With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the High Court judgment on export licensing. We welcome the divisional court’s judgment today dismissing the claim by the Campaign Against Arms Trade for a judicial review of decisions regarding exports to Saudi Arabia for possible use in the conflict in Yemen. We are grateful to the court for the careful and meticulous way in which the evidence from both sides has been considered in reaching this judgment.
The judgment recognises the rigorous and robust processes that we have in place across Government to ensure that UK defence exports are licensed consistently with the Government’s consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria. These criteria give effect to an EU common position setting out rules for assessing military exports. They were introduced in October 2000 and last updated in March 2014. The consolidated criteria, used to assess each export licence application, cover: our international obligations, including sanctions; human rights and international humanitarian law; armed conflicts; regional peace and security; national security and the security of our allies; terrorism; risk of diversion; and the technical and economic capacity of the recipient country.
The claim challenged decisions not to suspend extant licences for the sale or transfer of arms or military equipment and to continue to grant new licences for such transfers. The judgment states that these decisions were lawful and rational. It describes the Government’s decision making about export licensing as
“highly sophisticated, structured and multi-faceted”.
We note the application to appeal and will continue to defend the decisions challenged. We remain confident that the UK operates one of the most robust export control regimes in the world.
The central issue in relation to defence exports to Saudi Arabia in the context of the conflict in Yemen is Criterion 2c of the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria—that is, that the Government will not grant a licence if there is a clear risk that the items might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law. We have sufficient information to carry out proper risk-based assessments against Criterion 2c. The situation has been kept under close review and to date we have not refused licences on Criterion 2c grounds because we have assessed—based on all the information available to us, including information not publicly available—that the clear risk threshold has not been reached. The judgment says that, on the evidence, we were rationally entitled to conclude that this threshold has indeed not been reached.
The exercise undertaken to inform these assessments has, in the words of the judgment,
“all the hallmarks of a rigorous and robust, multi-layered process of analysis carried out by numerous expert Government and military personnel, upon which the Secretary of State could properly rely”.
In addition to a considered analysis by the Ministry of Defence of allegations of breaches of international humanitarian law, there has been intensive engagement with the Saudis at the highest level, stressing the need to comply with international humanitarian law, to investigate all incidents of concern and ensure that lessons are learned. Through this engagement, and our long-standing relationship with the Saudis, the UK Government have developed a higher degree of insight into Saudi military processes and procedures adopted in Yemen than might be expected for a country that is not party to the conflict. We have also considered public commitments to comply with international humanitarian law made by the Saudis, and monitored and analysed developments on the ground.
Each of these strands takes into account a wide range of sources and analyses, including those of a sensitive nature to which other parties, such as non-governmental organisations and the UN, do not have access. Taken together, these strands of information and analysis, which are reviewed regularly by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in comprehensive reports to the Foreign Secretary, have enabled Ministers to take informed decisions about the overall Criterion 2c position and individual export licence applications. They provide a sound basis on which the Foreign Secretary is able to advise me, as the Secretary of State for International Trade, on these points.
That the assessment has been that the issue of military exports to Saudi Arabia is “finely balanced” is seen by the judgment as instructive and points to the
“anxious scrutiny…given to the matter and the essential rationality and rigour of the process in which the Secretary of State was engaged.”
As the judgment states, on the basis of this information and analysis, we were rationally entitled to conclude that Saudi Arabia has put processes in place to secure respect for compliance with international humanitarian law, and that Saudi Arabia has been, and remains, genuinely committed to compliance with international humanitarian law. The Saudis have engaged and continue to engage constructively with the UK on these matters.
We do not receive this court judgment as a signal to do anything other than to continue to take our export control responsibilities very seriously. Our policy is to assess licence applications on a case-by-case basis against the rigorous tests set out in the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria. We will not grant a licence if to do so would be inconsistent with these criteria. We will continue to keep the situation in Yemen under close scrutiny and base our export licensing assessments on the most up-to-date information and analysis available. If we assess that the clear risk threshold under Criterion 2c of the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria has been reached, we will not hesitate to refuse export licences and suspend licences already in circulation. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and early sight of it. I know that he and the whole House will agree that the war in Yemen is a humanitarian tragedy. Thousands of people, including women and children, have been its victims both directly and indirectly through the loss of life-saving infrastructures such as hospitals and water supplies. All of us should, and do, mourn that keenly.
The question for the High Court was whether the Secretary of State was entitled to conclude that there was no risk that British weapons might be used in the commission of serious violations of international humanitarian law. Since the bombing of Yemen began in March 2015, the UK has licensed more than £3.3 billion of arms to the Saudi regime, including: £2.2 billion of ML10 licences, dealing with aircraft, helicopters and drones; £1.1 billion of ML4 licences, dealing with grenades, bombs, missiles and countermeasures; and £430,000-worth of ML6 licences, dealing with armoured vehicles and tanks.
The Secretary of State knows that indiscriminate use of air strikes, the destruction of a country’s means of food production and the targeting of civilians are all classed as war crimes under international humanitarian law. Does he recall that a United Nations panel of experts reported in January 2016 that Saudi Arabian forces had engaged in “widespread and systematic” targeting of civilians? Does he recall that, on 21 July last year, the Government corrected their previous declarations that they had no evidence of any violations, and that the Foreign Secretary stated in September last year that the Government’s new position was that they had been unable to make an assessment and that the Saudi authorities were best placed to make such an assessment? Does he accept that the Foreign Secretary was wrong to franchise out our obligation in this way, and that we, not the Saudis, have the duty to assess whether there is a risk that British arms sold to the Saudis might be used in contravention of international humanitarian law?
Does the Secretary of State recall that evidence revealed in the High Court in February this year showed that the civil servant at the head of export control had provided advice to a previous Secretary of State recommending that the UK suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia
“given the gaps in knowledge about Saudi operations”?
Can he explain to the House why that recommendation was overruled by the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), who sits alongside him?
Does the Secretary of State agree that the Committees on Arms Export Controls should be set up in this Parliament without delay so that export licensing for arms sales can come under the necessary parliamentary scrutiny?
Does the Secretary of State agree that today’s judgment did not seek to rule on whether the Government were correct in concluding that there was no clear risk of a serious breach of international humanitarian law, but rather on whether, in so concluding, they had reached a decision that could be considered rational, given the procedures they had adopted and the evidence they had considered? Does he further accept that if those procedures themselves were defective, or the evidence the Government considered was insufficient, misleading or even simply not comprehensive, it follows that the decision, however rational within its own parameters, could be deeply flawed, and this country might be at grave risk of violating our obligations in international humanitarian law?
The Government relied on material they brought forward only in closed hearing. That evidence could not be seen or heard by the claimant—the Campaign Against Arms Trade—or its lawyers, Leigh Day. As such, the court ruling that the Government’s decision was a rational one, given the procedures and evidence they considered, was based on secret evidence, which it was impossible to challenge. Does the Secretary of State accept that the court judgment makes specific reference to the substantial body of evidence presented in open session, which in fact suggests that a clear risk does exist that British arms might be used in violation of international humanitarian law? Will he agree to make the evidence that was available only in closed session available to Members of this House on Privy Council terms or, indeed, to the Intelligence and Security Committee?
Does the Secretary of State agree that we would all wish this country not only to adopt the highest ethical standards and controls but to be seen to adopt them, and that it would be helpful if he could now give his assurance to the House that it is his considered view that not only were the Government rational in adopting the view they did, given the procedures they followed and the evidence they considered, but that there is, to his certain knowledge, no risk whatever that UK arms might be used by Saudi Arabia in the Yemen war in any way that might constitute a violation of our obligations in international humanitarian law?
May I say, first, that I agree with the hon. Gentleman that Yemen is indeed a humanitarian disaster that is begging for a political solution, to enable us to carry out our diplomatic efforts and our humanitarian efforts? I doubt whether anyone in the House would disagree with that.
The hon. Gentleman was not quite accurate in terms of what the court case was about. There were three grounds of challenge in court: first, failure to ask the correct questions and to make sufficient inquiries; secondly, failure to apply the suspension mechanism; and, thirdly, irrationally concluding that there was no clear risk under Criterion 2c. All these grounds have been dismissed by the court.
The hon. Gentleman makes the point about targeting. As a former Defence Secretary, I say to him that the MOD has gone to the nth degree to improve the ability of the Saudis to target more effectively, including through training by UK personnel. That is one of the biggest advances we have helped the Saudis to make in this.
The hon. Gentleman says that the UN and the NGOs had set out their own reservations about what had happened, but as the judgment made clear, they did not have sight of all the information that the judges were able to look at. He said there were gaps in the Government’s knowledge, but the court again made it clear that the Government had not only the ability to assess what the gaps in that knowledge might have been, but the appropriate means of redressing that. I remind him that the criteria we operate are part of the EU consolidated criteria—they are not UK Government unilateral criteria.
I take exception to the hon. Gentleman’s final point. I simply do not accept that if we have closed sessions it somehow makes the judgment less valid. I do not accept that we cannot have closed sessions that protect our national security or the personnel involved in our national security. Our sources need to be protected. I listened to the argument he makes but I simply cannot bring myself to accept it.
At the end of his statement my right hon. Friend referred to steps that could be taken if it were found that Saudi Arabia were misusing the arms that we supply. Will he expand on that a bit? The issue has come up before in the Committees on Arms Export Controls. If we supplied a consignment of sophisticated weapons for use in one way and it was used differently, or abused in defiance of the laws of war, what could we do to rectify the situation?
As my right hon. Friend knows from his experience, there are a number of criteria for refusals and revocations; if he has not seen the list, I will ensure that he is sent it. If we believed that we were not able to convince ourselves that we were operating entirely within the consolidated criteria, we could suspend extant licences and refuse new ones. As I made very clear, if we believed that we were not fully in line with the criteria, we would do so.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance notice of the statement. I apologise for my hoarse voice—I think I shouted a bit too much in excitement at London Pride on Saturday.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other human rights campaign groups believe that UK and US weapons have been used against Yemeni civilians. As things stand, 10,000 civilians have been killed, 50,000 wounded and 3 million displaced. Today’s judgment raises a number of questions. We pay tribute to Campaign Against Arms Trade, which has taken the Government to court and forced them to explain themselves. We acknowledge CAAT’s plan to appeal this decision and wish it well, but the UK Government should be coming to this house with the facts at all times, not having to be dragged through the courts for the public to get a full explanation.
Does the Secretary of State accept that it cannot be beneficial if the public lose confidence in the Government over their relationship with a supposed ally—one that is in flagrant breach of international humanitarian law in Yemen? Let us not forget that Saudi Arabia, the UK’s largest weapons client, has bought more than £3 billion-worth of British arms in the past two years. UK and EU arms sales rules state that export licences cannot be granted if there is a “clear risk” that the equipment could be used to break international humanitarian law.
The Secretary of State says that he takes this very seriously. He will know that our former colleagues Angus Robertson and Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh were strong advocates for the re-establishment of the Committees on Arms Export Controls, which the UK Government promised before the election would be reconvened. When will that happen, and when will the first meeting take place? Can he give us categorical assurances that the election does not mean that such an important Committee will be kicked into the long grass?
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. As the judgment set out, the case focused on the airstrikes conducted by a coalition led by Saudi Arabia in support of the legitimate Government of Yemen against the Houthi rebellion. We need to put on record that that is the origin of the conflict. Of course the humanitarian issues in Yemen are deeply troubling to all of us; we have all seen the pictures. The United Kingdom, through our various agencies and Government Departments, has been fulfilling as much of our diplomatic and humanitarian actions as we can in the circumstances. This will only be brought to an end by a political settlement, not by a military settlement.
The hon. Lady talks about the “clear risk” test. The judgment could not have been clearer that the Government met the “clear risk” test of criterion 2c in the way they carried this out.
On the hon. Lady’s point about the Committees on Arms Export Controls, I have absolutely no objection to such a Committee being set up. In fact, I think it is beneficial to us to ensure at all times the highest reputation of our probity in these matters. I would have absolutely no objection whatsoever to such a Committee being in place.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the detail of the judgment makes clear what a great job his civil servants, and other civil servants and officials in both the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office, have done and the rigorous way in which they have gone about their responsibilities? The judgment states that the process was “highly sophisticated, structured” and “multi-faceted”. They deserve congratulations today.
I do not think that the judgment could have been more unequivocal. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. We have been utterly vigorous in the process. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the MOD and the Department for International Trade have worked extremely closely. Our officials have done a wonderful job. I am not sure that they necessarily appreciated the number of letters between us to ensure that the process worked as tightly as it has, but I am sure that they will all feel totally vindicated by the judgment on the way in which they have carried out their duties on behalf of this country’s international reputation and law.
I welcome the judgment, which demonstrates the robustness of the Export Control Act 2002, which was introduced by a Labour Government. It also supports the hard-working defence workers in our industry. The judgment states that the coalition did not deliberately target civilians and that the Saudis have procedures to abide by the principles of international humanitarian law. In the light of that, may I urge the Secretary of State to make representations to the Saudis to publish the outcomes of their own inquiries into the alleged incidents?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. As I have said, I think we have the most robust system in existence on defence exports. We have been very clear with the Saudis that they have to carry out investigations into incidents and make those investigations clear to the United Kingdom Government, and we had to be very clear that, if we were to license further defence exports, those lessons had been learned and that mechanisms had been put in place to ensure that they would not happen again.
Given that the High Court has today found that the Government have been meticulous in their export licensing processes, will the Secretary of State inform the House how much this court case is going to cost the taxpayer in legal fees?
The Secretary of State and the Government may have won this legal skirmish, but they certainly have not won the moral case and there are still many unanswered questions about the relationship and the terrible situation in Yemen. He said that he was confident, but the court judgment makes it clear that he was anxious. In fact, he wrote to the Foreign Secretary:
“I am concerned that the issue…continues to be finely balanced... I ask that you commission a further detailed assessment…and send me updated advice”,
“that you seek advice from”
senior Government lawyers “before making your recommendation.”
Why was the International Trade Secretary anxious? Was it because of the civilian deaths, the use of cluster bombs or the attacks on humanitarian supplies in operations, including water and sanitation supplies that could have been so critical in preventing the cholera epidemic?
I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a close interest in the matter, but I really would not describe today’s landmark case as a “skirmish”. I think that everyone in the House would be well advised to read the full judgment. It is my job to be anxious about these things. It is my job to give the nth degree of scrutiny, because lives are potentially lost if we make the wrong judgments. It is the judgment of myself, the Foreign Secretary and other senior Ministers that gives us such anxiety. Were we to be cavalier, the hon. Gentleman would be absolutely right to criticise us. When we take the nth degree of care about the judgments we make, as previous Governments have done, he ought to be very grateful that we are doing so in the country’s interest.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. The judgment comes from an independent judiciary and underscores the robustness of the assessment of export licence applications. He will be aware, I hope, that Saudi Arabia is going through self-authored and hugely welcome modernisation and change. Can he assure me that those changes within the kingdom will be taken into account when considering future export licence applications to our strong and reliable ally in the middle east?
We take all information into account when coming to a judgment. We look across the information from the FCO, the MOD and my Department to see what is happening, and we put the whole picture together before we come to a judgment. We can hardly be accused of spending too little time or looking at too little evidence in coming to the right conclusion.
Of course we accept the judgment of the court, because we believe in the rule of law. However, how does this help the Yemeni people? So far, 10,000 people have died, 14 million people have been displaced and 200,000 people are suffering from cholera. The Secretary of State is a former Foreign Minister and a former Defence Secretary. After the statement, will he go back to the Foreign Office and get everyone back around the negotiating table—please?
The Government, through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, are leaving no stone unturned in their attempts to get the peace process driven forward. Many attempts have been made to do so, and it is in all our interests to stop this dreadful humanitarian disaster. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The parties need to understand that the solution cannot be a purely military one; it has to be political.
I, too, welcome today’s landmark ruling on a very difficult case. There are tens of thousands of defence workers, many of them in my constituency, whose jobs depend on the deals that are done. Can the Secretary of State assure me that we will continue to work with the Saudis to ensure accurate targeting and robust terms of arms sales?
Of course we will continue to work with the Saudis to get an improvement in the position, to make sure that any decisions we take are within the criteria. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that a lot of jobs in this country depend on our defence industry. Were campaigns such as that of the CAAT to be successful, there would be a rapid proliferation of new defence companies trying to set up around the world, and there would actually be less control over proliferation, rather than more.
Parliamentary scrutiny of arms exports is crucial, so I welcome what the Secretary of State said in response to challenges on the Committees on Arms Export Controls. It is vital that those Committees are re-established soon. May I ask the Government to look again at the question of an independent UN-led investigation into all alleged violations of international humanitarian law, by both sides, in the Yemen conflict?
We have never had any objection to an independent UN inquiry into that. Part of the trouble, however, as set out in the judgment, was the availability of evidence—especially in open session—to such an inquiry. When Members read the full judgment, they will see why there is such significance to it. I am entirely open-minded about any future UN inquiry.
There are a number of different criteria, and they are assessed on a regular basis. There were 366 refusals or revocations in 2016. Eight different categories of refusals and revocations are set out. To be helpful, I will make a copy of those categories available in the Library, if it does not have one already.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that the judgment does not affirm that there was no risk of IHL breaches in Yemen; that the judge acknowledged significant evidence that suggested that there was, or is, a risk of such breaches; and that the UK Government remain very heavily dependent on the Saudis’ guarantees that they are not targeting civilians?
It is impossible to sell anything to anybody with no risk attached. That is why we have a clear risk test in the consolidated criteria. We are in close touch with the Saudis, to a degree that I have never known before with a country that is party to a military dispute, in seeing how they do their targeting and understanding their methods and information. We have been closely helping to instruct them in ways to minimise civilian casualties in future.
I have had the opportunity to travel to Saudi Arabia and visit the targeting centre in Riyadh, where targets in Yemen are allocated. Does the Secretary of State agree that as well as exporting hardware, we export a doctrine of responsible use, which, at the end of the day, saves lives?
Médecins Sans Frontières is reporting today that Yemenis are afraid to go to and to stay in the cholera treatment centre in Abs, 50 km from the frontline, since it was bombed by Saudi Arabia last August, killing 19 people. The Joint Incidents Assessment Team declared this atrocity an “unintentional mistake”, as it did in relation to the facilities at Haydan and Razeh in Saada and Houban in Taiz, all of which were hit by Saudi bombs. How many hospitals protected by international humanitarian law will the Secretary of State allow to be hit by Saudi Arabia before he stops selling it bombs?
The hon. Lady talks as though there is only one party in this dispute in that part of the world. Unfortunately, that is not the case. As I say, we take the key risk criteria very seriously. I am afraid that making the sort of rather uninformed points she has made for propaganda purposes does not actually help the humanitarian situation.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that among our many security objectives and values, keeping faith with important allies and being a reliable security partner should be among the most important, so that our allies can see that we take such important decisions rigorously, with the due process that they deserve and under the rule of law?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Protection of our allies and working with our allies is extremely important, but it is also important that our allies themselves understand that we will rigorously apply the criteria that we have set out and on which we are parties to an international agreement. Getting the balance right between those things is exactly what the Government have sought and are set to achieve.
Perhaps we are talking about a different judgment, because this judgment makes it very clear that we did take very clear account of the advice given by the Foreign Office and, indeed, that we sought further advice from the Foreign Office when it was necessary to do so.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that closed sessions are absolutely standard in litigation of this nature, and that it is absolutely wrong to make such a point to seek to undermine a clear and impartial ruling of the High Court that has confirmed the rigorous and detailed scrutiny applied to sensitive arms export decisions?
The Secretary of State will be aware of reports by the BBC and the Danish newspaper Dagbladet Information in relation to the sale of surveillance and decryption technology to Saudi Arabia by British companies via their Danish subsidiaries. This technology has been used to crush internal dissent, and it arguably contravenes Criterion 5 restrictions due to the potential impact on UK security. Will the British Government review the legislation and oversight procedures governing sales of surveillance and decryption technology?
Today’s judgment clearly shows that the UK is very robust in its licensing criteria, but in the light of this decision will the Secretary of State reassure the House that under this system decisions to grant such licences are undertaken and assessed in line with international humanitarian law?
The judgment makes it very clear that that is the case. I think that those who criticise the UK system should look at how robust we are in comparison with other countries. It would do everybody in this country good to recognise how robust and clear we are in the decisions that we make and how transparent we are in our conduct.
The Secretary of State rightly draws attention to the robust nature of the wording in the document produced by the court. This judgment relates to a decision under the EU consolidated criteria. Does he agree that it will be extremely important that we continue to maintain controls of arms exports that are as least as strong in future as they are under the existing EU consolidated criteria?
It is slightly worrying to me how often I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I find myself doing so again today. It is not what the criteria are called, but what they contain that matters. Their content has clearly stood the rigour of the Court’s scrutiny today. I completely agree with him that it would be wayward, to say the least, for any Government to consider criteria any less rigorous than those we have today.
The hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) does not look worried at all; he looks in a state of high contentment that the Secretary of State agrees with him. Anybody would think, as far as the hon. Gentleman was concerned, that Christmas had come early, but I suppose it is always rather good when people agree with one.
May I ask the Secretary of State, as he continues to promote the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, what regard his Government have to the fact that 157 people were executed there last year, including minors, and that four young men who were arrested as minors, Dawoud al-Marhoon, Abdullah al-Zaher, Ali al-Nimr and Abdulkareem al-Hawaj, remain at imminent risk of execution by crucifixion?
In the last Parliament, it took quite some time for the Committees on Arms Export Controls to be set up. Will my right hon. Friend speak to the Leader of the House to see whether that important Committee can be set up as quickly as possible?
The usual channels will have heard my hon. Friend’s view. As I have made clear, I have no objection to such a Committee being in place. It is a balanced judgment as to whether we have such a Committee or not. As I said, any Committee that looks into the probity of Ministers’ decisions should be welcomed by Ministers as well as by the House as a whole.
In 2013, the Government launched their action plan on business and human rights with great fanfare, but subsequent questions by me and others revealed that it appears to be little more than a piece of paper. It is certainly not an action plan. How does that supposed action plan inform our business relationship with Saudi Arabia, and how will it inform that relationship after this judgment?
It will not be affected by the judgment because the judgment said that the Government had a rigorous, responsible and rational view of decisions on defence exports. I would have thought the House would be pleased that our systems are working so transparently and so well.
I visited Saudi Arabia as part of a cross-party delegation in April and have declared that in the register. It is right that our arms exports are subject to legal challenge, and everyone agrees about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, but I was surprised to learn, as were other members of the delegation, that 65,000 shells and rockets have been fired from Yemen into Saudi Arabia; that there have been civilian deaths and injuries in Saudi Arabia; and that civilians have been evacuated and displaced, and hospitals damaged, all in Saudi Arabia. Would my right hon. Friend welcome more balanced coverage of this distressing conflict?
My hon. Friend makes the very important point that this is not a conflict that Saudi Arabia or the coalition sought. They have a legitimate right of self-defence and a legitimate right to acquire the means of conducting that self-defence. It is clear that this is a bloody and brutal conflict and, as I said earlier, it requires a proper political settlement. That requires us to continue with our humanitarian and diplomatic efforts. He is absolutely right that it would not do any harm to have a little more of an objective view, rather than the one-sided blast that we see rather too often in this House and elsewhere.
The Government are doing all they can to take that process forward. Would that it were so simple that we could unilaterally create a solution in that war-torn part of the world. We are doing what we can to help our allies reach that settlement and will continue to do so. It is a humanitarian disaster but, sadly, it is not unilaterally within our power to simply bring it to an end.