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Certainly in my period of office, I wanted that decision brought to the House as soon as possible. We were of course, as he will recall, in a coalition Government, and we spent a lot of time trying to accommodate the wishes of our coalition partners. As he has already observed, that party has not even bothered to turn up to this debate.
It is of course important, each time we make these renewal decisions, that we emphasise our continuing commitment to the international work of non-proliferation. There is a particular responsibility on those countries that retain nuclear weapons to continue to commit to that particular treaty and to reduce the weapons they hold. That is why I reduced the number of warheads on each submarine from 48 to 40. The stockpile is reducing, and this country now holds only half the number of nuclear weapons it held 40 years ago. However, we also have to look ahead. It takes 13 to 14 years to put a new nuclear missile submarine into the water. If hon. Members believe, as I do, that there may still be a nuclear threat to this country in the 2030s, the 2040s and the 2050s all the way up to 2060, then it would of course be irresponsible not to renew the delivery mechanism—first the boats and then in time, perhaps later in this Parliament, the missile system itself.
Let me end with three final points. First, on the budget, of course it is true that the £31 billion, and the contingency alongside it, is spread over a very long period of construction, but, equally, it remains a very lumpy and sizeable part of the Department’s budget, and we do not get the advantages of scale—we replace only four boats each time—that the Americans are able to profit from when they are replacing many more submarines. There may be points in the work of the Public Accounts Committee and of others in this House that require us to look again at how the submarine renewal programme is actually financed year to year, and to see whether there are economies of scale in forward buying some of the parts for all four submarines right at the beginning.
Secondly, as Mrs Moon said in challenging the hon. Member for Glasgow South, the NATO alliance is a nuclear alliance. If, sadly, Scotland ever became independent, he would be applying to join a nuclear alliance. In the arguments he put before the House, he seemed to have forgotten that many members of NATO signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty in the full knowledge that they would be protected by NATO’s nuclear umbrella. That is why they signed the treaty, as the hon. Lady pointed out. That means we need to keep reminding our allies in NATO of the importance of the nuclear planning group and of their commitment to maintaining their dual-use aircraft, and we need to remind their politicians and their publics that NATO is a nuclear alliance.
Thirdly, the point about independence, which was raised by Martin Docherty-Hughes, is worth addressing. Of course it is true, as my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East said, that the system gives us—the UK, the United States and France—separate sources of decision making, making it even more difficult for potential aggressors to be sure of a single response. However, it is also important that this nuclear deterrent of ours is independent, because we cannot be sure of threats that may emanate simply against our shores and nobody else’s. That is why it is important that we keep our deterrent independent, and that we satisfy ourselves that it is independent. Indeed, David Cameron and I separately took steps to reassure ourselves that the nuclear deterrent was independent. These are not details I can go into in public session, but it is important that the deterrent remains independent.
Let me conclude by saying yes, this deterrent was born of the cold war, but it is by no means a relic of the cold war. It is a key part of the defence of our country, and a key part of the defence of our freedoms and those of our allies. I am very sure that we need it now more than ever. I am equally sure that our successors in this place will, in 50 years’ time, be commending the successors of those crews who have helped to perform this arduous but essential duty.