Proliferation in Parliament: A Review of recent developments in the UK Government & Parliament, Spring 2013

22 April 2013

The Spring 2013 edition of Proliferation in Parliament offers a review of news, debates and developments in the UK Parliament and Government on issues relating to nuclear weapons, disarmament and proliferation.  It is published in mid-April 2013 as parliamentarians return following the Easter recess and covers the period from mid-January through to mid-April in advance of the 2013 NPT Preparatory Committee meeting.

­This edition of Proliferation in Parliament begins by considering the approaches of the three main political parties to Trident renewal and UK nuclear weapons policy, with a particular look at the increasingly vociferousdebate over alternatives to like-for-like replacement including ditching the policy of continuous at-sea deterrence (CASD).  The period since January 2013 has seen heightened activity on the Trident issue with parliamentary debates in both the Commons and the Lords, and continuing discussions over the future of Trident in the event of Scottish independence, albeit with limited engagement from the UK government who have been criticised for their lack of contingency planning.  There has been a steady flow of parliamentary questions on Trident renewal and concerns have been raised around issues relating to the maintenance and deployment of the UK’s current nuclear weapons system.

The second part of the review focuses on how developments in the international arena have led parliamentarians to call the UK government to account for its policies on nuclear weapons.  This has been particularly notable in relation to the Norwegian government’s March 4-5 conference on humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons but is also relevant in the context of other disarmament & non-­proliferation issues such as the 2013 NPT Preparatory Committee, the “postponed” Middle East WMD Free Zone conference and the UK’s approach to nuclear disarmament in general.  The UK’s role in successfully securing the long-awaited Arms Trade Treaty has been congratulated and parliamentarians have actively monitored UK efforts to deal with proliferation challenges by North Korea, Iran, Israel, India and Pakistan.

UK Trident in the spotlight

Playing Party Politics with Trident


Faced with increasing parliamentary and public interest in the debate over Trident and the UK’s continued possession of nuclear weapons, Prime Minister David Cameron (Conservative, Witney) in April set about trying to justify the government’s planned renewal of Trident in an oped for the Conservative-supporting British broadsheet The Daily Telegraph.  Described by The Guardian as “the most public defence of the UK's Trident missile system of his premiership”, the article was published to coincide with the PM’s visit to the Faslane nuclear base in Scotland where he marked the return of HMS Victorious – one of the UK’s four Trident-armed submarines – as it completed the 100th patrol by a Vanguard Class submarine.  It was the second such ministerial level visit in less than 6 months, and was perceived as a pre-independence referendum attempt to win over the Scottish public, long opposed to nuclear weapons, on the basis of Trident- and other defence-related jobs.  The article was reported as having “reopened a rift in his coalition government” in a snub to the Lib Dems who are spearheading a yet-to-be-concluded government review into alternatives to like-for-like replacement of Trident. 

Cameron’s article claimed it would be “foolish” to axe Trident when the nuclear threat has “increased” since the end of the Cold War, and cited threats posed by rogue states such as North Korea, whose young leader has been using increasingly bellicose rhetoric since conducting a third nuclear test on 12 February 2013.  By invoking North Korea as a threat to the UK, Cameron’s comments securedwidespread mainstream press coverage and were the subject of radio and TV phone-ins and a major trending topic on Twitter, with respondents bearing out opinion poll data that public opposition to Trident is increasing in England and Wales as well as in Scotland.  Following on from the article, Cameron provoked speculation that he had misspoken during a Q&A session with workers at Thales in Glasgow, after he extrapolated from outlandish claims made by North Korean leader Kim Jung-un to assert as “fact” the notion that North Korea has the technology to attack the UK.  Cameron’s use of tensions on the Korean peninsular as a means to garner support for Trident renewal was quickly labelled “absurd” by former Conservative Defence Minister Michael Portillo and “ridiculous” by Lib Dem MP Norman Baker (Lewes) and was followed up by comments from Foreign Secretary William Hague (Conservative, Richmond – Yorks) seeking to “urge calm”over “paranoid rhetoric” by North Korea which he described as “typical of authoritarian leaders who needed to shore up their position by creating an external threat”.

Cameron’s interjection, which came in the run-up to completion of the Cabinet Office led Trident Alternatives Review, was not well-received by his Liberal Democrat coalition partners, many of whom have recently spoken out against like-for-like Trident renewal and would have been dismayed at what the New Statesman suggested amounted to Cameron declaring the Alternatives Review “redundant”.  In January Danny Alexander (Lib Dem, Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey), Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Minister in charge of the Alternatives Review, was amongst those to affirm that there is “no need for like-for-like replacement” as was former Armed Forces Minister Nick Harvey (Lib Dem, North Devon) who emphasised the opportunity costs of like-for-like replacement.  The economic case against Trident renewal was also highlighted by Norman Baker (Lib Dem, Lewes) who described Trident as an “expensive vanity project”, and before that by Lib Dem Business Minister Vince Cable (Twickenham) and Lib Dem Chair Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) when they called on the government to cut Trident – not social security – in response to Defence Secretary Philip Hammond’s (Conservative, Weybridge & Runnymede) demand for a cut in the social security budget in order to fund spending on defence

Amidst the unpopular Tory-led cuts to public spending, some have suggested that the combination of a British public sensitised to ‘austerity’ measures and a coalition government in deep disagreement over its nuclear weapons policy, provides the opposition Labour Party with an opportunity to prove its economic credibility by promising to scale back Trident, to demonstrate political nous by keeping its options openor to go even further and make the case against Trident renewal.  Certainly, the debate over Trident within the Labour Party has opened up since the beginning of the year with several soul-searching articles on the Labour List website, including "Will Trident split the Labour Party in half?”, “What is Labour’s Trident policy, exactly?” and “Trident isn’t a simplistic ‘for or against’ debate”.  Others such as Lord Des Browne (Labour), whose views have developed since he served as Defence Secretary in the last Labour government and oversaw the 2006 decision to start the process of renewing Trident, have pointed out the strategic case against like-for-like replacement of Trident.  Writing in The Telegraph with Ian Kearns of the European Leadership Network, Lord Browne described how the security landscape has changed since 2006 and highlighted recent research on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons which show that even a ‘limited’ nuclear exchange would result in the collapse of global agriculture – “leaving the population of the attacking country to starve”.  The title of their joint op-ed asserted that “Trident is no longer key to Britain’s security”.  Warning that “Like-for-like renewal of our nuclear deterrent is neither strategically sound nor economically viable”, the op-ed went on to make the case for scrapping the current policy of ‘continuous at-sea-deterrence’ (CASD), which requires that at least one nuclear-armed submarine must be at sea at all times.

Perspectives across the Labour Party on this issue are far from uniform: even though calls last year for a fuller debate within the party (see Proliferation in Parliament Winter 2012-2013) have largely been avoided, several high profile Labour Party members recently felt strongly enough to write op-eds in support of Trident renewal.  These include: Admiral Lord West, former Head of the Royal Navy,who cautioned that “discussions should be driven by national security needs and not short-term political considerations”, former Defence Secretaries John Hutton and George Robertson who dismissed the idea of what they called a “halfway house – where we scale back on our deterrent and yet magically incur no extra risk to our national security”, and serving MPs Angela Smith (Penistone & Stocksbridge) and John Woodcock (Barrow & Furness) who both represent constituents employed in Trident-related jobs and proclaimed in The GuardianLabour is right to support Trident”.  Similarly, some trade unions, including Unite and the GMB, have cautioned against non-renewal of Trident and Labour Defence spokesperson Kevan Jones (North Durham) – who demonstrated his affiliation with David Cameron’s (Conservative, Witney) position by describing Trident as the “ultimate security guarantee” – warned that “Royal Navy orders keep Scottish ship yards afloat”

As Labour works out its policy, some politicians and media have sought to influence the outcome with pre-emptive announcements and articles. In March, for example, when Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy (East Renfrewshire) declared "we’re not a unilateralist party and we’re not about to become a unilateralist party", he was reported to have “quashed speculation”.  Murphy’s remarks were a signal, but have to be read in conjunction with his explanation in the same interview that Labour is waiting for the Trident Alternatives Review analysis to which it will then respond. Another Labour defence spokesperson, Kevan Jones (North Durham), also told a Commons debate on Trident that Labour intended to consider and respond to the Trident Alternatives Review.  And yet, the Financial Times brought out an analysis under the bold headline of “Miliband set to ditch Trident stance”, claiming that Labour leader Ed Miliband (Doncaster North) was preparing to oppose like-for-like replacement. Contradicting this, the Daily Telegraph published a piece based apparently on unnamed Labour sources which suggested that a considerable “degree of scepticism” among Labour MPs towards Lib Dem championed alternatives would most likely see Labour support like-for-like replacement.  Even so, The Telegraph piece also announced “Labour could attempt to save money by calling for the new Trident fleet to be three submarines instead of the current four”, which is of course not new (and is already anticipated as a likely concession in the Trident Alternatives Review).  These kinds of articles may appear to provide predictive analysis, but are actually political attempts to influence the Labour Party debate.

A Question of Alternatives

With so much discussion over possible alternatives to Trident, the Defence Secretary Philip Hammond (Conservative, Weybridge & Runnymede) stepped in to warn against changing the status quo in a Telegraph article published in February, with the title: “The alternatives to Trident carry an enormous risk”.  One of the key alternatives he counselled against was stepping down from CASD.  Advocates of scrapping CASD, such as former Labour Defence Secretary Lord Des Browne, counter that a move away from this ‘Moscow criterion’ doctrine would represent an important step towards reducing the UK’s reliance on nuclear weapons, without jeopardising the nation’s security.  Some Conservatives still equate the credibility of UK nuclear weapons with maintenance of CASD however – as demonstrated in January by Minister for the Armed Forces Andrew Robatham’s (Conservative, South Leicester) response to a parliamentary question (PQ) about the feasibility of what Karl McCartney (Conservative, Lincoln) described as a “part-time nuclear deterrent”.  But whilst Tory allegiance to like-for-like replacement persists, the Alternatives Review continues to generate interest from parliamentarians. 

MPs Thomas Docherty (Labour, Dunfermline and West Fife),Alison Seabeck (Labour, Plymouth Moor View) and Bob Ainsworth (Labour, Coventry North East) were among those to pose questions in Parliament relating to the scope, methodology and cost of the review, with Bob Ainsworth describing it as the Lib Dems “researching their manifesto at taxpayers’ expense”.  Responses from the government pointed to it having become a more inward looking process after the September 2012 reshuffle in which Sir Nick Harvey lost his ministerial responsibility for the armed forces, including the Alternatives Review.  Government spokespeople acknowledged that in recent months only one MoD Minister has attended a formal meeting on the review, no meetings were held with MPs, peers, defence industry reps, the US government or local authoritiesand senior officials were “consulted as required”.  Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander (Lib Dem, Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey), who is now overseeing the review, did visit Her Majesty's Naval Base Clyde and the Atomic Weapons Establishment site at Aldermaston as part of his work

Alexander anticipated that the Alternatives Review would report to the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister “in the first half of this year”.  The Guardian was slightly more specific, announcing that it was “due to be completed and published by June this year”.  Uncertainly remains however over the question of publication of the review, as the government initially insisted that there were no plans for it to be published, before quietly declaring in the Coalition Mid-Term Review that it would, and most recently stating that “an unclassified version of the report will be published” shortly after the report is sent to the PM and Deputy PM.

Meanwhile, senior parliamentarians Lord (Des) Browne (Labour), Ming Campbell (Lib Dem, North East Fife) and Malcolm Rifkind (Conservative, Kensington) continue their deliberations over the future of Trident and UK nuclear weapons policy as part of the cross-party British American Security information Council (BASIC) Trident Commission.  The Commission is expected to report in late 2013, most likely after the government’s Alternatives Review.

UK Nuclear Weapons Policy Debated

Interest in the Trident issue from across the political spectrum was evident in a House of Commons debatebrought by Dr Julian Lewis (Conservative, New Forest East) and Paul Flynn (Labour, Newport West) on 17 January 2013.  In the days before the debate, the House of Commons Library published a briefing to update MPs on the Trident renewal programme.  Described by Lewis, a staunch supporter of nuclear weapons and believer in nuclear deterrence theory, as “a genuinely collaborative effort across the political divide”, the debate provided MPs with a rare opportunity to discuss UK nuclear weapons policy in the light of national and international challenges, domestic concerns and the current security landscape – even if, as a blog on The Independent online put it, "most speakers were holding to well known positions". 

Some core arguments recurred in many of the presentations, epitomised (but not exclusive to) the following MPs: the “vast opportunity cost” of Trident (Nick Harvey); a “weapons system that we cannot use” (Nicholas Brown, Joan Ruddock & Paul Flynn); and from the opposite viewpoint, justifications based on the fact that the future is “uncertain” (Philip Dunne) and “unpredictable" (Kevan Jones).   Among the more considered analyses, Caroline Lucas (Green, Brighton Pavilion) spoke of deterrence as a "complex relationship that requires us to understand the fears, threat perceptions, needs and values of others, and to communicate carefully and effectively" and stated "It is time we stopped calling Trident ‘the deterrent’ as if that were its identity”.  Lucas highlighted the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, noting that this would be “addressed by more than 100 Governments” in Oslo in early March.

During the debate, the divergent views within as well as between the three main parties were illustrated. For example, Crispin Blunt (Conservative, Reigate), a former army officer and MoD special advisor, was more reflective than most Tory MPs, saying "We owe it to ourselves to think rather more deeply about this matter than we have done in the past". He continued: "The question of whether it would be a matter for the International Criminal Court if a leader chose to eviscerate millions of wholly innocent people in pursuit of their state’s policy is one that ought to engage us”.  This view was contradicted by MoD Minister Philip Dunne (Conservative, Ludlow) who spoke passionately of his support for “the Government’s unwavering commitment” to Trident before claiming that the UK’s “disarmament credentials are second to none". 

Illustrating the Labour Party’s internal divisions, Shadow Defence Secretary Kevan Jones (Labour, North Durham) echoed the government’s sentiments, while Nicholas Brown (Labour, Newcastle-upon-Tyne East) reflected the growing number of nuclear sceptics in the Labour party when he lambasted the Trident replacement project: "firstly we are purchasing something we cannot use, and secondly, we are doing it with money we have not got”.  Gerald Kaufman (Labour, Manchester Gorton) backed the current status quo, recounting his role in making the Labour Party "eligible for re-election" after it was (in his words) "massacred in the 1983 and 1987 general elections because of its advocacy… for unilateral nuclear disarmament".   Kaufman’s reflections mainly served as a reminder of how it suited past Labour leaders to heap the complex reasons for the Party’s successive defeats in the 1980s onto its nuclear disarmament stance in 1983. This revisionist history was used by Tony Blair to push for Trident renewal and continues to blight Labour leaders’ ability to formulate a rational nuclear policy based on today’s post cold war realities.

A week after the Commons debated UK nuclear weapons policy, members of the House of Lords participated in a debate brought by Acronym Institute board member Lord David Ramsbotham (Crossbench) on the subject of “prospects for multilateral nuclear disarmament and the contribution which Britain could make”.   Again, the House of Lords Library produced a background briefing – on multilateral nuclear disarmament – in advance of the debate. In framing the Lords debate as about nuclear disarmament – in contrast to the earlier Commons debate on the nuclear “deterrent”,– the Lords debate was able to focus more on the context of UK nuclear policy. Baroness Sue Miller (Lib Dem) said that the legality of nuclear weapons is “now highly questionable” noting that “in the rest of the world, the non-nuclear states are becoming more convinced that nuclear weapons are contrary to international law”.  Former Labour Defence Secretary Lord Des Browne referred to the “double standard” in UK nuclear policy, and invited his colleagues to reflect on recent research into “the climate change impacts of even a small nuclear exchange”.  Lord Browne also echoed words of the US “four horsemen” Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, George Shultz and William Perry in their 2007 oped by describing nuclear deterrence as “decreasingly effective and increasingly risky”. Lord Browne stressed the need for “independent action” on disarmament, pointing out that “several rounds of announced reductions in the size of the UK nuclear warhead stockpile” were conducted in this way.  Lord Stuart Wood, Labour peer, Shadow Cabinet Minister without portfolio and strategy adviser to Ed Miliband, highlighted the "bargain at the heart of the NPT" and displayed a more nuanced understanding of deterrence by distinguishing between nuclear and other forms of deterrence, noting: “Deterrence of course remains crucial, but relying excessively on nuclear weapons to do the deterring is not only more hazardous, but less effective in a world where the threats we face are changing in character”.  Lord Craig (Crossbench) spoke of the “inevitable disconnect” between advocating for nuclear disarmament and being in possession of nuclear weapons.  A significant number of peers, including Lord Bramall (Crossbench) who was making his final speech to the House, Baroness Williams (Lib Dem), Lord Hannay (Crossbench), Lord Browne (Labour) and Lord King, (Conservative) questioned the need for continuous at-sea-deterrence (CASD), with Lord King breaking ranks with his fellow Conservatives to do so.  Lord Ramsbotham (Crossbench) closed the debate by saying he was “glad that the issue of continuous at-sea deployment was questioned” and expressed the hope that the government’s FCO representative in the Lords, Baroness Warsi (Conservative), would “follow this up by allowing us to have a further debate, particularly when the Alternatives Review is published”.

Contemplating the Consequences of Scottish Independence

In April, UK nuclear weapons policy was again in the spotlight when the House of Lords’ Economic Affairs Committee published what The Guardian called a “detailed and at times highly critical report” on “Economic Implications for the United Kingdom of Scottish Independence”.  Starting from the premise that “the SNP's commitment to removing nuclear weapons from Scottish territory is incompatible with retaining a nuclear base on the Clyde”, the report reflected the deep concern expressed by Royal Navy personnel over the UK government’s lack of contingency planning should Scotland vote for independence at the referendum scheduled for 18 September 2014.  The Committee let it be known that it was “disappointed by Defence Ministers' refusal to attend a hearing and answer our questions” despite “repeated” invitations.  In evidence to the committee, Lord Admiral West (Labour) had described the government’s failure to engage with the issue as a “dereliction of duty”. The reports challenging conclusions were especially notable as the committee is chaired by a former Conservative cabinet minister, Lord MacGregor, with several senior Tories such as Lord Lawson, Lord Tugendhat and Lord Forsyth as serving members.  Lord Forsyth had earlier berated the government during a House of Lords debate in which he described its approach as “not good enough”.  Drawing on previous MoD statements on the subject, the committee noted the UK government’s recognition that “there would inevitably be time and cost implications” should an independent Scottish Government demand Trident’s withdrawal, and that any alternative solution would "cost a gargantuan sum of money".  In conclusion, and echoing the findings of the October 2012 House of Commons Scottish Affairs committee report “Terminating Trident: Days or Decades”, the House of Lords report urged the UK government to “release more information about the cost and employment implications of a decision by an independent Scotland to require their [UK nuclear weapons’] removal”. 

Nor was the UK government the sole target of the committee’s ire.  The Scottish government was also criticised for failing to be more open with the electorate, again echoing the sentiments of the Commons Scottish Affairs Committee which in March had denounced the Scottish government for continuing to “evade the key questions over the impact of terminating Trident in the event of Scottish Separation”.  Following these comments, the Scottish Affairs Committee led a Westminster Hall debate on its report into the future of Trident and the two governments’ responses

The debate was well-attended by Scottish MPs as well as by key figures such as Armed Forces Minister Andrew Robathan (Conservative, South Leicestershire) and his predecessor in the post Sir Nick Harvey (Lib Dem, North Devon). It provided an opportunity for members to discuss some of the consequences of separation including how long it would take to relocate Trident, possible alternative locations – with loading and storage identified as key issues, the employment implications for an independent Scotland and prospects for the SNP’s intended Scottish membership of NATO.  Opening the debate, Ian Davidson (Labour/Co-op, Glasgow South West), Chair of the Scottish Affairs committee, described Trident as “obviously one of the most important single issues that will play a part in the dialogue after separation”. Drawing on the words of Blair Jenkins, leader of the Yes Scotland campaign, he emphasized that the onus is on the SNP to make the case for change.  Whilst some members, including Andrew Robathan (Conservative, South Leicestershire) and Gemma Doyle (Labour/Co-op, West Dunbartonshire) felt compelled to make the case for the UK’s continuing possession of nuclear weapons, Lib Dem Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) expressed the view of the majority of Scots when he concluded that “the only choice open to the United Kingdom Government [in the event of separation] would be decommissioning [of Trident]”.

Of course Westminster is not the only venue for debating Trident. On 20 March, a motion in the Scottish Parliament highlighted opposition to Trident replacement. Because the debate clashed with the UK parliamentary Budget debate, media coverage was sparse and attendance by SNP and Green party MSPs was reduced as the debate also coincided with a strike called by the PCS union.  The motion, which began by emphasising the “devastating humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons”, was brought by SNP member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) for Clackmannanshire and Dunblane, Keith Brown, who described Trident as “unsustainable morally, economically and strategically” and complained that maintaining Trident cost Scottish voters £500,000 a day (based on calculations showing that Scotland pays £163 million of the estimated £2 billion a year spent on deploying the current system).   Ruth Davidson (MSP for Glasgow), the relatively new leader of the Scottish Conservatives, poured scorn on the various projects the SNP has suggested funding instead of Trident.  Ms Davidson, whose pro-Trident amendment was one of two amendments selected by the presiding officer for consideration by members, also chastised the SNP for their “muddled, confused, cynical and posturing” policy on NATO membership.  Criticism of the SNP’s NATO policy came from other quarters too: Jean Urquhart (Independent, MSP for Highlands and Islands), who had last year resigned from the SNP following its decision to join NATO, put forward a second amendment focusing on membership of NATO as a “barrier to the removal of Trident”.  By calling on the UK government to “disarm Trident and not to replace it with any other nuclear weapons system” and to ensure in the event of independence that “Trident will not be permitted to operate from Scottish waters”, the amendment appealed to those who felt that the original motion urging the UK “to explore options for the removal of Trident” was too weak.  In the end, both amendments were rejected, and Keith Brown’s (SNP, MSP for Clackmannanshire and Dunblane) original motion was carried, with the whole SNP bloc voting in favour. 

The question of an independent Scotland’s potential membership of NATO is far from simple.  When SNP members narrowly voted in October to renege on the party’s decades-long policy of opposition to NATO, they had been given the impression by party leader and First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond (SNP, MSP for Gordon) that an independent Scotland would automatically inherit membership of the military alliance.  He was contradicted in April when a NATO official argued that an independent Scotland would have to be treated as a new applicant after leaving UK, which would be difficult since new states must win the unanimous agreement of all twenty-eight member states, which in that event would include the UK.  As with an earlier intervention claiming that Scotland would have to apply to the European Union as a completely new member, the legal situation is not as clear as represented by the NATO official, undoubtedly concerned about the complications likely to arise if Scotland were to secede from the UK, with all that would imply for UK bases and nuclear policy.  Similarly, a recent UK government analysis argued that if Scotland went independent, it would only be eligible to join the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state.  Under the circumstances of Scottish opposition to nuclear weapons, that would of course be the Scottish government’s intention, and there are precedents that can be drawn from the break-up of the Soviet Union. However, as with NATO and the EU, much would also depend on political interests. Though the current spate of analyses are designed to make Scottish voters feel that independence could leave them out in the cold, past experience suggests that if the referendum delivered a majority for independence and Scotland were to apply to join these treaty-based institutions, it would be in everyone’s interests – including the rump UK – to fast track membership and avoid the destabilisation that could follow if Scotland were deliberately isolated.

In a further affirmation of the strength of their opposition to nuclear weapons, the SNP conference in March voted for the constitution of an independent Scotland to include a ban on nuclear weapons.  This followed evidence from Deputy First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon (SNP, Glasgow Southside) to  Westminster’s House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, in which she described post-independence removal of Trident as “non-negotiable”.  Then in April, a number of MSPs joined trade unionists and around 2000 members of the public at a central Glasgow demonstration against Trident, which called for Scotland to be made nuclear free.  

Raising Concerns: Trident Renewal Costs & Current Safety Issues

Back in February, Angus Robertson (Moray), the SNP’s Leader in Westminster, had been amongst a number of MPs to pose questions in the House of Commons around Trident renewal.  He questioned the UK government’s planto push through renewal of Trident against the wishes of the “democratic majority” in Scotland which he noted includes the majority of MSPs, Scottish trade unions, members of the public and “every single faith group”.   In a separate question the following day, Mr Roberston (SNP, Moray) sought to ascertain the cost to the public purse of storing and reprocessing of Trident missiles.  However, he is not the only one seeking to establish the extent to which the UK’s ongoing possession of nuclear weapons impacts on the nation’s finances.  A parliamentary question by Jeremy Corbyn (Labour, Islington North) revealed that £12.7 billion of the MoD's 2012 10-year Defence Equipment Plan has been allocated to maintaining Trident.  However, as The Guardian reported in January, Margaret Hodge (Labour, Barking & Dagenham), Chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, which receives National Audit Office (NAO) reports, has cast serious doubt on the MoD's claim that the equipment plan is "fully funded".  Other questions from Jeremy Corbyn (Labour, Islington North) and also Bob Russell (Lib Dem, Colchester) have demonstrated that the government continues to use 2006-2007 prices for estimating the costs of Trident renewal, thereby compounding concerns that what the government says it plans to spend on Trident does not match the fiscal reality. 

The information that pre-Main Gate spending on Trident renewal had totalled £1.38 billion by the end of November 2012 came at a time when the government is pushing through ‘austerity measures’ such as cuts to council tax benefit and payments to the disabled, as well as the so-called "bedroom tax".   Seeking to emphasise the jobs aspect of Trident replacement in this situation, MoD minister Philip Dunne (Conservative, Ludlow) responded to a question by  Julian Lewis (Conservative, New Forest East), by expressing commitment to ensuring “the long-term sustainability of the UK submarine industry” by minimising the gap between government contracts for building the Astute-class and the Trident renewal submarines.  In a further question, this time posed by Paul Flynn (Labour, Newport West), the make-up of the joint MoD-defence industry team overseeing the Trident renewal programme – the Integrated Programme Management Team (IPMT) – was revealed as consisting of 29 MoD and 35 industry staff (18 BAE Systems, 8 Babcock Marine & 9 Rolls-Royce).

In January, the safety of the UK’s nuclear weapons infrastructure was again in the news when a top-secret plant involved in uranium enrichment for the country’s nuclear warheads had to been shut down due to corrosion in its "structural steelwork".  This prompted Caroline Lucas (Green, Brighton Pavilion) to pose parliamentary questions to ascertain the extent of the corrosion and AWE’s plans to remedy it, as well as when the relevant government agencies were notified about the problem..  Lack of transparency around operations at AWE was also highlighted in April by the Nuclear Information Service which drew attention to AWE’s failure to publish its own official safety and environmental reports.  On a similar note, when Katy Clark (Labour, North Ayrshire and Arran) enquired as to the government’s assessment of the effect of damage sustained in October 2012 to the UK’s nuclear-armed HMS Vigilant on the UK's ability to fulfil its policy of continuous at-sea deterrence (CASD), Philip Dunne (Conservative, Ludlow) declared: “It is our policy not to discuss submarine operations”.


International developments relating to UK nuclear weapons policy

Humanitarian Consequences take centre stage at Oslo conference

Forty five years on from the signing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and with UK-based politicians still stuck debating whether to renew the country’s Cold War era Trident nuclear weapons system, two-thirds of UN member states were gathering in Oslo for an unprecedented conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weaponsHosted by the Norwegian government over 4-5 March, the conference brought together a majority of the 184 non-nuclear weapons states as well as NPT outlier states India and Pakistan, several UN agencies, the International Red Cross movement and representatives of civil society, in a reflection of what the conference Chair, Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs Espen Barth Eide, called “increasing global concern regarding the effects of nuclear weapons detonations” and “recognition that this is an issue of fundamental significance to us all”. The mandate for the conference derived from the final document of the 2010 NPT Review Conference in which NPT state parties expressed their “deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons”, and a series of developments since 2010 reinforced the need for formal consideration of the issue by the international community.  These included a 16-nation statement on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons at the 2012 NPT Preparatory Committee and a similar statement at the 2012 First Committee meeting of the UN General Assembly signed by 35 countries

Delegates from 127 states met in Oslo for a fact-based discussion of the humanitarian and developmental consequences of a nuclear weapons detonation, with the Chair’s Summary concluding that it is “unlikely that any state or international body could address the immediate humanitarian emergency” and that any detonation would have “devastating immediate and long-term effects” which “will not be constrained by national borders, and will affect states and people in significant ways, regionally as well as globally”.  Over the course of the two-day conference a number of states expressed an interest in further exploration of the issue by continuing the discussions and broadening the discourse.  As part of this effort the Mexican delegation announced during the final session in Oslo that it would host a follow-up meeting.

The UK government, however, was nowhere to be seen.  Despite having initially indicated a willingness to participate in the conference, when asked in Parliament about its attendance one week prior to the event, Baroness Warsi (Conservative) stated “the Government are considering their position”.  As the conference commenced it became apparent that the UK, along with the other NPT-recognised nuclear weapon states, China, France, Russia and the United States, had decided to collectively boycott the conference as indicated in the US statement to the Conference on Disarmament (CD) on 5 March.  The UK and its P5 colleagues justified their non-attendance by saying that the conference on humanitarian consequences could “divert discussion and focus away from the practical steps required to create the conditions for further nuclear weapons reductions”

The UK’s participation in this P5 boycott provoked several parliamentarians including Katy Clark (Labour, North Ayrshire and Arran), Martin Caton (Labour, Gower), Paul Flynn (Labour, Newport West) and Baroness Miller (Lib Dem) to pose questions in parliament around the reasons for the UK’s (non-) attendance, given the importance of the issues being addressed in Oslo..  Each time, the government reiterated its view of the conference as a distraction from the “practical, step-by-step approach” it is already taking, whilst emphasising “existing mechanisms, such as the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) and the Conference on Disarmament” which it argued “have proven to be the most effective means to increase stability and reduce nuclear dangers”.  In two analysis pieces on this situation, both published in Open Democracy – one before and one after the Oslo conference – Acronym Institute Director Dr Rebecca Johnson explained why the non-nuclear weapons states are raising awareness of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons: “Far from diverting from nuclear weapons reductions, history has clearly shown that legal prohibitions generally precede and facilitate the processes of stockpile elimination, not the other way around, which would pave the way for existing agreements like the NPT to be fully implemented.”  

The UK’s lack of engagement meant there were lots of unanswered questions, in particular regarding the UK government’s preparedness in the event of a nuclear weapons denotation.  In order to bridge the knowledge gap, the Acronym Institute joined several other UK-based organisations to produce reports as part of a series of expert studies on indicative scenarios relevant to Britain.  These included among others, a single nuclear weapon detonation on Manchester, the direct and longer-term environmental consequences if the Trident missiles on one nuclear submarine were used and accidents involving UK warheads at AWE Aldermaston and Burghfield in Berkshire.  The reports – listed below – were compiled by the UK section of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, ICAN UK, and launched in advance of the Oslo conference at a public meeting in Parliament on 26 February 2013.

Parliamentarians, aware of developments in Oslo and the UK’s failure to engage, also stepped in to probe the government on its preparedness in the event of a nuclear weapons denotation.  Paul Flynn MP (Labour, Newport West) and Baroness Miller (Lib Dem) sought data on official UK government assessments of “the developmental, economic and environmental consequences” and the effect on the distribution and availability of blood services in the event of a nuclear weapon detonation.  And in light of the conference Chair’s conclusion that "it is unlikely that any state or international body could address the immediate humanitarian emergency caused by a nuclear weapon detonation in an adequate manner and provide sufficient assistance to those affected”, Baroness Miller also asked about the extent of the UK’s preparedness to respond to a major nuclear incident.  Whilst acknowledging the “grave consequences” of any use of nuclear weapons, the government’s various responses attempted to reassure Parliament by pointing to assessments by government departments, including for example the 2010 National Security Risk Assessment (NSRA), by highlighting the UK’s ratification of relevant IAEA conventions, and by claiming that the Department of Health and the National Health Service (NHS) “have plans in place to be able to respond effectively” adding that stocks held by the NHS Blood & Transplant (NHSBT) are “adequate to meet the anticipated needs of such an event without affecting other requests for blood and plasma”.

Arms Trade Treaty: Success at last

After over a decade of campaigning and seven years on from the commencement of a UN-mandated process to bring into being an international instrument to regulate the arms trade, on 2 April 2013 the UN overwhelming approved a global Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) via a vote at UN General Assembly.  On 11 April, UK Foreign Minister William Hague (Conservative, Richmond – Yorks) joined his G8 Foreign Minister colleagues in welcoming the adoption of the ATT in a joint statement.  Parliamentarians in the UK had taken an avid interest in the treaty-making process and in the months running up to the final ATT conference, held 18-28 March in New York.  Sheila Gilmore (Labour, Edinburgh East), Laurence Robertson (Conservative, Tewkesbury), Kerry McCarthy (Labour, Bristol East) and Lord Des Browne (Labour) held the government to account via questions in parliament that sought to tease out the UK’s commitment to the issue.  A House of Commons Library briefing published at the beginning of March provided background information for MPs on the ATT.  Following the 154-3 vote at the UN General Assembly, MPs Sandra Osborne (Labour, Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock), Alec Shelbrooke (Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell) and Russell Brown (Labour, Dumfries & Galloway) congratulated the government on their efforts to secure the treaty which the government confirmed, in response to a question from Russell Brown, covers ammunition, munitions, parts and components.  Dr Natalie Goldring represented the Acronym Institute at the ATT and published two in-conference analyses in Reaching Critical Will’s ATT Monitor titled: ‘Reaching a robust ATT: Over, around, or through the major exporters?’ and ‘Groundhog Day?

The process that led to the adoption of the ATT has been identified by those closely involved as having significant implications for future multilateral disarmament negotiations, particularly as regards the practice of getting treaties adopted by a UN General Assembly vote if the negotiating forum cannot reach consensus, as Mary Wareham of Human Rights Watch highlighted in her article “Busting consensus while staying in the UN”.  There have been earlier precedents, including the necessity to take the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to the UNGA when consensus on adopting the finalised treaty text was blocked in the Conference of Disarmament, as described by Rebecca Johnson in her book “Unfinished Business”.  Reflecting concerns that the CD is no longer fit for purpose, Anna MacDonald of Oxfam in her post-conference analysis of the ATT negotiations for Reuters notes that “Had the process been launched in the consensus-bound Conference on Disarmament in Geneva ‑ currently in its 12th year of meeting without even being able to agree an agenda ‑ chances are it would never have left the starting blocks”. 

UK attention to other disarmament & non-proliferation issues

Although the long-running stalemate at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) means that Parliamentarians rarely enquire as to the UK’s efforts at the world’s main disarmament negotiating forum, they do take an interest in developments regarding the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).  So with the 2013 NPT Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) due to take place 22 April – 3 May in Geneva, Labour MP and advocate for nuclear disarmament Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) asked in February about UK representation at this meeting, and was told by Alistair Burt (Conservative, North East Bedfordshire) that, as is customary, officials from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Ministry of Defence (MoD), and Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) will be attending but there will be no ministerial attendance.  Following indications by Arab League nations that they might boycott the PrepCom should there be no progress on convening the 2010 RevCon-mandated Middle East WMD Free zone conference, Mr Corbyn (Labour, Islington North) also pressed FCO Minister, Alistair Burt (Conservative, North East Bedfordshire) about progress on the issue.  Given the lack of substantive progress, Alistair Burt was able only to refer to UK engagement with the Finnish facilitator and multilateral consultations planned for March 2013.  Responding to Mr Corbyn’s other questions on the matter, Mr Burt revealed that five FCO officials have specific responsibility for work on the conference, and that the UK has participated in regular meetings with fellow convenors and officials from states of the region – including as part of a February 2013 visit to Israel, although no direct discussions between the UK Foreign Minister and equivalent senior Israeli politicians have taken place since their January 2013 General Election.  Still, by mid-April no news had emerged regarding the intended consultations in March although the Arab League stipulation that the meetings include only those states “that have officially announced their participation in the [WMD-free zone] conference” may have had something to do with it.  There was however a brief mention of the conference in the G8 Foreign Ministers’ April statement expressing regret at the conference not being convened in 2012, emphasising their strong support for the facilitator and co-sponsors of the 1995 Resolution, and reiterating the call for “all States concerned to make all efforts necessary for the preparation and convening of the Conference in the nearest future”.

The UK’s positioning of itself as a leader in nuclear disarmament has prompted some MPs to pose questions about the practical manifestation of the UK’s position.  During the period under review, Paul Flynn (Labour, Newport West) asked for concrete examples of UK efforts to progress multilateral nuclear disarmament and in particular occasions on which British nuclear weapons have been incorporated into multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations since May 2010.  He also asked about the implementation of reductions in the UK’s nuclear warhead stockpile and whether the resulting nuclear material has been placed under international safeguards – the answer to the latter question was “no”, as “It is not government policy to place this material under international safeguards”.  A further question posed by Mr Flynn (Labour, Newport West) revealed that £2 million/year of government money was allocated to nuclear disarmament-related research in 2010-11 and 2011-12.  He also asked about the UK-Norway verification initiative in the context both of lessons learned and the proposal – by British Pugwash in its peer review of the verification initiative – that the Government establish an international disarmament institute in the UK.  In response to Mr Flynn’s questionsabout the implications of the Norwegian government decision to divest from UK companies involved in developing, producing and maintaining nuclear weapons, Michael Fallon (Conservative, Sevenoaks) said that it was a matter for the Norwegian government.  The government’s response to a separate question by Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) regarding UK government discussions about a potential Nuclear Weapons Convention (NWC), focused on existing mechanisms and “building the right environment” for nuclear disarmament, as Alistair Burt (Conservative, North East Bedfordshire) dismissed more comprehensive approaches on grounds that they “would risk diluting international efforts around the NPT and undermining or duplicating the work of established disarmament fora, including the Conference on Disarmament”. 

Proliferation Challenges: North Korea, Iran, Israel, India & Pakistan

North Korea’s third nuclear test, conducted on 12 February 2013, was strongly condemned by the UK government. The North Korean Ambassador was summoned to the Foreign & Commonwealth (FCO) and UK representatives joined their P5 colleagues in an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council.  The day after the test, Foreign Secretary William Hague (Conservative, Richmond – Yorks) issued a Ministerial Statement in the House of Commons and in the days and weeks that followed, a number of MPs and peers, including Lord Alton (Crossbench), Gregory Campbell (Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), East Londonderry), Jim Murphy (Labour, East Renfrewshire) and Mel Stride (Conservative, Central Devon), expressed concern over the test and enquired as to the measures being taken by the UK and the international community as a means of preventing an escalation of the problem.  In response to parliamentary questions, the UK government has highlighted its engagement with other UN Security Council members, a meeting with the Chinese representative in the Six-Party Talks and its work with EU partners on “strengthening the EU's sanctions regime on the DPRK” including EU agreement on further restrictive measures in response to North Korea's December satellite launch as decided at the Foreign Affairs Council meeting in February.  Prior to the test, increasing tensions on the Korea peninsular had been the subject of a short debate in the House of Lords as well as a House of Commons Library Note setting out the background to international concerns over nuclear proliferation by North Korea. 

The period between the February test and MPs’ return to the Commons in mid-April saw North Korean leader Kim Jung-un engage in “frenetic and bellicose rhetoric” which was seized upon by UK Prime Minister David Cameron (Conservative, Witney) in order to claim justification for his government’s determination to procure a new generation of Trident-armed nuclear submarines.  Conservative MPs Philip Hollobone (Kettering) and Julian Brazier (Canterbury) also sought to use the pariah state as the rationale for maintaining the Trident nuclear weapons system. , Seizing on this, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond (Conservative, Weybridge & Runnymede), ,agreed with their sentiments and went further by alluding to the impossibility of predicting the future as the pretext for the UK’s continuing possession of nuclear weapons.  Concerns over North Korea’s capabilities, heightened in part by Cameron’s erroneous suggestion that North Korea has the technology to attack the UK, led to other questions in parliament after the Easter recess.  Philip Hollobone (Conservative, Kettering) and Steve McCabe (Labour, Birmingham Selly Oak) both asked about the ability of North Korea to deliver a ballistic nuclear warhead and were told by Defence Secretary Philip Hammond (Conservative, Weybridge & Runnymede) that “It is clear that North Korea is undertaking programmes to develop nuclear weapons and a range of missile systems” but “It is impossible for us to make with any accuracy a prediction of the time scale involved”.  Given the high level of media and parliamentary interest in the North Korea issue, Foreign Secretary William Hague (Conservative, Richmond – Yorks) made a further Ministerial Statement on the subject on his return to the Commons in April.

UK parliamentarians have also taken an interest the Iranian nuclear programme and the international community’s ongoing concerns over proliferation.  In January, James Morris (Conservative, Halesowen and Rowley Regis) sought assurances that the UK government “are still absolutely committed to sustaining and deepening sanctions against Iran” – which William Hague (Conservative, Richmond – Yorks) assured him they were.  On the same day, John Baron (Conservative, Basildon and Billericay) asked about the UK’s assessment of the implications for Iran-Israel relations of the Israeli elections, and urged the government to “redouble their efforts to dissuade the Israelis from a pre-emptive strike against Iran”, describing it as “an act that would be illegal, that would reinforce the position of hardliners in Iran and that could lead to regional war”.  Then when Jack Lopresti (Conservative, Filton & Bradley Stoke) enquired about recent reports on Iran’ production of plutonium at Arak, he was directed by Alistair Burt (Conservative, North East Bedforshire) to the February 2013 International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) report on Iran which concluded that construction of the heavy water reactor at Arak is continuing.  Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander (Labour, Paisley and Renfrewshire South) sought an update following the February 2013 E3+3 talks with Iran which were deemed by Foreign Secretary Hague (Conservative, Richmond – Yorks) to have been “successful enough for further meetings to be agreed” and was also informed that the government it is open to the UK and other members of the E3+3 having bilateral discussions with Iran.  Unfortunately, according to Reuters, subsequent talks between Iran and the E3+3 in early April, “failed to end the nuclear deadlock”.

Lord Stoddart (Independent Labour) meanwhile, raised a concern in the Lords over Israel’s nuclear proliferation and asked what measures are available to persuade Israel to co-operate with the IAEA.  Baroness Warsi (Conservative), responding for the government, confirmed that Israel is a member of the IAEA but went on to say that as it is not a signatory to the NPT, it is under no legal obligation to agree to a full scope comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA. 

Finally, India and Pakistan – the other nuclear-armed states that have not signed the NPT – were mentioned in parliament when Bob Stewart (Conservative, Beckenham) asked Alan Duncan (Conservative, Rutland and Melton), the Secretary of State for International Development, “what recent representations she had made to those countries in receipt of UK aid, and which possess nuclear weapons systems, to increase their efforts to eradicate poverty amongst their own populations”.