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Arms Trade Treaty

Volume 455: debated on Tuesday 16 January 2007

The United Kingdom has led international efforts to secure a legally binding treaty to end the irresponsible trade in arms worldwide. On 6 December 2006 we successfully pushed through a resolution establishing a UN process to work towards a treaty, and we will continue to build support for the initiative in UN discussions during 2007 in preparation for the meeting of the group of governmental experts in 2008, which will look at the draft parameters of a treaty.

Can the Secretary of State tell the House what scale of financial and staffing resources her Department is giving to the arms trade treaty work in the coming financial year, and how that will compare with preceding financial years?

I am afraid that I do not carry the detail of the Department’s finances on this issue at my fingertips, but I will certainly write to the hon. Gentleman. A great deal of work is going on. We are preparing a paper, as are other contributors, to take forward the process of negotiation.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and her predecessor on the UK Government’s leadership on this issue, which has taken place alongside the work of non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty International and Oxfam. Will she give an assurance that the UK’s objective is that such a treaty should cover trade in all conventional arms and all dual-use goods and technologies? Will she advise the House on what progress is being made in persuading the US Administration to modify their previous position and become an enthusiastic supporter of this noble effort to secure action against the abuse of human rights through the arms trade?

I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks, and I agree that a great deal of work was done on this matter by my predecessor. As my hon. Friend will know, we are certainly committed to such a treaty covering all conventional arms, and to focusing on some core principles about when trade is unacceptable. I thank him and his colleagues on the relevant Committee for the work that they do on scrutinising the export of arms. I fear that, although we are certainly engaged in discussions and will endeavour to persuade the United States of the merits of this process, it may take some little time. It was the only country to vote against the proposal.

In pursuing that welcome process, will the Secretary of State draw to the attention of the United Nations the unique circumstances that have led almost everybody to support this move? For once, we in this country have both sides of the House, the Christian Churches, the NGOs and the bishops all in agreement. The people of this country, and I believe the vast majority of the population of the world, think that this issue is important. Let us have a swift process please, and let us hope that the Secretary of State will win the day with this argument.

I thank the hon. Gentleman, and I am grateful to him for mentioning the Churches and the NGOs, because I meant to pick up on what my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) said about those. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that there is even more support for these moves than we might have thought. We got a very good vote—139, I think—in the first committee, and 153 votes for the resolution. That is about three quarters of the membership of the United Nations. It has indeed been a cross-party, cross-faiths supported movement, and we will certainly get on with it as fast as we can.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her energy on this subject, but is she aware that in Africa one of the biggest suppliers of weapons is the People’s Republic of China? Will she invite our embassy there to seek to monitor that, and to put on the public record what we know about that huge new growth industry in a country that is not democratic and not really much interested in solving this problem?

My right hon. Friend is right to say that there is concern. One of the things that remains a source of some concern, and that we will continue to work on, is that although only the United States voted against the proposal, there is less involvement that we would like to see from other major arms exporters—not only China, but Russia, Pakistan, India and some of the Arab countries. It is important that the support that is built in taking forward the treaty should bring in the major arms exporters. One of the things that I hope and believe will help with that is the involvement of the arms industry itself, which understands the dangers of the unregulated trade.

Does the Foreign Secretary not accept that under successive Governments, the United Kingdom has had one of the strictest arms control regimes in the world, and that Britain’s defence industries make a huge contribution to the defence not only of this country, but of our allies? Those who are engaged in Britain’s defence industry—some 300,000 of our fellow citizens—are engaged in a noble effort, which should be supported by the House.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we have had stringent controls on the export of arms—quite rightly—under successive Governments. He is also correct to say that there is a right to self-defence, and that there is a legitimate trade. One of the excellent things about the initiative that we are taking forward is that it focuses, with the support of the existing industry, on the real dangers of unregulated trade.