[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair] — Backbench Business — US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North, Labour)
It is a pleasure, Sir Roger, to serve under your chairmanship. The debate was called for jointly by me and Dr Lewis, who will speak after me. I am grateful to him for supporting the application to the Backbench Business Committee for today’s debate. For the record, I should explain that he and I hold a slightly different view on the security of the world that has been brought about the presence of nuclear weapons. We have debated this in town and village halls up and down the country on many occasions. No doubt we will continue so to do. I am grateful to him for being prepared to speak, and he is doing so in the spirit of Parliament.

I want to put on the record my thanks to Ben Folley, parliamentary officer of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, for the huge amount of work he has done in preparing information, and to Dr David Lowry, who works for my hon. Friend Paul Flynn and who is a renowned expert on these issues.

My first question is: why do we have to debate something as fundamental as a mutual defence agreement with the United States in time allocated by the Backbench Business Committee? The answer is that Governments of all hues—this applies to my party, as well as the coalition Government and previous Conservative Governments—have been reluctant to have parliamentary debates on this subject. Indeed, this is the 20th anniversary of the debate on the Consolidated Fund held in 1994, which was started by Alan Simpson, then a Member, at 1.56 am on 15 December. Only two other Members took part at that time of the morning, so it was hardly parliamentary scrutiny.

I welcome this debate, but there cannot be a vote because it is an Adjournment debate. However, Caroline Lucas has tabled a motion, supported by me and others, which could lead to a parliamentary vote on the mutual defence agreement. I hope that it will.

It is interesting that parliamentary scrutiny of the mutual defence agreement and nuclear weapons has been in short supply going back to the end of the second world war. The National Archives in Kew has a document, “Extracts from a memorandum on the Atomic Bomb from Prime Minister Clement Attlee, 28th August 1945”, which states:

“The only course which seems to me to be feasible and to offer a reasonable hope of staving off imminent disaster for the world is joint action by the USA, UK and Russia based upon stark reality. We should declare that this invention has made it essential to end wars. The New World Order must start now.

All nations must give up their dreams of realising some historic expansion at the expense of their neighbours. They must look to a peaceful future instead of to a warlike past. This sort of thing has in the past been considered a utopian dream. It has become today the essential condition of the survival of civilisation and possibly of life on this plant.”

That was Prime Minister Attlee’s view in August 1945, just after the first nuclear weapons had been exploded at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Seven years later, there was an explosion in Australia by Britain when its first H-bomb was detonated. There was an interesting programme last night on al-Jazeera that showed the return of lands to the indigenous people who were driven off them because of those nuclear tests. The nuclear test veterans are still with us, and are still suffering as a result of the tests.

The then Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, made a statement to the House of Commons on the detonation of that weapon on 3 October 1952. He explained that the temperature at the centre of it was nearly 1 million degrees and the damage it caused, and said that the Government were grateful to the Australian Government for allowing the test. He concluded:

“All those concerned in the production of the first British atomic bomb are to be warmly congratulated on the successful outcome of an historic episode and I should no doubt pay my compliments to the Leader of the Opposition and the party opposite for initiating it.”—[Hansard, 23 October 1952; Vol. 505, c. 1269.]

That was the same Clement Attlee. I am a great admirer of Clement Attlee’s domestic record, but not of a large part of his international record. During questions, Samuel Silverman asked the Prime Minister to explain

“the total cost of this experimental explosion, and will he bear in mind that to some of us it is no comfort at all to realise that both major parties in the State are equally responsible for this colossal folly?”

The Prime Minister said that everyone is equally responsible:

“Even if one sits below the Gangway, one does not escape the responsibility.”

Silverman then asked:

“What about the cost?”

Prime Minister Churchill—this is fascinating—then said:

“As to the cost, I have said before, as an old Parliamentarian, that I was rather astonished that well over £100 million should be disbursed without Parliament being made aware of it. I was a bit astonished. However, there is the story, and we now have a result which on the whole, I think, will be beneficial to public safety. As for the future, I think we must be guided by the precedents established under the last régime as to detailed accounts and the way in which the expenditure is recorded.”—[Hansard, 23 October 1952; Vol. 505, c. 1271.]

It is astonishing that, with all the austerity at the end of the second world war, the then Prime Minister managed to spend £100 million of public money without telling Parliament, and apparently without discussing it with his Cabinet, which resulted in the entirely secret development of a British nuclear weapon, the first of which was exploded in 1952. We still had for some time the pretence that Britain had an independent nuclear deterrent.

Angus Robertson (SNP Westminster Leader; Moray, Scottish National Party)
I commend the hon. Gentleman, and Dr Lewis on the other side of the Chamber, for helping to secure this debate through the Backbench Business Committee. Does the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) agree that it is unacceptable for a UK Government of any party to wish to spend £100 billion on through-life costs for Trident renewal, and to do so in a way that is not open and transparent, maintaining the historical tradition of being secretive, and not being prepared to face the consequences of their decisions? It seems that the UK Government will not even turn up at the international conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons in Vienna in December. Does he agree on both those counts that UK Governments of all political persuasions have acted totally unacceptably?

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North, Labour)
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I agree with his points. The secrecy surrounding anything to do with nuclear weapons is completely unacceptable. The fact that the British Parliament has barely debated the mutual defence agreement—I will come to that in a moment—since its existence is serious. The huge expenditure on Trident, at £100 billion, is enormous by any stretch of the imagination. It is my belief—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—that the British Government have no intention of attending the international conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons in Vienna at the beginning of December. I hope I am wrong about that, and I hope that they will attend, because it would simply not be right not to attend.

On scrutiny, the US is a major military and industrial power; that is obvious. It is a very wealthy country—that is equally obvious. The President must send a message to Congress to ask it to approve and renew the amended treaty, and it must debate, vote on and approve it the matter. We have no such transparency in the British Parliament. The Prime Minister or any other Minister still has the ability to use the royal prerogative to override Parliament in this respect, and to approve the treaty, if that is what they want to do. That is why I was so determined that we should have this debate and why I have raised the issue on so many occasions.

John Leech (Manchester, Withington, Liberal Democrat)
I add my congratulations to the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He is talking as though he is surprised about the lack of scrutiny. I am not surprised in the slightest, because if we had any decent level of scrutiny, it would be very clear that replacing Trident is a complete waste of money.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North, Labour)
I am basically a very optimistic person—in our line of work and with my view on politics, Sir Roger, you have to be an optimist, otherwise you would be very sad. I am optimistic that every Government want to consult Parliament and want Parliament to approve of things, but we have to face the reality that the lack of a written constitution and of a clear delineation of power, particularly on foreign affairs and treaty matters, means that the Government of the day, whatever party it is, does not have to consult Parliament on agreeing a treaty—or, indeed, on going to war—unless we change the relevant legislation. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is a war powers Bill before Parliament, but I do not have much hope of it getting through Parliament, despite my inevitable optimism on all these matters.

John Spellar (Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs); Warley, Labour)
Might my hon. Friend not want to question why the Liberal Democrats, who seem to be exerting some influence—undesirable, I would say—over the Trident renewal programme, do not seem to have managed, or even tried, to exert that influence to get this issue debated? Nuclear policy has been debated, as I will say later; my hon. Friend Mr Jones made Labour’s position very clear. Why does my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn think that the Liberal Democrats have not insisted on having a debate?

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North, Labour)
The shadow Minister invites me into a difficult situation. I cannot speak on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, nor would they want me to. They apparently wanted a Trident review, with no like-for-like replacement. The review took place, and it is a matter of record and of history.

On the question of this debate, I do not know what pressure was or was not applied by particular Ministers. I know that a number of Back-Bench MPs on both sides of the House believe, as I am sure the hon. Member for New Forest East would agree, that parliamentary scrutiny of all things is important; that is why we are sent here as Members of Parliament. As for the view of my right hon. Friend Mr Spellar on nuclear weapons, he and I have a slightly different history on this matter, and we have debated it.

John Spellar (Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs); Warley, Labour)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there was a Trident review. It came to the self-evident conclusion that if we are to maintain the nuclear deterrent, continuous at-sea deterrence is the only way of doing so, in spite of many fanciful schemes that have been dreamt up by the Liberal Democrats. He has a perfectly straightforward, long-standing and honourable position of being opposed, but where does he think that the Liberal Democrats now stand on the issue?

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North, Labour)
Well, it is—[Interruption.] My friend Angus Robertson helps me in this. It is an unfair question. I do not know and I cannot tell, but I hope that the Liberal Democrats and, indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley will come round to the view that nuclear weapons are unsustainable, expensive, dangerous and immoral, and that the world would be a much safer place if the five declared nuclear weapon states stood up to their obligations under the non-proliferation treaty and took steps towards disarmament. This debate is not solely about Trident; it is about the mutual defence agreement. Nevertheless, there is obviously a close connection.

Jim Shannon (Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health); Strangford, DUP)
The hon. Gentleman and I have a very different opinion on nuclear weapons. I understand that Dr Lewis will come forward with a different point of view. When it comes to nuclear weapons, I think that if a country has them in their possession, they become a deterrent, and I believe that, by their very existence, they prevent wars in places where there could be wars. That is my opinion, and I believe that it is the opinion of the vast majority of my constituents and the people I speak to in relation to nuclear weapons and nuclear power. What wit does Jeremy Corbyn give to the opinion of my constituents who tell me that nuclear ownership is a deterrent?

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North, Labour)
The way I suggest the hon. Gentleman deals with the issue is simply this: there are five declared nuclear weapons states, which all happen to be the five permanent members of the Security Council, and there are three other states that have nuclear weapons that we know of for sure—India, Pakistan and Israel. Then, there are questions about North Korea, which has some nuclear explosive capability. That leaves a very large number of other states that have no nuclear weapons. A considerable number of states have voluntarily given up nuclear weapons, such as South Africa, Argentina and Brazil, and there are others. If weapons of mass destruction were ever used, they could only create an environmental disaster where they go off and an economic disaster across the whole planet—and possibly an environmental disaster for the whole planet with a nuclear winter. They are something that we should not, could not and never would countenance the use of. However, every state, by possessing nuclear weapons, clearly does countenance their use, otherwise they would not possess them. I think security comes from disarmament, not from rearmament, and this is also going to cost us a great deal of money.

The hon. Gentleman and I might not agree on that, but that is a view I strongly hold. It is not just my view, but that of millions of people around the world who do not wish to live under a nuclear umbrella, because they fear it could become a nuclear cloud.

John Leech (Manchester, Withington, Liberal Democrat)
I add that the countries that own nuclear weapons have all been involved in wars since having nuclear weapons, so it has not stopped them from ending up in some sort of conflict.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North, Labour)
Indeed; those countries have all been involved in conflicts, and we have come near to the use of nuclear weapons in the case of Korea and in the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. Clearly, their existence poses a threat. When the House debated Trident renewal in 2007, many Members took the view that Britain’s security depended on having nuclear weapons. If that was the case, someone could argue for any country in the world developing nuclear weapons on the basis that that would guarantee its security.

As I have explained, the reality is that the vast majority of nations do not have nuclear weapons and do not want them. Although some are under a nuclear alliance such as NATO, many are not and do not possess nuclear weapons, yet have massive natural resources. Many countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia are part of nuclear weapons-free zones. That is my view.

Julian Lewis (New Forest East, Conservative)
I appreciate that I will have the opportunity to speak after the hon. Gentleman, but I want to take him back to the point made by Jim Shannon. Jeremy Corbynsaid that if nuclear weapons were used, there would be dire effects on the environment and on the planet, but does he not recognise that people who believe in deterrents believe that the nuclear deterrent is constantly in use, because the use resides in the possession, which results in the deterrent effect on any other power against using such weapons against this country?

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North, Labour)
The hon. Gentleman and I have debated that view, and I simply do not agree that they provide security. Yes, they are in existence every day and therefore clearly are potentially a threat to somebody, but it did not do the USA much good on 11 September 2001. Nuclear weapons were not much help on that occasion; nor are they much help in dealing with poverty, environmental disasters and people who are forced to flee and seek refuge elsewhere.

My purpose today is to debate the mutual defence agreement and that, of course, is central to Britain’s nuclear relationship with the United States. I turn to the history of the agreement. The USA had the McMahon Act, which did not allow the sharing of its nuclear or defence information with any other state, notwithstanding the provisions of the NATO treaty of 1948. Britain, which had a very close relationship with the USA throughout the 1940s and ’50s, could not legally share a relationship of nuclear information with the USA. The McMahon Act was then amended, and straight after the amendment was agreed, the mutual defence agreement came into being, by which information and technology is shared between Britain and the USA.

An interesting legal point relates to the use of testing facilities at the Atomic Weapons Establishment Aldermaston and plutonium, which it would be completely illegal to use or test in the USA. I would be grateful if the Minister said whether there is any testing involving plutonium or potential uses of plutonium at AWE Aldermaston, because it is a significant part of the issue.

The mutual defence agreement has been amended a number of times in its history and was most recently renewed, on a regular 10-year cycle, to allow arrangements for the transfer of special nuclear materials and non-nuclear components. The treaty was last extended in 2004 and will be extended a further 10 years from this year. As I have explained, the US Congress debated it earlier; we were not able to debate it.

The next issue relates to what I have just said about the use of AWE Aldermaston, but also to the legality of nuclear weapons and the relationship of the agreement to the non-proliferation treaty, which is the result of an initiative by a previous Labour Government to try to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The treaty has two central themes. One is that all states that do not possess nuclear weapons and that sign the non-proliferation treaty agree not to possess them, take them on board or develop them. The other is that the five declared nuclear weapon states—Britain, France, China, Russia and the USA—agree both to take steps towards disarmament and not to allow the proliferation of nuclear weapons. So it would be interesting to know how Israel managed to get hold of its nuclear weapons and nuclear facilities.

It would also be interesting to know how this Government or any other Government can justify nuclear rearmament within the terms of the articles of the non-proliferation treaty. In a legal opinion released in July 2004 for Peacerights, BASIC—the British American Security Information Council—and the Acronym Institute, Rabinder Singh, QC, and Professor Christine Chinkin of Matrix Chambers concluded that

“it is strongly arguable that the renewal of the Mutual Defence Agreement is in breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty”.

I would therefore be grateful if the Minister said in his reply to the debate what the legal process is in the evaluation of the mutual defence agreement and how he believes that it is compatible with our obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which is coming up for its five-year review in May 2015—unhelpfully, during the general election period in this country. Will he explain exactly what power and what finance have been used, in advance of the Trident replacement programme, to ensure that the British Government have that money available, even though there has been no main-gate decision, which is due to be taken in 2016?

I shall quote from written evidence given to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs by Nick Ritchie of the Bradford disarmament research centre:

“The UK is entirely dependent upon the United States for supply and refurbishment of its Trident II (D5) submarine-launched ballistic missiles… The missiles themselves are produced and serviced in the United States by Lockheed Martin. The UK does not actually own any individual missiles, but purchased the rights to 58 missiles from a common pool held at the US Strategic Weapons facility at the Kings Bay Submarine Base, Georgia. British Trident submarines also conduct their missile test firings at the US Eastern Test Range, off the coast of Florida.”

The obvious point is that the claim that Britain has an independent nuclear deterrent must be treated with the utmost caution, if not derision, when what is quite clear is where the technology comes from, the relationship with the mutual defence agreement, the expenditure involved and the testing facilities that are available for Britain to use in the USA.

Julian Lewis (New Forest East, Conservative)
There is a question of independence in terms not of manufacture, but of control. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it is entirely a matter for the United Kingdom Government whether the deterrent would be fired, as opposed to used—fired in response to a nuclear attack on this country—and that the United States could do nothing to prevent that from happening?

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North, Labour)
That is indeed a very good question. I hope that the Minister can assist the hon. Gentleman with the answer, because it is fundamental. We have been told all my life that we have an independent nuclear deterrent in Britain and that we can operate independently. The mutual defence agreement should not have been necessary in 1958 if that was the case. It clearly was the case before 1958. Whether it was after that, I doubt, and it certainly was not the case at all after Polaris came in during the 1960s. That was a US import, as is the current technology. Could Britain fire off a nuclear weapon independently of the United States? No, I do not believe that it could. I believe that it would require the active participation of the US military and US Administration to undertake that. I simply do not believe that it is an independent nuclear weapon. I hope that this debate begins to raise more of those extremely important questions.

I was referring a few moments ago to the activities at AWE Aldermaston. Stanley Orman, a former deputy director of the AWE, said in 2008 that

“we also devised a technique…of imploding a non-fissile plutonium isotope. Now because it was plutonium the laws in the States would not allow you to implode this even though it was non-fissile, because it was plutonium. So again the American scientists would come across and use our laboratories because they couldn’t use theirs.”

If that is the case, one has to ask this question. Why is this treaty so one-sided that the USA is unable to do some testing in its own jurisdiction and therefore does it in ours, when the mutual defence agreement has received very limited parliamentary scrutiny, apart from today?

Angus Robertson (SNP Westminster Leader; Moray, Scottish National Party)
Has the hon. Gentleman any idea why our colleagues in the United States of America deem it unacceptable to conduct such tests there, but somehow we find it acceptable that they should happen here in the UK?

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North, Labour)
I have many criticisms of the USA, but one thing that I find interesting and admire to some extent is the relative openness of its parliamentary system, compared with ours, and the ability of individual Members of Congress and the Senate to get legislation through. Indeed, legislation prevents such tests from happening in the USA. That is not the case in this country.

Angus Robertson (SNP Westminster Leader; Moray, Scottish National Party)
Just for the record, for people who might be watching this debate and who have not been following the proceedings in the United States, what were the reasons why American law makers opposed such tests being conducted in the United States? I ask that just so that we can understand on what basis UK Governments of both political persuasions have found it acceptable for that happen in the UK.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North, Labour)
Nuclear weapons have been tested in the USA. They were tested there in 1945, towards the end of the second world war. I am thinking of the Manhattan project. There was the Nevada test range. Since then, there has also been considerable testing, including underground testing, and there are therefore deeply polluted and damaged lands in the west of the USA in particular, just as much as there are deeply polluted and damaged places in the Pacific such as the Marshall Islands or, indeed, in Australia.

There has not been any nuclear testing in the UK itself. We have always done that somewhere else and polluted somebody else’s environment rather than our own. I suspect that the motives behind the legislation that the hon. Gentleman refers to in the USA come from concerns about the environment and health of people, particularly in the western parts of the USA. Indeed, talking to the Western Shoshone people, one can only admire how they have stoically campaigned against nuclear weapons when they have suffered so much because of that.

The Austrian Government have invited every nation in the world to come to Vienna in December to take part in a conference on the humanitarian effects of nuclear weapons. This will be the third conference. The first was held in Oslo; it was hosted by the Norwegian Government. The second was held in Mexico, hosted by its Government. As I said, the third will be hosted by Austria. The last conference was attended by 135 nations, and 155 nations have now signed up to this conference. The Government of New Zealand, which is iconic in giving up nuclear weapons and devices, have headed up an invitation from those 155. Can we really be so discourteous to those 155 countries as to say, “We do not want to come.”?

Angus Robertson (SNP Westminster Leader; Moray, Scottish National Party)
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the international conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. He mentioned the fact that the first of those conferences was hosted by the Government of Norway, a member of NATO that now provides the Secretary-General of NATO. Norway, no doubt, will be attending the conference together with other NATO member states and more than 100 other countries. Given the commitment of other NATO countries, other allies and other friends, if they think it is important to turn up at that meeting, it would be much more than a discourtesy if we did not. Why are the UK Government not prepared to join the majority of other states that have taken their responsibilities seriously in understanding the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons?

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North, Labour)
The Government must answer for themselves, if they have decided definitely not to go to the conference. It would be discourteous not to attend, but the answer I received from the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Mr Ellwood during Foreign Office questions a couple of weeks ago indicated that he thought the conference was one-sided. Yes, it is a one-sided conference. It will consider the humanitarian effects of what nuclear explosions do, and what they have done in the past. I met the Foreign Minister of the Marshall Islands in New York at the NPT review conference in May. He witnessed a nuclear explosion as a child, and his community has been devastated by successive testing. The community are now taking out an International Court of Justice action against the nuclear weapons states, Britain included, because of the damage that has been done to the community and the islands. Surely, if supporters of nuclear weapons are so confident that those weapons are safe, reliable, usable and so on, they will not be afraid to attend a conference to discuss the humanitarian effects of those weapons on the environment, pollution and the welfare of the entire planet. I quote from the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons:

“The UK is badly out of step with the majority of countries in the world. As one of the few countries with nuclear weapons, the UK has a special responsibility to understand the risks and consequences of its own weapons. By refusing to participate in the conferences on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons held by the governments of Norway and Mexico, the UK gave the impression that it doesn’t care about the catastrophic effects its weapons could have on environment, climate, health, social order, human development and global economy.”

I could not put it better myself, and few others could.

We are debating the MDA at last, and I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee and to the House for giving us the opportunity to do so. I hope that there will be an opportunity to debate and vote on the motion tabled by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion and others that calls for the rejection of the MDA because of its secrecy, because of its transfer of technology of weapons of mass destruction between two jurisdictions and because it will be used as a basis for the renewal of the Trident system. I believe that Parliament will have to vote on the renewal of Trident in 2016, and that will commit us to expending £100 billion on yet another generation of weapons of mass destruction. There has to be a different way to run the world. There has to be a different way to use our technology, resources and skills rather than the highly secretive world of nuclear weapons. The MDA represents all that is wrong about the nuclear relationship between Britain and the USA. That is why I have raised the subject today, and I hope that we can promote a serious public debate about nuclear weapons and their safety.

Julian Lewis (New Forest East, Conservative)
It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and a pleasure, as always, to follow the eloquent case made by Jeremy Corbyn. I am always happy to support him when he applies for debates such as this, just as he is always happy to support me when I apply for debates about nuclear deterrence. The reason why we are happy to support each other, despite taking entirely opposite views, is that we both feel that we have a good case to make.

There is no earthly reason why Parliament should be shy of debating such an important matter. The hon. Gentleman may find it a trifle more disappointing than I do that if we took a trip down memory lane to a similar debate in the 1980s, the Chamber would be full of people wishing to contribute. He and I have, to put it mildly, struggled a little to get people to come along and take part in this debate, for the simple reason that the issue is not nearly as contentious now as it was two or three decades ago.

I venture to suggest that that is because the British public have spoken on the matter, over and over again. They spoke decisively on it in the general elections of 1983 and 1987, when the question of Britain one-sidedly abandoning its nuclear deterrent was central to campaigning. They have spoken time and again in public opinion polls. Of course, it is possible to vary the answers that we receive in such polls according to the questions we ask. However, when we ask what I regard as the fundamental question: “Do you think that Britain should continue to possess a nuclear deterrent or nuclear weapons while other countries have them?”, invariably, about two thirds of the respondents say yes, about a quarter say no and a small, single-figure fraction are undecided. The issue is divisive, because fundamentally it is an article of faith. Are we more likely to keep the peace by getting rid of such weapons unconditionally or by showing a potential enemy that it would be too dangerous to attack us with their nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction?

John Leech (Manchester, Withington, Liberal Democrat)
What does the hon. Gentleman think the answer would be if we asked the general public whether they would prefer to dump Trident rather than sack soldiers?

Julian Lewis (New Forest East, Conservative)
I think it would depend on the extent of the debate that had taken place before the question was asked. I would be confident that if there were to be a debate on the subject, the public would come to share my view that no amount of conventional forces can be adequate to prevent an attack on us by an enemy armed with weapons of mass destruction if we lack the means to retaliate in similar terms.

While I am dealing with the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, let me return to a point that he made earlier in an intervention on the hon. Member for Islington North. He pointed out that nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence had not abolished war, and that wars continued all over the planet. That is not an argument against nuclear deterrence; it is an argument in favour of it. After the second world war, if we had lived through 50 years of hostility between the then Soviet bloc and the west and there had been no conflicts anywhere in the world in which the nuclear balance of terror did not apply, one could indeed make the case that the nuclear balance of terror had had nothing to do with the prevention of war. The reality was that proxy wars were being fought by client states of the superpowers during the cold war, but the one thing that the superpowers never dared to do was to fight against one another directly, because they knew the potential outcome of all-out war between nuclear-armed powers.

Why is it important to have a debate on the matter, even though public opinion is fairly settled and parliamentary opinion is fairly relaxed? There are two reasons.

John Spellar (Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs); Warley, Labour)
The hon. Gentleman says that parliamentary opinion is fairly relaxed, and that may be a proper assessment of the arithmetic. In that case, why does his Prime Minister not put the issue of Trident renewal to a vote of Parliament?

Julian Lewis (New Forest East, Conservative)
I wish I knew the answer. I have asked that question many times, and it takes me neatly on to the two reasons why it is important that we have a debate on this subject, even though Parliament seems relatively relaxed about it. There is no doubt that if we look at the arithmetic of the 2007 vote that took us through the first stages of the successor programme to the Vanguard class submarines, it was exactly as the shadow Minister says—virtually every Conservative MP and a substantial majority of Labour MPs voted for continuing the deterrent into the next generation, and a significant minority of Labour unilateralists voted against the measure. The figure was about 80 or 90, if I remember correctly.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North, Labour)
One hundred.

Julian Lewis (New Forest East, Conservative)
One hundred exactly. Any advances on 100? No, so let us take that as the figure.

There is no doubt that, if there were to be a free vote in the House of Commons, this matter would proceed. One of the reasons why I want to continue having these debates until such a vote happens is that there should already have been a vote. The shadow Minister is right about that. The main-gate contracts were due to be signed during this Parliament, and it was entirely a result of coalition politics and a back-door deal with the Liberal Democrats, who are opposed to renewing Trident, that the vote was not held and that the life of the existing submarines was extended by five years. The key vote has now been put off until 2016.

One of the two main reasons why it is valuable to continue having these debates is that it is important that Front Benchers from both main parties put their respective positions on the record as often as possible. Let us face it, much as Labour and Conservative Members might regret it, there is always the possibility that we may end up with another hung Parliament that is once again dependent on the Liberal Democrats, or conceivably on the UK Independence party or, worst of all, the Scottish National party—I say that without reference to the fact that the party’s parliamentary leader, Angus Robertson, has just vacated his place—if Labour suffers as badly in Scotland at the general election as some predict. It is therefore terribly important that the Front Benchers of both main parties have their feet held to the fire as often as possible so that there can be less room for wriggling out of it in the event of another hung Parliament.

John Spellar (Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs); Warley, Labour)
The hon. Gentleman refers to wriggling out, but that is exactly what he is doing. It was absolutely clear where the parties stood in the debate on 17 July 2013, when the policies were enunciated perfectly clearly. My party’s policies were endorsed by the national policy forum and the recent Labour party conference. I am not aware of any changes in his party’s view. This debate is therefore not about the position of the parties being enunciated or holding people’s feet to the fire. The fact is that he has not managed to persuade his Prime Minister to do anything, and he ought to come clean about that.

Julian Lewis (New Forest East, Conservative)
There is a very good reason why I have not been able to persuade the Prime Minister to do anything, which is that it was evidently part of the negotiations—albeit that they were not made public at the time—on the formation of the coalition Government.

John Spellar (Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs); Warley, Labour)
Secret negotiations.

Julian Lewis (New Forest East, Conservative)
Indeed. Evidently as part of the deal an agreement was reached between the Conservative leader and the Liberal Democrat leader that the decisive steps for the renewal of the successor submarines for Trident would be put off until after the next general election.

John Spellar (Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs); Warley, Labour)
rose—

Julian Lewis (New Forest East, Conservative)
I will give way one more time, but I want to make some progress.

John Spellar (Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs); Warley, Labour)
I wholly understand the hon. Gentleman’s desire to make progress. Let us be clear that what he has said is that, for a squalid deal to get office, the Prime Minister was prepared to damage the defence of this country. That is according to the hon. Gentleman’s own arguments.

Julian Lewis (New Forest East, Conservative)
What I am saying is quite clear. If we end up with a hung Parliament and the balance of power is held by a small unilateralist party, it will be able to blackmail one or other of the main parties into not doing what should be done, which is to sign the contracts to make the renewal of Trident for another generation a certainty. I am clear that that was part of the potpourri of things that were negotiated in private. At the time I described it as a love gift to the Liberal Democrats. I thought it was absolutely wrong. It was a shock and a surprise, and it is not something of which any Conservative should be proud. Having said that, I look to my own party’s Front Benchers for an assurance that nothing like that will ever happen again, and I look to the Opposition spokesman for an assurance that no Labour leader will be tempted to conclude such a deal either.

The second reason why it is important to have a debate on this subject at this time is that the terms of trade, as it were, in international relations have changed. When the hon. Member for Islington North and I addressed these matters in January 2013, when we debated the nuclear deterrent, and in June 2013, when we debated the non-proliferation treaty, much of the argument was focused on the fact that the cold war was over and showed no sign of returning and that the nuclear deterrent was therefore irrelevant to the threats that then confronted us. As some of us stated at the time, it was far from certain that we could ever know significantly in advance whether those circumstances were going to change. We all hoped that Russia, having shed communism and started along a more democratic path, would continue to go in that direction, but there could be no guarantee.

Even now, we cannot tell where our relationship with Russia will be in the next 10, 20 or 30 years. Nobody predicted the crisis that has arisen over Ukraine, and some might argue that if Ukraine were a member of NATO, the Russians would not have done what they have done. Conversely, it could also be argued that if Ukraine were a member of NATO and the Russians had done what they have done, we would possibly now be on the brink of an extremely dangerous east-west confrontation.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North, Labour)
Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that there was an agreement between Russia and the west at the time of Ukrainian independence that Ukraine would not join NATO and would not be a nuclear power? Indeed, at the time Ukraine itself renounced nuclear weapons and their presence in Ukraine.

Julian Lewis (New Forest East, Conservative)
Indeed, Ukraine did renounce nuclear weapons. I strongly suspect that public opinion in Ukraine might now be divided, to put it mildly, over the wisdom of that decision. Given that they were Soviet nuclear weapons, Ukraine probably had little choice in the matter.

It would be a mistake to put countries on the path to NATO membership—I have said this consistently—if other NATO members would not be prepared to go to war in defence of their borders. It is all well and good to say that everyone would like to be a member of every alliance, but NATO has been so successful for so long because there is no doubt about its security guarantee. That is the importance of deterrence. In order to deter, we must be able not only to threaten an aggressor with an unacceptable level of punishment but to ensure that he is in no doubt that that unacceptable punishment will inevitably follow if he commits himself to an attack using weapons of mass destruction.

It was said earlier in the debate that the fact that the nuclear deterrent did not prevent the attacks on America in 2001 disproves the efficacy of nuclear deterrence. It does nothing of the kind. The efficacy of nuclear deterrence lies in its ability to deter another country with weapons of mass destruction from firing them in an act of aggression against you—not you personally, Sir Roger, but the person trying to deter the potential aggressor from attacking. The fact that the ability to deter one form of attack does not act as a panacea to prevent all forms of aggression or attack is neither here nor there.

The question we must ask ourselves is what the situation would have been if a country that did not possess nuclear weapons but had overwhelming conventional power faced a country that was weaker conventionally but could nevertheless deploy even a small number of nuclear weapons in an act of aggression. The answer is that no amount of conventional forces could make up for it.

When I saw that the hon. Member for Islington North wanted this debate, I knew that although it would hinge on the mutual defence agreement, that would be only a peg on which to hang the wider argument. The truth of the matter is that the mutual defence agreement is merely a facilitator for the UK’s continuing ability to maintain a nuclear deterrent.

When somebody is against maintaining the nuclear deterrent, there are a number of ways for them to campaign against it. They can try to win votes in Parliament, but as we have seen, when votes are held in Parliament on the issue, the majority of MPs are in favour of continuing the deterrent. They can try to win the battle for public opinion, but as we have seen in general elections during the cold war and in subsequent opinion polls, most members of the public think that the country should continue to possess some nuclear weapons as long as other countries have them. Therefore, the advocates of unilateral British nuclear disarmament must try to find indirect means of pursuing it. They think that if they can cite the non-proliferation treaty or the mutual defence agreement and derail the latter or get a legal opinion about the former, they might achieve by indirect means what they cannot achieve directly.

The truth of the matter is that nuclear weapons indeed have terrible humanitarian consequences, but those consequences arise when such weapons are fired; they do not arise when the weapons are used as they are meant to be used by democratic states. As I said in my first intervention on the hon. Member for Islington North, they are used in order to show any country that might contemplate or toy with the idea of aggression against the United Kingdom—a NATO democratic country—that that cannot be undertaken without the certainty of incurring unacceptable levels of retaliation.

Article 6 of the non-proliferation treaty says:

“Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

The only thing that is time-limited is the

“cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date”.

I am sure that the Minister will spell out how this country least of all the nuclear powers can be accused of being involved in a nuclear arms race—I am glad to see him nodding—because it has done more to reduce its nuclear stockpile than any other nuclear country.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North, Labour)
To take the hon. Gentleman back to what he said a couple of moments ago about the effects of nuclear weapons, surely he must be as aware as I am of the effects of nuclear testing in Australia, the Pacific, the United States and the former Soviet Union. To say that nuclear weapons’ existence has no effects is simply not correct.

Julian Lewis (New Forest East, Conservative)
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the testing of nuclear weapons—they were physically fired and exploded—had effects. That is why there have been subsequent agreements to ensure that no testing of that sort is ever done again in the atmosphere. He is absolutely right about that, but I am afraid that we have moved long beyond that point now. We are now at the point where we must decide which is the more humanitarian way to proceed. I would argue that the lesson of 50 years’ stand-off during the cold war, albeit with some intense crises at one time or another, is that the people who first thought about such matters in 1945 were correct. They viewed it slightly differently from Clement Attlee.

The hon. Gentleman—I like to call him my hon. Friend—quoted Clement Attlee at the beginning of this debate as saying that the only way to prevent catastrophe would be to outlaw war. I believe that the only way to prevent catastrophe—he has heard me quote this before, but I am afraid that will not prevent me from quoting it again—was set out in 1945 by Professor Sir Henry Tizard, the leading defence scientist of the day, when he was considering the future nature of warfare in a secret report for the chiefs of staff. He was not allowed to consider the coming of the atomic bomb in any detail, but he could not resist making a general observation about it:

“A knowledge that we were prepared, in the last resort,”

to retaliate with an atomic bomb

“might well deter an aggressive nation.”

He drew a rather revealing parallel:

“Duelling was a recognised method of settling quarrels between men of high social standing so long as the duellists stood 20 paces apart and fired at each other with pistols of a primitive type. If the rule had been that they should stand a yard apart with pistols at each other’s hearts, we doubt whether it would long have remained a recognised method of settling affairs of honour.”

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North, Labour)
It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman quotes Tizard. He could also have quoted Sir William Penney, but I suggest that he look at the profound comments of Einstein, who said that if he had known what was coming, he would rather have been a clockmaker. Joseph Rotblat, whose work was crucial to the Manhattan project, was so appalled by the power of nuclear weapons that he spent his whole life campaigning for a nuclear-free world. Surely they are more apposite than Tizard.

Julian Lewis (New Forest East, Conservative)
I am afraid that I have not put my argument across sufficiently well. I was not trying to suggest that we should accept the argument based on the eminence of Sir Henry Tizard; I used the argument because of its innate strength. The fact is that many distinguished philosophers have been ardent nuclear unilateralists, including some who worked on the bomb. I gave that quote not so much because of who said it, although I felt it necessary to spell that out, but because of the truth that it contains, which is that when a weapons system is not only able but certain to inflict unacceptable damage, therefore making retaliation unavoidable to those who wish to commit aggression, people will think much more deeply and carefully before they embark on attack, aggression and conflict. The experience of the cold war proves that, and the majority of people in Parliament and among the public recognise that.

There is therefore nothing to fear in debating issues such as whether or not the mutual defence agreement should continue, because what the agreement amounts to is a method of ensuring that this country can never be threatened by an undemocratic state brandishing atomic, nuclear, thermonuclear or chemical weapons. Also, if we look not at the question of who manufactures the components of the weapons system but at who has control over whether the weapons would ever be fired, we can be in no doubt, and neither can any potential aggressor, that any attempt to threaten this country with nuclear blackmail would be suicidal.

It is not a nice thing to live under a balance of terror, but it is a lot better than living under a monopoly of mass destruction weapons that are in the hands of undemocratic countries.

John Spellar (Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs); Warley, Labour)
Thank you, Sir Roger, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this debate, which was secured by the unlikely duo of my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn and Dr Lewis.

My hon. Friend and I served together for many years on the London Labour party executive; it was probably around the same time that the hon. Member for New Forest East was a member of the Labour party. I have known my hon. Friend a long time and he has been consistent; it is fair to say that I have consistently disagreed with him during that time. However, he has been extremely patient in constantly ploughing his furrow, as I suppose would be true of any allotment-holder in being patient as they wait for things to come around, but I fear that he will not see fruition on this issue too soon.

Of course, the hon. Member for New Forest East has a very different position from that of my hon. Friend. I almost think that his working with my hon. Friend is a sort of diversion therapy from his frustration with his own leader. He vented that frustration very strongly back in 2010, when he wrote about the formation of the coalition. He said:

“It is not in dispute that, when Conservative MPs met at Westminster to endorse the proposed Coalition, we were categorically assured that the Liberals would have to accept the Trident successor programme. As David Cameron gave this guarantee, George Osborne nodded in confirmation. Unfortunately, all these assurances have since been disregarded.”

I hope that the Minister, in his response to the debate, may be able to shed some light on o whether the hon. Member for New Forest East was either wilfully self-deluded or woefully misled by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor in the assurances that they gave.

However, that situation is also based on a misapprehension that the Liberal Democrats are unilateralist disarmers—the hon. Member for New Forest East said that again today—because the policy that they have been pushing to get the Trident review is not a unilateralist one; it accepts the continuation of a nuclear deterrent. However, to try to provide some differentiation between themselves and others, they went for some rather exotic—as well as more expensive, destabilising and uncertain—alternatives, all of which were appropriately demolished by the review.

Julian Lewis (New Forest East, Conservative)
I do not intend to emulate the right hon. Gentleman by making as many interventions on him as he made on me, but I will say that I have never regarded him as a naive politician. Nevertheless, if he really thinks that the undercurrent and the real message of the stance taken by the Liberal Democrats on this matter is that they were really in favour of a nuclear deterrent, he should do what I did, although it might disturb his sleep a bit, and watch the rebroadcasting of the Liberal Democrats’ conference debates on this subject, because—believe me—all they were interested in during those debates was getting rid of Trident. One never heard anything mentioned about the positive case for a nuclear deterrent. It was another indirect way of going for unilateralism, because they knew that overt unilateralism would be too unpopular.

John Spellar (Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs); Warley, Labour)
I always say that MPs and Ministers must be responsible for their own words, but if the hon. Gentleman rereads the debate from the time of the Trident review he will see clearly that at one stage the Liberal Democrats argued for the use of nuclear-enabled Cruise missiles. Apart from being a much more expensive option, that is—as I have already said—a far riskier option. I do not mean “risky” in terms of whether or not that option is a credible deterrent, although that is true as well, but in terms of being a destabilising factor, which could lead to much greater tension and—equally importantly—considerable risk of error.

Julian Lewis (New Forest East, Conservative)
In the spirit of compromise and convergence, can the two of us at least agree that, since the review of the Trident alternatives, the Liberal Democrat position—sending submarines to sea with no nuclear warheads on them, then waiting for a crisis to arise before sailing them back to port and arming them with nuclear warheads—has to be the most irresponsible fantasy-land thinking in the age of the nuclear deterrent? Furthermore, is it not a shame that no Liberal Democrats are here in Westminster Hall today to defend their decision, or—indeed—to explain it?

John Spellar (Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs); Warley, Labour)
We can draw a veil now over the incoherence and absence of the Liberal Democrats, and get down to the serious and proper debate—it is certainly a proper debate to have—about Britain’s nuclear posture. It is a debate that my party has engaged in for a considerable number of years, in fact ever since the great post-war Attlee and Bevin Government commissioned Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent, a policy that, I am pleased to say, continues today.

Having said that, none of us should underestimate the weighty issues—both the hon. Members who have already spoken stressed this point—that should weigh heavily on all those who have to make these decisions or arguments. I say that because it is very clear that there are huge issues. In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North, nobody underestimates the impact of nuclear weapons nor the potential devastation that they could cause. Nevertheless, nuclear weapons are a fact in our world.

I partly differ from my hon. Friend in this regard. He made passing reference to the non-proliferation treaty conference that is due to take place next year. Clearly, it will be resolved by—we could say by the nuclear weapon states, but frankly the key discussions that need to take place are between the USA and Russia. If agreement can be reached by them, we should rightly be part of the subsequent discussions. However, as I say, the key initial discussions must be between the USA and Russia.

I do not think that any of the participants in this debate about nuclear weapons, including those who have spoken today or in similar parliamentary debates, in any way underestimate the impact of nuclear weapons on those directly affected, on the environment or indeed on the wider world.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North, Labour)
Obviously, discussion between the USA and Russia on nuclear weapons would be a good thing; anything that helps nuclear disarmament is a good thing. Does my right hon. Friend accept that the last two five-yearly conferences both agreed that there should be a weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the middle east, and that at the last review—the preparatory conference last year—every state agreed that that should happen? Therefore, I am sure that he will join me in pushing the Government to do their best to initiate, or bring about, that zone. Otherwise, the danger is of a nuclear arms race in the middle east. There are other countries besides Israel that could develop nuclear weapons if they wanted to.

John Spellar (Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs); Warley, Labour)
I take my hon. Friend back to the Attlee memorandum, and indeed to many other documents by those who have written about this subject. That is because the key issue—as Michael Quinlan, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence, who is also a committed Christian and someone who has thought very deeply about these issues, has said—is the removal of the risks of war and instability. That is absolutely crucial in all these circumstances, including in the middle east. That is why it is so important to achieve a two-state solution in Israel-Palestine, although Israel-Palestine is by no means the only source of tension in the middle east. We are seeing so many conflicts taking place in that unhappy region, and that is without any question of nuclear weapons, although, sadly, chemical weapons has been another issue. The resolution of those conflicts and the creation of a stable and peaceful environment is so important.

In the meantime, notwithstanding that, it is also important that the UK plays its part—indeed, it has played its part more than any other country, as I think the hon. Member for New Forest East mentioned—in reducing the proportion of our nuclear armoury. Significantly, that took place under the defence team that I was a member of in 1997 to 2001, but, to be fair I should say that it has been continued by our successors not only in the Labour Government, but in this Conservative Government as well.

Julian Lewis (New Forest East, Conservative)
This is positively my last intervention on the right hon. Gentleman, although that is perhaps giving a hostage to fortune. Will he confirm that, when we took those unilateral steps of reducing our nuclear warhead stockpiles, there was no similar response from any of the other existing nuclear powers?

John Spellar (Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs); Warley, Labour)
I think that is right. We had hoped that there would be such a response, but we took that decision in context and reduced to the minimum level necessary to maintain effective deterrence. We have reduced the explosive power of our British deterrent by some 75% since that time. That gives us good credentials and bona fides in those discussions.

I return to the point I made about the NPT. The crucial discussions have to be between the two major nuclear powers, which are still the United States and Russia. That needs to be re-emphasised.

The policy of the Labour party was made clear, as I made clear in previous interventions, by my hon. Friend Mr Jones in a debate in the main Chamber on 17 July last year. He was explicit about our commitment to continuous at-sea deterrence—in the most cost-effective way possible, of course. I mentioned earlier that that was also the conclusion of the Government’s own review, which systematically and elegantly dismantled the Lib Dems’ excuses, even though the document contained the bizarre disclaimer, which I hope the Minister will touch on, that it was not a statement of Government policy.

Incidentally, I hope that this afternoon we will hear no more nonsense from Ministers, as we have heard previously in the main Chamber, claiming to speak not on behalf of the Government but on behalf of a political party, because I think that I have fairly well established, with rulings from the Speaker, that whoever speaks from the Dispatch Box—from that position and that microphone—actually speaks from the Treasury Bench and is therefore speaking on behalf of the Government. At a time when various Ministers seem to be dissociating themselves from the Government, it would help, particularly on an issue as significant as this, if the Government spoke with a clear voice.

An argument about cost is sometimes made regarding the more general Trident discussion, and we have mainly had that discussion here, rather than discussing the debate subject of the UK-US mutual defence agreement. Indeed, cost was mentioned in an intervention by Mr Leech. The question there was, would people rather have the nuclear deterrent or the Army? Would they rather have soldiers or air cover? It is not an appropriate comparison. However, one argument is that this programme costs too much. It therefore seems rather strange, if not perverse, to then argue against an agreement that substantially and significantly reduces the cost of the programme in a number of ways. For example, it reduces the cost of delivering the deterrent, even the design and development costs. It is reckoned that the common design has saved the UK in the region of £500 million and precludes the need to design, develop, manufacture and test our own missile system.

The Trident alternatives review estimated that a new warhead alone would cost £8 billion to £10 billion. I have already mentioned the extra cost of moving to cruise missiles. Regarding a cost-effective system, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham made it clear that our two criteria were maintaining continuous at-sea deterrence and doing so with the minimum possible cost, and the approach I am talking about assists us towards the minimum possible cost.

There was a cross-debate on the independence of the system. The fact that we are buying F-35s, made in the US but with substantial elements made in the UK, does not mean that we do not have an independent Air Force. It is the control of the system, not the sourcing of the weaponry, that is the important test of independence. Therefore we ought to be clear that this is Britain’s independent deterrent, but in a NATO nuclear alliance, as was reaffirmed at the NATO summit. It is slightly odd that our now absent friends from the Scottish National party want to be anti-nuclear but want to join a nuclear alliance. That is a slightly perverse position to take.

I want to be clear, because the hon. Member for New Forest East wanted me to be clear—certainly, clearer than his own Government—about the Opposition’s position. We have made it clear through our policy statement. Labour has said that

“we are committed to a minimum, credible independent nuclear deterrent, delivered through a Continuous At-Sea Deterrent…Labour recognises the importance of Britain leading international efforts for multilateral nuclear disarmament”—

I mentioned the NPT—

“and non-proliferation. Following the action we took when in government, Labour would actively work to enhance momentum on global multilateral disarmament efforts and negotiations”.

The NPT conference in 2015 will be a key moment for a Labour Government to show leadership in achieving progress on global disarmament and anti-proliferation measures.

For all those reasons, we will support the reaffirmation of the agreement and the policy initiated by that great Labour Government of Attlee and Bevin.

David Lidington (The Minister for Europe; Aylesbury, Conservative)
I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Sir Roger. I congratulate Jeremy Corbyn and my hon. Friend Dr Lewis on securing this debate on the mutual defence agreement, which has spread out to consider wider aspects of this country’s nuclear defence policy.

It is noticeable that the debate has been conducted by Members on all sides with a degree of seriousness appropriate to the grave subject that we are debating. I am with Mr Spellar in saying that whatever side of the argument any of us stands on—whether for or against the UK maintaining a nuclear deterrent—we are in no doubt about the consequences of nuclear warfare. All of us have seen or read about the impact on people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. We have also seen the impact of nuclear testing in some of the cases that the hon. Member for Islington North described.

I take the view, along with my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East, that there remains a need for a United Kingdom nuclear deterrent. Although the cold war has ended, significant nuclear capabilities and risks remain. Nuclear weapons cannot be disinvented. Substantial nuclear arsenals still exist. The number of nuclear armed states in the world has increased, and there is a significant risk of new nuclear armed states emerging. Moreover, several of the countries that have nuclear weapons, or are trying to acquire them, are in tense and unstable regions. There is the potential for a new nuclear threat to emerge or re-emerge.

This country’s strategic deterrent is therefore as relevant today as it has ever been. It remains the ultimate guarantee of our security and sovereignty, and a necessary insurance in an uncertain world. I want to be clear, as successive Governments of this country have been, that the United Kingdom’s nuclear weapons are not designed or intended for military use during conflicts. Their objective is to deter and prevent nuclear blackmail, and acts of aggression against our vital interests that could not be countered by any other means. Successive Governments have been clear that the circumstances in which any use of nuclear weapons might be contemplated are of the most extreme kind.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North, Labour)
The Minister mentioned the non-proliferation treaty. It is specifically designed to prevent, as the name suggests, nuclear armed proliferation. Is he content about, or has he had legal advice on, provision for nuclear information to be shared by the USA with Britain? That is extrajudicial for both countries and therefore appears to be at odds with the terms of the non-proliferation treaty, which is designed to stop proliferation, rather than encourage it.

David Lidington (The Minister for Europe; Aylesbury, Conservative)
If the hon. Gentleman bears with me, I will address the issue of the non-proliferation treaty and the bearing it has on the MDA later. I pay tribute to him. He has always, in all his years in the House, taken an absolutely consistent and coherent approach in opposing this country’s deterrent and wanting to see immediate and universal nuclear disarmament. The right hon. Member for Warley, my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East and I believe that this country’s deterrent remains necessary and important. There is no case for saying that the United Kingdom ought to have an independent nuclear deterrent, but one that was less effective and therefore of less deterrent value than the system of continuous submarine patrols that we have. That point was made more than once in this debate, but I will not pursue it further in the absence of those advocating that policy course.

I referred a moment ago to our alliance on continuous at-sea submarine patrols, and it is worth paying tribute to the fact that for more than 45 years, for every minute of every day, the Royal Navy has successfully operated such patrols, ensuring the safety and security of this country. I hope that the whole House would join me, whatever our views on the need for a nuclear deterrent, in paying tribute to the dedication of the men and women of the Royal Navy, including the crews and support staff and their families. Many of those servicemen and women are away from home for long periods, and their dedication and commitment are fundamental to the success of the United Kingdom’s deterrent operation.

While the international security environment continues to require the UK to maintain a nuclear deterrent, we have an obvious responsibility to maintain the safety, security and reliability of all its elements, including through the replacement and updating of parts of the system as they reach the end of their operational life. The mutual defence agreement has enabled us to collaborate with the United States to ensure that we are able to do that to the highest possible technical standards. The MDA underpins all nuclear defence co-operation between the UK and the US. That co-operation has been of considerable mutual benefit, allowing the United Kingdom to reduce costs significantly while maintaining an operationally independent deterrent. It is in the national defence and security interests of the UK and the US, as well as in this country’s economic interests, for the MDA to continue.

Questions have been posed about the independence of the United Kingdom’s nuclear deterrent and whether that independence is in practice meaningful, given the MDA and our close collaboration on defence matters with the United States. I want to be absolutely clear that this country’s nuclear deterrent is and always has been operationally independent. The command and control systems involved are UK-owned and controlled. Decision making and use of the Trident system remain entirely sovereign to the United Kingdom. Only the Prime Minister can authorise the employment of the United Kingdom’s nuclear deterrent, and there are no technical means by which the United States could negate or override a prime ministerial instruction.

It is true that through the MDA we have been able to take advantage of some American know-how, and of a certain amount of American material. We would have been able to provide that for ourselves, but creating an entirely indigenous source of such material, equipment and know-how would have given rise to significant additional expense. It has seemed to Labour and Conservative Governments alike over the years to be common sense to work with the United States to take advantage of its capacity in those areas of nuclear expertise to our mutual advantage, rather than incurring the extra costs ourselves when that was not necessary for the independence and capability of our nuclear deterrent. We have some procurement dependence on the US for certain non-nuclear aspects of the system, but we choose not to manufacture those indigenously because of the economic benefits of working with our closest ally.

[Mr David Amess in the Chair]

On the important question of the relationship between the mutual defence agreement and the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, there have been claims in this debate and at other times that the MDA is at odds with our commitment to a world without nuclear weapons, and incompatible with the commitments we have made under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, particularly those in articles 1 and 6. The United Kingdom is a leading nation in securing progress in nuclear disarmament, and we should be proud of our record. We have steadily reduced the size of our nuclear forces by well over half since our cold war peak. Our nuclear arsenal is almost certainly the smallest of any of the five states recognised as nuclear weapons states under the NPT.

Our forces peaked in the late 1970s with a total of some 460 warheads of various types and delivery systems. In May 2010, the Prime Minister announced that the figure would continue to be reduced to no more than 120 operationally available warheads, with an entire stockpile of no more that 180 warheads by the mid-2020s. That reduction is already under way. The Government have also announced that we will cut the maximum number of nuclear warheads onboard each deployed submarine from 48 to 40, while reducing the number of operational Trident missiles on each submarine to eight. Those changes have already been completed on at least one of the vessels.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North, Labour)
May I take the Minister back to my question about the compatibility of the MDA, which is now amended and includes the observation of dangers of proliferation elsewhere in the world, with the original and current objective of the NPT, which is the non-proliferation of nuclear know-how or technology between states? Britain and the USA are not one state. As the Minister reminded us, they are both sovereign, independent nations, so the transfer of nuclear technology from one to the other is surely in breach of the NPT.

David Lidington (The Minister for Europe; Aylesbury, Conservative)
The hon. Gentleman takes me straight to the point that I was about to make about article I of the NPT, which touches on the transfer of nuclear weapons and devices between countries. The Government regard the MDA as compliant with our obligations under article I for three reasons.

First, nuclear devices or weapons are not transferred to the United Kingdom under the terms of the MDA. As I described earlier, what we receive under the MDA is a certain amount of nuclear technological know-how and some non-lethal elements, such as propulsion systems, that are not prohibited under article I.

Secondly, article V of the original mutual defence agreement—not including the amendments—quite explicitly states that the transfer of nuclear weapons is not permitted.

Thirdly, article I of the NPT refers in particular to transfers from the recognised nuclear weapons states to non-nuclear weapons states. However, the MDA refers to transfers of things other than nuclear weapons or devices from one nuclear weapons state to another, both of which are party to the NPT. I think that that answers the challenge that the MDA is in some way incompatible with article I of the NPT.

The other criticism made is that the mutual defence agreement is at odds with the obligation that we and the other four recognised nuclear-weapons states have under article VI of the non-proliferation treaty to work towards multilateral disarmament. I have already described how the United Kingdom has significantly brought down its nuclear arsenal as a contribution to multilateral nuclear disarmament, but we have also been active and continue to be active in a range of multilateral disarmament initiatives.

We remain a strong supporter of the NPT. We signed and ratified the comprehensive test ban treaty as long ago as the 1990s and remain a strong supporter of the treaty both financially and technically, operating our own voluntary moratorium on testing pending the treaty coming into effect. We actively urge the remaining states that have not yet ratified the treaty to do so. We want an early start of negotiations in Geneva on the fissile material cut-off treaty and are an active member of the group of governmental experts that is working on those negotiations, which are currently blocked not by the United Kingdom or any of the recognised nuclear-weapons states, but by Pakistan for national reasons.

In addition, we currently chair the forum of the permanent five nuclear weapons states and will be hosting the next annual conference in London in February next year. The purpose of the P5 process is to build transparency and mutual confidence to make it possible for all nuclear weapons states to engage in further rounds of multilateral disarmament. At the same time, we lead an informal working group at the United Nations, discussing the UN’s role in future nuclear security work. This country therefore has a good record of active work on multilateral disarmament that sits perfectly well alongside the arrangements that we have with the United States under the MDA.

John Spellar (Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs); Warley, Labour)
I thank the Minister for giving way, and I want to highlight the fact that these developments have taken place under Governments of both parties. To what extent can we support, encourage or stimulate the key discussions between the United States and Russia on their agreement, to which the agreements of the other nuclear states are secondary, although important?

David Lidington (The Minister for Europe; Aylesbury, Conservative)
First, I happily acknowledge that the multilateral disarmament work that I have described has taken place under Governments of both political colours.

Secondly, I agree completely with the right hon. Gentleman that the prime responsibility for leadership in multilateral nuclear disarmament must lie with the two biggest nuclear powers: the United States and Russia.

We encouraged the talks that led towards the second strategic arms reduction treaty, which will impose limits for each party of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads from February 2018. We need to see that target fulfilled and would welcome and support its implementation.

One could make a similar point about the talks on an intermediate nuclear forces treaty. There was a bilateral US-Russia treaty back in 1988, but each side now accuses the other of breaching it. For reasons relating to Russia’s conduct in Ukraine, there has been a significant erosion of trust between the US and Russia. It will therefore not be easy to get talks between Washington and Moscow back on course, but I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it is in the interests of all of us that Russia and the United States are able to rebuild a sufficient degree of trust for meaningful negotiations towards multilateral nuclear disarmament to take place.

I want it to be clear that the United Kingdom is not using the amendments to the mutual defence agreement to upgrade its system’s capabilities. There is no move to produce more usable weapons or change our nuclear posture or doctrine. The amendments to the MDA that we are technically debating this afternoon do not in any way provide for an upgrading of the capabilities of the Trident system. That is a decision for 2016.

The hon. Member for Islington North asked a couple of detailed questions about plutonium tests at Aldermaston and the relationship between the mutual defence agreement and the planned replacement of the Vanguard-class submarine fleet. The Atomic Weapons Establishment has conducted sealed hydrodynamic plutonium experiments, which are sub-critical, do not produce nuclear yield and are fully compliant with the non-proliferation treaty. The experiments were described in a published article in the journal Nature in February 2002. Aldermaston and its experiments are also, of course, fully in line with the commitments we have undertaken in agreeing and ratifying the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty. I am therefore advised that what has happened at Aldermaston is fully compliant with our international legal obligations.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North, Labour)
Two points come from that. First, was the plutonium from the UK, or was it imported from the USA? Secondly, were the results shared with US scientists and military personnel, either at the time or after the experiments took place?

David Lidington (The Minister for Europe; Aylesbury, Conservative)
I hope the hon. Gentleman will understand if I say I will write to him after the debate to provide him with such detail as I can.

On the relationship between the renewal of the MDA and the 2016 main-gate decision, no submarines or reactors are being built before that decision. However, it is vital, as with any major programme of such complexity, to order certain items where there would be a delay in the programme if we were to wait until after main gate. Some of those transfers will take place under the MDA, but as I said earlier, transfers under the MDA do not include nuclear weapons or nuclear devices.

I hope hon. Members on both sides will recognise that the United Kingdom has been a leading nation on multilateral disarmament. However, successive Governments have also been clear that we will retain a credible, continuous and effective minimum nuclear deterrent for as long as the global security situation makes that necessary.

We are a responsible nuclear weapons state. The mutual defence agreement helps to provide the maintenance and servicing required to ensure the safety, security and reliability of the system, and at a substantial reduction on the costs that would otherwise be incurred. It is fully compliant with our international obligations, it does not hinder the operational independence of the deterrent and it is a key aspect of our defence co-operation with our closest ally. It is clearly in the national interest of the United Kingdom and the United States to continue this co-operation, and the Government’s clear view is that the mutual defence agreement should be renewed.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North, Labour)
I thank you, Mr Amess, and Sir Roger for chairing the debate. Let me also express my thanks for the manner in which it was conducted and for the fact that we have at last had a debate on the MDA. I look forward to a lengthy, detailed and legally binding letter from the Minister on its compatibility with the non-proliferation treaty.

I was slightly disappointed that the Minister did not appear to address my specific question about the humanitarian effects of war conference in Austria in December, and I look forward to a further letter about that. I am sure he will be happy to know that I will be attending it. I would be happy to present the view from the UK that there is a humanitarian danger from nuclear weapons, and I am sure he would endorse that. I therefore hope he will be able to reply on that issue.

I should make one last point. We are elected to Parliament to hold the Government to account—that is why were are here; that is the whole history of the British Parliament. However, we still have some way to go where treaties and the use of ministerial power and the prime ministerial royal prerogative are concerned, and there should be far greater scrutiny.

I secured the debate with the help of Dr Lewis and the Backbench Business Committee, and I am glad we did that. There is still a possibility that the motion tabled by Caroline Lucas could be debated. However, we must be aware that we are dealing with a massive threat to humankind. Such measures should not just be rushed through Parliament, as this particular aspect—the mutual defence agreement—is apparently being.

I am grateful that we have had the debate, and I hope the public are better informed about the issue as a result. I thank you, Mr Amess, for allowing me this opportunity to respond to the debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.

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