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Vanguard Submarine Replacement — Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:22 pm on 10th February 2016.

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Photo of Lord West of Spithead 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.

Photo of Earl Howe 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.

Photo of Lord West of Spithead 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?

Photo of Earl Howe 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.

Photo of Lord Boyce 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?

Photo of Earl Howe 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.

Photo of Baroness Seccombe 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?

Photo of Earl Howe 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.

Photo of Baroness Jolly Baroness Jolly Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (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?

Photo of Earl Howe 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.

Photo of Lord Touhig 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”?

Photo of Earl Howe 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.