HC Deb 09 March 1993 vol 220 cc772-5
3. Mr. Matthew Taylor

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence when the Government now intend to make a statement on the award of the Trident contract.

Mr. Aitken

We will announce our proposals for future refitting arrangements— including those for Trident—as soon as possible, but I do not expect it to be until after the Easter recess.

Mr. Taylor

The Minister will not be surprised to learn that, as a west country Liberal Democrat, I believe that Devonport has put forward the best bid. The real problem, however, is the extraordinary series of delays in the making of the announcement. Families—both those throughout Devon and Cornwall, who depend on Devonport, and those in Scotland, who depend on Rosyth —are being forced to wait with increasing uncertainty about their future. That has caused them all great difficulties. Can the Minister be a little more specific about when those people can expect a decision, and will he explain the series of delays that have taken place so far?

Mr. Aitken

I have sympathy for dockyard employees and their families: I know that the uncertainty is causing them concern. None the less, I think it a little churlish of the hon. Gentleman not to accept that a great deal of uncertainty was lifted by my right hon. and learned Friend's written answer on 9 February, when he made it clear that we were now planning to continue with two royal dockyards. We are therefore no longer in a life-or-death situation at either Devonport or Rosyth.

As for the timing of the announcement, we hope to be able to make it as soon as possible after the Easter recess. The first reason for the delays that have taken place so far is the need for us to be sure that we can accept the figures in the proposals as sound and certain, on behalf of the taxpayer. Secondly, new information has been coming in, not least from the dockyard managing companies themselves, and that new information has taken extra time to evaluate.

Mr. Streeter

Is my hon. Friend aware, none the less, that despite the assurances given some weeks ago that both dockyards would remain open, there is genuine concern in Plymouth and the far south-west about the delay? There is recognition that nuclear work is the jewel in the crown. Can my hon. Friend therefore assure me that this decision will be made as soon as is humanly possible? Is my hon. Friend further aware—[Interruption.] Finally, is my hon. Friend aware that the Liberal Democrats' defence policy would scrap Trident and that there would be no choice—

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is asking a question for which, again, the Minister has no responsibility. The Minister will answer only the first part of that question.

Mr. Aitken

It is perfectly fair for my hon. Friend to point out that a Liberal Government, if we were ever to have one, would have no Trident submarines to refit at all. Therefore, this is a highly academic question.

To answer my hon. Friend's principal point, I can confirm that we hope to make the announcement as soon as is humanly possible after the Easter recess.

Mr. Cohen

Will the Minister comment on reports that the United States is proposing to limit production of Trident missiles and that a Bill is already before Congress? Would that not increase enormously the unit cost, including the cost to Britain? The reports talk of a figure of £200 million extra. Would not that be an even greater waste of British taxpayers' money?

Mr. Aitken

I have to give the hon. Gentleman some news which I am sorry to say he will probably find disappointing—that he should not believe all that he reads in the morning newspapers. We have long been aware of the fact that the United States proposes to reduce the annual production rate of Trident D5 missiles. We are confident that there is no risk of a significant variation in United Kingdom missile costs as a result.

4. Mr. John Marshall

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement about the progress of the sea trials of the Trident submarine.

Mr. Aitken

The United Kingdom's first Trident submarine, Vanguard, completed her contractor's sea trials in January. The trials were highly successful, with all major systems and equipments performing well. This was a particularly impressive achievement for the first of a new class.

Mr. Marshall

Does my hon. Friend accept that that answer will he warmly welcomed by all those who recognise that the nuclear deterrent has kept the peace of the world for over 45 years? Does he also accept that that would not have happened if he had listened to the Labour party and to the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) when he was a member of CND?

Mr. Aitken

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's trenchant support of the Trident programme which has been an enduring feature of our debates and of Question Time for many years. I agree entirely that we need an absolutely first-class independent nuclear deterrent system to take us ahead for the next 30 years. I agree, too, that the Conservative party is the only party which is able to provide such a system, in terms of its political will and commitment.

Mr. Cryer

What does the Minister say to people who argue that countries such as Canada, for example, will neither manufacture nor deploy nuclear weapons? Canada, under a Conservative Prime Minister and Government, and 150 other nations take the same view and have signed a solemn, international obligation to maintain a nuclear-free area. Does not what the Minister has said prejudice that treaty? Is it not terrible that a Minister can stand up at the Dispatch Box to support, to the cheers of his Back Benchers, a nuclear weapons system that involves mass extermination on an unprecedented scale? Is it not immoral for anyone to support such a policy?

Mr. Aitken

There are different views of morality from that held by the hon. Gentleman. I think that he was referring, in his rather sweeping assertions earlier, to the non-proliferation treaty and, in particular, to article 6. We accept that we must undertake to pursue negotiations on the cessation of the nuclear arms race in good faith and as early as possible, but we think that disarmament can be achieved only step by step in verifiable stages. We do not think that the time is right, in the present atmosphere of strategic uncertainty, either to abandon our nuclear weapons or even to abandon the testing that keeps them safe and credible.