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Proliferation in Parliament

Back to the main page on the UK

Compiled by Nicola Butler, Summer 2009

Previous editions of Proliferation in Parliament are available at www.acronym.org.uk/parliament.

Cross party support for a review of Trident replacement gathers momentum

Parliamentarians of all parties have joined calls for the Ministry of Defence's 'Initial Gate' decision (on whether to proceed to the next stage of Trident procurement) to be postponed pending further debate on Trident replacement and the alternatives.

The Initial Gate was originally scheduled for September 2009 — whilst Parliament is in recess. Although the possibility of a delay until after the 2010 NPT Review Conference and thus the UK general election has been widely reported and welcomed in the media in recent weeks (see for example: Trident submarine deal delayed and Sense on Trident), behind the scenes the Ministry of Defence appears determined to push the decision through as close as possible to the original schedule, despite parliamentary opposition. As a result it is now unclear exactly when the decision will be taken. The latest information given to parliament is the rather vague statement that Ministers "currently expect to consider initial gate later this year."

Defence Ministers argue that the Initial Gate is a minor step involving replacement of the submarine platform alone, that does not require parliamentary approval. This suggests that proponents of Trident replacement within the MoD would rather take the criticism for making decisions behind closed doors (a strategy that has been repeatedly condemned by the Commons Defence Committee when applied to previous decisions such as allowing the Bush administration to use Fylingdales and Menwith Hill as part of its missile defence programme), than face the prospect of a reopening of the debate on the future of the UK's nuclear forces in the current financial climate.

With increasing pressure on government spending due to the recession and particular pressure on the Defence budget due to the UK's commitments in Afghanistan, the debate on whether and how to replace Trident is growing in strength within all the main political parties.

The Liberal Democrats now formally oppose like-for-like replacement, there is reportedly growing opposition on the Labour backbenches and there is now increasing discussion on the Conservative benches about what form any replacement should take and whether it could be smaller and cheaper. In July former Chair of the Public Accounts Committee David Davis MP (Con) added his voice to the calls for a review. Citing evidence from Richard Garwin to the Defence Committee, Davis argues for "an obvious choice to extend the Vanguards' life"; or to "convert an existing Astute-class hunter-killer submarine"; and to "save billions more by having three, not four, boats".

Calls for Initial Gate to be delayed

In June 2009, in its report on Global Security: Non-Proliferation, the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, which includes members of all the main political parties at Westminster, recommended "that the Government should not take any decision at the Initial Gate stage until Parliament has had the chance to scrutinise the matter in a debate".

An Early Day Motion sponsored by Jeremy Corbyn MP (Lab) requesting that "the Initial Gate decision be delayed until Parliament is in session and can be presented with the report for scrutiny" has also attracted a higher than usual level of support with 165 MPs of all political parties.

In the Lords, Lord Judd has also called on the Government to "reassess the replacement of Trident because of the vast expenditure involved" and said that it was "essential that the House should have an opportunity to debate this issue before initial gate decisions are made."

In an adjournment debate on Nuclear Weapons Proliferation Gavin Strang MP underlined the "real concern—certainly among Labour Members" about the decision and said he did not see why it had to be made in September: "I would like to think that there could be some movement on this point." David Stroud (Lab/Co-op), also expressed the anger felt by some on the Labour benches, describing the decision to go through the initial gate in September as "more than a little bizarre" and called for the Government to be "brought kicking and screaming back to this place" so that MPs could "properly debate whether that is the right way forward".

Responding for the Government, Foreign Office Parliamentary Under-Secretary Chris Bryant argued that the decisions taken so far on Trident renewal did "not mean that we have taken an irreversible decision that commits us irrevocably to possessing nuclear weapons for the next 40 to 50 years." Nor did it mean that the Government had "decided to 'replace Trident'". It was simply a decision to "begin concept and design work to make possible a replacement for the platform," said Bryant, claiming that this was "not a replacement for Trident itself." "We do not believe that a unilateral decision to make it impossible for us to maintain Trident beyond its current life expectancy would make the dramatic difference that some suggest it would," he added.

Similarly in an answer to a written question by Joan Walley MP (Lab), Foreign Minister Ivan Lewis reiterated that Britain "stands ready to participate and to act" in broader multilateral negotiations. However, "A decision now not to renew our Ship Submersible Ballistic Nuclear (SSBN) submarine fleet would pre-empt any such negotiation, by committing a future government to unilateral disarmament at the end of the current fleet’s lifespan, regardless of the strategic circumstances at that time."

In Defence Oral Questions, Jeremy Corbyn (Lab) and Jim Devine (Lab) called for Trident not to be replaced whilst Danny Alexander (LD) called for the Initial Gate to be deferred, highlighting the growing body of "retired military officers, former Defence Secretaries and academics... now saying that Trident is both irrelevant and unaffordable". In reply Secretary of State for Defence Bob Ainsworth said that the Government "currently expect[s] to consider initial gate later this year" and refused to defer it.

In written questions, Ainsworth argued that it was "not normal for Parliament to be involved in Initial Gate decisions for procurement projects. I do however propose to update Parliament on progress after Initial Gate," he added. "The main investment decision point, and the point at which we would issue the main contracts to industry for the construction of the new submarines, is still several years away." Ainsworth insisted that he would not re-evaluate the Ministry of Defence's recommendation for an upgraded Trident missile programme, saying that there had been "no substantive change in international security since then [the Parliamentary vote on Trident in 2006] that would suggest that a further vote is required."

The Road to 2010 (but don't mention the 'T' word)

On 16 July 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Brown launched the UK's Road to 2010 plan, which is intended to "lead" global efforts for a successful NPT Review Conference. The plan makes strong linkage between the "reduction and eventual elimination" of nuclear weapons and the expansion of nuclear power, but stops short of announcing any new steps towards disarmament by the UK. It makes sweeping claims for nuclear energy, which is said to play a part in "combating climate change, global poverty, and energy shortages".

Interestingly the word "Trident" is not used once throughout the report suggesting that it really is the white elephant in the non-proliferation room. "The road to zero requires multilateral disarmament. A decision not to renew our strategic deterrent would commit the UK Government to unilateral disarmament in still uncertain circumstances," the plan states. Instead the UK will work on "developing policy ideas to enable further reductions and ultimately to establish the conditions in which there is no requirement for the continued existence of nuclear weapons."

The Government has identified "driving forward a step-change on the nuclear non-proliferation and multilateral disarmament agenda in 2010" as one of its four priorities for "international leadership" (Building Britain's Future, Downing Street), announced by Gordon Brown on 29 June. However, as the Foreign Affairs Committee notes in its report on Global Security: Non-Proliferation, "the decision to renew the UK's Trident system is perceived by some foreign states and some among the British public as appearing to contradict the Government's declared commitment to strengthening the international nuclear non-proliferation regime".

The Foreign Affairs Committee further concluded that "without decisive movement by the five recognised nuclear weapons states as a whole on nuclear disarmament measures, there is a risk that the 2010 Review Conference will fail, like its 2005 predecessor". The Committee recommended that "the Government should aim to come away from the 2010 NPT Review Conference with agreement on a concrete plan to take the multilateral nuclear disarmament process forward, with target dates for specific steps, and with the political commitment from all nuclear and non-nuclear weapons States Parties to ensure implementation."

Despite its recent enthusiasm for the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons, the UK government remains reluctant to support efforts for a Nuclear Weapons Convention on the short term. In response to a written question from Elfyn Llwyd (PC), Foreign Office Minister Ivan Lewis clarified the UK's stance as follows: "At the moment we believe it would be premature to press for a Nuclear Weapons Convention, which [would] be unlikely to make any headway and would distract attention from efforts to bolster the NPT. We do nonetheless believe there may be a role for a Nuclear Weapons Convention in the future when the time comes to establish a final ban."

The tone and content of the Road to 2010 are of course a welcome contribution to the disarmament debate, at least in terms of the mood music. The absence of concrete steps resulting from the Government's timidity in addressing the future of Trident and its preference for taking key decisions behind closed doors is, however, a growing impediment to the UK's ability to play a leading role in this field.

A less than Strategic Defence Review

On 7 July Secretary of State for Defence Bob Ainsworth announced that the Government was "beginning a process that will enable a strategic defence review early in the next Parliament". Almost immediately MoD officials told the media that as with the department's last major defence review — the 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR) — Trident will be excluded. "There is no sacred cow besides Trident," defence officials were quoted as saying (see Trident excluded from defence review). It is not clear why the Ministry felt it was appropriate to provide this information in off the record briefings rather than explicitly in the Minister's written statement to parliament. It is, regrettably, a huge missed opportunity for the government to consider its future options, given the current high level of public debate on the role of UK nuclear weapons.

The terms of the 2010 defence review also appear significantly more limited than the previous SDR, which was conducted immediately after Labour's 1997 election landslide. At that time the SDR was approached as a 'Foreign Policy-led' review, against the background of then Labour Foreign Secretary Robin Cook's goal of an 'Ethical Foreign Policy'. In June IPPR's Commission on National Security in the 21st Century, led by former Labour Defence Minister and NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson and Liberal Democrat Peer Lord Ashdown called for a more wide-ranging "Strategic Review of Security", that included consideration of the future of Britain's "independent nuclear deterrent" as an "integral part". In this, their arguments echo the Acronym Institute's call for a Strategic Security and Defence Review in its 2006 analysis of nuclear policy Worse than Irrelevant.

The aims of the new Government's review are in effect more limited: to "ensure that we develop and maintain armed forces appropriate to the challenges we face and the aims we set ourselves as a nation." Rather oddly the review is to be "set in the context of the National Security Strategy", which now appears quite dated in its Bush-era thinking on WMD, focusing more on "countering the threat of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction" and counter-terrorism, than on current trends towards non-proliferation and disarmament such as those advocated by the Obama administration.

Unusually for the Ministry of Defence, the results of the initial review will be published as a Green Paper early in 2010. Historically the MoD — in contrast with other Whitehall departments — has tended to favour the "take it or leave it" approach of the Defence White Papers (which unlike the US defence budget decision making processes, have been practically impossible for British parliamentarians to influence or amend) rather than the consultative approach implied by a Green Paper.

Whilst a Green Paper on Defence is clearly a welcome development, in this case it is also politically expedient for the Government as it enables it to defer the inevitable hard decisions on spending until after the general election — a tactic that the MoD has used in the past to defer politically unpalatable decisions.

NATO-Russia Relations and Missile Defence

The House of Commons Defence Committee's ominously titled Russia: a new confrontation report, published in July 2009 found that "We are not convinced that European security will be enhanced by the United States' planned ballistic missile defence (BMD) system as currently envisaged. If the US decides to press ahead with its BMD plans, we recommend that the Government seek ways to involve Russia in its development."

In their Global Security: Non-Proliferation report the Foreign Affairs Committee were also "not convinced" that "the United States' planned ballistic missile defence (BMD) deployments in the Czech Republic and Poland represent a net gain for European security." The Committee further concluded that the Government's "early agreement to the inclusion of RAF Fylingdales and Menwith Hill in the US BMD system was regrettable" and recommended that "the uncertainty surrounding prospects for the US European BMD system has made a Parliamentary debate on this issue all the more necessary, and we recommend that the Government should schedule one before the end of this Parliament."

In July former Labour Defence Minister Peter Kilfoyle MP succeeded in getting a Westminster Hall debate on missile defence, in which he questioned whether current missile defence plans could meet the new US administration's criteria for being "affordable, proven, and responsive to the threat". Kilfoyle also highlighted that the UK's role in missile defence and that involvement of RAF Menwith Hill "was agreed without any reference whatever to Parliament".

In the debate, Defence Minister Bill Rammell argued that current plans for missile defence were not in conflict with the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons and "could give us greater security" but expressed concerns that "the technological challenges involved in constructing an effective missile defence system are considerable".

NATO Nuclear Policy and the Strategic Concept

In response to a written question from Nick Harvey MP (LD), Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth appeared to suggest that nuclear policy was already effectively ring fenced in the Strategic Concept review, at least as far as the British government is concerned. Harvey asked about the Government's proposals on "(a) nuclear sharing, (b) nuclear first-strike and (c) the reliance by NATO members on nuclear weapons as a guarantee for their security", but was told that NATO's Strasbourg/Kehl summit in April 2009 had already made clear that "Deterrence, based on an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional capabilities, remains a core element of (the Alliance’s) overall strategy" and that this was to provide the "basis of discussions between Allies on a revised Strategic Concept".

Whilst the Defence Committee's Russia report highlighted the importance of the NATO-Russia relationship (as distinct from the US-Russia relationship) and put considerable emphasis on Russia's nuclear capabilities, it did not address the continuing issue of NATO's nuclear policies as set out in the Alliance's Strategic Concept, not least the policy of nuclear sharing. Perhaps this subject could be scrutinised as part of a future Committee inquiry into NATO strategy, given that the Alliance is currently conducting its first review of the Strategic Concept since 1999?

Government confirms Radioactive Releases from Faslane

Following the revelations by Channel Four News and the Guardian in April that there had been "at least eight radioactive leaks at the base in the last 10 years" and repeated failures to abide by safety procedures (see Nuclear Non-Proliferation News, Summer 2009), parliamentarians have continued to probe MoD procedures for radioactive waste management at the base. A written question from Julian Lewis MP (Con) confirmed that there had been "nine leaks that were potentially radioactive". A written question from Dai Davies MP (Ind) also revealed a long list of discharges of liquid radioactive waste at Faslane since 1977. This may be the tip of the iceberg however, as the radioactive releases are thought to date further back at least as far as 1967 when the base first hosted Polaris, but no figures are available for the period 1967 to 1976, when safety standards may have been even more lax. In addition, no information is currently available concerning releases from the adjacent Holy Loch base that hosted US Poseidon and Polaris nuclear submarines from the 1960s to the 1990s.

Hot air balloons infringe security at Aldermaston

Highlighting the problem of security at nuclear sites, a written question from Dai Davies MP reveals a number of airborne security breaches at AWE and other UK nuclear reactors. A hot air balloon had twice breached the exclusion zone around Aldermaston, whilst a low flying aircraft had breached flying restrictions at Burghfield. These breaches highlight the security risks implicit in current government plans to build a new generation of nuclear reactors.

Sellafield MP calls for two new reactors

In an Adjournment debate obtained by Jamie Reed (Lab), the MP for Copeland and former Sellafield employee claimed that Britain could "fulfil its required role in those efforts [Gordon Brown's proposals for non-proliferation and nuclear energy] only with Sellafield, THORP and SMP or a successor plant."

Acknowledging that he had an interest in Sellafield, Reed called for "a vision... that means two new reactors being established on the site, powered by MOX fuel produced at a new facility on the site." He said there was a "genuine desire for that from certain companies—they will be known to the Minister’s Department" to bring forward plans for a new MOX facility. This is despite the technical and financial failures of the previous Sellafield MOX plant (SMP), which Reed euphemistically described as having "under performed" [or in plain English, having made a loss of £626m, in contrast with industry claims at the time it was built, see Proliferation in Parliament, Spring 2009]. Reed also argued against cuts in taxpayer funding to Sellafield.

The problems posed by Sellafield have also been the subject of two written questions in the European Parliament by German MEP Rebecca Harms (Green) who highlighted a report by the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority (Statens Strålevern) on 'Consequences in Norway of a hypothetical accident at Sellafield: Potential release — transport and fallout.' Harms asked the European Commission to verify radioactive emissions by Sellafield; examine plans for radioactive waste disposal and publish a "list of those sectors of nuclear research, particularly in respect of the impact of radiological releases from Sellafield, which it considers to be 'insufficiently explored'".

Harms also pointed out the "commercial failure of the Sellafield MOX plant" and warned against calls by Sellafield workers and the UNITE trades union for "the UK Government to give the go-ahead to a new MOX plant, based on a French AREVA design, adjacent to the existing one, which they want closed."

A breach of export controls?

On 19 August, the Committees on Arms Export Controls released a report revealing that the Ukrainian government had provided it with a list of UK-registered brokers who had been buying up old Soviet weapons and selling them on in many cases to countries currently blacklisted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The dates of these transactions remain unclear, but the UK Embassy in Kiev, the Export Control Organisation and HM Revenue and Customs were all apparently "unaware of the existence of this list". As the Guardian writes, "In a sign of acute government sensitivity over the allegations, the foreign secretary David Miliband has asked senior MPs on a Commons select committee to suppress evidence of the arms sales." Whilst Ukraine has given up nuclear weapons following the break up of the Soviet Union, the story is reminiscent of the UK's then Department of Trade and Industry turning a blind eye to dealers involved in the A Q Khan network. Much greater scrutiny is clearly needed into this and to uncover other kinds of UK-related arms proliferation networks.

In this month's issue:


We welcome your comments and feedback. Please send your comments to info@acronym.org.uk.


Westminster Parliament

Statements and Documents outside Parliament

Trident and Nuclear Submarines

AWE and Warhead Development

Non-Proliferation and Disarmament

Defence Policy

Missile Defence and NATO-Russia relations

Middle East

North Korea

South Asia

Nuclear Energy

Nuclear Test Veterans

Other Indiscriminate and Inhumane Weapons

Export Controls

European Parliament

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© 2009 The Acronym Institute.