§ The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Francis Pym)
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the eventual replacement of the Polaris force, which now provides Britain's strategic nuclear deterrent.
As the House knows, the Government regard the maintenance of such a capability as an essential element in the defence effort that we undertake for our own and Western security. I made clear the reasons for this policy in the debate on 24 January.
We have studied with great care possible systems to replace Polaris. We have concluded that the best and most cost-effective choice is the Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile system developed by the United States. President Carter has affirmed United States support for British retention of our strategic nuclear capability and United States willingness to help us in this. An exchange of letters between my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the President, with a supplementary exchange between the United States Secretary of Defence and myself, is being published today as a White Paper.
The agreement that we have reached is on the same lines as the 1962 Nassau agreement, under which we acquired Polaris. We shall design and build our own submarines and nuclear warheads here in the United Kingdom, and buy the Trident missile system, complete with its MIRV capability, from the United States. Once bought, it will be entirely in our ownership and operational control, but we shall commit the whole force to NATO in the same way as the Polaris force is committed today. The new force will enter service in the early 1990s and will comprise four or five boats. We need not decide about a fifth boat for another two or three years, and we are leaving the option open meanwhile.
I am publishing a memorandum explaining our reasons for choosing Trident. Advance copies of this memorandum are available in the Vote Office. It gives the very full account which I promised to the House, and I am sure that the House will wish to study it.
1236 We estimate the capital cost of a four-boat force, at today's prices, as up to £5 billion, spread over 15 years. We expect rather over half of the expenditure to fall in the 1980s. We intend to accommodate this within the defence budget in the normal way, alongside our other major force improvements. We remain determined to uphold and, where necessary, strengthen our all-round defence capability, and that applies to our conventional forces no less than to our nuclear forces.
I intend that as much work as possible should go to British industry. At least 70 per cent. of the total cost will be spent in this country, and that will be reflected in a substantial amount of employment.
The decision that I have announced is one of cardinal importance, as the House will recognise. The Government regard it as an essential reaffirmation of our national commitment to security and to co-operation with our allies under the North Atlantic Treaty. The United Kingdom's continuing possession of a strategic nuclear capability remains a major element in our deterrent strategy, and a major contribution to the defence of Western Europe. As the House knows, our strategy, with that of our NATO allies, is entirely and absolutely defensive in concept and in scope. It is designed solely to preserve peace and to prevent war. Until genuine wide-reaching multilateral arms control can be negotiated, any diminution in the pattern and structure of our wholly defensive capability must increase rather than reduce the risk of war, especially at a time when the Soviet Union is rapidly building up its massive military strength.
In these circumstances, and while we must regret the need for such weapons, the Government are confident that the decision that I have now announced will have the general support of this House and of the country.
§ Mr. Rodgers
As the Secretary of State said, his statement is of cardinal importance and it will have grave consequences for our country, and perhaps for the world, for a long time ahead. I hope that he will understand that it is with no disrespect that I endorse the sentiments expressed earlier by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition that this statement should probably have been made by the Prime Minister.
1237 The whole House recognises that this matter raises difficult political issues, because it involves a question of judgment about the state of the world and the Alliance 15 to 20 years ahead. Also, on the figures that the right hon. Gentleman gave, it raises difficult financial issues. First, the cost is high in terms of our conventional obligations in NATO. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House will be worried by the effect that that may have, within the defence budget, for our present obligations. As both sides of the House will recognise, with limited national resources at a time of no growth, or slow growth, this programme will pre-empt a large sum of money, which could go towards other worthy programmes.
We have asked, first, for a full and informed debate, which has not taken place. That is not only the view of the Opposition, and not only the view in the House. Secondly, some time ago we asked specifically for a Green Paper, and the right hon. Gentleman refused us that. Thirdly, at this moment a Select Committee is considering some important issues relating to this decision on behalf of the whole House. There are those who will say that it could be a contempt of the House for the Secretary of State to make an announcement of this sort before the Select Committee and the House have had the opportunity to discuss the matter.
Irrespective of arguments about what may or may not have happened in the past, in today's circumstances an announcement of this sort, made in this way, falls far below the standards that the Government should set on such issues. In those circumstances, many hon. Members are deeply sceptical about the decision. We believe that the case for buying Trident has not been made, and we cannot approve it.
In his statement the Secretary of State referred to the Government having studied with great care possible systems to replace Polaris, but neither the House nor the country has had such a privilege, because the information available to the Government has not been made available on a wider scale. I hope that in these circumstances the Government will not act further on their decision, given the long lead-time to which the right hon. Gentleman referred and the publication today of a 1238 memorandum containing much new information—at least, we must hope that that is the case. I hope that the Government will not proceed further until a full debate has taken place, not only in the House but in the country at large.
§ Mr. Pym
The way in which the Government have considered this important matter and announced their decision to the House is wholly in accordance with our parliamentary and constitutional practice. It is for the Government to come to their conclusions and then to present them to and defend them in the House.
We arranged a debate in January. The right hon. Gentleman said that it was not adequate. But it was on our initiative, and I set out a fundamental description of the rationale of the nuclear deterrent strategy. I think that it was a useful occasion as a preliminary to the decision that I have announced today.
I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the memorandum that I promised the House—it should by now be in the Vote Office—is the fullest explanation of its kind that the House has ever had. I am sure that the House will wish to consider all that is said there. It is appropriate and in line with our parliamentary practice to do it in this way rather than on the Green Paper basis, which was asked for earlier.
A debate is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, but I should certainly welcome it. I hope that we can arrange one, because I believe that, apart from any other consideration, it is necessary to present the case for a decision of this kind in a positive way, so that the House may form its view about it. Therefore, I hope that will be possible.
This is a most difficult judgment to make looking so far ahead into the 1990s. I have approached it with the utmost humility and been prepared to consider all the various possibilities that have been mentioned at one time or another during the past year and others besides, and these are set out in the paper. I think that that will be a helpful way to proceed.
Regarding the high cost, in the basic sense it is a very large sum of money indeed, but we have to look at it also in the context of what we are trying to achieve with our allies in securing peace. We have between us managed to achieve 1239 this in Europe for 35 years, and our strategic deterrent has uniquely made more than a contribution to it.
Of course there will be an effect on other weapons systems, but that is true of any weapons system. For instance, even the Tornado system—more expensive than the Polaris successor system that I have just announced—has its effect on other weapons systems. They all interact. But the provision of the strategic deterrent has always been part of normal defence budgeting. It is a weapons system, like any other weapons system—ships, tanks or whatever it may be. Within the defence budget this can and will be accommodated in the same way as Polaris was accommodated 10 to 20 years ago.
§ Mr. Buck
Is my right hon. Friend aware that a vast majority of responsible people in the country and hon. Members on both sides of the House will welcome what he said today as a realistic assessment of the defence situation? Is he also aware that many will welcome it, as he reaffirmed, as a basis for future multi-force reductions'? It will mean that we can go into negotiations about arms reductions in a position of comparative strength, which is wholly necessary if they are to be successful.
§ Mr. Pym
I am grateful for what my hon. and learned Friend said. I emphasise that what I have announced is the continuation of an existing capability. It would be a much more significant announcement if I said that we were not going to continue with something that has been such a critical element in the whole structure of our defence capability with our allies. What I have announced today, after the most careful thought within the Government, is how we, in our judgment, believe that this job is best done.
§ Mr. Stephen Ross
Is the Secretary of State aware that we on the Liberal Bench have consistently opposed the whole concept of an independent nuclear deterrent? Therefore, his announcement today gives us no joy. In fairness, with regard to the question that has just been put to the right hon. Gentleman, it is also the case that many intelligent people in this country have argued against the replacement of Polaris.
1240 When are the Polaris submarines likely to be phased out? Can the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that even if it adds only 8 per cent. to the defence budget in the latter part of the 1980s—and the arguments presented to the Select Committee are that it is much higher than that—our Armed Forces will have the updating of their equipment that they so desperately need?
§ Mr. Pym
I cannot say precisely when the Polaris force will be phased out. It is expected to be in the early to mid-1990s, when the boats and the systems within them come to the end of their useful life. I cannot be more precise than that at this stage.
As for the percentage of the budget, overall this expensive weapons system will take between 3 per cent. and 4 per cent. over the 15-year period, but at its peak years it will be about 5 per cent. of the whole defence budget and 8 per cent. of the equipment part of the budget. It is necessary to get these figures into perspective.
I fully appreciate that the hon. Gentleman and the Liberal Party have reserved their position on this matter, but the Government have long been of the view—however unattractive and however reluctant—that in the circumstances in which we find ourselves this is a contribution to our safety and security that we can ill afford to do without.
§ Mr. Donald Stewart
Is the Secretary of State aware that, given the lack of funds for the objectives that should be the aims of a civilised society, the diminishing of the social services and the descent of the home front into recession quickly, to spend this money on this weapons system is a tacit acceptance of the Nazi philosophy of guns before butter?
§ Mr. Kershaw
Is my right hon. Friend aware that both the content of the statement and the manner in which it has been presented this afternoon will inspire confidence that the right decision has been reached? Furthermore, is it not in accordance with our custom and constitution that the Government should take 1241 responsibility for decisions and then come to Parliament to get its endorsement?
Mr. J. Enoch Powell
Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that there will be general relief and satisfaction that Britain has decided to remain in the front rank of nations in nuclear as well as conventional armaments?
§ Mr. Amery
Having had responsibility for co-operation between Bomber Command and Strategic Air Command and later for the technical purchase of the Polaris missile, may I congratulate the Government most warmly on the momentous agreement that they have reached with the American Administration? I fully endorse the decision to commit the Trident missile system to NATO, when we acquire it, but can my right hon. Friend assure me that it will be wholly independent operationally, whatever the circumstances may be in future?
§ Mr. Pym
When the weapon is assigned to NATO it is assigned under the same terms and conditions as Polaris. Only in the extraordinary circumstances of our national security being directly threatened will the United Kingdom's ownership and sole operation come into play. Were it ever to be used, if one can contemplate such horrendous circumstances, whilst it is assigned to NATO, of course it would be under NATO that it would be used but never without the direct authority of the British Government.
§ Mr. Cook
Does not the Secretary of State find any irony in making his statement on the day when one of the biggest drops in industrial output since quarterly returns were kept has been announced? Against that background, is it not time that we admitted that we cannot go on providing the Alliance with the second largest navy, the second largest expe 1242 ditionary force, and one of only two strategic nuclear deterrents formally committed to it? Will he at least come clean and tell the House what equipment he will now not be able to purchase as a result of this pathetic effort to pretend that we are still a super Power?
§ Mr. Pym
There is no direct relationship between the requirement of this country for its security and the output of its industry—not in the short run. In the long run, I have always made clear that, of course, the strength of a nation is directly related to its economy—but not in the short run, and it was in the short run that the hon. Gentleman was raising the question.
The hon. Gentleman asks what equipment we shall not order as a result of this decision. One could ask exactly the same question about any other item of equipment. The provision of the strategic deterrent has always been fitted into the defence programme, just like all the other items of equipment. In the equipment field, the defence budget is planned to take account of it. Tornado will be past its peak by the time this system begins to reach its peak. They will have to be worked together.
If we do not have this we shall be missing one of the fundamental elements in the structure of our defence capability. What our defence budget has to do, together with the budgets of our allies, is to produce a military capability that is altogether adequate to deter the intentions of any would-be aggressor.
§ Mr. Wall
I greatly welcome the Government's decision, as there is clearly no satisfactory alternative to Trident. When does my right hon. Friend expect the first new submarine to be laid down? Will he also assure the House that in view of the number of submarine building yards in this country, this decision need have no effect on the building of fleet submarines—that is, nuclear hunter-killer submarines—or conventional submarines?
§ Mr. Douglas
Will the Secretary of State admit that while he is arguing that this is a continuing weapons system development, the order of magnitude involved here imposes on him a responsibility to give the fullest information possible to the House and country? Additionally, in view of the strain on British Shipbuilders and the need to establish a coherent programme in terms of naval building, will he update his time scale, in relation to giving British Shipbuilders an indication when the first submarine will be necessary?
Lastly, in view of the position in my own constituency, in Rosyth, is it not about time that the right hon. Gentleman reversed the decision there to cut down the apprentice intake into Rosyth dockyard if this submarine system is to be implemented in the future?
§ Mr. Pym
I certainly accept my responsibilities for giving the House the maximum possible information. I have sought to fulfil that undertaking in the memorandum that is published, which will be studied. In accord with my undertaking to the House, I have announced this decision at the earliest possible moment. It has only just been made. Therefore, the consequences for shipbuilding, which of course are very important, particularly at present, will, so far as detail is concerned, have to be taken into account in the future. But these matters are under close review already. When we can make announcements we shall do so.
§ Sir Frederic Bennett
A potentially misleading reference to the Select Committee on defence has been made. Is the Minister aware that the terms of reference of that Select Committee do not cover the question whether or not we should have our own strategic nuclear deterrent? They cover the question of what sort we ought to have. Doubtless the Government's decision today will be taken into account.
The Minister mentioned a debate. In consultation with his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, can be say whether the debate will be fairly soon? It would be a pity if the country were left in any doubt about what the great majority of its elected representatives felt on this issue for any longer that is absolutely necessary.
§ Mr. Pym
I am sure that the whole House will agree that the work that the Select Committee is doing in considering this subject will be extremely useful to the House in due course. I know that it is at present hard at work studying this subject. On the matter of the debate, I shall have urgent discussions with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and we shall see what we can arrange.
§ Mr. Cartwright
Will the Secretary of State confirm that the new warhead to be built in this country will not be the Chevaline system but will be the reproduction of the American Trident system? Secondly, will he confirm that since Trident has a MIRVed system, the number of individual warheads to be deployed in a Trident fleet will be a substantial increase in the number now deployed in the Polaris system? How does he square that with his Government's commitment to non-proliferation in these matters?
§ Mr. Emery
Does my right hon. Friend realise that most people in this country in the 1990s and at the turn of the century will be able to sleep in their beds more safely because of his statement here today? Will he hammer home the fact that £3.5 billion will be spent, starting in the early 1980s, in British industry, which is exactly what both sides of the House want—particularly Opposition Members—in order to stimulate growth within the economy? My right hon. Friend should be congratulated on being able to obtain that degree of injection into the British industrial economy.
§ Mr. Pym
I am grateful for what my hon. Friend says. It is obvious that defence has the capability of creating jobs and employment. At a time such as this, that is something that many people naturally find attractive. It is a separate issue from what I am talking about today, but there certainly will be a great deal of work generated by this decision, over quite a period of years. I am sure that from that point of view, at the very least, it will be welcomed by all, whatever their views.
§ Mr. Heffer
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that despite the euphoria that has been shown on the Conservative Benches and in some parts of my side of the House—[HON. MEMBERS: "Where?"]—there were one or two—there will be mililons of people in this country and in other parts of the world who will be in utter despair—[HON. MEMBERS: "Name them."]—because of the Government's decision, taken without any debate? Is it not clear that this £5 billion could be better spent on generating real industry in Britain and getting our people back to work, instead of creating a new series of nuclear weapons which, if they go off, from either side, can utterly destroy the world?
§ Mr. Pym
As I said in opening the debate in January, these weapons exist, unfortunately, and we cannot disinvent them. Whereas, of course, we would all prefer to live in a world in which they did not exist, I think that it is wrong to describe millions of people as being in despair. There is certainly a reluctance in relation to the fact that nuclear weapons still exist, but there is also, in today's circumstances, an understanding of why they are necessary until, between us, we can negotiate them away.
The hon. Gentleman said that it was wrong to make this announcement without a debate. In January I presented to the House the fundamental reasoning behind the deterrent strategy. In fact, for what it is worth, the House voted by about 6 to 1 in favour of the Government's exposition on that occasion. I do not make a point about it; I mention it as a fact.
As for generating British industry, a considerable amount of generation in British industry will arise from this decision. I understand the hon. Gentleman's views on this matter. Indeed, I go so far as to say that I understand the point of view of people who will not agree with what I have announced today. I can understand it, but, unfortunately, it is necessary for us to have this capability, because if we were to lower our guard, if our shield were to be in any way inadequate, we should be committing a major failure of responsibility for the protection of the citizens of this country and those of our friends.
§ Mr. Cormack
Will my right hon. Friend take comfort from the fact that the vast majority of people in this country would rather be defended by the Trident missile than by the Tribune group?
§ Mr. Conlan
Is it not thoroughly disgraceful and discourteous to this House and the country that the Government should rush headlong into this decision at the very time that the Select Committee is considering the whole range of possible options that will be open to us for the replacement of the Polaris force? Will the right hon. Gentleman give a firm undertaking that no irrevocable decision will be made until after the Committee has reported?
§ Mr. Pym
No, I do not think that it is a disgrace, nor have I rushed leadlong into a decision. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I and other Ministers have given the most careful and extensive thought to a decision that is clearly of the utmost importance. We have not rushed it. We have taken our time about it. We have announced it now because in our view it is necessary to get on with the responsibility of carrying through the decision if, by the early 1990s, the system is to be ready. I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman said about the Select Committee, but I do not think that its free, unfettered and independent decision to undertake a review of the strategic deterrent should inhibit a Government from making a decision that they believe to be necessary, and in the national interest.
§ Mr. Mates
Despite the remarks made by the hon. Member for Gateshead, East (Mr. Conlan) and by the right hon. Member for Stockton (Mr. Rodgers) about what the Committee is doing, it is clear to all members of that Select Committee that we are not considering the question whether there should be another gentration of nuclear deterrents. We are considering the consequences of the decision announced in the House. Given my right hon. Friend's statement, is he aware that our work will be greatly helped by a firm lead from the Government, as that will enable us to consider the consequences for the rest of the defence budget?
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I propose to call four more hon. Members from each side. That will give a very fair run.
§ Mr. George
Will the Secretary of State reveal the percentage of the new equipment budget that the Trident replacement represents? Secondly, does he accept that his explanation of the reasons, the cost, and the consequences for the rest of the defence budget is inadequate? Does he realise that his statement will not be accepted by many hon. Members until much more information has been given?
§ Mr. Churchill
Given that the number of Soviet warheads targeted on the United Kingdom and Western Europe has more than trebled in the past decade alone, does my right hon. Friend not agree that the arguments in favour of Britain's having an independent nuclear capability are even greater than they were when Mr. Clement Attlee and the post-war Labour Government took the courageous decision to make Britain a military nuclear Power? Is my right hon. Friend aware that the decision announced today will be seen as an enhancement of the deterrent posture of the entire Alliance?
§ Mr. Cryer
Does the Secretary of State accept that his decision is an affront and an outrage to humanity? Given the cuts in social services, education, school meals, and so on, does he not accept that people will regard the decision as the result of a completely corrupt set of priorities? Does he realise that it will not enhance industry, but will corrupt 1248 our research and development? A few days ago we saw on television that people were dying of starvation on the roadsides of East Africa, yet the Government have cut overseas aid by 14 per cent. The Government's decision will be seen for what it is, namely, an outrage against humanity.
§ Mr. Pym
I cannot accept what the hon. Gentleman said. There is no doubt that great suffering, hunger and distress exist all round the world. However, a potential conflict and threat also exists. We must do our best with our limited resources not only in defence but in relation to all needs. We must contribute as much as we can to relieving the distress of humanity. It would however, be a serious crime if we were to allow our defences to fall to too low a level. More should be said and heard about some of the other outrages that are perpetrated against humanity by those living on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
§ Mr. Robert Atkins
May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the manner in which and the courage with which he made the statement? Before the myth of lack of consultation grows—led by Opposition Members—will he confirm that it is the Government's job to make decisions on policy matters and to bring them before the House for discussion? During the course of the next few weeks, months and years, will he emphasise that NATO's posture is totally defensive in its acts of deterrence, and not offensive? Does he agree that it is important to get that point across to the public?
§ Mr. Pym
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those remarks. I agree with all his comments. I take every possible opportunity to explain the nature of NATO strategy. I try to explain that it is entirely defensive and that it exists solely in order to preserve the peace. I take every possible opportunity to explain to the House and to the public about the need to have the strongest defence that we can afford. Naturally, we hope that it will ultimately be possible to preserve peace throughout the world at a lower cost in terms of men and resources. Until then, we must play our part in this pattern. That is the right policy.
§ Mr. Newens
Can the right hon. Gentleman envisage any circumstance in 1249 which the British nuclear deterrent might be used independently of our NATO allies? Can he envisage any circumstance in which the British public might benefit from such a use? If the right hon. Gentleman cannot postulate such circumstances, are we not adopting a tremendously expensive deterrent purely for reasons of prestige, as the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) said? Is that not a disgrace, given that the Government have plunged the country into economic decay?
§ Mr. Pym
There is no question of prestige or status. It is a cold analysis of the facts. The deterrent capability exists to preserve the peace. It exists not to be used. It is the threat of use that provides the element of deterrence. As I explained at some length in January, we wish to influence fundamentally the thinking of the Soviet leadership, so that there is no misunderstanding of the consequences of certain actions by them, or by anybody else. The deterrent exists not to be used. Without it, we would have no retaliatory capability. There would be no ultimate recourse, and the pattern of deterrence would not be complete. That is the awful truth. It is uncomfortable to live with it, and it is expensive. However, it is not as expensive as a war. The deterrent plays a vital part in the pattern of our defences, and thus prevents such a thing from happening.
§ Mr. Brotherton
Is my right hon. Friend aware that although we welcome his statement, some of us are slightly suspicious about his reference to there being four or five boats. Is he aware that if the deterrent is to be completely credible, five boats will be required? Two boats would then be on station at all times. We have got away with it for 15 years. Let us not try to get away with it in the 1990s.
§ Mr. Pym
I note what my hon. Friend says. There is no need to take that decision at this stage, and therefore we shall not do so. The United States navy and other navies have often noted the remarkable achievement of the Royal Navy in that it has been able to maintain at least one, and practically always two boats at sea out of a total force of four boats. Let us not decide about that now, as it is not necessary. There is no 1250 need to be suspicious. I have been as forthcoming as possible. I have based the strategy on four. If we decide to go for five, and if we can afford it, we may make that decision. However, until then it is right to proceed on the basis that I have outlined.
§ Mr. Frank Allaun
Will the Secretary of State bear in mind that the next Labour Government may well cancel any contract that he enters into? Even if £1 billion has been spent on the contract four years hence, it would still be possible to cancel the contract and to save the other £9 billion. Of that sum, £5 billion represents the cost of the submarines and £5 billion the cost of upkeep, and use. If the contract were cancelled the country could make a tremendous saving.
§ Mr. Pym
It is fair to say that given the way things are going on the Opposition side of the House, the likelihood of a Labour Government in four years' time is not very great. However, it is true that a Government cannot bind their successors. Indeed, the previous Labour Government could not bind us. When we came to power we considered afresh all the factors germane to this decision. I have not the slightest doubt that an incoming Government—of whatever complexion or make-up—would adopt an equally fundamental and serious attitude towards the needs of this country in relation to defence.
There was great controversy in the early 1960s in relation to the Nassau agreement, but that agreement went through. Without controversy across the Floor of the House, we have continued with this crucial element in our defence capability throughout the last two decades. I have no doubt that an incoming Government, of whatever colour, would take another fundamental look at what is necessary and then decide what was best in the national interest.
§ Mr. Nelson
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on this major decision, which must be the ultimate guarantee of our nation's independence and security for a generation.
On the question of costing, will the Secretary of State confirm that it should be perfectly feasible to cover this percentage cost out of the defence budget, providing that it continues to grow, in 1251 real terms, at the present rate of 3 per cent? As this commitment at present lasts only until 1984, does this not mean that our Government must have a longer-term commitment to constant real increases in the size of the defence budget?
§ Mr. Pym
There is a commitment to aim at an increase of 3 per cent. NATO-wide until 1985–86, and thereafter perhaps at a 1 per cent. increase. These figures and costings have been fitted into the defence budget on that basis. Of course, no one knows what will happen in the longer-term future, but that is the basis on which we have made our plans. The decision was taken in a normal way—in exactly the same way as the Polaris decision was reached. This will be fitted into the programme as a major new weapons system, like other new weapons systems, and there is nothing different or peculiar about it. It is part of our everyday long-term costing system.