[Relevant documents: First Joint Report from the Committees on Arms Export Controls, HC 186, and the Government response, Cm 8935.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Dr Thérèse Coffey.)
As this will be our last opportunity during this Parliament to debate a report by the Committees on Arms Export Controls, I start by thanking most warmly my colleagues from the four Select Committees who have served on our Committees during this Parliament for the time that they have given, and most particularly for the tenacity that they have brought to our scrutiny of the Government. I also thank our staff who, because they are so few in number, are exceptionally cost-effective. Most particularly I thank the Clerk, Mr Keith Neary, who has given the Committees exemplary service for the greater part of the Parliament during which he has been Clerk.
I am conscious that the increasing width and depth of our Committees’ scrutiny of this key area has imposed a significant additional work load on the four Departments concerned, especially the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, both of which we have visited as Committees to see arms export control procedures in operation. I thank the officials for how they have responded to that increased work load, and I make it clear that in so far as there are shortcomings in those responses, that is entirely a matter for Ministers. That brings me to the two areas of major shortcomings that I must address in opening this debate, both of which relate to what the Committees and I regard as the single most important area of Government policy: the export of weapons and dual-purpose goods that can be used for internal repression.
The previous Government’s arms export control policy was set out in a ministerial written answer on 26 October 2000 by the then Minister of State at the Foreign Office, the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain). It included a key statement of policy, which remained unchanged throughout the life of that Government:
“An export licence will not be issued if the arguments for doing so are outweighed…by concern that the goods might be used for internal repression”.—[Official Report, 26 October 2000; Vol. 355, c. 200W.]
We spent two years during this Parliament going hither and thither with Ministers on whether they adhered to that policy, had changed it, or were seeking to change it. That was brought to a conclusion this year when the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills announced the present Government’s arms export control policy in a written ministerial statement on 25 March. When that statement appeared, the previous Government’s policy wording, which I have just quoted, was dropped. Notwithstanding that fact, the Business Secretary said in his statement:
“None of these amendments should be taken to mean that there has been any substantive change in policy.”—[Official Report, 25 March 2014; Vol. 578, c. 10WS.]
Since March, when the Business Secretary gave his written ministerial answer, the Government have made various attempts to downgrade or outright dismiss the key policy wording on arms exports and internal repression in the original ministerial written answer of October 2000. First, in their latest annual report on United Kingdom strategic export controls, which was published in July, the Government chose to describe the wording in question as “the preamble”, even though the word “preamble” does not appear anywhere in the answer given by the right hon. Member for Neath.
Then, in a letter to me on 6 October, the Foreign Secretary tried to maintain that that key wording did not represent a statement of policy at all, saying:
“The text in question did not contain any substantive statement of policy.”
I leave it to hon. Members to judge whether that is the case:
“An export licence will not be issued if the arguments for doing so are outweighed…by concern that the goods might be used for internal repression”.
That was the statement in the written ministerial answer recorded in Hansard.
I stress to the House that it was the unanimous view of all four Select Committees comprising the Committees on Arms Export Controls that that wording did represent a substantive statement of policy. It was also the view of the right hon. Member for Neath, who came before the Committees to give oral evidence on that very point. When we asked him specifically whether he thought that policy on arms exports and internal repression had changed, he said:
“So I do think the policy has changed. It is a more relaxed approach to arms exports.”
In the light of those facts, as far as the Committees are concerned—we made this clear in our report—only one, regrettable conclusion can be drawn from those important exchanges on arms exports and internal repression: the Government have made a significant change in policy, but have not been prepared to acknowledge that such a change has taken place. I put it formally to the Government that they should consider most carefully whether they should now offer an apology to the Committees and the House for making a change in policy without being prepared to acknowledge that to the Committees.
My right hon. Friend is making an important point. Hon. Members may be aware that, in terms of development, the UK scores extremely well except on one significant issue: arms exports. That is the issue that drives our ratings down the development index. The Minister might not think that that matters, but will he acknowledge that there is a perception, which the Chair of the Committees is bearing out, that the UK is more inclined than other countries to sell arms to countries and regimes where their use may be questionable? That slightly undermines our reputation for being a pro-development leader.
In their excellent report, the right hon. Gentleman’s Committees draw attention to the sale of anti-personnel equipment to Bahrain and raise quite reasonable concerns about its use to control demonstrations and so on. For a while, it seemed that the Government were listening to such concerns, but in April last year, they changed their policy and did indeed sell armoured personnel carriers and other equipment to Bahrain. Does he have any continuing concerns about the supply of such equipment to Bahrain and its use there?
The Committees most certainly do. As the hon. Gentleman will have seen, we included in our report specific questions to the Government about how particular items that have been approved for export to Bahrain can be regarded as compatible with the export criteria that they supposedly follow. We therefore have responded specifically to that.
I come now to our second area of disagreement with the Government on arms export policy and internal repression, which is with particular reference to exports to authoritarian regimes. In successive reports the Committees have made—again unanimously—the following recommendation:
“the Government should apply significantly more cautious judgements when considering arms export licence applications for goods to authoritarian regimes which might be used for internal repression.”
Regrettably, in successive responses, the Government have declined to accept our recommendation.
I shall set out one of the most striking differences between what has happened under the present Government and what took place under the previous one. Under the previous Government, going right back to their election in 1997—shortly after which came the foundation of the Committees, thanks to the initiative of the late Robin Cook, who was the first Foreign Secretary to produce an annual report on arms exports—the number of revocations or suspensions of existing licences stood at a mere handful. However, during the lifetime of the present Government, there has been a massive use of some 400 revocations and suspensions. I do not think that can be attributed only to the fact that there has been a considerable amount of international turbulence and conflict during this Parliament, as there were wars and turbulence during the previous Government’s lifetime.
I make it clear to the Government and the Minister that I am in no way critical of the huge number of revocations—indeed, I believe they are entirely justified. The key question, and the issue that has been exercising the Committees, is whether export approval should have been given to all the licences in the first place. To reflect what was said by the right hon. Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce), in broad-brush terms, the Government’s policy on the export of goods that could be used for internal repression to authoritarian regimes has been that if the situation in a particular country looks to be reasonably quiescent, there is a fairly considerable presumption that the export should be approved, with the Government no doubt saying to themselves, “Well, if things turn really nasty in that country we can always revoke the export licence.”
I suggest to hon. Members that nothing illustrates the weakness and limitations—and indeed the perils—of that policy more clearly than what has happened in Libya. Prior to the Arab spring, there was a significant arms export trade, approved by the Government, to Libya under the Gaddafi regime. Not surprisingly, when the Arab spring came and the Government announced their total list of revocations of arms export licences to Arab spring countries, the greatest single number—a total of 72 licences—was for licences for Libya.
We all know what happened when Gaddafi fell from power. Back in the UK, the Government had imposed their revocations, but they were of very limited effect, for the simple reason that they are of no use whatever for exports that have already been shipped. As I have said before, it was an exercise in shutting the stable door after the arms had bolted. What happened in Libya itself? The security arrangements around Gaddafi’s arms dumps vanished and people ransacked them, principally for financial gain, as they saw an opportunity to make quick and substantial money. As UN experts have reported, those stockpiles were then sold on and dispersed all over the middle east and north and west Africa.
I suggest that nothing better illustrates the cogency of the Committees’ recommendation for a significantly more cautious policy when dealing with arms export licence applications for arms that can be used for internal repression than what has happened in Libya. It is regrettable that, in their response to successive reports, the Government have failed to accept our recommendation for caution. I certainly hope that a future Government will take a different view.
I turn now to the Government’s export policy towards a few individual countries, starting with Russia. The publication of the Committees’ latest report happened to coincide almost exactly with the appalling shooting down of the Malaysian airliner MH17 over eastern Ukraine. That created something of a dilemma for the Government, because although, on the one hand, Ministers, led by the Prime Minister, were rightly condemning the Russian Government for being complicit in the shooting down of the airliner and the terrible loss of life, on the other, as was shown by our Committees’ report, there were no fewer than 285 extant British Government-approved arms export licences to Russia, with a value of some £131 million for the standard individual licences alone.
That led at one point to an unknown spokesman in No. 10 announcing to the media that many of the British Government’s arms exports to Russia were for the Brazilian navy, which I have to say came as news to me, as I suspect it did to a considerable number of other people. However, I thought that I should follow that one up, so I wrote to the Business Secretary to ask him for the stated end user of each of the 285 extant arms export licences to Russia. Disappointingly, he refused to give the Committees that information unless we agreed not to make it public. I see no justification for imposing that condition on the Committees. It is hardly in accordance with the Government’s supposed commitment to transparency on arms exports, and it raises a significant issue of policy for the Committees and, therefore, the House. The Government already make public the countries to which approved UK arms exports are going, but in many cases we need to know not just the names of the countries, but the end users in those countries. For example, will the end user be a Government body, a Government security authority or a civilian user? That is key information, but at the moment, the Government simply pick and choose when they will disclose the end users. They gave the Committees the end users when we wanted to know who they were in relation to the export of dual-use chemicals to Syria. They told us the end users when we wanted to know who they were for sniper rifles exported to Ukraine. However, they have refused to give us that information for Russia on the basis that it may be made public, and the Committee will want to address that policy issue further.
What is the Government’s present policy on arms exports to Russia? The Prime Minister said in the House:
“On the issue of defence equipment, we already unilaterally said—as did the US—that we would not sell further arms to Russia”.—[Official Report, 21 July 2014; Vol. 584, c. 1157.]
I would be grateful if the Minister clarified two points. First, when the Prime Minister said that we would not sell further arms to Russia, was he saying that all or only some will not be sold to Russia? If he was saying just some, which will continue to be sold? Secondly, on new licence applications, will the Minister clarify whether the Prime Minister’s statement means that all new licence applications to Russia are being refused, or only some, and if only some, which? The Minister’s clarification will be helpful.
I am sure that there was great concern among hon. Members on both sides of the House about some of the measures taken by the Hong Kong security authorities against those who were exercising their right to demonstrate peacefully, and especially the fact that tear gas was used against demonstrators. I am in no doubt that if the Metropolitan police had used tear gas against those who recently demonstrated peacefully in Parliament square, there would have been considerable concern and perhaps outrage on both sides of the House.
I thought that the Committees should do their own analysis of precisely what items of lethal and non-lethal equipment that could be used for internal repression the Government had recently approved for Hong Kong. We took the information from the website of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills for the last two years from January 2012. Our analysis showed that the Government had approved tear gas exports to Hong Kong in four of the past eight quarters since January 2012. If those licence approvals were given on the grounds that the security authorities in Hong Kong would never use tear gas against those demonstrating peacefully, that was a questionable assumption, given mainland China’s track record of dealing with peaceful demonstrators. Our analysis of lethal equipment approved for export to Hong Kong since January 2012 showed that it included pistols, sniper rifles and gun silencers, which were all stated to be for use by a law-enforcement agency.
I have written to the Business Secretary to ask a series of questions about the Government’s policy on arms exports to Hong Kong, including:
“Have any extant Government approved export licences to Hong Kong been revoked or suspended?”
I also asked:
“What is the Government’s present policy on approving new licences for the export of arms and equipment to Hong Kong that could be used for internal repression?”
We have just received the Business Secretary’s reply, a key paragraph of which is:
“No licences for Hong Kong have been revoked, suspended or had Hong Kong removed from a multiple destination open licence. The Foreign Secretary has advised me that the use of tear gas by the Hong Kong police was an uncharacteristic response at an early stage of the protests, the scale of which caught the police by surprise, and was not indicative of a wider pattern of behaviour that would cross the threshold of criterion 2. In his view that, since that incident, the Hong Kong police have generally approached the protests carefully and proportionately. I have accepted this advice.”
I am sure that the Committees will want to reflect on the Business Secretary’s response and then report to the House. My own view, having received that letter only a short time ago, is that the reply seems to reflect the more relaxed approach to arms exports that could be used for internal repression to which I have referred. It certainly makes me wonder whether, if the original wording in the October 2000 statement by the right hon. Member for Neath had been retained instead of dropped, those arms exports of both lethal and non-lethal equipment would have been approved in the first place.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, given the political situation in Hong Kong and the concerns that have been expressed internationally, there must be a real risk of a recurrence of exactly the sort of event during which tear gas was used against civilian protestors? There has not yet been a resolution of that protest; it continues in Hong Kong today.
There is certainly a risk of a recurrence of exactly what the hon. Lady describes. I hope that a lesson has been learned by the Hong Kong police that it is not acceptable to use tear gas against those who are demonstrating peacefully. It remains a matter of concern to me, and I am sure that the members of the Committees will want to look closely at the analysis that accompanied my letter to the Business Secretary. The Committees will want to scrutinise closely whether it was wise in the first instance to approve exports of the sort of equipment—lethal and non-lethal—to which I have referred.
In turning to Israel, I want to make it crystal clear at the outset that I condemn unreservedly Hamas’s indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israel. However, Israel has serious questions to answer about its use of lethal weapons that has resulted in the recent death of well over 2,000 Palestinians—men, women and children—in Gaza, the great majority of whom were certainly not Hamas fighters.
The Foreign Office, in its annual human rights report, includes Israel—entirely rightly in my view—in its list of the 28 countries of top human rights concern to the British Government. In our latest report, we have listed for each of those countries the extant UK Government-approved arms export licences. Our report shows that Israel has the third largest number of extant arms export licences of those 28 countries, with a total of 470—a figure exceeded only by China and Saudi Arabia. In addition, our report shows that of those 28 countries’ extant arms export licences, the largest by value is Israel’s, totalling £8 billion in value. However, I want to stress this very important point: that £8 billion is largely made up of a gigantic cryptographic equipment export order, valued at £7.7 billion, which the Defence Secretary, when he was Minister of State at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, assured the Committees was
“for purely commercial end use.”—[Official Report, 21 November 2013; Vol. 570, c. 426WH.]
Early in August, following what happened in Gaza, I wrote to the Foreign Secretary, asking him to list the controlled goods that the British Government had approved for export to Israel and that the Government had reason to believe may have been used by Israel in the recent military operations in Gaza. The Foreign Secretary gave me his reply on 19 August, saying
“officials have judged it unlikely that many of the components that were the subject of extant licences were for incorporation into systems that would be likely to be used offensively in Gaza”.
However, he went on to say, significantly in my view, that
“12 licences have been identified…where, in the event of a resumption of significant hostilities, and on the basis of information currently available to us, there could be a risk that the items might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law.”
I think that is a very significant statement by the Foreign Secretary, and it once again reinforces the Committees’ recommendation for a significantly more cautious policy when dealing with the export of arms that can be used for internal repression.
I have two points to make: first, was the right hon. Gentleman concerned about the supply of drone aircraft parts to Israel during the recent operation and, I believe, since then? Secondly, was it ever identified exactly what the commercial purpose of the massive £7.7 billion order was, and what the boundaries were between commercial use, civilian control and military use?
The hon. Gentleman, again, is on to a very important area, and that again highlights the need to get much more transparency about end users. He makes an extremely valid point, which applies even more strikingly in relation to non-democratic countries—one-party state countries such as Russia and China, in effect, where there is no clear boundary between the Government sector and the private sector at all. That is why we need to get the Government to accept that these Committees, and therefore the House, are entitled to end-use information.
On components for unmanned aerial vehicles, I can only refer the hon. Gentleman to what I just read out from the Foreign Secretary’s letter; he specifically refers to components that were for “incorporation into systems”. His view was that it was unlikely that they were used in Gaza, and I cannot take it any further than that, I am afraid.
If I may, I will just complete my points on individual countries. There are obviously a very large number of individual countries and others want to speak, and I want them to have their full time, but I make this point: in our report, we identified 12 countries in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s list of 28 countries of top human rights concern where it seemed to us that specific exports appeared to be in breach of one or more of the Governments’ arms export criteria. In our recommendations, we asked the Government to state why those exports were approved. Those 12 countries were: Afghanistan, China, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Syria, Uzbekistan and Yemen. We also asked the same question in relation to five other countries that are of concern to the Committees but are not on the FCO’s list of 28. Those five countries were Argentina, Bahrain, Egypt, Tunisia and Ukraine.
For most of those countries, as the House will see in the Government’s response to our report—the Command Paper—the Government came back with a fairly formulaic response, certainly as far as the opening of their reply was concerned. They used this formula:
“The Government is satisfied that the currently extant licences for”—
and then they put in the name of the country—
“are compliant with the Consolidated Criteria”.
I want to assure the House that we shall not let the matter rest there. In our view, there is a substantial mismatch between what has been disclosed about extant licences and the Government’s arms export criteria. We want to examine that further, and we shall take oral evidence shortly from the industry and non-governmental organisations, and from the Business Secretary and the Foreign Secretary.
I turn to the other area of our report, which is international arms control agreements. Virtually all international arms control agreements are designed to control or halt proliferation of both conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction. The Committees have therefore extended their scrutiny of the Government’s policy to the entirety of international arms control agreements. The Government give an explanation of their policy in relation to some of those agreements in their “United Kingdom Strategic Export Controls Annual Report”, but a number of key agreements are omitted. For example, there is no reference to the fissile material cut-off treaty, or the chemical weapons convention, or the biological and toxin weapons convention, or significantly, to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
In the Committees’ last report, they recommended that the Government, in their annual report, make their coverage of international arms control agreements comprehensive, instead of only partial. It is disappointing that the Government, in their response to our questions on their annual report, have not accepted that recommendation, but I assure the House that the Committees will continue to scrutinise the Government’s policy across the totality of international arms control agreements.
I come to a few of the specific agreements, starting with the arms trade treaty. We warmly welcome the British Government’s ratification of the arms trade treaty on the first day it opened for ratification—2 April 2014. It is also very encouraging that the 50th country ratification, triggering the treaty’s legal entry into force, has now been achieved. According to the Government response to our report, entry into force will take place on Christmas eve 2014—an excellent Christmas present to all those concerned with international arms control.
However, it is particularly disappointing that of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council only the UK and France have ratified the treaty thus far. The US has signed but not ratified, and China and Russia have neither signed nor ratified. The House will agree that it would be a dismally poor example to the rest of the world if the remaining three members of the P5 failed to ratify the arms trade treaty. I hope that the British Government will continue to do their utmost to get those key countries to do so.
One of the most important arms control events in 2015, if not the most important, will be the nuclear non-proliferation treaty review conference. In our report, we recommended that
“the Government states as fully as possible in its Response what are now its objectives for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in 2015”.
We did not get a particularly full response from the Government, but they did come back with three objectives:
“We want to agree further progress towards a world free from nuclear weapons and to highlight our actions in support of this; encourage action that will help to contain any threat of proliferation or non-compliance with the NPT; and support the responsible global expansion of civil nuclear industries.”
I hope that the Government will be rather more forthcoming, both to the Committees and to Parliament, about their detailed and specific objectives, and how they propose to try to achieve them in the run-up to the NPT review conference.
One of the great and largely unsung achievements of the Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher era was the intermediate-range nuclear forces agreement of 1987. The INF treaty is far and away the most important nuclear disarmament agreement that has been achieved since nuclear weapons were created. It was also the first and only time that the US and Russia reached a nuclear disarmament agreement based on zero-zero on each side. Against that background, it is of great concern that reports have appeared that Russia may be in breach of its INF treaty obligations. I took that up with the Foreign Secretary, who in his reply said:
“The US State Department’s recent annual ‘compliance’ report (Adherence to and compliance with arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament agreements and commitments) states that ‘the United States has determined that the Russian Federation is in violation of its obligations under the INF treaty not to possess, produce or flight-test a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) with a range capability of 500 km to 5,500 km, or to possess or produce launchers of such missiles.”
That is a very serious statement from the Foreign Secretary and the US State Department. In my view, if the INF treaty breaks down, it will be the most serious reverse for multilateral nuclear disarmament that has so far occurred in the nuclear weapons era. I therefore urge the Government to do their utmost to mobilise the maximum possible international pressure on Russia to restore its adherence to its INF treaty obligations.
To conclude, Ministers are never happier than when they can deal with difficult issues with comforting generalisations. The devil is always in the detail, and in no area is that more true than arms export controls. I therefore make no apology for the length of the Committees’ latest report, which, taken with the all-important volumes of evidence, runs to some 1,000 pages. I hope that it will prove a valuable resource to those in the House and outside who want to inform themselves about the actuality of the UK Government’s arms control and arms export control policies, rather than just resting on ministerial generalisations.
The Committees are not remotely self-satisfied about our scrutiny and are sure that we can improve it further, but I believe that now in the UK Parliament we have the most detailed and most open parliamentary scrutiny of the Government’s arms export policies of any of the major arms exporting countries, including the United States, where, under the relevant legislation, there are financial cut-off thresholds below which exports do not have to be reported to Congress. We of course have no such financial thresholds in our Parliament and in the relevant legislation.
In the course of this Parliament, the Committees on Arms Export Controls have substantially widened and deepened our scrutiny of the Government’s policies. First, we have for the first time put alongside the list of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s countries of top human rights concern—the 28 countries to which I referred—the extant arms export licences approved by the British Government for each of those countries. That has been an extremely worthwhile and very illuminating exercise. It has certainly left me, on certain points, with considerable concerns, but others will draw their own conclusions.
Secondly, we have very substantially extended our scrutiny of the Government’s policies on international arms control agreements. That, too, is a crucial area, even though the subject tends to receive not much public attention, in Parliament or outside. Thirdly, we have in this Parliament extended our scrutiny to a whole series of additional export items, including drones, Tasers, cryptographic equipment, the UK Government’s gifted exports and Government-supported arms export exhibitions.
I hope that we have discharged our scrutiny responsibilities to the House of Commons effectively in this Parliament, and that we have created a strong and powerful springboard for our successor Committees to carry forward scrutiny of the Government’s policies in the key area of arms control and arms export controls in the next Parliament.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak this afternoon, Mr Bayley. First, I want to look back to the debate last November about the work of the Committees on Arms Export Controls, in which we spent quite a bit of time discussing concerns about past and possible future exports to Syria. That was not surprising, given the recall vote that had taken place in September last year on arming opposition groups in Syria, and given the media controversy that had emerged about chemical weapons components coming from the United Kingdom.
At that debate, none of us talked or even knew about ISIL. Very few anticipated the descent into statelessness that we are now witnessing in Libya, to which the Chair of the Committees, the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), has referred. Nobody could have foreseen the devastation and loss of innocent life caused by the conflict in Gaza this summer. That is why I urge all Members of the House to consider whether we are truly comfortable with our current arms export strategy. If we cannot foresee what events will occur in the next 12 months, let alone the next five or 10 years, and as most arms exports have a considerably longer shelf-life, there has never been such a need for a principled, precautionary and risk-based approach in a world of increasing volatility.
The Committees’ work has become more important with each passing year of this Parliament. I take the opportunity to convey my thanks, and that of the other members of the Committees, to our esteemed Chair, to our excellent Clerk, Keith Neary, and to the other staff who service our Committees for their unstinting dedication, thoroughness and unparalleled expertise in the preparation of the substantial and important report that we are discussing.
As the Chair has indicated, our report contains conclusions that are both positive and negative from the Minister’s point of view. The work on the arms trade treaty is a genuinely good sign. I am looking forward to participating next week in the Inter-Parliamentary Union conference here in London with delegates from across the world on how we can use the treaty to make real differences to people who live in conflict-afflicted areas. I hope that the United Kingdom, as it has done throughout the arms trade treaty process, will continue to take a leading role in the development of the treaty. The increased direct involvement of Ministers in the examination of sensitive export applications is also welcome. As the Chair has mentioned, I think that there is a direct correlation between that involvement and the number of licences that have been suspended and revoked in the past few years. Good work has been done on ensuring that applications are dealt with in a timely way and reducing the time-lapse in appeals.
As the Committees have made clear, it is more than disappointing that the Government’s record on transparency has been worryingly regressive this year. Although there is some merit in the aim of easing unnecessary bureaucracy by transferring more of our export licences from individual to open, we must not do that at the expense of transparency on sensitive issues where there are many legitimate concerns and where the geopolitics are changing at great speed.
The scaling back of the transparency initiative, which has included the reversal of previous public commitments by the Government to publish more information on the type, value and quantity of equipment transferred under open licences, sends a worrying message to the wider world that our stated principles may be only superficially adhered to. The fact that that occurred at the same time as the UK signed the arms trade treaty has exasperated many of the NGOs that supported the campaign for the treaty. The Government’s response to our recommendation to reverse that decision was grudging. They said that
“we concluded that the administrative burden would be too high.”
However, no substantive evidence from the industry was offered to justify that conclusion, and there was no such evidence in the Government’s consultation exercise. I believe that the Committees will want to probe that issue more closely in our next set of evidence sessions next month.
As well as transparency, we need consistency. The Committees’ Chair has already stated his concerns about the definition of the common criteria, and I support his views. The Government’s defence was to designate the relevant paragraph
“as a general statement that formed part of the introductory text”.
As such, apparently, it was of no importance. That is, frankly, nonsense. The text is designed to be read as a whole, and the reader is entitled to presume that it is consistent throughout. If it was not, a caveat would be added to that effect. There is no caveat in the definition of the common criteria, and it is simply unconvincing to try to present one retrospectively after our Committees have been trying to probe the matter for almost two years. That is not a mere grammatical point or a fixation on detail. In a volatile world, where many accepted wisdoms and assumptions have been torn apart and where western nations are increasingly castigated for being driven purely by self-interest, the need for the highest standards and the greatest caution about those to whom we export arms is more pronounced than ever. Much of the turmoil that we are witnessing in the middle east has developed from the impact of internal repression over prolonged periods of time, where, too often, we in the west have not given sufficient weight to the consequent risks.
Another use of language in the Government’s lexicon to ease them out of difficult dilemmas is the term “significant hostilities”. Our annual report predated the dreadful events during July and August in Gaza and Israel, which resulted in the death of more than 2,000 Palestinians, 67 Israelis and one foreign national, as well as the indiscriminate destruction of schools, hospitals and homes and the displacement of more than 470,000 people. As the Chair has done, I condemn the operation of Hamas and the indiscriminate bombing of Israel, but I also condemn the Israeli Government for the disproportionate nature of the attacks on Gaza, the consequences of which the civilian population had to take.
The UK working group on arms has stated its concern that the Government’s failure to suspend or revoke any of the existing licences is contrary to their obligations under articles 6 and 7 of the arms trade treaty, within which the Government have indicated that they are operating. The Government did not even follow their own domestic licensing criteria. As soon as hostilities commenced in July, there was a clear risk that the United Kingdom might be supplying military equipment that could be used, as the former Foreign Secretary indicated in a letter to the Committees, in the commission of serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. The only proper response should have been the immediate suspension, if not the revocation, of the 12 licences identified by the Government in their internal review. In the Government’s response of 19 August, however, a new criterion appears to have been added. Suspension or revocation would not occur unless there was
“a resumption of significant hostilities”.
As the UK working group pointed out, that phrase has set a new, arbitrary and subjective threshold and a dangerous precedent.
I am looking forward to the Minister’s response, and I hope that he will tell us on what basis that new test was agreed. Was there a discussion between No. 10, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Foreign Office or the Department for International Development about setting that qualification? I am sure that the document went past every single relevant ministerial desk before it was issued to our Committees. Has there been any discussion with our EU partners about a common approach on exports to Israel following the summer hostilities? Are the Government now prepared to remove that additional test and revert to their original criteria? If so, will they reconsider the licences and act to suspend them if those criteria have not been met?
As always, the Committees’ report contains a paragraph on the annual international arms fair in London. Frankly, it is time to put that embarrassing saga to an end. I fail to understand why the review has had to take 18 months so that the results are conveniently announced as the Government wind up business in time for the general election in the hope that attention is diverted elsewhere so that we do not see the report’s conclusion. Given that the organisation of such a large and substantial trade fair probably starts the day after the conclusion of the previous fair, surely the organisers, participants and Government staff tasked with enforcement need to know what may be required by the end of this year. Rather than waiting the full 18 months, is there any possibility that the Government can respond much more speedily to conclude the review and provide our Committees with the review’s conclusions so that we may comment on the conclusions in our final report before Parliament is dissolved?
Finally, I am concerned about the increasing use of surveillance equipment, including intrusion software, which I raised in last year’s debate. It is welcome that changes to controls have been reached this year via the Wassenaar agreement process, but we still await implementation. In their response to our report, the Government stated that they anticipate an amendment of the EU dual-use regulation by the end of this year. Will the Minister confirm whether the timetable will definitely be adhered to? There has been a suggestion that we may be falling behind the timetable for technical reasons. If so, will he confirm that the United Kingdom would consider unilateral measures, along the lines proposed earlier this year by our German partners? Have the Government conducted any recent review of the human rights concerns raised by a number of organisations, including Privacy International, that the current criteria may not be effectively catching exports of surveillance equipment? Privacy International mentions the UK Government’s export of such software to the Indonesian Government with an export credit guarantee this year. Any information that the Minister is able to provide today would be very helpful. If not, I suspect that we will want to probe further when we have our oral evidence session.
As I stated at the start of my speech, we live in a world of increasing volatility. Traumatic events with long-lasting impacts that require complex responses are occurring simultaneously in different regions of the world. The resources of even the most technically sophisticated Governments have been stretched as never before. Last week I heard a member of the US Administration with responsibility for defence matters state that they do not have time for routine meetings, such has been the demand on their time due to the crises across the world in recent months. We need to stop relying on old assumptions and appreciate that the risks are changing rapidly. Our response has to change, and arms exports are a key part of that policy. It can be all too easy for any Government to resort to shortcuts and sticking-plaster responses to avoid difficult choices, but that must be resisted. Clear principles, consistently adhered to with maximum transparency must be the way forward. I urge the Government to continue working with our Committees to achieve that aim.
I am pleased that we are having the debate and look forward to the Minister’s response. This is the fourth day running that I have had meetings with him but, if this helps him, there are no plans for tomorrow.
I thank the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) for his work as Chair of the Committees, for the analysis and the depth of their report, and for his preparedness to present it so well and in such detail today. I hope that we will see elected in the next Parliament someone as diligent and determined to ensure proper scrutiny of arms exports as he has been throughout this Parliament. We all owe him a debt of thanks, and it is sad to think that he will not be here after the next election, unless he changes his mind.
I want to make a number of points, but I will be brief. We should commend the late Robin Cook for our having this debate and these reports, and for the increasing tradition of openness in the Foreign Office on arms exports, human rights matters and recruitment policy in the diplomatic service of the future. The commendable changes that he introduced during his time as Foreign Secretary have stood the test of time. He will be remembered as a great Foreign Secretary for them, as well as for many other reasons.
While I want to raise detailed points about arms exports, we should think about the generality for a second. If we, as a country, export arms of any capacity or capability to another jurisdiction or regime, and those arms are used to abuse the human rights of people within those communities or within that society, that removes our ability to complain about those abuses because, in a sense, we are complicit due to our supplying weapons that have been used to oppress people. In that regard, the criteria adopted by the Committees and the Government’s response make interesting reading. I commend the Foreign Office for how its responses have been set out, because their helpful presentation means that one can quickly read the objection raised by the Committees and the Government’s response to it.
My first point is about Israel and Palestine. To reiterate what is said in the report’s introduction, we all witnessed what happened in Gaza recently. It was not the first operation—I hope it is the last operation, but it certainly was not the first—because there has also been Operation Cast Lead, among others. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) pointed out, we have witnessed the destruction of Gaza several times over. There have been several worldwide appeals to rebuild Gaza only for it to be bombed and then rebuilt again some years later. We are exporting surveillance and other equipment to Israel, and indeed we are importing arms from Israel, but while the war crimes investigation organised by the United Nations Human Rights Council is ongoing, we need to think very carefully about our arms export policy for Israel.
I hope that the Minister is able to explain in detail the massive communications equipment order placed by Israel. I think the expenditure that has been cited is £7.7 billion, which is absolutely massive. I do not know what the equipment is for, but I cannot believe that a country of only 5 million people would want to spend so much on something that, while it could be used for commercial mobile phone services or something else, did not have a military component. I would be grateful to know what inquiries were made, what end-user surveillance there has been for Israel, and whether there will be restrictions on such exports in the future.
Paragraph 159 of the report describes the ongoing issues in Bahrain. For reasons that I do not fully understand, the Government decided at some point that it was safe to sell anti-personnel, riot control-type equipment and armoured personnel carriers to Bahrain. I was at the United Nations Human Rights Council a couple of months ago as a guest speaker in a seminar on human rights in Bahrain and the sale of equipment there. I talked to people who had been brutally assaulted on the streets of the capital city for taking part in a democratic protest. I hesitate to say this, but it seems that some of the equipment with which they were beaten may have been supplied by Britain. I also talked to the families of the medics who were threatened with permanent imprisonment, if not worse, for treating anyone who was injured during the disturbances. The human rights situation in Bahrain is very serious indeed, and I question why we are selling any equipment at all to Bahrain in the current circumstances.
Likewise, paragraph 141 makes the point about the repression of individuals and the unaccountable power of the police on Saudi Arabia. What it does not say—I am not making a criticism, but the report does not say it—is that it is very difficult to find out a lot about what is going on in Saudi Arabia because of the nature of its public media and the difficulties facing foreign journalists who try to report what happens there.
I realise that Saudi Arabia is a massive arms market—not only for Britain, but for other countries—and that seems to have an enormous impact on foreign policy relations with Saudi Arabia. However, the arms that have now appeared among ISIL forces in Iraq and Syria have all come from somewhere. They were not bought at the Defence Security and Equipment International exhibition, or anywhere else; they were bought from people who imported them from the USA, Britain and Russia—all kinds of places all over the world—because they had the financial resources to do so. Those arms were exported under licence at some point, and they have arrived with ISIL and are being used to kill large numbers of people in the most abominable ways. We therefore need to be a lot more assiduous and much tougher about what happens to the arms that we export.
I have deep concerns about Sri Lanka, which is also covered in the report. I would be grateful if the Minister could give us an indication of the Government’s current thinking about the supply of arms to Sri Lanka. I know that the Prime Minister took the correct and quite brave decision to go to Jaffna during the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting and he obviously expressed concern about the treatment of Tamil people at that stage. Are the Government now planning to resume the sale of equipment to Sri Lanka, or not?
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North made a point about the Defence Security and Equipment International exhibition, which has become more than a bit of an embarrassment. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) has pointed out that there were people at the exhibition advertising the sale of things such as electric shock equipment. Although that equipment is totally illegal in this country, it is on sale in London at an exhibition sponsored by the British Government. That is a cause of the deepest embarrassment, and I question whether we should be having the exhibition at all.
Paragraphs 120 to 122 of the report helpfully refer to nuclear weapons and their effects. This area is covered by several treaties, including the non-proliferation treaty. I asked the Minister a question about this on Monday, and I will continue to do so. The Austrian Government are hosting a conference on the humanitarian effects of nuclear weapons in Vienna at the beginning of December. That is a continuation of a conference hosted by the Mexican Government and, before that, by the Norwegian Government. Already, 135 nations have agreed to attend the conference, and 155 nations have supported New Zealand’s statement on the invitation to the next conference. This is a serious discussion about the effects of nuclear weapons on humankind as a whole, including not only those people who have already been affected by the explosions nearly 70 years ago in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but those affected by nuclear testing elsewhere. I hope that the Minister will tell me that the Government are at least seriously considering their invitation to the conference and that they will encourage the other permanent members of the Security Council to attend, too. If we want to live in a nuclear-free world, as everyone claims to wish to, surely attending that conference has to be a good step forward.
The report also cites the middle east weapons of mass destruction-free zone conference, which is now apparently supported by everybody. I have sat through a number of non-proliferation treaty review conferences during which a number of countries—principally countries within the region, and usually countries in the Arab League—have raised a proposal from the 2000 review conference that to stop the proliferation and spread of nuclear weapons across the middle east, as only Israel has nuclear weapons in the region at the moment, that middle east conference should try to create a region free of nuclear weapons and WMD. That has never happened, however. The Finnish Government were unable to organise it, but it has been reiterated that the conference will be held. At the last review conference, every permanent member of the Security Council—Britain, France, Russia, China and the United States—got up and said they supported that. Iran supports it. and Israel has not said no to it, so I wonder what is the impediment to that conference taking place, if all the players want to attend?
At the previous review conference, Egypt walked out. It did not leave the NPT, but its representatives said that they were angry at the lack of progress. If there is not progress on non-proliferation in the middle east, proliferation will happen, because somebody else will be able to develop nuclear weapons—the financial resources are certainly available—and we will then be in a very dangerous situation.
I welcome the section in the Committees’ report about chemical weapons. If anything good has come out of the crisis in Syria during the past two years—this is probably the only thing—it is that Syria at least acceded to the chemical weapons convention. The removal and destruction of chemical weapons from Syria is to be applauded. That step forward shows what can be achieved when the EU, the USA, Russia and Iran co-operate to try to achieve something.
The Committees report that Angola, Burma, Israel, North Korea and South Sudan have not signed the chemical weapons convention, however, and it is time that they did. It is time that the whole world signed up to it, because if we can have a worldwide convention on small arms and landmines, we should be able to insist that there is a genuine worldwide agreement on the abolition of chemical weapons, and then move on to other weapons.
We have to think carefully. It is too easy to say, “Sell arms to somebody—out of sight, out of mind.” That comes back to bite us, with civil wars and conflict, and with human rights abuses, some of which are carried out with weapons that have been made in this country. We should think carefully about that, before we so glibly say, “We support the arms industry.”
Thank you very much indeed, Mr Bayley, for calling me to speak. It is always a great pleasure to serve on Committees or attend debates with you in the Chair.
As I have done for the last few years when we have debated this issue, I thank and congratulate the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) on the extensive work by his Committees, and on the way in which he has driven the Committees forward during the past few years. He has given more than 40 years of public service both to this House and to his constituents, and he will be a sad loss to discussion of this particular subject when he moves on after the next general election. Nevertheless, he has left a lasting legacy in this place as the Chair of the Committees on Arms Export Controls, and we wish him well in the next chapter of his political life outside this House, whichever chapter that may be and wherever it may take him.
We must scrutinise the Government’s policies in this sector, because arms control is critical. The Committees’ report is hugely valuable and must be highly commended. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) said, 12 months ago we could not have projected forward to where we are today in the international scene and landscape, and I hope that in 12 months’ time—when we come back to look at any further reports from the CAEC—things are better and not worse than they were last year, because I am sure that 12 months on from last year we would all agree that things are now worse, not better.
I will start by touching briefly on the contribution that the UK defence sector makes, not only to our country’s security but to our economy, because it shows how important it is for the Government to get arms export controls absolutely right. The arms industry generates annual revenues of more than £22 billion, including exports worth £6.5 billion per annum on average during the past decade. Consequently, it makes a significant contribution to the economy of the UK. It also plays a vital role in training, up-skilling and developing UK skills; it directly employs 162,400 staff in the UK, sustaining more than 100,000 other jobs through the supply chain; and, crucially, given the highly skilled nature of the workers in this industry, it employs nearly 5,000 apprentices across the sector.
It is within that context that it is important that the UK plays a key role in the international defence market, not only for the economic benefits but for the responsibilities that the market places on the UK Government in that international context. As I said when I outlined where we were last year compared with where we are today, globalisation of course brings countries into closer contact—mostly harmoniously, but as we have seen throughout the report, there are often areas of tension and friction when that contact happens.
It is right that we recognise the defence industry’s part in providing security, both here in the UK and in other countries as we help them to fulfil their right to self-defence. But that role, of course, comes with a heavy responsibility. The industry itself has a responsibility, but the Government are responsible for overseeing arms exports properly, ethically and robustly.
I look forward to hearing the Minister respond to some of the questions raised by the report. The right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), who replied to the debate last year, skipped all the big questions asked in the report, so I hope that the new Minister, whom I congratulate on his recent elevation to the Foreign Office, will be able to respond in a more robust fashion.
I want to look at Labour’s record in government to give us some context for where we are now. It is worth reflecting on how we have come to this current position of oversight and why we are able to talk about these issues today. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) rightly mentioned the role that the former Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, played in putting pressure on the then Government in relation to the arms to Iraq inquiry. The inquiry culminated in the Scott report and the bringing together of national export licensing criteria. He was proud to be able to bring that about. It was one of the first issues addressed by the Labour Government in 1997. It was not only the right thing to do; it brings transparency to this House on one of the most important issues that we deal with, not only in terms of defence but in terms of responsibilities and who we sell the items to around the world. On entering government, Labour introduced some of the toughest arms export regulations in the world at that time.
It is also important to reflect on where we have come from. In 1999, when the tough arms export regulations were put together, it was the first time that the matter had been looked at in a UK context since 1939. If we think the world has moved on significantly in the 12 months since we last discussed these issues, the world had certainly moved on significantly between 1939 and 1999. So we have had the consolidated criteria in 2000 and the Export Control Act 2002, and since 2004 the quarterly report has brought much greater scrutiny and transparency to our arms exports across the world. I am sure Members of Parliament of all parties recognise the importance of such changes. Although it is a difficult issue for a Government to deal with, it is right that the Minister should be here to answer the key questions in the report.
It remains the strategic approach of the Opposition that arms must not be sold to nations that will use them for external aggression or internal repression, and that they should be used for defence. That reflects the written ministerial statement that the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling read out at the start. It was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr Hain) in 2000. It is still the approach that we champion in opposition. We would not deviate from that. We recognise that nations have the right to defend their sovereign lands, but they do not have the right to oppress their people and use weaponry sold to them by this country to stamp on legitimate demonstrations, as we have seen on our television screens in the past few months.
The Committees on Arms Export Controls report is a voluminous report: more than 1,000 pages. The Chair of the esteemed Committee, the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling, asked whether I had received a copy of the report and whether I had read it. I am glad that it was published in an executive summary format, which was a little more digestible. It is important that the Government take on those 1,000 pages. It is not a political report with which to kick the Government but a very helpful document that runs through all the areas of concern about arms export controls. I want to concentrate on four aspects. Hon. Friends who have already spoken have concentrated on other aspects, but I want to concentrate on the four that I think are the most important in the report.
First, the change in the consolidation criteria. Significantly, the report criticises the Government’s removal of a key line from the consolidated criteria in March this year. We have mentioned this already. The line is:
“An export licence will not be issued if the arguments for doing so are outweighed...by concern that the goods might be used for internal repression”.
Despite taking such positive steps with the arms trade treaty last year, we have now gone backwards in terms of the clarity that was required from the Government in that sentence. There has been justification from the Government for the removal of those criteria— the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling has already mentioned that—but it significantly weakens the test for arms exports. We are concerned about its removal and urge the Government and the Minister to reflect on that. Will the Minister explain—the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks did not do so last year—why there is dubiety about the removal of those particular criteria, and what is to become of “a more relaxed approach” to arms exports? Have the Government made a substantial change to policy without acknowledging it? I think the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling asked that before. The questions posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North on this issue must be answered directly by the Minister today. If that is the only answer we get, we will have moved on substantially from the report that is in front of us.
The second issue that I wish to raise was mentioned in the report this year and last year—it might have been mentioned in previous reports. It is the issue of the brass plating of companies. We discussed this at length during last year’s debate, and as the report says, the Government are still to take action. So what action has been taken over the past 12 months and what action is in the pipeline?
Although brass plating in a UK context works well—we would not deny that that is the case—this is about brass plating across international communities, where companies that have brass plating in this country operate against the brass plating rules that would apply here when operating overseas. That must be looked at clearly, but it again highlights the globalisation of the issue and why the export controls market must be monitored closely. There are big issues around the international co-operation that is required to deal with the exploitation of brass plating in this country. That is why the Minister should look into ways of developing a strategy, closing loopholes and collecting evidence—possibly in conjunction with other countries—to get the necessary detail and put the measures that are needed in place to enable us to discontinue the UK registration of such companies that exploit brass plating.
Brass plating in the UK should not mean irresponsibility elsewhere. The report specifically touches on that. There is much concern about the operation of front companies registered in the UK which operate overseas with impunity. What does the Minister have to say about that particular issue?
The third issue that I want to raise is arms brokers. The Government issued a call for evidence in April this year on a proposed pre-register of arms brokers. They committed to provide a formal response by September. It will be November this weekend, and I am not aware that the Government have kept to that timetable and produced a response. Will the Minister confirm when the Government will publish the result of their call for evidence on the need for a pre-licence register of arms brokers? The Government have not been consistent in their record of delivery in response to previous reports from the Committees.
The fourth area that I want to address relates to some current case studies. There are a significant number. The report highlighted 12 countries that cause concern, and another five are mentioned. I want to concentrate on three to highlight some of the issues in the report that the Government need to address.
[Mr David Amess in the Chair]
Of course, there is the issue of Russia, which has entered into the Balkans, causing reverberations across Europe and the region. There is the conflict between Israel and Palestine, which we saw in the summer, and in recent weeks—mentioned already this afternoon—the mass pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong that prompted a very strong and aggressive response from Government authorities, which was not in line with what we would expect from anything that has been exported from this country. In all those events, questions have been raised about the use of British exports. Indeed, some serious allegations and concerns must be addressed. Will the Minister concentrate on the big issues in his response?
In the case of Russia, the Government have given conflicting messages on exports to Russia. Both the Prime Minster and the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague), gave categoric assurances, with the latter stating in March this year:
“The UK will now, with immediate effect, suspend all extant licences and application processing for licences for direct export to Russia for military and dual-use items destined for units of the Russian armed forces or other state agencies which could be or are being deployed against Ukraine.”—[Official Report, 18 March 2014; Vol. 577, c. 658.]
That is a fairly categoric assurance from the former Foreign Secretary. However, it was reported that, in July this year, 250 licences were still in force.
Can the Minister update the House and the Committees on whether the licences are still in operation? How many have been revoked, suspended or reissued? What assessment does he have for the Committees of the licence system and its effectiveness in these instances?
The second area of concern is the issue of Israel and Palestine. We can all recall the spiral of violence over the summer that engulfed Gaza, southern Israel and the west bank. We condemn, as we always have in this Chamber and across the House, the firing of rockets into Israel by Gaza-based militants. No Government on earth would tolerate such attacks on their citizens, but the disproportionate response, yet again—my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North mentioned Operation Cast Lead—by the Israeli Government to Gaza fuels even more conflict and even more distrust of the system. That is why the Government have to look seriously at whether the UK’s arms export controls and licences are helping the situation or making it worse.
The Government’s internal review identified 12 specific licences covering a range of military equipment—including components for military radar systems, combat aircraft and tanks—which, as the review states,
“could be part of equipment used by the Israel Defence Forces in Gaza.”
The review shows that there have been particular issues with Israel and Palestine. I was shocked to hear of the letter that was sent to the Chair of the Committees by the Foreign Secretary. To quote it directly, the Foreign Secretary was concerned that there was
“a serious violation of international humanitarian law”
in Israel’s response. We demand an immediate publication of the Government’s review. Our view was that no arms should be exported under existing licences while doubts remain as to whether any equipment could be used for internal repression, the abuse of human rights or to provoke prolonged arm conflict or violate international humanitarian law.
It is particularly important that we have transparency on the system in this case. The British public need assurances that the UK’s arms export sales have not been in contradiction of the consolidated criteria and have not contributed to that particular conflict. Directly on Israel and Palestine, does the Minister agree that the Government should suspend or revoke any licences for export to Israel of controlled items where there is a clear risk, or even a hint of a risk, that they will be used in combat operations in the occupied territories of Palestine? I am not an avid follower of the Minister on Twitter, but he tweeted a press release this morning condemning Israel for the continued building of illegal settlements in East Jerusalem. The Israel-Palestine peace process is fragile, and we should do all we can to ensure that arms exports are not contributing to the problem.
Finally, to travel a little further east, there are the issues in Hong Kong that are receiving international attention. At the start of the month, the Deputy Prime Minister summoned the Chinese ambassador to make clear his dismay and alarm at China’s handling of pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong. As The Times reported on 29 September, in handling those demonstrations—Members have mentioned this—the Hong Kong authorities used CS gas grenades made in Britain to disperse protesters. While the Deputy Prime Minister met with the Chinese, the Defence Secretary dismissed the concerns raised about the use of CS gas on protesters and said that it was “a rather immaterial point” whether the grenades were made in the UK. I am not sure whether anyone in this Chamber or anyone on the Committees on Arms Export Controls would see the use of UK-made CS gas in dispersing pro-democracy protesters as “a rather immaterial point”. In fact, it is fundamental to the report we are discussing, and to the question of whether licences should be issued or revoked in these situations. Does the Minister agree with that statement? What can we do on these issues?
The Chair of the Committees said, in his useful speech on the report, that he wrote to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills on these gas canisters. When I looked into that, the Chair had not received a response, but he indicated to the Chamber that he has now. Will the Minister clarify the points raised by the Business Secretary’s response to that letter? Have the licences been revoked?
In conclusion, I would welcome clarity from the Government on some of these issues, and in particular on their commitment to not diluting this country’s approach to export licences. Does the Minister still stand by the commitment that he will not approve an export licence if he believes that there is a clear risk that an export might be used for internal repression? We support him in that approach, which dates back to 2000, and would welcome clarity on whether he has changed it.
In the debate on the Committees’ report last year, several Members urged the Government to adopt a more cautious approach to arms exports approval. The ability to revoke or suspend export licenses is a significant and important function, but as the Chair said, once the bullets have bolted, they have bolted irreversibly. That is one of the issues that we have seen in the 12 countries of concern. We believe that the Government should not only take a more cautious approach but strengthen the prior scrutiny of licenses, and not limit scrutiny to the review of ministerial decisions only when they have already been taken.
As my right hon. Friends the Members for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander) and for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) would have said in their respective roles as shadow Foreign Secretary and shadow Secretary of State for International Development, lessons could be learned from others in the international community. In Sweden, for example, there is an expert advisory body, headed by an independent official responsible for the oversight of export licensing, which advises on delicate pre-licence decisions before a Minister gives the final approval. In the US, Congress is given prior notification of all foreign military sales that are over specific cost thresholds and are planned for the following year and can object ahead of the Government making a final decision. Those mechanisms ensure that a more cautious approach is taken and that there is no rush to licence approval.
Alongside those domestic guidelines, there must be global ones, too. A global industry requires global guidelines. The Government are to be congratulated on their efforts on the arms trade treaty. We all welcome that being signed as early as possible. It will significantly boost efforts to stem the flow of arms to some of the world’s most volatile places and help end the transfer of weapons used to commit genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. I urge the Minister and the Government to use that opportunity to show international leadership and push for ratification in all countries, and by the largest players in the globalised economy, particularly given the size of the UK defence industry.
Finally, I would be grateful if the Minister commented on the steps the Government have taken to encourage countries to ratify the treaty. It was signed with such fanfare last year and is such an important contribution to the arms trade in this country and in the international environment. I close by once again paying tribute to the Chair of the Committees on Arms Export Controls, and all the members of those Committees, who are each chosen from Select Committees. The Chair’s post is a distinguished one; he deserves great credit for the legacy that he has left the House in these reports. I hope that the Minister will fulfil that superb legacy and answer all the questions the Chair posed, not only in his speech on the report, but in the report itself.
It is a pleasure, Mr Amess, to work under your chairmanship today. It is also a pleasure to respond to this important debate on the Committees’ report. I begin by giving an apology on behalf of the Minister for Business and Enterprise, who should be responding to the report. That is his place, but unfortunately, as with other members of the Committees on Arms Export Controls, he is involved in a Bill Committee elsewhere and sends his apologies. It is appropriate, however, for the Foreign Office to be involved. We scrutinise the process of approving or not approving arms exports, although the final decision is with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, not the Foreign Office. I am delighted to be here anyway.
I join others in paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) for his tireless and dedicated work in chairing the Committees, which are unique in bringing together the skill sets of other Committees. I was not aware that this was his final report. I do not know what he will find himself doing next year, but he will probably want to write about this issue in another context, because he has lived and breathed it for so long. The House is indebted to him for his dedication and commitment to this important subject. We are grateful for the knowledge and expertise he has brought to the House over many years, and we thank him for his hard work.
I also thank other members of the Committees for their contributions, and I will do my best to answer their points. A challenge was thrown down—not once or twice, but a number of times—in comments about how appallingly the last Minister failed to answer all the questions posed to him. I should make it clear that I am substituting for the Minister who should have replied to the debate, so I am not sure whether I will fare any better, although I can give a commitment that if I am unable to answer any questions, I will endeavour to write to right hon. and hon. Members individually. In that way, it will not be me who gets the grief next year, when Members return to this subject after the next general election.
I thank the shadow Minister for his words, his tone and the constructive manner in which he expressed his thoughts and concerns. He spelled out the situation Britain finds itself in. The defence industry is indeed sizeable, and it is important for jobs and UK security, as well as in terms of the UK playing a responsible role on the international stage. The hon. Gentleman mentioned a number of issues, and I will do my best to answer him. I should say how touched I am that he follows me on Twitter, although I am afraid I have not reciprocated. When I leave here, however, I will certainly endeavour to make up for that misdemeanour.
I hope that is as aggressive as the debate gets. Let me reiterate that the Government take their arms export responsibilities very seriously and aim to operate one of the most rigorous and transparent arms export control systems in the world. Our core objective in export licensing is to promote global security, while facilitating responsible exports. That means preventing controlled goods from falling into the wrong hands. It also means that we must not impede legitimate trade in defence and security goods.
All export licence applications are carefully assessed on a case-by-case basis against the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria, taking into account all relevant factors at the time of the application, including the prevailing circumstances in the recipient country, the nature of the goods, the identity of the end user and the stated end use. A licence will not be issued if doing so would be inconsistent with any provision of the criteria, including if there is a clear risk that the proposed export might be used for internal repression or external aggression.
The Government support the responsible trade in defence equipment. All nations have the right to protect themselves, as enshrined in article 51 of the UN charter, and they have the right to acquire the means to do so. Moreover, defence and security exports help to strengthen the UK economy and to support growth. As the shadow Minister said, the industry employs tens of thousands of people across the UK. In 2013, the value of UK defence and security exports rose to £13 billion—a 13% increase on the £11.5 billion recorded in 2012. Those exports also helped the UK to forge close relationships with allies and partners in support of international security objectives.
We must therefore seek to operate an efficient export licensing system that not only ensures rigorous export controls, but facilitates responsible exports. The case-by-case assessment of export licence applications remains the most effective way to balance those concerns. We follow a clear and well-understood procedure for each application, which involves circulating expert evidence to other Departments as a matter of routine, to make the best assessment possible, based on the evidence available at the time.
I want directly to address the perception that, in the relatively rare instances where licences are subsequently revoked or suspended, the export licensing system is in some way broken. That is certainly not the case. In 2012, the then Foreign Secretary conducted a review of arms exports, which found that there were no fundamental flaws with the export licensing system. However, the review did identify some areas where the system could be strengthened. As a result of that review, a suspension mechanism was introduced to ensure greater responsiveness to changing circumstances overseas.
The suspension mechanism allows for the suspension of pending licence applications to countries experiencing a sharp deterioration in security or stability such that it is not possible to make a clear assessment of whether the consolidated criteria have been met. Following EU Council decisions, it has now been applied to extant licences as well as pending applications. The suspension of licences should, therefore, be viewed not as an admission that there has been a mistake, but as an indication that, on the contrary, the system is appropriately in tune with the reality that circumstances change and that the export licensing system must be able to react appropriately.
Moreover, we have the power to revoke any licence if we judge that changed circumstances mean that it is no longer consistent with the consolidated criteria. Again, revocations should be viewed as indicative of the fact that the system can respond to change, not as a sign that our case-by-case assessment of export licence applications is flawed. We make the best decision possible at the time of each application, and if circumstances change, we can react appropriately. Action to revoke or suspend licences is, then, not a sign that the system is broken; in fact, the flexibility to respond effectively to change is a sign of health and demonstrates how seriously the Government take the guiding principle of responsible exports.
Having set out that overview, I would like to touch on a number of specific issues my right hon. Friend and others have raised. First, however, it would be useful briefly to reiterate the Government’s policy on assessing the risk of goods being used for internal repression.
Criterion 2 of the consolidated criteria, which has been mentioned a number of times, states that an export licence application should be refused if there is a “clear risk” that the goods in question might be used for internal repression or in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law.
Some confusion arose following the former Foreign Secretary’s evidence to the Committees in 2012, which was interpreted as suggesting that the “clear risk” test in criterion 2 had been dropped. Let me emphasise: the threshold of clear risk in criterion 2 has been the policy of successive Governments since the criteria were established in 2000, and it remains our policy. As confirmed in recent correspondence with the Committees, we have no plans to change that policy.
I am grateful for that clarification. I hope that what I have said, and what my right hon. Friend has now said, has set the record straight. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills reaffirmed the “clear risk” test in criterion 2 while amending the consolidated criteria in March.
Let me turn now to Russia, which a number of right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned. As I have outlined, the flexibility to respond to changing circumstances in any export destination is an essential aspect of our export licensing system. Our reaction to the events this year in Ukraine provides a good example of our responsiveness and our determination to ensure that UK exports do not contribute to internal repression or external aggression.
Restrictive measures have been put in place against Russia, with a view to increasing the costs of Russian action to undermine Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, and promoting a peaceful settlement of the crisis. It is worth making a distinction between a collective desire to bring in sanctions, which are themselves an attempt to affect behaviour, and taking action when weapons systems or other equipment that has been sold are used in an oppressive manner. There is a distinction between the two, but they can lead to the same thing, which is the removal of some form of arms exports.
In the absence of agreement among EU partners on taking concerted action against Russia, the UK took the initiative in reacting to the deterioration in events in Ukraine by announcing the national suspension of a number of export licences in March, and that is an example of what I was just talking about. The aim was to restrict exports of equipment to the Russian military that could be used in Ukraine. As we did before announcing the action, we encouraged other EU member states to follow suit. The national suspension was superseded by sanctions against Russia, introduced by the EU in July. The package included an arms embargo and prohibitions on the export of certain technologies suited to the oil industry, on the export of dual-use equipment to Russia for military end use, and on the provision of related services.
Further restrictive measures were announced in September in response to Russia’s actions destabilising the situation in Ukraine. In addition, during that period we reviewed existing export licences for Russia and took the decision to revoke 39 standard individual export licences and seven open individual export licences, and to remove Russia as a permitted destination for 50 multi- destination open individual export licences. The Government will continue to monitor conditions in Ukraine and will keep export licensing restrictions under review. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling asked whether what the Prime Minister said on the matter referred to all or only some licences, and if I may, I shall write to him about that detail.
I am limited in what I can say about the recent conflict in Israel and Gaza, because it is the subject of ongoing legal proceedings. As hon. Members may know, the Government conducted a careful analysis of existing export licences for Israel. That review, the outcome of which was announced on 12 August, found that the vast majority of exports currently licensed are not for items that could be used by Israeli forces in operations in Gaza. During the review period, no new licences were issued to supply equipment to the Israel defence forces. However, as was mentioned in the review, 12 licences for components were identified as potentially able to contribute to equipment that could be used by the Israel defence forces in Gaza.
Following the review, the Government announced that if there was a resumption of significant hostilities, the 12 licences would be suspended. In addition, the Government continue to monitor the situation in Israel and Gaza closely, and existing licences that are found to be no longer consistent with the consolidated criteria will be revoked. It remains our overarching priority to ensure that there is a lasting settlement that enables Israelis and Palestinians to live alongside one another securely and peacefully. The UK Government will continue to work closely with colleagues in the EU and elsewhere to help achieve that. I visited Gaza, Jerusalem and Israel last month and saw what was happening on the ground. I am conscious of the mood of the House, after the Palestine debate last week. We will continue to monitor the situation.
There has been extensive interest in the recent protests in Hong Kong and the use of tear gas by the Hong Kong police. There is one extant open individual export licence to Hong Kong that includes tear gas. After careful consideration, the Government have decided that no action should be taken to revoke or suspend it. In our assessment, the use of tear gas by the Hong Kong police, with whom we have a close relationship, was judged to be an uncharacteristic response at an early stage of the protest and not indicative of a wider pattern of behaviour that would cross the threshold of criterion 2 of the consolidated criteria.
I am grateful to the Minister for answering the questions that have been asked. He has said that that use of tear gas was uncharacteristic, so will he give a commitment that if it were to transpire that the Hong Kong authorities used it again, the licence would be revoked?
I do not want to move into hypothetical situations. We will continue to review matters, but I have explained the situation as it stands. If events move forward and circumstances change, we will review that and react responsibly according to criterion 2.
The Export Control Organisation has continued to perform efficiently over the past year in spite of various pressures. The ECO has maintained its performance targets despite an increasing volume of licence applications, with standard individual export licences up 3% on last year, and ECO’s high priority advice service to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs on the licensability of goods stopped at ports and airports up 30% in the same period. Together with extra work caused by the Russia sanctions, that has meant increased pressures on the ECO, which has worked hard to maintain both service levels for its customers and the robustness of our export controls, as the objective of giving applicants a decision as quickly as possible cannot outweigh the need to give every application very careful consideration.
The ECO has two main targets for processing export licence applications: a primary target to process 70% of applications within 20 working days, and a secondary target of completing 99% of applications within 60 working days. Year-to-date performance to the end of September on the primary target stands at 76%. We have now had a full year of working towards meeting the new ambitious secondary target of 99%; the target previously stood at 95%. The new target was introduced to improve the efficiency of the licensing system further. As of the end of September, I am pleased to announce that we are now meeting the new target for the year to date.
My right hon. Friend the Business Secretary decided last year that it was appropriate to look at the proposal for a pre-licensing register of arms brokers; that has been mentioned in the debate. The Export Control Organisation made a public call for evidence this year to help to gather the necessary evidence to allow the Government to decide whether to introduce such a register. Our emphasis when looking at the proposal has been on the relative costs and benefits, and the likely effectiveness. The feedback from the call for evidence is being analysed and discussed. We intend to publish the results as soon as possible, most likely towards the end of the year.
The Government remain committed to greater transparency in export licensing, as demonstrated by the transparency initiative announced last year, which expanded reporting activity under certain open export licences. As has been explained to the Committees previously, in making the final preparations for the initiative, it became apparent that we may not have had the right balance between the twin objectives of increasing transparency and avoiding unnecessary bureaucratic burdens. In particular, my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary became concerned that the proposed reporting would put UK exporters at a disadvantage in relation to exporters from other countries. That is why he decided that users of certain open licences would be required to make reports on their usage of those licences on an annual basis, rather than quarterly as originally envisaged.
It is important to reiterate that we have not reduced the overall level of reporting; we will publish considerably more information about the usage of open licences than we do now. All such initiatives are subject to review, but the new reporting requirements came into place at the start of this year, and the data for this year are due to be published in 2015. It is important to allow sufficient time for the new measures to be established before we can consider whether further changes are necessary. We therefore intend to commence a review of the initiative towards the end of the year.
I want to touch on the arms trade treaty. I had the privilege of participating in a number of decisions at the UN General Assembly in September. I am delighted to say that 54 countries have now ratified the treaty, which will enter into force on 24 December—Christmas eve. The successful conclusion of the arms trade treaty was a significant achievement for the UN, but also for the UK, which has worked tirelessly with the co-authors group, and bilaterally. We are, as has been requested, encouraging other nations, in the course of regular contact with them and via the EU ATT outreach project, to sign and ratify it. The UK places a great deal of importance on as many nations signing up as possible; and I believe that we are heading in that direction.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) spoke about the spread of conflict in Libya and Syria, and that is a massive concern for the Government—and for others. We are concerned about the flow of weapons systems, and the loss of control over what is happening spilling down to Mali, and so forth. The situation reflects the changing circumstances that we must deal with. The hon. Lady also spoke about intrusion software. The pace of the technology that we are aware of can sometimes run ahead of legislation, so the work of the Committees and the Government to keep pace with changing technology is always important.
It is worth mentioning that the controls on monitoring equipment were agreed in the 2011 Wassenaar arrangement, and implementation through the EU dual-use regulation amendment is expected by the end of 2014. There will be a publication, and a journal put forward, in due course.
That was going to be my next point. I cannot give the hon. Lady an answer today, but I had written down “timetable”. I will certainly get in touch with her to provide more information.
The hon. Lady and others mentioned the Defence and Security Equipment International exhibition. I have visited it many times and find it a little bizarre that one can buy things that are illegal in this country. The Government are reviewing their response to DSEI 2013 to consider any improvements to the processes that can be made before next year’s event. Officials from across Government will continue to work closely with Clarion Events to ensure that exhibitors comply with export and trade controls and understand their obligations.
The hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn)—I almost called him my hon. Friend—and I have met four times in debates or meetings over the past few days. I will be astonished if we meet tomorrow at the Conservative party away day, but he is always welcome. I join him in paying tribute to the late Robin Cook, who pioneered much of the work that we are now taking forward. That is his legacy. Members on both sides of the House remember him for that, pay tribute to the work that he did in ensuring that Britain plays a more responsible role in arms exports, and encourage other countries to do the same.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned Gaza and the cycle of destruction. The matter came up at the UN General Assembly; Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General, was almost in tears when discussing whether destruction, reconstruction, destruction, and then reconstruction is what now happens. I digress slightly, but Britain must play its part with the EU and the international community to try to break that cycle.
The hon. Gentleman also raised concerns about Bahrain. There is no evidence of UK equipment sold to Bahrain being used in breach of the EU or national consolidated criteria on export licensing, but we have refused licences to Bahrain for internal security forces, where we are not satisfied about the risks around internal repression. If he has anymore thoughts on that, he can write to me and I will be delighted to respond.
I do not have the details to respond to the hon. Gentleman on Sri Lanka, but he mentioned the Prime Minister’s visit. It was bold to go out and make a case about the Tamil people’s concerns. I will write to him regarding our position on arms exports and Sri Lanka.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman mentioned the Vienna conference, which we discussed at Foreign and Commonwealth questions. The trouble is that it is unclear what the conference wants to achieve other than the removal of all nuclear weapons. It is Britain’s long-term intention to reach that position, but if we drop our guard before other hostile countries with nuclear weapons do, we will leave ourselves vulnerable. We share the long-term ambition, but differ on how we will get there.
The shadow Minister mentioned brass-plate companies and enforcement action. Existing legislation would, in certain circumstances, allow such action to be taken against brass-plate companies and their officers. However, any action must be justified by sufficient evidence. With other relevant agencies, the Government continue to pursue the possibility of using other legislation to discontinue the UK registration of such companies on public interest grounds. As he will appreciate, the issue is complex and raises difficult questions about the nature of the evidence that might be disclosed in any proceedings. We will update the Committees and the shadow Minister when any firm conclusions have been reached.
In conclusion, I again thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling and other hon. Members for their attendance today. I reiterate my thanks to the Committees on Arms Export Controls for their report and work. The Committees’ scrutiny remains an important aid to the licensing process, and I continue to look forward to their contributions and continuing dialogue over the coming year.
I thank all hon. Members for their generous comments on my endeavours as Chair of the Committees on Arms Export Controls. It is a unique conjunction of Committees to chair. I have no equestrian background at all, but I have likened it to trying to get a 16-horse stagecoach moving reasonably well in the same direction, which is particularly difficult when there is no ability to vote. We have achieved a lot even in just getting out the reports that we have. I thank hon. Members for their kind personal comments. I hope that the dedicated contributions of the hon. Members for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) and for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) will be big plusses in their getting elected to one of the four Select Committees in the next Parliament. Perhaps one of them may end up as my successor. I wish them well.
I will briefly make one comment about the excellent speech made by the hon. Member for Glasgow North. She rightly and acutely picked up that the Government appear to have erected an additional hurdle before revocations or suspensions can take place to extant arms exports licences to Israel. I want to highlight to her an extraordinary contradiction that I am sure we will want to pursue. The Government have on the one hand dropped the broad test in the October 2000 statement of the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) from the consolidated criteria, but they have brought it back when dealing with suspensions. We made that point in paragraph 126 of our report:
“The Committees conclude that the Government’s decision to apply the broad test of ‘equipment which might be used for internal repression’ rather than the narrow test of ‘clear risk that the proposed export might be used for internal repression’ for deciding whether arms export licences should be suspended is welcome.”
I cannot begin to explain the Government’s contradictory position on that key point, but I am sure that we will be considering it further in Committee.
Again, I am grateful to the hon. Member for Islington North, who has been a dedicated attender of our debates. As for the four countries to which he referred specifically, he will be glad to know that they will all continue to be the subject of detailed scrutiny by the Committees. Three of the countries, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Sri Lanka, are of course among the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s 28 countries of top human rights concern. He must have been glad to see that the Committees on their own initiative have added Bahrain to the five other countries of concern that we highlighted and gave details of in our report.
As I heard it, the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) made what I consider to be an extremely welcome policy commitment on behalf of the Opposition Front Bench. I understood him to be saying that it is now the policy of the Opposition to restore the dropped wording that came from the October 2000 statement by the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain).
If the hon. Gentleman is looking for any reinforcement of the Opposition Front-Bench position from the Back Benches, I draw his attention to paragraph 123 of our report:
“As the broad test that: ‘An export licence will not be issued if the arguments for doing so are outweighed by […] concern that the goods might be used for internal repression’, which has been Government policy since October 2000, provides an important safeguard against military and dual-use goods, components, software and technology being exported from the UK from being used for internal repression, the Committees recommend that this now omitted wording is re-introduced into the Government’s arms exports controls policy.”
The hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that that was a unanimous recommendation of all parties on all four of the Select Committees concerned, which should give him some back-up to the welcome policy position that he enunciated.
I am grateful to the Minister for responding to the debate and for saying that he will send us answers in writing to those questions that he has not been able to deal with. I would be grateful if he could send me a copy as well, if that is in order, because I will obviously want to know what he says in response to the points made by other colleagues.
I must make it clear to the Minister that he did not address the fundamental policy issue as far as arms exports and internal repression are concerned. He made a number of references to criterion 2, what we call the narrow test or the “clear risk” test, which is a very limited test for a very simple reason. When can a risk be said to be clear? We can pretty well sell almost anything to anyone by saying, “There is a risk, but it isn’t clear, so we can approve the export licence.” That is the acute limitation of that test. If someone looks at our report and looks at the list of what has been approved by the Government, and for sale to which particular regimes, it can be seen just what a very limited test that is. That is why the Committees attached such importance to the restoration of the broad test—we have quoted this successively in the debate and I quote it for a final time—if we are to deal seriously and genuinely with not allowing to go out of the UK with Government approval British weapons that
“might be used for internal repression”.
Question put and agreed to.