House of Lords

Oral Answer – Multilateral Disarmament – Question, House of Lords, 28 November 2016

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Liberal Democrat 2:36 pm, 28th November 2016
To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to oppose the proposed United Nations resolution on taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament; and, if so, what alternative measures they consider could lead to progress being made on multilateral disarmament negotiations.

Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords
My Lords, the UK voted against this resolution on 27 October as we do not believe that the negotiations it mandates will lead to progress on global nuclear disarmament. We are committed to a world without nuclear weapons, in line with our obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, but the best way to achieve this goal is through gradual multilateral disarmament, negotiated using a step-by-step approach and within existing international frameworks.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Liberal Democrat
My Lords, I welcome the Minister reiterating this country’s commitment to multilateral disarmament, but does he share the frustration of the UN Secretary-General, who said that:

“The UN disarmament machinery is locked in chronic stalemate”?

Although, as the Minister says, Article VI of the NPT is supposed to ensure progress, in fact some nuclear weapons states such as India, Israel and Pakistan have not even signed the treaty while others, including the UK, US, Russia and France, oppose the current resolution the Minister is talking about—and all this is happening at a time when the world as a whole is going to spend $1 trillion on the modernisation of nuclear weapons. How will it be possible to open the dialogue that would lead to what the Minister asserts we hope will happen?

Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords
The noble Baroness points to a number of obstacles which I do not for a moment wish to dispute. But in the end the only way to achieve global nuclear disarmament is by creating the conditions whereby nuclear weapons are no longer necessary, and the precursor to that has to be achieving consensus among and between nuclear states. We remain determined to continue to work with partners across the international community to make progress on multilateral disarmament, and that in turn depends on building trust and confidence between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons states. The United Kingdom has been at the forefront of a number of initiatives to achieve that.

Lord Trefgarne Chair, Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (formerly Merits Committee)
My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that the Government will agree to nothing in this field which is not both balanced and verifiable?

Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords
My noble friend makes two very important points. The UK is currently working with Norway on the verifiability of disarmament to achieve what my noble friend wishes to see in the long term. But a balanced treaty, if we arrive at that point, is obviously a necessary condition.

Lord West of Spithead Labour
My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that this resolution is not very helpful at all? As he says, there are other areas that we need to focus on such as reactivating some of the existing agreements; trying to take weapons off immediate readiness for release, which our nation does not do but some countries still do; getting rid of short-range missiles; holding a debate about ballistic missile defence, and finding methods of talking immediately with the Russians and others about de-escalation where necessary.

Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords
The noble Lord makes some very good points. Among the actions that the UK has recently been taking is work with Norway on disarmament verification, as my noble friend Lord Trefgarne referred to. We initiated the P5 process in 2009 to bring together nuclear weapons states to build the trust and confidence that I referred to. We proposed a programme of work at the conference on disarmament held in Geneva in February this year with the aim of reinvigorating the conference’s work—in fact, that was eventually blocked but we made a good attempt at it—and we continue to press for the entry into force of a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty. So there is work that we are trying to push along.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick Crossbench
My Lords, are the Government giving any thought to globalising and generalising some of the constraints in the agreement between Iran and the P5+1, thus building a basis on which that agreement could extend far longer than the 15 years it will currently last?

Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords
I completely take the noble Lord’s point. It is early days to be thinking in those terms, although he is right to do so. It is encouraging that the November IAEA report to the board of governors confirmed that Iran remains compliant with the nuclear-related measures set out in the joint comprehensive plan of action. We welcome the findings of the DG’s report. We praised the IAEA for its progress and continued work on that very challenging task, but no doubt lessons and messages will emerge from that strand of work.

Lord Harris of Haringey Labour
My Lords, the noble Earl has talked about the need to move towards multilateral disarmament, but there are stocks of fissile material in various parts of the globe. How confident is he that those stocks, which could be turned into nuclear weapons, are sufficiently secure to avoid them falling into the hands of aspirant nuclear powers or, worse still, non-state actors that might wish to possess such materials?

Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords
My Lords, that is clearly a constant concern and the noble Lord is right to raise it. Against that background, the UK continues to push for the early start of negotiations, without preconditions, on a fissile material cut-off treaty in the Conference on Disarmament. We supported a Canadian-backed resolution at the United Nations first committee on that topic, in October. In this country we have a voluntary moratorium on the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other explosive devices. We have not produced fissile material for nuclear weapons since 1995.

Baroness Jolly Liberal Democrat Principal Spokesperson for Defence (Lords), Shadow LD Spokesperson (Defence), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Defence)
My Lords, in 1968 the UK signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and, as the noble Earl said, a lot of progress has been made since then. President Reagan met with President Gorbachev in Helsinki in 1986, and that resulted in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. What encouragement will the Government give to President-elect Trump to talk to his friend President Putin to kick-start multilateral talks on further reduction, in time for the 50th anniversary of the NPT in 2018?

Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords
I hope the noble Baroness will be glad to know that at the appropriate time we will convey to President-elect Trump the importance of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. We should not underestimate the role it has played for almost five decades in helping to limit proliferation and provide a framework for disarmament and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Nearly all United Nations member states are signed up to it—that is a tremendously important point in its favour. That treaty should form the basis on which we make progress in this area.

Written Answer – Vanguard Submarine Replacement — Question, House of Lords, 10 February 2016

Lord West of Spithead Labour 3:22 pm, 10th February 2016
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is the planned timescale from start of fabrication to commissioning of the first Successor Vanguard replacement submarine, and how much will have been spent on designs, long lead and other items of the total programme, including upgrade to Faslane Naval Base, by April.

Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords
My Lords, I regret that I must withhold planned build times, as they relate to the formation of government policy. Although the department will consider a number of planning assumptions for build times when conducting concept and assessment studies on projects, build times are not confirmed until projects are approved. Information on the annual spend on the programme is updated each year in the successor annual report to Parliament, which is due to be published this year.

Lord West of Spithead Labour
My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for that rather disappointing Answer. If one digs around in all the documentation that has been produced, it is quite clear that the build time for the first successor submarine will be something like twice as long as it was for the first of the Vanguard class. There was no real answer on the costs but, again, one has from open source the fact that almost £4 billion has either been spent or is committed to be spent already.

I know that the noble Earl understands how crucial the replacement of the submarines and the maintenance of the deterrent are to the security of our nation, yet the decision which has to be made in the other place is being delayed and delayed. It could have been made at any time since last November. I know that it is fun to watch Labour wriggling in anguish, and that having cartoons such as that in the Times, with pictures of Spitfires and Fokkers—I hasten to add that that is a type of aeroplane, in case people get confused—is very amusing, but this is too important for scoring party-political points. The British public, for whom I have great respect, understand that and will not be impressed.

Has there been a ministerial direction to the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Defence authorising him to spend, so far, £4 billion, which will grow and grow, when he knows that a decision will be taken in the House of Commons about whether it should go ahead?

Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords
My Lords, I have no wish to score party-political points on a matter as serious as this. The noble Lord may remember that Parliament voted in 2007 to support the programme to replace the Vanguard-class submarines. That authorised the investment in the programme, including the design work and the long leads. This is the stage we are at now. If we had not commenced the work when we did, it would not have been possible to design and construct the successor submarines before the Vanguard class left service. We are moving ahead with all speed. We are committed to a parliamentary vote because it is only right and proper to give the democratically elected Chamber of Parliament the opportunity to endorse the principle of the deterrent.

Lord Boyce Crossbench
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that confirmation of the Government’s commitment to the successor programme. There has been some badly informed talk by some people in positions of responsibility on the subject of the vulnerability of the successor to detection in the future. Does the Minister agree that such statements are totally speculative; show serious lack of understanding of anti-submarine warfare, the science of oceanography and the science of the impenetrability of water; and are probably being made with irresponsibly and wilfully misleading intent?

Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords
My Lords, yes. To be effective, the nuclear deterrent has to be credible. We take the responsibility to maintain a credible nuclear deterrent extremely seriously. We continually assess all the threats and review them against the capability of our submarines to ensure their current and future operational effectiveness, including threats against cyber and unmanned vehicles. We are confident that the deterrent remains safe and secure and will be so in the future.

Baroness Seccombe Conservative
My Lords, does the Minister consider that our national security would be at risk if the rest of the world knew that our submarines carried no nuclear armaments?

Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords
My Lords, to state the obvious, a nuclear deterrent requires nuclear warheads. The Government were elected on a manifesto commitment to retain a nuclear deterrent, so having anything less than a nuclear warhead in our submarines would not offer a credible deterrent.

Baroness Jolly Liberal Democrat Principal Spokesperson for Defence (Lords), Shadow LD Spokesperson (Defence), Liberal Democrat Lords Principal Spokesperson for Defence
My Lords, without doubt, there is a shortage of engineers to cope with the nuclear programme. Whenever it starts is relatively academic. What action is the MoD taking to recruit, incentivise and train young men and women to be the nuclear engineers of the future?

Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords
My Lords, extensive work is going on across Government to incentivise people to enter the engineering profession. The noble Baroness is quite right. We are working not only within Government but with industry to ensure that the attractiveness of engineering, in the nuclear field in particular, can be shared and that people who enter the profession can look forward to a rewarding career throughout their lives.

Lord Touhig Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)
My Lords, under this Government we have seen a reduction in the size of the Armed Forces. We have no aircraft carriers any longer. At the time when the Russians are increasing submarine patrols by 50%, we have no maritime patrol aircraft. On top of that, the Government want to extend the life of the Vanguard nuclear submarines. I would be less than honest if I did not admit that my party had some problems with defence too; noble Lords might have been reading about them in the newspapers. But there is one policy that does unite at least the two Front Benches in this House, so will the Minister put a simple question to his right honourable friend the Prime Minister and say: “Dave, pull your finger out and damn well get on with committing ourselves to replacing the Trident programme, because it is the first duty of any Government to protect our country”?

Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords
My Lords, I think that the noble Lord is being less than generous to the Government, who for the first time in a long time have increased the defence budget, with an extensive programme of equipment in train. However, the message that he sought to give is well taken. I tell him that we are proceeding apace with the successor programme. As I have already indicated, we have an assessment phase, the cost of which so far is £3.3 billion, as budgeted. That will go up to £3.9 billion in the design phase, including ordering essential long-lead items for the fourth submarine. I hope that the noble Lord will take away the message that we are not being slow off the mark.