HL Deb 15 July 1980 vol 411 cc1632-44

3.40 p.m.

The MINISTER of STATE, MINISTRY of DEFENCE (Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal)

My Lords, with the permission of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence on the eventual replacement of the Polaris force which now provides Britain's strategic nuclear deterrent capability. The Statement is as follows:

"As the House knows, the Government regard the maintenance of such a capability as an essential element in the defence effort we undertake for our own and western security. I made clear the reasons for this policy in the debate on 24th 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 sysstem developed by the United States. President Carter has affirmed United States support for British retention of our strategic nuclear capability and US willingness to help us in this. An exchange of letters between my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and the President, with a supplementary exchange between the US Secretary of Defense and myself, is being published today as a White Paper. The agreement 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 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 the House will wish to study it.

"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 other major force improvements. We remain determined to uphold and where necessary strengthen our all-round defence capability; and this 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 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 scope. It is designed solely to preserve peace and 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 I have now announced will have the general support of this House and of the country".

That, my Lords, concludes the Statement.

3.45 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for making this important Statement. I know that some of my friends in another place believe that the Statement should have been made by the Prime Minister and not just by the Minister for Defence. It is one of the most important Statements that I have heard. We are to purchase a replacement which is going to cost £5 billion. That is a tremendous amount of money. I have always taken the view that if it is right for the defence of our country and it is adequate, then we should support it. On the other hand, before such a step was taken by the Government we should have examined still further the implications, and the senior committee on this would then have been able to study it and also to have made a report to the House. Indeed, the Minister of Defence in another place actually said he hoped to provide information about procuring a new deterrent. That promise has not been fulfilled. I know that a document is to be placed in the Library of the House and in the Vote Office, but I believe we should have had that now. It is not easy to probe matters if all the information is lying next door.

I should like to ask the noble Lord whether we can have more information about this. It is a very important matter; I have always helped him considerably in defence debates. I feel he owes it to the House to provide much more information. I assume that at some time we shall have to discuss this further. It also goes to show the importance of SALT 2, which is a complex arrangement. There is much detail of this in the White Paper and the excellent document which the Minister of Defence published. I still believe we should emphasise over and over again the importance of getting agreement. I hope that there will be no dilatoriness in relation to this.


My Lords, I also should like to thank the noble Lord the Minister for repeating this Statement. The Liberal Party have for long made it clear—as I am sure your Lordships are aware—that they are totally opposed to the renewal of our so-called independent strategic nuclear deterrent. The reasons will be developed fully in any debate which we may have on the subject. I hope that it will take place before the Recess, if that is possible. This, therefore, is not the time to rehearse the arguments, except in the very briefest way.

Broadly speaking, we believe that the new deterrent will be otiose if the Americans continue to be engaged in the defence of Europe, and useless as a deterrent if they are not. We are also convinced that, whatever the Government may say, the cost will be far more than £5,000 million and that, if not now, at any rate in a few years' time, this sum will have to be found at the expense of our"conventional "forces, thus weakening our capacity to fight a conventional war and lowering the famous nuclear threshold.

To conclude, the installation of cruise missiles in this country—as we may hope, under genuine joint Anglo-American control—will give us all the nuclear deterrent that we need, always supposing that their installation is not proceeded with as a result of the coming equivalent of SALT 3 talks with the Russians on long-range tactical nuclear weapons. The only question that I should like to ask is this. In what circumstances and in what conditions would the Government be prepared to discontinue our production of all or any of the proposed five new Trident submarines as a result of talks on strategic weapons with the Soviet Union?

3.50 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the two noble Lords. May I start by saying that the document which was produced today will answer much more specifically and clearly than any words of mine nearly all the points that have been raised, and I daresay most of the points that will be raised during comments on this Statement. So far as the relative costs are concerned, we have said before and we reiterate again that we do not expect the cost of this weapon system to exceed 5 per cent. of the defence budget in any year, and in very many years it will be substantially less. The operating cost is similar to the Polaris cost, and that is of the order of l per cent. of the defence budget at the present time.

The noble Lord, Lord Peart, made the point—and it is a perfectly fair one—about the opportunities there should have been for further discussion. I would remind him that both in another place and here we had a number of debates about this issue, and the difficulty about supplying really comprehensive information is the combination of the sensitivity of the subject and the difficulty of arriving at conclusive figures from which the argument can he deduced. I think the noble Lord will find this is again admirably summarised in the document which is now produced.

We believe that this has no impact upon the SALT 2 negotiations. It is quite a separate issue. This has been made clear on a number of occasions by the Americans. There is no contravention in any way of the intention of the SALT negotiations, and there can be no question of bad faith about it.

The noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, said that the cost of £5,000 million will be exceeded. I would not dispute it in an inflationary situation, but then you have to allow as best you can for the fact that everything you try to buy will cost more when you come to pay for it. But we believe an adequate allowance has been made in putting forward a figure of £5,000 million at the present time.


My Lords, there are a number of staunch supporters of the NATO concept who will have their doubts about the wisdom of the decision which the Government have taken. I am sure we shall all want to study the background documents, but prior to that may I ask the noble Lord four questions on what he has said?

I understood him to say that the new weapon will be entirely under our operational control. He also said, "But we shall commit the whole force to NATO". There would seem to be some ambiguity here which he might clear up. Who will, in fact, give the order? It will possibly be the last order that is ever given in the United Kingdom, and we ought not to have this in any ambiguous cloud.

Secondly, the noble Lord said that we shall build our own submarines and warheads. He also said that 70 per cent. of the £5,000 million, or whatever more it costs, will be spent in this country. Does that mean that the submarines and warheads will cost 70 per cent.? Or what other part of the project will then be spending in this country?

The noble Lord also said that we shall—I think he used the word—"uphold" our conventional forces. Is he really saying that if we spend £5,000 million on this project we shall still be able to spend the same amount of money on our conventional forces, including our air forces? Would he be good enough to clear up that point? Finally, may I ask him what happens now to the Chevaline programme if this decision is made?


My Lords, I shall try to take the noble Lord's points in reverse order, because that makes it easier for my memory. The Chevaline programme will be relevant until the Polaris is phased out in the early 'nineties as the Trident comes in.

So far as equipment spending is concerned, of course any money spent on this will not be available to be spent on conventional capability; but it is a fact that we are currently spending more and we would expect to be spending more on conventional weapons than we are currently doing because of the policy of increasing the defence budget.

So far as the apparent contradiction that he was referring to on the question of control is concerned, the Polaris force is declared to NATO and is targeted according to the NATO agreement. Our option to exercise the unique British control which exists to fire these weapons would be used in only very exceptional circumstances.


My Lords, did I ask the noble Lord about the 70 per cent?


My Lords, that is, indeed, true. Seventy per cent. of the cost of this system is absorbed by the submarines and the warheads, and that is the British part of the cost of the system.


My Lords, the Minister will remember that I asked him for this Statement yesterday. I was a day too early. I need not repeat the deep opposition of many of us to this proposal, but I want to ask the Minister this: Has a long-term contract been entered into for the Trident? It does not come into operation, as he himself said, until the early 'nineties, which is 10 years hence. Within those 10 years tremendous changes may take place. There are already the discussions initiated by the German Chancellor in Moscow which have on the whole had a good response from President Carter. There is the committee at Geneva, and within a few years disarmament agreements may be reached which will make this deterrent absolutely unnecessary.

Secondly, may I ask him this: Is he aware—I was scoffed at for saying this yesterday—that the Labour Party is now absolutely united in opposition to any replacement of the Polaris submarine? It is not only the decision of our conference. In the pamphlet published yesterday by Mr. William Rodgers lie declared against any replacement of the Polaris submarine. In view of the circumstances in the world, are the Government really going to spend £5,000 million upon the Trident when all the international and domestic conditions are such that—let us hope—it will never be necessary?


My Lords, I would not wish in any way to minimise the importance of this decision or the scale and the cost of the buy, and indeed the Statement does quite the reverse; but I think it is necessary to get it in proportion. This equipment buy is, in fact, less than the cost of the Tornado programme and it is relatively less than the cost of the V-bombers in their day. So it should not be regarded as so overwhelming as some noble Lords are inclined to make it out to be. As yet, no contract exists for the purchase: it will he some time before the contractual details are settled. I have to say to the noble Lord that I would be delighted, and I am sure many other noble Lords would be delighted, if, indeed, there really were negotiations which made it possible to contemplate giving up a capability of this kind. The fact is that there are no such negotiations, and there is even very little prospect of any such negotiations, and we believe that if we go soft on this particular option the chances of any successful negotiations will be greatly diminished.


My Lords, may I ask the Minister this: we have promised to increase our defence spending along with the other nations of the West by a real 3 per cent.: is part of this 3 per cent. committed to Trident?


My Lords, I am not wholly certain what the noble Lord means by that. We intend to accommodate the purchase of Trident within the expanded and expanding defence budget. Does that answer the noble Lord's question?


My, Lords, may I express on opinion? Is the noble Minister aware that if I thought there was any possibility of coining to some arrangement with the Soviet Union, either in the future proposed SALT talks or in any kind of negotiations that might be suggested, I would offer opposition to the Government's propositions, except that I would advocate, as I have done frequently, the provision of adequate conventional weapons?—and I hope that nothing the Government propose in connection with nuclear weapons will prevent our providing adequate conventional equipment and weapons for our conventional forces.

What I want to know is this. Are we to understand that this is the only possible kind of replacement for the phasing out of the Polaris weapon? Has the matter been thoroughly considered? In this connection, may I also ask whether the noble Lord the Minister is aware that the previous Government occupied a great deal of their time considering what kind of replacement for the Polaris missile was likely to be projected, but they came to no decision? How long has it taken previous Governments and the present Government to investigate the nature of this problem and come to a decision? Can we therefore, at the instigation of my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition, ask for further information on the subject? Can it be clearly understood, in view of some differences of opinion in the Labour Party, that there always have been differences in the Labour Party on the subject of defence and some members of my party do not want any defence of any sort or kind?

I take the view that we have to provide the most adequate measures of defence that are within our capabilities. I hope that the Government, in spite of all the difficulties involved and the expenditure to be entailed, which I deplore, will stand firm on the need, after careful investigation and study, to provide in the interests of our security, and in consultation and conjunction with NATO and our allies, all the security and the defensive measures that may be regarded as necessary.


My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for a predictably robust comment, if I may say so. I do not want to make this a moment for party political contention but I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, that if he can say, with the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, sitting on the same side of the House, that the Labour Party is united on this issue, he is performing an intellectual somersault which I find difficult to understand. It is perfectly true, as the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, said, that the last Government addressed this problem, and frankly they found it too difficult and they ran away from it. This Government have not run away from it; they have made up their minds and that is the reason we are having this Statement today.

Regarding the two technical questions put by the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, I think that when he reads this document he will find that it does address the problem of the balance between conventional and nuclear forces. I will merely say that this is actually the most difficult part of the problem. The Government are satisfied that this represents a cost-effective defence expenditure and I have tried to put it into proportion. His other question asked whether this was the only other replacement system that was considered? No, indeed, it was not. In this document there is a careful discussion of cruise missiles, the various sorts of basing of cruise missiles—submarines, surface ships, land systems, airborne cruise missiles, and the possibility of mini-submarines even. They are all mentioned in this document, and at the end of the day the experts were united in the view that this was the most cost-effective way of continuing the effectiveness of the independent strategic nuclear deterrent.


My Lords, may I just say to the noble Lord, who I thought made a monstrous statement when he said that my noble friends—and I was a member of the Government ran away from making a decision, that that is not true, and he knows it. I think really he is spoiling his case. After all, why does he put a document in the Vote Office when he is making a Statement? That is a funny way of giving information to the House.


My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that if I were to go through all the information in this document we should be here for a great deal more than 24 minutes.


My Lords, may 1, on a business point, ask whether there arc any practical reasons why the Government could not have answered these questions about cost-effectiveness, to which the noble Lord continually refers, and why this House and the other House should not be familiar with the arguments before the noble Lord makes this Statement? His excuse that such a Statement would take much longer simply does not fit the seriousness of the situation.


My Lords, my right honourable friend in another place has explained on a number of occasions that when the arguments had been assembled and assessed he would then make a Statement, and I believe he referred to a "full, comprehensive document". It may be slim, but I do assure the House that it is a full and comprehensive document. However, it is not one that one can very well read out in a Statement.


My Lords, the noble Lord said that the cost of this Trident programme will be no more than the Tornado programme. Will this not he in addition to the Tornado programme on the basis of what he said in the Statement and in answer to my question? I therefore ask him to make this clear: are we having this and the Tornado programme?


Yes, my Lords: we certainly are. There is no question of the cancellation of the Tornado programme. All I am trying to indicate is that the Tornado programme was a big and important programme and this is another big and important programme, though not actually as big.


My Lords, will not the Minister agree that the policy of deterrence has worked over the last thirty years and will continue to work if we are sufficiently resolute?


My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord. Those are exactly the sentiments of the Government.


My Lords, the very important remark made by the noble Lord was that if we, as he called it, "went soft" on nuclear weapons the chances of an agreement on nuclear disarmament with the Russians would be sensibly diminished. I think that is possibly the only argument for having strategic nuclear weapons of this kind which we would all agree we could never use without committing collective suicide. Is the noble Lord really satisfied, in the present international situation, that the importance of our possession of these weapons really does make an important difference to the chances of reaching an agreement between the Russians and the United States?


Yes, I am, my Lords. This again is something that is addressed in the document. May 1 summarise it simply by saying that we believe there is a real importance as seen from the other side—and this is the important point—in the existence of a second centre of decision-making. This increases the chances of coming to a workable agreement with the Soviet Union.


My Lords, may I put this point to the Minister: Is it right to say that what he has said today is really a decision in principle and that no agreement has been signed with the United States or anybody else so far, and no contracts concluded? Would it be right to say that there is nothing binding on this country and on the Government in what he has said today and that therefore there is time to consider the documents to which he has referred, and indeed for both Houses to consider this matter in depth; and that there is indeed time to follow up any possibility of negotiation between us and our allies on one side and anybody else as to a decision on this important matter which may overreach this particular decision?


My Lords, the Government have announced that they have come to a decision. I do not really believe that the contractual details are anything like as important as the main issue of principle.


My Lords, may I ask the Leader of the House when we could have a debate on this? I must say the answers to various questions have confused me as to whether we shall indeed have to reduce our conventional forces. Perhaps the Leader of the House could say.

The LORD PRESIDENT of the COUNCIL (Lord Soames)

My Lords, I think that if the House wishes to have a debate this can be discussed through the usual channels. It may well be that this would be the wish of the House and the usual channels would be at the disposal of the House. We have now had up to 30 minutes on this Statement and supplementaries; we have quite a lot of business in front of us and I suggest we move on.