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Nuclear Weapons

Volume 801: debated on Tuesday 14 January 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the (1) management of, and (2) overspend on, the United Kingdom’s nuclear weapons programme.

My Lords, as the National Audit Office has acknowledged, nuclear infrastructure projects are often large and complex, with bespoke designs. We are carefully examining the report’s conclusions and shall respond formally in due course. We are committed to strengthening the management of nuclear programmes, including investing significantly in infrastructure and working closely with regulators and industry partners.

My Lords, the recent National Audit Office report on nuclear deterrents found that the UK’s nuclear weapons programme is overrunning by £1.3 billion, partly due to poorly written MoD contracts which resulted in the Government paying for mismanagement and delays, rather than the companies responsible. Will the Minister explain where the money will be found for these extra costs? I hope it will not be from the dreadfully overstretched MoD equipment budget. Will she confirm that the integrated security, defence and foreign policy review will examine how the MoD negotiates? Will she set out what has been done to build up departmental skills in nuclear capacity?

In relation to the noble Lord’s second-last question, the review will be broad-ranging and its remit will become clear. The MoD expects to have a relevant role to play in responding to that review. The National Audit Office report is not an easy one for the MoD; we are quite clear about that. At the same time, as the report itself recognises, these projects are at the top end of technical, contractual and structural complexity; they do not come much tougher than these. It is important to get this into some kind of timescale perspective. It is good to see that the report recognises, under the heading of acknowledging MoD improvements, that the department has made improvements since the establishment of the DNO in 2016. These are important improvements, because they include material changes to the organisational structure, to improving relationships and to contract renegotiations.

My Lords, when will the first of the Dreadnought class missile-carrying submarines go to sea and when will they subsequently enter formal service?

With some hesitation, I will give a specific answer to that question. As my noble friend will know, the programme is on train for delivery and the submarines are expected to be completed within the estimated timespan of the early 2030s. I am reluctant to give more specific indications than that. Good progress is being made and they are being monitored and assessed. In due course, we will be able to report more specifically on expected dates for delivery.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the credibility of the deterrent itself depends on the credibility of the programme to produce it, and that the failure to learn from the mistakes of the past will be meat and drink to the predatory ambitions for her department of Mr Dominic Cummings?

I sometimes think that that my department receives attention from a number of predatory sources, and I shall not be specific in designating them. I was candid with the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, that this has been a bumpy journey for the MoD. But, as was acknowledged by the NAO, the important thing is that improvements have been made, deficiencies have been recognised and corrective action has been taken. For this highly complicated, very technical and challenging project, the MoD is on track—indeed, the material changes have facilitated a far better understanding by the MoD of the nuclear enterprise.

My Lords, few people in this House are as familiar with these enormously complex and demanding projects as my noble friend who put the Question. His record in that area is astounding. Can the Minister answer his question about the £1.3 billion? Where is that coming from? Hopefully it is not at the expense of other parts of the defence budget.

My understanding is that these costs are in many respects now historic; they have been absorbed and budgeted for. The MoD has benefited from the £10 billion contingency funding made available by the Treasury in recognition of how unusual and challenging these projects are. We are satisfied that they are on budget.

My Lords, I am slightly confused. Traditionally, our nuclear deterrent was funded from the Treasury. Is that still the case, or is it now part of the MoD costs? That has a tremendous bearing on the original Question—whether it would have a knock-on effect on procurement. I am happy for her to consult the Minister beside her.

I do not want to get lost in or confuse your Lordships with accountancy semantics. My understanding is that the initial money comes from the Treasury but goes into the budget of the MoD, which then has to meet its spend obligations.

My Lords, has the MoD done any contingency planning for the extra cost of maintaining our nuclear deterrent if and when Scotland becomes independent?

That is not something currently presenting itself to us. There may be strong rhetoric from certain presences in Scotland, but it is also very clear that the strong majority opinion in Scotland is that independence is not something Scotland currently wants. The MoD, like the UK Government, will respond to any events as they unfold and to any changes in constitutional governance—if they ever emerge.