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Defence: Trident Review

Volume 747: debated on Tuesday 9 July 2013


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether their review of Trident will include the issue of non-proliferation.

My Lords, the starting point for the review of alternatives to a like-for-like replacement of Trident was that the UK will continue to comply with its international obligations, in particular with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

My Lords, we know that the alternatives review will address the issue of options for replacing the Vanguard submarines. Will it also consider whether, relatively soon in a submarine’s lifetime, its missiles will need a new warhead? The Government plan to consider that question in the next Parliament, deferring the timetable for consideration in this Parliament given in the 2006 White Paper. Secondly, is it possible to develop a new warhead without testing it and therefore without rescinding our moratorium on testing and indeed contravening the provisions of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty? If it is not tested, how can we be assured that any new warhead would be effective?

My Lords, the British Government, under both the previous and the current Administrations, have been strong supporters of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty. We have developed sophisticated means of simulating the testing and checking of warheads. This is one area in which we are now co-operating with the French: on the sophisticated facilities available for examining current nuclear warheads and considering further developments in design.

My Lords, surely, whatever the outcome of the decision on Trident, it is important that this country continues to play its full role in diplomatic efforts towards non-proliferation and disarmament. Why did the UK ambassador not attend the UN open-ended working group intended to kick-start efforts in this area?

My Lords, the United Kingdom remains strongly committed to nuclear disarmament, and we are working in a range of different international contexts to achieve this. As noble Lords will know, the next Review Conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty will meet in 2015, and the preparatory committee met earlier this year.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware of recent credible research which, using modern climate change models, found that even a regional war using nuclear weapons between emerging nuclear-armed states with relatively primitive weapons would quickly lead to significant global climate change, reduce temperatures, reduce growing seasons, have significant adverse agricultural effects and then quite devastating effects for all the world’s populations. Why, then, did the coalition Government not attend the Oslo conference on the humanitarian effects of nuclear weapons? Why did they boycott it? Do we have nothing to say to the rest of the world about these issues? Will we go to the follow-on conference in Mexico in 2014?

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord’s work within the context of the European Leadership Network and the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which is highly desirable, multilateral work involving the Russians and many others. It is exactly the sort of work that needs to be done and published to inform the debate on the future of nuclear weapons. Her Majesty’s Government decided, in the context of preparations for the Oslo conference, that we should be pursuing this, as far as possible, through the conference on nuclear disarmament; the priority was to unblock that conference. As for attendance at the follow-on conference in Mexico, British diplomats in Mexico met Mexican officials some weeks ago to discuss the question.

My Lords, is there not a contradiction between, on the one hand, the statements of successive British Governments about the weapons of mass destruction of others and the risk, therefore, of killing non-combatant civilians and, on the other hand, their own possession of nuclear missiles?

My Lords, I have no doubt that when the Trident alternatives review is published, it will stimulate a good deal of, I hope, informed and rational debate about the future of our nuclear weapons programme and of nuclear weapons as a whole. That was part of the intention of commissioning this review.

My Lords, unsurprisingly, the alternatives review that the Minister refers to seems to show that are no real alternatives to replacing the Vanguard class submarines if we wish to maintain our best-value and most capable deterrent. The only thing that will be looked at further is continuous sea deterrent and, even in that, the worst probability is that we will have to order two Vanguard replacements. With that in mind, will the Minister not agree that we should order those two replacements now, to remove the uncertainty hanging over many hundreds—indeed, over 1,000—skilled workers and their families about their future, and to save £300 million?

My Lords, I am not sure that major defence decisions should be driven either by the need to employ a large number of people to build aircraft carriers in Scotland or by the need to maintain employment in Barrow-in-Furness. There are larger issues at stake.

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that the purpose of that review, which is yet to be fully announced, is to reduce the number of nuclear weapons at sea and on land and that that is part of the non-proliferation effort that we are all engaged in? That is the purpose of the review, and I look forward to its outcome.

My Lords, of the declared nuclear states, Britain already has the fewest nuclear weapons. Under current plans we will further reduce the number of nuclear weapons deployed in recent years. We are therefore very much already at a minimum nuclear deterrent. The purpose of the Trident alternatives review, like the EU balance of competences review, which will also be published shortly, is to provide for an informed public debate. That is highly desirable on both major topics.

My Lords, while the Minister and I will be campaigning side by side to keep Scotland within the United Kingdom, there is an outside chance that we might lose in that referendum. Why, therefore, is the Ministry of Defence not undertaking contingency plans to work out what will happen to the independent deterrent in that event?

My Lords, we shall be campaigning side by side. I hope that my son will have a vote in that election, since he may be about to move to Edinburgh. The question of whether Scots living outside Scotland should be allowed to vote is, as the noble Lord knows, a very active one. I would rather leave to another day hypothetical questions as to what would happen if Scotland were to become independent.