Parliamentary question: Trident replacement

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House of Commons - Nuclear Deterrent - 6 June 2005

8. *Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)* (Con): Whether it is his policy to replace Trident with a new generation of strategic nuclear deterrent. [1923]

10. *Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin)* (Con): Whether the decision has been taken in principle in favour of a new generation strategic nuclear deterrent. [1925]

*The Secretary of State for Defence (John Reid): *Labour's recent general election manifesto spelled out our commitment to the retention of the independent nuclear deterrent. However, as I confirmed to the House on 18 May, no decision on any replacement for Trident has been taken, either in principle or otherwise.

*Mr. Swayne: *The Secretary of State will be aware that last year's White Paper stated categorically that a decision on the replacement for Trident would need to be taken in the lifetime of this Parliament. Does he agree with that, and does he still believe in the principle that Britain should continue to hold a nuclear deterrent so long as others do so?

*John Reid: *The answer to the first question is yes, and the answer to the second is that I have already answered it by reading out our manifesto commitment, which made it clear that we are committed to retaining an independent nuclear deterrent.

*Mark Pritchard: *I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but I am rather intrigued by its vagueness. My question on the Order Paper is quite clear in referring to the principle. Will the Secretary of State therefore underline again the Government's view of the principle-not the platform or the technology-of the UK having its own nuclear deterrent? Despite the unilateralists on the Government Benches behind him, I hope that he will reassure the House by saying yes to that principle.

*John Reid: *I can do no better than read out my initial answer. It must be my accent that has troubled the hon. Gentleman-/[Interruption.]/ Incidentally, I take great offence at the comparison between my accent and the Minister of State's, as mine is much posher than his. I have been modelling myself for years on the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), who is in his place, as he so often is for defence debates.

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Let me repeat my first answer: Labour's recent general election manifesto spelled out our commitment to the retention of the independent nuclear deterrent. If the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) is still intrigued, I can read out our manifesto. Given his suspicions of anyone who fails to mention or who is against nuclear weapons, it may be even more intriguing for the House if I read out the Conservative party manifesto. There is no mention of nuclear weapons at all in that. I searched for some reference to them, but found only the brilliant analysis that the world is obviously more dangerous-

*Mr. Speaker: *Order. I think that we can all read party manifestos in our leisure time.

*Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)* (Lab): Are not nuclear weapons macho politics for the countries that want them, but extremely dangerous if many countries adopt the same attitude? The former US Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara, is in Parliament today. Does the Secretary of State agree with him that human fallibility and nuclear weapons mean the destruction of nations? Will not a new generation of nuclear weapons blow apart our obligations to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and make future international agreement unachievable?

*John Reid: *I sincerely hope not, and I take my hon. Friend's point about the great danger of proliferation. That is why, during the strategic defence review, which I had the honour to chair under the noble Lord Robertson, we diminished the number of our warheads, reduced the targeting of those warheads and reduced the number of Trident submarines at sea at any time. It is also why we have been supportive on the non-proliferation treaty and expressed disappointment that, despite our efforts, we did not make further advances in the recent period of that treaty. I can assure my hon. Friend that anything we do in future will be fully consistent with our obligations under the NPT.

*Alison Seabeck(Plymouth, Devonport)* (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend outline some of the key milestones in the lead-up to this important decision, and will he ensure that the interests of those who work in Devonport dockyard are listened to with care?

*John Reid: *I welcome my hon. Friend to the House and promise that, as ever, I will listen with great care to anyone connected with Devonport. I have to say that it is a little too early to highlight particular milestones, other than to say that the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) was right to suggest that a decision will have to be taken during the course of this Parliament, although the decision we take-whether we modify, replace, update or diminish Trident-will not take effect in the course of this Parliament. Indeed, that lies some decades ahead.

*Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk)* (LD): On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I join the Secretary of State in passing on our condolences to the families and friends of servicemen who have recently given their lives while serving this country.

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The strategic nuclear deterrent has been a crucial aspect of Britain's defences in the post-war period, and we continue to support it. We recognise that there are rapidly changing threats to the United Kingdom and the rest of the world, not least the danger of proliferation of nuclear weapons. As the Government consider the possible replacement of Trident, and in the aftermath of the failure of the review conference for the non-proliferation treaty, will the Secretary of State make it clear how the UK will take forward its obligations under article 6, and will he tell us how he will implement the Government's welcome manifesto pledge to put an end to the international network of trade in weapons of mass destruction?

*John Reid: *Our record illustrates the lengths to which we are prepared to go to stand against that trade, potential or otherwise, or the coming together of terrorist groups and weapons of mass destruction. To be asked about a resolution of that question from the Liberal Benches surprises me, however. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has been deeply involved in dealing with the general arms trade, and I think that we will get a fruitful outcome.

The hon. Gentleman makes a legitimate point about the relationship between our continuing consideration of the retention of our independent nuclear deterrent and our NPT obligations. I assure him, as I assured my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) a second ago, that before we take any decision on our independent nuclear deterrent, we will need to look at a range of options, including the different ways in which new systems might provide deterrence. There are also options for extending the life of elements of the existing system. I assure the hon. Gentleman that all those will be considered in the context of the prevailing international situation and our NPT obligations.

*Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)* (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that a replacement for Trident would be compatible with our obligations under the non-proliferation treaty?

*John Reid: *As a general statement, it could be-/[Interruption.]/ Conservative Members, who could not spend even three words in their manifesto discussing this important issue, laugh at that judicious use of words. Of course, we have to use our words judiciously. To my hon. Friend, I say that the answer depends on what we do: if we replace the existing system with a massive increase in our capability, that may not be compatible; if we reduce capability, that may well be compatible. So the answer to the question is precisely as I said: it could well be in line with our existing obligations.

*Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)* (Con): Am I alone in having detected in the Secretary of State's first answer a slight contradiction? He quoted the manifesto as stating that his party believed in the continuation of the nuclear deterrent, but went on to say that no decision had been taken in principle on that very matter. The question that he was asked and on which my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) was right to press him was whether in principle the Government think that this country should continue to.

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possess nuclear weapons as long as other countries have them. Do not the contributions of his colleagues the hon. Members for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) and for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) show the sort of difficulties that he will run into if he accepts such a principle? As for the Conservative position, I refer the Secretary of State to early-day motion 149, which enunciates that principle. Will he sign it and encourage his colleagues to sign it?

*John Reid: *I am sure that the whole nation is reassured by the fact that when it went to the polls assuming that there was no nuclear policy it could have referred to early-day motion 149, which outlines one. The hon. Gentleman has been a strong supporter of our independent nuclear deterrent over many years, and I have discussed many issues with him, but he perceives wrongly if he perceives a contradiction in my first two statements. I said, first, that our manifesto commits the Labour Government to the retention of our independent nuclear deterrent, and, secondly, that we had not taken a decision in principle about the replacement of the existing system because that decision, in principle and in practice, must await the outcome of our deliberations, considerations and analysis. I said that that would happen in the context of prevailing international conditions and our obligations under the NPT. He should therefore be in no doubt that the two statements are not contradictory in any way.

*Angus Robertson (Moray)* (SNP): I welcome the Secretary of State, and his accent, to his new position, but I remind him of the recent opinion poll indicating that 78 per cent. of Scots are opposed to the replacement of Trident. In a time of procurement overspends and cuts in the Navy, the Air Force and the Army, why do the Government not fully fund conventional defence, rather than wasting £20 billion on weapons of mass destruction?

*John Reid: *I am too emollient a character to point out that 82 per cent. of Scots are opposed to the SNP, but that has not persuaded the hon. Gentleman of the wrongness of his position. Of course we listen carefully to opinion polls, but the prevailing message from them over many decades is that if people are asked whether, as long as other nations have a nuclear deterrent, this nation should retain one, some two thirds of the population consistently say yes. I have made plain the terms of our manifesto commitment to the retention of an independent nuclear deterrent. I have also made it plain that we have taken no decisions in principle or in practice about the replacement of the existing system. The hon. Gentleman will have to await further discussions, and it may be useful to wait until we have given the matter some consideration before demanding answers from me.