[Relevant documents: First Joint Report from the Committees on Arms Export Controls, on Scrutiny of Arms Export Controls (2009): UK Strategic Export Controls Annual Report 2007, Quarterly Reports for 2008, licensing policy and review of export control legislation, HC 178, and the Government response, Cm 7698.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mary Creagh.)
It is a pleasure again to introduce a debate on our Committees’ report on arms export controls, the Government’s response, and related matters, but first, may I say how pleased I am to see you in the Chair, Mr. Pope? I am trying to think of a good reason why you, and not someone else, are in the Chair, but I am pleased to see you. I do not know whether you chose 5 November as the date for this debate, but it is an interesting choice.
I thank my colleagues on the four Select Committees: the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Defence Committee, the International Development Committee and what is now the Business and Enterprise Committee, but last year was the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee. Colleagues on all four Committees have worked incredibly hard to produce, again, a unanimous report, and I am grateful for that work. I am also grateful to the staff of the four Select Committees who served us so admirably, and particularly to our Clerk.
Thanks also go to the officials of the Departments that have had the great pleasure of responding to our questions over the past 12 months. I also thank the many individuals and organisations who submitted written evidence, and particularly those who appeared before the Committees as witnesses. We had three evidence sessions this year. One of those sessions was with the then Economic and Business Minister with responsibility for export controls, my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, South (Ian Pearson), and officials from what was then the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. We also heard evidence from the then Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), and officials from the counter-proliferation department at the FCO. Finally, we heard from non-governmental organisations and defence manufacturers in the form of the United Kingdom Working Group on Arms, which is essentially made up of Saferworld, Amnesty International UK, Oxfam GB, and the Export Group for Aerospace and Defence, or EGAD. I thank them all. I also thank the Minister for being here to respond to our debate.
Let me say at the beginning, as I always do, that the Committees recognise, acknowledge and compliment the Government on their significant progress over the years on arms export control policy. The system today is completely different from what it was when I first entered the House. In fact, when I first entered it, I did not know what the system was because we were not told. There has been enormous progress in recent years, and the Government deserve credit for that.
We value the greater transparency and accountability, particularly given the current focus on trying to secure an international arms trade treaty. We acknowledge the Government’s leadership in that area, and support them. Having said that, it is natural to use this opportunity to identify some areas where there are still differences of opinion, sometimes significant, between our Committees and the Government. I shall select a few areas, and I know that my colleagues will pick up others.
Let us start with extraterritoriality. Over the years, the Government have extended extraterritorial controls on brokering, and we welcome that. They have done so for a good reason, and I cannot find better words than those chosen by the Government in their response to our last report. They said that the case for extending extraterritorial controls on the arms trade was
“to ensure that unscrupulous traders cannot pursue deals that concern the UK simply by carrying out the business from another country.”
That is a clear, explicit statement. It is not good enough for one country simply to say that it will not license arms exports for a particular end user. It would be more sensible if countries took cognisance of the fact that that is not effective, because the trader could simply hop on a train or plane and do the same deal elsewhere. The Government’s case for extraterritorial controls for UK brokers is that if we do not want them to pursue deals from the UK, we do not want them to do so from any other country either. That is an admirable summary of why we should have robust controls regarding UK brokers overseas.
From April, controls on the brokering of small arms and light weapons have been extended to cover the activities of UK persons when operating offshore. Previously, extraterritorial controls had not applied to small arms in such circumstances. The Committees welcome that change, for which we have argued for some time. Let us not forget that small arms and light weapons are today’s weapons of mass destruction. Someone is killed every minute as a result of conflict involving small arms—500,000 people a year. The weapons that kill most people are precisely those, so extending extraterritorial controls on UK brokers who deal in such weapons is a welcome development of Government policy. It has never made sense to exclude small arms from such controls.
However, as we have previously argued, surely the Government’s logic should be the same as that of the Committees—that all trade in goods on the military list should be brought within such extraterritorial controls. I said last year that the Government had outsourced policy making, but I shall be more charitable. They took the sensible view that NGOs and defence manufacturers are active partners in developing arms export control policy, and that it was sensible for them to ask whether NGOs and defence manufacturers—EGAD—could get together to consider ways of extending extraterritorial brokering controls to other items on the military list.
In our report, we said that the Government should set a deadline for those discussions, which were to result in draft proposals. Their response was that they had received a proposal, as we knew—it was delivered in the summer—and that they intended to respond to it formally by the end of October. It is now November and to the best of my knowledge we have not had the Government’s response. Will the Minister tell the House whether the Government have yet sent their formal response to the proposal by the NGOs and defence manufacturers on the further extension of extraterritorial controls, and if not, why not?
We also recommended that the Government extend category B—that is what we are discussing—to include anti-vehicle land mines, as both the NGOs and EGAD had said that there was a valid case for doing so. In response to our report, the Government said that they would consider that, so will the Minister tell us their timetable for re-examining whether anti-vehicle land mines should be placed in category B?
Talk of extraterritoriality naturally takes us to the wider issue of brokers. For the third year in a row—it may be more than three years—the Committees have recommended in the report the establishment of a register of arms brokers. Previously, in oral evidence, the Government had conceded that the principle of a register of arms brokers had certain advantages, but they raised the question whether the administrative burden of introducing such a system would justify the benefit. However, I was pleased to see that in the Government response to our report, they said that they would be happy to consider the issue again. I welcome that, as I am sure other colleagues do, not least because the Committees visited Ukraine—I shall come to that visit again in a moment—and our experience there demonstrated, as we say in the report, the need for a register of brokers. Perhaps now is the time to explain.
A few years ago, Saferworld—one of the NGOs that has been very actively involved in putting its views to our Committees, for which we are grateful—invited a group of Ukrainian parliamentarians to come to the UK to observe our system of parliamentary scrutiny and to learn how parliamentarians here were involved in holding the Government to account for arms export control policy. The Committees met our colleagues from Ukraine and we had a useful visit.
Earlier this year, at the invitation of the Foreign Office, three members of the Committees—the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow), who is not here, and I—visited Kiev. It was a return visit, essentially as part of the Foreign Office’s commendable outreach programme, to enable us to have discussions with parliamentarians, officials and civil servants in Kiev about arms export controls and parliamentary scrutiny. At one of those meetings, the Ukrainian deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs happened to hand over a piece of paper that we discovered, when we subsequently had it translated, was essentially a list of UK brokers operating from Ukraine. Of course, Ukraine inherited a massive amount of former Soviet military equipment, and Ukraine itself is a major manufacturer and exporter of arms, so that list of UK brokers was of some interest. That matter is being examined.
My point is that the list seemed to be—how can I phrase this tactfully? It was not clear that our diplomatic representatives in Kiev were aware that such lists existed and were so easily accessible; I think that that is fair to say. That confirmed our view that if we are seriously to get a grip on international brokering of arms, it would be extremely helpful if there was a register of UK arms brokers, so that the UK knew which individuals and companies it was dealing with.
Has the hon. Gentleman ever heard a conclusive argument against having a register of arms brokers, and is it not interesting that in Ukraine, members of the Rada were unaware that they had a register? I remember questioning them when the Defence Committee was in Ukraine, and they were unaware that there was a register in Ukraine. I have yet to hear a substantial argument that says that there are good reasons not to have a register. Administrative costs or the bother of administering a register cannot be the only reason.
I do not know whether there is a register of Ukrainian arms exporters in Ukraine. All I know is that we were given a list of names of UK brokers who had been licensed to export from Ukraine. We were seeking reassurance. There was no criticism of Ukrainian foreign policy at all; that is a matter for Ukraine. We were seeking assurance that if those UK brokers were engaged in arms deals, they were in no way breaking UK law. That was the basis of our interest and that is why names are useful, because we can then check what those people are doing. I have not heard a powerful argument against a list of brokers other than the cost of setting it up and administering it, but the Minister may wish to say more on that later.
My hon. Friend is dealing with the issue of Ukraine, where there are vast numbers of arms left over from the Soviet Union. Was he confident that the Government of Ukraine had any accurate inventory of what arms existed in the country before brokers arrived there to buy and resell them?
I emphasise that our purpose was not to examine Ukraine’s policy in relation to its domestic affairs. Our concern was to discuss parliamentary scrutiny with fellow parliamentarians. However, in the case that I have identified, in which we knew—were advised—that UK brokers were licensed to export arms from Ukraine, our concern was to be reassured that those people were operating within UK legislation, and of course if they were not, action would need to be taken. I am afraid that I cannot answer my hon. Friend’s question; I do not know the answer.
The issue that that point raises for the Government is that embassies and diplomatic posts should be actively engaged in examining what is happening with UK arms brokers operating overseas. I would like to ask the Minister a direct question. Subsequent to the event that I have described, or as a result of any other information, have discussions been held on the role that our embassies and diplomatic posts could play in obtaining the co-operation of foreign Governments in helping the UK to police our brokers? We need to have that knowledge and information to ensure that UK brokers are operating within UK law.
Let me move on to re-exports. There are many ways in which individuals can circumvent arms export controls or try to do so. Clearly, one is to operate entirely out of the country. We need to address that problem, and increasingly we are doing that. Another issue arises if UK exports are sold to a country and then re-exported to another, third country that may be subject to an embargo in some form. I am thinking of exports to Burma or Guinea—Guinea is the most recent example that springs to mind.
The Committees have repeatedly made the point that it should be a standard requirement of licensing that export contracts for goods on the military list contain a clause to prevent re-export to a destination subject to either a UN or an EU embargo. The most important issue in relation to arms export controls is end use—where the weapons end up and who has the right to use them. The rest, in a sense, is peripheral. The ultimate end use of the weapons—how they are used—determines the outcome. Self-evidently, that is about stopping weapons getting into the hands of individuals who might use them for internal oppression or external aggression. As I said, it is the ultimate end use that matters. Therefore, it seems to us that if a licence is granted for an arms export to a particular country, it is very sensible to have a clear commitment that will prevent re-export to an embargoed destination.
I want to draw a link between two parts of the hon. Gentleman’s speech that he has not linked. Is he aware of a report in The Guardian, the substance of which is that arms were exported from Ukraine to Guinea, which has an international embargo on it? I am not in any way suggesting that UK arms exporters were involved in that, but the importance of what the hon. Gentleman is saying about preventing arms from being re-exported to countries where an embargo is in place is surely re-emphasised by that story?
The case of Guinea provides a powerful argument for an international arms trade treaty rather than its being a re-export issue. The press report alleges that one country exported to Guinea when it was under a regional arms embargo. A regional embargo on arms exports to Guinea was imposed in the last week or so, so that matter seems to provide the case for an international arms trade treaty and is not strictly a re-export issue.
Let me give an example of a re-export issue that came up the last time we debated this. Some years ago, the UK exported aircraft to India, and there were rumours in the press that India was then going to re-export them to Burma. As it happened, that did not occur. If the UK feels that it is wrong to grant an export licence for arms to Burma, which it clearly does, and it is the subject of an embargo—we do not export arms to Burma—presumably UK policy should be to try to prevent any re-export of arms to Burma from a third country. Therefore, the whole case for a re-export clause is precisely to be consistent about that.
The Government have previously rejected our recommendation on that matter for two reasons. The first relates to the difficulty of enforcement. There are always difficulties in enforcing laws. We spend a fair amount of time in this place passing legislation that, if we are frank about it, we know is not always enforced 100 per cent. Indeed, 50 per cent. or perhaps even 10 per cent. would be a success. Enforcing legislation, therefore, is always difficult. If there were a re-export clause in a licence agreement that said an applicant could not export to an embargoed destination, that would make it perfectly clear to the applicant and the recipient what the Government felt was appropriate.
At the end of the day, we may not be talking about going to court over the matter. If an applicant exports to country A with a re-export clause that says that country A shall not export to an embargoed destination, and country A goes ahead and does that, I assume that the British Government would say, “Don’t anyone come rushing to us in the near future, saying can we please have a licence to country A, because you won’t get it.” So, the clause does not have to be enforced by going to court. It can be enforced by the simple message that, “If you breach this re-export commitment to which you have signed, then, sorry, no more arms export licences.”
The second reason that the Government give for their unhappiness with the re-export clause relates to the risk assessment. It is the case that there is a risk assessment under which licences are considered. The argument is that the risk assessment is sufficient. So, when an applicant is exporting to a country, they always ask the question, “What is the risk that that country will re-export to an embargoed destination?” The answer will help to form their decision. The Government will argue, “If we had any fear that that might take place, we probably would not grant the licence.” The truth of the matter is that risk assessments are sometimes inaccurate. We exported aircraft to India and it was rumoured—based on a fair amount of evidence—that there was serious consideration of India re-exporting to Burma. Our Committee genuinely does not see any disadvantage in having a re-export clause. In fact, it believes that there are major advantages in such a clause being introduced.
Several EU countries, namely France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain and Sweden, use re-export controls to some degree. Will the Minister say when the Government will report back to the Committees on their assessment of whether the introduction of non-re-export clauses would enhance the effectiveness of the licensing process? I know that I mentioned a number of countries, but let me just pick on France. Will the Minister say how effective France’s non-re-export clause provision is? We have a common code on arms exports in the European Union, but that does not mean that we all do the same thing; we do not. The code is interpreted differently by member states. None the less, there is a real issue that other countries in the EU have approached the matter differently, and I would be interested to hear from the Government why we have it right and they have it wrong.
Let me return to the issue of the international arms trade treaty. Light weapons worth some £27 million appeared in Guinea. The press said that they had possibly come from Ukraine. However, those arms arrived in Guinea despite the fact that an embargo had been imposed by the Economic Community of West African States: so, the region had imposed an arms embargo on Guinea. Clearly, individual countries or regions can adopt particular policies, but if it is possible, the arms brokers will find a way around them and continue their activities. Therefore, countries have to act individually, as we do, but acting collectively is much more effective. That was the ambition for an international arms trade treaty that was launched about a decade ago. The demand for such a treaty has been effectively supported by our Government.
As one would expect, we have argued that if we are to have a treaty, it should be comprehensive, enforceable and as strong as possible. I am pleased that the Government, in their response to our report, agreed with our conclusions and confirmed that they were working—as we know that they are—with partners in civil society and industry to build up support for an arms trade treaty.
During our last debate, I noted that in December 2008, a large majority of Governments—131—voted in favour of a UN General Assembly resolution that established an open-ended working group on the arms trade treaty. The only state to vote against the resolution at the time was the United States, with 19 countries abstaining. I understand that last week, states at the UN voted overwhelmingly in favour of negotiating a strong and robust ATT, with 153 in favour, 19 still abstaining and one voting against, which was Zimbabwe. As Members know, the United States under the new Administration is strongly in favour of an arms trade treaty.
I should like to update my hon. Friend. Members of the Foreign Affairs Committee were at the United Nations last week, and we had discussions with a number of people. I will not reveal the conversations because they were confidential, but there was a level of optimism that progress is being made on the arms trade treaty. The Obama Administration’s shift away from the approach of the Bush Administration is clearly an important part of that.
I am grateful to the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee for his comments. Concern has been expressed—particularly by the non-governmental organisations—about the fact that decisions at the UN diplomatic conference in 2012 are to be taken on the basis of consensus. The concerns arise from the fact that the word consensus could be interpreted to mean the lowest common denominator—a unanimous decision that is not very effective. For example, is it an arms trade treaty that will be acceptable to Zimbabwe? If that were the case, that would not be a particularly effective treaty. Does the Minister share the concern of the NGOs on the scope of the ATT, and the risk that the term consensus might be interpreted in that particular way?
Our comments on arms exports to Israel and Sri Lanka were the part of the report that attracted the most media coverage. I am conscious that other colleagues wish to speak in the debate, and I know that they will want to touch on those matters. Suffice it to say that the basis of our concerns was that in certain circumstances, UK weapons might be exported to countries that use them to the great detriment of the civilian population. This is a general issue, but Israel and Sri Lanka are two recent examples.
Making a decision about whether to grant an arms export licence involves guessing about the future. In fairness, the process is more rigorous than the word “guess” suggests, but it involves making an estimate about the end use of the arms which, as I have said, is the only thing that matters. We are becoming increasingly concerned with events such as those in Gaza, Sri Lanka and elsewhere. We must ask whether we are being sufficiently robust and doing everything possible to ensure that licences are not granted if there is a significant risk that civilians might be affected—in the two cases I mentioned, large numbers of civilians were involved.
In conclusion, the Government have made progress over the years and we have acknowledged that. Nevertheless, some real concerns remain, and I look forward to the Minister’s response to the specific questions that I have raised. If he feels that he will not have time to answer any of those questions this afternoon, we would be happy to receive his replies in writing.
It is always a pleasure to follow the Chairman of the Committee on Arms Export Controls, the hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry). He made an extremely pertinent contribution, and will be glad to know that he raised all the points that I was going to make. As always on such occasions, one is delighted to feed off the crumbs from the rich man’s table.
I will start with one important matter that the hon. Gentleman did not touch on—the fact that in this Committee, which is responsible for scrutinising Government policy, we are dependent on obtaining timely sight of proposed secondary legislation, before that legislation comes into effect. As the House knows, a great deal of the legislative and policy framework for arms export controls lies in secondary legislation. Our concerns were made clear to the Government in paragraph 11 of our report:
“We therefore repeat our recommendation that, in future, the Government should ensure that interested parties have at least two months to comment on drafts of secondary legislation implementing the Government’s conclusions on the outcome of its Review of Export Controls.”
I am disappointed in the Government’s response to that critically important point. They have given us no assurance that they will meet our requirements for being able to view the draft secondary legislation at least two months ahead of its implementation. In a very weak way, they merely responded:
“We will endeavour in future to give stakeholders as much time as is possible to provide views in the event of further changes to the controls.”
I do not think that is good enough, and it does not enable the Committee to discharge its responsibilities.
The hon. Member for Kingswood referred to Ukraine. I shall not elaborate further on that issue, other than to say that it was a serious matter for the members of the four Select Committees, particularly the Foreign Affairs Committee. It is unfortunate if circumstances arise where a foreign country has a list of UK arms brokers who have been given licences, yet the UK post in that country is unaware of the contents of the list. We have taken careful note of that matter in the Foreign Affairs Committee and the other Committees.
There is one further point that I want to pursue. We asked an important question of the Government when we obtained the list. We wanted to be satisfied that there had been no breach of UK legislation in terms of those exports from the Ukraine by UK brokers. Again, I am disappointed in the Government’s reply. It is now six months after our visit, yet we still have no clear statement as to whether there has been a breach of UK export controls by those brokers. The Government say that they are investigating the matter but that the process is not yet complete. I would have expected the Government to come up with a clear answer to the Committee’s important question on that matter.
I turn briefly to the issue of extraterritoriality, which the Chairman of the Committee dealt with extremely well. For years, the four Committees have been out in front in that policy area, with the Government coming rather ponderously behind. It seems to be a half-baked policy involving a situation where some items on the military list are subject to extraterritoriality, and some are not. Do we accept the principle that an individual arms broker or arms exporter should be able to get outside UK jurisdiction, make sales that would be criminal offences if made within the UK, and get away with those sales without committing a criminal offence in the UK? If that situation is not acceptable, it follows logically that it must be the same for all items on the military list. That is what the four Committees have been saying.
We are glad that the Government now have what we understand is an agreed proposal from the non-governmental organisations and the arms export companies. We noted that the Government were due to respond to those proposals by the end of October. We are now beyond that, and we look to the Government to produce their response to those proposals quickly.
There is an anomalous position on anti-vehicle land mines. I applaud the current Government for getting in front of most of the rest of the world as far as anti-personnel land mines are concerned—that is absolutely to their credit. However, having got in front on that issue, why do we lag behind on anti-vehicle land mines? I do not understand why the Government have difficulty in extending category B trade controls to this classification of weapons. The extension to category B is not only sought by the Committee, it is sought by NGOs and by the industry. Arms exporters have no difficulty with the extension of category B to anti-vehicle land mines. I am puzzled as to why the Government reply, rather lamely:
“The Government will look again at whether anti-vehicle land mines should be placed into Category B of the trade controls.”
I also want to look at the important issue of controls over weapons in transit. The Foreign Affairs Committee is familiar with that issue, and it was a significant feature of our inquiry into arms exports to Sierra Leone. We asked the Government a very specific question: how often had they seized goods in transit under the powers that existed then? I have read their reply carefully, but as far as I can see, they have totally ducked our very specific question; perhaps the Minister can tell us why they have been silent.
On the register of arms brokers, I fully endorse what the hon. Member for Kingswood said. Again, it is rather strange that the Government are unable to meet the Committees’ recommendations. Ministers have effectively conceded the case for an international register of UK arms brokers. In paragraph 48 of our report, we quote the then Minister of State at the former Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, the right hon. Member for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks), who told us that his Department was
“not opposed to the idea of a register of arms brokers in principle”.
In their response to our report, the Government make the same point, so we all agree in principle, but Ministers do not seem to want to jump the fence. The Government response includes comments such as
“The Government will be happy to look at this issue again once we have assessed the effectiveness of other initiatives…It is right that the Government takes the time to properly assess the effect of these new initiatives”
and so on. Given that the Government have accepted that a register would be desirable, why is it taking so long to agree that one as a matter of policy?
I simply do not understand the problem that is being erected on the grounds that a register would apparently impose a burden on legitimate businesses. If there was a register of approved UK brokers, it would actually lessen that burden because brokers making successive applications would not have to have them dealt with from scratch every time that they submitted them, because those brokers would be on the approved register. That would actually reduce the burden on legitimate businesses, rather than increase it, as the Government have suggested.
I am in no doubt that re-export clauses are very desirable, and if I were in the Minister’s shoes, I would seize such a policy with both hands. Under the present system, a Minister takes a risk in relying on the fact that officials have got the risk assessment right and that a particular item will not be re-exported. If that judgment is wrong—and anybody can make a wrong judgment—it is the Minister who has to face the music. If there is a re-export clause in the contract, however, they can reasonably tell the House, “I’ve done everything I possibly can to prevent re-export. I put a re-export clause in the contract. Now I can litigate against the company in question.” When he is in his bath, the Minister might like to reflect on which policy would suit him best.
On end-use undertakings, I found the Government’s response incredibly laid-back in one respect. In the course of our inquiry, the Committees exposed a fundamental factual error in internal Ministry of Defence guidance. In response to paragraph 73 of our report, the Government said that the original internal Ministry of Defence guidance
“inadvertently included advice to Project Teams which suggested that end-user undertakings were not required between EU Member States.”
If internally incorrect guidance is going around a Department that deals with licensing exports from this country, I should have thought that the first thing that people would want to do would be to correct that guidance at a rate of knots. In their reply, however, the Government simply say that they will make an amendment
“pending the updating of the entire section on international business”,
which will no doubt take several months, if not longer. Perhaps the Minister can explain why the Government are so relaxed and laid-back about correcting this serious error, which is running around in internal Ministry of Defence guidance.
I have one last point on controls, although the Minister will be relieved to hear that I am now coming to a “sunlit uplands” section of my speech, in which I can say that we are on all fours with the Government. On dual use, the Committees recommended that the Government carry out independent research into how effective the controls are. As we all know, this is a serious issue, which brings us to potential chemical and biological nasties, so it is important that we have some independent assessment of how effective our controls are. The Government accepted our recommendation and commissioned a study, which they told us was carried out earlier this year, but the Committees are anxious to see the results. I do not know why the Government have simply responded by saying:
“The results of this study will be reported to the Committees and made public in due course.”
Why does it have to be “in due course”? This important study was carried out earlier this year, and one would have hoped that the results could have been made available to the Committees immediately.
The right hon. Gentleman might be interested to know that one of the phrases that continuously comes up in the response is, “We will look at it again.” Perhaps the phrase “in due course” takes us a little nearer to getting something done than does the phrase “We will look at it again.” We might be getting closer to the event.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We are on all fours with the Government on this issue, in so far as we asked for an independent study to be carried out, our recommendation was accepted and the study was carried out. Rather tantalisingly, however, and for reasons best known to them, the Government will release the study only “in due course”, whatever that means. Perhaps the Minister will cheer us all up by saying that the study will be in the Vote Office by the end of the debate—I say that as a hint to the civil servants sitting behind him.
On the arms trade treaty, the hugely important and wonderful news is that the new American Administration have carried out a 180° U-turn on the previous Administration’s policy. For my money, the single worst vote that the American Administration have cast since the foundation of the United Nations was the lone vote that the last Bush Administration cast against the rest of the world on the arms trade treaty. Happily, that is now merely history, and as the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), said, we were enormously encouraged by the total change of atmosphere and policy direction when we were in Washington last week. We had an extremely valuable meeting with Mrs. Ellen Tauscher, who is the new Under-Secretary responsible for arms control in the State Department.
On the arms trade treaty, too, I commend the Government, because they have been right out in front of pretty well every other country. As they go forward, however, there will inevitably be a tension between maximising support for the eventual treaty and minimising the watering down that will have to take place to get the treaty agreed by the largest possible number of states. At present, we are in the foothills at the start of the negotiations, and all that I would say to the Minister is that although I am sure that the Government and all our expert people in the various Departments will do their utmost to achieve the maximum support, let us please have the minimum possible watering down.
I want now to discuss one or two countries, starting with China. I am delighted that the Government are taking a firm line on maintaining the arms export embargo on China. China’s human rights record remains appalling. It is not every day of the week that I rush to applaud the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, but I am delighted to do so on this occasion and heartily agree with his recent statement:
“I think it’s reasonable for us in Europe, if we are going to make a move on the arms embargo, that we see clear steps forward in individual and political rights and freedom of expression in China, which sparked our concern in the first place.”
Well said, Secretary of State: I could not agree more strongly.
My only minor quibble with the Government’s policy on arms exports to China arises with the coverage given to the Chinese expedition to the recent arms trade fair in London this September, which was billed as the largest defence fair in the world. More than 40 countries were represented there, with 1,300 exhibitors selling everything from machine guns, bullets and tanks to medical equipment. I noted that, at the invitation of UK Trade and Investment, there was a Chinese delegation, comprising nine members of the military, at that four-day event. The UKTI spokesman, whom I should not dream of naming, because he is a civil servant, and I should not want to cause him any embarrassment—he was only doing his job for the Government—said of the delegation that they would not be meeting any of the major defence contractors and would focus instead on humanitarian and disaster relief equipment. The spectacle of those nine carefully hand-picked top military people in the Chinese delegation wandering around the arms fair for four days, carefully averting their eyes from anything among the 1,300 exhibits other than humanitarian and disaster relief equipment, stretched my credulity somewhat. Leaving that aside, the policy is excellent.
I am very glad that we are taking strong steps to impose an arms embargo on the dismal new military regime that has sadly now installed itself in Guinea, under army Captain Camara. I have one question for the Minister. As he knows, there was a peaceful demonstration in Conakry, in which some 150 peaceful demonstrators were killed, and dozens of women were gang raped by the so-called presidential guard. I read Amnesty International’s report, which said that armoured personnel carriers manufactured by a South African subsidiary of Alvis, a British company, but now a subsidiary of BAE systems, were involved in that terrible humanitarian crime. I should be grateful to know whether the Minister confirms that that equipment was present there.
I want to deal quickly with Israel and Iran. I welcome the recent written statement by the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, in which she used the provisions of the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 to stop UK financial services contacts with the Iranian bank Mellat and the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines. As she said, that was done because both those entities have been involved in transporting goods for Iran’s ballistic missiles and nuclear programmes. That Government initiative is excellent and absolutely justified, but taking the initiative in arms control is no good if we take it entirely by ourselves: what steps are the Government taking to make certain that similar measures will be taken by the other EU member states, the United States—if it has not done so already—and other possible major users of ships, such as the Japanese and Koreans, who might make ships available to Iran for the shipments? That is something we do not want them to do.
I welcome the revocation by the Government of five export licences for the Israeli navy Saar 4.5 corvettes. The grounds for doing so were set out in the letter of 22 July from the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), to the Chairman of the Committees on Arms Exports Controls. He explained that if it had been known that they were to be used for coastal bombardment purposes, those licences would not have been granted under criteria 2 or 3. Before I make my policy point to the Minister, it is worth explaining criteria 2 and 3, as stated by the Foreign Secretary in his written statement of 21 April. Criterion 2 states that
“we will not issue an export licence where there is a clear risk that the export might be used for internal repression”
and criterion 3 states that
“we will not issue licences for exports which would provoke or prolong armed conflicts or aggravate existing tensions or conflicts in the country of final destination”.—[Official Report, 21 April 2009; Vol. 491, c. 8W.]
The Minister of State’s letter of 22 July to the Chairman of the four Committees states that there are in fact a total of 182 licences for Israel. The Government have revoked five, so presumably there are 177 outstanding. My question to the Minister is whether he and the Government are satisfied that each and every one of the remaining 177 licences is valid and in compliance with both criteria 2 and 3 under the EU agreed consolidated criteria.
In considering arms sales to Israel, did any of the Committees consider the question of nuclear technology, which has been exported to Israel for many years, from countries that are signatories to the non-proliferation treaty and are therefore bound by it not to export technology to non-signatory states?
I do not think that we have considered that specific issue in the four Committees, because we are charged with addressing policy on exports from the UK, and the British Government’s policy, but the hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly valid point, and it is incumbent on all signatories of the NPT to comply with its provisions in all respects. I am sure that any evidence he has to the contrary will be put before the forthcoming NPT review conference.
I want quickly to make some remarks about Libya. Its regime is the same today as it was at the time of Lockerbie; it is the regime that murdered, in cold blood, WPC Yvonne Fletcher, who was shot from the window of the Libyan embassy in St. James’s square in London. It is the same regime that launched the Eksund, which was arrested by the French customs authorities in French territorial waters, with 200 tonnes of arms and explosives. It was not the first such shipment, and there are today bereaved families in Northern Ireland and on the UK mainland who have lost loved ones as a result of Libyan explosives and weapons brought into this country. In those circumstances, the issue is one of profound sensitivity. I am yet to be persuaded that we should engage in arms exports with Libya. In response to my question, the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said:
“All arms exports to Libya are assessed on a case by case basis against the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria. We take into account fully the prevailing circumstances in Libya, particularly in respect of the human rights situation in that country, in making these assessments.”—[Official Report, 2 November 2009; Vol. 498, c. 660W.]
The question that I want to put to the Minister today is: will he assure the House that in the case-by-case consideration of the arms exports to Libya the Government have not and will not use arms export permissions as a sweetener for wider commercial dealings between the UK and Libya? That is my question and I would like the Minister to answer.
The human rights situation in Sri Lanka is still very serious and, indeed, deteriorating; there is not only the issue of displaced Tamils but the extremely worrying reports of the Sri Lankan Government’s increased use of semi-dictatorial powers, including the ruthless suppression of free media. The UK Government need to look carefully at whether there should be future arms sales to Sri Lanka.
This will be the last report by our four Committees that can be debated in this Parliament. It is for the House as a whole to judge whether we have served it well. If the House concludes that we have done our job properly and effectively, I suggest that that is in no small measure due to the quality of the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Kingswood. The hon. Gentleman has shown, throughout this Parliament, enormous diligence and thoroughness. He has been always inclusive, very patient with us and unfailingly courteous. His chairmanship of the Committee has been exemplary.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley). May I begin by endorsing his remarks, with which I completely concur, about my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) and his work as Chairman of the Committee in this Parliament?
I want to concentrate on only one area of the report and the Government response. I do so because over many years it has received insufficient attention in debates in this country. It is the situation in Sri Lanka. Recently, at the culmination of the 20-year military conflict between the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, otherwise known as the Tamil Tigers, we saw huge demonstrations in the centre of London and diaspora communities all over the world. I declare an interest; large numbers of my constituents are of Sri Lankan Tamil origin and have families in that part of the world.
Given that some representatives of organisations that support the Sri Lankan Government label anybody who raises concerns about Sri Lanka as some kind of mouthpiece for the Tamil Tigers, I want to make it clear that what I say today is based on my total opposition to terrorism, to the assassination of political leaders, to blowing up buses and to killing children. That is my position whether those acts are carried out by the Tamil Tigers, the Irish Republican Army, Hamas or Hezbollah. That is my view generally around the world. Therefore, I will not take kindly to any criticism after I have made this speech from people who label those who raise such concerns.
Having said that, it is important to say that the report must be put in the context of other reports. I refer to the Foreign Affairs Committee’s human rights annual report, which was published recently and had a section on Sri Lanka, to which there was also a Government response. With your permission, Mr. Pope, I intend to refer to both reports.
The Committees on Arms Export Controls concluded that it was appropriate for the Government to continue to assess licences to Sri Lanka on a case-by-case basis. However, after reviewing the evidence and looking at the fact that there seem to have been significant arms sales to Sri Lanka for a large number of years, we recommended a review of all extant licences to Sri Lanka. We called on the Government to give our Committees an assessment of the UK-supplied weapons, ammunition, parts and components used in the conflict either by the Sri Lankan armed forces or by the Tamil Tigers.
We received a response in two forms. The Government response to paragraph 126 of our report said:
“We note the Committees’ conclusion…and welcome this endorsement of our approach”—
the case-by-case policy. On the review of exports, the Government response is interesting; it simply refers us to a letter from the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that refers to the FCO review. If we look closely at that letter, we see that it does not answer the question. It simply says that the Government have revoked
“a number of extant export licences in the light of changed circumstances—including replacement components for military helicopters and telecoms equipment.”
It does not say that military helicopters or their components supplied by the UK were or were not used in that conflict by the Sri Lankan armed forces. It does not say that telecoms equipment or its components supplied by the UK were or were not used. It is silent on those questions. Will the Minister say clearly whether UK-supplied helicopters, or their components, or telecoms equipment, or its components, were used by the Sri Lankan armed forces in the conflict with the Tamil Tigers?
The same letter refers to press coverage that appeared over the summer. It goes into some detail to explain why licences that had been approved in September 2006 for armoured vehicles and machine gun components, and in February 2006 for semi-automatic pistols, had not been revoked. According to the Government assessment, that equipment appears not to have played any role or any significant role—it is not absolutely clear—in the conflict. If the Government can make an explicit assessment for items that they are not revoking, why can they not explicitly tell us their reasons for revoking licences for other items? We need an answer to that question.
The conflict in Sri Lanka ended nearly six months ago, but for an estimated 280,000 people the conflict is not over. In the light of that, should we still be providing military assistance of any kind to the Government of Sri Lanka? Why are we doing so?
The Foreign Affairs Committee human rights report concluded that the Government were correct, in their response to our report, to include Sri Lanka in next year’s report as a “country of concern”. That is notwithstanding the regrettable United Nations human rights council vote in May, when it chose not to consider the situation in Sri Lanka—a disgraceful decision. The Government were on the side of the good guys, but unfortunately countries such as China, India, Egypt and others voted by a clear majority not to refer Sri Lanka for consideration on the basis of the human rights situation there, saying that it was an internal matter for Sri Lanka. That is a damaging indication that the UN system, and the new UN human rights council, is not fulfilling aspirations that were set when the council replaced the discredited UN human rights commission a few years ago.
What the hon. Gentleman says has serious implications for the Government. He is in the privileged position of being Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and a member of the quartet of Committees. Is he saying that he has had evidence that the Government have given military assistance or allowed military equipment to be passed on to the Sri Lankan authorities? Is training for Sri Lankan military advisers being given in this country, or are UK military advisers acting in that country? His demanding an answer from the Minister leads me to believe that the hon. Gentleman would not have asked the question if he did not know the answer, and from the way that he phrased the question, the answer must be that there had been a situation in which that had happened.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the report. An annexe sets out information sent by the organisation Saferworld, which listed arms exports year by year from the UK to Sri Lanka. We were told by the then Foreign Office Minister, now the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), that there had been a pause in those exports as a result of the conflict. However, that pause came later—in 2008, not 2006. The issue raised when questioning the Minister, which is reflected in the report, is that the ceasefire established in 2002 was always tentative, breaking down and being significantly eroded; yet in most years from 2002 onwards the Government continued to allow exports of a whole range of weaponry to the Sri Lankan armed forces, including small arms, naval components, helicopter components and so on.
We might make an assessment today that the situation in a particular country is relatively safe with regard to the export of armaments; but within one, two or three years, or perhaps 10 years, those same weapons could be used by the same Government or a successor Government for repression or in an internal conflict, which would be contrary to the intention of the Government’s original decision. We must therefore be rigorous. When the Foreign Affairs Committee was discussing the matter with the Foreign Office Minister, I pointed out that we had much tougher rules with regard to Israel on such matters than we do for Sri Lanka, yet many more people died in the conflict in Sri Lanka than were killed in Gaza.
According to the Government’s October response to the Foreign Affairs Committee human rights report, more than 200,000 internally displaced persons are still being held in IDP camps in northern Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan Government do not agree with that figure. In a communication dated yesterday—presumably sent in expectation of today’s debate—the Sri Lankan Government claim that the number of people remaining in the IDP camps is much lower. They claim that there are 164,338, of whom 151,000 are in what they call zones 0 to 11 and welfare centres, 7,255 in transitional sites and 247 in what they call an elder home, giving a total of 158,990. The others, presumably, are somewhere else.
The Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster), has recently been in Sri Lanka, and has been pressing for the early release of those people. There is no prospect of their being returned to their homes soon; the situation is bleak, given the water supply, the overcrowding and the climate. That is partly because some of those areas have been mined, but also because the Sri Lankan Government seem determined to keep young men and women in screening centres and in detention.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the excessive detention of large numbers of Tamil people, particularly the non-release of young men, suggests an attempt at the repopulation of areas of Sri Lanka to prevent the continuing concentration of Tamil people in the north and east? That is a gross violation of the rights of those people, who in effect are being imprisoned by the regime in Sri Lanka.
Order. Before the hon. Member for Ilford, South continues, may I gently point him back to arms exports to Sri Lanka rather than the general human rights situation there?
I do not have any direct evidence to confirm or deny what my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North says, but it is a matter that the Foreign Office and other Departments should take up.
If, as the Government say, there is a culture of impunity in Sri Lanka, and if, as they say, there are serious human rights concerns, is it not appropriate that we should take a much more rigorous approach on future arms sales to the Sri Lankan regime? Until we are given absolute assurances about the human rights position—I almost said cast iron assurances, but that is not the right phrase to use this week—we need to be sure about the early release of all those in the IDP camps who are able to return to their homes. There should also be a policy of national reconciliation, under which the Tamil people in Sri Lanka are treated in a way that minimises the possibility of future conflict in that country.
I will take your advice, Mr. Pope, and not stray further into that subject, but I believe that Sri Lanka highlights a wider issue of British Government policy on arms exports. A country that has a democratic Government but also internal conflict, and where civil war has been ongoing for more than two decades, must necessarily be treated differently from other countries in the region or the rest of the world.
I will conclude, because I am conscious that other Members wish to contribute and will no doubt comment on other aspects of the report. It has been a pleasure to serve on the Committees on Arms Export Controls and their previous incarnation, the Quadripartite Committee, on which I served as a Member of the Select Committee on Defence. The co-operation between the four Select Committees shows the House of Commons at its best. By working together, we also learn a great deal about how government is not always joined up. It is clear that some Departments are more co-operative with their Select Committees than others and that there are sometimes delays in receiving documentation because it is caught up in the chain between one private office and another. We have also revealed over the years that tone and approach sometimes vary when questioning different Ministers from different Departments.
My message is that just as our Select Committees need to be more joined up when we work thematically, because hunting in packs might be more effective than doing so individually—hopefully, the Liaison Committee will consider that—I hope that the Government will also recognise that they should expedite their response to Committees of the House on cross-departmental issues to improve the effective scrutiny of Government policy.
I, too, welcome this debate and endorse the report that we are discussing. I will focus on one issue, but before I mention that, I want to put on record my endorsement of what my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) said and the themes of his speech. He made important points about extraterritoriality, re-export, brokers and the need for a register of UK brokers. One of his most telling points involved the question of end use. He rightly said that unless we get end use right, the rest is all a bit irrelevant, because where arms end up being used is where people die. That is what we must focus on. He was absolutely right to pay tribute to the Government and their work on the need for an arms trade treaty, but he was also right to say that there is more work to be done to bring good intentions into practice.
I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes)—the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee—said about Sri Lanka, and about the role of the Committees and Departments. I certainly agree with what he said in his tribute to the Chair of the Committees on Arms Export Controls.
When the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) began his speech by saying that the Chair of the Committees had said everything that he wanted to say, my heart sank a bit, because it is always great to hear from the right hon. Gentleman. However, although the Chair’s speech was well targeted and pertinent, he did not say everything that the right hon. Gentleman wanted to say. We are fortunate to have him on the Committees, with his forensic questioning of Ministers and others who come before us and his ability to get to the point of many issues. He showed those qualities again today, although I started to worry whether we would get too much information when he began to give my hon. Friend the Minister advice about what he should be doing in his bath. I hope that, in our next evidence session, the right hon. Gentleman does not get involved in forensic questioning on that subject, as it might lead us into rather dangerous territory.
I shall focus on the question of exports to Israel, particularly in the light of the conflict in Gaza. It is an issue on which I might be in danger of being typecast. I should declare an interest as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Palestine and as a member of the Select Committee on International Development, which has discussed arms exports to Israel not only with the Committees on Arms Export Controls, and in work with other Committees, but in our own reports and inquiries. The humanitarian position facing the peoples of the occupied territories has been an important part of our work over the past few years.
It is not surprising—indeed, it is right—that we should spend some time today considering that issue. Apart from anything else, it is topical. We are debating it in the context of the report at the same time that the United Nations General Assembly is debating the report prepared by Judge Richard Goldstone on the allegations of war crimes committed during the conflict in Gaza earlier this year. The conclusion of his inquiry is that there is evidence that war crimes were committed in Gaza by Hamas as well as Israel.
That means a lot to me, as I led a delegation to Gaza and southern Israel this February to see the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead. We were one of the first international parliamentary delegations to the area after the conflict, and certainly the first UK parliamentary delegation. Nobody could have participated in that visit and seen what we saw—the destruction of homes and the aftermath of that conflict—without feeling a powerful moral responsibility to bear witness, when they returned, to what they had seen and, perhaps most importantly, to try to do something about it, in terms of both accountability and ensuring that such a thing never happens again.
About 1,400 Palestinians died, many of them civilians, in the course of Operation Cast Lead. During that period, 13 Israelis also died, three of them civilians. We owe it to all of them to ensure that we do what we can. It is not simply a historical matter of what happened in December 2008 and January 2009. Those events were preceded by an ongoing blockade of Gaza and continuing occupation of the west bank. Israel would also argue that they were preceded by rocket attacks on Sderot and other towns in southern Israel.
Since the events of December 2008 and January 2009, the blockade has continued, as has the violence. To illustrate how important it is that we do the right thing in relation to arms export controls, I draw the Minister’s attention to the latest report from the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the occupied territories. The report says that in the past week,
“Israeli forces have continued to prohibit Palestinian access to agricultural land along the border fence and to fishing areas within three nautical miles from the sea, through firing warning shots in the direction of farmers and fishermen. During the reporting period, Israeli forces opened fire against Palestinian fisherman and farmers on at least three occasions. In addition, in three separate incidents, Israeli forces entered with tanks and bulldozers a few hundred metres into the border areas and conducted levelling operations.”
That is the latest weekly report from the UN. There is a tendency to say that conflict in Gaza ended in January 2009, but it is still going on.
I compliment my hon. Friend on the work he has done to bring about justice for the Palestinian people. Following the point made by the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), is my hon. Friend aware that the substantial Saferworld memorandum to the Committee pointed out that concerns have been expressed about arms exports to Israel for the past five or six years? The issue relates not just to the recent conflict in Gaza, but to the many Palestinian deaths during the occupation and the second intifada while we were still exporting arms and equipment—particularly naval equipment—to Israel.
My hon. Friend is right. It would be trying your patience, Mr. Pope, and going beyond the remit of this debate if we spent too long discussing what has gone on for many years. The Committees on Arms Export Controls raised concerns before Operation Cast Lead, and the predecessor Committee, the Quadripartite Committee, has raised concerns about UK policy and practice on arms exports to Israel. Concerns have certainly been raised since 2000, but they probably go back long before that.
I referred to a UN report dating from last week— 21 to 27 October—and quoted only a small piece from it, relating to fishermen off Gaza. It also mentions an increase in injuries in occupied East Jerusalem, the demolition of houses in East Jerusalem, violence by settlers in the west bank, demolition orders in the west bank, and children in Bethlehem being affected by water-borne parasites. There is also good news about opening a road to Palestinian use. Another item is about the fears of John Ging, the UN Relief and Works Agency co-ordinator for Gaza, that although we are heading for winter, essential supplies and equipment are still not getting into Gaza. He has called for an immediate opening of all Gaza border crossings before winter.
It is important to consider such matters in the light of arms exports. The Committees and I welcomed the Foreign Secretary’s statement on 21 March, which laid out how Britain was approaching its policies on arms exports to Israel, particularly in the light of Operation Cast Lead. The evidence that the Committee received from Ministers in this year’s evidence sessions has been helpful and illuminating, but concerns remain. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) said, we have had those concerns for some time. In various forums we have questioned how head-up display units produced in the UK were allowed to be exported to the USA, re-exported to Israel and used in F-16s that attacked civilian targets. We would not have exported that equipment to Israel directly if there was a risk that it would be used in that way. We allowed that situation to develop, despite warnings and a knowledge of the risks. As has been mentioned, we also allowed the export of naval equipment for the Saar corvette.
I welcome the reviews of extant export licences to Israel. Five of the 182 export licences were revoked in the light of the situation in Gaza. As the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling said, that was explained in the letter from the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), to the Committee, dated 22 July. There are still issues that we have to address. My worry is that we will keep going around in circles.
Some years ago, Britain exported equipment for armoured personnel carriers to Israel. It was exported on the understanding that it would not be used in contravention of criteria 2 and 3 of the arms export licensing criteria and so would not be used for internal repression or external aggression. It was pretty well proved that the armoured personnel carriers were used for those purposes against the Palestinians. To his credit, the then Foreign Secretary picked up on that and criticised Israel. He said that future assurances from Israel that exports would not be used for internal repression or external aggression would not be sufficient, and that Britain would look more closely at the situation and require evidence before granting further licences.
I thought about that incident when I read the Foreign Office Minister’s letter of 22 July. It gave the good news that a number of licences had been revoked because of Britain’s concerns. The penultimate paragraph stated:
“I would like to take this opportunity to reassure the Committees that we continue to rigorously apply the licensing criteria, and it was on this basis that we revoked the licences. There is no embargo in place against Israel, and all decisions continue to be taken in line with announced government policy. But clearly, the decision to revoke the five licences in question will also influence our thinking when assessing future licence applications.”
I am pleased that this will influence our thinking when considering future licence applications. However, with the background of the armoured personnel carriers, Israel’s reaction to two intifadas, the years of ongoing military activity against Palestinians and the blockade of Gaza, how did we get into the position of having to revoke extant licences if we were always rigorously assessing the risks? As my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South, said in relation to Sri Lanka, why have we not been assessing the risks?
In areas of conflict where war has been going on for years, we are obliged not only to assess things on a case-by-case basis, but to ensure that we do not fan the flames any more and do not allow military equipment produced in the UK to get there, whether directly or indirectly. We do not allow that on the other side; I do not hear anybody saying that if Palestinians are under attack from an Israeli tank, they have to defend themselves. Nobody is saying that if Palestinians want to secure arms from the UK or elsewhere, we should consider on a case-by-case basis whether they will be used for internal repression or external aggression. That is because it is said, with some justification, that to supply arms to the Palestinians would be fanning the flames. Yet we still adopt a different view when it comes to Israel.
It is interesting that the Government’s response to our report states:
“The Government notes the Committee’s conclusions that a case-by-case basis is the correct approach when assessing the granting of export licences”
to Israel. It is absolutely true that the paragraph about Israel in our report states that we agree with a case-by-case approach. However, all sorts of other things in that paragraph ask the Government to be rigorous in how they do such things, and we ask them to try to ensure that we do not get ourselves into that position again.
When the Minister sums up, I ask him not simply to tell us that reviews are going on, although that is good and I welcome it; not simply to record the fact that five out of 182 licences have been revoked, although I also welcome that; and not simply to give an undertaking that the comments made by the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling will be taken on board. I hope he will do that, but not simply that. What about the 177 licences that have not been revoked?
I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us about how the Government will assess the ongoing risk of any arms exports to Israel being used for internal repression or external aggression. What risk assessment is being done on that? What criteria do the Government bring to bear in making that risk assessment, and what confidence does he have that, in a few years’ time, we will not be having a debate such as this and recalling that while there was a question about armoured personnel carriers, from which we learned some lessons, the same thing happened again with head-up displays for F-16s and Saar corvettes? What confidence can we have that next time we have such a debate we will say that the decisions we took meant that we did not get into such a position again? We must not end up shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.
I welcome this debate. The issue was ignored for many years and we should give credit to Parliament for, in the past 10 years or so, developing the Quadripartite Committee’s parliamentary examination of exports and having proper debates on the subject once a year. That is to be welcomed and shows that pressure from the people concerned about the effects of arms exports and the long-term economic issues that accompany them are being taken seriously. I welcome the Committee’s report and the huge amount of detailed work that has gone into it.
In view of the news that has just come out of Guinea concerning the release of somebody who was involved in a coup there and the issue of human rights abuses, one has to start asking very serious questions about what at first sight might appear to be fairly low levels of arms exports of often quite low-technology equipment that can become lethal further down the line. I know this is not the subject of the debate, but I ask for there to be a serious examination of the whole philosophy behind promoting, developing and encouraging arms exports, and the development of an arms-based industry in this country.
Indeed, if we are concerned about abuses of human rights, loss of life, illegal wars and the rest of it, we need to recognise that somewhere along the line somebody has bought those weapons and that a great deal of money has been made from their manufacture. It is not good enough just to say that we are concerned about human rights around the world if we do not do something about controlling or reducing the number of arms that get into the hands of people who would do wrong to others.
We also need to consider the philosophy behind the development of that industry. There was a time when my party proudly seriously discussed an arms conversion strategy. One does not hear such words often these days, but I have a feeling they will be coming back. As more and more people view with horror the outcomes of Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Congo, Colombia, Guinea and so many other places, they might begin to think more about these issues.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) outlined the report’s specific recommendations, which I absolutely welcome: the extra territorial controls, the absolute necessity of register of arms brokers—such people make phenomenal sums of money in trading weaponry from one dodgy source to another, which ends up killing an awful lot of innocent people and causing mayhem and misery for many others—and the attempt at the non-re-export of weapons. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) talked about what is actually a fairly minor part of the whole picture. The head-up display systems that were re-exported through the United States to Israel are just one example of that particular problem. I thank him for drawing our attention to that.
There are many recommendations in the report, but I particularly want to draw attention to the concerns about anti-corruption elements and an anti-corruption strategy. This country prides itself on being firm on corruption and on dealing with any public officials or politicians who are involved with corrupt activities. It is absolutely right that we do so, and we have signed up to the OECD’s and many other guidelines on anti-corruption activities. However, our moral status in the world is seriously damaged by the decision of the former Prime Minister to halt the Serious Fraud Office’s investigation into the al-Yamamah arms deal and the huge amount of money that that involved for BAE Systems and other companies. That deal has reduced our ability to talk learnedly about the subject.
I draw hon. Members’ attention to the Saferworld memorandum that has helpfully been reprinted in the report. The memorandum outlines Saferworld’s serious concerns about human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. Although I welcome the ban on arms exports to China because of its behaviour in Tibet—I would welcome such a ban in a number of other places—it seems that we have a blind eye when it comes to Saudi Arabia, because it has vast amounts of oil and it has bought vast numbers of planes from BAE Systems. We cannot have it both ways all the time, as that would be too simple and convenient. We must be prepared to face up to that.
The other points I briefly want to make concern a number of the countries that have been mentioned. I endorse the good points that my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) made about Sri Lanka and the current treatment of the Tamil people. Although we might not now be exporting arms to Sri Lanka—I hope that we are not—the reality is that the ill treatment of the Tamil people and the method of conduct of the war in Sri Lanka are not new. The abuses of human rights there are not new; they are just more intense at the present time and subject to much more international scrutiny. I hope that the Minister will be able to address the point that if countries are undertaking some kind of internal conflict—civil war—we must ask ourselves why we are exporting arms to them. I recall meeting the late Robin Cook when he was Foreign Secretary to discuss arms exports to Indonesia at that time, because we had concerns about what was happening in East Timor—and for that matter in Aceh and other parts of the country. There are concerns that have to be recorded.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield spoke passionately and quite correctly about the situation in Israel. I repeat what I said in an intervention on him: concerns about the treatment of the Palestinian people are not in any sense new. That country has become the world’s fourth-largest arms exporter, never mind a substantial importer as well, so, although we are not necessarily directly into re-export, we are certainly into the re-export of technology and the import of technology by Israel. I think we should consider having a complete embargo on all arms trade of any sort with Israel while it continues the policy of illegal settlements in the west bank and the imprisonment of the people of Gaza, and while it flouts the rest of the world’s international law on the development of nuclear weapons. I say that even though it is not a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. I wish it were a signatory to that treaty, or at least to a nuclear weapons convention.
Submissions have been made to the Committee by many organisations, including the UK Working Group on Arms, which is made up of Amnesty International, Landmine Action, Omega Research Foundation, Oxfam and Saferworld. The group made some very good points about torture and the ultimate destination of weapons. I do not for one moment suggest that the British Government intend to allow their equipment to be used to torture people or to violate international law or human rights. However, the reality is that if there is no control over the re-export of equipment, it clearly can end up being used in that way and in violation of all kinds of international law. The statements that Amnesty International and other organisations sent before today’s debate have been extremely useful on this matter. I hope that the Minister has seriously taken on board the points and views that they have put forward.
The Government response states:
“The Government is working with the European Commission to take this forward, and has passed to the Commission a draft amendment to the existing Torture Regulation”.
It then goes on to explain what the position is, adding:
“The Government will continue to push for early adoption of the proposed revision to the Regulation. We shall keep the Committees informed of progress.”
Will the Minister tell us how far that proposal has gone and what progress is being made in that respect?
My final points concern the economy and other aspects surrounding the arms industry that Ministers and others often quote when they say what an important export earner the arms industry is for our economy. The long-standing and, in my view, very respected organisation, Campaign Against Arms Trade, which is based in my constituency, placed a memorandum before the Committee. At paragraph 16, it states:
“The Annual Reports of the Export Credits Guarantee Department (ECGD) show that, yet again, one business benefits more than any other—the arms business. Even though arms account for just 1.5 per cent. of total UK exports, in 2006-7, 42 per cent. of all export credits were for military goods and, in 2007-8, the figure was even higher, 57 per cent. This export credit support is given for very few deals. In the earlier year, the whole 42 per cent. was accounted for by BAE’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia. At £750 million this was also by far and away the ECGD’s biggest liability in 2007-8”.
The arms industry tells us that it is a huge and very efficient exporter from this country, but it receives a disproportionate amount of export credit guarantee support. Also, there is some suspicion that finance for research and purchasing by the British military of equipment in effect pays for an awful lot of the arms industry’s basic costs. It can then go on to become an exporter almost free of risk because its basic costs have already been met.
I conclude with this thought: we live in a world that is extremely dangerous, in which we witness conflict the whole time. Is it morally right for us to spend such a huge amount of money on expanding and developing the arms industry in this country when we have brilliant skills, technical abilities and developments that could be used for much better, useful social purposes, rather than the business of war? The House needs to consider that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Pope, and it is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn). As a member of the Defence Committee who has not been on the Quadripartite Committee, and having heard all the praise being heaped on the Chairman, the hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry), and on the Committee’s work, I am disappointed to have missed something that I should have been involved in. I can only hope that, subject to the electorate, I will have an opportunity to serve on the Committee, if Parliament wishes to continue it.
The report is a well-produced document, and I congratulate all four Committees on the part they played in its production. I also congratulate the Chairman on the excellent way in which he presented the case today. It would be a churlish person who said that the Government’s response is unhelpful, as it recognises many of the issues. So, the Government are also to be congratulated on the way that they have tried to address some of these issues, which are not easy to address.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) talked about Israel. I think that the issue of exports to Israel goes right back to 1998—more than 10 years ago. For those of us who were against the exports of the 1980s and 1970s, it goes back even further. He talked about considering matters on a case-by-case basis. A good example of that issue is provided by Israel buying from the UK armoured vehicles that are not for suppression or aggression. Following that logic, the Palestinians could make a coherent case for buying tanks on the same grounds. They could say, “We will never use the tanks on our own people or in an aggressive way; we will use them to defend ourselves.” Logically, on a case-by-case basis, one could easily argue that one could not resist selling that sort of weapon to the Palestinians.
The hon. Member for Islington, North raised the issue of corruption. As I said in an earlier intervention, certain phrases are repeated in the Government’s response. Three that crop up time and again are “in principle”, “in due course” and “we will look again”. On corruption, the Government make a very interesting comment. Not a few weeks or months ago but in their response, the Government said that they had appointed an anti-corruption champion, the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, and that he
“wrote to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) last October committing to develop a comprehensive strategy to combat foreign bribery and strengthen our work with international partners. This strategy is being developed by a cross-Whitehall group of officials and is supported by his anti-corruption secretariat in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.”
If that happened a year ago, where is the strategy and why are we still waiting? When will we see it? As the hon. Gentleman has rightly pointed out, those issues need to be exposed, and that should be done in such a way that people can see it being done.
That brings us to the issue of why we do not have a register of brokers. In the very first page of the Government’s response, they say that they
“briefed the Ukrainian licensing authority on the introduction of the UK’s new rules on licensing brokering transactions at an EU organised meeting in April in Kyiv”.
But they go on to say that, unfortunately, they had not publicised them very well and that they were considering how to improve that situation. However, they were saying that back in April, and in July they thought that they would reconsider the matter, but there they were, in October, still without a mechanism by which the new controls that they have brought out can be properly publicised. There is a deficiency somewhere is there not?
On brokering, I share the view of the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley); I think it would be of benefit to companies to be on a register. It would be helpful to them. If one is recognised as being an honest broker—if there is such a thing when it comes to arms dealers—one will benefit from not having to go through the systematic and long regime of work that needs to be carried out to get permission to go ahead. The resistance to having a register is beyond me. I cannot believe that is about cost, or a lack of willingness. There has to be some other reason why people do not want to do it. Arms brokers are the one group that do not lose out in a depressed world: they always seem to be able to make a buck or two, and usually more than that, as hon. Members have said. Being properly registered and accredited so that they are recognised as having some antecedents with our Government would be of enormous benefit to arms brokers.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), who chairs the International Development Committee and is listed in the report, and other hon. Friends who have appeared at meetings of the Committees on Arms Export Controls recognise their debt to the hon. Member for Kingswood for his chairmanship.
I would like to make a few points on behalf of my party. We welcome the Government’s commitment to review whether anti-vehicle mines should be placed in category B of the trade controls and would welcome further clarification on who will implement that review, the terms of reference that will guide it and when it is expected to be completed. Once again, I do not think that that is too much to ask. Given the Government’s support for the 2006 declaration on anti-vehicle mines in the UN convention on certain conventional weapons and the UK arms industry’s recognition that there is little commercial interest at stake in moving those mines to category B, the case for doing so on humanitarian and policy coherence grounds seems fairly straightforward. So why the delay? The Government could and should provide a clear indication pretty soon on how and when they plan to implement any proposed changes in the law and on their plans to review whether those mines should be placed in category B.
I am also puzzled by the Government’s response to paragraph 9 of the report’s conclusions, as it seems they cannot recognise the importance of the non-re-export clause, and every Member who has contributed to the debate this afternoon has mentioned that fact. Some people might believe that it is hard to prove whether India sold the two maritime surveillance aircraft to Burma. Some suggest that it did and some that it did not, so how does one prove either case? The evidence available at the time makes it pretty clear that that was going to happen, yet the Indians totally ignored it. The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, the hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), stated in evidence to the Committee that there was a more worrying case of a helicopter that was to be transferred. The Indians once again made it clear that there was nothing in the contract that obliged them not to sell it on. Surely we must do something on that issue.
It is unclear from the Government’s response to paragraph 11 what exactly they are doing on the EU end-use control. End use is vital and needs to be moved further forward. The Government’s response to paragraph 21 states that on 30 October the UN voted overwhelmingly on the resolution to negotiate a strong, robust arms treaty. As Members have said, we know that only one country voted against that. The Americans, to their credit, voted for it, but I think that the proof will be in the eating in that regard: it is one thing to vote in the UN, but quite another to carry out that policy when the pork-barrel politics of the US are at work. The pressures on a Government and on Congress to adhere to it is another thing, so we will have to wait to see how that transpires. Unless there is some sort of breakthrough in the way those laws are adopted, we could find that good ideas, such as a unified ban on lots of weapons or a treaty that is sufficient robust not be easily ignored, could be overwhelmed by the idea that they can be dealt with only on a basis of consensus. What is the point of that, because there will always be someone prepared to be the odd one out or a group that would simply stifle debate on those ideas?
I know that it is easy to criticise, as I have done a little today, but I am also optimistic enough to think that the Government in this country have seen the light when it comes to export controls on weapons and that we all as a nation feel upset at the evil we see in the world, whether in Guinea, Sri Lanka or elsewhere, such as the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan. How many of our soldiers have been killed by equipment provided by other countries whose representatives sit down and eat with our politicians and share discussions? How many of the weapons used in Iraq were manufactured in Transnistria and exported through Ukraine? Those end up in the hands of the enemies of our soldiers in Iraq and have been used to kill them.
We must be mindful of the fact that those things are never easy to overcome, and the Government are showing a determination to do something about it. It would be foolish of anyone to criticise the Government by saying that they are doing nothing, because they are doing an awful lot. However, we cannot go on using the excuse that it is in the post. We must find a way of delivering a comprehensive response to reports such as the one we are considering.
The report is one of the best I have read in more than 20 years in Parliament. It is not a difficult read, and members of the public and journalists will find a lot of information in it, and the Government’s response has tried to do it justice. The best thing in the world, as the hon. Member for Islington, North concluded, is to work towards making it an even firmer proposition that would deliver the peace we want to see and for those weapons to be less easily available than they are at present.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Pope, and I welcome the Minister to the Chamber. I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry), as other Members have done. It is a difficult job to chair a Committee that crosses four departmental Select Committees and to produce a unanimous report that goes into such constructive depth, so I pay him a sincere tribute. It is no coincidence that Mr. Speaker fixed the date of the debate for 5 November: a juxtaposition that has already been noted by the Committee’s Chairman.
The issue of arms exports is notorious for its ability to polarise opinion. We have seen that the report covers several conflict areas in the world, and the hon. Members for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) and for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) have highlighted two particularly difficult conflicts where there are human rights abuses, to say the least, and I agree with many of their comments. Countries cited in the debate include Israel, Palestine, China, Sri Lanka, Iran, Libya and Guinea, yet the report from Saferworld for the period from 1997 to 2008 mentions exports to several other countries that are of concern. That memorandum demonstrates what a difficult but important area of Government policy the report addresses.
I believe that we have one of the strictest licensing regimes for arms control exports in the world, and that is to be commended, but we must ensure that it does not stifle the legitimate work of the defence industry. It is within that framework that the Committee must work, and it performs a vital role in scrutinising the Government’s policies. The Committee has done lots of good work, for example in highlighting end-use controls on torture equipment through the EU. The Government, in their response to paragraphs 10 and 11, have highlighted the fact that they have been working with the European Commission to take that work forward and have passed the Commission a draft amendment to the existing torture regulations. I hope that the Government’s response to that work will be completed within 2010 and ask the Minster to give us an update on the timetable for that matter.
This year the Committee was able to provide details of its visit to Ukraine, which has been much mentioned this afternoon, and I have highlighted the article that appeared in The Guardian. That incident and the Committee’s visit to Ukraine highlight several other issues covered by the report.
First, there needs to be a proper register of arms export licences to the Ukraine. Secondly, there needs to be a proper investigation of the list of people on the register provided to the Committee by the Ukrainian Government. It may have been done in error; nevertheless, the Ukrainian Government did provide the memorandum to the Committee. Will the Minister tell us how many such registers there are in other countries around the world that neither the Government nor anyone else are aware of, and what action our posts and embassies are taking to discover their existence?
The report makes several sensible recommendations. It states in paragraph 22, first, that
“the FCO should ensure that its embassies and diplomatic posts engage more effectively with the national export control organisations to obtain information on UK arms brokers licensed by overseas states”,
and, secondly, that
“the Government should instigate an investigation into the list of UK brokers provided to us by the Ukrainian government and provide confirmation as soon as possible that the UK brokers on the list obtained any necessary licences from the Export Control Organisation and breached no UK legislation”.
Something else from the Ukrainian situation was highlighted by the report in The Guardian—I stress that I do not believe that any UK arms exporters were involved in this: if the report is correct, whether it was small arms or whatever that were exported to Guinea and subsequently used in human rights repression, it typifies what can happen if we do not have proper control through end-use legislation. An even more important aspect of the whole incident is that not only have the arms to Guinea caused trouble, the military junta that is now in control of that country is beginning to destabilise some of its neighbours such as Sierra Leone and Liberia.
I would be grateful if the Minister provided us with information about the situation in our embassies around the world. What work do they undertake to determine whether such registers exist?
A subject that has been mentioned by several right hon. and hon. Members this afternoon is the arms trade treaty, which the Opposition strongly support. We all recognise the moral imperative of ensuring that the global arms trade is governed by firm, consistent and fair rules. A treaty would provide a set of common minimum standards for the control of arms transfers and a workable mechanism for the application of those standards.
I wish to examine, as other Members have, the position of the Americans. I have had discussions with Saferworld on this subject. It was great to see that under the new Obama Administration, the Americans voted in favour of the United Nations resolution in the General Assembly, but does the Minister think that the Americans, by insisting that there must be unanimity on the treaty, are ensuring that it can be watered down so much that it actually becomes meaningless? What do the Government expect from the treaty? Do they want it to be strong and deep, or do they want it to be wide? It would be useful if the Minister told the Committee what discussions he has had with the Americans in that respect.
Another aspect that has been raised is bribery, which has featured in previous debates on this subject. The report notes in paragraph 97 that
“the shifting of responsibility for anti-corruption from one Department to another raises questions over whether the Government has the necessary vigorous anti-corruption culture across all Departments to tackle the risk of bribery and corruption engaged in by UK-based companies and individuals.”
On page 8 of their response, the Government state that the
“Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor wrote to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) last October committing to develop a comprehensive strategy to combat foreign bribery and strengthen our work with international partners.”
Given that it is now a year since that happened, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock), I am sure that all of us in the Chamber this afternoon would be interested to hear what progress the Government have made on the matter.
The issue of re-exports surfaced in several speeches this afternoon, and it comes up regularly in these debates. The Committee continue to recommend that the
“requirement to have a non re-export clause in contracts for the supply of controlled goods would send a clear message to both parties to the contract that re-export to certain countries is unacceptable.”
That is in paragraph 64.
I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) that if contracts are to be enforceable, and if I were the Minister in charge of Government policy in this area—I am sure that I never will be—I would want an end-use clause included, because it would then be clear to any countries that export to another country what is and is not acceptable. I hope that the Minister will be able to address that point.
I would like briefly to touch on two other issues before I conclude. The first is extraterritoriality, which many Members have spoken about this afternoon. This baffles me: if it is illegal to do something inside the UK, surely it is illegal for a British citizen to do it outside the UK. If that is the logic that applies, perhaps the Minister could tell us why the Committee’s recommendations on extraterritoriality cannot be enforced. He may cite the difficulties and practicalities of enforcement. If that is the case, perhaps he could make it clear.
Finally, I want to touch on end use, which is a difficult subject. It is difficult for those who apply for a licence to export arms to a country that, on the whole, has a good record to know whether that country will pass the arms on to someone else. An example from a previous debate on the subject has been quoted—not so much today—of the Indian Government re-exporting aircraft to the Burmese Government, to whom no sane person in the UK would want to export. It would be difficult for an arms exporter to know whether the Indian Government, in the first instance, would want to do that. I am not sure how possible it would be to enforce the contract, and I would like to hear the Government’s thinking on whether it is possible to do so.
I want to give the Minister plenty of time to reply. He has been asked an enormous number of questions, and I do not envy him the task of replying. On the whole, I commend the Committee on its report, but I also commend the Government on their up-front reply, although, as the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South said, there are still several areas where it is taking too long to get action. It will be interesting to hear from the Minister this afternoon what action he is taking.
It is a pleasure to be here this afternoon and to appear before you, Mr. Pope. It has been a privilege to listen to the debate, which has been of extremely high quality. I shall try to the best of my ability to address the issues that have been raised. If I do not deal with some questions during the course of the debate, I will ensure that responses are forwarded to right hon. and hon. Members, because it is evident that there is a breadth of knowledge that is well worth tapping. Many of the arguments made today have been extremely persuasive.
The Government have engaged with the Committee and listened to its arguments. They do so because these are difficult issues, and the benefit of experience and argument is something that the Government need to continue to use in determining their approach.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) for his chairing of the Committee. If I may, I would like to use his speech as the cornerstone of my response. I have selected some of the issues that he raised.
The Government are firmly of the view—some Members share it—that the UK has one of the most rigorous export control regimes in the world, and that it is right and proper that we do, because this is an extremely difficult area where difficult judgments have to be made at specific times on specific applications, and in the context of changing events. It is right and proper that throughout the process we take into account the changes that have occurred in countries when licence applications are made.
We must balance the decisions that we make on export control applications with the important role that the defence industry plays in the UK economy. Many people are employed in the industry and it is important to take that into consideration. There is no conflict between effective export controls and supporting the defence sector, but it is important that we have an open, rigorous and transparent regime with which to assess applications and make the difficult decisions. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood that we have made significant progress, but I want to talk specifically about the areas that he mentioned and explore why we may not, as yet, have reached agreement on particular points, and I hope give him some comfort.
First, on extraterritoriality, the Prime Minister announced in 2007 the Government’s commitment to extend extraterritorial controls to small arms and other weapons and we implemented it in relation to small arms and man-portable air-defence systems in October 2008. We further extended those extraterritorial controls to other weapons—light weapons—on 6 April 2009. We committed to and prioritised the introduction of the controls on the basis of evidence of the risk associated with them. We asked the NGOs and industry stakeholders to consider the case for those extensions of controls to be applied to even more military goods.
The joint industry and NGO working group met several times, from 2008 onwards, and presented its proposal to us in late spring this year. Following that, we held two further meetings with the group to clarify aspects of the proposal. We have been assessing the proposal and the outcome of those meetings, and although I cannot give my hon. Friend and the Committee a response today, I can say that there will be a response within a few weeks to the process that has been undertaken. It is a difficult area. We have listened to the views of the Committee, the NGOs and the industry and we will be introducing proposals—I was going to say “very shortly” but will stick to saying “within just a few weeks”.
Will the Minister confirm, or otherwise, that one proposal was submitted by both the NGOs and the defence manufacturers?
I think that is correct; that is my understanding.
An agreed proposal, that is, from the NGOs and the defence manufacturers?
I understand that it was a joint proposal from the NGOs and the industry.
Secondly, on brokers and a register of brokers, it is helpful to make it clear that there is no difficulty in producing a list of individuals who have made applications in respect of export controls. We have a database from which those individuals could be identified. The issue is whether, if one produced a register, one would, in those circumstances, apply criteria to enable individuals to go on it. It is not simply about having a list, but about the importance of the list indicating, perhaps, some measure of respectability. Therefore we have to consider closely how the Government deal with the issue.
We looked closely at such a list in 2007, but concluded at the time that it would not be right to introduce a full registration system, because it is not just a list, but a full registration system. However, we are happy to consider it once again when we see how other initiatives work, such as clamping down on people who misuse open licences and focusing our awareness and activity on traders. We need to take into account the burdens that any pre-licensing registration system could impose on legitimate business. I am not sure to what extent the Committee has considered the type of system that may be needed to create a proper register of arms brokers. I do not think that simply producing a list would be an adequate way to address matters. We would have to think carefully about the process.
Thirdly, the Government’s position on no re-export clauses was originally set out in some detail in a letter dated 19 February 2009, which was sent to the Committee by the Economic Secretary. We do not favour making export licences for supply to licensed production facilities subject to the condition that the underlying supplying contract has a clause preventing re-export without the permission of the UK authorities. That would impose an administrative burden on both us and the exporter and, because both the goods and the re-exporting entity are outside the UK, it would be difficult to enforce in practice. The Committee stated that such a requirement
“would send a clear message to both parties to the contract that re-export to certain countries is unacceptable.”
That may be so, but it would not necessarily increase our real-world powers to prevent such transfers.
I was grateful to the Committee for its kind offer to protect my interests in the event of my responding to a hypothetical situation when something went wrong with a re-export case. However, the purpose of such a clause would not be to provide a fig leaf for Ministers. We need to think about what it would achieve. For example, we need to look at the situation in relation to a contract including a clause for a British company to export to a company from, say, Poland. In those circumstances, if there was a breach of the clause by the Polish company, what action could be taken by any party? It is unlikely that the original party, having included the clause in the contract, would make a voluntary decision to enforce action against the Polish clause.
Does the Minister not agree that there is a simple sanction? If there is an export to a Polish company, part of the licence is a non-re-export condition saying, “You’ve got this kit. You will not re-export to an EU or UN embargo destination and, if you do, we’ll license no further exports to you in future.” Is that not clear?
That sanction would not be taken under the terms of the contract by the exporter from the UK. There would not be an effective clause in the contract that could be activated by the UK Government. The UK Government would not be in a position to take legal action against the company from abroad, for example, under the terms of the contract.
I accept that being able to take legal action is the first-best solution, but would the Government not be left with a second-best solution, which is that, if it is clearly understood that if the Polish company that is getting the arms export re-exports to an embargoed destination, no further licences would in future would be granted by the UK where that company is the initial end user? Is that not straightforward?
I understand my hon. Friend’s point but, carrying the argument a little further forward, it would mean that the detail of every contract made between an applicant and a purchaser would have to be made known to the UK Government. The clause would have to be produced to the UK Government to evidence the further action that my hon. Friend is suggesting.
If it were a condition of every licence for export from the UK that the initial end user could not re-export to an embargoed destination, and if the UK found out subsequently that there had been re-export to an embargoed destination, surely it could take the appropriate action. Legal action would be preferable, but the other action would simply be that the re-exporter would not get an arms export licence in future. Surely it is that simple.
If an export licence has no such clause in the contract now, and the product ends up in an embargoed country, that would clearly determine consideration of any further application involving that company, even without a clause in the contract. In other words, the issue is the fact that the product ended up in an embargoed country, and the FCO would take that into account when considering any future application from the company that had transferred the item to an embargoed country.
Does the Minister agree that administratively it is not a big problem to insert such a non-re-export clause, and that it might deter people from behaving in a way that we do not want? What on earth is the disadvantage of simply inserting a non-re-export clause as normal procedure?
The only disadvantage is that although that might send a clear signal, it would suggest a legally enforceable basis for the proceeding.
The evidence to the Committees made it clear that the lack of such a clause was a drawback, as was apparent in the case of India transferring planes to Burma. The Indians simply turned around and said, “There was no clause in the contract. Too bad. Go away.” What the hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) said is logical. The evidence suggests that such a clause is necessary if we are to have some stick; having no clause will leave us in our current hopeless situation.
My understanding is that the transfer to Burma did not take place, although that may not be relevant in the context of the hon. Gentleman’s comment. I understand his point, which is that such a clause would make the position—
I was going to say “more overt”, but I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for helping me out. I understand the point, but I am reluctant to incorporate a clause simply to send a message—a message that implies some sort of legal basis but does not provide the foundation for any action. Before I became engaged in that discussion, I was going to say that the Government are prepared to consider the matter further, that our discussion has been useful, and that I will return to the Committees by the end of the year.
Reference was made to the international arms trade treaty, and it is important to recognise the important role that it will play in taking Government policy forward. We are playing a leading role in working towards a globally agreed, robust arms trade treaty. Since introducing the initial resolution at the United Nations back in December 2006, in which we called for work on such a treaty, we have worked closely with international partners, civil society and the defence industry. On 30 October, UN member states voted overwhelmingly in favour of an arms trade treaty, and that vote mandates preparatory committee meetings in 2010 and 2011 to work towards a UN conference in 2012, when the text of an arms trade treaty will be finalised. Clearly, a lot of work must be done in those committees to make the treaty a reality, but as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said:
“This groundbreaking achievement is a defining point in the work that has been led by a global coalition including the United Kingdom over the last three years towards a treaty that will save lives, safeguard human rights and support development across the world.”
I shall try to deal with some of the other points that were raised during our extensive debate. It was a pleasure to listen to the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), despite his image of me in the bath, which was not the most flattering, but perhaps that is because I see myself on such occasions. I am concerned about the two months’ notice of delegated legislation to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. I am not aware of the rationale for the Department’s response, but I will look into the matter and return to him with the detailed rationale and details of the difficulty that justified the Department’s response.
There was much discussion about specific countries—mainly Sri Lanka and Israel—from my hon. Friends the Members for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) and for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden). It is extremely important that when decisions are made on export licensing, the overall position relating to individual countries is taken into account. It is important that the specific circumstances at a specific time are assessed, which necessarily involves considering the history—perhaps not just the recent history—of trouble spots and countries.
Reference was made to correspondence from my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on both Sri Lanka and Israel. The position of Her Majesty’s Government does not change in terms of the rules and principles that are applied, but those rules and principles must be reconsidered in the context of events at any particular time. That is the context in which Government policy goes forward. I assure right hon. and hon. Members that the Government take account of Operation Cast Lead and events during the past year in Sir Lanka when assessing individual cases.
Will the Minister take this opportunity to answer my specific question about whether the Sri Lankan armed forces used equipment supplied by the UK—licences have now been revoked—in the recent conflicts?
I am afraid that I cannot give my hon. Friend a specific response on that individualised and sharp point.
Perhaps the Minister will write to me.
I am happy to do so, and I was going to say that. I am happy to return to my hon. Friend on that point, when I am in a position so to do.
Some of the points raised by the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling were raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood. I hope that some of them have already been covered. The right hon. Gentleman made several points relating to individual countries, to which I have referred. In respect of Libya, I can make it absolutely clear that the Government do not and will not use licences in any way as sweeteners to develop a relationship with a country. That is the case with any country, but Libya was the one to which he referred. It is central to having a proper regime that such an approach is never undertaken.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield referred to the extremely difficult—perhaps tragic is a better description—position in Israel and Palestine and the circumstances that have led to so much suffering for both communities over many years, but particularly in the past year. I pay tribute to the long years that my hon. Friend has spent working on the issue and taking a close interest in the position of the UK Government and our involvement in the process. The Government have made it clear that we regard it as extremely important that when we have any form of relationship in terms of selling items that require export licences to Israel, we consider the situation very closely.
When we were considering the position earlier this year in determining licences, we did make a number of changes in our approach, because of the information that we talked about. The activity of the Israeli Government was something that we had not previously anticipated. For example, in respect of the Saar-class Corvettes, we had not previously been aware that there had been any circumstances in which those had been used in a military context. When we learned that they were being used in that way, we revoked the licences. That will, of course, be taken into account when determining future licences and is an example of the way in which we will take into account changes that occur over a continuing period.
Could the Minister help us and say why that change of heart took place? I ask that because the use had been to continue the illegal activities of Israel anyway in controlling Palestinian movements. That was not new; it has been going on for a very long time.
The specific usage of the naval vessel concerned was something of which the UK Government had not previously been aware. It was on the basis of that change that the action took place and the change of policy was undertaken.
I do not expect the Minister to know the answer to this question now, but perhaps he could write to us after the debate; I do not know the answer to it. In relation to the Saar Corvettes, were they used off Lebanon in the Lebanon war, and were any checks done as to whether they were used off Lebanon?
I will certainly look into that matter and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising it at this juncture.
I was asked about monitoring by embassies in relation to end use. The Government’s position remains that the best means of ensuring that goods are not diverted is to conduct a rigorous assessment at the licence application stage. That includes careful examination of the information on the proposed end use and end user of the goods. UK diplomatic posts are regularly asked to check the accuracy of information in the end-user documentation submitted in support of an application. The question of the end user is therefore taken into consideration right at the outset, when the application for a licence is determined. That is a major factor in a number of applications. On a number of occasions, we see licences turned down not because of information relating to the person who is stated to be purchasing, but because there are concerns about the end user of the item. We do consider that and we treat it extremely seriously.
I know that officials in the relevant Departments are scrupulous about the efforts that they make in assessing as much information as they can get before a licensing decision is made or recommended. There is no question about that and I am sure that advice from embassies and high commissions is part of it. However, does the Minister not foresee any circumstances in which it would be useful to have some end-use monitoring after the licence has been granted? I am thinking of, for example, exports to destinations that we all know are—how can I put it?—more sensitive than others.
End use will always cause issues within decisions made on applications. Clearly, having as much information as possible is useful to that process. I can assure my hon. Friend that, as he said himself, a very rigorous process goes on at the moment and that the embassies and Foreign Office staff are very closely involved in that process when applications are made.
I was asked about transit and transhipment. During the review that has taken place relating to that issue, and following concerns raised by key stakeholders, we have strengthened controls on transit and trans-shipment. The controls have been aligned with the new three-tier trade control structure, which varies the level of control, depending on the risks associated with the goods and destinations. I will write to hon. Members on the number of goods seized in transit, because I do not have full details of the numbers today.
We heard about the visit to Ukraine. I can confirm that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is still conducting an inquiry into the circumstances of the matters raised as a result of that visit. I can assure members of the Committees that I will explore exactly where that investigation is at present. It is clearly in everyone’s interests that matters be brought to a conclusion as quickly as possible. I shall come back to the Committees on that matter as soon as I can.
I heard the concerns of the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling relating to China and the attendance at the defence systems and equipment international exhibition. The attendance at DSEI does not in any way undermine the embargo that exists between Her Majesty’s Government and China. Although I am not aware of the precise circumstances, that invitation does not in any way undermine the embargo.
We heard reference to the position in Guinea and the very unfortunate regime in existence there. That example shows how an embargo is crucial when dealing with countries of that nature and how we must be extremely rigorous in our approach when dealing with any suspicion whatever of items being passed on to countries with very questionable human rights reputations.
The Chairman, the hon. Member for Kingswood, made a very interesting point at the beginning of the debate about arms being re-exported to countries that are under an arms embargo—it could be an EU, UN or area arms embargo. In considering the re-export issue, would it not be possible to insert in every single licence contract a provision that every possible effort should be made to prevent arms being re-exported to areas of the world where any type of embargo is in existence?
It certainly would be a thought. I hesitate to return to the discussion that I had with my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood earlier this afternoon, but similar points would arise concerning the enforcement of contracts. We are happy to consider any device that shows the strength with which the Government are prepared to ensure that embargoes are respected, known about and kept by all parties—certainly UK parties. It is certainly an approach that we may wish to consider.
I have tried to deal with the issues that my hon. Friends and hon. Members have raised today. The subject of the debate is clearly an area that benefits from continued dialogue between the Government and the Committee. A number of valid points have been put forward. The arguments that the Committee has made in the past have been taken on board and, under this Government, there has been huge progress in ensuring transparency in export control, which I am particularly proud of. I am keen to continue to engage with the Committee. There has been much food for thought in the debate, and a number of very powerful arguments have been put forward.
On the point I raised about torture, the Government gave a somewhat guarded response to the issue in their response to the Committee’s report.
The Government have been clear about the strength of their position on torture—they are not prepared to countenance torture or to be involved with items used for torture. The position of Her Majesty’s Government is very clear and I am certain that it will be maintained by any Government whatever their political colour.
As I said, I greatly value today’s debate. I will reflect on the arguments that have been made in any decisions that I take. I am grateful to all Members for their contributions, and I will come back to them with written responses to the specific items that I have not been able to deal with.
I thank the Minister for his responses, and we look forward to the further written ones. May I say two more things?
First, I am very grateful that the Minister will consider the non-re-export clause. He offered a response by the end of the year. I do not want to discourage him from doing that, but I am sure the Committee would think that the right result is better than the speed of the result. We think that we have made a powerful case and I hope the Minister will take the time needed to consider it.
Secondly, on behalf of the Committee, I wish the Minister and his officials well in progressing with the arms trade treaty. Such a treaty is the chance of a lifetime and we are all conscious that Ministers and officials are working very hard, and that the UK has shown leadership. Our prayers are with them. It is a terribly important matter, and we very much hope that they are able to secure the strongest, most effective arms trade treaty that is humanly possible.
Question put and agreed to.