HL Deb 27 October 1997 vol 582 cc878-80

2.59 p.m.

Lord Carver asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many nuclear warheads they have at present and how many they propose to maintain when the planned Trident fleet is complete.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Gilbert)

My Lords, I am withholding the information concerning current nuclear warhead numbers under exemption 1 of the code of practice on access to government information relating to defence, security and international relations. Our future deterrence requirements, including warhead numbers, are being examined in the Strategic Defence Review.

Lord Carver

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that singularly uninformative reply. Can he explain to the House what the effect, if any, would be on the deterrent value which the Government attach to these weapons of publishing their numbers, as was recommended in 1993 by his right honourable friend who is now the Foreign Secretary, and is favoured, I believe, by the Council for Arms Control of which the noble Lord himself is a trustee?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I am obliged, as ever, to the noble and gallant Lord for pointing out that the information I failed to give the House was identical to the kind that he would have briefed Ministers to give in his period of distinguished service as Chief of Defence Staff.

Precisely the questions to which he has referred are being considered in the defence review: that is, whether or not we shall be in a position to give more information along the lines the noble and gallant Lord requires.

The Earl of Carlisle

My Lords, is the Minister aware that any increase in the number of warheads will have a deleterious effect on the remainder of the defence budget? Will he please consider whether this money would be better spent elsewhere within the defence budget?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government have no proposals for increasing the warhead numbers which were announced by the previous government.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister inform the House what percentage of defence expenditure is attributable to the Trident programme and whether he regards it as good value for money?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, when "Vengeance" is rolled out and becomes fully operational—it should be rolled out in the middle of next year—the annual operating costs of the Trident system will be probably of the order of £200 million, which is rather less than 1 per cent. of the total defence budget. Bearing in mind that Trident will then be performing the role that used also to be performed by the WE-177 bombs, I regard it as excellent value for money.

Lord Judd

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one of the greatest issues facing us all is that of proliferation; and that it is essential for the future of humanity that we win more convincing and positive support for the non-proliferation treaty? In that context, while many of us have nothing but full support for the Government's general policy in this sphere, will my noble friend therefore agree that it is crucial to demonstrate to the world that we shall deploy on Trident no more missiles and no more warheads than is absolutely essential for the policy we have enunciated?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I have no difficulty in giving my noble friend precisely the assurances he requests. As I pointed out a few moments ago, with the elimination of the WE-177 free-fall bombs, Trident will be performing both a strategic and sub-strategic role. Therefore we are gaining two assets, as it were, for the price of one.

I should also like to say this to my noble friend. It is equally important that we try to do something about the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction in addition to that of nuclear warheads.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, in the light of the noble Lord's request to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Carver, that he await the defence review, will the Minister please tell the House the purpose of the two-day debate on defence being held today in another place and the debate in this House next week? We find ourselves in some difficulty since we do not know what will be in the defence review.

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on his appointment to his new position. I look forward to jousting with him for many months in our respective positions.

As I am sure the noble Lord realises, the Strategic Defence Review has two parts. The first part is virtually concluded and I must not anticipate the remarks of my right honourable friend in another place. The first part was Foreign Office led and related to discussions about the roles and responsibilities which we think it appropriate for this country to assume for the next 20 or so years ahead.

The second part relates to the assets necessary to fulfil those responsibilities and the resources necessary to procure those assets.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, will my noble friend say whether the £200 million running costs include the amortisation of the capital cost of Trident?

Will he also say whether it will be possible for Trident to be used independently—that is, independent of the United States satellite guidance systems?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, the answer to the first question is no. The answer to the second question is unambiguously yes.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that—

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Richard)

My Lords, with great respect, I think that we should move on to the third question, in particular as my noble friend has had one bite at this cherry this afternoon.