Part of Point of Order – in the House of Commons at 1:44 pm on 14th March 2007.

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Photo of William Hague William Hague Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs) 1:44 pm, 14th March 2007

Let me make a bit of progress. I want to leave time for other Members.

I hope that the Secretary of State for Defence will say more when he winds up about cost—questions have already been asked about that—on which a fourth submarine would obviously have a major impact. One witness to the Defence Select Committee, Dr. Jeremy Stocker of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, has argued that

"the cost of the new submarines seems very high", suggesting that the current fleet of Vanguard-class submarines costs a little under £6 billion at current prices, if the cost of warheads and missiles is considered separately. The Government's estimate for the new submarines, however, has come in at £11 billion to £14 billion. If these figures are indeed correct, I hope that Ministers will explain in more detail why the costs are expected to be so much higher.

The Government have stated that the cost of UK participation in American plans to extend the life of the Trident D5 missile will be about £250 million. It is not clear whether there will be further costs, in order to extend the life of the missile, if necessary, into the 2040s. We would also be interested to know how much the detailed concept work shortly to commence on the Vanguard will cost. Can the Secretary of State provide an estimate of the cost of the work that will be undertaken in the period of the comprehensive spending review?

Much of this debate will of course turn on a further important issue that has already been raised by Members—whether the decision in principle to design and build a new class of submarines must be taken now. The Government have said that the process will take 17 years, and that because the first two Vanguard-class submarines will come to the end of their service life in 2022 and 2024—even with a five-year extension—the continuous at-sea deterrent cycle could not be maintained after 2024 if the first replacement was not ready by then. It is said that the different construction of the United States' Ohio-class submarines allows their service life to be extended well beyond that of our Vanguard class. I hope that the Secretary of State will go into more detail on comparable decisions to be made about the life cycle of the new submarines. Are the Government intending to build submarines with a life span of more than 25 to 30 years in future? What trade-offs in terms of capital costs and maintenance are involved? These issues need careful examination in future, but the timetable of the commitment that we are asked to make today is of course determined by the life span of the old submarines, and we have no reason to doubt that the early 2020s are likely to see the end of the service life of the first two.

Others have attempted to argue that past experience suggests that a period of 14 years is necessary to design and build new submarines, rather than the 17-year period claimed by the Government, for which they have given a reasonable justification. The truth must be that we cannot be sure how long it will take up to 17 years, but the eager seizing on 14 years seems suspiciously like grabbing at a date that is just the other side of the next general election. For a party split exactly down the middle on this issue, that is politically understandable, although it is not the way in which this vital national decision can be made by a potential party of government.