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Big BenProliferation in Parliament

Back to the main page on the UK

Winter 2008 - 2009

Previous editions of Proliferation in Parliament are available at www.acronym.org.uk/parliament

Letter from retired military leaders

A letter to the Times, from Field Marshal Lord Bramall, General Lord Ramsbotham and General Sir Hugh Beach reignited the debate on Trident renewal. "Nuclear weapons have shown themselves to be completely useless as a deterrent to the threats and scale of violence we currently, or are likely to, face particularly international terrorism; and the more you analyse them the more unusable they appear," the letter states.

Lifting the Nuclear Shadow launch

The UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office is expected to launch its long awaited Policy Information Paper on nuclear policy on 4 February. The Paper is expected to build on the article by David Miliband in the Guardian's Comment is Free, which set out "six key steps necessary to move the world towards the abolition of nuclear weapons".

Secretary of State for Defence speech on NATO

In a speech to the Wilton Park conference on the future of NATO, Secretary of State for Defence John Hutton argued that "the time is right for NATO to commission work on a new Strategic Concept". However, in contrast with the recent call by IPPR's Commission on National Security for the government "to ensure that the review of NATO's strategic concept, being carried out in 2009 and 2010, produces a result sensitive to and supportive of the requirements of a successful outcome to the NPT Review Conference in 2010", Hutton called for the new Strategic Concept to "recognise the ongoing relevance of nuclear deterrence as one of its fundamental security tasks."

Queen's Speech Debates

This year's Commons Foreign Affairs and Defence debate on the Queen's speech was opened by Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who renewed the UK's commitment to a world without nuclear weapons and said that the UK would work for CTBT entry into force and "to push forward multilateral negotiations on a treaty to end the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons".

Following his speech to IISS setting out the Conservative response to the Shultz, Kissinger, Perry and Nunn initiatives (see Proliferation in Parliament, July 2008), Shadow Foreign Affairs Spokesperson William Hague called for a "higher level of political priority and governmental commitment, from the Prime Minister down" for efforts on counter-proliferation, nuclear reductions and to control the nuclear fuel cycle.

Liberal Democrat Edward Davey was the only one of the party spokespeople to question the UK's own nuclear weapon programme. "There is one aspect of that policy area on which the Liberal Democrats disagree with both the Conservatives and the Labour Government: their support for the renewal of our Trident nuclear deterrent," he said, "That was a premature decision taken ahead of the 2010 non-proliferation treaty review conference."

Former Conservative Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, recently returned from the Global Zero launch in Paris, devoted his entire speech to a call for a "serious new urgency" for progress on nuclear reductions. Rifkind argued that "there can be no credible, logical or rational reason why we cannot massively reduce the number of nuclear weapons from the 27,000 around the world" and that "only by making major progress in that direction can we be sure of the continuation of the non-proliferation treaty."

Fellow Conservative Michael Ancram leant his support to Rifkind's speech, differing only on the question of whether Britain could play a leadership role in moving towards multinational disarmament whilst committing itself to renew Trident. "That gives the wrong message," Mr Ancram argued, emphasising that "that is why I voted as I did in the debate on the renewal of Trident".

Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn used his speech to draw attention to "growing support for the concept of a nuclear weapons convention that all states can join".

Responding for the Government Secretary of State for Defence John Hutton (in whose constituency, Barrow & Furness, the new Trident submarines will be built) gave a robust defence of Trident: "Of course, we would all welcome a world free of nuclear weapons, because that is the sane and, it is to be hoped, it will be the happy outcome of all these discussions, but we must defend ourselves..." "The Government are not prepared to deny future generations the benefit and security that current generations have enjoyed from the nuclear deterrent," he added.

Foreign Affairs Committee Global Security: Non-Proliferation Inquiry

The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee is currently conducting an inquiry on Global Security: Non-Proliferation. The following oral evidence sessions were held in November:

In his evidence Malcolm Chalmers highlighted the "concern that nuclear weapons might one day be used, by accident or deliberately, which would create a transformation in international politics, very much for ill." "The problem of nuclear weapons is not confined simply to new states. It is also characteristic of those who already possess them," he said.

Fabian Hamilton MP (Labour) noted that "Iranians look to the UK and they say, as some of our interlocutors did indeed say, 'Well, you are just extending the life of your own nuclear weapons.' We recognise that that extension is allowable within the NPT, but do you not think that that shows a bit of a double standard?" Whilst Mark Fitzpatrick commented that "Iran's pursuit has nothing to do with the United Kingdom", Malcolm Chalmers noted that, "I think that the audience for steps towards nuclear disarmament by the existing nuclear weapons states is more the broader international community of the vast majority of NPT members who are in good standing and are not developing nuclear weapons, to show them that we are in compliance with the treaty and that it is Iran that is not in compliance, rather than to influence Iran's decision making directly."

In her evidence Baroness Williams informed the Committee that her role as a Commissioner for the Rudd Commission was "in a personal capacity, but I have the approval of the Prime Minister, although I did not ask for it. He wrote me a very nice letter saying he was pleased that I was on it." She also explained that "the key role of the new commission arises, at least in part, from what I would almost describe as the quite considerable anger, or certainly irritation, of the non-nuclear weapons powers... I have not often heard such outspoken comments as I heard at the 2008 preparatory committee of the NPT in Geneva a few months ago, particularly from some rather surprising countries... it was clear at the meeting of the review conference that Lord Malloch-Brown and I attended in May, that there was a very powerful feeling that something had to be done by the nuclear weapon states."

On Iran, Baroness Williams' view was that "one of the main reasons for Iran being obscure and leaving open the question of whether it is or is not developing nuclear weapons is that, because until very recently the United States was not prepared to talk directly to it or to recognise it diplomatically, it has been unable to establish a diplomatic presence in the region, so it uses the obscurity about whether it has a weapons programme as a way of compelling people to recognise its role in the region." She urged the government to "encourage the new [US] President, and perhaps even more so those people around him, such as the Secretary of State and the new Secretary of Defence-or perhaps the same Secretary of Defence-to consider sitting down and talking."

Lord Robertson made the case for NATO to do more to counter proliferation and strengthen non-proliferation, saying that this was one of the objectives of the NATO-Russia Council. The Council has been stymied in recent years as a result of disagreements including on missile defence, and most recently the Georgia crisis. Robertson proposed that, "The sooner it is resurrected, the better. The sooner it starts to look at that agenda, which included missile defence and non-proliferation, the better it will be and the more contribution it can make."

Both Sir Michael Quinlan and Robertson raised concerns about US plans for missile defence. Quinlan said that he was "deeply sceptical" about the value of the programme, whilst Robertson said that, he was "not yet convinced that they have got it technically correct and, again, diplomacy is being overwhelmed by something that may not have been thought through."

On nuclear disarmament, Robertson acknowledged that, "people use the modernisation of Trident as an excuse for what they might see as joining our club." He suggested that, "If there was a movement, especially by the United States and Russia, who are massively over-armed at the moment, it would, in my view, encourage the process that we are talking about of putting regimes in place."

Quinlan argued that he was "all in favour... of our squeezing down as tightly as we can, and it may be that we can go further. I would hope, for example, that we will finish off with three submarines, not four, although I know that there are complicated operational questions there. Perhaps 12 missile troops, rather than 16-things of that kind. That would help us in the wider context, as I described, but I find it very hard to believe that those would influence whatever calculations are being made in that rather opaque regime [Iran]."

The Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry will continue in 2009.

Public Accounts Committee Hearing on Trident

Following publication of the National Audit Office report on the future of Trident, in November the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee took oral evidence from MoD officials, Sir Bill Jeffrey, Permanent Under Secretary of State, Dr Paul Hollinshead, Director, Strategic Requirement, Mr Guy Lester, Director General, Equipment, and Rear Admiral A D H Mathews, CB, Director General, Submarines.

The Committee addressed a wide range of issues relating to the procurement of replacements for the Trident submarines, but did not address other aspects of the programme such as developments at the Atomic Weapons Establishments. The Committee is expected to consider the Trident programme again next year, following the initial gate decision in September 2009, so Committee members will have the opportunity at this stage if they choose, also to consider looking at developments and costs at AWE, in the run up to decisions on the future of the warhead.

Members of the Committee queried whether Parliament would have the opportunity to approve the initial gate decision on whether to enter the Assessment Phase and place a full design contract for the submarine in September 2009. Ian Davidson MP (Labour/Co-op) asked, "Will we be given the opportunity to approve it before the summer, which means you have to take a decision earlier, or will it wait until October or November, in which case there will be a delay?" Bill Jeffrey responded that the MoD "would be reporting to Parliament as soon as Parliament returned on the key elements." Mr Davidson continued, "you would be reporting what you had done but obviously it would be for our approval." However, the MoD response was that these decisions "would normally be taken by Ministers".

Several MPs were worried that monopoly suppliers in the nuclear submarine industry such as BAE Systems and Rolls Royce had too much leverage over the government in negotiations on costs and contract. As the Committee Chair Edward Leigh (Conservative) put it, "The trouble is that your contractors know exactly how much money you have. They know that it has to come in by a certain date. They have you over a barrel, have they not?"

MPs also questioned the timeline and budget for the Trident submarine programme following considerable cost overruns for the Astute-class submarines. Alan Williams (Labour) highlighted cost overruns with the Trident bases at Faslane and Coulport in the 1990s raising concerns about "potential similarities". "It was Christmas Day every day for the contractors," Mr Williams commented, "This looks to be an absolute blueprint for going down the same route."

In his comments Bill Jeffries insisted that it had been necessary for Parliament to take the decision to proceed with Trident renewal in 2007, because the timing for replacement of the submarines "is quite tight". However, he acknowledged that "current" MoD thinking is that "we can extend the Vanguard class by five years which would be quite a normal period of extension. It is quite possible that it could be extended for longer."

Labour MP Austin Mitchell queried why the 2005 Defence Industrial Strategy had established "the principle that the United Kingdom would retain all those capabilities unique to submarines", saying that submarines were essentially a "residue of Cold War thinking".

Committee members also questioned the implications of dependence on the United States (echoing concerns dating back to when Britain was forced to abandon Skybolt in the 1960s, following US cancellation of the project) both for delivery of a common missile compartment design and for compatibility with a successor to the D5 missile.

The MoD officials argued that "the independence of our deterrent lies in our ability to operate it independently" rather than the "significant respects in which we are dependent materially on the American contribution". However, in his concluding remarks Edward Leigh commented: "I am certainly extremely concerned about this point that we are going to have to design these submarines before the Americans make their final decision on the design of the missile compartment, which appears to be the absolutely crucial point."

Other Trident News

In response to a written question from Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker, John Hutton stated that the "costs of the current Trident nuclear deterrent are estimated at around 15.7 billion for acquisition at 2008-09 prices and around 19.3 billion on the same price basis for in-service costs from entry into service until final disposal". This estimate does not include the cost of of running AWE, however.

Following questions from Nick Harvey MP (Liberal Democrat Defence Spokesperson) Mr Hutton also confirmed that following the exchange of letters between President Bush and Tony Blair in 2006 the US and the UK have been carrying out "enhanced collaborations" under the 1958 Mutual Defence Agreement (MDA) in order to "support the UK's nuclear stockpile stewardship programme and contribute to the ongoing review of warhead options". AWE is also coordinating a Warhead Pre-Concept Working Group, which is examining both the optimum life of the UK's existing nuclear warhead stockpile and the range of replacement options, with some assistance from US personnel under the terms of the MDA.

In Scotland, the Commission on Scottish Devolution has received evidence from the Ministry of Defence (see Nuclear Non-Proliferation News, December 2008). In its memorandum the MoD notes that "Experience has shown that the majority of issues can be resolved through discussion and cooperation. However, this becomes much more challenging in areas where the devolved administration in Scotland has views or policies that are at odds with those of the Government. The most obvious example is in relation to the nuclear deterrent." "For MOD, the overriding priority is clearly to ensure that the defence of the nation is never put at risk," the document concludes, implying that the Ministry is concerned about the possible impact of the Scottish Government's establishment of the Scotland Without Nuclear Weapons Working Group on Trident.

Nuclear Security Project Early Day Motion (EDM)

An EDM tabled by James Arbuthnot MP (Chair Defence Committee, Conservative) welcomed the Nuclear Security Project and the letter to the Times by Lords Hurd, Owen, Robertson and Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP and called for the UK government to stimulate and support further developments which enhance the prospects for non-proliferation and a fresh drive for nuclear disarmament. The EDM eventually attracted 277 signatories including members from all the major political parties before the end of the parliamentary session.

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Index

Westminster Parliament

Debates

Select Committee Inquiries

Questions

Scottish Parliament

Related Documents

Further documents on non-proliferation and disarmament can be found at www.acronym.org.uk/docs

Key to Column Numbering

W Written Answers, House of Commons
WS Written Ministerial Statements, House of Commons
WA Written Answer, House of Lords
Column number with no letters Oral Proceedings in the House of Commons

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