The MoD does not have a free hand to replace Trident without further parliamentary scrutiny.
By Katy Clark MP
The decision on whether or not replace Trident is one of fundamental importance to the United Kingdom. As a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty the United Kingdom has acknowledged the devastating potential of a nuclear war and committed to disarmament as a long term aim.
Many senior former military figures such as Field Marshal Lord Bramall and Generals Lord Ramsbotham and Sir Hugh Beach have questioned the usefulness of retaining a nuclear deterrent as the best way of guaranteeing the United Kingdom's security in the 21st century, with former prime minister Tony Blair revealing in his memoirs that even he had doubts on this front. A significant consideration which has to be factored into any decision is the cost of Trident replacement, something which is more important than ever in the current economic climate.
In December 2006 the government published a defence white paper advocating Trident replacement and on March 14th 2007 parliament voted by 409 votes to 161 in favour of authorising the government to take steps to maintain Trident nuclear weapons system after the Vanguard-class submarines leave service in the mid-2020s. Since this date parliamentary involvement in the replacement process has been extremely limited. However costs have soared and long-term decisions appear to have already been taken.
Following the vote in 2007 the government began the 'concept phase' of Trident replacement process which was due to end with the Initial Gate decision point taking place in September 2009. Eighteen months after this date the Initial Gate report has still to be published. Concept phase expenditure has significantly exceeded its budget. £309 million was set aside for this phase however spending up to June 2010 had reached £570 million, with £330 million allocated to Trident replacement for 2010/11. Given this substantial overspend it is imperative that parliament given the opportunity to properly scrutinise the 'concept phase' process and a full debate in the House of Commons on the issue should be scheduled immediately on publication of the Initial Gate report.
Approval of Initial Gate does now however commit the Ministry of Defence to authorise the construction of submarines. This decision is made at the later Main Gate stage of the process. In the 2006 white paper the Main Gate point was scheduled for 2012-14 but this decision has now been pushed back until 2016 beyond the next general election. The Ministry of Defence however appears to be pre-empting this decision. A recent freedom of information request has revealed that the government plans to place over £1 billion of orders on equipment such as nuclear reactors to propel the new submarines, hydraulics, air purifiers, turbo-generators and bits of the hull prior to the Main Gate report. This was only confirmed to parliament via responses to parliamentary questions from MPs.
During the parliamentary debate on Trident, Tony Blair intimated that he believed that there should be a further parliamentary decision at the Main Gate stage in parliament when the main contracts for design and construction would be awarded. Due to the fundamental importance of the decision to renew Trident as well as the amount of money due to be spent MPs must have the opportunity to review the Trident replacement programme when it reaches Main Gate and vote on the programme's abandonment or continuation to construction. It would be inappropriate for any orders for construction purposed to be made prior to this vote.
These latest revelations regarding equipment orders highlight the way in which spending on Trident is treated differently from other Ministry of Defence spending. Difficult decisions such as the scrapping of Nimrod MRA4s were taken as part of the strategic defence and security review, in part due to pressures placed on the budget due to Trident costs. However the maintenance of nuclear weapons was not questioned. There appears to be a culture of secrecy of the Ministry of Defence regarding Trident costs. Liam Fox has stated that he will not publish budget allocations for the assessment phase of the renewal process and there are no plans to publish the value for money review for Trident conducted in 2010. This review should be published along with an up-to-date budget of the assessment phase prior to Main Gate and an estimated full project costs.
The 2007 vote on Trident did not give the Ministry of Defence a free hand to replace Trident nuclear weapons without any further parliamentary scrutiny and regardless of cost to the taxpayer. Up until now the levels of openness from the government on such an important issue has been very disappointing. There are however a number of key points in the renewal process where parliament should debate and indeed vote on this issue given its national significance.
Katy Clark is the Labour MP for North Ayrshire and Arran.
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