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Defence Exports

Volume 533: debated on Monday 10 October 2011

19. What steps he is taking to ensure that any increase in the level of defence exports is transparent. (72917)

The UK has one of the most rigorous and transparent export control systems in the world. All applications to export controlled military goods are assessed against the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria, and decisions are published in the quarterly reports on strategic export controls. Following the Arab spring, the Foreign Secretary undertook a review of export licensing for equipment that might be used for internal repression. That concluded

“that there was no evidence of any misuse of controlled military goods exported from the United Kingdom.” —[Official Report, 18 July 2011; Vol. 531, c. 79WS.]

In July the Foreign Secretary said that more work needed to be done between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to strengthen certain aspects of UK arms control. There is an even greater urgency for this work to be done following reports today of an investigation into a EADS Saudi defence contract. Can the Minister set out what work has been done on transparency and UK arms control and how, with a policy of providing weapons to any willing country, he will ensure that those weapons do not fall into the wrong hands?

Every export licensing application is considered on a case-by-case basis against our strict export controls. In terms of transparency, detailed information on our export policy is on the Foreign Office website. Information on decisions by destination is listed on the BIS website, and the licensing criteria are also published. My right hon. Friend is right to say that further work is ongoing between the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Foreign Office, and they are at present working out how that will be taken forward.

The Minister is, I am sure, aware of the number of cases in which there have been allegations that defence exports have ended up with people whom we would not want to have them and used for purposes that we would not want to see. He will also be aware that there are a number of cases of defence lobbyists acting in a shady and disreputable manner. Will he consider taking further steps to ensure transparency in who gets the weapons, what checks there are and how lobbyists operate?

The Government are committed to a thriving British defence and security industry because it is vital for our economy. It is worth more than £6 billion a year to the economy, but we will maintain strict export controls. We promote defence exports that are consistent with the criteria, because that strengthens British influence and helps support British industry and jobs.

We all want a strong defence industry, but we also want a responsible one, which is why I am proud of the fact that it was a Labour Government who abolished the manufacture, use and sale of cluster munitions in this country. The protocol also places an obligation on us to try to make sure that other countries, including our allies, are no longer using cluster munitions, because all too often such use means that many civilians are killed or maimed many years afterwards. What are the Government doing now to make sure that the Americans stop using cluster munitions?

I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman’s comments; I, too, was a campaigner on that issue. I am very pleased that the UK duly signed up to that, but clearly our ability to control the US is no greater now than it was at the time of the convention. We will continue to apply pressure on the Americans, but we need to be realistic about the likelihood of their changing their policy.

What discussions has the Minister had with our European partners to ensure that when a licence is refused by the United Kingdom, similar steps are taken by our European partners and they do not take advantage of our progressive approach to export licensing abroad?

That is a good question. I will check what sharing of information we have with our EU allies when we turn down an application, and I will write to the hon. Gentleman in due course.