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The Government Is Sidestepping Parliament in a Push for Trident Replacement

21/11/2014 17:08 GMT | Updated 21/01/2015 10:59 GMT

This week Parliament will ratify - without discussion - the stepping up of Britain's nuclear cooperation with the United States, under the guise of a routine treaty renewal. The treaty in question dates back to 1958 when the two countries signed the 'Agreement between the UK and the USA for cooperation in the Uses of Atomic Energy for Mutual Defence Purposes'. Generally referred to as the MDA, the treaty established an agreement to exchange classified information to develop their respective nuclear weapons systems. It is this treaty which ensures that Trident is both technically and politically dependent on the US. Originally, the MDA prohibited the transfer of nuclear weapons, but an amendment in 1959 allowed for the transfer of nuclear materials and equipment between both countries. This amendment is extended through a renewal of the treaty every ten years, most recently in 2004. Changes to the historic amendment this year are a cause for significant concern.

Far from being just another piece of foreign policy housekeeping, this year's renewal of the Mutual Defence Agreement (MDA), is actually a further step towards replacing Britain's Trident nuclear weapons system - but without the open, democratic debate which such a momentous decision warrants. With the new amendments, Britain will become even more dependent on US expertise for its own nuclear weapons programme and existing collaboration on warhead design will be extended to the nuclear reactors which would power a Trident replacement submarine. Majority public opinion is against the replacement of Trident, and with increasing concerns about transparency and accountability in government it is unfortunate that the formal parliamentary process over the past few months has not facilitated a proper debate on this crucial issue.

The key problem is that successive UK governments have viewed ratification as an automatic process to be slid through without question: but there is a Westminster scrutiny process. The government is required by law to lay any treaty that it has signed before Parliament for 21 days. In 2004, the government essentially pulled a fast one to avoid debate. The treaty was laid before Parliament just before the Summer Recess with an announcement that it had been signed a week earlier. This was in spite of the fact that MPs had been asking questions for months about the government's intention to renew the MDA. This was an obvious - and successful - attempt to avoid any democratic scrutiny.

This year there has been a slight advance in terms of transparency of process: a number of MPs have worked hard to avail themselves of the opportunity to scrutinise and debate the treaty renewal. The treaty was laid before Parliament on 30th October. Two weeks ago a number of back bench MPs secured a debate in Westminster Hall - a sparsely populated affair which was essentially an opportunity for MPs to air concerns with no impact on the legislative process. This week the ratification becomes automatic.

Yet this almost entirely overlooked renewal is of immense significance to the UK. The treaty already ensures that the two countries' nuclear programmes are inextricably linked. The UK warhead is a copy of the US one, with some components directly bought from the US. With the UK's nuclear warheads expected to be non-operational by the late 2030s, a decision on their replacement will be intrinsically linked to the work taking place as part of the MDA. The UK leases the Trident II D5 missiles it uses from the US, and British submarines must regularly visit the US base in Kings Bay, Georgia, for the maintenance and replacement of these missiles. The UK government recently paid the US £250 million to participate in a missile life extension programme and participates in numerous exchange visits with staff from the US nuclear weapons laboratories. Britain also participates with the US in 'sub-critical' nuclear tests (tests which fall just short of releasing a nuclear explosion).

Correctly understood, the amendments to this year's renewal are part of the ongoing attempt to impose Trident replacement on the British people - who are in their majority opposed to it - through a number of seemingly unrelated steps. Given that a decision on whether or not to replace Trident is supposed to be taken by parliament in 2016, this raises significant questions about transparency and democratic accountability of parliament and government.

But this is a matter of wider concern even than the nuclear relationship between the US and UK. This treaty possibly underpins more of the special foreign policy relationship between the two countries than we know of, beyond nuclear cooperation. Some sections of the agreement which cover confidential intelligence matters remain secret and whilst there may be national security requirements for confidentiality on specific issues, we are beyond the moment in history when upper echelons in government and society can award themselves an absolute right to keep decisions that are taken in the name of the people, from the people. This lesson needs to be learnt across all sections of the establishment and political life.