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Nuclear Defence Infrastructure: Parliamentary Scrutiny

Volume 744: debated on Wednesday 24 January 2024

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Joy Morrissey.)

Now, now, now. We are not having any of that. That is not fair. The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) is popular and it is very good that there are so many Members here to listen to him. We will tell him why later.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I am very grateful for the opportunity that Mr Speaker has given me to raise an issue that I think we can all agree deserves wider attention and scrutiny. I do not think I have ever done an Adjournment debate on a Wednesday—or one so well attended, I have to say—and I am glad to be doing so at a relatively decent hour, not least because I know something is happening afterwards in this very Chamber.

I want to start with an appeal to those on the Government Front Bench and to anyone else who might be thinking of intervening. It is clear that I am a member of the Scottish National party and that this is a debate that concerns the UK’s nuclear enterprise. On that level it might be fairly predictable, but I hope that in preparing for this debate the Minister left at home or in the Ministry of Defence all the customary stuff usually reserved for SNP Members discussing nuclear weapons in this place. It may be tempting to play to our bases and paint this debate as yet more—forgive me for saying it, Madam Deputy Speaker, so close to Burns night—haggis-munching, burst-bagpipe whingeing, but I hope we can all agree that the trigger for this debate was some very serious allegations from a senior official. People across these islands who live beside, or in the vicinity of, nuclear-regulated sites deserve to hear a response to those allegations. I am glad to see the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) in his place as well.

Not right now; if the hon. Gentleman would allow me to continue for a moment.

I am going to set aside my own and my party’s well-known and understood standpoint on the morality and utility of the nuclear enterprise, in order to focus on the specifics of the allegations made in the blog of 30 December by a well-known former adviser, Dominic Cummings. I hope that the Minister will reciprocate and show the House the respect it deserves. As another small caveat, let me make it clear from the outset that I understand three things about Dominic Cummings: that he certainly has his own well-publicised agenda when it comes to issues with the civil service, especially in relation to civil service reform; that he is demonstrably not as clever as he thinks he is; and that he has also been known to present “dead cat” arguments as a distraction from his own shortcomings—in this instance, the fact that the Prime Minister chose not to rehire him as an adviser.

The hon. Gentleman and I have different opinions about nuclear capability—I believe that we should have it, and the hon. Gentleman says no—but I think we agree on the issue of nuclear safety. Does he recognise that our nuclear defence is imperative to the security of the nation and to fulfilling international obligations, and also that that cannot be achieved without substantial investment? This is not optional; the money must be found, and found now, to ensure that we have not only nuclear safety but, just as importantly, nuclear capability.

My answer to the hon. Gentleman is that he might as well stay for the rest of the debate to hear my view on that.

I have to say that Mr Cummings’s former role, and the nature of the allegations he has made, are such that it is bizarre, frankly, at least from my perspective, that the only attempt to scrutinise them is taking place not in a parliamentary Committee but in what, I have to say, is usually the graveyard spot of parliamentary business. Parliament is sovereign in everything, I guess, apart from the nuclear enterprise.

I will, I am afraid, quote from Mr Cummings’s blog quite extensively. I hope the Minister has already read it, but it is important for it to be read into the record of the House. There are two principal aspects to which I would like the Government to respond: first, the state of the defence nuclear infrastructure across these islands; and secondly, the decision-making process in the civil service and how it relates to democratic oversight. I should also say, before the Minister uses up some of the time for his response to say it, that I am not expecting him to comment, in any shape or form, on operational matters. I understand that much that is to do with the nuclear enterprise cannot be discussed publicly.

So let us begin. Unfortunately, I cannot leave out all the internal machinations of the Conservative party’s psychodrama, as some of it is quite pertinent. Cummings begins:

“I did have two conversations with the PM, the first in 2022 just after he became PM.

The PM wanted an actual plan including how to grip power and get things done, a political strategy and a political machine to change the political landscape and beat Labour.

In 2022 I said I might do it but my conditions were the ability to ensure that urgent action is proceeding on a range of fundamentally critical issues including:

the scandal of nuclear weapons infrastructure which is a dangerous disaster and a budget nightmare of hard-to-believe and highly classified proportions, and which has forced large secret cannibalisation of other national security budgets,

building defences for natural and engineered pandemics,

the scandal of MOD procurement, ignored despite (even because of) the biggest war in Europe since 1945,

AI and other technological capabilities,

the broken core government institutions including the dumpster fire of the Cabinet Office.”

Cummings ends this section by saying:

“In all of these areas I started crucial work in 2019-20. Most of this has stopped, slowed, or reversed.”

Not all of that is pertinent and, particularly in that last line, we see Cummings’s own agenda coming through. None the less, I would say that points 1, 3 and 5 are of the most interest to us here. Let us start with points 1 and 3, and return to point 5 later.

Cummings continues:

“For example, in 2020 we agreed (via a secret ‘tunnel’ process with the services, HMT and Cabinet Office, chaired by the Cabinet Secretary and me, but kept secret from Wallace) the first agreed-by-everyone-to-be-honest MOD budget numbers since before 2010, agreed how to plug the massive black hole partly created by the nuclear enterprise disaster, agreed a range of disasters that should be stopped immediately (e.g AJAX, Challenger), and agreed a plan for procurement reform and new capabilities to build. (Also NB. the Army did NOT lobby for a bigger army—in the world that seemed possible in 2020 of a serious plan and honest numbers and procurement reform etc, they preferred a smaller army with real capabilities to a ‘bigger’ but increasingly Potemkin army.) Instead, the MoD has been allowed to:

pocket the money for the black hole,

avoid stopping the disasters,

continue pumping more money down the drain of legacy disasters creating a new black hole,

continued to allow critical parts of the nuclear weapons infrastructure to rot creating further massive secret budget nightmares as well as extremely serious physical dangers (cf. the recent near disaster with a submarine),

continue as normal with disastrous procurement policy and practice, instead of taking industrial capacity seriously,

continue sacrificing critical new capabilities to fund legacy failures,

shred the honest budget numbers and return to the fraudulent numbers, and”—

most critically—

“continue lying even more to MPs and media about it all.”

Let me repeat that I do not expect the Minister to comment on operational matters or give away classified information, but can we at least agree that these are serious allegations on both a specific and a more general matter? Specifically, can the Minister comment on the suggestion that the nuclear enterprise is causing the

“large secret cannibalisation of other national security budgets”?

To add a little bit of context, while it would be tempting to pass this off as the ranting of a jilted former senior adviser, this tallies with a lot of what we have heard from recent National Audit Office reports. The latest report, received just in December, revealed not only that the plan was “unaffordable”, that the MOD acknowledged this fact and that the funding gap could range between £7.6 billion and £29.8 billion, but that

“Nuclear and Royal Navy Costs show the greatest increase compared with 2022”—

the Navy of course being the service that is responsible for the continuous at-sea deterrent.

Furthermore, paragraph 16 of the report’s key findings stated clearly:

“The creation of a ring fence around nuclear funding helps protect the MoD’s highest defence priority but puts greater pressure on programmes not included in it.”

Does the Minister acknowledge that the ringfence is putting pressure on the rest of the conventional budget? If so, do they think this is sustainable? Can they also tell the House what plans the Government have to mitigate the dead hand of ringfencing? There is an unfortunate logic to this nuclear ringfence within the Government’s well-intentioned ringfence around defence spending, be it at 2% or 2.5%. At this moment, every penny spent on the nuclear enterprise is a penny less spent on conventional assets, at a time when conventional threats are proliferating —a point I made in this very place only a few hours ago.

Cummings adds a dash of colour to the NAO’s necessarily black and white findings about MOD mismanagement and dysfunction. Taken together, they are a damning indictment of where Defence finds itself, and it is a shame that there is something of a taboo around discussing the contribution of the nuclear enterprise to this predicament. There are undoubtedly massive consequences and contingencies that need to be developed surrounding as large a transition as the one the nuclear enterprise is undertaking just now. We know this because His Majesty’s Government already went through a similar transition from Resolution to Vanguard. Because of “The Silent Deep”, the excellent and definitive official history of the Royal Navy submarine service, written by Peter Hennessy and James Jinks and released in 2015—a book I recommend to Members—we also know that extensive plans were made for worst-case scenarios during that transition, including

“moving a Polaris submarine into Loch Long, where it would dive and remain in a static location on Quick Reaction Alert.”

Again, I am not asking the Minister to comment on operational issues, but a pattern is emerging of events and scenarios that are consistent with reports and papers written by nuclear analysts dealing with the consequences of an ageing platform, against the backdrop of a defence budget put under pressure by an increasingly dire economic situation.

Whether it is the accident involving a Vanguard-class submarine, which we spoke about in November—an accident that Cummings attributes to poor infrastructure —or the pitiful sight of another Vanguard-class boat returning to HMNB Clyde in September, looking rather the worse for wear, only for the MOD to release a statement praising the crew for the longest SSBN patrol, something does not quite add up.

We sometimes stray too close to specifics, so I will return to another aspect of the Cummings blog—an aspect that, if anything, is more worrying. It brings me to the parliamentary aspect of the title of this evening’s debate:

“Since we left, No. 10 has allowed and even encouraged all this. The cycle of disaster, cheat, lie and classify even more has continued through successive defence reviews (e.g. the infamous ‘Heywood wedge’ overseen by Heywood, Osborne and McPherson in 2015). We drew a line under this systemic lying and delusions in 2020. After I left the line was immediately deleted and business as usual has continued. The system is preparing to give Starmer the same horrific choices on above-STRAP3 yellow paper and continue the cycle of classify, punt, and lie with everything becoming ever more hollow-Potemkin as a result.”

That is a lot, so let us focus on the idea that

“The system is preparing to give Starmer the same…choices”.

It is nothing more than an insinuation that senior members of the civil service and the armed forces, according to Cummings, seem to be planning to manipulate an incoming Prime Minister who, if recent polls are to be believed, will have a significant mandate. Not only that, but it insinuates that they have used the protocols and security around the nuclear enterprise to manipulate the current Prime Minister and his predecessors, and have sought to remove any aspect of Cabinet decision making by excluding the then Defence Secretary from those discussions.

As I said, my party does not agree with this, or with the nuclear weapons policies of this Government and previous Governments. Regardless, this debate is not about that; it is about the way in which His Majesty’s Government implement their own declared policy. It is an unfortunate but inescapable reality of the nuclear enterprise that many of the discussions around it cannot be held in public—[Interruption.] I will come to a conclusion. Do not worry, the Minister will have his 10 minutes—and then his photograph.

The whole number of discussions must therefore be taken in an increasingly tight series of concentric circles. The one fig leaf for our parliamentary democracy has always been that, at the end of it all, there is an element of democratic oversight, with the Prime Minister, the Defence Secretary and, on occasion, the Foreign Secretary having input into the nuclear strategy.

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady, but I must say to other Members present that it is simply rude to talk. If whispering has to be done, then whisper.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on a crucial issue. He talks about secrecy. Does he know about the MOD’s response to my recent questions on safety at its nuclear bases? The response confirmed an alarming trend, with the number of incidents at Faslane and Coulport jumping by a third in 2022, and the figures for the start of 2023 suggesting further rises. Does he agree that surely we have a right, as Members of Parliament, to know why safety records are not improving, as well as the nature of these incidents and their effect on local residents and the environment?

I could not disagree with my hon. Friend at all.

Of course, if any of the allegations made by Dominic Cummings, crucially those on senior Ministers being manipulated, are without merit, I would be glad to hear it. Alternatively, those civil servants themselves should address them directly.

Let me bring my remarks to a close with a final plea for the Minister—[Interruption.] I know that Members are here to have their picture taken—it might be useful, as it might be the last parliamentary one they ever have. Let me bring my remarks to a close with a final plea for the Minister to stick to the substance of some basic questions I am asking him. We know the opinion about the nuclear enterprise, so let me make this a bit easier and keep to just two questions, if the Government do not want to address anything else that I have said. First, what are the Government doing to ensure that the nuclear enterprise does not continue to exert undue pressure on the rest of the defence budget? Secondly, what safeguards are there to ensure that there remains a robust and genuine democratic oversight of all aspects of that enterprise?

I congratulate the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) on securing this important debate. It is true that we differ fundamentally on the issue of the deterrent. Indeed, there is such passion and commitment to it among Conservative Members that we have a fantastic turnout this evening. The key theme of his speech was parliamentary scrutiny. He said that Parliament is sovereign everywhere, except in the nuclear deterrent. So let me remind him that when my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) became Prime Minister in 2016, one of the first key votes in this House was on the renewal of Trident, and the majority was 355 in favour.

To be clear, the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent is a matter of the highest priority for the Government, as is borne out by the support on our Back Benches today. I welcome the opportunity to set out our approach and policies in this area. Our continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent is the cornerstone of our national defence, and it is central to the Government’s national security strategy. We place the utmost importance on the upkeep of all our nuclear defence infrastructure and its upgrades. His Majesty’s naval base in Clyde has an establishment management plan with a 40-year horizon that covers both the Faslane and Coulport sites. The Government seek to be as transparent as possible about our nuclear defence infrastructure, within obvious national security constraints.

The Minister talks about transparency, but in 2017 the publication of the annual reports of the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator, the Ministry of Defence’s internal watchdog, were stopped under his Government. Why was that?

I have enjoyed the fact that the hon. Lady has tabled a number of written questions on these matters. I have always answered them as transparently as possible, setting out the full facts, and will continue to do so. Indeed, the very point of being here is that we are transparent in Parliament about our deterrent. We engage fully with Parliament, including the Defence and Scottish Affairs Committees, and we will continue to do so. We publish transparency data for all major defence programmes annually, including nuclear infrastructure, and, in line with industry good practice, our nuclear sites have well-established and transparent systems for raising what are known in the industry as nuclear site event reports, about which the hon. Lady has asked a number of written questions. This open documentation of human error, procedural or documentation failings, and equipment issues provides the strongest illustration of our commitment to transparency. More importantly, it fosters a culture of continual improvement and enhances the rigour of our collective approach to safety.

The safety of our nuclear defence infrastructure is paramount. Our nuclear establishments fully adhere to current—

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Minister. I have said this before but everybody seems to think it is funny to ignore it. It is fine to whisper if you need to communicate with one another, but it is simply rude to talk at the top of your voice, so that I can hear what people are saying on the Back Benches but I cannot hear the Minister. It is simply discourteous.

I think they are very enthused, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Our nuclear establishments fully adhere to current regulatory and operational requirements. They are subject to a painstaking programme of maintenance by highly trained experts. To ensure their reliability and safety far into the future, we are carrying out a £1.4 billion upgrade of our nuclear facilities at HMNB Clyde, which will ensure they are ready to receive the next generation Dreadnought class of submarines. As colleagues would expect, all these improvements are being made in line with current and foreseeable future regulatory requirements.

To conclude, we cannot look after our nuclear infrastructure without highly trained people. To support our future submarine programmes, we are investing around £200 million in world-class training for our current and future submariners. The Government have robust maintenance programmes in place to deal with some of the challenges to non-nuclear infrastructure at HMNB Clyde. We will continue to do everything we can to ensure that our nuclear deterrent infrastructure both keeps us safe and continues to adhere to the most stringent safety and regulatory standards.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.