Thursday 20 October 2011
[Mr Edward Leigh in the Chair]
Arms Export Controls
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Bill Wiggin.)
I am glad to open what I hope and expect to be the first of our annual debates on the reports of the Committees on Arms Export Controls. First, I thank the members of the four Committees for their contributions to our report, which sets a high standard of detail, incisiveness and relevance to current events, with particular reference to north Africa and the middle east. I also thank the staff of our Committees for their invaluable contribution in bringing together our report, and I thank Ministers and their officials for the substantial volume of detailed information that they have provided to the Committees in the response to our report and in answer to our subsequent extensive questions. One of my objectives, which is shared by the members of the Committees, is to achieve a higher level of transparency in our work in the key area of arms export controls, and I believe that we have made a good start in that direction.
I start with various aspects of the arms export controls system. Much of the debate will focus on the situation in north Africa and the middle east, which I will come on to, but it is important to cover this central area of the controls system, and I begin with the Export Control Organisation. I see the attraction for the Government and, most particularly, for the Treasury of changing the system of funding for the ECO. The Government are considering a proposal whereby that funding is taken out of public expenditure and therefore from the general body of taxpayers and is made the responsibility of the arms exporting industry. There are, however, possible risks and dangers in going down that route, because a crucial feature of the ECO is its clear independence. We have no doubt whatever about the integrity of all the civil servants who work in the ECO, but the Government must answer the question of whether a change to the basis of its funding might change public perception from seeing the ECO as an independent watchdog to seeing it instead as a poodle of the arms exporting companies. That would be detrimental to the perception of our UK arms export controls. I hope that the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), and his colleagues will consider that point carefully.
We made recommendations about three particular issues: brass-plate companies, the pre-licence registration of arms brokers and extraterritorial arms export controls. I must express my acute disappointment that, six months after we published our report and its recommendations, we have still not received a substantive response from the Government on any of those three important policy areas. I put it to the Minister that we expect a substantive response on those three areas shortly, and certainly in good time before the Committees resume taking oral evidence in a few weeks.
On what are called military end-use controls, a key issue in how to deal with dual-use goods, I very much welcome the Government acting on the Committees’ recommendation to produce specific proposals for strengthening such controls. I gather that the Government have now proposed a specific strengthening of article 4(2) of the relevant European Union regulation. I urge them to continue to press for the amendment of that article so that we can achieve greater strengthening of control over military end-use.
I am sorry to intervene so early in the right hon. Gentleman’s speech. On that point, does he agree that we could urge the Government to look at the work on the on-sale of arms to third countries, and that we could do a little more to ensure that the arms that we are selling to friendly or neutral countries do not end up in the wrong hands?
I entirely agree with the hon. Lady’s point. That is one of the central areas on which we constantly keep watch. It is of prime importance that when an export licence is granted to a particular country for a particular piece of military equipment or particular goods, we as the exporting country know that that is where the items concerned will finish up. I am grateful to her for making that point.
I come now to sodium thiopental and torture end-use controls. An extremely creditable bit of investigative journalism revealed to us in the autumn of last year that a small company, in Acton I think, was exporting sodium thiopental to certain states in the United States that still use capital punishment and that the substance was among the chemicals used in the execution of prisoners. In other words, items coming out of this country were being used for capital punishment purposes in the United States. Our Committees were deeply concerned and the Government did react. We have debated with the Government whether they reacted quickly enough, but they did impose export controls on that particular item. We have now asked for those controls to be carried out more widely. I very much welcome that the Minister himself wrote to the EU High Representative Baroness Ashton and urged that the controls we brought in as the UK’s national controls over the export of sodium thiopental should be applied EU-wide by means of an amendment to the EU torture goods regulation. I hope that the Government will continue to press for that important amendment to be made, so that we have EU-wide controls and ensure that, EU-wide, we are not making a chemical contribution to capital punishment executions in the US.
On the proposed international arms trade treaty, I am glad to tell the House that, since our report was published, the Committees have had a useful informal meeting with our former ambassador to the conference on disarmament in Geneva, John Duncan. I would like to put on the record that Ambassador Duncan performed outstandingly in his contribution to the preparatory committee phase of that key negotiation, and made a signal contribution to the current situation. We now have before us at least three quarters of a draft treaty, in a text, in advance of the crucial negotiating phase, which will take place next year. The Government in their response said:
“The Government is committed to securing an effective, legally binding international Arms Trade Treaty. The UK continues to play a leading role in the UN process on the Arms Trade Treaty to this end.”
I urge the Government to ensure that the UK continues to be a major driving force in hopefully bringing the treaty to a conclusion in 2012.
Finally on the arms export controls system, I come to bribery and corruption, and I want to make two points. First, our Committees recommended that an anti-corruption provision should be included in the arms trade treaty, and I trust that the Minister will assure us that the British Government will do all they can to ensure that that happens. Secondly, the Committees were somewhat concerned that the Government were taking too narrow a view in dealing with bribery and corruption with regard to arms exports. In our subsequent series of questions to the Government, we asked:
“Will the Government confirm that if it becomes aware of corruption in arms deals it will, regardless of whether there is a risk of diversion or re-export under Criteria 7, take appropriate action under the provisions of the Bribery Act 2010?”
I am glad that in their latest response to us the Government have answered with an unequivocal “Yes”, and that is very welcome indeed.
I come now to the Government’s arms export policy in the light of the Arab spring, particularly in relation to arms that could be used for internal repression contrary to criterion 2 of the consolidated criteria and for provoking armed conflict contrary to criterion 3. I want to start by putting what I believe are the absolutely essential facts on the record since the Government announced their review of arms export licensing in the light of what has happened with the arrival of the Arab spring.
I am mystified why the Foreign Secretary and the Foreign Office keep saying that the first announcement of the review was made by the Foreign Secretary on 16 March in answer to a question from the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) at a meeting of the Foreign Affairs Committee. It is clear from the documentation that the first announcement was made by the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), in his press release on 18 February. It was a highly significant press release, to which I shall return.
In the wake of the announcement of that review, there has been a revocation of existing UK licences for arms exports on a scale and over a geographical area totally unprecedented since the Committees were first formed more than 10 years ago. I cannot over-emphasise the extent to which that is the most enormous jump from anything that has previously happened. From the documents that we have received from the Government, I believe that a total of 158 extant arms export licences to countries in north Africa and the middle east have been revoked as a result of internal repression or the risk of it as a consequence of the Arab spring. Those arms export licences have been revoked in no fewer than eight countries: Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Libya, Qatar, Syria and Tunisia. When I say that the scale of the revocations is unprecedented, I contrast them with, for example, the revocations made by the previous Labour Government following the Israeli armed hostilities in Gaza. The number of revocations then, mainly in relation to components given by British exporters to the Israeli navy, were a handful, so this order of magnitude is unprecedented.
In our questions to the Government, we asked for a list of all the licences that have been revoked. It makes extremely interesting reading. They are all there in the Government’s response—25 pages listing the revocations. It is extraordinarily helpful to the House and to the wider public that we now have that information. It lists in each case the end-user country and the details of the equipment sold. But there is one common denominator behind each and every revocation, and it is given in the “reasons” column. In every case, the reason for revocation was the Government’s conclusion that the licence now contravenes criteria 2 and 3 of the consolidated criteria. I remind the House that criterion 2 states that no licence will be granted for
“equipment which might be used for internal repression”.
Criterion 3 states that no licences will be granted for equipment
“which would provoke…prolong…or aggravate”
I and, I am sure, the whole House welcome the revocations absolutely, and we welcome the scale of the revocations, but the key point, which the Government seem to be reluctant to acknowledge, is that the scale of the revocations is the clearest possible evidence of the scale of the misjudgment that took place when the export licences were originally granted. The Government must address that—the scale of the misjudgment. The reality is that under the previous Government—we took our analysis back to January 2009—and under the present Government that misjudgment continued up to the dawn of the Arab spring, as journalists who managed to get into the ransacked British embassy in Tripoli found. They found papers there indicating that right up to the start of the Arab spring, we were engaged in major military support and military activities vis-à-vis the Gaddafi Government.
With that sort of background, one might have expected the Government in their response to be somewhat contrite, even apologetic, but sadly that has not been so. When I came face to face with the Foreign Secretary in the Foreign Affairs Committee on 7 September, I found his initial written statement giving the Government’s interim view of their review—the 18 July statement—profoundly misleading, and I will explain why. It contained the following sentence:
“The review 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.]
Of course there was no evidence. One has only to look through the 25 pages of items that we exported to see that their nature was overwhelmingly such that their origin could not be identified when they reached the specified countries. They were made up of electronics, communications equipment, cryptography, ammunition and sniper rifles. There are no Union Jacks on bullets and sniper rifles. The Foreign Secretary said that there was no evidence, but of course there was no evidence, and we did not have anyone on the ground anyway.
The Foreign Secretary continued:
“Consultations with our overseas posts revealed no evidence that any of the offensive naval, air or land-based military platforms used by Governments in north Africa or the middle east against their own populations during the Arab spring, were supplied from the United Kingdom.”—[Official Report, 18 July 2011; Vol. 531, c. 79WS.]
I tabled a question to find out what offensive naval, air or land-based military platforms we had supplied to countries that were the main focus of internal repression in north Africa and the middle east during the Arab spring. Last week, the Minister replied: to Bahrain, none; to Egypt, none; to Syria, none; to Tunisia, none; to Yemen, none. At that point, he must have breathed a sigh of relief in thinking that he was about to break the Government’s duck, and he said that we may have sold up to 12 armoured personnel carriers to Libya. He was, however, obliged to add:
“We cannot verify whether these items were actually exported.”—[Official Report, 12 October 2011; Vol. 533, c. 443W.]
Therefore, the Foreign Secretary’s statement suggesting that all is well and that none of the offensive military platforms exported from Britain have been used in the countries under discussion is based on a complete chimera. I have great respect and admiration for the Foreign Secretary, but if his officials, who no doubt drafted that statement, think that they can pull the wool over the eyes of the Committees on Arms Export Controls and of the House, they are making a serious mistake that I hope will not be repeated.
The Foreign Secretary’s most recent statement on 13 October was a distinct improvement, but I still need to be persuaded that the Government have addressed the root of the problem that has been illustrated by the Arab spring and the revocations that we have been obliged to make. The Foreign Secretary stated:
“The review concluded that there are no fundamental flaws with the UK export licensing system.”
It may—or may not—be true that there are no flaws in the system, but I am not persuaded that the Government are addressing the key point about flawed judgments within the system. The inescapable fact is that judgments have been shown to be wildly over-optimistic and rose-tinted regarding the sale to authoritarian regimes of weapons that could be used for internal repression.
The Foreign Secretary continued:
“The Government propose to introduce a mechanism to allow immediate licensing suspension to countries experiencing a sharp deterioration in security or stability,”
but that does not address the central problem, because suspension becomes relevant only after export licensed goods have moved out of the UK. Suspension means that a licence has already been granted and that the goods have left the UK and are out of the door—the bullets have bolted and are in the hands of an authoritarian regime. Although a better system of suspension would provide a good safety net, it does not deal with the central issue of making a correct initial judgment about whether to grant an export licence.
If the hon. Gentleman will wait one moment, I will finish my point.
The Foreign Secretary added:
“We also propose the introduction of a revised risk categorisation,”.—[Official Report, 13 October 2011; Vol. 533, c. 41WS.]
That is a crucial sentence but its meaning is wholly unclear, and it is an issue that the Committees must scrutinise and look at in considerable detail in their next report. They will need to be persuaded that the substantial errors of judgment that have taken place will not reoccur.
I am grateful that the right hon. Gentleman did not accept my intervention the second I offered it, because he has partially answered my question. Given that the Foreign Secretary’s review went on for some time, was the right hon. Gentleman surprised at how little detail it contained about how the proposed changes will be delivered? There were a relatively small number of suggestions about possible outcomes, but little detail on how those outcomes would be delivered. Having read the review, is the right hon. Gentleman confident that the Foreign Secretary has told the House exactly how improvements will be delivered?
As I have said, I remain to be persuaded that the Government have satisfactorily addressed the key issue regarding the scale of misjudgments that have taken place. The key sentence is the one about new criteria, which I have quoted. The hon. Gentleman is right that we need a great deal more detail about what that statement means in terms of the export controls system and how it will be operated by the Government in future.
I am sorry that I missed the first part of the right hon. Gentleman’s speech and I thank him for the way in which he is presenting the report. He makes a good point about the suspension of licences. Is it the case, however, that licences are suspended once weapons or equipment are used and the media choose to report it? The abuse of human rights has been going on for a long time. The abuse of human rights in Bahrain is not new, and neither is the abuse of individual human rights in Saudi Arabia. What is different in Bahrain is that the world’s media have been on the ground reporting on the treatment of those who are opposed to the regime, which has provoked the suspension.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that the serious abuses of human rights that have occurred in all those countries subject to revocation orders—I would also add Saudi Arabia, to which I am about to refer, even though there has been no revocation thus far—have been going on for a long period. That poses the central question whether the Government have done enough to ensure that in future we do not put weapons that can be used for internal repression into the hands of regimes in which the abuse of human rights is endemic.
I have three final points. First, I believe that the Government are skating on thin ice in their present policy of the non-revocation of a single arms export licence to Saudi Arabia. I understand the reasons for that policy, but regret that so far the Government have been less than forthcoming—indeed, pretty much non-forthcoming—about the real reasons why they treat Saudi Arabia so differently from those other countries to which I have referred. I am in no doubt about the reasons behind the Government’s policy: there is an intelligence dimension, an oil dimension and a British business interest, all of which are perfectly relevant and legitimate ministerial considerations. I believe, however, that the Government would do better to be open with the House and the Committees about why their policy towards Saudi Arabia is so conspicuously different from that applied to the other countries in question. I hope that Ministers will reflect on that point.
As I have said, the Government are skating on thin ice in their policy of non-revocation in Saudi Arabia. Among the important questions that we asked in our supplementary responses to the Government response, we asked the Government to state the totality of the extant arms export licences to Saudi Arabia and their value. I am glad to say that we have been provided with that information. Those members of the Committees who are present have the information and know that there are pages and pages of it. I am grateful to the Government for giving us that detail, but I intend to offer hon. Members the details of just one little box among the multitude of boxes relating to extant export licences to Saudi Arabia. It refers to
“assault rifles, blank ammunition, components for assault rifles, components for general purpose machine guns, components for machine pistols, components for pistols, components for rifles, components for semi-automatic pistols, components for submachine guns, general purpose machine guns, machine pistols, pistols, rifles, semi-automatic pistols, submachine guns, training small arms ammunition”.
That is just one little box among a multitude, and hon. Members will immediately see that each and every one of the items to which I have referred is usable for internal repression.
Alongside that, I place a report that appeared recently in the British press about the way in which, in the wake of the Arab spring, the Saudi security authorities were dealing with unrest among the Shi’a minority in Saudi Arabia. The report related to the Shi’a town of Awamiya. It stated that
“there have been protests for democracy and civil rights since February, but in the past the police fired into the air. This is the first time they have fired live rounds directly into a crowd.”
There is a huge plethora of weapons, components and munitions that are now in Saudi Arabia, exported from this country, that are not, in value terms, part of the very high end of British exports, which for Saudi Arabia are for national defence, self-defence and so on. Alongside those is this group of exports, which are wholly available to be used for internal repression. I will not be at all surprised if, before the Arab spring runs its course, the British Government find that they have no alternative but to end their policy of absolute non-revocation of any arms export licences to Saudi Arabia.
My second point is that a crucial recommendation made by the Committees has not been answered:
“We further recommend that the Government extends immediately its review of UK arms export licences announced by the FCO Minister, Mr Alistair Burt, on 18 February 2011 to authoritarian regimes worldwide in respect of arms or components of arms which could be used for internal repression.”
The Government said in their response:
“Although this review was originally commissioned in response to events in the Middle East and North Africa, any conclusions will apply to our procedures for arms exports to all countries.”
Applying conclusions to all countries is a different matter from the particular question that we asked—whether the Government would extend their review to authoritarian regimes worldwide. I therefore put these questions to the Minister. Did the Government extend their review to authoritarian regimes worldwide? If not, why not? If they did, have they decided whether to make any revocations of existing arms export licences as being in contravention of criteria 2 and 3? If they have made any such revocations, what are the specific licence revocations and to what countries do they relate? Those are the questions to which we want answers. I hope that the Minister will assure us that we will receive those answers very soon.
Finally, I come to the Government’s policy on exporting arms and equipment to countries where they might be used for internal repression. In my remarks so far, I have had to be somewhat critical of some of the comments made by Foreign Office Ministers, but at this point I warmly commend the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), on his statement announcing the Government’s review of arms export controls on 18 February. He got the wording and the punctuation, which is critical, absolutely correct. I shall read into the record and for the benefit of hon. Members the key sentence from the Minister:
“The longstanding British position is clear: We will not issue licences where we judge there is a clear risk that the proposed export might provoke or prolong regional or internal conflicts,”—
that comma is crucial—
“or which might be used to facilitate internal repression.”
That is absolutely correct wording and punctuation, from which hon. Members will see that there are in fact two separate tests. There is the “clear risk” test as to whether the proposed export could aggravate conflict. If we had just the “clear risk” test, we could probably end up justifying the sale of pretty well anything to any country. We could say, “Well, there’s a bit of a risk, but it’s not a clear risk, so we can sell.” We would probably draw the line at Chairman Kim Jong Il in North Korea, President Mugabe and the Burmese military junta, but for everyone else, we could say, “Well, the risk isn’t clear. Let’s get on and sell.”
That is why the second part—the remainder—of the Minister’s statement is critical:
“or which might be used to facilitate internal repression.”
I say very firmly to this Minister and to the House that the Committees on Arms Export Controls attach the utmost importance to that wording and to its retention by the British Government, so that we can be assured that British weapons and equipment will not be used for internal repression.
I hope that I have not gone on too long. I hope that our report has been truly helpful to the House and to the wider public. I very much look forward to hearing the contributions of other right hon. and hon. Members, and of course I await the Minister’s reply.
I congratulate the Chair of the Committees on Arms Export Controls on the way in which he has presented the report today. He has said many things that many of us who are members of the Committees fully agree with, and I suspect that many other hon. Members will also be pleased that someone in his position has said those things, because the reality is that Governments of all political persuasions have followed a course whereby they have misjudged the risks that arms being sold by Britain have presented not only under authoritarian regimes in the middle east and Africa, but under many regimes throughout the world.
The reason for that may well be the huge economic benefits that Britain has acquired in the past from the arms trade. I believe that Britain is second only to the United States in terms of the money that it makes from the arms trade. I understand that in response to a freedom of information request by the Campaign Against Arms Trade, it was confirmed that between 2000 and 2009 the UK took $93 billion in defence exports. This is a key debate for us all, because we need to recognise that there is huge economic and political pressure on Governments of all persuasions to allow the trade to continue. It is therefore important that the Committees on Arms Export Controls, which were established by the previous Labour Government, have continued in this Parliament. I welcome the report and today’s debate on it, and I hope that that is a sign that we will have regular debates on this issue and that the Government will listen carefully to what the Committees say.
I am a junior member of the Committees, which I joined fairly recently. When I first joined, one concern was that the Government were perhaps not treating the Committees as seriously as had previously been the case. That was partly because the report that the Government provided the Committees with was far shorter than previous reports, although the Minister will no doubt assure me that it made up for that in quality. The fact that more junior Ministers were sent to give evidence to the Committees also led to concern. I therefore urge the Government to ensure they do not create the impression that the Committees and their work on this issue are not being treated seriously.
Specifically on that point, and as a junior member of the Government, let me assure the hon. Lady that both Cabinet Ministers I work with on this issue take it very seriously. Indeed, she is right to say that just because a Government report is brief that does not necessarily mean it does not answer the questions, and I hope the subsequent information we provided, which the Chair of the Committee identified, highlights that. I hope she will accept that point.
I thank the Minister for that intervention.
In many ways, successive Administrations have dealt with this issue in a similar fashion, as the report makes clear. In the early days of this Government, however, Ministers seemed keen to promote arms exports from the UK—indeed, that was true before they took office. In a speech to the Royal United Services Institute in February 2010, the former Defence Secretary talked about maximising
“the UK’s share of global defence exports”.
That points to a dilemma and a conflict, given the economic interests of Britain and of many of the companies that produce these weapons up and down the country—as constituency MPs, we are very aware of the job implications of this trade—and the fact that the weapons used by authoritarian, oppressive regimes have been sold under successive British Governments.
As everyone in the Chamber will be aware, it was reported during the Arab spring that authoritarian regimes used British weapons to repress their own people. Weapons sold during 2010 to countries such as Bahrain included CS hand grenades, sniper rifles, shotguns and tear gas—the kinds of weaponry it would be reasonable to expect that authoritarian regimes would use for internal repression. Indeed, Libya was sold crowd-control ammunition, small-arms ammunition and tear gas among other things. In the first eight months of 2010, the weapons sold to Syria, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, among other countries in the region, were all of the type that we would expect regimes to use in internal repression.
This week, Campaign Against Arms Trade reported that although sales to the region dipped in March, they increased from April to June. It also reported that the Government have approved arms exports of about £1.7 billion to Saudi Arabia. It would therefore be useful if the Minister were to confirm whether there has been an increase in the sales of weaponry in recent months, particularly to the middle east and north Africa. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) has said, there is always a fear that Governments react only when there is media attention and political focus on an issue. I hope that the fact that there has been a response to the Arab spring and that a review has been announced means that we will start reviewing these issues and look at not only the short term, but the long-term policy.
One issue that I want to focus on, which the Chair of the Committees did not focus strongly on, is the work the Government are doing in the lead-up to the arms trade treaty, which we hope will be in place in 2012. Will the Government give us assurances that they are doing everything possible to ensure that we achieve as robust a treaty as possible and that Britain is at the forefront of work to ensure that the treaty has an impact worldwide?
One issue I have looked at recently is the manufacture of depleted uranium armaments. I would be interested to hear the Minister outline the Government’s position on that and particularly on achieving international regulation of such weaponry. The Committees have been given evidence that some states that have traditionally looked to the UK for leadership are concerned that it is not giving as much political priority to achieving an international arms trade treaty as was the case previously. I would be grateful if the Minister were to assure us that everything is being done to ensure that Britain looks carefully at how our weaponry is used abroad and that we have more robust international legislation, so that we are not alone in trying to ensure that we achieve progress.
Much of the Committees’ report focuses on the use of weaponry for internal repression, but there are, of course, far broader issues associated with the arms trade. It is difficult to know whether it is possible to have an ethical arms trade, but many of us hope that we can move towards a position where Britain is not as reliant on the defence industry and has a more diverse, balanced economy. There has been a lot of debate recently about our dependence on the financial sector, but many of us feel that Britain should be ashamed of our dependence on the defence industry and that we should move towards a position where we are less reliant on it and do not, therefore, feel under such pressure to ensure that the trade in armaments continues with repressive and undemocratic regimes.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) on his typically detailed and forceful presentation of the position adopted by the Committees on Arms Export Controls. I have served on the Committees on and off for almost 15 years; I served on them as a member of the Select Committee on Defence, I served on them in the previous Parliament and I am serving on them again in this Parliament. I have to say, therefore, that the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely assiduous in his relentless pursuit of officials and Ministers. When he issues officials in a Department with a gentle warning, they need to heed it; if they do not, they will get many more communications in the long run than if they had heeded it quickly.
I want to begin by referring to last week’s written ministerial statement by the Foreign Secretary. Tucked away in the back of it is a paragraph about how the Government can also consider how we can
“strengthen our decision making when we provide security and justice assistance overseas.”
Those issues are linked, because there are countries to which we export weaponry, where we also provide training and engage in intelligence co-operation, and give help to the civil power on such things as counter-narcotics.
It is in that context that I want to talk about two countries; and in doing so I want to raise a wider question about lack of transparency on relevant questions. Our Committee receives detailed information, some of it confidential, about arms exports. We receive detailed breakdowns of the value and general scope of the categories of weaponry, and we know which categories exports are in—general or specific. We have information about those that are refused and revoked. However, unfortunately, similar information is not available about some other areas. I could give numerous examples, but will quote just a few.
The British Government do not sell significant quantities of weaponry to Colombia. That country has had a very difficult human rights legacy: an insurgency, drug cartels, and assassinations and murders of politicians, trade unionists and human rights activists. It is thought that it is still the country with the largest number of murders of trade unionists. However, we have had—and this goes back to the Labour Government—a period of systematic co-operation on counter-narcotics with the Colombian Government and their forces. Yet successive parliamentary questions have been put to Ministers over the years, and we never receive any detail. In November 2010 such a question received the answer:
“Our counter-narcotics work in Colombia is scrupulously monitored to ensure it cannot contribute to any human rights abuses. We do not discuss the detail of this narcotics work publicly as doing so risks putting UK and Colombian lives in danger.”—[Official Report, 29 November 2010; Vol. 519, c. 551W.]
A similar answer, received in July 2010, was:
“The only military aid we provide to Colombia is for the ongoing programme of counter-narcotics assistance. It would not be appropriate to provide details about this programme, as to do so would prejudice the capability, effectiveness or security of the armed forces.”—[Official Report, 12 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 446W.]
To go back to the time of the previous Government—I am criticising the general approach, not the present Government—this answer was given in December 2009:
“We do not disclose the value of our counter-narcotics assistance to Colombia. To do so would put British and Colombian lives at risk. This decision has been upheld by the parliamentary ombudsman.”—[Official Report, 3 November 2009; Vol. 498, c. 935W.]
There is a problem, and a serious question of accountability to Parliament. We are told by Ministers that the human rights situation in Colombia is not as bad as many critics say. We are told by the Colombian Government that the situation is improving, and that things are not as difficult or bad as they were. They accept that there were terrible things in the past, but they are doing their best. However, there is no transparency, and if the Government are to deal with the deep concerns that we have, they should provide more detailed information. We get information about arms exports, but not about military support or training support for counter-narcotics work in Colombia.
I thank my hon. Friend for the way he puts the case of Colombia. Does he accept that there is a problem, because in making their assessments, Governments tend to work on the dangerous assumption that the armed forces are a seamless whole, working under the orders of civilian Government control? They do not necessarily think that those forces will have an osmotic relationship with irregular forces, militias, drug dealers or anyone else. Supplying arms to an army somewhere like Colombia—and there are other places like it—means, in reality, providing resources that can go anywhere and be used for any kind of repression.
I accept that that is a danger. Obviously, countries vary considerably, and Ministers and ministries vary too. Sometimes the problem is not institutional; there may be a personnel problem, involving those who have corrupt or political links with people or organisations carrying out a parallel policy.
Speaking of parallel policies, I want to discuss what has been happening in Sri Lanka. There was a period under the previous Government when we were selling a large quantity of armaments to Sri Lanka. That was mainly during the ceasefire, which lasted about two years and then broke down. At that time, a large number of export licences to Sri Lanka were revoked. As of 2009, when the civil war between the Sri Lankan Government and the Tamil Tigers came to its conclusion, exports from this country were very limited. However, the Sri Lankan armed forces undoubtedly used vast quantities of stockpiled imported ammunition, munitions and weaponry for their armed forces on land and their naval forces. Much of that undoubtedly came from the United Kingdom.
It now seems that the Sri Lankan Government have been lobbying very hard, both before and since the change of Government in this country in 2010, for a relaxation of the current restrictions on arms exports to Sri Lanka. I should like the Minister to give me an assurance that there is no change in export policy on Sri Lanka, and that we are not satisfied that the human rights situation has improved sufficiently for there to be a change of policy. A few months ago, the Government stated that we were awaiting the outcome of an internal assessment by the commission established by the Sri Lankan Government, which is due to report next month, before determining whether to press for an independent international inquiry into the serious allegations of war crimes committed in 2009. Those were documented on Channel 4 and elsewhere, and by the special representative established by the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon. Will the Minister assure me that that means there will be no relaxation until we are satisfied that there has been a significant change of approach in Sri Lanka?
The reason why I raise such concerns is that reports have appeared—for example, Jason Burke’s in The Guardian on 13 October—about the number of unofficial visits made by the former Secretary of State for Defence and his personal adviser Mr Werritty to Sri Lanka, and the number of meetings that took place between the Minister in question and senior figures in the Sri Lankan Government. I shall give just one quotation, but there are many. The article in The Guardian, talking about 2009, before the general election, states:
“With political officers in London telling Sri Lanka that Labour was almost certain to lose coming elections, Fox was seen in Colombo as a major potential asset…Sources say now that they received specific information that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the feared defence secretary and the brother of the president, had asked Fox to lobby for more access to British weapons.”
Fortunately, the next paragraph states:
“In fact, with evidence of human rights abuses within Sri Lanka mounting, the restrictions were tightened.”
That was under the Labour Government before the general election. Since then, we have seen a number of visits by Ministers and contacts made with the Sri Lankan Government. I would like to know what matters were discussed. Was a relaxation of arms export restrictions on Sri Lanka discussed in meetings between Defence and other Ministers and representatives of the Sri Lankan Government? If so, what was our Government’s response to any request?
It seems that a parallel policy has been going on. Jim Pickard wrote the following in the Financial Times on 12 October:
“Last year a memorandum of understanding was struck between the Sri Lankan government and…two funds”,
the first being the Sri Lanka infrastructure development fund and the second being the Sri Lanka charitable fund. He continued:
“A trust set up by Liam Fox to help Sri Lanka’s development appears to have achieved nothing other than to pay for the MP’s trips to the country”.
My question to the Minister is, why was the former Secretary of State visiting Sri Lanka? Did he discuss arms exports to Sri Lanka or a relaxation of the British policy of restricting defence exports to that country? It is important that those questions be answered, because we know that the Sri Lankan Government have been lobbying hard since 2009 for what they regard as a normalisation of their relationships with a number of countries, in an effort to return to receiving a large amount of weaponry and components, which they had been getting from the UK for many years before 2009.
As I understand it, the Foreign Secretary has been to Sri Lanka only once since the general election, but the former Defence Secretary has been there three times in the past year to meet its President. He also attended the national convention of the President’s political party. I wonder whether there was a consistency regarding the policies on arms exports—
I will do so. I wish simply to point out that there is an important restriction on Sri Lanka receiving arms exports at the moment. My concern is whether there is any information that may have led Ministers to become aware that there have been attempts to change that policy. If not, I would like an assurance on that. The four Select Committees have jointly raised the issue of arms exports to Sri Lanka in successive reports. We also took evidence and questioned Ministers, officials and other organisations when they came before our Committee, both in the previous year and before that.
Finally, I would like to return to what is happening in the Arab world. The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling rightly highlighted the problem of what might happen in countries that have not yet gone through a revolutionary transformation. We know that the Bahraini regime was, at its request, propped up by neighbouring Gulf Co-operation Council states. Armed forces from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates went into Bahrain. As far as I am aware, they have done a policing operation and have not been engaged. There is no evidence of a repression by those forces in Bahrain. However, the political situation there remains fraught. Its regime is a monarchy, but it is a minority in Bahraini society: it is a Sunni regime ruling a majority Shi’a population in a volatile region. Neighbouring Iran has territorial ambitions on Bahrain and is undoubtedly meddling in the politics of the Arab world.
There is potential for further serious violence in Bahrain. At the moment, we need to be careful about what that violence could do to trigger wider Sunni-Shi’a violence, not just there but in other parts of the region. There is a significant Shi’a minority in Saudi Arabia, and we need to be aware that the Saudi regime, even though it is more popular than some other regimes in the region, has a potential problem. Saudi Arabia has a growing, young population that lacks employment opportunities. If world oil prices go down, as they seem to be doing at the moment, the regime will no longer be able to use its money in the same way to buy off potential discontent. We need to be aware that exported British arms could then become available in a volatile situation. The Government need to look ahead not just one or two years, but to what kind of Arab world or Gulf we will have, and what Britain’s role will be. Which side will we be on?
I am pleased to be able to take part in the debate. I thank the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) for the way in which he introduced it and the thorough nature of the report. Parliament has come a long way over the past 15 years. We now have the Committees to monitor arms exports, an annual debate and the facility to hold the Government to account on individual export licences. That is a great improvement from the past, when there was no facility whatsoever to discuss the issues in any way. I therefore want to thank the MPs who have campaigned for that successful change in Parliament’s procedures on the issue over the years. Clearly, if the procedures are to work, this debate has to work, and it is more than a little disappointing that so few Members are present this afternoon. Many Members regularly sign early-day motions and other things condemning human rights abuses and arms exports to repressive regimes, so it is a shame that they cannot be here to develop that case.
I want to raise many issues, but I realise that even with the paucity of Members, there is still a limit on time. I want to draw attention to the points made by the Select Committee report, particularly the reference made to the judgment and misjudgment of successive Governments concerning what is happening in the Arab world, north Africa and the middle east in particular.
There is a recommendation on enforcement, particularly against brass-plate companies, which are companies that are registered in the UK but trading in arms from overseas locations. I realise that that is quite a complex and difficult legal area to deal with, but we have to be tough on British-based operations that in reality evade any export controls on arms that end up being used for repression. Page 3 of the report states that
“there is no justification for allowing a UK person to conduct arms exports overseas that would be a criminal offence if carried out from the UK and we recommend that the Government extends extra-territoriality to all items on the Military List in Category C.”
The last point to which I wish to draw attention is the end-use of torture equipment, much of which is not obviously torture equipment but ends up being used as such when it arrives in the hands of a particularly repressive regime.
Earlier, I intervened on the right hon. Gentleman to ask about the revocation of arms export licences to Bahrain, but the same could apply to a number of other places. It simply is not good enough to decide that an armed force in a particular country is following all the relevant Geneva conventions when there is a civil conflict going on in that society. I mentioned Colombia, but I could have also included the Congo and many other societies around the world, where the army is simply not an insular institution that is following Government orders. It is often dominated by rogue elements, and there is an inevitable crossover between them, militia activities, criminal activities and drug-related gangs. The same could apply in many other countries in Central America where there is not a large volume of British arms exports but nevertheless there are deep suspicions of the involvement of armed forces in wholly illegal and illicit activities that provoke civilian conflict. At one level, the army presents itself as a reasonable organisation, but at another level, it is not.
If we think back to the 1970s, British planes and other equipment and arms were sold to Chile under the elected Government of Salvador Allende. Those planes were then used to bomb the presidential palace, which resulted in the death of the President and the terrible night of Pinochet’s years. Selling arms has an effect, even if they are sold to a regime that we might agree with or, at that stage, approve of. We must be careful to condemn human rights abuses when the arms concerned have been provided by us in the first place.
On the question of the suspension of arms exports to Israel, particularly surrounding Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), had an interesting exchange of views with the Chair of the Select Committee. On 10 February 2011, he said:
“I can confirm that UK policy on the export of controlled goods and equipment to Israel has not changed since the Coalition Government took office. All export licence applications to Israel are considered on a case-by-case basis against the Consolidated EU and National Export Licensing Criteria.”
The Select Committee then quite rightly said:
“We further recommend that if the Government is unable to identify any such arms or components of arms, it formally withdraws the statement of policy quoted in this paragraph.”
There is a belief that the weapons are actually used to further the occupation of the west bank and Gaza and not for the national defence of Israel. This is a critical area of policy that needs to be further examined.
We have been listening to what is happening in Libya. The death of Colonel Gaddafi was announced a few hours ago, and there will now be a different Government. An interesting picture appeared on Facebook yesterday, showing a montage of European leaders literally having hugs and kisses and embraces with Colonel Gaddafi. No one was spared and no one is missing and all the pictures were taken in the last two years. The arms that have been sold to Libya were being delivered up until March of this year, and we were training Libyan forces until then, too. There was a close economic relationship with Colonel Gaddafi’s Government, as I do not doubt there will now be with the Transitional National Council. It looks a tad of a short space of time, between March 2011 and October 2011, to be selling arms to a Government who, a month later, we decided were deeply oppressive and had to be opposed by all means—indeed, NATO forces helped to oppose that particular Government—to the current situation. What goes round comes round. The suggestion of hypocrisy in the policies conducted by successive western European Governments must be considered very carefully.
I am pleased that arms exports to Bahrain have been stopped. The human rights abuses there are serious. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) mentioned the Gulf Co-operation Council forces that are in Bahrain. Yes, they are in Bahrain and they are part of the Gulf Co-operation Council agreement, but in reality, their presence there bolsters the Government of Bahrain and protects them in their wish to continue their existence.
Human rights abuses in Bahrain are not new. I first met people from Bahraini human rights groups at a UN conference in 1986, which is an awfully long time ago. They were concerned about the suspension of the constitution, the lack of parliamentary democracy, or its limited nature, and the discrimination in that society and they have been bravely campaigning on those issues ever since then. The request to suspend arms sales to Bahrain is not a new one, and I am glad that it has now been carried out. We have also exported a great deal of surveillance equipment to the country, which has been used on the opposition and resulted in imprisonment, torture and all kinds of other things. I welcome the suspension of sales, which appears in great detail in the Select Committee report and the Government’s response to it.
Saudi Arabia, which has been mentioned by two of the previous speakers, is the biggest single importer of British arms. The sales between Britain and Saudi Arabia are absolutely massive. It still makes me angry to think about how the previous Prime Minister bar two, Tony Blair, intervened to suspend a Serious Fraud Office investigation into the al-Yamamah arms contract with Saudi Arabia. He said that it was not in the national interest to investigate that particular contract because it was too big and too important to BAE Systems. I am sorry but if we are serious about human rights, democracy and protecting people’s lives, we should be equally serious about what we sell, what we export, what we profit from and what practices we condone by not being prepared to investigate them. I hope that the regime of control of arms exports that the Committees suggest is something that the Government will take on board.
The last couple of points that I want to mention come from the Amnesty briefing, which says:
“It is vital that a strong commitment to human rights and international law are a core part of the final ATT.”
It then urges the UK Government to
“Prevent sceptical governments from trying to use the ‘consensus’ as a way of watering down or de-railing the ATT process.
Prevent a weak treaty from being a dangerous backwards step for human rights and international law.
Express support for the ATT to include the ‘Golden Rules’ that prevent transfers”—
so that there is a proper end-user system, and—
“Support comprehensive scope, including conventional weapons of all kinds.”
We are talking in part about highly sophisticated weaponry, night-sight equipment, surveillance equipment and all the rest of it, but I have seen—as have other Members in this Chamber—the most appalling abuses of human rights in the Congo and other places. There is nothing sophisticated about any of it. There is nothing sophisticated about the weaponry that is used. It is a lot of second-hand Kalashnikovs and second-hand weapons that have been bought on the open market anywhere around the world. Those weapons are used to create the most appalling mayhem that kills a very large number of wholly innocent people who are merely trying to survive in an area that, unfortunately, is blessed with huge mineral wealth, which is of greater interest to mining companies than the human rights of the people concerned.
We have a lot to learn from what has happened in the past few months. I welcome the fact that arms exports have been suspended in many cases. I hope that the Minister will take on board the point that I made in an intervention to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South concerning the examination of the role of a military in a particular society, the quasi-independence under which the military operate and the activities that the military might be wholly illegally engaged in. It is not good enough for the Government of a particular country to come along and say, “Our military do what we say,” when we have a great deal of suspicion—indeed, there may well be a lot of common suspicion among other countries—about what the military in that country actually do.
My hon. Friend asked a very specific question about Sri Lanka and I thought that it was a very good and very fair question. The Government of Sri Lanka were very quick to use the ceasefire process to stock themselves up with large amounts of arms while arms sales to Sri Lanka are currently suspended. There is a huge diplomatic initiative by the Government of Sri Lanka to be allowed to buy arms all around the world. The human rights situation in Sri Lanka is not right: there are still too many people in prison; there are still too many people suffering; and there is still a lack of a rehabilitation process that can bring about a proper peace there. Given those factors, we have no business to be selling arms to Sri Lanka.
I did not have the chance earlier, because the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) moved on to other topics, but for his assurance, the House’s assurance and the assurance of the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), I am happy to say that the policy on Sri Lanka has not changed, and that is a categorical position.
I thank the Minister for that intervention and I am very relieved to hear that, because the lobbying on this matter by the Sri Lankan Government is quite intensive.
In conclusion, I want to echo the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark). If we as a country rely on a large volume of arms exports and on an arms industry, we run the risk of being culpable in the abuse of human rights, the killing of civilians and the promotion of conflict. We should think quite seriously about these things and about the role that we play. Perhaps we should instead embark on a longer-term strategy of being less dependent on the arms industry and arms exports, and put the skills in the arms industry towards the creation of more socially useful products. The skills and abilities in the arms industry are fantastic, and the knowledge in the industry is incredible, but that knowledge can be used for good things just as much as it can be used to produce weapons that can end up causing the most appalling destruction, even if that was not the intention behind their use when they were initially exported.
Thank you very much, Mr Leigh, for calling me to speak.
I start by welcoming the work that has been done by the Committees under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley). The work that has been done by the Committees, including the production of this report, and the extent of the scrutiny that the Government are under in this area do great credit to the right hon. Gentleman and the Committees. I hope that he will pass on the thanks and warm congratulations of the Labour party and, I believe, of Members from all parties for the work that the Committees are doing. That work is unquestionably adding tremendously to the transparency in this important area, and it is extremely valuable. The success that the Committees have had on the decision about sodium thiopental was a worthwhile sign of the importance of their scrutiny.
The Committees have scrutinised the statements that have come from the Government, particularly the recent statement from the Foreign Secretary. The right hon. Gentleman was somewhat generous in saying that the Foreign Secretary could not be blamed as he was only reading out the words that his officials had put in front of him. I am sure that there are many Secretaries of State who would be grateful to be scrutinised in that way. None the less, it is clear that a very thorough piece of work has been done by the Committees.
I will talk about some of the contributions to the debate, but prior to that I will talk briefly in my capacity as the shadow small business Minister about the importance of the defence industry. The defence policy, as has been expressed by the Government in their response to the Committee’s report, is about defence first and industry second. If we as a human race had managed during the past 3,000 or 4,000 years to come up with a better way of resolving our differences than getting into military conflict, the world would be a better place, but we have not done so. As a result of that, the defence industry exists.
The defence industry is not only crucial to Britain—it is an industry in which we are world leaders—but it is an industry in which, notwithstanding many of the reservations that have been expressed by the Committees, we have a very strong track record in terms of our commitment to an ethical policy. It is also vital to the interests of Britain on the world stage that, as many Members have reflected on, we try to strike the right balance between having serious concerns that any products that carry the stamp “Made in Britain” are sold responsibly and ethically, and supporting our vital defence industry.
It is worth reflecting for a moment on the contribution that the defence industry makes.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I thank you too, Mr Leigh, for allowing me to speak. Would it be an idea for the British defence industry, which in many ways is our largest industry, to be switched from being a responsibility of the Ministry of Defence to being a responsibility of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills? Would that be an idea that might be worth thinking about anyway?
I have no doubt that it is an idea worth considering, but the relationship between the defence industry and our own military interests, in terms of the defence of this nation, are so intertwined that we can entirely understand that relationship too. It is because our defence industry and our defence interests—militarily —span so many different areas that we have the Committees on Arms Export Controls, which was formerly the Quadripartite Committee, looking at arms controls and recognising that it is a defence issue, a Foreign Office issue, an international development issue and an important business issue. That shows how important the issue of arms controls is.
Shortly, I will refer to the contributions that have been made in the debate by Members so far. Before that, however, I want to talk about the contribution that the defence industry makes. Total employment in the defence industry is about 314,000 people, with about half those people being employed directly and the other half employed in the supply chain. The defence industry accounts for about 10% of manufacturing jobs in the UK. A study by Oxford Economics found that the UK defence industry has a highly skilled work force, as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) has said, with 39% of the workers in the industry holding a NVQ level 4 qualification, which is a similar percentage to that in the UK’s banking and finance sector. There are high-value manufacturing and engineering jobs in the industry that would be very difficult to replace if they were lost. According to the previous Government’s 2009 value added scoreboard, the aerospace and defence sector added £12 billion in value to the economy. In addition, Oxford Economics also found that a £100 million investment in the industry generates an increase in gross output of £227 million and increases Exchequer revenues by £11.5 million. The defence industry is very important to us.
Alongside that, however, there is an issue that was raised by my hon. Friends the Members for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) and for Islington North. They suggested that, within the redevelopment and the rebalancing of our economy, it would be preferable if defence played a less significant part. The implication that I took from their comments was that they were suggesting not only that we should grow the rest of the economy while the defence industry stays the same, so that defence becomes less significant, but that we should try to reduce the amount that we are doing with regard to defence. Although I agree with many of the comments that have been made in the debate, I take issue with that particular suggestion. Given that there will be arms going out there into the world; given that we are a country that has a strong track record of taking issues of arms control seriously; and given the many steps that we are taking in terms of increasing transparency, it is absolutely right that we should want to ensure that weapons that are going out into the world are going out responsibly, rather than saying, “Let’s shrink our industry and let someone else do that”.
It is important to get that side of the scrutiny right, and the Select Committee plays a key part in that. In doing that, we take responsibility for what is out there in the world and for the way in which weapons are supplied, rather than simply allowing them to be supplied by nations that would not perhaps take the same care. That is the only point on which I take issue with what was said.
[Hugh Bayley in the Chair]
I am listening with interest to my hon. Friend. Does he agree that we are lucky to live in a stable democracy when the majority of peoples in the world probably do not? We must take that major factor into account when thinking about how to develop our economy in that area, and the Committee’s work is a step in that direction. Does he not believe that we need to think more about that issue?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are having this debate for precisely that reason, and that is why the Committee’s work is so important and why the previous Government introduced arms export controls and made a lot of progress. I would never say that we should take the view, “Someone’s going to supply the weapons so it might as well be us”—we need strong, stringent controls. Having a Government whom we know are responsible and an industry that is scrutinised as strongly as possible is for the betterment of the world—and, by the way, has strong economic and commercial benefits. I will return later to some of the important conflicts that my hon. Friend mentioned.
In a statement, the leader of the Labour Party, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), expressed some of the challenges, saying that
“we should never reduce foreign policy to a narrow pursuit of commercial gain for Britain…we should also examine our arms sales to ensure that UK weaponry is not used for the repression of people”
in other countries. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran takes great succour, as do I, from that contribution, which recognises that foreign policy is about much more than simply promoting Britain’s interests. Acknowledging that difficult balance, and notwithstanding the areas of agreement between the parties, the Prime Minister got it wrong when he travelled to the middle east with members of the arms industry at an incredibly delicate time for the future of the region. The visit struck entirely the wrong chord; our country got the balance wrong at that point in time.
In their contributions, many Members have recognised the difficult balance on both sides, and the fine line we tread. Generally, however, the strategic approach of both the previous and the current Government has been that arms must not be sold to nations that will use them for external aggression or internal repression, and that they should be used, as it says on the tin, for defence. The approach recognises that nations have the right to defend their sovereign lands but not, as we have seen, to oppress their people and use weaponry to stamp on legitimate demonstration.
Britain is a world leader in export controls, and the previous Government took many steps in that area, but that is not to say that there is not a lot more we can do. Before Labour came to power, we had last legislated on arms export controls in 1939. We had the consolidated criteria in 2000 and the Export Control Act in 2002, and since 2004 the quarterly report has brought much greater scrutiny to our arms exports. The success of that regime is highlighted in annex 1 of the Government’s response to the report—Cm 8079—regarding the number of standard individual export licence revocations, particularly to Bahrain, Egypt and Libya in recent months but, as the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling said, to other countries as well. He talked about the increase in the number of revocations, an increase that is not entirely surprising given the recent Arab spring, and the sense of change in that part of the world quite unlike at any other time in recent history.
I recognise many of those steps forward, but doubts remain. I was struck by the many wise contributions of colleagues. The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling talked about the Government’s suggestion that the defence industry’s funding of the Export Control Organisation would be an improvement, and I share entirely his reservations about how the public would view that. Can the Minister explain whether that is being considered because the country wants to address its budget deficit, or because for some reason the Government think it would improve the body’s independence? It sounds rather simplistically like, “He who pays the piper calls the tune,” and I would be very concerned about how that was perceived. Will the Minister, either now or in his contribution, tell us the Government’s thoughts on why that option would be better?
The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling referred to the important matter, detailed in the report, of brass plate companies acting with relative impunity. There is a suggestion in the Foreign Secretary’s statement that there will be easier ways to revoke licences, but there is little information about how that would be delivered, and I hope to hear more detail from the Minister. The right hon. Gentleman also spoke about the importance of pressing, in the European Union, for the amendment of article 4.2, and more broadly about the importance of the Government’s work in getting international co-operation within the EU on the arms trade treaty. I am looking for a commitment from the Government that every necessary resource will be given to our negotiating team, to ensure that, given the Government’s worthwhile intentions, we have done everything possible to secure a much stronger realisation among our international partners of the importance of the treaty, and that vested interests do not get in the way of delivering the detail that we need.
My hon. Friends the Members for North Ayrshire and Arran and for Islington North talked about the importance of the report and of this debate, and expressed their hope that the continued work of the Committee—work that does it great credit—is as strong as it has been in its first year. My hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran reflected on the conflict between commercial and ethical considerations, and on the delicate balance that exists. In simple terms, what is laid out strategically in the document, if properly enforced and enacted, should strike the correct balance. It makes it clear that the UK defence industry is important and contributes commercially and that we have high expectations for its administration and transparency, but that notwithstanding any commercial interests, if attempted trade conflicts with the criteria—if weapons will be used for internal repression or are likely to aggravate armed conflict—licences should either be revoked or not given. The policies before us contain the means to act; we must ensure, where failures have occurred, that those policies are pursued as they should be.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran reflected on the importance of ensuring that we keep the review in our minds after it has faded from the news and that our focus on it does not move on when the news agenda does. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) spoke about security, assistance overseas and conflicts between that and other services and trade. He spoke particularly about the lack of transparency in counter-narcotics work. With his tremendous experience in foreign affairs, he will recognise that there is always a balance between transparency and security. None the less, he expressed the view that he wanted more transparency. He asked valid questions about the visits of the former Defence Secretary to Sri Lanka, and if he does not get answers today, I know that he will pursue them on another day.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islington North focused on the particularly important issue of torture equipment. The Committee’s work to hold the Government to account on that issue is valuable. He also focused on the corruption of armies’ aims under some regimes in other parts of the world.
The importance of US-UK defence trade co-operation was mentioned in the report, but not in the debate. We welcome it and recognise that its primary purpose is to improve the delivery of military capability and UK firms’ access to US-sourced equipment and information, but it also has knock-on benefits.
Will the Minister reflect in his response on the performance of the Export Control Organisation? Does he believe that the complaints about its performance by the industry are valid? I have written to him with a parliamentary question asking how delayed the 36% of standard individual export licences are that are not processed within 20 days. I recognise that the report says that last year, the ECO missed its target, and that there have been improvements since then, but I am interested specifically in the percentage of SIELs that are not processed within 20 days. Are they a couple of days late, a couple of weeks late or much later than that? He will, as I say, shortly receive a written parliamentary question to that end, but if he can shed any light on the matter today, that would be wonderful.
Given the extent of the cuts to UK defence budgets and the tremendous pressure they are putting on the UK defence industry, it is vital that licence applications be processed in a timely fashion when our defence industry attempts to trade with trusted nations that present no large-scale concerns. The defence industry reports that contracts have been lost in cases where there were no worries about the licence application, but the process simply took longer than it should have. Business vital to this country’s defence industry is being lost as a result of bureaucratic failure.
The Foreign Secretary’s report has been some time in coming. The Committee’s report was published in July and contains numerous questions to which we have awaited the Foreign Secretary’s response. He said that he would return to it in his statement, but the brevity of the statement and its lack of detail are disappointing. I look forward to hearing the Minister expand on it.
On the new ability to suspend arms licences, on what grounds does the Minister think that is likely to happen? Will it be based purely on evidence, or will it take risk into account? If there have been no failures in the past but risk assessment procedures suggest that there will be problems in future, will arms licences be suspended on that basis? Will he expand on the revised risk assessment procedures, which will consider more factors? The Foreign Secretary’s statement says that there will be greater ministerial oversight. How will that be triggered? Are any extra resources being provided for that? How will it be delivered within the improvements in end-use monitoring? What specifically are the improvements to transparency in reporting?
I agree with the Committee that the Government’s move to bring the British consolidated criteria in line with the EU consolidated criteria appears too protracted. What is the time line on that? Do the Government accept the view of the Export Group for Aerospace and Defence on the ECO’s performance? Finally, what resources will the UK negotiating team on the arms trade treaty have at its disposal to push for the strongest possible deal internationally? Can the Minister assuage the Committee’s concern that the resource being given is insufficient to ensure that something sustainable, workable and powerful will be delivered?
We are grateful for the work done by the Committee, and we look forward to working positively and constructively with the Government on the issue. We recognise that there are good intentions across the House. If we feel that the fine line to which many colleagues have referred is being overstepped, or that this country’s vital commercial interests are superseding equally vital, if not more vital, ethical interests, we will be quick to say so. We want to be certain that the stamp “Made in Britain” can go out around the world with pride, and that everything possible has been done to ensure that those products are being delivered to nations and organisations we can be proud to trade with.
The hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) was right to say that it is disappointing that only five Members have spoken, but my goodness, we have had some informed contributions, and it has been a constructive and wide debate. It has covered everything from licensing to the defence industry, Sri Lanka, the middle east, the Arab spring, the arms trade treaty, brass-plate companies and so on. I will come to all those points in my closing remarks if I can, and will try to respond to all the issues raised.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley). As his Committee colleague the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) said, he is assiduous and determined, and he keeps us on our toes. That is exactly as it should be. It does not necessarily make things easier from my point of view, but that is what the relationship between Parliament and the Government should be. Although I suspect that I might come to regret those remarks at different points, what my right hon. Friend does is nevertheless important.
These are crucial issues and there are real tensions—as has been highlighted in a number of contributions—about how we strike the right balance. Sometimes we will make a judgment with which members of the Committees are not comfortable, and on which they will seek to scrutinise us. I will come specifically to that in a moment, on the question of licences and revocations. Nevertheless, the debate needs to be purposeful. We seek to do our best to ensure that we are clear and open where we can be so, so that the Committees can do their job. That is an important point.
Let me turn to the key points raised, starting with the Arab spring. It is clear that those events—which raced in weeks and months from one end of the Mediterranean to the other and into the middle east—caught most, if not all, commentators by surprise. That series of events reinforced the need for a robust but transparent export licensing regime. This country has one of the most rigorous export control systems in the world, but that does not stop us from continually seeking improvements that can and should be made to the system.
I will come in a moment to the broader issue of the number and character of revocations raised by my right hon. Friend, and what that means about the judgments that Governments make. I will briefly turn to the statement made by the Foreign Secretary last week and then come to the wider issue about judgment and systems. On Thursday last week, the Foreign Secretary tabled a written ministerial statement, drawing on the evidence that we have been able to conclude from looking at the issue. That concluded there was no evidence of any misuse of controlled military goods, exported from the United Kingdom to the middle east or north African regions. However, we did identify areas that could be strengthened, in particular our ability to respond to rapidly changing situations.
There are three points to make in response to the contribution from the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins). We propose, first, a new mechanism to suspend licensing to countries experiencing a sudden change in circumstances, for example, due to an outbreak of conflict or political instability; secondly, a revised risk categorisation, which will enhance our assessment against all the export control criteria and provide for enhanced ministerial oversight; and thirdly, to continue to work to improve public information on defence and security exports, including enhanced transparency of routine export licensing decisions.
As I said previously, I think for six months’ work the statement is pretty light on detail. It refers to a mechanism to allow immediate licensing suspension. What is that mechanism? On each of the issues, we would agree with the general headline but we want to know what it actually means.
The first thing we had to do was analyse a live situation in a number of different countries, to ensure the analysis both in each country and across them was accurate. Given that even now—as we know in particular today—events are still happening in that part of the world, we need to ensure that we have that analysis right. With respect, that six-month period might appear longer than hon. Members might like, but as we are dealing with a live situation in a range of different countries, there will be common factors that we need to incorporate into the changes, but there will also be distinct issues in different countries. That is an important point to bear in mind.
We will shortly set out the implementation of the changes, so that we get the mechanisms right, and ensure that working across Government we will update the House on that in due course.
Before the Minister leaves the issue of the revised risk categorisation, I want to put a key point to him. I understand that the Minister cannot speak for the revoked export licences that were granted by the previous Government. However, in the list of 158, there are quite a number granted by the current Government since they came into office. What is the degree of confidence among the Minister and his colleagues that, if the proposed revised risk categorisation had been in place before the Arab spring, none of those export licences, which were granted, would have been granted?
The intention is to ensure that no inappropriate grants are made. Can I be absolutely sure that a system we devise will preclude any decision made that in due course we look back on and decide to revoke? It is difficult to say I can absolutely guarantee that. The intention is to hone that risk assessment, that categorisation, so that it is more sensitive, and perhaps to understand the changed political dimension in those countries, and therefore the lessons we may see in other countries as well.
I am always wary of saying to the House, “Never again” or, “This will absolutely guarantee that what some people may categorise as misjudgments may be made in the future.” The intention, to which we will rightly be held to account by the House, is to ensure that we limit the opportunity for that kind of miscalculation.
I have been in a country, Bosnia, where there was an arms embargo. Under the new conditions, would it be possible, in addition to revoking a licence, to re-implement it, at least in part? I refer specifically to the fact that I watched the Bosnian Muslim army beaten unmercifully and brutally, with no means of proper defence. Its means of proper defence were denied, due to an international arms embargo, of which we were part.
That highlights the dangers and the challenges around policy and military issues, and the difficulty—with particular regard to the nature of warfare today, which my hon. and gallant Friend understands better than I, having served in our armed forces—of getting the judgment absolutely right. I suspect he is pointing to an area where, on reflection, the west would rather not have seen the outcomes it has. However, I do understand.
I commend the Minister for suspending the export licences to Bahrain earlier this year. The list of items suspended is very comprehensive. Most of the equipment suspended was anti-personnel or crowd-control equipment that is now being used by the Bahrain forces to deal with what they term dissident forces in the country. We have sold the same kind of equipment to most countries in the region. It is in all probability being used in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and other places. Does the Minister not think that the sale of equipment to regimes that do not allow normal political dissent and freedom of speech and assembly should be thought through a bit more? Should we not use those criteria first, rather than wait for an eruption?
I understand the point, though it is not only authoritarian regimes that act in a way we sometimes find unacceptable, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out earlier. That is the point of the new criteria: to look at how we better judge those risks in future and try to learn from decisions made in the past. In a sense, it comes to the broader issue of revocations raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling. I am grateful that he accepted that there are a substantial number of revocations. That is important for us to do. Some might argue that that is an indication of a greater number of previous errors. That is a judgment for others, not for me to concur with.
Although I do not concur with the view expressed about the appropriateness or otherwise of the Foreign Secretary’s statement, the point about the need for Government to think about both systems and judgments is perfectly reasonable. I suspect there will be times when we make judgments with which the Committee might not be comfortable. However, the need to have regard for both systems and judgments is understood, and I respect that point.
A number of hon. Members asked how licensing works. I welcome the remarks from different hon. Members that we have a strong defence industry, which is something to be welcomed, especially in difficult economic times. Although the defence industry in this country is sometimes controversial, it is vital to our manufacturing base. Defence exports help to maintain key engineering skills in the UK; indeed, some 300,000 people work in that sector, many of whom are skilled. I accept the matter raised by the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) and understand the point the hon. Member for Islington North was making. I do not necessarily share his full view about turning swords into ploughshares, but he makes a perfectly reasonable and respectable point that should be put on the record.
The defence industry is important, as the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Chesterfield also clearly believes. We need to ensure that we support skilled individuals in that industry. If I may stray an inch beyond the demarcation of the debate, I should also say that spreading our engineering and manufacturing base is a crucial challenge to us, which I am happy to take up and on which we have been working hard. The volume of licensing activity has increased significantly, which is partly because legitimate defence exporters have been getting their job right. At the same time, as was raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling, the Export Control Organisation has made considerable improvements in its efficiency. However, we are in a very tough public expenditure climate and efficiency savings can, of course, only take us so far.
Several right hon. and hon. Members raised the issue of charging. Let me make this point. Charging is an idea that we have explored with exporters, but only as part of the wider question of how we best reform the service to ensure we deliver the best kind of service without diminishing the quality of the controls that have been debated in this Chamber. What I would say is if and when—and I emphasise “if” and “when”—that subject becomes a formal Government proposal with a timetable, we will launch a full public consultation. However, I accept the point raised by my right hon. Friend about the need to ensure the consultation reflects the independence of the Export Control Organisation. That is a perfectly legitimate point to make and were we to go down that road, we would obviously wish to include that matter in the consultation, so that we can be satisfied that we have got the balance right. Again, that was a useful point raised in the debate.
We, as a Government, do not feel there needs to be a conflict between effective export controls and supporting a strong defence sector. As has been discussed, regulations that are timely and effective are of key importance to both the competitiveness of the UK industry and strong export controls. Since last year, we have sought to improve both how the regulations work and the processes. For example, the export control order was amended three times last year. An amending order came into force in August 2010 which, among other changes, added anti-vehicle landmines to category B of the trade controls, which means that trade in those items by UK persons anywhere in the world is subject to control.
Does that also include a universal jurisdiction application for any person who arrives in this country who has been trading in those illegal landmines? Would they be subject to the law of this country even though the offence had not been committed within UK jurisdiction?
The point is that putting those items into category B of the trade controls means that, wherever a person has traded in them, they are brought within category B and therefore within the controls that the hon. Gentleman has described.
The Committees’ report welcomes the fact that the Government are exploring ways to exercise effective control of brass-plate companies. We are considering a range of options, and most hon. Members understand that the issue is complex and challenging. The problem is how to ensure that any measure we take tackles overseas trade effectively—in other words, activity outside our own jurisdiction. There is a debate around whether pre-licensing registration for category C and other types of trade should operate. Our concern is whether, in fact, that would deter the sort of illegal arms trader we are talking about, because, for them, the revocation of registration would, frankly, not affect their trade or, indeed, their behaviour. We understand and are considering that issue, which is thorny and has vexed the minds of many Ministers before me. We will come back to the Committees in due course on that matter. I want to ensure that if we introduce a proposal, it will work in practice, rather than just announcing something that does not work. That is the challenge, and we are trying to get it right. However, I accept the Committees’ point on that.
I want to discuss one change to the export control order, because hon. Members have rightly raised the issue of lethal injection. On 30 November last year, as has been mentioned, we brought into force an order with regard to sodium thiopental in the United States. We took that action following reports that some states in the US were using it in the process of lethal injections. We then moved on to consider the other drugs that are used in lethal injections in some, although not many, US states. We consulted the industry, because the difficulty with some of those drugs is that they have a dual use that is perfectly legitimate and medicinal. Having done that, in April, we introduced a new order that imposed controls on potassium chloride, pancuronium bromide and sodium pentobarbital. In doing so, the Government are seeking to lead the way in introducing domestic controls in that area, and we are now pushing for action at an EU level. Those are important advances, because they demonstrate that the Government are willing to listen to concerns and respond where there is evidence to do so, applying controls that are proportionate to the risk in a way that does not unduly burden legitimate businesses.
I want to discuss two other points in that field: first, several hon. Members have mentioned expanded military end-use control; and, secondly, I want to address the question of torture end-use control. On expanded military end-use control, the Government have always made it clear that any changes should be adopted right across the EU not only to be fully effective, but in order not to disadvantage legitimate UK exporters. We expect to see a formal proposal by September 2012 and that the subsequent legislative process will continue into 2013. In the meantime, for the reasons that I have mentioned, we do not intend to take any action at a national level. That step forward from the Commission and the fact it has begun the preparation of the dual use regulation is encouraging. I hope that that is helpful to the Committees’ deliberations.
I shall also update hon. Members on the progress made with regard to torture end-use control, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Islington North. This country has the most rigorous controls on equipment identified as being used in torture, which are known as category A goods. In April this year, as we reported back to the Committee, I wrote to Baroness Ashton asking her to introduce controls on the export of drugs used in execution by lethal injection. I also asked her to consider a torture end-use control. I can tell hon. Members that she has replied and has confirmed that this autumn the Commission will begin the process of amending the annexes to the torture regulation to control execution drugs. I understand that a meeting has been proposed for sometime in November. Baroness Ashton has also advised us that, once the process is complete, the Commission will examine the scope of the regulation and, at that point, I will make further representations on the end-use control. If there are any further developments on that, I would be happy to write to the Chair, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling, to bring him and other Committee members up to speed. Although there was an initial delay from my original pressing of the Commission in April, the fact that we have now got a response is an encouraging step forward.
Several hon. Members have mentioned the effective operation of the Export Control Organisation. We have been seeking to improve that organisation. The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran mentioned the question of sales in that field and what that means for licensing numbers, as did the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Chesterfield. The number of applications received by ECO has increased from 12,729 standard individual export licence applications in 2008 to 16,477 last year. The truth is that that increase has meant that ECO has fallen slightly behind the target time for processing standard individual export licences, which is running at 64% being processed within 20 days—the target is 70%.
This year has been challenging. The events across north Africa and the middle east have created huge fluctuations in licence application flow and increased complexity in processing individual cases. It is still too early to know the full outcomes for the year, as we are only in October. However, it is expected that the performance we saw last year, just missing the 70% target, may well continue this year. I am monitoring and pursuing the matter, and I am aware that the staff have had to deal with a substantial change in events. Nevertheless, there is work to do.
While there has been some criticism from business, to which I am listening, there has also been some praise. For example, last year ECO won the “better regulation” category of the National Business Awards. The panel found that it was a great example of a public sector organisation applying the best commercial principles and systems to increase the service offering for its customers. The panel also said that ECO had demonstrated that it had substantially reduced the regulatory burden at every level without compromising national security. These have been a difficult couple of years for the staff, so I would like to put on record my thanks to them for having achieved this while having to deal with a reduction in resources.
On the operational issues that hon. Members have touched on, ECO has also responded to calls from former Committees in the field of operational questions. We amended the end-user undertaking for standard licences in July 2010 to make it clear that an export licence does not authorise re-export, and that the risk of unauthorised export is a factor in our licensing decisions. That is an important change. We have also taken positive steps to strengthen the service for legitimate exporting companies. For example, in June we launched two new advisory services, the control list classification advice service and the end-user advice service, as part of a more efficient way of dealing with things. Secondly, we continue to run what have proved to be successful training seminars. So far this year, 24 training courses have been delivered involving 627 delegates. We think that that will rise to 40 courses by the end of the year.
Hon. Members have raised the issue of enforcement. That is an important point, so let me touch on it briefly before I move on to some of the other topics, including the arms trade treaty. From August 2010 to September 2011, we sent 56 warning letters. We audited those letters three to six months later and found that in all cases the warning letter had led to a significant improvement in the exporter’s administrative processes. That is important, because Governments are often good at issuing notices, but not necessarily as good at following them up. It is therefore encouraging to see that good progress.
Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the UK Border Agency and the Crown Prosecution Service continue actively to enforce UK export controls, as well as the United Nations, EU and Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe sanctions. Between April 2009 and March 2010—when I have the most up-to-date figures I will bring them forward, but these are the best we have at the moment—HMRC and UKBA made 134 seizures of unlicensed strategic exports at the UK border. During the same period, HMRC and the CPS worked together to prosecute successfully five significant cases of export control violations, including the illegal supply of military and radiation detection equipment to Iran.
The Bribery Act 2010 came into force on 1 July 2011. I will come to the issue of bribery and corruption in the arms trade treaty in a moment, but it is worth pointing out that, as a Government coming into challenging economic times, we nevertheless chose to proceed with the implementation of the 2010 Act. That was not always welcomed across business and industry, but the Ministry of Justice has rightly put in place sensible guidance to strike a balance between our economic needs and ensuring that we tackle corruption, whether committed at home or abroad. Therefore, I hope hon. Members recognise that, in the operation of our export controls, we are making important changes and are looking to strengthen how we operate. On that note, the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran mentioned the issue of depleted uranium and whether our policy has changed. I can confirm to her that it has not changed, and I hope that that is helpful.
Several right hon. and hon. Members raised the issue of the arms trade treaty. I was interested to learn—I was not aware, specifically—of the Committees’ discussions with Ambassador Duncan. The diplomatic conference is due to take place in July 2012. The Government are working with key partners to use the remaining time that we have in the most effective way that we can. We want to ensure that we have the right level of resource. We have a cross-Whitehall team working on the treaty that includes not only my Department, but the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence. We continue to use the ATT in both bilateral and multilateral discussions with other states. We are working with civil society and industry partners who share our goals. We have also been able to support a number of ATT-related projects, including research on implementation issues, capacity building in developing states and engagement with key states.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling raised the question whether the Government are committed to the inclusion of corruption in the ATT. The answer is absolutely, and that is very much part of the discussions to which I have just referred. The hon. Member for Ilford South was concerned whether there has been any change in policy on Sri Lanka. The answer is no. I hope that that is crystal clear.
In conclusion, the Government believe that a competitive defence industry and effective export control need not be incompatible. The Committees have, understandably, raised a number of important issues and we take them seriously. We have sought to be as open and thorough as we can, and we are committed to responding to these issues. The debate has been a welcome opportunity to update hon. Members on issues that they have been able to raise, and on others which are pertinent to the questions before us. On that note, I draw my remarks to a close.
In accordance with the usual conventions, I will make a brief winding-up speech. I am grateful to all the right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed. I am grateful to the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) for her support for the Committees’ work. I endorse what she said about the need for the Government to continue to reply in sufficient detail to the Committees’ requests for information, and about the importance of the international arms trade treaty. As she knows, in recent years we have concluded a number of successful international agreements relating to specific weapons. We have had the cluster munitions convention and the anti-personnel landmines agreement, but I believe that this will be the first ever time when the international community has been able to enter into—we hope next year—a treaty covering the arms trade as a whole. That is an immensely significant event. We look forward to the British Government playing a prominent and proactive role in that negotiation.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) for his kind personal comments. He made a significant point about the discrepancy between the degree of information we receive, as the Committees on Arms Export Controls, on arms exports, and, as he illustrated extremely well, the almost nil information that he gets when we are looking at how the Government support security issues, including counter-narcotics overseas. That was a valuable and interesting point. I listened carefully to what he said about Colombia and counter-narcotics, and he rightly pointed out the Foreign Secretary’s written statement of 13 October, which said:
“The Government have also considered how we can strengthen our decision making when we provide security and justice assistance overseas.”—[Official Report, 13 October 2011; Vol. 533, c. 42WS.]
How far that particular area falls within the purview of our Committees, I am not sure, but I will certainly take advice, and the hon. Gentleman made an important point. I also listened with great interest to what he said about human rights and arms export policy towards Sri Lanka, on which he has been most diligent, as a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and of the Committees on Arms Export Controls. I am sure he will continue to pursue the matter.
I appreciated what the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) said about the contribution made by the Committees on Arms Export Controls. If there is a single person to whom the credit should go, I would give it to the late Robin Cook, who was the first Foreign Secretary to take the initiative and to submit to Parliament an annual report on arms exports. That was a major step forward in transparency and accountability. Once the Foreign Secretary had decided to do that, the House had to react by creating a satisfactory Committee structure to respond to that annual Government report. I am pleased to put on the record the tremendous contribution made by the late Robin Cook. That is how the Committees on Arms Export Controls started.
I am grateful for the support the hon. Gentleman gave to the Committees’ position on extraterritoriality, an issue to which I will return when I move on to the Minister’s wind-up. However, for many years now the Committees have been ahead of Government on policy in that area. We were ahead of the previous Labour Government, whom we brought along considerably in our wake. We now appear to be ahead of the new Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition Government, who, equally, we hope to bring along in our wake. In the Committees’ view, and most certainly in my view, the fundamental principle is that it is unacceptable for a British resident to be able to engage in arms transactions overseas that, if carried out in the UK, would be criminal offences. That is the position today; we do not consider that acceptable.
I welcome the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) to his first winding-up speech in his present position. I am glad that he shares my concern about the perception if the ECO is funded by the arms export industry. The issue is very important and we shall certainly be scrutinising it carefully when the Government’s proposals come forward, if they do so.
I am grateful to the Minister for his opening remarks, confirming what the Foreign Secretary has also assured us in several letters sent to me and, therefore, to the Committees: the Government’s policy is to be clear and open with the Committees, which is what we expect. I also welcome his response to my points about the critical value of judgments. I am glad that we agree that, when it comes to individual decisions on export licences, not only the system but the quality of the judgment is at issue. That is of the most profound importance.
The Minister referred to only two of the three areas on which we have so far not had a satisfactory reply—or even a reply—from the Government. He referred to brass-plate companies and to pre-licence registration of arms brokers, but not to extraterritoriality, so in conclusion I ask for what I consider essential: a ministerial written reply on those three areas of recommendation made in our original report, which we have not had to date. Please could we have that as soon as possible, and certainly before we start taking evidence again in a few weeks’ time?
Finally, a number of issues were raised to which the Minister has not been able to reply, but we understand that the subject is huge, covering a number of other Departments. I hope he will take particular note of my specific questions about our key final recommendation, which is that the Government ought to have extended their review of arms exports to north Africa and the middle east into a review of arms exports to authoritarian regimes worldwide. We are still awaiting a reply, and I have put to him the specific questions to which we wish to have the answers.
I thank all Members who have contributed to the debate, which has been extremely helpful. We look forward to an ongoing constructive dialogue with the Government.
Question put and agreed to.