House of Commons, Select Committee on Defence
Julian Lewis Chair, Defence Committee 11:18 am, 7th July 2016
I am grateful for this opportunity to lay before the House the Defence Committee’s new report entitled, “Russia: Implications for UK defence and security”, which has been produced on the eve of the Warsaw NATO summit and which highlights the need for that major event to focus on defence and deterrence, but also on dialogue.
I am extremely grateful to all the members of the Defence Committee for their contributions to the genesis of this report. We held four oral evidence sessions and received 18 pieces of written evidence. A delegation from the Committee, ably led by my hon. Friend Mr Gray, visited Moscow, where they attempted to engage with the Russian authorities. Because of the current state of relations, Russian Government authorities were reluctant to engage, but the delegation acquired much other useful information on that visit.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine have undermined the post-cold war assumption of a stable Europe in which the military threat to NATO is low. The north Atlantic alliance must therefore restore its defences, review its deterrence and reopen its dialogue with the Russian authorities. The fact that NATO and the UK were taken by surprise by the interventions in Ukraine shows a failure to comprehend President Putin’s determination to maintain a sphere of influence beyond Russia’s own borders and to do so by force if necessary. His stance directly contradicts the rules-based international order that western democracies seek to promote.
Russia has become increasingly active not only in conventional warfare, but in unconventional methods, often deniable, which are designed to fall below the threshold that would trigger NATO’s article 5 guarantee—the undertaking to consider an armed attack against one NATO member state as an attack against them all. The creation of the very high readiness joint taskforce—VJTF—among NATO member states and the enhanced forward presence on NATO’s contested eastern flank are steps in the right direction, but our report warns that the VJTF was formed only recently and that its capacity to deploy the necessary forces within the required timeframe is as yet unproven.
The report’s recommendations include the following. First, the MOD should recognise the extent of Russian remilitarisation and respond to it robustly. Secondly, it should review the effectiveness of current deterrence policy against nuclear, conventional and hybrid or multidimensional warfare. Thirdly, NATO should determine whether the 1987 intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty is in need of repair or replacement in the light of allegations that Russia has breached its provisions. Fourthly, a timetable should be set out for the Trident Successor submarine debate and the decision in Parliament “without further delay”—indeed, that debate should be held before the summer recess. Fifthly, the renewal of EU-wide sanctions against Russia should be encouraged and possibly extended to a larger group among the Kremlin leadership. Sixthly, it should be accepted that
“it is perfectly possible to confront and constrain an adversary in a region where our interests clash, whilst cooperating with him, to some degree, in a region where they coincide.”
We regard the threat posed by Daesh, al-Qaeda and other international terrorists as a relevant example of the latter: the convergence, to a considerable extent, of NATO and Russian interests. I am glad to see the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend Mr Brazier, assenting to that proposition.
The Committee believes that Russian cyber-attacks across Europe and territorial seizures in Georgia and Ukraine may not be isolated actions and may be symptomatic of a wider ambition to restore Moscow’s global influence. However, because Russia is a global power, there remain opportunities for co-operation if we can but grasp them. Yet with relations at what the Russian ambassador to London has described as an “all time low”, our report concludes that the UK must urgently boost its cadre of Russian specialists. We must restore and maintain a high level of expertise for the foreseeable future. Given the current climate, the defence attaché’s office in Moscow, for example, must be properly staffed by the end of the year.
Since the end of the cold war, Russia has not been a UK priority and our expertise in this field has withered on the vine. The UK needs a vastly strengthened body of experts who can help provide an effective response to the challenges Russia now poses. We cannot hope to understand Russia without a forthright dialogue, and in the current conditions of mistrust we run the risk of blundering into conflicts that may be preventable through better communication. The cold war was characterised not only by military confrontation, but by the then Soviet Union’s promotion of Marxism-Leninism, with its formidable appeal to impressionable minds inside the Kremlin’s targeted countries. No such totalitarian doctrine applies to present-day Russia, which, for all its nationalist and expansionist tendencies, is itself under threat from revolutionary Islamism, the brutal successor to the equally brutal Nazi and communist creeds which blighted so much of the 20th century. Therein lies the basis for potential co-operation, provided that our dialogue with Russia is from a position of strength, based on sound defences and credible deterrence.
Julian Brazier The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence
May I also welcome Clive Lewis to his new role, and say that we served in the same reserve infantry unit, although, unlike me, he saw active service during his time there?
I congratulate my right hon. Friend and his Committee on a heavyweight report. Clearly, we will be responding to it, and we will look carefully at each of the recommendations. It is above my pay grade to give a date for the Trident debate, but we will be looking carefully at it. May I congratulate the Committee on the very careful balance that it has struck between stressing the real and growing dangers from the Soviet Union—sorry, that was a Freudian slip; I meant from Russia—and stressing the political situation that exists now as compared with the old Soviet Union? I am talking about the lack of ideology now, and the fact that that may provide us with some constructive opportunities, particularly as we share a horrid threat from Daesh.
Douglas Chapman Scottish National Party, Dunfermline and West Fife
We spent most of yesterday discussing the political and military miscalculation and misadventure in Iraq. We hope a debate on Trident looms large, but the report emphasises the need to consider the cost-effectiveness, desirability and affordability of the Successor programme. In the light of Brexit and the financial uncertainty it might bring, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there are many approaches and non-nuclear deterrents we could introduce to create stability with Russia, but that Trident skews every single defence budget to unacceptable levels? Its extension could lead to a financial miscalculation and to a military misadventure that would make Iraq look like a bit of a walk in the park.
Julian Lewis Chair, Defence Committee
Bearing in mind your instruction to be concise, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will just share with the House what the hon. Gentleman said to me when he first joined the Committee. He said, “Julian, you and I are never going to agree about the nuclear deterrent, but I am sure we can co-operate to mutual advantage on many other defence issues,” and he has been as good as his word. I respect his concerns and his doubts about the Trident Successor programme, and I am sure that the sooner we have the debate, the sooner we will be able to engage in the arguments.
House of Commons, Bill Presented: Transport of Nuclear Weapons
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
Owen Thompson SNP Whip 1:24 pm, 20th January 2016
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about controls on the transportation of nuclear weapons.
I would like to take this opportunity to call on the Government immediately to clarify what safety measures they have put in place and, ultimately, to put a stop to these convoys travelling through our towns and cities. It is my hope that greater awareness in this House of these convoys will strengthen calls across the country to rid us of nuclear weapons once and for all.
On several occasions since my election last May, nuclear convoys have passed through my Midlothian constituency along busy routes with commuters and families. These convoys pass with no regard to the danger they pose to the people of Midlothian. My constituents are horrified—and understandably so. As some Members will know, Midlothian is a semi-rural constituency, immediately south of Edinburgh, sitting at the foot of the Pentland hills. Penicuik is one of Midlothian’s largest towns, where we find the Glencorse barracks with Beeslack High School and Mauricewood Primary School in close proximity. Perhaps we can imagine the scene around lunchtime on a bright May afternoon, with the children from Mauricewood primary playing in the school fields and the pupils at Beeslack High School out enjoying their lunch, while just over the fence sit half a dozen weapons of mass destruction.
Since then, there have been countless reported incidents where convoys have continued to travel across the UK, regardless of severe weather warnings, with the most recent instance only last weekend in Stirling. A number of areas of the country are suffering from flooding while others are under snow, and emergency services are pushed. Roads and rail infrastructure are challenged almost to breaking point—yet still these convoys make their trek up and down our countries.
Following the public outcry in Midlothian on the 22 May, I wrote to the Secretary of State for Defence to ask a number of safety questions, including what assessment had been made of the proposed route. I have to say that the answer provided to me was woefully inadequate. In his response, the Minister for the Armed Forces claimed that there had been an unbroken safety record for 50 years. That response could have been written by Frank Drebben and the Police Squad, saying “Nothing to see here, move along”. In actual fact, more than 70 individual safety incidents involving convoys were recorded by the Ministry of Defence over the period between July 2007 to December 2012. Those figures were provided to me by Nukewatch, an organisation that helps to monitor the convoys’ movement, and they had been provided to it by the MOD.
Alarmingly, the movement of convoys has changed. In 2005, MOD rules restricting travel by night were lifted, but moving convoys by night increases the risk of accidents and collisions, and makes security much more difficult. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents has pointed out that drivers are far more likely to fall asleep at the wheel at night. These long journeys now take less than 20 hours, adding pressure to crews and critical safety equipment while families sleep in their beds. At a time when we have a daily reminder in this House that the UK threat level remains “severe”, these convoys are dangerous, highly visible and not only a risk through the level of accidents, but a moving target for terrorists.
Some might claim this is being alarmist, but it has been said that
“such an attack has the potential to lead to the damage or destruction of a nuclear weapon within the UK and the consequence of such an incident are likely to be considerable loss of life and severe disruption to the British people’s way of life and to the UK’s ability to function effectively as a sovereign state”.
These are not my words—they are from the MOD in response to a freedom of information request by Nukewatch in 2005. We should just think about that— “considerable loss of life” and inability to function “as a sovereign state”. If anyone still thinks it is a good idea to have these convoys passing through our communities when the potential consequences have been acknowledged, feel free to do so. I have to say that I certainly do not. Given the enormity of these words, we must ask ourselves whether nuclear convoys are more of a risk to the British people and their way of life than terrorism. If that is the case, we have a moral, ethical and valid compelling mandate to remove that risk from our towns, our cities and our nations.
We need look only at the effects of social media to understand how powerful the risk is. When convoys travelled through Midlothian, I was alerted to the fact through Facebook and Twitter. Ordinary members of the public were drawing attention to the grim scene of nuclear materials passing their front doors. It is delusional to think that a convoy of 20 large vehicles can ever go unnoticed in this day and age. The existence of the convoys is already well documented, and if members of the public can do that, it seems logical to assume that others with darker motivations could do so as well.
I am sure that we are all far too well aware of the appalling damage and loss of life that a terrorist attack can bring about, but running convoys of nuclear weapons through the country does nothing to deter that. In the event of such an incident, or a fire or major explosion, local authorities might not be fully prepared to deal with the immediate aftermath. Although the police are informed of an approaching convoy, they are not obliged to inform any other services, including the fire and rescue services.
In a scenario of that kind, with lethal plutonium billowing around my constituency, local people would be at the mercy of a response team that is based in Bath. While I am sure that the members of that team are highly skilled and have considerable expertise, they are nevertheless based 380 miles from my constituency. At worst, if there were a fire or a major explosion, my constituency and neighbouring areas would be flattened.
This issue has been discussed in this House before. My hon. Friend Margaret Ferrier raised many of the same points during a debate back in July. However, the issue has not been raised solely by SNP Members, and I thank Ms Ritchie for conveying her support for the Bill. As well as passing through 21 local authority areas in Scotland, the convoys pass through, or fly over, 13 in Wales and 91 in England, so this is not just an issue for Scotland.
As the House anticipates a potential vote on the overhauling and upgrading of the system through the Mk4A refurbishment programme, the Government should also be clear about the impact that the programme will have on the frequency of convoys. If every single warhead is to be replaced, and every single one is to be sent down to Berkshire and back again, I can only imagine the scene: you are standing on a street corner, observing the passing of military vehicles, some guarding and some carrying nuclear weapons, but you are not in North Korea. You are on the A702 in Penicuik.
Finally, let me raise a matter of great importance, and praise the hard work of the men and women who are employed on our submarines or as part of the logistical operation. They do an incredible job. It must not be forgotten that, regardless of our views on nuclear weapons, the men and women who work with them are doing a phenomenal job.
I believe that most of the people of Scotland, and, indeed, most people in my constituency, remain opposed to the UK Government’s policy of maintaining and upgrading the Trident system. However, I hope that the debate will persuade other Members, even if they agree with the pro-Trident policy, to show their concern and agree that real risks are involved in nuclear convoys. The transport of nuclear weapons should not be based on an argument for convenience at the expense of safety. The policy as it stands lacks transparency, it is counterproductive in that it does not protect us from terrorist attacks, and it shows a blatant disregard and lack of judgment in relation to our own citizens. While my ultimate hope is that the Government will see sense and think again about their policy of renewing Trident, they should at the very least respond to Members’ calls for an end to the absurd policy of driving nuclear weapon material near our schools, nurseries and front doors.
John Woodcock Labour/Co-operative, Barrow and Furness 1:33 pm, 20th January 2016
People in my constituency periodically receive warning notices telling them what to do in the event of a nuclear incident—I receive such notices in my own house—and iodine tablets are given out lest such an incident should occur. The difference—I was going to refer to the difference between the people of Barrow and Furness and the constituents of Owen Thompson in Scotland, but that would not be correct. The difference between the people of Barrow and Furness and SNP Members is that the former have a mature understanding of the fact that the regulatory governance structure is internationally overseen, and is designed to keep everyone safe.
Not only are live nuclear reactors maintained on submarines in Barrow and Furness, a few hundred yards from my house, without incident and without any of the paranoid scaremongering that has been deliberately whipped up by the hon. Gentleman, but nuclear material is taken by rail along the south and west coasts of Cumbria, and is taken entirely safely. The hon. Gentleman is trying to frighten schoolchildren and nursery children, and I really think he ought to know better. If he has done any research, he must surely know that the idea that there could be a sudden derailment, the whole of Scotland could immediately be filled with a cloud of plutonium, and everyone would put on gas masks and then die is a complete fantasy—and a fantasy designed not to achieve a greater level of safety for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, but merely to add fuel to the fire of the SNP’s absurd argument.
In case you have forgotten that argument, Madam Deputy Speaker, it goes like this. “We believe in nuclear weapons, and we want Scotland to be protected by nuclear weapons under the NATO umbrella, but we also think that those nuclear weapons are immoral and abhorrent, and they must come nowhere near Scotland. They can be 50 or 100 miles down the road in Barrow and Furness if you like, and keep us all safe, but we do not want any of them on our shores.”
The hon. Gentleman was patting submarine workers on the head. He was saying to those who maintain and build the submarines that he and his party had the utmost respect for them. What absolute rubbish! His Bill would cause thousands of them to lose their jobs, never to return to Scottish soil. [Interruption.]
Let me end by saying—if I am able to do so above the hubbub of the Scottish Members who are trying to distract me—that the Bill has nothing to do with safety and everything to do with prosecuting the SNP’s absurd argument, which is certainly not supported by the people of Scotland. Every opinion poll, bar the one carried out by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament—I will give SNP Members that: they have CND with them—has made it clear that the Scottish people, like those in the rest of the United Kingdom, are in favour of maintaining an independent nuclear deterrent while other countries possess them.
The Bill will not get anywhere, so I will not trouble the House by pressing it to a Division. We need to proceed with important business concerning psychoactive substances. I just want people to know, for the record, that the Bill is utter poppycock, and that no regard should be paid to it.
Question put and agreed to.
That Owen Thompson, Brendan O’Hara, Douglas Chapman, Kirsten Oswald, Carol Monaghan, Martin John Docherty, Mike Weir, Steven Paterson, Drew Hendry, Alex Salmond, Pete Wishart and Margaret Ferrier present the Bill.
Owen Thompson accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 4 March and to be printed (Bill 122).