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Nuclear Deterrent

Volume 687: debated on Monday 4 December 2006

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows:

“With your permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a Statement about the Government's decision to maintain the United Kingdom's independent nuclear deterrent.

“There are many complex technical, financial and military issues to be debated in respect of this decision. But none of them obscures or alters the fundamental political judgment at the crux of it. Britain has had an independent nuclear deterrent for the past half century. In that time the world has changed dramatically, not least in the collapse of the Soviet Union, the original context in which the deterrent was acquired. Given that this change has occurred, the question is whether it is wise to maintain the deterrent in the very different times of today.

“The whole point, of course, about the deterrent, is not to create the circumstances in which it can be used, but on the contrary to try to create circumstances in which it is never used. Necessarily, therefore, any analysis of what role it could play in any situation that is hypothetical will always be open to the most strenuous dispute. Ultimately, this decision is a judgment, a judgment about possible risks to our country and its security; and the place of the deterrent in thwarting those risks.

“The Government's judgment, on balance, is that though the Cold War is over, we cannot be certain in the decades ahead that a major nuclear threat to our strategic interests will not emerge; that there is also a new and potentially hazardous threat from states such as North Korea, which claims already to have developed nuclear weapons, or Iran, which is in breach of its non-proliferation duties; that there is a possible connection between some of those states and international terrorism; that it is noteworthy that no present nuclear power is, or is even considering, divesting itself of its nuclear capability unilaterally; and that in these circumstances it would be unwise and dangerous for Britain, alone of any of the nuclear powers, to give up its independent nuclear deterrent.

“Notice that I do not say that the opposite decision is unthinkable; or that anyone who proposes it is pacifist or indifferent to our country's defence. There are perfectly respectable arguments against the judgment we have made. I both understand them and appreciate their force. It is just that, in the final analysis, the risk of giving up something that has been one of the mainstays of our security since the war, and moreover doing so when the one certain thing about our world today is its uncertainty, is not a risk I feel we can responsibly take. Our independent nuclear deterrent is the ultimate insurance. It may be—indeed, we hope it is—the case that the eventuality against which we are insuring ourselves will never come to pass. But in this era of unpredictable but rapid change, when every decade has a magnitude of difference with the last, and when the consequences of a misjudgment on this issue would be potentially catastrophic, would we want to drop this insurance, and not as part of a global move to do so but on our own? I think not.

“However, what will happen from today will be a very full process of debate. It is our intention at the conclusion of that process in March of next year to have a vote in this House. We will make arrangements during the process to answer as fully as possible any of the questions that arise. And of course I am sure that the Defence Select Committee, at least, will want to examine the issue carefully. The White Paper, which we publish today, goes into not merely the reasons for the decision but also a technical explanation of the various options and tries to cover in some detail all potential lines of dispute or inquiry. I hope, therefore, that we can focus on the decision itself, not the process.

“Let me now turn to some of the key questions. First, the reason this decision comes to us now is that if, in 2007, we do not take the initial steps toward maintaining our deterrent, shortage of time may prevent us from being able to do so. Necessarily we can only form this view based on estimates, but these are from the evidence given to us by our own experts, by the industry that would build the new submarines and the experience of other nuclear states.

“Our deterrent is based on four submarines. At any one time, one will be in dock, undergoing extensive repair and maintenance, usually for around four years. The other three will be at sea, or in port for short periods, but at all times at least one will be on deterrent patrol, fully armed. The submarines are equipped with Trident D5 missiles which are US-manufactured but maintained with our close technical and scientific collaboration. The operation of the system is fully independent. A missile can be fired only on the instructions of the British Prime Minister.

“The current Vanguard submarines have a service life of 25 years. The first boat should leave service in 2017. We can extend that for five years; so in 2022 that extension will be concluded. In 2024, the second boat will also end its extended service life. By that time, we will have only two Vanguard submarines. This will be insufficient to guarantee continuous patrolling.

“The best evidence we have is that it will take us 17 years to design, build and deploy a new submarine. Working back from 2024, therefore, that means we have to take this decision in 2007. Of course, all these timelines are estimates, but they conform to the experience of other countries with submarine deterrents as well as to our own.

“Secondly, we have looked carefully at the scope of different options. The White Paper sets them out: for example, aircraft with cruise missiles, but cruise missiles travel at subsonic speeds and building the special aircraft would be hugely expensive; or a surface ship equipped with Trident, but that is a far easier target. Another option is a land-based system with Trident. But in a small country such as the United Kingdom that is immensely problematic and also, again, an easier target. There is no doubt at least on this score: if you want an independent nuclear deterrent for a nation like the United Kingdom, a submarine-based one is best.

“It is also our only deterrent. In the 1990s we moved to Trident as our sole nuclear capability. Of the other major nuclear powers, the US has submarine, air and land-based capability. Russia has all three capabilities and has the largest number of nuclear weapons. France has both submarine and air-launched capability and has a new class of submarines in development, the last of which is due to come into service in 2010. China has a smaller number of land-based strategic nuclear weapons but is working on modernising its capability, including a submarine-based nuclear ballistic missile.

“We will continue to procure some elements of the system, particularly those relating to the missile, from the United States but, as now, we will maintain full operational independence. The submarines, missiles, warheads, and command chain are entirely under British control, and will remain so after 2024. This gives British Prime Ministers the necessary assurance that no aggressor can escalate a crisis beyond UK control.

“A new generation of submarines will make maximum use of existing infrastructure and technology. The overall design and manufacture costs—of some £15 billion to £20 billion—are spread over three decades; are on average 3 per cent of the defence budget; and are at their highest in the early 2020s. As before, we will ensure that the investment required will not be at the expense of the conventional capabilities that our Armed Forces need. It is our intention that the procurement and building will, as now, be done by British industry, with thousands of British, highly skilled jobs involved.

“However, we will investigate whether, with a new design, we can maintain continuous patrol with a fleet of only three submarines. A decision on this will be made once we know more about the submarines’ detailed design. No decisions are needed now on the warhead. We can extend the life of the D5 Trident missile to 2042. After that, there will be the opportunity for us to participate in any new missile design in collaboration with the United States, something which will be confirmed in an exchange of letters between myself and the President of the US.

“Maintaining our nuclear deterrent capability is also fully consistent with all our international obligations. We have the smallest stockpile of nuclear warheads among the recognised nuclear weapons states and are the only one to have reduced to a single deterrent system. Furthermore, we have decided, on expert advice, that we can reduce our stockpile of operationally available warheads to no more than 160, which represents a further 20 per cent reduction. Compared with previous plans, we will have reduced the number of such weapons by nearly half.

“So we inexorably return to the central judgment: maintain our independent nuclear deterrent or not? It is written as a fact by many that there is no possibility of nuclear confrontation with any major nuclear power. Except that it is not a fact. Like everything else germane to this judgment, it is a prediction. It is probably right—but certain? No, we cannot say that.

“The new dimension is undoubtedly the desire by states—highly dubious in their intentions, such as North Korea and Iran—to pursue nuclear weapons capability. Fortunately, Libya has given up its WMD ambitions and has played a positive role internationally; and the notorious network of AQ Khan, the former Pakistani nuclear physicist, has been shut down. But proliferation remains a real problem. The notion of unstable, usually deeply repressive and anti-democratic states, in some cases profoundly inimical to our way of life, having a nuclear capability, is a distinct and novel reason for Britain not to give up its capacity to deter. It is not utterly fanciful either to imagine states sponsoring nuclear terrorism from their soil. We know that this global terrorism seeks chemical, biological and nuclear devices. It is not impossible to contemplate a rogue Government helping such an acquisition. It is true that our deterrent would not deter or prevent terrorists, but it is bound to have an impact on Governments who might sponsor them.

“Then there is the argument, attractive to all of us who believe in the power of countries to lead by example—as we seek to do in climate change and have done in respect of debt relief—that Britain giving up its deterrent would encourage others in the same direction. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that any major nuclear power would follow such an example—on the contrary. As for the new, would-be nuclear powers, it really would be naïve to think that they would be influenced by a purely British decision; more likely they would construe it as weakness.

“Finally, there is one other argument—that we shelter under the nuclear deterrent of America. Our co-operation with America is rightly very close. But close as it is, the independent nature of the British deterrent is again an additional insurance against circumstances where we are threatened but America is not. These circumstances, I agree, are also highly unlikely, but I am unwilling to say they are non-existent.

“In the end, therefore, we come back to the same judgment. Anyone can say that the prospect of Britain facing a threat in which our nuclear deterrent is relevant is highly improbable. No one can say, however, that it is impossible. In the early 21st century the world may have changed beyond recognition since the decision taken by the Attlee Government over half a century ago, but it is precisely because we could not have recognised then the world we live in now, that it would not be wise now to predict the unpredictable in the times to come. That is the judgment we have come to. We have done so according to what we think is in the long-term strategic interests of our nation and its security, and I commend it as such to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I am immensely grateful to the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement. I agree with much of what has been said. I understand that she herself has always been a supporter of keeping a nuclear deterrent, and we on this side have always shared that view. In this dangerous world, we on this side think it foolish to advocate unilaterally abandoning our nuclear shield. If the Prime Minister and Mr Brown face down the CND rump on the Labour Benches, my honourable friends in another place will support them.

I address two objections and hope that the noble Baroness will be able to agree with me. First, it is true that the degree of potential nuclear proliferation is currently uncertain. It follows from that that we must redouble our efforts to contain proliferation. Does she agree that replacing Trident does not hinder our efforts to achieve multilateral nuclear disarmament? Is it not therefore quite wrong to say that Britain, by maintaining an existing capacity, would be entering a new nuclear arms race?

Secondly, it is true that future threats are uncertain and that some foreseeable threats are asymmetric, so that massive ICBM retaliation against a foreign power may not be the appropriate reaction. It follows from that that strategic planning should remain under review and our range of responses should be as flexible as possible.

Surely the fact that the world has changed and is changing rapidly is the very case for keeping up our guard. Today's threat is different from that predicted 20 years ago, so today we cannot predict the threat that we will face in 20 years, let alone 50 years on, when the next generation of submarines would go out of service. We need to be prepared for many eventualities.

The decision before us is a momentous one on which this House will expect a full debate. I hope that the noble Baroness will be able to confirm in her response that this House will have the same opportunity as another place to discuss the issue in detail in the coming months.

The decision is about whether to maintain our deterrent by ordering a replacement for our only strategic nuclear system. Our answer to that has been yes. Indeed, we believe that the case is overwhelming. The blunt truth, regrettably, is that a number of states are actively seeking to acquire nuclear weapons and to develop long-range delivery systems.

I cannot agree with the Liberal Democrats that we should delay a decision for years, letting our Trident fleet decay while we wait to see what happens in Pyongyang and Tehran. We cannot rule out conflict with a major state or rogue state armed with an intercontinental capability in the next 50 years. Given that, must we not retain for the foreseeable future a secure, recognised and credible ability to respond conclusively anywhere in the world, should circumstances demand it? Does the noble Baroness agree that the key to a credible system is that the platform is not vulnerable to pre-emptive attack? Can she confirm that all experts agree that a submarine-based system is the least vulnerable and offers necessary security and range?

It is easy to charge that this is all to do with the Prime Minister's desire to leave a nuclear legacy. We have heard that charge from the leader of the Liberal Democrats during his progress through the television studios this afternoon. Can the noble Baroness refute that and assure us that the whole Cabinet shares the Prime Minister’s view that we must decide this now?

On the issue of timing, is not the key to start the design and procurement process, so that the new submarines are available when the old ones go out of service? Would not a further life extension be costly and uncertain, and potentially leave a gap?

Finally, I ask the noble Baroness two specific questions. The first is on the number of submarines. The Prime Minister talked of keeping the decision open on three or four submarines. Can the noble Baroness tell us what, for him, will be the deciding factor? Is it just a matter of design or are there other considerations? The French deterrent, for example, requires four submarines. Secondly, there is the issue of warheads. Does she agree that it is essential that a new Trident should be able to launch ballistic missiles with conventional warheads and cruise missiles and that it should not be exclusively an arsenal of nuclear weapons? On nuclear systems, does she recall that the previous Conservative Government significantly reduced the number of warheads? The incoming Labour Government reduced it further. Now the Prime Minister proposes yet another reduction. Is all the advice from senior military experts that the new total is sufficient to maintain a credible deterrent?

The first duty of any Government is to take the right decisions in the national interest and never to fudge those decisions for internal party reasons. The noble Baroness can be sure that, on questions of national security, whenever the Government put the national interest first, they can count on the support at least of our party.

My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement. As we are putting our consistency on the line, I can say that, although I have been in a succession of parties, my consistency in supporting the argument for a British nuclear deterrent can be tested. Indeed, I supported it when Mr Blair was wearing his CND badge. As for the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, who seems to have taken a close interest in the development of Liberal Democrat policies, which again I welcome, I remind him that there is a history of the Conservative Party swallowing a Blair-made case hook, line and sinker, only to repent at its leisure. We will be very happy to stand where we are.

This is probably the most important decision that any Prime Minister, and any Government, must take. One is worried about some of the rationale. When the Prime Minister says that our independent nuclear deterrent is the ultimate insurance, one must ask whether that is not an invitation to nuclear proliferation, because almost any country can then seek that ultimate insurance. It is extremely dangerous logic. The Prime Minister has advanced a case today for some reduction in the capacity of our deterrent, but has made a commitment to a very expensive solution to the dilemma.

We agree that now is not the time to abandon the protection that nuclear weapons provide. I should say in passing that, although I have had only a short time to look at it, the information as presented looks interestingly clear for the layman to go through. There are important points in it. It says,

“we know of no state that has both a nuclear capability and the ability and intent to use it against our vital interests”.

It also states,

“accurately predicting events over the period 2020 to 2050 is extremely hard”.

We are therefore presented with a case in 2006 that is based chiefly, from what I can see, on the argument that it takes 17 years to develop a replacement. I will be interested to see whether all experts think that that is realistic.

We are left with the questions: why now and why this option? I am afraid that there is a suspicion that this is about the Prime Minister’s legacy. One must wonder whether this is a decision to be taken in the dying days of an Administration. We will hear from the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, later. We are told in the newspapers that the Prime Minister-in-waiting will revolutionise Labour policy, clear the decks and change attitudes. So why do we need this decision in what, as I say, are the dying days of the Blair Administration? We have been given the costs, but are they really anything but notional? How much lobbying has gone on by British Aerospace and other defence suppliers?

We agree that there is a deterrent to be had, that there is a war to be fought on terrorism and on crime, and that they are not mutually exclusive. But it is legitimate to ask, as former Home Secretary Charles Clarke has asked, whether the balance is right between the kind of expenditure commitment involved in this decision and the commitment made to the war on terrorism. Further, there is a wide range of legitimate views. We shall hear the view of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, later, but Sir Michael Quinlan said:

“I am in favour, but not at any price”.

The noble Lord, Lord Hattersley, has said that replacing Trident would be an “expensive nonsense”. How we wish that the noble Lord, Lord Hattersley, would occasionally grace us with his presence, but unfortunately I do not think that we pay as much as the Guardian.

The position taken on these Benches is clear. It would be unwise at this time for Britain to abandon its nuclear weapons altogether, but we would extend the life of the present system with a reduction in the number of submarines and warheads. That is certainly not unilateral disarmament, still less is it fence-sitting. The decision to commission a new generation of nuclear-armed submarines may well be the wrong one and certainly it is being taken by the wrong Prime Minister at the wrong time. We need to use this time for a broader look at our foreign policy and security needs, our role in Europe, the reform of the United Nations, and the need to reinvigorate the non-proliferation treaty and to give impetus to nuclear disarmament—and here I echo the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, about the Government’s initiatives, if any, in this area.

As I have said before, this has often been a matter of grave division, certainly on these Benches and on the Benches opposite. The Conservatives have always maintained a bland unity, which makes the present position even more worrying. I do not go as far as Matthew Parris, who called this a,

“pointless piece of Blairite posturing”,

while going on to express his support very much along the lines that we are arguing. But there is a need for a rational and informed decision to be taken, and I urge the Government to both broaden and deepen the debate so that all options are discussed and consideration of our foreign policy interests is conducted without reliance on concepts such as “buying a ticket to the top table”. This is really a Statement saying, “Don’t send me naked into the conference chamber”, but the response to that from these Benches is that we must have all the available information and a fully informed debate. We must not be bounced or rushed into a decision about matters that are decades away; we should not have to rely on an assurance from the Prime Minister that the decision has to be taken now, even though many reasonable and expert opinions say that there is time and it is necessary to conduct a longer and better-informed debate.

My Lords, I shall start with the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. First, I thank him for his overall support in these matters. This is of course a question of national security and it is important that the parties work together as much as possible. On the question of containing proliferation, we strongly believe that the best way of achieving our goal of a safer world free from nuclear weapons is through consensus. We therefore continue to engage in efforts in this direction both in terms of constraining nuclear proliferation and in terms of disarmament. That is why this Government’s record on disarmament is so important. We shall, of course, keep the strategic planning process under review.

As to whether the House will have an opportunity to debate the issue, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, knows that that is a matter for the usual channels, but I cannot imagine that in this instance the usual channels will say no. The White Paper sets out very clearly the technical issues. It runs through four possible scenarios and points very clearly to the importance of maintaining and upgrading the current system. I can confirm that the whole Cabinet endorses this decision. It is a matter that we have discussed on more than one occasion.

The deciding factor on the number of submarines is basically a technical one. We want the ability to maintain continuous patrolling—that is important to us—and we need to know the design of the new submarine before we can make a decision on numbers. As to the warheads and whether reducing them to 160 will be sufficient, I can confirm that we are moving to that number on the basis of professional advice.

The noble Lord, Lord McNally, raised a number of issues and questions. I agree that the White Paper is very clear. I think that anyone who is not an expert in these matters could read the White Paper and come to a clear understanding of the issues that are being debated and discussed. I note the noble Lord’s comment that now is not the time to abandon our protection.

I thought that I went into the question of why we need to make the decision now when I was reading the Statement, but perhaps I should repeat it. The first of our Royal Navy Vanguard class ballistic missile submarines which carry the Trident D5 missile was launched in 1992 and had an original design life of 25 years. So it will come to the end of its life in 2017. Even if the life of the boats was extended by around five years—the maximum we judge to be prudent—the first two boats would leave service around 2022 and 2024. All the advice and experience that we have shows that we will need 17 years for the concept, design and building of the new submarines, which is why the decision has to be taken by 2007. I know that some will say that the last time around it took only 14 years from the decision to purchase Trident to the first system being deployed, but in the preceding decade a good deal of initial concept and design work had already taken place without commitment. That is why the estimate is 17 rather than 14 years.

We have chosen this option because we think that it will give us the greatest security and the best value for money. It is about getting the balance right. It is not about lobbying by any particular companies; it is about the UK’s security. Yes, it is a judgment, but we have made it on the basis of the information available to us. No other nuclear power is looking at giving up its nuclear deterrent at the moment.

The noble Lord asked about spending the money on countering the threat from terrorism, but he will know that we have an intensive strategy for managing risks from terrorism and we are investing heavily in a range of capabilities to deal with them. But we still need to insure against the range of potential threats that only nuclear weapons can deter, even though new threats such as terrorism have emerged. We know that the deterrent helps to deter some of the worst risks from terrorism, but we would not pretend that it deters all of them.

The Statement made the position clear with regard to costs. The overall design and manufacture costs of some £15 billion to £20 billion are spread over three decades; on average, that is 3 per cent of the defence budget, no more than any other major defence projects would cost. The costs are at their highest in the early 2020s, but if this were spread evenly over these years it would be about £1 billion a year. That is 1 per cent of our total health spending. We spend some £6 billion on our international development budget. It is important to put this project in perspective.

Some of the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, in respect of the rationale for this, the issue of lobbying and the question whether this is about the Prime Minister’s legacy were wholly inaccurate. This is a judgment that the whole Cabinet has come to. We recognise the need to make a decision now, and the Conservatives have made it clear that they do, too. The Liberal Democrats seem to be saying yes, they want to retain a deterrent, but they do not know what we should be doing.

My Lords, I accept that the Government have a commendable record on reducing the nuclear arsenal in this country. However, if their view is that a nuclear capacity is essential to our security, how is it proposed that the non-nuclear powers will be persuaded that it is not essential to theirs, and how will this decision contribute to achieving non-proliferation?

My Lords, the framework within which we are working is the non-proliferation treaty. That framework recognises the five nuclear states and makes it clear that other states should not move to nuclear power, but at the same time proposes mechanisms multilaterally for the nuclear states to disarm. That is why we take the position we do on North Korea and Iran. Our best defence is that framework.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for relaying the Statement, and for giving us some Christmas reading. Those of us who are enthusiasts for nuclear strategy will study the White Paper with great interest.

In fact, I do not think there is as much difference between the various positions as is being suggested. Those of us who were on a Liberal Democrat working group on this subject reported last week in favour of a submarine-based system. We suggested—as had been suggested when the decision was made on Trident—that three might be more sensible than four. I am glad to see that the Government have done that. We also suggested that there is no magic about the number of 200 warheads; one can come down quite significantly, and that might stimulate some work in arms control.

The area I have problems with, however, and I would be grateful for an answer from the Minister on this, is the timing described in the Statement. The Minister said that the decision on Trident took 14 years. That is true if you take it from 1980, when it was made, to 1994, when Trident became operationally capable. She finessed that into 1992, when it went into the water. Trident was originally lifed for 30 years, and that continued to be stated until only two years ago. It was a 30-year system, which takes us to 2024, not the 2017 that she was talking about. It has the possibility of a life extension of five to six years at relatively low cost. The Americans are extending their Ohio class to a 45-year lifespan. There is not the urgency that is being put about to take the decision.

I do not think we differ, though. When the Minister said there were five years of development-thinking about Trident, presumably she was talking about five years of development-thinking for Trident’s successor. What date are the Government working on for the main gate decision when the real money gets spent? I will be very surprised if it is different from 2014, which we have been suggesting.

My Lords, I confirm that the Royal Navy Vanguard class of ballistic missile submarine had an original design life of 25 years. Even if the life of the boats was extended by around five years—the maximum that we judge to be prudent—the first two boats would leave service around 2022 and 2024. The noble Lord will know even better than I do that the United States has different design bases.

Any extension is an issue of security. There is some urgency—we have to make a decision in 2007. A great deal of work has gone into looking at the different options. It is laid out comprehensively in the White Paper. This is a transparent process and we have made it absolutely clear that the House of Commons will have an opportunity to vote on this. We are confident of winning the argument because the White Paper and the supporting fact-sheet show that the arguments are very clear.

My Lords, I welcome the Statement and the bipartisan approach that it has received in this House and the other place. Sitting on the fence makes no sense at all. The life of the submarines has been extended to meet the current decision’s timescale, with the order for a new submarine next year. Bearing in mind that we had problems with Polaris in the latter period of its life, it would be foolish to try to extend the existing Vanguard submarines even further. Can the Minister clarify the funding of these submarines? In the Statement, it appeared that there would be additional funding, but in response to an earlier question, the Minister seemed to suggest that the money would come out of the ordinary defence budget. Perhaps she could explain whether it will come from the ordinary defence budget or whether there will be additional funds for this very important replacement for the Trident system.

My Lords, I hope that I have not confused the House. What I said in the Statement and in response to questions was that this would have no impact on our conventional capability. That is the commitment which has been made. The spending will be, as usual, through the Comprehensive Spending Review; this decision will not have an impact on that.

My Lords, it must be right to replace our deterrent, and it has to be right that it is a submarine-borne system. However, £15 billion to £20 billion is an awful lot of money. The Minister says it is 3 per cent of the defence budget, but it is a lot more than 3 per cent of the procurement budget. It is not as if our troops are overblessed with wonderful equipment, and one does not want to see that situation continue. Would it not be more sensible to look at putting a nuclear warhead on a Tomahawk missile and firing it out of a hunter-killer submarine? That must surely be much cheaper and although the range would be less, it would give us the deterrent and it would be submarine-borne.

My Lords, for those of us who believe passionately in the theory of nuclear deterrence and think that our Trident fleet and its Polaris predecessors have made a contribution to the fact that this country has not had to wage a third world war in Europe, and who do not wish to see the ultimate defence of these islands in the hands of the French or the Americans, today’s Statement by the Prime Minister will be extremely welcome. However, I am a little concerned about one thing. Perhaps my noble friend could consult her colleagues about the idea of having only three boats. There have been occasions when, with a four-boat fleet, we have been within a whisker of being unable to preserve a single boat on station. I was glad to hear her say that the Government were insistent on having something available 365 days a year. I hope that they realise that all sorts of unforeseen contingencies can occur. I for one will take a lot of persuading that we should reduce the number of submarines from four to three.

My Lords, my noble friend is quite right. I hope that I made it clear that continuous patrolling is the key and that we have to look at the technicalities and design of any new submarine. We would not reduce their number to three if we could not have continuous patrolling and factor in the unforeseen circumstances about which he spoke.

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on the Statement. This was a central part of our election manifesto in 2005 and did not appear at that time as any potential part of the Blair legacy. What is more, the process is being conducted in a more transparent fashion than was the case in the late 1970s, when some people in this House were advising the then Labour Government on nuclear matters.

As one of those who started as a unilateralist and found that it did not offer any options in terms of disarmament, I welcome the commitment to a further reduction in the number of warheads. I would certainly be of the view, as I was in 1992 when I had more than a passing interest in these matters on behalf of the Labour Party, that there is a case for reducing from four to three the number of submarines, and that the answer lies in the quality of the maintenance programmes and the ability of our dockyard support to do the business in an effective manner. If those points can be answered, many of us on this side of the House would see us getting the correct deterrent in the correct proportions at a reasonable cost. The public would find that hard to object to, because they have shown in the past that they are in favour of continuing the defence of Britain, regardless of the cost, so long as it is within reasonable bounds.

My Lords, my noble friend is quite right. The answer lies partly in the quality of the maintenance programme, but also in the overall technical design of the new submarine. He scored a political hit when referring to those in this House who advised Governments in the late 1970s.

My Lords, I too join in the almost-unanimous welcome for this balanced Statement. Will the Lord President confirm that the announced 20 per cent reduction in warheads, on top of the 30 per cent reduction which has already been obtained, is entirely compatible with our obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty? Will she also confirm that the argument that the possession of nuclear weapons is illegal is entirely specious? When the protestors at Faslane took the matter to the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh, it was ruled that they had no case. Most importantly, will she confirm that if we were to follow the advice of the Liberal Democrat leader in the House, we would have protection for our generation, but none for our children and grandchildren? That is an entirely unacceptable way to move forward.

Will the Lord President let us debate this matter? I look forward to exposing the differences in the Liberal Democrats’ statements. We have already heard entirely different statements from the noble Lords, Lord Garden and Lord McNally, which, in turn, were different from the statement of the leader of the Liberal Democrats. They are not at sixes and sevens; they are at sixes, sevens, eights, nines and tens. What we need to discuss is threes or fours, or £20 billion or £25 billion. Let us have a debate as quickly as possible.

My Lords, my noble friend is right in saying that what we are proposing is entirely compatible and consistent with our obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. On legality, we fully comply with our obligations under Article 6, which does not establish a timetable for unilateral disarmament, either nuclear or general, and does not state that replacement or updating of currently held systems would be unlawful. Instead, Article 6 places an obligation on all NPT member states to pursue the necessary negotiations to achieve the goal of disarmament. I am proud of what this Government have done with respect to our disarmament obligations.

The issue of a debate is a matter for the usual channels, but I cannot see that they would turn down the possibility. I am sure that many in this House would look forward to having a robust debate with those on the Liberal Democrat Benches.

My Lords, have the Government given consideration to working with the French on the development of the next stage of a nuclear deterrent and sharing the costs?

My Lords, I know that the French are doing some modernising of their own. I am not aware of us giving consideration to working with the French but, if there is any further information that I can give the noble Lord, I shall write to him.

My Lords, can we afford the expenditure profile of the new deterrent, the carrier system and its air group all at the same time? Some in industry are already saying that we cannot afford the carrier system.

Yes, my Lords, we can. If noble Lords look back at what was said in the Statement, they will see that the cost is spread over three decades.

My Lords, if I understand it correctly, Article 6 refers to the need to engage in multilateral negotiations. This is not a question of unilateralism—it is definitely one of multilateralism. Could the Minister say a bit more about the circumstances in which she thinks that it would be possible to engage in serious multilateral negotiations? Is it implicit from the existence of the nuclear five—and now there is also North Korea, India, Pakistan and Israel—that this matter is seriously on the world political agenda?

My Lords, we are continuously engaged in multilateral discussions on this issue. My noble friend will know about the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, for example. Discussions are ongoing on fissile materials and bringing an end date to that. We see our responsibilities under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty as twofold: first, to work to ensure that states that are non-nuclear do not move to having nuclear weapons and, secondly, that those states recognised in the treaty as having nuclear weapons are able to move towards disarmament.

My Lords, I do not think that the Minister has really answered the question that was originally asked by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell. What do you say to those countries that are larger geographically and in population and are under greater threat than this country when they ask why, if Britain needs these weapons for security, they do not need them?

I also noted from the Statement that we shall be purchasing the Trident missile from the United States of America. Exactly how independent will our deterrent be? The repair and maintenance of those delivery systems will be at the behest of the United States. Is it not also true that the targeting and guidance systems will depend on United States technology? I hope that the Minister will be able to answer those questions because an independent deterrent really needs to be independent.

My Lords, I think that I did answer the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell. I said absolutely clearly that the answer lies in the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. That is the framework within which we are working and which has led us to the situation that we have now. I accept that some states seek to move towards greater proliferation, but the situation that President Kennedy and others anticipated in the 1960s has not come to pass precisely because of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which came into effect in 1970. There are two strands to it. One is to seek to ensure that non-nuclear states do not move to have nuclear weapons. It has not worked in every instance, but we have not seen the proliferation that was predicted. That is why the framework remains so important. The second arm of the treaty is to work for disarmament of those states recognised as nuclear states within the treaty. The United Kingdom has had considerable success with that. We are seeing the modernising of systems and the United States and Russia moving to a smaller number of warheads, all within the context of the treaty.

On the issue of independence, our current nuclear deterrent is fully operationally independent and we retain absolute sovereignty over its use. Only the Prime Minister can authorise its use, even if the missiles are to be fired as part of a NATO action. No other country, including the United States, is able to prevent launch once authorised. The instruction to fire would be transmitted to the submarine using entirely UK codes and equipment. All the command and control procedures are totally independent. The Vanguard-class submarines can readily operate without the system of global positioning by satellite. The Trident D5 missile and our warhead do not use GPS at all. The missile has an inertial guidance system. This position will not change in any way following the planned life-extension programme.