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Volume 537: debated on Wednesday 7 December 2011

I am pleased that you are chairing the debate, Mr Gale, and that we have secured it. I regret that it will be only 30 minutes long, but we will do our best. A number of hon. Members want to intervene during my contribution, and I will be happy to take all those interventions, including from the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who possibly will not agree with one word of what I am about to say. If he can just contain his disagreement until he reaches an appropriate point of disagreeability, I will happily give way to him.

First, I should declare an interest in the debate. I am chair of the parliamentary CND group and vice-chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament at national level. I have to confess to having first joined CND at the age of 15, and I remain a member, so it is a very short membership that I have had.

The subject of the debate is the cost of the Trident nuclear missile and submarine replacement. This is an issue of parliamentary accountability, costs and, of course, the relationship between vast levels of defence expenditure and our foreign policy. Huge numbers of figures can be cited, and I will cite some. Main-gate consideration of the replacement of the whole system has been delayed until 2016. By that stage, £4 billion will have been spent on the concept and assessment phases of the replacement submarine and £500 million on ordering long-lead construction items. Plans have recently been announced for spending of £2 billion at the warhead facility at Atomic Weapons Establishment in Aldermaston. That coincides with the suggestion in the recently available redacted value for money review that a decision will be taken on the warhead much sooner than previously anticipated.

This debate is therefore designed to point out the amount of money being spent, but also to ask very serious questions about when Parliament will be effectively able to scrutinise what are massive levels of expenditure on a weapon of mass destruction.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this much needed debate. He talked about the 2016 main gate. Will he welcome the fact that that has now been delayed until after the next election and that that gives his party an opportunity to take the same view that he and I share about whether it would be desirable to go ahead with the main gate at all? Perhaps even the Conservatives might join us in a triumvirate of sense.

I would be happier if we killed off the whole project straight away—but I suspect that that might not happen.

I also draw to the House’s attention the fact that the Secretary of State for Defence has announced that he has no plans to publish the Trident alternatives review, which was commissioned to please the Liberal Democrats, who went into the last election promising not a like-for-like replacement of Trident, but something different. We do not know what that something different might be. The review will not be published, which is astonishing. I hope that, when the Minister replies to the debate, he can explain why that is the case.

As a Liberal Democrat, I remain absolutely committed to my belief that this is a ludicrous waste of money. I am boiling with anger at the fact that, despite an alternatives review having been commissioned, it will not be published. There is no basis for not publishing it so that people can at least consider the alternatives, although my personal preference is as I have stated. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree?

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) for his. They are both very sincere and very honest on the whole issue.

I understand that the hon. Lady is boiling with rage. I, too, am boiling with rage, so we will boil together.

I apologise for not having declared that I have membership of CND at Mid Somerset level and I am vice-chair of that organisation. I should have said that earlier.

I know from long experience with CND that nothing to do with CND can be counted as a pecuniary interest. Absolutely no one has ever made any money out of being a CND member. There is nothing financial to be declared, so I set the hon. Lady’s mind at rest. I thank her for her support and membership of CND and for the sincere work that she has done for a long time to try to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

Estimates of the cost of designing and constructing the Trident submarine replacement programme have grown significantly this year, with the MOD publishing figures in the May parliamentary initial gate report that represent a doubling of those in December 2005. The estimated submarine replacement cost has increased from between £11 billion and £14 billion to £25 billion. In addition, the Ministry recently announced significant spending plans for new warhead facilities at Aldermaston, despite officially not planning a decision on replacing or refurbishing the warhead until the next Parliament. That is the question.

The Minister shakes his head. It is his head, and he is allowed to shake it, but I hope that when he replies, he will be able to explain why Parliament has not been consulted on spending £2 billion on the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Aldermaston. If my figures are wrong, I am sure that he will put them right—that is the whole point of a parliamentary debate and of parliamentary scrutiny.

As I have said, the new figures announced this year for spending on replacing Trident are going up. The submarine will cost around £4 billion before the construction decision. As I understand it, it will cost £900 million on the concept phase before initial gate, which is from 2007 to 2011; £3 billion on the assessment phase between initial gate and main gate; and £500 million on long-lead items for construction. That will put the cost of the submarine replacement programme prior to main gate somewhat higher than what was spent on the Nimrod programme, which was cancelled in October 2010 after £3.4 billion had been spent on it.

Quite simply, we are moving to an enormous expenditure before a parliamentary vote in, presumably, 2016 or whenever, when all of us might still be Members of Parliament—or when none of us are. There will be a new Parliament, and a different Parliament will make that decision. I could write the speech for the Minister or his successor now. It will say, “We do not want to do it, and we do not like it. It is not good, but we have already spent so much money that it would be a shame to waste it.”

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the eye-watering figures that he is describing are of concern not only to some of the CND stalwarts in the Chamber today—myself included—but to those who care about the MOD’s equipment budget, given that all that will amount to around 30% of the budget over the 2020s?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point. Not only is she a CND stalwart, but she has great responsibility, for she is a member of the CND national council, as I am. I am pleased that she is a member as well. She is quite right—many in the defence community express horror at equipment shortages of all sorts, the privatisation of air and sea rescue, and all those kinds of things that are planned, while at the same time someone is going ahead and planning to spend and spend on replacing Trident, a massive vanity project; that is what it is. It does not seem to bear any relation to any foreign policy strategy or to British membership of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which requires clearly under article 6 that the five permanent members of the Security Council, which are also the five declared nuclear weapon states, take steps towards nuclear disarmament. Britain is not taking steps towards nuclear disarmament—it is reducing the number of warheads, but the capability is to be increased. Any Government, whether this one or a future one, could increase the number of warheads.

When the National Audit Office looked at the matter recently, in November this year, it cited problems with the Astute class submarines currently being built. They are now expected to cost £6.67 billion, a full £1.47 billion more than anticipated when the project was approved. Apparently, it is also running five years and one month late. Also, a report, “Looking into the Black Hole”, states that

“spending on the successor programme will rise sharply, probably reaching a peak of around 30% of the new equipment budget by 2021-22 or 2022-23”—

exactly the point made by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas)—

“when the first-of-class begins production. It is likely to remain close to this level until after the planned delivery of the first submarine in 2028.”

I want to turn to the issue of transparency—

I know that I am going to get one shot at this, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for his great courtesy. I would like to remind him that there was a parliamentary debate and a vote in, I think, the spring of 2007. It is not as if Parliament has not had one vote on the matter, and it will have another one. Does he agree that the cost overrun for the Astute class submarine was so great because of the gap that had been allowed to develop between the completion of the nuclear deterrent submarines of the Vanguard class and the initiation of the Astute class? By ensuring that the next generation of boats follow closely on from the Astute class, any such increase should be avoidable. There is precedent for that, because both Polaris and Trident came in on time and on budget.

There is a precedent for this debate, which was the full debate that was held four years ago in 2007, in which a significant number of MPs from my party—100—voted against the replacement of Trident. Every other debate was initiated by Back Benchers, some of whom are present today. That is the function of Parliament, and I hope that, when the Minister replies, he will be able to assure me that there will be regular statements to update Parliament.

There was a debate in 2007, which arrived at a vote—that is true. However, is it not true that, in every debate that we have had, the figures on the speculative development have gone up rather than down?

Indeed. One of the facts of life is that for anything to do with nuclear weapons, nuclear equipment, AWE Aldermaston or submarines, the price goes up and up, whatever else happens.

The Liberal Democrats have called for a Trident alternative review—that is fine. The Secretary of State announced that the review will take place, fulfilling the coalition agreement by

“assisting the Liberal Democrats to make the case for alternatives.”

However, on 21 November, he said that he had no plans to publish the review. He said:

“In looking at alternative systems and postures, the review draws upon highly classified technical, intelligence and policy information covering extremely sensitive national security issues. There are, therefore, no plans to publish either the report or the information it draws upon.”

Regarding providing information for MPs to scrutinise the Trident replacement programme, the Secretary of State stated that he

“intends to provide an annual update to Parliament; the first of these was produced for the Initial Gate announcement in May of this year. The precise format and timing of subsequent statements is yet to be decided.”—[Official Report, 21 November 2011; Vol. 536, c. 34W.]

Today, the Prime Minister made a written ministerial statement on defence issues, called, “Strategic Defence and Security Review: First Annual Report”. It states:

“In addition, to assist the Liberal Democrats make the case for alternatives to the Trident system, the Government initiated a study into the costs, feasibility and credibility of alternative nuclear deterrent systems and postures. Progress has also been made on implementing the new nuclear assurances policy and the reduction in our nuclear weapon stockpile to no more than 180 warheads, both commitments set out in the SDSR.”

I find it strange that the Secretary of State would say that we in Parliament are not equipped to know the basis on which an alternative is being looked at. We are not allowed to see the information, because apparently it is all classified. We therefore assume that the alternative is simply never going to see the light of day. Despite the valiant efforts of a number of Liberal Democrat MPs to get that, on the Floor of the House, it will be extremely difficult. The Minister must explain exactly why Parliament is not equipped to know why such vast levels of expenditure are going ahead, and why an alternative is not going to be published.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that the Minister will have to explain that in that case—it would seem to me—the costs are not known, and it is neither feasible nor credible for us to have the particular scheme.

Absolutely. If we do not know the cost, if we do not know what the alternatives are and if we do not know the foreign policy considerations surrounding the alternatives, we move into the era—once again—where the Ministry of Defence basically does what it likes and Parliament endorses it at some later stage. So we are moving—sleepwalking, actually—into a massive level of expenditure. Never mind whether people like or dislike, agree with or disagree with, nuclear weapons—is that really a sensible way for this country to go headlong into spending £100 billion?

Does my hon. Friend think that, when the Government committed themselves to a review, they must have known what the nature of the review was going to be, so they must also have known at the time that they were never going to make the review public?

Presumably, there were discussions in the MOD about exactly what the terms of the review would be, who would contribute to it and what desk research would be done. The MOD must have also decided, “Well, we’re not going to publish it anyway, so it doesn’t really matter what’s in it.” If I were a Liberal Democrat MP—I am not one, I have no intention of being one and I do not think that I ever will be one, so I am talking about a purely hypothetical situation—I would be very angry about that because, having negotiated that review into the coalition agreement, the Liberal Democrats are now being told that they are not even allowed to know what is in it.

Before I give the Minister sufficient time to reply—I am sure that he will be happy to take even more interventions than I have—I have a few questions to put to him. If the current Government are re-elected in 2015, will they provide a parliamentary vote on the Trident main gate? When will the format and timing of the annual update statements be decided, and what is the reason for delaying an announcement on those statements? To their credit, the Government have produced quarterly statements on the situation in Afghanistan, and frequent statements on the situation in the middle east and north Africa. I welcome those statements; they show openness, which is good. Consequently, those of us who take those matters very seriously can question the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Defence on them regularly in Parliament, and we know when those opportunities are coming up. That is what Parliament is for and that is the right way of doing things. The expenditure on Trident is so massive, the decision on Trident is so huge and the implications of Trident are so enormous that we need something more than an annual statement about it to Parliament. We need at least a quarterly statement on Trident from the Secretary of State for Defence.

My two final questions to the Minister concern work at Aldermaston, because it seems to me that there is something very murky going on at Aldermaston—something very murky indeed. A huge amount of money is being spent there and, as I understand it, a lot of preparation is being made there for warhead production. So we need to know what the nature of the work is to inform decisions on design of a successor warhead—work that is currently under way—and how much money is due to be spent on those studies in the current comprehensive spending review period? Also, what are the costs of the nuclear weapon sustainability programme at Aldermaston, and will the Minister make those costs public?

I will conclude with this point—I have set out my position absolutely clearly. I believe that nuclear weapons are immoral and wrong, and we have huge obligations and huge opportunities through the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, not only to rid ourselves of nuclear weapons but to promote a nuclear weapons convention that would bring the non-declared nuclear weapons states—Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea—into the discussions about ridding the world of nuclear weapons altogether. If we are serious about going down that road and achieving a nuclear-free world, we have to do something about it and set an example. It is a pretty strange example to deny Parliament the opportunity to discuss Trident in detail, so that it can know the expenditure involved, and to commit ourselves to this vast expenditure on a weapon of mass destruction that—if ever used—will indiscriminately kill millions of people on this planet. As I have said, nuclear weapons are immoral, wrong and dangerous, but we have a right to know the levels of expenditure on them. I hope that this debate is the start of many debates on this subject. Many of us who are committed on this subject will keep on raising it, so that we know the truth about the amount of money that this country is spending on weapons of mass destruction.

Mr Gale, without wishing to trivialise this very important subject in any sense, I had intended to begin my remarks by a reference to that famous line of Captain Louis Renault about rounding up the usual suspects at the end of “Casablanca”, but the number of usual suspects seems to have expanded today to a rather larger number than I had expected. I had imagined that only the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) would be in Westminster Hall today, but I welcome the larger group of actors.

I am delighted to be in Westminster Hall once again to explain to the hon. Member for Islington North why we are right to proceed with our plans to maintain the security of our nation and why I think that he made a number of serious misinterpretations of the facts—let me put it that way—during his speech.

The Government have been clear that the safety and security of the UK is our first priority, and although we are facing difficult economic circumstances and a challenging inheritance from the previous Administration, our security must be seen as a long-term issue.

At the outset and on behalf of the whole House, I want to pay tribute to the professionalism of all those Royal Navy and civilian personnel who answer this country’s call to operate and support this vital national capability. Having visited HMS Vanguard at sea and HMS Vigilant in refit, I have met some of our dedicated service personnel who support Operation Relentless, which is the UK’s mission to maintain continuous at-sea deterrence. I was deeply impressed by their commitment and I am very grateful to them; I think that we should all be grateful to them. It is important that hon. Members remember that, even as we speak, those men are out there somewhere in the oceans providing Britain’s ultimate national security guarantee. They and their predecessors have maintained a 42-year unbroken chain of continuous at-sea deterrence, keeping all of us and our allies safe.

In many respects, we face a more dangerous situation now than we have done for several decades. There are substantial risks to our security from emerging nuclear weapons states. Consequently, although we are committed to the long-term goal of a world without nuclear weapons, as we all are in this place, we believe that we can best protect ourselves against those threats by the continued operation of a minimum, credible nuclear deterrent. [Interruption.] Others might find that funny, but I do not find it funny at all. Maintaining that deterrent is a very serious judgment that is shared by all three major parties in the House. It is important to remember that the alternative study, which I will return to later, which has been promised to the Liberal Democrats and which is proceeding, only considers the delivery platform and not the alternative to a minimum credible national deterrent programme. All three major parties are committed to such a programme.

The UK has a strong record on nuclear disarmament. We have continued to work with other nations to achieve our goal of a world without nuclear weapons. In addition to the well-documented commitments in the strategic defence and security review, I draw the attention of the hon. Member for Islington North to the statement in June that we have already begun to implement the reduction in warheads that are carried on our submarines. In addition, earlier this year, the permanent members of the UN Security Council met in Paris to take forward the action plan from the 2010 non-proliferation treaty review conference. We agreed to work together on a number of initiatives and Britain has taken the lead by agreeing to host a meeting in early 2012 to discuss the lessons that have been learned from our bilateral work with Norway on the verification of nuclear weapon dismantlement.

Having set out the Government’s fundamental policy, I want to address one further issue before I turn to the specific details of Trident’s costs. One theme that frequently emerges—it emerged again today in the hon. Gentleman’s speech—is the engagement with Parliament on the replacement of the nuclear deterrent. The hon. Gentleman’s colleagues in CND often accuse the Government of having a culture of secrecy with regard to the deterrent.

Clearly, there are aspects of the programme that are sensitive and that must remain classified for national security purposes. I will also discuss the Trident alternative study in that regard. The Government have received many requests, including from the hon. Gentleman in his speech, for information on the Trident alternatives study. The nature of that study, which is led by the Cabinet Office, requires highly classified information to be analysed. Indeed, only a small number of people in my Department and in the Cabinet Office can see that information. Therefore, Members will appreciate that we will not be able to publish the study itself, as doing so would be irresponsible and put national security at risk.

No decisions have yet been taken about what it might be possible to say without compromising national security, and as the report to the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister will not even be concluded until late 2012 or early 2013, it would be premature at this stage to commit to any specific course of action; for that reason, I will not be doing so today. I have no doubt that the public would understand that we want to take great care of those secrets, but we have nothing to hide except that which it is essential to hide for national security. Where we can, we have explained as clearly as possible what we are doing and why we are doing it, and I will do so yet again today for the hon. Gentleman’s benefit.

Before my hon. Friend the Minister moves on to the question of costs, I want to make a point about the alternative study. In response to the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), who has secured this debate, it is presumably reasonable to assume that, at the very least, a list of those alternatives to Trident that were considered and dismissed, as well as a rough idea of the reasons why they were dismissed, will be published even if technical details cannot be released. Does the Minister accept that, when the hon. Gentleman talks about nuclear weapons killing millions of people if ever used, surely the response is that they are being used every day, because their use lies in the prevention of the use of similar weapons against this country and our interests?

I note my hon. Friend’s powerful argument. I am sure that it will be borne in mind closer to the time, but at present I can make no commitment about what will happen at the end of 2012 or in early 2013, when the report is due to conclude.

I note that this is the third time that I have debated this issue in this place. We also covered the topic extensively during the strategic defence and security review debate last year. Since assuming Government, my Ministry of Defence ministerial colleagues and I have answered about 180 parliamentary questions on nuclear issues, not to mention a significant amount of public correspondence. In May this year, we published a comprehensive report on the initial gate decision for the successor submarine. We have recently repeated an earlier commitment to make an annual statement on progress to Parliament, and I think that that frequency strikes the right balance. We have published the costs of various aspects of the nuclear programme, such as the Atomic Weapons Establishment, on numerous occasions. Moreover, in May last year, we announced for the first time the overall size of our nuclear warhead stockpile, giving the deepest ever transparency of our nuclear capability. That is hardly a culture of secrecy or sleepwalking.

I am not quite sure why the Minister is getting into such a bad mood about Parliament asking questions to the Ministry of Defence. That is what Parliament is for; it is why we are here. Will he give us an accurate estimate of how much will be spent on the whole programme, on the initial gate and on the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, before any decision is made in Parliament in 2016? Can he not revisit the idea of a quarterly statement on the vast expenditure that is going on?

It is my intention to do that, but I am conscious of the time. I hope to be able to answer all the hon. Gentleman’s questions.

I should now like to turn to the specific costs of the current and future deterrent programmes. The simple fact is that being a responsible nuclear weapons state requires investment. Submarines and their ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads are extremely complex and require considerable skill and expertise to design, maintain and operate safely, and I make no apology whatsoever for taking seriously our responsibilities for the safe custody of these systems, nor for spending the money needed to do that. That is not to say that we have not closely scrutinised the costs of the programme. Indeed, Members will be aware that we announced last year as part of the SDSR a number of measures to do just that.

I should like to dwell briefly on the different elements of the nuclear deterrent programme. The White Paper highlighted three key areas: the platform, the infrastructure and the warhead. At 2006 prices—I emphasise that it was at 2006 prices—the Department estimated that the platform would cost between £11 billion and £14 billion, and each of the other two elements would cost between £2 billion and £3 billion. Separately, there are also the costs of maintaining and running the in-service deterrent—what we have at present—such as the facilities at the Atomic Weapons Establishment, which I will come to later.

If I may start with the platform—the boats—earlier this year “The Initial Gate Parliamentary Report” stated:

“assuming a four boat fleet, the replacement submarines will remain within the £11-14Bn estimate.”

We made it clear in the report and, indeed, in the White Paper itself that those values are at 2006-07 constant prices, and the report also indicated that, when we take into account inflation, the costs equate to £25 billion. Costs have simply not doubled, as reported on CND’s website; that is wrong. This misreporting of the true position is extremely misleading. Of the £25 billion, we expect to have spent £3.9 billion by main gate. That includes the costs of the concept and assessment phases, and the majority of that work is in the maturation of the design.

With regard to long-lead items, we have been clear that we have minimised spend as far as possible. Over the coming years, we will place orders for different specialist items, which take a number of years to be delivered, totalling some £500 million. That is just 2% of the total purchase cost. We plan to place the order for the specialist high-grade steel only in 2014, so that it is ready for manufacture and cutting in 2016 after the main investment, or main gate, decision. We will not procure any items for the fourth boat until 2016, when the build decision is made. Any accusation that, by purchasing those items, we will be locked into a particular strategy before main gate in 2016 is simply wrong. The simple fact is that these highly specialised components take time to be delivered. Identifying long-lead items is part of any well-run programme, and nothing that we are doing will prevent us from being able to make the right decision in 2016. I should like to explore that at more length, but I am conscious of the time.

With respect to infrastructure, the value-for-money review concluded that no significant investment was needed in the immediate future. To study the infrastructure requirements in detail, we will spend about £8 million over the next three years and will continue to look for opportunities to drive down running costs and the need for any new investment. Despite being at an early stage of the programme, we still expect to meet the White Paper estimate of between £2 billion and £3 billion.

On the third element, my attention was drawn recently to speculation that implied that we had already spent at least £2 billion on a new warhead. That is simply not true. We are investing at the Atomic Weapons Establishment to ensure that we sustain the capabilities that we need to maintain the current stockpile. It is true that that will give us the capability that we need to design and produce a new warhead if and when required, but that is not the purpose of the expenditure. We will take the appropriate decisions at the right time, and Members will recall the commitment in the SDSR not to take any decisions on a new warhead until the next Parliament. We expect a replacement warhead to meet the White Paper estimate of between £2 billion and £3 billion.

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).