This is a remarkable visit that demonstrates that the relationship between Britain and the Republic of Ireland is strong, and has probably never been stronger, with the successful devolution of policing and justice that made the visit possible. The scenes on our television screens last night of the visits that Her Majesty made to heal the wounds of the past, but also to look to a very bright future between our two countries, are remarkable and hugely welcome.

Q4. Since it is the people of this country who have paid the enormous bills for bank failures, should not they get some reward for their sacrifice by being given shares when the banks are eventually denationalised? Will the Prime Minister look at the imaginative scheme put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams), which is now backed by The Sun newspaper, to do that? (55956)

I will certainly look at all the possible ways of putting the nationalised banks back into the private sector. I personally strongly support the idea of widening share ownership, so we will look carefully at the scheme that the right hon. Gentleman suggests. We also have to make sure that we secure value for money for the taxpayer as we try to fill in the great deep pit of debt that we were left by Labour.

Today hundreds of women in their 50s, supported by Age UK, have come to Parliament to protest against unfair changes to their pensions. The coalition agreement says that there will be no increase in women’s state pension age before 2020, yet under the Pensions Bill that increase will start in 2018. Why the U-turn?

Yet again, here is another reform important for making sure that our pensions system is affordable and sustainable that Labour has completely given up on. What we are doing with pensions is linking them back to earnings—something that was promised repeatedly but never done—and making sure that our pensions system is sustainable for the long term. That is what we are delivering—something never done by Labour.

Q5. The people of England have almost as much to lose from any move towards Scottish independence and the break-up of the Union as the people of Scotland. Will the Prime Minister therefore give us all a vote in a referendum on the subject? (55957)

I have made my views clear: if the Scottish Parliament wanted to hold a referendum, although I think that that would be a retrograde step, we would have to grant it. I would then join with everyone in this House and beyond who supports our United Kingdom to ensure that we keep it together. That is the process that we should go through, and it would involve a vote for people in Scotland, not for those in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Q6. I am a very generous person, so I compliment the Government on eventually deciding to sign up to the EU human trafficking directive. A recent report by the Children’s Commissioner for Scotland said that he could identify 200 children trafficked into Scotland, and ECPAT UK has stated that 1,000 children have been trafficked into the rest of the UK. Both bodies recommend that the Government appoint an independent human trafficking rapporteur and strengthen the guardianship system for children. Given that the Government have cut specialist teams in the Home Office and the police in this area, how can they assure the House that the UK is prepared for the responsibility that comes with signing up to the EU directive? (55958)

I will look carefully at what the hon. Gentleman says, because I know that he has a deep concern about trafficking, as do many Members of our House. Frankly, the fact that children and young adults are trafficked for sex and other purposes in our world is completely disgraceful, and we have to stamp it out. We have signed up to the directive, as he said, and we were already complying with the terms of the directive. We must do everything we can to stamp out this repulsive practice.

Nuclear Deterrent

Q7. What recent discussions he has had with the Leader of the Opposition on the future of the nuclear deterrent. (55959)

Although I have discussions on many issues with the Leader of the Opposition, the nuclear deterrent has not recently been one of them. That is partly because the Government’s policy is absolutely clear: we are committed to retaining an independent nuclear deterrent based on Trident. My right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary will make a statement to Parliament today announcing our decision to proceed with initial gate.

I am grateful to the Prime Minister for repeating our commitment to the future of Trident, its renewal and a continuous at-sea deterrent. Would he give his blessing to hon. Members in the Conservative party and on the Labour Benches who, like him, think that the nuclear deterrent should be above party politics, if they formed an alliance on this important issue, just as we did so successfully on the alternative vote?

I agree with my hon. Friend that it would be better if we could elevate this issue above party politics. Indeed, when we voted to go ahead with Trident it was on the basis of a Labour motion that was supported by most Labour MPs and almost all Conservative MPs. However, I have a feeling that my hon. Friend would never be satisfied, even if I placed a Trident submarine in the Solent, opposite his constituency, and handed him the codes—something, I am afraid, that I am simply not prepared to do.

Why continue to waste billions on a national virility symbol that has played no part in any of the military operations that we have taken part in over the last seven years, and is unlikely to play any part in the future? Does it not give justification and encouragement to other countries in acquiring their own nuclear weapons?

I do not accept either part of the hon. Gentleman’s argument. First, we are signatories to the non-proliferation agreement and are strong supporters of it. Secondly, the point of our nuclear deterrent is just that—deterrence. It is the ultimate insurance policy against blackmail or attack by other countries. That is why I believe it is right to maintain and replace it.


Q8. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is no case for giving the EU powers over taxation, least of all in the present circumstances? Will he assure me that the Government will simply say no to the proposed EU directive for a common corporate tax base? (55960)

I can certainly reassure my hon. Friend. Those in the EU who want to see further tax harmonisation usually make one of two arguments: either they want to raise more money for the EU, which I do not agree with, or they are trying to reduce tax competition within the EU, which I also do not agree with. It is important that we keep our competitive tax rates and do not give the EU further coverage over our tax base.

Q9. The ministerial code is extensive in its guidelines and rules governing Ministers. What is the policy of the Prime Minister and his Government on Ministers who break the ministerial code? (55961)

Obviously, breaking the ministerial code is an extremely serious offence. I know that the hon. Gentleman has asked questions before about the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), and let me be clear that the Employment Minister played no part in the decision-making process to award Work programme contracts. I want to make that point clear to the hon. Gentleman, as he has asked me the question.

Q10. May I echo the tribute that my right hon. Friend paid to Nigel Mead, the young Royal Marine who was serving with 3 Commando Brigade, which is based in my constituency?Given the recent inflation figures and the loose monetary conditions that contributed to the causes of the credit crunch, should my right hon. Friend now lead a fundamental debate reviewing the inflation target, and the operation and workings of the Monetary Policy Committee? (55962)

The point that I would make to my hon. Friend is that one of the fundamental causes of the problems during the credit crunch was the poor regulation of our banking system and credit. We have taken steps to put that right by putting the Bank of England back at the pinnacle of that system, after the failure of the system put in place by the Labour party. On inflation, I strongly support monetary policy being independent and established by the Bank of England. I do not want to go back to the bad old days of the Treasury setting interest rates. I think it is better to have that power vested in the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England.

Q11. A number of my constituents with very serious health conditions are being declared fit for work under the Department for Work and Pensions work capability assessment. Can the Prime Minister give me a guarantee that the assessment will be fit for purpose by the time of the big move from incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance, especially in the light of cuts at the DWP? (55963)

Of course we want to get the tests right, but I believe that the tests are showing that it has been wrong to leave so many people on benefits for so long without proper assessment. Of course, we can always improve the processes, and we will ensure that we do that as we go along, but I think it is absolutely right to go through people on all benefits and ask whether they can work, and what help they need to work. Then if they are offered work that they do not take, frankly, they should not go on getting benefits.

Now that there is to be a full investigation into the abduction or murder of Madeleine McCann, is there not a much stronger case for a full investigation into the suicide or murder of Dr David Kelly?

My hon. Friend is raising two issues. First, on the issue of Madeleine McCann, it is welcome that the Metropolitan police have decided to review the case and the paperwork. On the issue of Dr David Kelly, I thought the results of the inquest that was carried out and the report into it were fairly clear, and I do not think it is necessary to take that case forward.

Q12. Is the Prime Minister aware that the most revealing statistic in recent days has been the fact that in recession-hit Britain, the billionaires have gone up by 20—an increase of 37%—in the first year of this Tory rule, while in the real world inflation is going through the roof and thousands of blind people are having to march through the streets of London to hang on to their disability living allowance? What a savage indictment of this lousy, rotten Tory Government, propped up by these pathetic Liberals—[Interruption.] (55964)

I think that the most revealing statistics today are the unemployment figures, which show that employment in our country is up by 118,000, that unemployment is down by 36,000, and that youth unemployment fell by 30,000. Those are the statistics of what is happening in the real world, rather than in the dinosaur land that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) still inhabits.

Q13. Hard-working families in Broxtowe want a cap on benefits, but the Labour party will vote against such a cap. Would the Prime Minister help us in this way: who is living in the real world and who is representing real families—us or them? (55965)

My hon. Friend is entirely right. We are proposing a cap of £26,000 on the benefits that a family can receive. People would have to earn something like £40,000 to get that level of income. Frankly, some people will be watching this and thinking, “I’m earning £15,000”—or £16,000, or £17,000—“Why am I paying my taxes to go to families that are getting more than £26,000 in benefits?” To answer my hon. Friend’s question, the Government are in touch with what people want, and the Labour party seems to have gone to sleep.

What can the Prime Minister say to the people of Sunderland, the largest city in the north-east, and to my constituents, about the news that the Olympic torch is not stopping in the city?

I have to say that I was not aware of that. Perhaps I can look into the route that the Olympic torch will take—and if it is possible to divert it via Sunderland, I will certainly do my best.

Q14. An increasing number of European Court of Human Rights and European Court of Justice judgments are deeply unpopular in our country, and intrude on what should be the preserve of member states. Will the Prime Minister assure my constituents that he will use every ounce of his considerable personal authority to support efforts to push back those overbearing institutions? (55966)

I agree with my hon. Friend. We are leading the process of trying to reform the ECHR so that it pays more attention to the decisions of national Parliaments and, crucially, national courts. As for the ECJ, one thing that we must do is stop the transfer of further powers from Westminster to Brussels. That is why we are putting in place the referendum lock.

Does the Prime Minister think that the power and influence of this House of Commons will be diminished or increased by the reforms to the House of Lords that were announced yesterday?

I think that Parliament as a whole will be increased in terms of authority and respect. It is right to insert into the House of Lords some elected peers, so that we recognise that in the modern world, it is right to have two Chambers that are predominantly elected. That is the policy of the Government. It is clear to me that there are massive divisions on both sides of the House about that policy. However, this is an opportunity for the House of Commons to try to find a path through those, which we must do to achieve what was in every manifesto: elections to the House of Lords.

Q15. An independent investigation is due to report on allegations that Reading borough council, when last under Labour control, diverted section 106 moneys to plug gaps in the general budget, and also to fund unrelated projects. Can the Prime Minister offer any advice on how residents can make use of the Localism Bill to ensure that section 106 money is spent correctly? (55967)

I would make two points to my hon. Friend. First, the Localism Bill gives local people a greater ability to influence what happens to section 106 money. Secondly, because of the new homes bonus, councils that go ahead with building homes will get more money, so they need not feel that they must go for one huge development in order to draw in the section 106 money. It could be that a different pattern of development—one more in tune with what local people want—would deliver some of the benefits that local people want to see.

May I return the Prime Minister to his earlier remarks on rape? We all support moves to make the justice system easier for women, but many people out there—victims and non-victims alike—find his proposals to reduce sentences by up to 50% abhorrent and frightening. The only responsible thing for him to do is to take that out of any consultation now.

The point is that what the hon. Lady says is not what we are proposing—[Hon. Members: “Yes it is!”] Let me make this point as well: because this Government take the crime of rape so seriously, we have boosted the funding for rape crisis centres. The real need—frankly, the whole House should unite on this—is to change the fact that 94% of rapists are walking the streets free because they have not been convicted. That is what we have got to change.

There are currently 2,500 trade union representatives across the public sector paid not to provide the service that they represent but to carry out campaigning activities that should be funded by the unions—and because the unions do not pay their salaries, they can spend their subs on other things, such as subsidising that lot over there. Does the Prime Minister not think it time that that was reformed?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. [Hon. Members: “No he doesn’t!”] It is interesting that whenever someone raises a point about union funding they get shouted down by the Labour party, because Labour Members do not want any examination of what trade unions do, or how much money they give to the Labour party. [Interruption.] I think that they protest a little too much.

I am absolutely delighted to be supported by the trade union movement. May I ask the Prime Minister why he has not sacked his NHS adviser, Mark Britnell, who said that the NHS would be shown “no mercy”, and that the reforms would be a “big opportunity” for private profit and would transform the NHS into an

“insurance provider, not a state deliverer"?

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to clear this up. When I read about Mr Britnell being my adviser, I was slightly puzzled, because I have never heard of this person in my life, and he is not my adviser. However, I did a little research, and it turned out that he was an adviser to the previous Government. [Hon. Members: “More!”] Oh, don’t worry, there is plenty more. He helped to develop Labour’s NHS plan in 2000, which increased the role of the private sector, he was appointed by Labour as chief executive of one of the 10 strategic health authorities set up by Labour, and when the Leader of the Opposition was in the Cabinet, Mark Britnell was director general for NHS commissioning. Although I do not know him, therefore, I suspect that Labour Members know him rather well.

I was rather impressed by that last answer, but I will draw the Prime Minister on to something else. Yesterday the Government announced plans to reform the second Chamber. Can he tell the House whether he will use all means necessary, including the Parliament Acts, to protect the coalition’s legislative programme?

The short answer is yes. This is Government legislation, like any other piece of Government legislation, and will be scrutinised, carried through, debated and discussed, and then passed in the same way.

Nuclear Industry Safety

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change if he will make a statement on the implications of the Weightman report. [Interruption.]

The Energy and Climate Change Secretary will answer the urgent question on behalf of the Government. I appeal to right hon. and hon. Members leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly, affording the Secretary of State the courtesy of a decent hearing.

Earlier today I laid before the House the chief nuclear inspector’s interim report on the events at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear site in March. Dr Weightman’s final report is due in September. Safety is, and will continue to be, our No. 1 priority, and I believe that it is vital that the regulators and industry continue to adhere to the principle of continuous improvement for all existing and future nuclear sites and facilities. Dr Weightman has drawn a number of conclusions. He states:

“The direct causes of the nuclear accident, a magnitude 9 earthquake and the associated 14 metre high tsunami, are far beyond the most extreme…events that the UK would be expected to experience.”

In that respect, he concludes that there is

“no reason for curtailing the operation of nuclear power plants or other nuclear facilities in the UK.”

Nevertheless, Dr Weightman notes:

“severe events can occur from other causes and learning from events is fundamental to…the robustness of”

our nuclear safety arrangements. I can therefore confirm that once further work on the recommendations is completed, any proposed improvements to safety arrangements will be considered and implemented in line with our normal regulatory approach to nuclear safety.

The interim report also identifies various matters that should be reviewed to improve the safety of the UK nuclear industry. I consider it an absolute priority that the regulators, industry and Government should act responsibly to learn from the 26 recommendations in today’s report and respond to them within one month. My officials will review the interim report carefully, but from my discussions with Dr Weightman, I see no reason why we should not proceed with our current policy—that nuclear can be part of the future energy mix, as it is today— providing that there is no public subsidy. The interim report does not identify any implications for the strategic siting or assessment of new reactors, and I do not believe that the final report will either. Subject to careful consideration of the detail of Dr Weightman’s interim report, I intend to bring forward the energy national policy statement for ratification as soon as possible. I strongly welcome Dr Weightman’s interim report. I encourage the regulators to work closely with industry and other partners to take the recommendations forward, and I look forward to receiving the final report in the autumn.

The nightmare of Fukushima continues and intensifies. In the past seven days, the no-go area has been extended from 20 km to 30 km, and the residents of the towns of Kawamata and Iitate have been expelled from their homes. There is now proof that the greatly feared meltdown has taken place, and it is out of control. This is all in the past seven days. It is not possible in just eight weeks to make any assessment of the extent of this terrifying event, but that is what the Government have tried to do. This is not about science; this is about spin and PR. The whole reason for putting out the report so prematurely is to shore up collapsing public opinion and investor opinion.

Of course Britain is not Japan, as the report says, but there have been tsunamis here too. There was one that affected my constituency, destroying all human and animal life, and that was on the Severn estuary, where several nuclear power stations are placed. Our threat comes from two possibilities: a terrorist attack, and especially an attack by air, or a unique climatic event. Sadly, unique climatic events are happening regularly throughout the world and are more likely to happen in future because of the climate change that is afore us. The residents of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima were all assured of the absolute safety of the installations. What Weightman does is give false reassurances for commercial reasons, to suit the Government’s programme. This report has been produced in haste. We may regret at leisure shoring up this unnecessary, subsidised form of energy creation, which the public, because of their well-founded fears, might in future prevent from being built. It is right that we should look again at the lessons of Fukushima. We do not know what they are at the moment. We should pause and look to developing the safe renewables that are inexhaustible, British and sustainable.

I respect the hon. Gentleman’s long-standing opposition to nuclear power and his concern, interest and expertise in these issues, but I think he has gone too far in impugning the integrity of the chief nuclear inspector. I am not a scientist, but I have had a number of meetings with Dr Weightman, and I am absolutely convinced that he is an entirely independent, well-respected professional. Indeed, he is so well respected that after I asked him to conduct the inquiry and make his recommendations, he was subsequently approached by the International Atomic Energy Agency to lead the international inquiry into Fukushima. It beggars belief not to recognise his standing in the international community and his independence. This is a fact-based and evidence-based report. My concern has always been to base our policy on the facts and the evidence, and I think that the report does that.

The hon. Gentleman raised two specific points. He will find that I entirely agree with him on extreme weather events. It is absolutely essential that all our critical energy infrastructure needs to be proof against such events, not just the nuclear facilities. On page 97 of the report, he will find a useful table that summarises the extent to which our existing nuclear power stations are prepared against seismic hazards and flood heights. The hon. Gentleman’s description of our vulnerability on this front simply does not accord with the facts as set out in Dr Weightman’s report. First and foremost, we do not have the same reactor design. Secondly, we are not subject to earthquakes of anything like the same magnitude. The earthquake that so unfortunately hit Japan was 65,000 times stronger than the largest earthquake ever recorded in British territorial areas, which was centred on Dogger Bank in 1931. The situation is therefore entirely different. The hon. Gentleman will also see a discussion in the report about the vulnerability to tsunamis, and about whether the flood defence heights set out for each of the power stations on page 97 are adequate, and the conclusions stand.

I entirely take the hon. Gentleman’s point about the importance of security against terrorist attack. This Government have been very careful to improve the security arrangements in our nuclear facilities since we came into office a little over a year ago, and we will continue to do so.

We, too, welcome the report. Safety in the nuclear industry is of paramount importance, and it is worth noting that the UK has a good safety record. I welcome Mike Weightman’s view that we need to be continually vigilant in that regard. Nuclear is clearly crucial to security of supply in a low-carbon economy, especially in the light of yesterday’s decision. What is the Secretary of State now doing to ensure that the nuclear programme is still on track? When will we see new plant in this country? Will he be pressing ahead with the national policy statements over the summer, or will he wait for the final report in the autumn? Will the lifespan of the existing nuclear stations be extended as coal-fired power stations go off-line? Will he step up his efforts to boost renewable energy to fill the emerging energy gap? That is an area in which we have seen a lack of action from the Government. Finally, although the Secretary of State keeps denying the subsidy issue, to hide his embarrassment, will he acknowledge the need for market support to ensure that we have safe new nuclear in this country as soon as possible?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her questions. Clearly, there has been a delay in the new nuclear programme preparations as a result of Dr Weightman’s report, and I signalled that we needed to do that when I asked Dr Weightman to look at this matter. I am determined, as are the whole Government, to base our evidence on fact, rather than on emotional, knee-jerk responses, which would be entirely inappropriate given the importance of the issues. We will bring forward the energy national policy statements as soon as we can, and I would very much hope that we will be able to catch up over the next few months and years following the delay. As I mentioned in the House yesterday, we have already begun work at Hinckley Point, where EDF is preparing the earthworks for the first of the new nuclear reactors. I am keen to deliver on the commitment in the coalition Government programme that new nuclear should, subject to the proviso that there is no public subsidy, have a place in our energy mix.

I am not going to take any lectures on renewable energy from the hon. Lady. Our inheritance was to be 25th out of 27 European Union member states for installed renewable capacity. We are in the dunce’s corner as a result of 13 years of Labour policy, so the best commitment I can make is to say that over the next few years we are absolutely determined to be the fastest improving pupil in the class.

On the hon. Lady’s final point, I set out in October a very clear statement about public subsidies. She has to recognise that there is an enormous difference; money such as that available under the European Union emissions trading scheme penalises activities that generate carbon and therefore implicitly subsidises activities that do not generate carbon, and is designed to correct what Lord Stern has described as

“the greatest market failure of all time”.

On that basis, we will continue to have policies that encourage low-carbon alternatives, but there will be no support to nuclear; it is a mature industry and there is no justification for extra support.

Order. There is considerable interest, but the House is under real time pressure today, with a statement to follow before the remaining stages of an important Bill. Economy in questions and answers alike is of the essence.

Having discussed the Fukushima problems with the Japanese, I know that they have concluded that not only did the reactor need to be built stronger to withstand the extreme climatic conditions, but that the primary weakness was that there was no secondary power source to circulate the water to keep the nuclear core cool. However, if they can design out those problems, they are perfectly happy in principle to build new nuclear power stations. Should we not take some lessons from those statements?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The lessons from Japan are extraordinary. First of all, the earthquake, however terrible and powerful, did not damage the reactors. The damage came through the subsequent tsunami, which flooded the secondary cooling system and made it inoperable. It shifted away the diesel supplies for the back-up generating plant. That is precisely why it is so important to look at these secondary systems and ensure that they are proof against any extreme weather events in this country.

The Secretary of State referred to a raft of recommendations in the report, which he said the Government would accept. I have not read the report, but does he have any idea of the cost of those recommendations and who will pay for them?

It is too early to assess the likely cost. I merely point out that, as far as any new nuclear programme is concerned, we are still at the stage where negotiations are going on between the regulators and the companies interested in providing new reactors, making it possible to incorporate into the design stage any changes that flow from Dr Weightman’s recommendations. That means that it will be substantially cheaper than it would have been if we were attempting to retrofit.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) on drawing the attention of the House to this report. On the alleged prematurity of drawing early conclusions from the Weightman report, will the Secretary of State reassure the House that he will keep this matter under review, given that, as the hon. Gentleman has said, this is very much a changing scenario in the Fukushima area?

There may well be longer-term implications. The key conclusions of the interim report relate to the potential choice of sites, for example, and therefore the implications for national policy statements and the new nuclear programme. We now need to look at any implications for the generic design assessments and the design of new nuclear reactors. There may also be longer-term implications for civil contingencies, as Dr Weightman points out. We will very much keep those matters under review.

Once again, the Secretary of State has claimed that new nuclear will not receive a public subsidy. However, in its report on electricity market reform, the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change says that the Government’s proposals are designed to give nuclear a substantial subsidy. Can the Secretary of State explain why there is such a difference of view between him and the Select Committee?

The hon. Lady will be aware, even after only a year in the House, that it is not the first time—[Interruption.] I was a colleague of the hon. Lady in the European Parliament for six years, and I have enormous respect for her. However, she will know from her experience both in the European Parliament and here that it is not entirely unknown for Ministers and Select Committees to reach different views on these issues. The key point is that there is a huge difference between offsetting the market failure—which, as Lord Stern pointed out, has been

“the greatest market failure of all time”

—and subsidies directed at a particular way of doing that.

I welcome what the Secretary of State said today. The British nuclear industry adheres to the highest standards of safety and excellence in engineering. To underline that, may I invite the Secretary of State, or a member of his team, to visit Graham Engineering in Colne, which manufactures nuclear waste drums, next time he is in Lancashire?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind invitation. We will certainly consider it, and we hope to see him in due course.

I welcome the interim report. It would appear from the flooding risk assessments in conclusion 6 and annexe G that Dr Weightman may not have taken account of recent research at Delft university on eustatic sea level drop. I urge the Secretary of State to investigate that. As for the conclusion on MOX—mixed oxide—can he tell us exactly how the plutonium fallout relates to the testing of nuclear weapons? I believe that after the second world war Japan agreed not to undertake any nuclear weapons testing.

The hon. Gentleman has considerable expertise in this area. As a humble economist, I shall be happy to take away his questions and correspond with him on the answers.

What happened in Japan was clearly a disaster, but we should be considering both the design and the siting of new nuclear reactors. Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to assess whether the report will have any implications for the siting of the proposed new nuclear power stations?

Will the Secretary of State be considering the implications of the additional expense of new nuclear building as a consequence of the Weightman recommendations? Will he also be considering the present target of bringing one new nuclear power station on stream every nine months between 2018 and 2025 in the light of those additional costs? How fundable does he expect the programme to be?

As I said in my response to the question asked by the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), the cost impact may well be limited by the fact that the programme is at the design stage. I can also tell the hon. Gentleman that the Government do not propose to subsidise nuclear reactors or to invest public money in them. The funding will be up to private investors, who have shown no lack of desire to finance a new nuclear programme.

Every time I go home to my village of Westleton, I see the white dome of Sizewell B. My local energy company is very concerned about safety, and is not at all complacent. I am sure that it will welcome the additional review.

On the matter of nuclear industry safety, the newly formed Office for Nuclear Regulation is part of the Health and Safety Executive, which reports to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would make sense to transfer responsibility for the ONR to his own Department, so that all nuclear matters can be—so to speak—under one roof?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question and, in particular, for the benefit of her scientific background. The first read-out of our nuclear regulatory system produced very good results in comparison with those in other countries, and we were recently given a clean bill of health by the IAEA inspection team. The system is very independent: for example, in the event of a hazard, our regulators are able to shut down the facility immediately with no political sign-off. We have agreed that the Office for Nuclear Regulation will be set up statutorily as an independent body, which is entirely appropriate.

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge and respect the fact that planning consent on nuclear issues is devolved, and that under the newly re-elected Scottish National party Government, there will be no new nuclear power stations in Scotland?

In parallel with the Weightman report, the Council of the European Union has requested that national regulators carry out stress tests on nuclear power stations. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the development of those tests, and on when the results are likely to be reported?

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), discussed the stress tests recently at an informal EU Energy Council meeting in Hungary, and during bilateral meetings with Commissioner Günther Oettinger. Good progress is being made in defining the tests, and I believe that we will be in a position to make an announcement shortly.

However much the Secretary of State tries to dress it up, is it not the case that the new carbon floor price represents a massive subsidy to the nuclear industry, possibly to the tune of £2 billion? Is that not why the nuclear industry has been lobbying for it?

I return to the point that I made in answer to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). As Lord Stern said, we have experienced the greatest market failure of all time. We will be able to provide the incentives that will lead all of us, in the private and public sectors, to change our behaviour only if we offset that market failure by incorporating the costs. What there will not be is any subsidy for the nuclear industry.

I am sure my right hon. Friend will confirm that a magnitude 9 earthquake hit western Europe in its not too recent history, and that the consequent tsunami crossed territorial maritime boundaries and hit the United Kingdom. Given evacuation and compensation bills running into tens of billions of pounds, and sea contamination at 18,000 times the safe limit, is not the real lesson of Fukushima that in the event of an unpredictable catastrophe of any kind, nuclear is the worst possible power source to be in its path?

There is an enormous difference between our vulnerability to seismic shocks and, sadly, that of the Japanese. That is a matter of record. There is a good discussion of the matter in Dr Weightman’s report, and I urge my hon. Friend to look at it.

I am not opposed to the nuclear industry at all, but has the Secretary of State or his Department been able to ascertain details of the deaths that have taken place recently? It has been indicated that there have been many deaths, but it has not been made clear whether the people who lived nearby were involved in repairs to nuclear reactors. This is not a case of dwelling on tragedy; it is a case of the lessons that we can learn. Can we learn any lessons from the Japanese authorities about how we can improve the safety of people who live close to nuclear reactors?

It is far too early to reach conclusions in relation to the Fukushima accident, but there have been estimates on the basis of past accidents. A comparison of the casualty rates of different generating technologies appeared recently in the New Scientist. We are acutely aware of the issue, but, sadly, casualties and deaths are associated with almost all energy sources.

The Secretary of State may accept that some of us find the inspector's answers to the essential safety questions as predictable as those of Churchill the dog. As for the question of public subsidy, is he telling us that any additional infrastructural protections that arise as a result of the report will be funded not from the public purse but by the nuclear industry, and that the carbon floor price will not be adjusted in the light of those additional costs to provide additional subsidy?

The considerations that are taken into account in setting the carbon price support—and, indeed, all our other measures—are related to our need to mitigate carbon emissions and have nothing to do with the costs of any particular technology. In that sense, we are technology-neutral; we want the lowest possible cost response in making sure we have a low-carbon economy. Whether that points to alternative technologies to nuclear will be a decision for the market, not the Government.

Nuclear Deterrent

With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on our nuclear deterrent programme.

The House will be aware that we have been considering the next stage of investment—called initial gate—in the programme to deliver a successor to our current nuclear deterrent. This is the point in the Ministry of Defence’s procurement cycle at which we decide on broad design parameters, set out our plans for detailed system assessment and order any long lead items that might be required. Taking this action enables us to be sure that we will make the right decisions at the key investment stage, at the main gate, which for this submarine programme will be in 2016. I am announcing today that we have approved the initial gate investment and selected a submarine design that will be powered by a new generation of nuclear propulsion system—the pressurised water reactor 3—that will allow our submarines to deliver our nuclear deterrent capability well into the 2060s if required.

At this milestone in the project, I think it is useful for me to remind the House of this Government’s policy on the nuclear deterrent. The first duty of any Government is to ensure the security of their people. The nuclear deterrent provides the ultimate guarantee of our national security, and for the past 42 years the Royal Navy has successfully operated continuous deterrent patrols to ensure just that. I pay tribute to the crews and support staff who ensure the continued success of deterrent operations, and I extend that tribute to the families of all those personnel, many of whom are regularly away from home for long periods.

We assess that no state currently has both the intent and the capability to threaten the independence or integrity of the United Kingdom, but we cannot dismiss the possibility that a major direct nuclear threat to the UK might re-emerge. We simply do not know how the international environment will change in the next few years, let alone the next 50 years; and as this House concluded in 2007 when it voted on whether the UK should start a programme to renew the deterrent, the time is simply not right to do away with it unilaterally. That is not to say that if the time is right we will not move away from nuclear weapons at some time in the future. Our long-term goal remains a world without them, and we are doing all we can to counter proliferation, to make progress on multilateral disarmament, and to build trust and confidence with nations across the globe.

In this spirit, as part of the value-for-money study we reviewed carefully how we manage our deterrent programme, and concluded that we could take significant steps to demonstrate our commitment to disarmament: by reducing the number of warheads carried on each deterrent submarine from no more than 48 to no more than 40; by consequently reducing our overall stockpile of nuclear weapons from no more than 225 to no more than 180 in due course; and by giving a stronger assurance to non-nuclear weapon states in compliance with the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. The value-for-money study delivered £3 billion of savings and deferrals over the next 10 years.

The coalition agreement reflected both coalition parties’ commitment to a minimum credible nuclear deterrent, but also the desire of the Liberal Democrats to make the case for alternatives. As Secretary of State for Defence, I am absolutely clear that a minimum nuclear deterrent based on the Trident missile delivery system and continuous at-sea deterrence is right for the United Kingdom and that it should be maintained, and that remains Government policy; but to assist the Liberal Democrats in making the case for alternatives, I am also announcing today the initiation of a study to review the costs, feasibility and credibility of alternative systems and postures. The study will be led by Cabinet Office officials overseen by the Minister for the Armed Forces. A copy of the terms of reference of the study will be placed in the House of Commons Library.

As I have said, the Government have approved the initial gate for the nuclear deterrent successor programme. We have now agreed the broad outline design of the submarine, made some of the design choices—including the propulsion system and the common US-UK missile compartment—and the programme of work we need to start building the first submarine after 2016. We have also agreed the amount of material and parts we will need to buy in advance of the main investment decision.

We expect the next phase of work to cost in the region of £3 billion. That is a significant sum, but I am confident that it represents value for money for the taxpayer, as every aspect of the programme has been carefully reviewed by MOD, Treasury and Cabinet Office officials. It will fund the programme that we need to conduct to make sure that we can bring the submarines into service on time. Overall, we assess that the submarine element of the programme will still cost within the £11 billion to £14 billion estimate set out in the 2006 White Paper, but these costs were estimated at 2006 prices, of course, and did not account for inflation. The equivalent sum today is £20 billion to £25 billion at out-turn, but it is important to recognise that there has been no cost growth in the programme since the House first considered the findings of the White Paper.

Between now and main gate we expect to spend about 15% of the total value of the programme. That is entirely consistent with defence procurement guidance. The cost of long lead items is expected to amount to about £500 million, but it is not true to say that large parts of the build programme will have been completed by main gate. Although we are ordering some of the specialist components, that does not mean that we are locked into any particular strategy before main gate in 2016.

I would like to focus for a moment on the matter of nuclear safety. There has been some ill-informed comment suggesting that our nuclear propulsion systems are not safe. That is simply not true. All our nuclear propulsion plants meet the stringent safety standards set out by the defence nuclear safety regulator and the Health and Safety Executive. However, we are developing a new design of submarine, and it is right that we take advantage of the opportunity that that affords to advance our policy of seeking continual improvement of nuclear safety. A new propulsion plant allows us to do that while also giving us the opportunity to improve the availability of propulsion systems and lower through-life support costs.

I have announced a major step forward in this programme. We have some of the finest submarine builders in the world, and the approval of the next phase of work in the programme will secure the jobs of the highly skilled and professional work force already involved in it, as well as providing further opportunities for the engineers and apprentices of the future. However, both my Department and industry will have much to do to deliver this programme and to ensure both that we continue to maintain the sustainability of the submarine industry and that we improve performance and drive costs down through more efficient and inclusive working. I am confident that all sides will respond to this challenge.

This is a programme of great national importance, so today I am placing in the Library of the House a report that sets out in detail the work that has been completed so far, the key decisions that I have presented to the House today, and the work that is required over the coming months and years. I believe that the decisions we have taken on our nuclear deterrent programme at initial gate are the right decisions for the country and that, as a result, future generations will continue to benefit from the security we have been so fortunate to enjoy.

I thank the Secretary of State both for his statement and for providing advance sight of it. I join him in paying tribute to all our forces operating our deterrent and their families, and to our skilled civilian work force who help to build and maintain our defence capabilities. Let me also stress once again that where the Government do the right thing on defence policy, we will, in the national interest, support them.

Britain’s independent deterrent has been the cornerstone of our peace and security for over half a century, and our view is that, in today’s world, as long as there are other countries with such capability it is right that the UK retains an independent nuclear deterrent. In what will be a detailed debate on the military, technical and financial aspects of today’s announcement, there is a careful judgment to be made: whether we believe the threats posed to our nation and our interests to be such that we are more secure with the UK having our own independent deterrent. Most of us believe in a world free of nuclear weapons and a multilateral process to achieve that, whereas others take a different and unilateralist view, born of a myriad of traditions such as faith, passivism, political commitment or concerns about costs. I respect all those views but take a different approach.

The previous Government met their commitment in the December 2006 White Paper to reduce the number of operationally available warheads to fewer than 160, meaning that the UK has reduced its nuclear arsenal by 75% since the end of the cold war. We welcome this Government’s announcements in the strategic defence and security review to reduce the number of operationally available warheads and the overall weapons stockpile. We will continue strongly to advocate the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Its three pillars—non-proliferation, disarmament and the right to use civil nuclear power peacefully—provide the framework around which we should base our policy.

The greatest nuclear threats we face today come from proliferation and unilateral armament, specifically from North Korea, which we know has a nuclear capability, and Iran, which we know has nuclear ambitions. The most robust response to those threats is for the UK to remain committed to the NPT and to be an active disarmer, alongside our allies and other nuclear weapons states. Maintaining our independent deterrent as part of international non-proliferation efforts is therefore vital in enabling us to combat the threats we face at home, and to sustain regional and global security.

I now wish to deal with some specific questions about the review announced today. In 2007, Parliament took the view that it would support the position set out by the previous Government in the 2006 White Paper of replacing the current Vanguard class submarines and maintaining an independent, continuous at-sea submarine-based nuclear deterrent. The decision then was based on evidence and military advice. The Government have announced today that as we move towards main gate there is logic in looking again at some of the defence capability and financial issues relating to how best to maintain a credible, minimum, independent nuclear deterrent. It is important that this is an open process. What is crucial is that the process is evidence-based and in the interests of national security, and that it is not, on occasion, driven by the dynamic within the coalition parties.

I wish to ask the Secretary of State some specific questions. Will the review look at the Government’s procurement policy in this Parliament for materials for successor submarines? Will the review look at international co-operation over nuclear policy, including deeper co-operation with France above and beyond the agreements made in the UK-France defence co-operation treaty, which we welcomed? Finally, on the review, can he confirm that the Minister for the Armed Forces is a one-man ministerial review team?

It was announced in the SDSR that initial gate was due to take place by the end of 2010. Can the Secretary of State tell us the reason for the delay and how much it will add to the cost of the programme over its lifetime? He said there were £500 million of costs for long lead items. Can he say what these items are? Can he say what the total cost of the replacement programme will be, and over what period? He made some comments about that, but can he also say from which budgets the overall costs will be met? Can he say whether both the running and construction costs will come from the core defence budget, and whether he has any estimate on the impact that may have on other equipment programmes?

The SDSR stated that the Government would reduce the costs of the successor programme by a total of £3.2 billion over the next 10 years. Can the Secretary of State say whether that takes into account the £1.2 billion to £1.4 billion additional costs of extending the life of the Vanguard class submarines in service until 2028? What reassurances has he been given that extending the life of the Vanguard class submarines is indeed safe? Can he make it clear how much is being spent on the new PWR3 reactors, and over what period?

In conclusion, Labour remains committed to a minimum, credible, independent nuclear deterrent, and we welcome the announcements made today by the Government. This decision will have an impact on our nation and beyond for decades to come, and it is crucial that government find additional ways to involve Parliament in the decision-making process. Labour will always do what is right for the UK’s defence and national interests, and the country would expect the Government to continue to do the same.

I shall do my best to answer the long list of questions that the right hon. Gentleman asked. I shall check Hansard, and if I have missed any I shall write to him with further details.

May I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the Opposition’s support for the principle of this policy? Cross-party support adds greatly to the credibility of our deterrence policy, which is an essential part of the protection of our country. He rightly says that the major proliferation risk at the moment comes from North Korea and Iran. We do not know whether other countries will join in that so, as he says, it is entirely prudent to retain a minimum, independent, credible nuclear deterrent for the United Kingdom.

The right hon. Gentleman asked a number of specific questions about costs. The costs of the various items were set out in the 2006 White Paper, when they were broadly split into: £11 billion to £14 billion for the submarine; £2 billion to £3 billion for the warhead; and £2 billion to £3 billion for infrastructure. We believe that those costs are still contained in the programme itself. He asked specifically about long lead items, on which, as I said in my statement, approximately £500 million will be spent. They include: the specialised high-grade steel; the main boat systems, such as the computer systems, hydraulic systems and atmospheric systems, the generators and the communications systems; and specialist components, including steam generators and test rigs for the propulsion plants.

On our wider international co-operation, we continue to work, as we set out in our treaty with France, on the capabilities required constantly to maintain the safety of our warheads. There are no plans for collaboration on deployment of a deterrent that goes beyond the treaty that has been signed. Agreement with the United States on the major parameters of the jointly developed common missile compartment design, which will be capable of carrying the Trident D5 missiles and any replacement once the D5 reaches the end of its life in the 2040s, has been a major part of our cost containment during the process.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the overall costs of the programme. As I said, £3 billion of those will fall between now and 2016. The costs for the years that fall within the current comprehensive spending review are met by the current defence budget settlement. He asked about the life and costs of the Vanguard class submarines. Our assessment when we undertook the value-for-money study was that we could extend Vanguard’s life to 2028 without having huge additional maintenance and upgrade costs, and while preserving our continuous at-sea deterrent—CASD. To go beyond 2028 would almost certainly have huge cost implications and might have implications for CASD that we are not willing to undertake. Those were the reasons we took the overall decision, and I hope that I have answered the right hon. Gentleman’s specific questions.

My right hon. Friend is well known for his independence and openness of mind, as was shown by his recently published correspondence with the Prime Minister. May we take it that the conclusions of the study to which he has referred will be published? Given that independence of mind, may we also take it that if the study produces credible procurement and policy alternatives, he will take proper account of them?

I have always thought that our independence of mind was why we were sent to the House of Commons in the first place, but perhaps I was mistaken. Because of the nature of the content of the report, most of it will remain unpublished, but I will consider whether its conclusions might be published without in any way prejudicing the security of the project itself. As I have just outlined, the Government are committed to the replacement of the Trident system, and the spend will go ahead through the rest of this Parliament.

On costs, does the Secretary of State accept that since the election two things, effectively, have gone on? Savings have been made as a result of the joint missile compartment and the reduction in the number of warheads, but those savings have been completely wiped out by the political decision demanded by the Liberal Democrats to extend the procurement period beyond the next election. I would have thought that those political decisions have led to costs approaching £2.5 billion, if one takes into account the necessity to build an additional Astute class submarine just to keep Barrow going. One might think that in the circumstances faced by the Secretary of State this might not have been his priority, what with all the other cuts he was making and the additional maintenance round that will now be needed for the existing fleet. How much more additional cost will there be as a result of the separate review? In a Department in which we are bearing down on manpower and reducing the skills available, we are now applying the skill base to an ongoing, second round assessment and review.

The costs of the alternatives review are met from existing departmental budgets and no additional costs will be associated with it. As I have said, when we take into account the different developments, including the fact that we have taken costs out of the missile compartment, as the right hon. Gentleman correctly says, and have reassessed the infrastructure required, we believe that there has been no additional net cost to the programme on the 2006 prices.

Whatever my right hon. Friend’s openness of mind, does he personally agree that the real choice is between a ballistic system and no nuclear deterrent at all? Although there are perfectly respectable arguments for both propositions, the idea of having a vulnerable cruise-based system misses the point of nuclear deterrence altogether.

I have made it clear on a number of occasions why I believe that having a ballistic, submarine-based system providing continuous at-sea deterrence is the only way to guarantee the level of deterrence that this country has come to regard as the minimum credible level. A number of disadvantages relate to any cruise system, including the fact that the missiles are more vulnerable to anti-missile defences, that they are slower and that there are cost implications because we would require more of them and more platforms from which to launch them. I am very relaxed about any consideration of the alternatives because I believe that anyone who has looked at the criteria and the information behind the 2006 White Paper will rapidly come to the conclusion that if we want a minimum credible nuclear deterrent for the United Kingdom, this system, which will be provided by the replacement Trident system, is the best and in fact the only credible one.

This is a very depressing statement today. First, the Secretary of State gave us no indication of the long-term total costs of the system—he said only that £5 billion would be committed now. Will it cost £70 billon in total, or more? We should be told. Secondly, 184 countries manage without their own nuclear weapons, and most countries see no need whatsoever even to think about getting them. We are spending a vast amount of money on a status symbol that will make the world not a safer place but a more dangerous one. The Secretary of State’s arguments about deterrence are nonsense because those arguments could be used for any country in the world. Most choose to take active steps to bring about a nuclear-free world; this country should do the same.

I appreciate the sincerity of the hon. Gentleman’s views; I just profoundly disagree with them. As I have said, we assess that the costs have not changed from the 2006 basic programme. I also said that, taking inflation into account, we expect them to be some £20 billion to £25 billion at out-turn. The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong: there is a growing nuclear threat in the world from such countries as North Korea and Iran. Who knows what other countries might be trying to develop nuclear technology and weaponisation? Those countries pose a wider risk and our nuclear deterrence is not just the UK’s independent deterrent but part of the wider NATO nuclear umbrella. It is important that the reductions that have been announced as regards warheads and stockpiles are not only within the letter but within the spirit of the NPT and set a clear direction for future Government policy.

I am really rather worried that my right hon. Friend is in danger of inflicting cruel and unusual punishment on the Minister for the Armed Forces, who is really quite a decent chap. If the Secretary of State, like me, had had the experience of watching the hon. Gentleman address the Liberal Democrat conference on this subject, he would have seen that it was indistinguishable from a CND revivalist meeting. How is it fair to the Minister for the Armed Forces to confront him on the one hand with serious arguments about why Trident is the only option while on the other hand requiring him to go back to the Liberal Democrats and tell them that unavoidable conclusion?

I rather fear that my hon. Friend is a little too late. Having made my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces sit through some 57 hours of the strategic defence and security review, I feel I have already inflicted a cruel and unusual punishment on him. I refer my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) back to the advice he gave me when we were in opposition, which was that we should never be afraid to have the most rigorous look at alternative systems. When one considers the evidence, the costings and the threats, one inevitably comes to the conclusion that a submarine-based continuous at-sea deterrent based on the Trident system will be the best protection for the United Kingdom. I take him at his word and I am not at all afraid to consider the alternatives.

Given the phenomenal cost of this weapons system and given that we will commit future generations to it by these actions, I believe that people have the right to understand whether this weapons system can be used. What are the circumstances in which Trident would be used? Will the Secretary of State tell the House?

This has always been at the heart of the deterrent argument. The whole point is that there is uncertainty about the circumstances in which the United Kingdom would respond, and the system therefore acts as a proper deterrent. We would hope that such weapons would never have to be used, because they would deter any threat against us. That is the principle and the core of the issue, and it is something that the unilateralists never understood.

Without, obviously, asking the Secretary of State to go into any sort of detail, will he make absolutely certain that the phasing out of Nimrod will not make our submarines more vulnerable to counter-attack?

We have a number of ways of ensuring the protection of our deterrent and, as my hon. Friend says, he would not expect me to go into detail. As for the Nimrod MRA4 programme, to which he might be referring, I must remind him that that capability was not available to us because the programme was already nine years late and the aircraft had not flown other than in one test that was abandoned for safety reasons. I am afraid that the failure of procurement over a number of years made that capability unavailable today.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance notice of his statement. He is well aware that majority opinion in Scotland is opposed to Trident, yet the UK Government are planning to spend billions of pounds of Scottish taxpayers’ money on it. Scotland’s Churches, the Scottish Trades Union Congress and Scottish civic society are also opposed to Trident, but the MOD wants to base these weapons of mass destruction in Scotland while cutting conventional defence. Scotland’s parliamentarians have not voted for this. What kind of respect agenda is this from the London Government, who totally ignore Scottish opinion and go ahead anyway? The Secretary of State is making the most eloquent case for Scottish independence.

It would be hard to make a less eloquent case for Scottish independence! It is important that we recognise that defence was retained in the UK Parliament in the devolution settlement and that decisions about national security are taken by this House of Commons. Given the attitudes of the Scottish National party, the whole of the United Kingdom should be grateful.

It is of course always open for any political party or any part of any political party to take a different view from Her Majesty’s Government. Can the Secretary of State think of any precedent whatsoever for public money, ministerial time and resources being used to bolster and examine the manifesto commitment of one particular party that might or might not be part of the coalition?

There are realities of coalition government that simply have to be faced. As part of the coalition agreement, we made it very clear that we would continue and move to the decisions I have announced today, but we also made it clear that the Liberal Democrats, as one of the coalition partners, would be free to make the case for alternatives. We have lived up to that commitment today.

The Secretary of State knows that approval of initial gate is overdue and it is good that more work can finally go ahead, but let me be clear: he has placed yet another review on the future of the deterrent in the hands of a Minister from the Liberal Democrats—a party that is predisposed to rejecting the only option that makes any sense. How can the Secretary of State give us confidence that he will prevent his colleagues, from the Prime Minister down, from playing politics on this issue and that he will back Barrow so that it can deliver for the nation?

What I am making clear today is that for the rest of this Parliament we will be going ahead with the replacement programme. We are setting out the budget, the areas of policy and the industrial implications for doing so. As I have said, it is part of the coalition agreement that the Liberal Democrats are able to look at these alternatives. Having looked, as Secretary of State since we came to office, at all the alternatives in great detail, including the costs and the implications for defence, I remain absolutely confident that the study is very likely to come to exactly the same conclusion as the 2006 White Paper, but we have given a commitment and we are carrying that out, through Cabinet Office officials, for our Liberal Democrat partners in the coalition. We made an agreement and we are going to honour it.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the independent nuclear deterrent is being used all the time because it is, by definition, a deterrent to potential enemies? The firing of the weapon would be a disaster of course, but the point of its possession is to prevent that.

I cannot fault my hon. Friend’s logic. He understands the whole basis of the concept of deterrence. Of course, the deterrent is designed to protect the United Kingdom from the threat of nuclear blackmail, but we still have to work hard to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons in other parts of the world as a complementary, not an alternative, policy.

The Secretary of State said in a small phrase in his statement that “if the time is right”, we could move away from nuclear weapons. Given the strategic arms agreement between the United States and Russia and the successful outcome of the non-proliferation review conference last year, neither of which he has mentioned, when does he think the time will be right to put British nuclear weapons into international disarmament multilateral negotiations?

In making reductions that go further than necessary we are, as I have already said, not only within the letter of the NPT but well within the spirit of it. The reductions that we have made in going ahead with this programme show that we are committed to seeing lower levels of nuclear weapons worldwide. As long as the threat to the United Kingdom remains, it is prudent for us to maintain a minimum credible nuclear deterrent. How big that credible deterrent is will obviously be reviewed as a matter of policy, but as long as it is required and as long as this Government are in office we will retain it.

The Secretary of State said that it is difficult for us to predict events that will happen in the future, but what we do know is that we have instability in Pakistan and a nuclear-ambitious Iran and that North Korea is developing further nuclear capability. Does he agree that it would be strategically naive for the UK Government to make any decisions that would prevent us from being able to deter threats and emerging threats in the world in future?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I wonder how many in the House predicted the Arab spring, or what was going to happen in Libya. We have little ability to predict what is happening in the strategic security environment and as long as the threat remains there and, in particular, as long as nuclear proliferation continues in states such as North Korea and Iran, the Government simply will not gamble with the future security of generations of British people.

May I press the Secretary of State on his decision to introduce a study to assist the Liberal Democrats in making the case for alternatives? What will really be the extra cost of this new study?

I repeat the answer I have already given to this question. I have already said that the costs are contained within departmental budgets. The study will be led by Cabinet Office officials, there is more than sufficient expertise on this subject, believe me, inside the Ministry of Defence, and ministerial oversight will be provided by my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces.

May I first welcome the statement by the Secretary of State? Does he agree that the United Kingdom’s capability as a nuclear-armed state helps it to have a seat on the international top table and helps with global policy?

I do not think that having a nuclear deterrent does anything to diminish the status of the United Kingdom, but our ability to influence world events is a combination of a range of things including military power, economic power and diplomatic power, all of which we exercise in the furtherance of our national interests.

The Secretary of State has demonstrated that he is a principled and honourable man. Does he therefore understand the concern on both sides of the House, and indeed in the country, that given the decision not to have carrier capability for more than a decade, as the First Sea Lord confirmed last week to the Select Committee on Defence, we could, for financial reasons, have no continuous deterrent at sea because the decision will be postponed for so long that it becomes financially unviable?

I am not entirely sure that I grasped the essence of the hon. Gentleman’s question. We will have continuous at-sea deterrence because this programme will seamlessly move into the replacement programme in 2028. The whole point is that we have continuous at-sea deterrence to give us a credible deterrent for the country.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the main plank of deterrence is mutually assured destruction, but that for MAD to work one has to be sane, and the countries that want to acquire nuclear weapons today are very different from the countries that have them and had them in the cold war? Does he agree that the Government, NATO and other western nations should revisit the strategic defence initiative so that we have the ability to destroy nuclear weapons if they are unleashed from such regimes?

The point of our nuclear deterrent is to deter a nuclear threat to the United Kingdom from wherever that threat occurs. I make the point again that it is not a choice between having a nuclear deterrent and having a stronger non-proliferation policy—we need both if we are to have a safer Britain and a safer global environment.

The Secretary of State rightly says that the “first duty of any Government is to ensure the security of their people”. If it really is the case, as he also says, that the “nuclear deterrent provides the ultimate guarantee of our national security”, does he accept the logic of his own argument, which means that all nations should seek to acquire nuclear weapons to ensure the security of their people, and does he look forward to a world in which every nation is nuclear-armed?

I look forward to a world in which the nuclear threat is being reduced, and we are reducing our nuclear stockpile as part of taking that process forward. I hope that we will see a time when fewer countries will want to enter into nuclear proliferation. We have an international non-proliferation treaty for exactly that purpose, and the status of the United Kingdom and other countries was recognised in that treaty when it was drawn up. In putting forward the proposals we believe not only that we are providing a safe future for the United Kingdom by maintaining our deterrent, but that in reducing the number of warheads we have, we are setting our direction very clearly towards a world in which we hope to see the elimination, over time, of this wider threat from weapons of mass destruction.

I welcome the study of alternatives. It would be a shame to waste that initial investment should a subsequent Government decide to cancel Trident, having read the report, at the main decision point in 2016—I suspect that during the 2015 election campaign that is what the Liberal Democrats will argue should happen—so can the Secretary of State confirm that new propulsion systems and other technology could be used in submarines deployed in other contexts and not just as part of a Trident programme?