The sacking of Gavin Williamson as defence secretary is a chance for the Ministry of Defence to finally stand by the promises Britain has made on getting rid of nuclear weapons, during what’s an important week for global efforts to rid the world of these weapons of mass destruction.
The United Nations is currently meeting to discuss the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT commits its signatories – including the UK – to take steps to disarm if they have nuclear weapons, and pledge not to acquire them if they don’t. The 50-year-old treaty has had some success in preventing proliferation, but resistance from the nuclear weapons states means much less progress has been made towards nuclear disarmament than was hoped.
Nevertheless it is an important framework, representing, as it does, global majority support for a nuclear weapon-free world, and the UK’s status as a signatory means that 50 years’ worth of British governments have been committed to advancing non-proliferation. Yet actions have consistently failed to live up to expectations and, in total contrast both to the discussions at the UN and our Treaty obligations, the government will today be attending a service of thanksgiving at Westminster Abbey to mark 50 years of the so-called ‘continuous at-sea deterrent’.
So while UK government representatives are in New York – no doubt hypocritically lecturing non-nuclear states about why they shouldn’t have nuclear weapons – Penny Mordaunt, the newly appointed defence secretary, will be celebrating ours, in one of the country’s most iconic places of worship.
As chair of the cross party Parliamentary CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) group, I have watched with alarm the emergence of further evidence this week that our nuclear weapons system and infrastructure is failing.
On Monday, the Office of Nuclear Regulation announced its decision to prosecute Devonport Royal Dockyard, where Trident submarines are refitted and refuelled, over health and safety breaches surrounding the cranes tasked with lifting nuclear fuel.
On Tuesday, a new report from the Nuclear Information Service revealed a catalogue of technological and logistical risks to the nuclear programme including major project delays; cost pressures; lack of dock capacity; unscheduled refuelling and core production and submarine dismantling. It predicts that these risks are so significant the government will eventually be faced with a stark choice – pay for project upgrades at the expense of other public spending priorities, or abandon submarine-based weapons systems altogether.
On Wednesday, the Public Accounts Committee questioned senior Ministry of Defence officials and the CEO of Babcock, the company responsible for the refit of the submarines, about why the nuclear submarine dismantling project is 15 years behind target. This follows on from a report by the National Audit Office which revealed the government’s ‘dismal failure’ to clean up 20 out-of-service submarines. Nine of these submarines are berthed in populous areas and leave ageing nuclear fuel inside.
Rather than hosting a service of thanksgiving for nuclear weapons, surely the UK should be taking urgent and decision steps to protect Royal Navy personnel, the nuclear weapons industry workforce and the wider public from what is a dangerous and unnecessary white elephant.
Nuclear weapons remain a costly distraction from the real security threats we face, like climate change. The billions being spent on Trident replacement would be much better spent on investing in developing the infrastructure we need for a zero-carbon economy, as well as in protecting public services. To use the money on a project that makes Britain and the world a far more dangerous place is politically irresponsible and economically obscene.
My message for Mordaunt as she steps into her new role is clear: fulfil your NPT commitments and join the global majority seeking to outlaw nuclear weapons under the UN’s Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. A ban would both honour the victims of the past and help secure a peaceful future for generations to come – and that’s something worth celebrating.
Caroline Lucas is the Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion