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Export Control Organisation

Volume 454: debated on Monday 11 December 2006

1. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on the future of the Export Control Organisation; and if he will make a statement. (105372)

The Government considered whether to outsource export licensing activities last year. The outcome was a decision not to proceed with outsourcing, which was reflected in an announcement in the House on 21 July 2005. There have been no other ministerial discussions on the future of the Export Control Organisation.

Despite our Government’s stated intent not to sell arms in conflict zones, to regimes that abuse human rights, or to the poorest countries on the planet, the Defence Export Services Organisation is still dealing with Sri Lanka and Uganda in the first category, Israel and Indonesia in the second, and Nigeria and Pakistan in the third. Does the Minister agree that we should launch a coup against DESO and install the Export Control Organisation in the Ministry of Defence so that we can start to build, at last, an ethical defence and foreign policy?

I do not agree with my hon. Friend. We apply the most rigorous criteria for all countries involved in that environment. I can tell my hon. Friend that all export licence applications are assessed case by case against the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria. If an export is considered inconsistent with the criteria, a licence will not be issued. The criteria are robust and we apply them rigorously.

When the Government responded in October to the report on strategic export controls published by the Quadripartite Committee, Ministers emphasised that

“the Government takes very seriously the control of defence exports and behaviour of UK companies … in this area”.

With those words ringing in his ears, will the Minister reassure the House that the Serious Fraud Office will be given every encouragement to continue its work investigating the deals between BAE Systems and Saudi Arabia, and that when it has done so and proper process has been followed, its report will be made available to the House?

I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman was aware that that is not a matter for me and also that he was fully aware that it is inappropriate to discuss an ongoing police investigation or any other matter in the judicial process. However, I note the direction from which the hon. Gentleman is coming—it is another attack on British industry. I am conscious of the fact that one of his party’s senior defence spokespeople said that aircraft carriers would be better built in the United States—yet another instance of the Liberals not wanting British industry to succeed.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend shares my concerns that, with tens of thousands of jobs at risk from Bristol to Lancashire, whether at Rolls-Royce, BAE Systems or Thornycroft, the bottom line is that we have to ensure that the SFO completes its investigations. After two and a half years, we need early completion to ensure that those jobs are not lost or put at risk. Will my right hon. Friend give some support to British industry and ensure that, while we recognise export credit controls, British interests are kept alive?

I know that my hon. Friend is a strong advocate of those industries both in his own constituency and more widely in the United Kingdom. He constantly raises legitimate matters of concern. He is also a strong supporter of our defence industrial strategy, and the Government are determined to make sure that both our manufacturing base and our defence sector are strong. Those who say that we should not be exporting are arguing against that principle, and I know that my hon. Friend does not share that point of view.

Given that the right hon. Gentleman’s Ministry will need to take particular care where there is a risk of execution, torture or cruel or degrading treatment, will the right hon. Gentleman tell me whether, if there were a proposed export to Sudan either of a piece of defence equipment, or indeed of a pair of handcuffs, it would be resisted?

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman details about that, because we have to look at the issues on a case-by-case basis. However, I would say instinctively that if approval was being sought in a case where the use was for torture or for malign ends, it would not get through our strict criteria. If the hon. Gentleman has examples of that, will he please write to me and I will give him a more considered answer?

Although not everyone supports arms exports, does my right hon. Friend agree that they secure many highly skilled jobs in the UK, and that as a result of the Export Control Act 2002, introduced by the Labour Government, we have one of the most comprehensive export control systems anywhere in the world?

I agree entirely and I tried to set that out in my earlier answers. I think that we can hold our heads high in respect of the way we approach this matter. It is correct that what we do is always under scrutiny on a case-by-case basis within Departments and we have to take into the balance the impact on employment and this country’s manufacturing base. These are not easy judgments to make and there are occasions on which applications are refused. We try to help the industry by providing an early answer. We will continue to apply the rigorous provisions that I set out earlier.