Trident - Question

– in the House of Lords at 11:21 am on 25th October 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Liberal Democrat 11:21 am, 25th October 2018

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will reassess their plans in relation to Trident in the light of the report by the British American Security Information Council, Blowing up the Budget: the cost risk of Trident to UK defence, published on 25 September.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government remain committed to maintaining a minimum credible nuclear deterrent and continuing with the programme for our new ballistic missile submarines. The first responsibility of government is the protection and defence of the United Kingdom and its citizens. Economic pressure is not sufficient rationale for taking long-term risks with our national security far into the future. Like any organisation, the Ministry of Defence assigns funds to those activities which are the highest priority.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Liberal Democrat

I thank the Minister for his reply. I am sure he is as worried as many of his colleagues by the Public Accounts Committee report which found that the nuclear deterrent is an enterprise that is already unaffordable. If this spend were making the UK, Europe and the world safer, it might be worthwhile—but it is quite clear that halting a renewed nuclear arms race, binding treaties and multilateral disarmament are the only ways to achieve that safer world. Given that the UK boycotted the UN talks and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, can the Minister tell the House just how the Government intend to set an example, as a nuclear weapon state, in making a success of the forthcoming round of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and what steps they have already taken to ensure that positive progress towards disarmament will be achieved?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, the unpredictable security environment we face today demands, in the very firm view of the Government, the maintenance of our nuclear deterrent for the foreseeable future. However, the Government are committed to a world without nuclear weapons, and we firmly believe that the best way to achieve that goal is through gradual, multilateral disarmament, negotiated using a step-by-step approach within the framework of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. We have tried over the years to lead by example. Our nuclear warhead stock has been much reduced, as the noble Baroness is aware, and we will do our best to discuss and negotiate, with our partners, the best way to proceed from this point.

Photo of Lord Craig of Radley Lord Craig of Radley Crossbench

My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that the credibility of the nuclear deterrent is very much dependent on a strong conventional capability? Are the Government satisfied that the conventional capability today is adequate?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, that is precisely why the Government are conducting the modernising of defence programme: to ensure that our defence budget is directed towards the capabilities that we need to deal with the threats that face us.

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Labour

My Lords, the noble Earl is absolutely right. In the world environment we are in, it would be madness for us to give up our absolute minimum nuclear deterrent. We have set an example to everyone in the world. While I am delighted that £1 billion has been brought forward to speed up the programme, and that it came from central funds and not from MoD funds, in the context of modernising defence could we go back to what Labour had planned: namely, that the capital costs of nuclear submarines would come from the centre and not from defence funds, with the implications that has for the defence vote?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, we think we can achieve the same objective under the current arrangements because, in addition to the £31 billion estimated capital cost of the programme, the Treasury has allocated a potential contingency of £10 billion on top of that. We think that it is prudent and have no reason to believe that we will use it to the fullest extent, but it gives an assurance that, over the 30-year timescale of this programme, sufficient flexibility should be built in.

Photo of Lord Boyce Lord Boyce Crossbench

My Lords, the BASIC report suggests in two or three places that the Government’s commitment to the continuous at-sea deterrent may no longer have the same priority that it did. Will the Minister acknowledge the remarkable achievement of nearly 50 years of unbroken continuous at-sea deterrence, which is ongoing, and repeat to the House his unequivocal assurance that CASD will still have the Government’s highest priority?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

I am happy to confirm to the noble and gallant Lord that that is the Government’s policy. We reaffirmed the continuous at-sea deterrent posture in the 2015 strategic defence and security review and, as he rightly says, we have had a nuclear armed submarine on patrol for every minute of every day for nearly 50 years, including during the transition between the Resolution and Vanguard classes.

Photo of Lord Houghton of Richmond Lord Houghton of Richmond Crossbench

My Lords, I would never publicly question the utility to our defence of the nuclear deterrent, nor the carrier programme, nor the F-35 programme. But it is eminently clear to me that for several years now, the balance of the conventional forces has been used as the financial regulator in order to afford these programmes. Does the noble Earl not agree that, unless the whole of the defence programme is made affordable, we will be presented with decisions that so hollow out our conventional forces that the sense of affording the nuclear deterrent will be seriously questioned?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I understand the noble and gallant Lord’s point. There is a £31 billion budget for the Dreadnought programme and we are currently confident that that estimate is robust. It is quite separate and distinct from other procurement budgets. We do not consider that it impacts upon them adversely—but we are conscious of the risks that he articulates.

Photo of Lord Tunnicliffe Lord Tunnicliffe Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow Minister (Transport)

My Lords, the BASIC report says that the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, which rates government projects,

“has rated Dreadnought Amber/Red, meaning that the IPA assesses that: ‘Successful delivery of the project is in doubt, with major risks or issues apparent in a number of key areas’”.

It goes on to say:

“Worse, the linked Core Production programme, which will produce a new submarine reactor core production facility … is the … only Red rated project”, in the Ministry of Defence. Given this sorry state of affairs, what faith can we have in anything the MoD says about these programmes?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, the amber/red rating for the Dreadnought programme in 2016-17 recognised that the programme was unaffordable at that time against the required profile, and that there were significant risks in the design-to-build transition. Since 2016-17, funding has been approved for the second delivery phase, the design has matured and governance has improved. The red rating for the core production capability reflects scope changes and associated delays and cost increases. We have to recognise that this is a very complex programme—probably the most complex engineering programme that any Government have undertaken—hence the caution in those risk ratings.