The Defence Secretary Liam Fox said yesterday (5 July) that the coalition's “value-for-money” review of the Trident nuclear weapons system will be completed by the end of July, provoking derision from campaigners who suspect he is only going through the motions.
As part of the deal between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, the coalition agreed that there would be a review of the plans for Trident renewal to check for value for money. They recently confirmed that the review would not consider alternatives to Trident but be confined to checking costs.
Trident renewal is opposed by a range of churches and faith groups, including the Baptist, Methodist and United Reformed Churches and the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). A large number of NGOs and trades unions have also expressed opposition.
Fox's announcement of the timetable has raised suspicions that the coalition's plans are largely indistinguishable from the Tories' former policy.
“The value-for-money study will be completed by the end of this month,” Fox told the Commons, “It will then go to the Cabinet Office and then be considered by National Security Council. The National Security Council's conclusions will inform the SDSR [Strategic Defence and Security Review] and the Comprehensive Spending Review which will be published in the autumn”.
The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) sharply criticised Fox's announcement, insisting that the “fundamental question” of Trident renewal was being ignored and that the timetable would prevent meaningful scrutiny.
Kate Hudson, CND Chair, said that Trident renewal “would give us something of no defence value for a great deal of money”.
She added, “When other aspects of defence spending are likely to be cut in the Strategic Defence and Security Review it seems absurd to exempt from scrutiny the biggest single item of expenditure”. As part of the coalition deal, the Liberal Democrats agreed to drop their insistence that Trident be reviewed and alternatives considered.
CND pointed out that Fox's timetable suggests that the “initial gate'” decision, which locks down key decisions on billions of future spending, will take place during the summer parliamentary recess, preventing scrutiny by MPs.
“Major decisions on nuclear weapons must not be taken behind closed doors and only reported to MPs months later,” said Hudson, “Yet this is what the government appears to be proposing”.
She added, “Claims of a 'new politics' will seem thread-bare indeed if the Trident replacement project receives 'initial gate' approval during the summer recess. Last year almost every Lib Dem signed a motion in protest when Labour planned a similar move - we hope their desire for democratic scrutiny hasn't been diminished”.
The coalition deal allows Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain in votes on Trident, although it is likely that at least some Liberal Democrat backbenchers will rebel and vote against it.
CND has estimated the cost of Trident renewal at £76 billion, although a study commissioned by Greenpeace put it at £94 billion. There has been widespread concern over the potential for Trident costs to increase greatly from the original estimates.
When last examined, the National Audit Office said the Ministry of Defence's estimates were "not yet sufficiently robust to support the future deterrent programme throughout its planned life". Concern with runaway costs is particularly strong, given the ongoing programme to build Astute submarines was already running 48 per cent over budget and almost four years late when last formally assessed in March 2008.