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Continuous At-Sea Deterrent

Part of Parental Rights (Rapists) and Family Courts – in the House of Commons at 4:31 pm on 10th April 2019.

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Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham 4:31 pm, 10th April 2019

I welcome this debate. Reference has already been made to the men and women of our submarine service who have been part of Operation Relentless over the past 50 years, and I add my tribute to them. The Secretary of State rightly mentioned a group who are not remembered very often: the families of those servicemen and women, who make a great contribution in their own way to our defence. I will not name all the sites because most of them, including Barrow, have been mentioned already. I pay tribute to the industry and the men and women who work in it, not only in the supply chain but directly in maintaining our nuclear deterrent. The issues relating to our nuclear deterrent are rightly secret and do not get a great deal of attention. Today is an opportunity to say, “Thank you”, to those individuals. I accept that a level of secrecy is needed, but for anyone who wants a good tribute to that, I recommend James Jinks’s and Peter Hennessy’s book “The Silent Deep”, which gives a fascinating insight into not only the history of our nuclear deterrent but the present-day operations.

I have always had the utmost respect for those who hold the view that Britain should not have nuclear weapons. I disagree with them, but I respect their position. What I cannot respect is the dishonest and unprincipled position of SNP Members, who argue that Britain should give up its nuclear weapons but at the same time want us to be part of a nuclear alliance—NATO. They accept that they would hide under the umbrella of NATO, but they say they have a principled objection to nuclear weapons. They cannot have both.

The post-war Attlee Government decided that Britain would become a nuclear power because they saw the rise of the threat from the Soviet Union to the post-war order that they and the west were trying to put together. It was a rules-based system, and we rightly pay tribute to the founders of NATO and other international organisations after the second world war. People such as Attlee, who lived through the second war but also saw action at Gallipoli during the first world war, were determined that this country, in the new nuclear age, would not be vulnerable to harm from those who threatened its security. That has always been a long tradition in my party. I know that recently there has been much veneration on the left of the 1945 Labour Government, but that part of the story is always conveniently airbrushed out. The formation of NATO and the beginning of our nuclear deterrent set the course of our security and has dictated it over subsequent generations. Some of the principles that were underlined then, such as mutual destruction and deterrence, have been borne out by the fact that we have not had a nuclear conflict throughout the subsequent period.

My hon. Friend Mrs Moon outlined the nature of the threats that face us today. Are they different to 1945? Yes, they are. Certainly the technology is very different, but so are the threats. At the end of the cold war, there was the possibility of making more reductions in nuclear weapons, but that has been snatched away from us by the current state of the Russian Government, who clearly do not respect the international rules-based order that our forefathers in post-war Britain helped to develop. The Russian Government wish to have their own order, which does not respect international law or nation states. Clearly, they also do not accept that nations should be able to live peacefully alongside one another.

I am clear about the need to retain our nuclear deterrent. It keeps us safe. If we could uninvent nuclear weapons tomorrow, I think most people would, but as a nation we have a proud record—and we should not forget this—of commitment to disarmament. The Secretary of State pointed out the steps that we have already taken, unilaterally, to reduce stockpiles to the minimum that is required, for example removing the WE177 nuclear bomb. It is also right for us to take an active part in moves to stop nuclear proliferation and to achieve arms reduction. That is not easy in the present climate, as my hon. Friend outlined, but that does not mean that we should not try. That has to be part of our overall policy. While maintaining CASD and our nuclear deterrent, we should have a strong commitment to a nuclear-free world. We can work harder at that, although it will not be easy, given the present state of the world, which looks a lot darker than it has for many years.

One threat that I do see to CASD—Dr Lewis and I are at one on this—is the decision in 2010 to delay the replacement of the nuclear deterrent. That has had huge issues for the maintenance of CASD. It means that the life of our present Vanguard submarines will be extended way beyond what was designed. I pay tribute to the industry and others who are trying to do the refits, but I ask the Secretary of State to ensure that the Treasury realises that those refits, and the money available for them, are vital. We will not meet the deadlines for the Dreadnought coming on stream, but if we are not to put CASD at risk it is important that the money is made available. I accept that recently some money has come forward, but it has to be available continually over the next few years. I have no wish to be disrespectful to the Secretary of State, but in the words of Robin Day, he is—like us all—a “here today, gone tomorrow” politician. It is important to have consistency in that investment for the life extension and for Dreadnought.

It is also important not to have a repeat of what happened with the Astute submarines, when we turned off the supply tap and the skills base, later having to work to play catch-up, which led to the problems we have now. We need to think about putting investment in now, certainly on the design side, for the generation that comes after Astute or Dreadnought, for example. That is how we keep the capability, because such skills are fragile if we do not invest in them.

To finish where I started, I pay tribute to all those involved in this endeavour. It is a complex one, ensuring not just that we have CASD but that the enterprise works. That it has done so over 50 years is a remarkable feat.