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Nuclear Weapons

Volume 808: debated on Wednesday 25 November 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the ratification by 50 countries of the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, what plans they have to review their policies towards nuclear weapons.

My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government keep their nuclear deterrents policy and posture under continual review, taking into consideration their commitments to maintaining the United Kingdom’s nuclear deterrent for as long as the global security situation demands, and to the long-term goal of a world without nuclear weapons.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. There is common ground with the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons because that is the shorter term goal, too. However, with the collapse of so many non-proliferation treaties and the failure of the 2015 round of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty to reach a consensus, is the Minister confident that the next round of the non-proliferation treaty, which must take place before April, will reach some consensus as a way forward? The 122 countries that signed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons are desperate that nuclear weapons states are not making sufficient efforts to fulfil their obligations under pillar 3. What dialogues have the Government had to date on achieving a consensus and success at the next round of the NPT?

The Government remain constantly engaged. There is probably a fundamental difference of philosophy between an attitude towards a non-proliferation treaty and an attitude towards a prohibition treaty. Certainly, the Government believe that the non-proliferation treaty has been successful because it is built on foundations of consensus and delivers tangible benefits for all its signatories. It continues to make a significant contribution to international security and stability, and that is what this Government want to promote and support.

My Lords, recently I and a number of other Bishops issued a public letter welcoming the important ratification of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Can the Minister comment on the moral inconsistency, whereby we have rightly taken a stand on outlawing cluster bombs and landmines but not outlawing nuclear weapons, which, as we know, are far more destructive when they are used?

At the heart of the question asked by the right reverend Prelate is the relevance of the term “deterrent”. Very often people measure the deterrent a failure because it has not been used. I would argue the exact opposite—that the measure of a deterrent’s success is that it has not been used, because it is doing its job of deterring.

Can the Minister confirm the Government’s continued adherence to a policy of continuous at sea deterrents—namely, one of our Trident submarines, permanently on patrol and ready to reply, should our supreme national interest so require?

Yes, I can confirm to my noble friend our commitment to the continuous at sea deterrent. When the Prime Minister launched the integrated review, he specifically reaffirmed the UK’s commitment to that deterrent and the UK’s support of NATO.

My Lords, bearing in mind how much the cost of the nuclear deterrent has destabilised the defence budget, have HMG considered relieving it of this cost as part of the welcome recent addition to the resources allocated to defence and security?

I would respond to the noble Lord by observing that the Government recognise that the cost of maintaining and renewing the deterrent is substantial. Equally, the Government are clear that the safety and security of the United Kingdom is a long-term issue and immediate economic pressures are not sufficient rationale for taking risks with the security of the nation and British public far into the future. The costs have been and will continue to be subjected to cross-government scrutiny, but the underlying rationale for the deterrent is the safety of the country and its citizens.

I refer noble Lords to my interests as reported in the register, as chair of the Nuclear Education Trust. As the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said, the TPNW comes into effect on 22 January 2021. The list of prohibitions includes use, stockpiling, testing, production, manufacture, stationing and installation of nuclear weapons. In that context, can the Minister tell us what current government thinking is about the possibility of defence diversification to provide alternative good-quality jobs for those currently engaged in the process of replacing the existing nuclear arsenal? We know that science and industry can respond very quickly when necessary, as we have seen during the Covid pandemic.

I simply observe that the commitment to the deterrent is very significant in terms of defence capability, planning and cost, and is a long-term commitment. We deploy our best scientific and technical skills to that programme, and there is no proposal to distract from that activity.

My Lords, the Minister suggested that there is probably a different philosophy between those who believe in a non-proliferation regime and those who believe in a prohibition regime. Can she tell the House what work the Government are doing to take us down the nuclear ladder and reduce the amount of nuclear capabilities, because surely the aim we all have is a multilateral solution to ending nuclear weapons?

Let me offer some cheer to the noble Baroness by agreeing with her last point. The difficulty lies not so much in the objective, which is shared by many people, but in the journey to reach it. That is why the United Kingdom believes that the non-proliferation treaty not only offers focus but is a treaty entered into by all the nuclear states. I am not aware of any nuclear state joining the prohibition treaty. It is entered into because those nuclear states believe that the non-proliferation treaty provides focus and verification, and that it has a record of delivering.

On 24 January 2021, it will be 75 years since the General Assembly of the United Nations first pledged to rid the world of nuclear weapons, while meeting at Central Hall, Westminster. Is my noble friend aware that many of us who have argued vigorously against unilateral nuclear disarmament feel passionately about the need for greater progress in multilateral disarmament? I welcome the UK’s leadership in reducing our nuclear stockpile. Will the Government use the upcoming 75th anniversary to urge other nuclear states to follow suit?

As always, my noble friend makes an interesting and informed contribution. He underlines my earlier point about why we have the deterrent and what the test of a successful deterrent is. I assure him that the United Kingdom Government support multilateral nuclear disarmament, but we believe that the non-proliferation treaty is the most effective means of progressing that objective.

We welcome the long overdue commitment on defence spending announced last week but, according to the National Audit Office, poor management of Britain’s nuclear weapons programme has led to infrastructure projects being delayed by six years and costs increasing by £1.3 billion. Can the Minister say how much of the £16 billion increase in spending will be used to complete the nuclear programme upgrades?

I cannot attach specific sums of money to the particular components to which the noble Lord refers. He will understand the Government’s commitment to the Dreadnought programme, an extensive, ambitious and challenging programme. We remain on track to deliver the first of class into service in the early 2030s, which we will do within the costs envelope announced in the National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015. That estimated the cost to be £31 billion and set aside a £10 billion contingency fund.

Which makes for better policy, and why, when there are force expansions by adversaries in capability, capacity, doctrine and battle-readiness: on the one hand, reinforcing our seat on the Security Council, NATO leverage and special relationship status, or, on the other, recognising our new status as a lesser-tier country but with a strategy of balancing the extent of the threat with nuclear disarmament and adopting more of a practical focus on IT capabilities and retaining 0.7% as our foreign aid contribution?

Responding from the perspective of defence, I do not accept the premise of the noble Viscount’s question. When we are dealing with threats to security and the safety of our country and our citizens, we go down all routes—security routes, MoD roots and diplomatic routes—and they are all vital. The recent settlement offered by the Government to the MoD reflects the importance that we attach to that.