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Small Weapons Trade

Volume 608: debated on Wednesday 20 April 2016

[Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Government policy on the trade in small weapons.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I want to say at the outset that I have an interest in this topic. I am a Quaker attender, a member of Amnesty International and I have observed and documented peaceful protestors at the London arms fair at the ExCel centre.

I have called for this debate because some constituents who came to my surgery were concerned about the UK’s role in the small weapons trade. The weapons may be small, but I am sure the Minister will agree that the problem is not small. According to a Government briefing, there is one small weapon for every 10 human beings on the planet. We know from other work by non-governmental and Government organisations that between 60% and 90% of conflict deaths are caused by so-called small weapons. That means about 300,000 fatalities and about 900,000 injuries every year. As we know, in conflict situations, most deaths and injuries in this century have involved civilians. The problem is not small.

I have come across injuries from small weapons in my work as a doctor abroad. I have come across near-fatal injuries from rubber bullets and I have come across fatalities from live ammunition and dum-dum bullets. But I was most concerned about trade in small weapons when I was working in a peaceful setting in an African village with no electricity outside the hospital and no running water. There was an emergency one night—a young man had a gunshot wound—but we had no idea where the gun or ammunition came from.

Does my hon. Friend accept that our country is at the forefront in the control of trade in all weapons and was one of the first to sign the UN arms trade treaty in 2013?

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. I believe we are leading when it comes to trade in larger weapons, but we are doing very poorly when it comes to small weapons. I will give examples.

The young man in Africa nearly died from his gunshot wound. We need to be responsible because, when there are small weapons in the community, it is very rare for them to be dismantled or to disappear. You may live in a mud hut with no furniture or belongings of note but, if anyone has a small weapon, it remains in that community for generations. We must be more responsible about this and, as a major trader in small weapons, we must take the lead.

Strong defence means transparency and regulation. Historically, we have not done well. I am sure the Minister is aware of some UK traders in small weapons. One transferred about 40,000 AK47s, 30,000 other assault rifles and 32 million rounds of ammunition to Nigeria— what one commentator said was enough for a small army. That UK trader was under investigation for three years before that licence was removed.

Another UK trader had a conviction in the 1990s for trading in pump-action weapons. They were found guilty in 2009 of selling arms to Iraq. Another UK trader, who we believe supplied the man who was responsible for the Hungerford massacre in the 1980s, was found guilty of trading with North Korea in 2012.

On a point of clarification, are the people my hon. Friend cited as UK or British traders British nationals or do they just trade from the UK? There is a huge difference.

I regret to say that they are UK citizens. One was extradited to the US. I believe the others are from the UK. The first one I mentioned was selling arms to our police and our Ministry of Defence. My hon. Friend may know that, when Sir John Stanley was Chair of the Committees on Arms Exports Controls, he went to Ukraine and was given a list of UK traders. Many of those were known to our Export Control Organisation, but it did not know that several of them were transferring arms from Ukraine to Libya, Rwanda and Sri Lanka. Therefore, historically—these are recent enough cases—our policy on the trade in small weapons has not been good enough. I hope that the Minister can reassure me that things have changed dramatically, but I am not aware of evidence of that.

I am asking for a pre-licence register whereby there are criminal record checks so that we do not have a case like that of the person who had a record in the 1990s and was found guilty in the next century of illegal trade, and whereby we check for financial illegalities. My suspicion—again, I would like the Minister to reassure me—is that there is more vetting of a man who would like to volunteer as a scout leader than there is of a man who is going to trade in weapons that end up in the hands of a child soldier in Nigeria.

I am asking that the UK lead on the marking of small weapons—by that, I mean conform to the 2005 UN instrument. I had it from a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills Minister that we were or are aiming to go along with those measures, but the instrument is more than 10 years old now. I want these weapons to have the marking of the dealer, the importer, the exporter and the carrier.

I would like there to be better sharing of information. I would like the Minister to assure me that there is intra-governmental sharing of information so that we do not have a repeat of those cases in which people were under investigation but still dealing with other Departments. I would also like reassurance that there is a transfer of information between Governments.

I commend the UK for doing well when it comes to large weapons. I believe that if, for instance, there is trade in a combat aircraft such as a Typhoon, a Minister will be a co-signatory on the contract. That shows a high level of responsibility. I am asking for that level of responsibility for small weapons, which as we know are contributing to most of the injuries and fatalities in conflict situations.

The Government did issue a call for evidence last July on a pre-licensing register of arms brokers. What is disappointing is that only 78 people were consulted and most of those were arms traders; I do not believe any of the consultees were victims. One of the problems cited in the consultation was cost, but I would say that, if most UK traders are dealing with tens of thousands of AK-47s or millions of rounds of ammunition, cost should not be a bar to a good register, vetting and good marking of these weapons. We should be responsible and we should be leading on this.

In summary, I would like the Minister to tell me about a register, a vetting for the register, a regular vetting and transparent marking that leads the way internationally. We need to know how many and what type of weapons are being traded, not just give someone a licence and carte blanche to trade. With this strong defence, we can lead. We can take a lead from the scouts on leadership and responsibility. I believe that the Minister can do what is done for the larger weapons and transfer that level of responsibility to small weapons.

As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias) on securing the debate and particularly thank my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) for making insightful interventions, given his history and expertise in this matter.

With your permission, Mr Rosindell, I will interpret the subject of the debate widely and will refer to small arms and light weaponry—rather than small weapons—a term that is more established in the trade and in Government policy, as a way of encompassing the totality of what is happening. I will also try to draw a distinction between traders and brokers, because I think there is a bit of a misunderstanding. A broker is someone who arranges a deal, perhaps through a third country, and the goods more traditionally come through the individual trader.

The effective control of small arms and light weaponry is a goal that clearly unites us all, because, as we have heard, the potential consequences of their misuse are so grave. I see that across my portfolio and particularly on the African continent. When states fail to control the supply and sale of these weapons, they not only jeopardise the safety and security of innocent people worldwide—including a disproportionate number of women and children—but fuel instability more generally and threaten international peace and security.

The debate has focused on national arms trade and controls, so I would like to deal with that up front. The UK Government operate one of the most rigorous and transparent arms export control systems in the world. My hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke indicated that. My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham talked of Sir John Stanley, whom I served with in two Parliaments. For the last five years, he was the Chair of the Committees on Arms Exports Controls, on which I briefly served as a member of the Select Committee on International Development, which contributes to that work. Sir John Stanley has previously acknowledged that the UK operates

“one of the most transparent export licensing systems in the world”.

So we really are at the cutting edge of what is being done. That is not to say that we should not do more, but I do not want the House to be left in any doubt as to whether we are a laggard on these issues; we are right at the forefront. However, I will deal with the points that my hon. Friend raises. Just because we are right at the forefront and doing the right thing globally does not mean that we cannot and should not do, and aspire to do, more.

It is right that the Government facilitate responsible exports by British companies, and support them in winning such contracts. In many cases, the export of arms is of benefit. It brings security and stability. It is in the interest of the importing country and it is in the British national interest.

Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that it is vital that we protect our sovereign defence capability, not only for jobs and exports but for our very protection, our expertise and our ability as a sovereign country to conduct our own operations with our own kit?

Absolutely, and I defer to my hon. Friend, with his military expertise. It is important to maintain that capability overall, in terms of critical mass. Also—I travel from country to country with conflict areas—there are issues of interoperability between weapons, particularly large weapons as opposed to small arms. Having a production facility with similar arms and munitions is very helpful in theatre, as well as in building critical mass to maintain the British Army.

All export and trade licence applications are fully assessed, very carefully, on a case-by-case basis, in line with international legislation but also domestic—national—arms licensing criteria. That takes into account all the factors at the time of application, including the prevailing circumstances in the recipient countries, the nature of the goods that are being sent, the nature of the end-user and, in addition, the stated end-use. The Government follow a clear procedure for each application. That is informed by expert advice from a number of Departments. My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham asked about the degree of co-ordination. I think that some of her interactions have been with BIS. The Foreign Office takes the lead on a lot of these matters, but the Home Office and a number of other Departments are also involved. A licence will not be issued in any way, shape or form if it would be inconsistent with the provisions of our export regime in its totality.

If there is a clear risk that the goods may be used for internal repression or external aggression, a licence is always denied. The UK has one of the world’s most effective enforcement regimes for arms exports. Enforcement of the UK’s arms export controls is led by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which works jointly with Border Force to detect and prevent unlicensed arms exports. HMRC and Border Force work closely with other Government Departments and with other intelligence agencies across the world to ensure that arms are not exported through the UK in breach of the UK’s licensing controls.

Additionally, HMRC works with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to engage with legitimate arms exporters and to help them to comply with the law, but we are vigorous in actively pursuing those who either deliberately or carelessly circumvent legislation. We remain committed to transparent exchange control systems, as demonstrated by the publication of export licensing decisions and details of export controls policy in the UK annual report on strategic export controls, as well as in the European Union annual report on arms exports.

The Government recognise and respect the public interest in export licensing decisions, and therefore we took the decision to publish quarterly statistics on all export and trade licences issued, refused or revoked. I understand that my hon. Friend would like us to publish more information. That has a cost. If we were to do that in looking at the overall picture of reducing the number of atrocities, we would focus too much on already law-abiding providers supplying more detail. There is a much bigger picture in respect of the supply of small arms and light weaponry. If someone is looking to source weaponry for nefarious purposes, there are many places across the world where they would look before looking to the United Kingdom, both in terms of laxer export controls and in terms of price and quality—such countries offer lower quality but, all importantly, lower price.

In parallel to our work on our own system, it is important that we ask others to step up and meet the same exacting standards to which Sir John Stanley referred when he said that we operate

“one of the most transparent export licensing systems in the world”.

If I were able to do one thing on this issue, it would be to get others to do as well as we are, not to improve an already excellent, but not perfect, system in the UK.

Among other things, in terms of data, we are committed to a reporting timescale and the provision of data analysis. The Government are a world leader on transparency, and we are fully compliant with European Union and other international requirements.

The brokering of arms sales continues to be controlled on a rigorous case-by-case basis through the licensing assessment process. The idea of creating a pre-licensing register of arms brokers was explored by BIS, and my hon. Friend’s predecessor as the MP for Twickenham, in a call to evidence in 2014. I have reviewed BIS’s correspondence. I am sure that my hon. Friend has tales of campaigning against Liberal Democrats in Twickenham. In my 10 years in the House, and during the coalition, there were occasions when—I say this gently—the Liberal Democrats over-promised and under-delivered. If that had been a priority, and if it had been the right thing to do, it could have been pushed forward at the time, but in letters to constituents her predecessor promised a lot but did not deliver. The consultation showed that, actually, delivering that was the wrong thing to do. In a sense, it would have layered in extra bureaucracy without addressing the fundamental problem.

In the last 10 years, the UK has successfully prosecuted eight UK nationals for arms trafficking and brokering outside the UK. Customs investigators work jointly with law enforcement officials across the world to gather the necessary evidence to enable such prosecutions. Additionally, we continue to work with international partners to prevent and disrupt arms transfers before they occur, including through the sharing of intelligence. The global control of arms requires an overall global commitment to marking, record keeping and tracing weapons. Without the proper management of stockpiles, weapons may end up in the wrong hands, fuelling crime, terrorism and conflict, so we need everyone to up their game.

The UK has signed and supports various politically binding agreements, including the international tracing instruments, which promote effective national controls over the full life-cycle of small arms and light weapons. We encourage and support states to improve their stockpile security, including by funding projects through, for example, the counter-proliferation programme fund, which is FCO-led but delivered across Departments, in priority countries such as Libya. We look at how we can prevent arms from disappearing out of that country, as has happened previously.

In conclusion, the Government support the responsible trade in defence equipment but always apply rigorous and accountable national export control systems. The Government have one of the most rigorous and transparent export control systems in the world. I welcome the continued high level of scrutiny—including debates such as this one—which remains central to our goal of achieving global security through responsible exports.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his response and concur with him that the situation is not perfect. I am glad that work is being done with other Departments. I am not satisfied that the cost and bureaucracy are problems for a register or for vetting. I maintain that the charity sector bears the cost of bureaucracy and more checks and controls. I am not convinced that Sir John Stanley’s concerns have yet been addressed, but I am glad that the Minister considers things on a case-by-case basis. I hope that if I bring individual cases to him he will be open to reviewing the ongoing situation, because I know that he shares my concerns.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.