Select Committee on Defence Eighth Report

1  Introduction

Our inquiry

1. The United Kingdom's strategic nuclear deterrent is based on the Trident weapons system. Trident was introduced into service in the UK over a six year period beginning in December 1994 and has a projected life span of up to 30 years. Given the lengthy procurement process for large-scale defence equipment projects, the Government has stated that decisions on the future of the UK's strategic nuclear deterrent are likely to be required at some stage during the current Parliament, that is by May 2010 at the latest.[1]

2. After the Committee's first meeting, on 21 July 2005, we announced that we had noted the extensive public interest in the future of the UK's strategic nuclear deterrent and that we would consider how best to respond to this interest. On 20 January 2006, we announced that we would conduct a series of inquiries into the future of the UK's strategic nuclear deterrent over the course of this Parliament. Our intention is to encourage and inform the public debate on the future of the deterrent and to highlight the key issues and questions to be addressed in that debate. Through our series of inquiries, we do not seek to offer prescriptive policy recommendations. Instead, we hope to foster constructive public engagement with an issue of profound national and international significance.

3. Our first inquiry has focused on the strategic context and timetable for decision-making. We have considered the nature of the UK's current strategic nuclear deterrent and how it compares with those of the other established nuclear powers. We have looked at the threats which the UK's strategic nuclear deterrent is currently intended to combat and how this context might change over the next two decades. We have examined what other states and organisations could develop nuclear weapons capabilities in the 2025 to 2050 timeframe, and how this might affect the strategic context in which decisions on the UK deterrent will be made. And we have sought to clarify the timetable within which these decisions will have to be taken and implemented.

4. We took oral evidence at Westminster from representatives of defence think tanks, universities, campaign and lobbying groups, technical experts and representatives of the defence industry. We received a very large body of written submissions from a wide range of interested parties and experts, including universities, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), defence contractors, trade unions, and religious groups, as well as from individual members of the public.[2] We had informal discussions on the future of the strategic nuclear deterrent with members of the US Administration and US Congress during a visit to Washington DC in May 2006. We are grateful to all those who provided oral and written evidence to our inquiry. We also appreciate the assistance provided by our specialist advisers: Mr Paul Beaver, Professor Michael Clarke, Rear Admiral Richard Cobbold, Professor David Kirkpatrick, Air Vice Marshal Professor Tony Mason and Brigadier Austin Thorp.

The engagement of the Ministry of Defence

5. The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence have both stated that no decisions on the future of the UK's strategic nuclear deterrent have yet been taken and have each promised an open debate in Parliament, and in the country, on any potential Trident successor. In June 2005, the Prime Minister told the House of Commons that the Government "will listen to Honourable Members before making any decisions on replacing Trident".[3] In September 2005, the then Secretary of State for Defence, Rt Hon Dr John Reid MP, stated that "it is not only a good thing that there will be such a discussion, it is…inevitable" and pledged, "we are not going to have a secret Chevaline-like decision taken by some of the cabinet which then proceeds without any public discussion or debate".[4]

6. In evidence to us on 1 November 2005, Dr Reid said that:

    It is not absolutely essential that you have a cross party consensus but in my view that would be desirable. It is also be desirable with any such important issues that there is the maximum information and consensus across the public as well as across Parliament.[5]

7. In evidence to the Liaison Committee on 7 February 2006, the Prime Minister stated that "there will be the fullest possible Parliamentary debate". He stated that the decision on the future of the UK's strategic nuclear deterrent "is a huge decision for the country and it will probably be done in a far more open way than decisions have been taken before".[6]

8. In July 2005, we asked the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to give us by the end of September a memorandum explaining what work it and other government departments were doing to inform the decision on the future of the UK's strategic nuclear deterrent; when more precisely the decision was expected to be made; what constraints the UK was under in making this decision; what options for replacement were under consideration and what estimates had been made of their costs; and which specific elements of the nuclear deterrent would require replacing and upgrading and by what dates.[7]

9. In September 2005, the MoD responded to this request, stating that:

    No decisions on any replacement for the Trident system have been taken, either in principle or detail. Whilst some decisions are likely to be necessary in the current Parliament, they are still some way off. Indeed Ministers have not yet begun to consider the range of options that might be available. Whilst work has started in Government to begin the process of preparing for future Ministerial decisions, this work by officials is still at a very early stage and no advice has been presented to Ministers. It will take a considerable time before this work generates a detailed understanding of the relative costs and capabilities of different options. We shall let you have this information in due course, and will seek to be as open as possible.[8]

10. On 24 November 2005, we received a memorandum outlining some of the broad issues relating to the UK's current strategic nuclear deterrent: an assessment of the international legal constraints relating to a replacement of Trident; the expected life of the Trident system; and the investment at the Atomic Weapons Establishment.[9] The MoD told us that it was not in a position to provide information on future deterrent systems: "Ministers have yet to begin to consider future deterrent options and it is likely to be some time before we can provide advice on the range of options that might be involved, including their costs". [10] The MoD also declined to participate in an informal seminar we held on 13 December 2006 on the grounds that:

    there is nothing further we could usefully say at this stage beyond the information that the Secretary of State gave to the Committee in evidence on 1 November and that which was contained in the memorandum sent to the Committee on 24 November.[11]

11. When announcing this inquiry in January 2006, we published the MoD's memorandum on the internet in order to inform the public debate. We invited the MoD to give evidence to the inquiry, but it declined.[12] We later provided the MoD with the transcripts of the evidence received and invited it to make any comments on the evidence, or any corrections of fact. It thanked us, but said it had no comments to make.[13]

12. We welcome the Government's promise of a full and open debate in Parliament, and in the country at large, on the future of the UK's strategic nuclear deterrent. We are surprised and disappointed that the Ministry of Defence has refused to participate in our inquiry. We believe that a genuine and meaningful debate is only possible with the active participation of the MoD. We call upon the MoD to engage fully in our forthcoming inquiries into the future of the UK's strategic nuclear deterrent. We hope the MoD will make a substantive response to this report and that it will address openly the issues we have raised.

1   Ministry of Defence, Delivering Security in a Changing World: Defence White Paper, December 2003, Cm 6041-I, p 9 Back

2   A list of those who provided oral and written evidence is on pp 42-45  Back

3   HC Deb, 29 June 2005, col 1292 Back

4   The Guardian, 13 September 2005 Back

5   Defence Committee, Minutes of Evidence, Introductory Evidence Session with the Secretary of State for Defence, HC 556-i, 1 November 2005, Q 5 Back

6   Liaison Committee, The Prime Minister: Oral and Written Evidence, Tuesday 7 February 2006, HC 709-ii, March 2006, Ev 47 Back

7   Ev 146 Back

8   Ev 147 Back

9   Defence Committee, Memorandum submitted by the Ministry of Defence, The Future of the UK's Strategic Nuclear Deterrent, Session 2005-06, HC 835 Back

10   Ev 147 Back

11   Ibid. Back

12   By email of 8 February 2006 Back

13   By email of 10 May 2006 Back

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