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House of Commons Hansard
23 January 2017
Volume 620

  • (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the test firing of a Trident nuclear missile in June 2016.

  • In June last year, the Royal Navy conducted a demonstration and shakedown operation designed to certify HMS Vengeance and her crew prior to their return to operations. It included a routine unarmed Trident missile test launch. Contrary to reports in the weekend press, HMS Vengeance and her crew were successfully tested and certified as ready to rejoin the operational cycle.

    We do not comment on the detail of submarine operations, but I can assure the House that the safety of the crew and public is paramount during any test firing and is never compromised. Prior to conducting a Trident test fire, the UK strictly adheres to all relevant treaty obligations, notifying relevant nations and interested parties. Here, the Chair of the Defence Committee, the Opposition Defence spokesperson, and the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee were informed in advance. I can assure the House that the capability and effectiveness of the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent is not in doubt. The Government have absolute confidence in our deterrent and in the Royal Navy crews who protect us and our NATO allies every hour of every day.

  • I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. He will know that I am a strong believer in this country’s independent nuclear deterrent. Major inroads have been made in recent decades in public transparency on nuclear issues, on which is important to maintain a consensus and support for our nuclear deterrent. That has included openness and publicity about test launches in Florida.

    The Secretary of State will have seen claims in the press at the weekend that in the latest test the missile veered towards the United States. Will he confirm whether that was the case? Will he tell the House when he was first informed that there was a problem with the test and when his Department informed the then Prime Minister, David Cameron? Was it the Secretary of State or the then Prime Minister who decided to shelve the Department’s customary practice of publicising test launches and ordered a news blackout?

    What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the present Prime Minister about the test, and why news of it was not relayed to Parliament before the debate on the Successor submarine programme last July?

    Finally, I pay tribute to the members of our armed forces who for the past 48 years have maintained Operation Relentless and the UK’s continuous at-sea deterrent.

  • I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman not only takes a close interest in defence but has borne responsibility for the defence of our country and supports the deterrent. However, I must disagree with his call for greater transparency. There are few things that we cannot discuss openly in Parliament, but the security of our nuclear deterrent is certainly one of them. It has never been Government practice to give Parliament details of demonstration and shakedown operations. There have been previous examples where some publicity has been decided on a case-by-case basis and informed by the circumstances at the time and by national security considerations.

  • Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is absolutely no evidence of systemic failure anywhere in this system? Will he confirm that he, like me when I was Minister for the Armed Forces, has total confidence in our Trident defences as being both deadly and reliable?

  • I can certainly confirm that. I repeat to the House that HMS Vengeance was successfully certified and passed the test that was set, and therefore rejoined the operational cycle and is part of that operational cycle today.

  • I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his answers; I am just sorry that it has taken allegations in a Sunday paper and an urgent question to bring him to Parliament this afternoon. Let me be clear: we are not asking him to disclose any sensitive or inappropriate detail. All we want is clarity and transparency, because yesterday the Prime Minister refused four times on live television to say when she became aware of the details of this missile test.

    Today, No. 10 admitted that the Prime Minister was told about this incident as soon as she took office, yet when she came to this House on 18 July 2016 to call on Members to back the renewal of Britain’s nuclear submarines she did not say a word—not a single word. This is just not good enough. The British public deserve the facts on a matter as important as Britain’s nuclear deterrent, and they deserve to hear those facts from their Prime Minister, not in allegations sprawled across a Sunday paper.

    May I ask the Secretary of State a simple question? Why was this information deliberately kept from Parliament and the British public? Who made the decision to keep this incident quiet? Was it his Department, or was it No. 10? While respecting the limits of what he can disclose, can he at least set out what investigation his Department has carried out into what happened in June? What assurances can he give that there will be no future cover-ups on important matters such as this?

    At the heart of this issue is a worrying lack of transparency and a Prime Minister who has chosen to cover up a serious incident, rather than coming clean with the British public. This House and, more importantly, the British public deserve better.

  • Let me just be very, very clear: neither I nor the Prime Minister are going to give operational details of our submarine operations or of the systems and sub-systems that are tested through a demonstration and shakedown operation.

    The hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) asked me very specifically about the Prime Minister’s knowledge. Let me again be clear: the Prime Minister has ultimate responsibility for our nuclear deterrent. She is kept informed of how the nuclear deterrent is maintained, including the successful return of HMS Vengeance to the operational cycle.

  • Is the Secretary of State telling us that nothing went wrong on this particular launch? While accepting that the nuclear deterrent needs to be shrouded in secrecy, it also needs to deter. Once stories get out there that a missile may have failed, is it not better to be quite frank about it, especially if it has no strategic significance, as, in this case, it probably has none?

    Sir Craig Oliver vehemently denies that he or any other member of David Cameron’s media team ever knew about the aborted Trident test, so will the Secretary of State tell us when Mr Cameron was told about it and when he himself was told about it? Will he accept an invitation to attend the Defence Committee tomorrow morning—in closed session for some questions, if need be—to resolve any outstanding issues?

  • As I have said, I am not going to discuss publicly on the Floor of the House the details of the demonstration and shakedown operation. All I can do is repeat that HMS Vengeance has successfully been certified again to rejoin the operational cycle. I think I have already answered on the responsibility of the Prime Minister and made it very clear that the previous Prime Minister and this Prime Minister were, of course, informed about the maintenance of the nuclear deterrent, the outcome of the test and the successful return of HMS Vengeance to the operational cycle.

  • The basic rule of deterrence is that it has to be both credible and capable. After yesterday’s sensational revelations, it is safe to assume that Trident is neither. Given that one of the UK’s nuclear missiles veered off towards the United States, it is an insult to our intelligence to try to claim, as the Government have, that Trident’s capability and effectiveness are unquestionable.

    An equally serious matter that arises is the deliberate withholding of information from the House ahead of the crucial Commons vote on renewal last July. It is absolutely outrageous that the House had to rely on a leak to a Sunday newspaper to find out about this incident and the subsequent cover-up. When did the Secretary of State first find out about this missile failure? Was it he who informed the new Prime Minister about the failure? Who took the decision not to inform Parliament of the incident?

  • The hon. Gentleman is, of course, opposed to the Trident deterrent that has kept this country safe for so many years. First, let me caution him against believing everything he has read in the weekend press. Secondly, let me repeat that the Government are in no doubt about the capability and effectiveness of our deterrent and would not have asked this House to endorse the principle of the deterrent and our plans to build four new submarines if there had been any question about its capability and effectiveness.

  • Does my right hon. Friend agree that secrecy and transparency are simply incompatible, and that it is right that every British Government—as well as, indeed, every Government of our nuclear allies, the Americans and the French—have always put secrecy first in this area?

  • I agree with my hon. Friend. As I said to the House earlier, there are very few issues that cannot be discussed openly in the House, but the security of the nuclear deterrent is clearly a prime example of something that cannot be discussed in detail.

  • Will the Secretary of State confirm that, whether through the notice to airmen system or other warning systems, our enemies would have been aware of the failure of the test? Does he agree that for Members of this House to be able to debate effectively the merits of Trident or its like-for-like replacement, we need timely and security-appropriate information, and that we did not get that in this case?

  • On the first point, the right hon. Gentleman may be aware that, under our international treaty obligations notice of any test firing has to be given to other countries and interested parties. In the case of the June test firing, that was done. I do not agree with his latter point. The Government would not have put the motion to the House last July had we had any doubt about the continuing capability and effectiveness of the deterrent.

  • I remind the House that the Russians not only contemplate using nuclear weapons but practise their employment on their exercises. Is it not crucial, therefore, that we retain our own independent nuclear deterrent, to ensure that our potential enemies, such as Russia, are deterred and think twice before they even contemplate using such weapons of mass destruction?

  • I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That indeed was the proposition put before the new Parliament last July and endorsed by 472 Members of this House against a vote of only 117—the latter number included, of course, the Leader of the Opposition.

  • Have the Government instigated a leak inquiry to find out the source for The Sunday Times? If not, do they intend to do so?

  • As I said to the House earlier, I am not confirming the speculation in the weekend press, and I caution Members against believing everything they have read in the weekend press.

  • Have the Ministry of Defence and our US partners shared information about the test firing and subsequent evaluation, because it is important to reassure our service people and the public about the validity of the nuclear deterrent?

  • I understand why my hon. Friend asks that question, but I am afraid that I have to say to him that it takes us into the detail of the operation of the nuclear deterrent and I am not going there.

  • Following on from that, the Government continually refer to Trident as the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent, yet the missile involved in the malfunction was designed, manufactured and owned by the US, with a US guidance system and leasing arrangements. It is not an operational issue to tell us whether the Secretary of State has known that the malfunction last year was reported at the time to the US President, nor whether the new President has been briefed about it, and nor who decided to cover it up—the UK Government or the US.

  • Let me be very clear about this: our Trident nuclear deterrent is completely operationally independent of the United States. In our country, only the Prime Minister can authorise the firing of these weapons, even if they are employed as part of an overall NATO response.

  • May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the approach he has taken on this issue? The whole area of our independent nuclear deterrent is of crucial importance, and the arguments he has made very strongly about not being as open as he might perhaps at times like to be on the operational side is absolutely correct.

  • I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Earlier Governments in different situations—indeed, in more benevolent times—might have taken different decisions about how much information they were prepared to reveal about demonstration and operations. These are not, of course, such benevolent times, and the decision we took was not to release any information about the testing of all the systems and sub-systems involved in the return to the operational cycle of HMS Vengeance.

  • There is no doubt about why the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) wanted this to be held in private. It was not to keep our secrets from the Russians, but to save the embarrassment of Ministers and the Prime Minister. In Talleyrand’s words:

    “It’s worse than a crime, it’s a mistake.”

  • Order. I have known the right hon. Gentleman long enough to know of his naturally pugnacious and combative spirit, but that must not elide into impugning the integrity of another hon. Member. He has had his bit of fun, but he must now wash out his mouth, withdraw those words and put a question, for which the nation will be grateful.

  • I certainly withdraw any implication that the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) was worried about embarrassment to the Minister.

    Will the Minister confirm that in Lord Hennessy’s book “The Silent Deep” there is a full description of a previous firing? How is it an operational matter or a security threat merely to ask when the Minister and Prime Minister were made aware of the problem and why they decided to keep it quiet?

  • On the first point, I have already made it clear that, of course, earlier Governments in different circumstances took different decisions not to share details with Parliament, but to release information publicly about the completion of tests. We have to take our decision in the light of the circumstances that prevail at the time and the national security considerations.

    On the right hon. Gentleman’s second question, I have made it very clear that both I and the Prime Minister are of course informed of nuclear matters at all times and in particular of the successful return of HMS Vengeance to the operational cycle.

  • I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s tone and approach so far. These things should always be secret, in my view, but will he go further and speculate on why, when last year’s debate was on the renewal of the Vanguard-class submarines and had nothing whatsoever to do with Trident missiles, there is any suggestion that the Prime Minister should have announced this failure?

  • As I have said, the Government would not have brought the motion before the House last July had there been any doubt about the safety, capability or effectiveness of the Trident missile system. However, my hon. Friend is right to remind the House that the vote, and the huge majority it secured, was of course on the principle of our deterrent and the Government’s plan to renew our four submarines.

  • The essence of deterrence is uncertainty—about when, whether or if missiles will be fired. Can I take it that the purpose of the Secretary of State’s statement today is that he wishes to add to the uncertainty and therefore increase deterrence?

  • To take the hon. Gentleman’s question seriously, he of course is right that one of the principles of deterrence is to leave one’s adversaries uncertain about the circumstances in which one would employ it. I have simply made it clear to the House today that the outcome of the tests was a successful return by HMS Vengeance to the operational cycle, but I am not prepared to go into further operational detail about the tests themselves.

  • I welcome the Government’s approach and thank my right hon. Friend for his reassurance about the effectiveness of the Trident system. Will he confirm that there have been 160 successful firings of the missile? Surely that should reassure the British people rather more than the prospect of the Leader of the Opposition having his finger on the button.

  • My hon. Friend is right to draw the House’s attention to the previous testing regime. The House might want to know that the demonstration and shakedown operation is critical at intervals for demonstrating the effectiveness of the deterrent. It comprises a comprehensive series of system and sub-system tests, as I have said, and it provides a period of intensive training for the submarine’s crew. It evaluates the complex weapons system involved in Trident, including the performance of the crew, and it concludes each time with an unarmed missile firing. HMS Vengeance successfully concluded that shakedown operation.

  • I am a supporter of the deterrent, but does the Secretary of State not understand that a leak to a Sunday newspaper, followed by, frankly, Government stonewalling, does not enhance support for the deterrent, but undermines it?

  • I understand why the hon. Gentleman, who is a supporter of the deterrent, says that, but the security of our deterrent is absolutely paramount at a time like this. Whether he likes it or not, I am not going to respond to speculation about the tests that occurred last June or give details of the particular operations of HMS Vengeance during that test.

  • Does my right hon. Friend agree that the continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent has kept us free from aggression day in, day out since 1968, and that we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the men and women who operate it?

  • I wholeheartedly endorse what my hon. Friend says, and I hope that that at least would be common ground. The nuclear deterrent has played its part in keeping this country safe through a series of continuous at-sea patrols seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. I join him in paying tribute to the crews of all four of our nuclear submarines.

  • There is now a question about the effectiveness of our nuclear deterrent—[Interruption.] There is in terms of what is in the papers. That in itself undermines our national security. We need to send a clear message that our deterrent is still able to do its job. I urge the Secretary of State to accept the invitation of the Chair of the Defence Committee and appear before it to reassure us and the House that our deterrent is fit for purpose.

  • Let me reassure the hon. Lady, who follows these matters extremely closely and is on the Defence Committee, that there is absolutely no doubt about the effectiveness of our deterrent. Again, had the Government any doubts about the continuing capability or effectiveness of the deterrent, we would not have brought the motion before the House last July.

  • Would my right hon. Friend agree not only that the Prime Minister was absolutely right not to discuss this issue on national television but that a 98% success rate in testing for a weapons system is phenomenal? Once it has been tested, all boats that go out are fully operational and 100% capable, and that is something for which we should pay huge tribute to Her Majesty’s Royal Navy and the sailors who serve on those boats.

  • My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the importance of these tests and to hint at the complexity of them and of the systems and sub-systems that are involved in maintaining the Trident deterrent. It is to the credit of the crew of HMS Vengeance that they were able to complete these tests last June, and they now take their place again in the operational cycle.

  • Since the Minister is not prepared to confirm very much at all, can I ask him to confirm whether each test of a Trident missile costs at least £17 million?

  • No, I am not able to confirm that either.

  • It is regrettable that the phrase “cover-up” has been used, when this issue concerns our national security. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if things go wrong, the last thing we should do is give succour to the enemy by telling them that that is the case?

  • I agree with my hon. Friend. It is important that we maintain the secrecy of our deterrent, and it is important for our adversaries to understand that we attach paramount importance to making sure the operational details of the deterrent are as closely guarded as possible.

  • I look forward to meeting the Secretary of State tomorrow at the Defence Committee, if he is available.

    Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that credibility lies at the very heart of this urgent question? Will there be an official inquiry into the malfunction and the overall credibility of how the UK would deliver its weapons of mass destruction? Will there be a further inquiry into why the Prime Minister could not answer a question on four separate occasions on “The Andrew Marr Show” yesterday? Our nation really does deserve better, as do our serving personnel.

  • On the first point, I am pondering the invitation that I have received to answer questions again tomorrow as fully as I have been answering them today. I will give that further thought. The Prime Minister, of course, did answer questions yesterday; she did not give the answer that the hon. Gentleman may have wanted, but she did answer that question. I want, again, to be clear with the House that the Prime Minister, who retains the ultimate responsibility—and an awesome one at that—for our deterrent, is kept informed as to how that deterrent is maintained, and was informed, of course, as her predecessor was, of the successful return of HMS Vengeance to the operational cycle.

  • As these missiles get older, there are bound to be increasing maintenance programme costs, as well as costs from emerging and as yet unforeseen threats to the system. What is the United Kingdom’s exposure to these costs of maintaining and protecting the Trident missile system this side of 2060?

  • My hon. Friend draws attention to the relative age of the Trident system, which he has had some doubts about in the past, and he probably continues to do so today. That, of course, is one reason why these tests are conducted every four or five years to make sure that our submarines are able to fire the Trident missile when they return from long periods of maintenance. Perhaps my hon. Friend would allow me to write to him on the very specific question of cost.

  • As an accident is the most likely cause of the nuclear catastrophe that we all fear, either because of misunderstandings between the nations, human error or technical failure, now that President Trump has his impulsive finger on the nuclear button, should not our prime cause be to persuade him not to encourage South Korea, Japan and other small nations to acquire nuclear weapons, thus magnifying the risk of war by accident?

  • Especially in relation to Trident testing.

  • I will do my best, Mr Speaker, but it might be quite hard. I hope you will join me in congratulating President Trump on his inauguration. Let me say how much our Prime Minister looks forward to meeting him later this week and discussing the importance of our NATO alliance to both our countries, and the importance of the nuclear deterrent within that NATO alliance.

  • What the Secretary of State said has real merit, but I was more inclined to congratulate the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) on the ingenuity of his question.

  • Ah yes—young Gove.

  • Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

    Does my right hon. Friend agree that investment in our continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent has not only bought us peace since 1968 and the protection of western Europe, but is congruent with our position as a permanent five member of the UN Security Council; and is it not the case that the unilateralists on the Opposition Benches who are complaining today are in the position of eunuchs complaining about the cost of Viagra?

  • I agree with all three of my right hon. Friend’s propositions.

  • I am sure it went down very well at the Oxford Union.

  • The Prime Minister was asked nothing that compromised security; she was asked what she knew, and her refusal to answer that four times is an embarrassment not just to the Government but to the United Kingdom. Does the Secretary of State not understand that at a time when the Government are making cuts in virtually all areas, not dealing with this misfiring will make people believe that the huge price tag of Trident is not worth it, and that needs to be addressed?

  • We had this debate last July, when this House decided by an overwhelming majority to re-endorse the principle of the deterrent and to commit to our plan to build the four new Dreadnought submarines. I have made the Prime Minister’s position extremely clear. She has the responsibility for the nuclear deterrent and she is kept informed as to how that deterrent is maintained, including the successful return of HMS Vengeance to the operational cycle.

  • Like many of my constituents, I live in the shadow of a nuclear weapons facility, and I want to be certain that these weapons, at every stage of their development, are tested to the utmost, even to the point of failure. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that those tests should be secret, and that their not being secret gives aid to only one group of people—that is, those who mean us harm?

  • I agree with my hon. Friend on the vital importance of keeping this work secret. Let me also pay tribute to the secret work that is done by his constituents working at Aldermaston, and indeed Burghfield alongside it, as part of the essential importance of verifying the deterrent.

  • Having been in Florida for the 2009 DASO—demonstration and shakedown operation—firing, I know that this is not the first time there has been a media blackout to suit a particular Government’s agenda. That firing was of course carried out by my own husband. The MOD press statement says that the crew and boat were successfully tested, but what about the missile? How could the nuclear deterrent be certified for operational use when the system has catastrophically failed?

  • The hon. Lady, who I know has family connections in this area, must not believe everything she read in the newspapers yesterday. I am not going into particular operational details except to confirm that HMS Vengeance successfully concluded her demonstration and shakedown operation.

  • There is a huge difference between subjects that are of interest to the public and things that are in the public interest. Does my right hon. Friend agree that while operations relating to intelligence, counter-terrorism, special forces and, indeed, nuclear submarines are of massive interest to the public, it is not in the public or national interest to discuss them openly in this or any other place?

  • I completely agree with my hon. Friend.

  • The Secretary of State has advised us not to believe everything we read in the Sunday newspapers, but should we believe the Whitehouse official who, while we have been debating, has confirmed to CNN that the missile did auto-self-destruct off the coast of Florida? If that is the case, why are the British Parliament and the British public the last to know about it?

  • As I have said, we do not in this House—and nor did any previous Government—give operational details of the demonstration and shakedown operation of one of our submarines conducting a test with one of our Trident missiles.

  • Does the Secretary of State agree that the most important conclusion from this particular missile test is that our excellent submariners on HMS Vengeance proved that they can deal with unexpected technical challenges with a ballistic missile system known to be the most reliable in the world, and that that should be of enormous reassurance to the British people?

  • I congratulate the crew on completing their test and returning, as I have said, to the operational cycle of the submarines that discharge this duty on our behalf, but I say again that I am not going into operational details.

  • How can this be an independent nuclear deterrent if Donald Trump, the President of the United States of America—a man who is as thick as two short planks—is given the information, but nobody on the Opposition Benches is allowed to see it?

  • The hon. Gentleman knows very well that the nuclear deterrent that has served us so well is independent, because its operational control rests with our Prime Minister, not with the President of the United States.

  • Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the full debate that we had in this place six months ago, on 18 July, which was endorsed by 472 right hon. and hon. Members, was on the principle of our deterrent and replacing the Vanguard-class boats, not on a routine test?

  • I can confirm that. It was an overwhelming majority and that has allowed us to proceed with the construction of the Dreadnought submarines. I had the honour to cut steel on the first of those four submarines in October 2016. I repeat that had the Government any doubt at that time of the safety capability or effectiveness of our nuclear deterrent, they would not have brought the motion before the House.

  • Will the Secretary of State tell us what further Trident missile tests are planned, and will he keep the House updated on the outcome of future tests?

  • These particular demonstration and shakedown operations take place when each of our submarines emerges from a period of long-term maintenance, so they tend to take place every four or five years. It follows from that that there is not likely to be another one in the immediate future, but, as on this occasion, we will, of course, keep interested parties informed. We wrote to the Chair of the Defence Committee, the shadow Defence spokesman and the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee.

  • In certain theatres of war, such as Ukraine, Russia has been testing and refining its electronic and cyber-warfare techniques. Although I am not blaming Russia for this incident, will the opportunity now be taken to review the system’s protections against possible electronic counter-measures?

  • Yes. I was in Ukraine last week and we discussed this, among other matters. Of course, we are taking very good care to ensure that our deterrent is properly protected against any new technologies that our adversaries might get hold of.

  • Does not the Secretary of State realise that just because the Trident programme was approved by the House as a whole, that does not mean that thereafter there should be total silence from either Members of Parliament or the media? As far as the failed test is concerned, is it not ironic that if the information had been given at the time and there had been no cover-up, there would be far less publicity, and far less of a row, than there is now? The Government should learn from that.

  • I do not accept that. Previous Governments that the hon. Gentleman supported have not given operational details of previous demonstration and shakedown operations, which comprise the major tests of the systems and sub-systems that we have been dealing with today.

  • May I commend my right hon. Friend for his reticence about getting drawn into this, and may I also commend the Prime Minister for her reticence, which was entirely appropriate given the subject at issue? Is it not rather ironic to hear right hon. and hon. Members complaining about the possible lack of credibility of the deterrent when some of them do not actually believe in the doctrine of deterrence at all? It would be unwise of the Russians or any other potential adversary to suggest that they could take the risk of invading this or that country on the basis that we might have a misfire of one of our missiles.

  • Again, I agree with my hon. Friend. We should not forget that there were many in that particular debate who took the opposite view—the view that we no longer need the deterrent. I am particularly pleased that the overwhelming majority of Members of this House, on both sides of this House, voted in favour of renewing the deterrent that has kept us safe for so long.

  • We now know, despite her refusal to answer on “The Andrew Marr Show”, that the Prime Minister did know about this. May I ask the Secretary of State what specific discussions took place with the Prime Minister about whether to disclose this malfunction to Parliament, when these discussions took place, and how it was determined that the information should not be shared? Does the Secretary of State realise how woefully inadequate his responses today have been, both to this House and to the watching public?

  • It might well be that the hon. Lady and members of the watching public would like to know further operational details of our nuclear deterrent, but I am not going to assist them. On her specific point about the Prime Minister, this Prime Minister, like her predecessor, is kept informed about how the nuclear deterrent is maintained, and she was fully aware of the successful return of HMS Vengeance to the four-boat operational cycle.

  • Has my right hon. Friend followed the argument made by some Opposition Members that perhaps we would have voted differently had this information been given to us back in July? May I tell my right hon. Friend that that is not the case? We would not have been influenced by the result of one out of many tests. Indeed, is there any Conservative Member who would have voted differently had this information come out? No.

  • As my hon. Friend knows, I have not confirmed any information today. I have been rather careful to try not to confirm any particular information today, except to warn the House repeatedly not to believe everything that was in yesterday’s newspapers. Again, he is right to remind us that the vote in July was on the principle of the deterrent and our plans to replace the current Vanguard boats with the four new Dreadnought submarines.

  • When we voted in July last year on funding Trident, unfortunately the official Opposition were split. Properly informed scrutiny of such decisions is vital to the effective and accountable operation of the Secretary of State’s Department, so is he satisfied with the level of scrutiny from the official Opposition on this matter?

  • I have been disappointed for some time by the scrutiny of the official Opposition, but perhaps my fifth Defence shadow will improve on the record of her four predecessors—I am sure that she will.

    There is clearly a balance to be struck. Parliament is, rightly, keen to know details of the expenditure involved in replacing the four submarines, and that was a big part of the debate. We will make sure that the Defence Committee and the Public Accounts Committee are kept fully informed as the boat replacement programme continues.

  • The House will know of my special interest in the Royal Navy, which many of my constituents share. After more than 160 successful Trident missile tests, is it not ridiculous for some people to claim that this system does not work?

  • Let me reassure my hon. Friend, who takes a close interest in these matters, that the Trident system certainly does work. We are in absolutely no doubt about its capability and effectiveness.

  • It will come as no surprise to the Secretary of State that those of us who live within the blast zone of Faslane do not share his confidence. If he has absolute confidence in the capabilities of HMS Vengeance and of the system, what steps is his Department taking to rectify the errors in the aborted launch itself?

  • As I have already said, HMS Vengeance completed its demonstration and shakedown operation successfully, otherwise it would not have been able to rejoin the four-boat operational cycle.

  • Will my right hon. Friend confirm that while Devonport dockyard in my constituency was responsible for refitting and refuelling HMS Vengeance, the dockyard is not responsible for the missiles and weaponry, as some ill-informed people might think?

  • Yes, I can confirm that.

  • So far today in this mother of all Parliaments, we have had the Secretary of State at the Dispatch Box telling us that he does not believe in greater transparency and his Back Benchers agreeing with him. If this test was so successful, why did the Prime Minister not just give such an answer yesterday? Does he not understand that his just standing there and telling us that everything is okay—that everything will be okay for the rest of the duration of Trident—is not good enough, and that that is why I have constituents demanding an inquiry?

  • The hon. Gentleman and I disagree. I do not believe in greater transparency in this House when it comes to our nuclear deterrent.

  • With a resurgent Russia and an unstable world, does the Secretary of State agree that nothing that we have heard in today’s exchanges undermines the clear rationale for the renewal of our continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent to secure the long-term security of our country?

  • The security and effectiveness of the deterrent are of course underlined by the testing and shakedown programme, in which boats come out of their long-term refit and are tested again to see whether they are fit and ready to rejoin the operational cycle, which is what HMS Vengeance has now done.

  • Does not the Secretary of State’s characteristic “Name, rank and serial number—don’t tell him, Pike” approach actually make no sense at all given that, following the reports we have had, our American counterparts in Congress will certainly be given full details of what happened in the test? Does not his stonewalling do nothing to strengthen our security and everything to undermine the credibility of this House?

  • This is our deterrent carried by our submarine. The secrecy that we—I think rightly—put around it is in our national interest.

  • Does my right hon. Friend agree that ever since Clement Attlee sought our first nuclear deterrent without a debate in Parliament, and even without a debate within the Labour party, successive responsible Governments have always treated these issues with the utmost discretion, and that we must not allow the present tortured relationship between the Labour party and the nuclear deterrent to change that?

  • I do agree. Previous Governments have been very careful to maintain the secrecy of the deterrent; I think it is important that we keep to that.

  • Have there been any other missile test failures of this type that the Government have chosen not to share with the House of Commons, and am I better off asking that question or watching a White House briefing if I want to get that kind of information?

  • I am not confirming particular details of the operation and testing of the various systems and sub-systems involved. All I can do is remind the hon. Gentleman that, overall, the demonstration and shakedown operation was concluded successfully, allowing HMS Vengeance to take its part in the four-boat operational cycle.

  • To clear up any confusion, will the Secretary of State share with us whether there has been any change in the Government’s approach to informing the House of the demonstration and shakedown operation?

  • No, there has not. Previous Governments have not given details of previous demonstration and shakedown operations to Parliament.

  • The replacement of the Trident submarine system enjoys the support of not only the majority of Members of Parliament but, so polls tell us, the majority of people in every one of the four nations of the United Kingdom. Does the Secretary of State recognise that the way in which information is coming out—more has been revealed by the US Defence Department than in this Parliament in the past hour—massively undermines confidence in the system, which we need all the public to have?

  • No, I do not agree, and I do not think that members of the public agree either. I think they understand that the effectiveness of the deterrent depends on the secrecy that is needed about the detail of its operation.

  • Does my right hon. Friend agree that the continuing effectiveness of the system depends upon its routine testing? That testing is not a secret—in fact, the Opposition spokesperson was informed in advance. What would damage national security would be to give a running commentary on the success or otherwise of those tests.

  • I agree with my hon. Friend. Senior Members were informed of the forthcoming demonstration and shakedown operation. As I have described, the operation involves a series of complex tests of all the systems and sub-systems involved. That operation was concluded successfully.

  • What the Secretary of State has been saying today is that members of the public in this country have no right to know about a nuclear missile misfiring, but the people and the elected politicians of America do. How does he believe that that brings about any trust in the system?

  • It is our deterrent, carrying our missile, and it is for us to decide its level of security. That is why I am not going into particular operational details. Again, I caution the hon. Gentleman against believing everything that he has read in the weekend newspapers.

  • May I have an assurance from my right hon. Friend that if there is an investigation into the successful certification of HMS Vengeance last year, that information will remain classified for the sake of British national security?

  • It will remain not simply classified but top secret, as any information regarding our nuclear deterrent properly should.

  • The Prime Minister is ultimately responsible for our deterrent, but yet again she is not here to account to Parliament or to reassure the public and our allies.

    The Secretary of State has now been asked eight times who knew what when. On what date was the Prime Minister told, on what date was the former Prime Minister told, and on what date was the Secretary of State told? I am not asking for operational details; I am asking for dates.

  • The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) addressed the question to me, which is why I am here answering it.

    I have made it very clear that both Prime Ministers, who separately had ultimate responsibility for the nuclear deterrent, were kept fully informed as to how that deterrent is maintained. Both were made aware of the successful return of HMS Vengeance to the operational cycle.

  • Does my right hon. Friend agree with Steve Aiken, an experienced former submarine commander, who told a goading BBC this morning that this makes absolutely no difference to the case for renewal, and that the Government are correct in not commenting on matters that could prejudice our national defence, certainly on live television?

  • I completely agree with that.

  • Given that, as the Secretary of State has admitted, the Russians had to be informed in advance of the testing, and given that they clearly would have had the capability to monitor the test, is he seriously trying to tell us that our enemies and allies can know what happened, but this democratically elected Chamber must be kept in the dark?

  • Under our international treaty obligations, notice of a future test firing is given to other nuclear powers, including in this instance to France and, as the hon. Gentleman says, Russia, but operational details are obviously not disclosed.

  • Without reference to any particular test and the necessary security that must surround each test, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the very point of the testing process is not only to certify the crews of Her Majesty’s submarines, but to allow Lockheed Martin to maximise the reliability and lethality of the weapons system?

  • Yes, in essence, that is right. The system is tested to ensure that each of its complex parts and the various systems involved are fully understood and that the crew of the submarine concerned is ready to operate it. As I have said several times now, that operation was successfully concluded.

  • Many Opposition Members share the Defence Secretary’s commitment to the deterrent and, for that matter, his concern about national security, but the logic of what he is saying is that there was a security breach, and it happened this weekend, as American officials are now briefing CNN and British officials are secretly briefing The Guardian and The Sunday Times. Surely, according to his own logic, there must now be a full investigation.

  • We certainly deplore the leakage of any information about the nuclear deterrent, but it is not for me to comment on what might be said by the United States Administration. This is our submarine and our deterrent, and it is our responsibility to apply to it the very highest security classification.

  • Will my right hon. Friend confirm that no Government have ever routinely reported on operational matters relating to our nuclear deterrent, because to do so would be not only irresponsible but dangerous?

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely correct.

  • The Secretary of State says that decisions on media publicity are taken on a case-by-case basis. Was the decision not to publicise this test taken before or after the test? Was any footage taken and were any journalists present in case a decision had been made to publicise it?

  • The decision on what publicity to give to any particular test—these tests take place every four or five years—is taken by the Government of the day in the light of the circumstances of each test and the national security considerations applying at the time. Of course those matters influenced the decision taken last June.

  • Since we have to notify other nuclear powers every time a missile test takes place, the number will not be unknown to them, so can the Secretary of State confirm to the House that there have been 160 tests of the Trident missile system? If he can, will that not give our constituents full confidence that the system provides us with the deterrent that we need?

  • I think that my hon. Friend is broadly correct about the number, but if I am wrong, I hope that he will allow me to write to him with the correct figure. The Government have every confidence in the Trident deterrent system. As I have said, we would not have brought the motion before the House if we had had any doubt about it.

  • Despite the Secretary of State’s refusal to clarify, it is commonly understood that the missile went the wrong way. I am no expert, but that strikes me as a major flaw; friendly fire with a nuclear weapon is not exactly what he might be looking for. Will he at least tell us whether the new Trident missiles will have better guidance systems?

  • I am not able to confirm the speculation in which the hon. Lady is indulging regarding the route of the missile that was fired.

  • Does the Secretary of State agree that much as there is no doubt about the valour of the men and women of the Royal Navy who keep us safe, we must equally use discretion when talking about the weapons systems that they use to keep us safe?

  • Absolutely. We owe it to the crews on whom a lifetime obligation of secrecy is placed that we do not break the security classification of the information surrounding the deterrent, nor treat that information in any frivolous way.

  • The Secretary of State has been quizzed for more than an hour, and I have not heard any Member asking for any operational details that might compromise national security. We simply want to know whether this test was successful or not. His refusal to answer that question when his counterpart across the Atlantic is answering it surely gives credence to the concerns that it was not successful and that, as well as not being a deterrent, this system simply might not work.

  • When the hon. Gentleman reads the account of today’s proceedings, I think he will see that I have been asked for all kinds of operational details. Let me repeat to him that the demonstration and shakedown operation, of which this was one of a number of tests, was concluded satisfactorily.

  • Many residents of my Clydeside constituency, some of whom live within 13 miles of the base at Faslane, are extremely angry about this Government’s complete lack of transparency on this crucial matter. Can the Secretary of State assure us that any significant problem arising from any future test firing will be reported to this House at his earliest convenience, or will we have to wait for The Sunday Times to confirm it?

  • I think that those who work on our behalf at Faslane are very much aware of the importance of the secrecy with which they naturally have to concur. I think they understand that obligation. Even though the hon. Gentleman does not, I think they, too, support the importance of the deterrent.

  • On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

  • I shall take this point of order from the originator of the urgent question if it relates exclusively to the matters that have just been under discussion, and if it is an attempt not to continue the exchanges, but to provide some new information with which the hon. Gentleman thinks the House should be favoured.

  • Thank you, Mr Speaker.

    It has become apparent during these proceedings that US officials are now briefing more detail than has been provided by the Secretary of State today. He has hidden behind secrecy for the demonstration and shakedown, even though his own Department authorised a book by Peter Hennessy last year that gave a full description of what happens. The Chair of the Select Committee very generously suggested that the Secretary of State could come before his Committee. How can Parliament hold the Department to account on this issue if it will not even take up the generous offer that the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) has already made?

  • I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I say simply that the Secretary of State will have heard the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), the Chair of the Select Committee, who is extremely diligent, extraordinarily intelligent and persistent—and I have known him a damn sight longer than the Secretary of State has known him. How the Secretary of State wants to deal with the right hon. Member for New Forest East is entirely a matter for him and his judgment, exercising it to the best of his ability. We will leave it there for now.