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Arms Export Licences (Saudi Arabia)

Volume 664: debated on Thursday 26 September 2019

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for International Trade if she will make an urgent statement on the recent unlawful award of arms export licences to Saudi Arabia, in contravention of a Court of Appeal ruling that determined that the UK must cease arms exports to the country.

Today, I will be tabling a written ministerial statement updating Parliament on the latest situation in relation to the undertaking given to the Court of Appeal on 20 June about export licences for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners. As the Government informed the Court on 16 September and followed up with an affidavit today, my Department identified errors in the export licensing procedure in relation to the Saudi coalition’s activities in the conflict in Yemen.

As I stated publicly on 16 September, I unreservedly apologise for the export licences that my Department issued in error. I have also given my unreserved apology to the Court. A procedure to ensure that export licences for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners are not granted for goods for possible use in the conflict in Yemen was put in place on 20 June 2019. That followed the Court order and the then Secretary of State’s statement to Parliament.

The Export Control Joint Unit subsequently issued export licences for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners and, in line with the agreed procedure, these were signed off at official, rather than ministerial, level. It subsequently came to light that two licences were in breach of the Court undertaking, and one licence was granted contrary to the statement in Parliament, as these licences were for goods that could possibly be used in the conflict in Yemen.

Without seeking to prejudice the independent investigation, it appears that information pertaining to the conflict had not been fully shared across government. I took immediate action as soon as the issue was brought to my attention on 12 September: taking immediate steps to inform the Court and Parliament; putting in place immediate interim procedures to make sure the errors could not happen again; and instigating a complete and full internal review of all licences granted for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners since 20 June. The Department’s permanent secretary, on my behalf, commissioned a full internal investigation.

The Court and Parliament were informed on 16 September with the appropriate detail, and the interim procedures mean that senior officials in the Department for International Trade, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence guarantee that the latest information available to the Government is used in their advice. All recommendations to grant licences for the export of items for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners will now be referred to Ministers, rather than being signed off at official level. The full review of licences for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners is currently being undertaken, and this internal review is still ongoing.

As a result of the internal review so far, we have identified one further licence that has been granted in breach of the undertaking given to the Court of Appeal. This licence has not been used and has now been revoked.

My officials are also carrying out an urgent review of the composition of the coalition. This has identified a further licence that is in breach of the parliamentary statement. We reassessed the licence in the light of the latest information and subsequently revoked it in so far as it applies to Jordan.

My officials continue to review all the information relating to licences granted for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners since 20 June 2019, and we will be open and transparent with the Court and Parliament as to any new issues that emerge. In addition, the DIT permanent secretary, on my behalf, has commissioned a full independent investigation, which will establish the precise circumstances in which the licences were granted and whether any other licences have been granted in breach of the undertaking to the Court or contrary to the parliamentary statement, and it will confirm that procedures are in place so that no further breaches of the undertaking can occur.

This investigation will be led by an independent senior official: the director general of policy group for the Department of Work and Pensions. It is possible that more cases will come to light. As I have done so far, I will keep the Court and Parliament informed of any new information that emerges.

I thank the Secretary of State for her response. She made the shocking revelation that two further licences break the law and that more may yet be discovered, but I welcome her unreserved apologies for the errors, as they have been called, made so far.

The situation in Yemen is currently the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world, with half the country’s population at risk of famine and 22 million Yemenis in need of aid and protection. Although the UK has given £770 million in aid to Yemen over the past few years, the UK has earned eight times as much from arms sales to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners. That is the result not of a so-called inadvertent error but of a shamefully incoherent foreign policy that has put profit ahead of upholding international humanitarian law.

The UK has licensed £4.6 billion-worth of arms to the Saudi military, which the United Nations has found to be directly accountable for an estimated 10,852 civilian casualties as of November last year. And now, despite the Court of Appeal ruling that the UK’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia were unlawful, the Secretary of State has approved arms export licences to the Royal Saudi Land Forces.

The Secretary of State has said:

“Given the fact that RSLF troops were deployed in Yemen at the time the licence was issued, this licence should not have been granted.”

How could there ever have been any doubt that the RSLF was in Yemen, given that it makes up more than half the Saudi armed forces, which have invaded Yemen by land? The situation is crystal clear.

The process that led to the licences being granted demonstrates the same carelessness and utter lack of regard for human life that has defined the UK’s arms sales to Saudi over the years. Rather than wasting time and money appealing the Court decision or lobbying other foreign Governments to resume weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, will the Secretary of State rescind these unlawfully granted arms export licences? Furthermore, does she take full responsibility for her Department’s unlawful award of arms export licences, in contravention of the Court of Appeal? If so, will she do the right thing and resign?

Clearly, the conflict in Yemen is a cause of great concern and we fully support the UN-led process to reach peaceful resolution. As the hon. Gentleman said, we have contributed £770 million of UK aid. What we are talking about today, however, are specific procedural issues relating to export licences.

We have a procedure that follows the consolidated criteria and is very clear about humanitarian law. In its judgment on 20 June, the Court of Appeal was very clear that we have in place a rigorous and robust process. The issue is how that process has been followed. That is why, when I was first informed of this issue, on 12 September, as Secretary of State I took immediate action to have an internal investigation into what had happened. I asked the permanent secretary to get a leader from another Department to fully investigate the process and to make sure that no such licences could be issued in error by putting in place a robust process. At the same time, I took immediate steps to inform the Court and Parliament. I have been completely open and transparent about what has happened.

This is a procedural issue. I do not want to prejudge the investigation, but the issue appears to be the sharing of information across government. That is why senior officials will now be asked to sign off on the advice that is put forward, and Ministers will be asked to sign off these export licences.

Order. It might be helpful to colleagues if I indicate that, while wishing to accommodate the legitimate and not inconsiderable interest in this urgent question, I want also to move on to the next urgent question at or close to midday. There is, therefore, a premium on brevity from Back and Front Benchers alike.

I think everyone across the House shares my right hon. Friend’s views on the significance and the horror of the humanitarian situation in Yemen. I believe that what she has expressed to the House today is quite proper remorse and steps to ensure that the Government follow the well-established procedures for arms exports, but will she reflect on the fact that only yesterday the House was debating the impact on the kingdom of Saudi Arabia of the attack on oil facilities in that country by its neighbours across the Gulf, the Iranians? This is a very sensitive area. One of our key allies in the Gulf is under considerable pressure from the Iranian authorities, and we as a Government need to act responsibly to ensure that we stand by our allies when they come under attack.

My right hon. Friend makes an important point, but the topic of today’s question is the following of procedures in the consolidated criteria. The consolidated criteria are right; they are a good way to make sure that we issue export licences to the right parties. The problem here is specifically whether that process was followed correctly within government and whether information was shared between Departments. That is the issue we have identified. I have taken immediate steps to ensure that information is properly shared when those decisions are taken and to investigate what went wrong, but of course I take full responsibility as Secretary of State, and I have made an unreserved apology both to the Court and to Parliament.

Indeed, Mr Speaker.

The Government did know; they just did not tell the Department for International Trade. Which Department knew? Which Minister had the responsibility to tell the Secretary of State, and why are they not sitting alongside the right hon. Lady, making an apology to Parliament?

The evidence presented during the court proceedings earlier this year and the recent revelation prove that the Government have failed to abide by their own undertaking. On two occasions since the Court of Appeal’s verdict, licences have been awarded in contravention of the determination precisely because a careful assessment was not carried out. Will the Secretary of State explain why the reports in 2015—the widespread reports that Saudi troops had been deployed on the ground and were leading the co-ordinated efforts of coalition forces in Yemeni territory—were not properly investigated and assessed by her Department? I note her letter to the Committees on Arms Export Controls; the inference is that no such investigation had ever been carried out.

The previous Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), advised that potential breaches were monitored in a number of ways, one of which was through on-the-ground military and diplomatic staff and our positive close relations with Saudi Arabian officials. The Saudi Arabian officials must have known that their country’s troops were on the ground, so why was that not communicated in the close positive relations that our staff had with them?

I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has launched a full inquiry, but it will not have escaped her notice that the arms export fair took place in London just a short while ago. Some £6.3 billion of arms have been exported to the coalition by this Government— £5.3 billion-worth to Saudi Arabia. What further deals were done there? The Secretary of State has said that it is possible that more illegal deals may have taken place, but does she actually think that instead of it being possible, it is highly probable?

The hon. Gentleman asked me first about the process that took place within government. The answer is that the joint unit is staffed by officials from the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign Office and the Department for International Trade, and clearly there was a failing when it came to sharing information across government. A director general of the Department for Work and Pensions is conducting an investigation to look precisely at the question of which Department issued, or did not issue, the information and how it was shared. The results of that investigation will be put forward in due course. This is a complex area. The Export Control Joint Unit approves approximately 16,000 licences a year, so it is important that we get this right and do not rush to an answer before we are ready.

Regarding the consolidated criteria on licensing, it is also important that we adhere to the terms of our undertaking to the Court and our statement to Parliament, and I was talking earlier specifically about breaches of our undertaking to the Court and our statement to Parliament.

This is clearly a matter of serious moment. I welcome the tone that the Secretary of State has taken today and, indeed, her admission that things have not gone right. Can she assure me of two things: first, that there is a full and complete investigation going on, which I think she has already mentioned; and secondly, that the aim of the investigation will not just be to find out how this situation happened, but to ensure that it cannot happen again?

I can assure my hon. Friend that I have put in place an interim procedure to ensure that there is sign-off from senior officials in all three relevant Departments and ministerial sign-off on any proposed export licences to the relevant parties. I also assure him that we are conducting an investigation, which will be led by a director general from the Department for Work and Pensions, into exactly what went wrong in this case to ensure that it cannot happen again.

I recognise and welcome the Secretary of State’s apology and acceptance of responsibility. It is true that the breaches in export licensing that are the subject of this urgent question may well be described, as she said, as “procedural”, but this case highlights some profound problems with her Department. We are talking about spare parts for armoured vehicles and for military radio used by Saudi land forces, which form half the Saudi military and were operating on the ground in Yemen when the licences were issued, forming part of the invasion by land into Yemen by a country—Saudi Arabia—found to be in breach of international humanitarian law, which is precisely what is supposed to be checked before licences are granted.

Can the Secretary of State tell us whether the provision of incomplete information shared across the Government was simple incompetence? Were her Department and others not aware of their responsibilities in this regard? She will have to be convincing, because I am not convinced that the actions being taken so far remove the perception that this Government and this Department are prepared to ignore the law—in this case, from the Court of Appeal—when it suits them to do so.

The Court of Appeal was very clear in its judgment that there is a rigorous and robust process in place across the Government. The question is about the specific sharing of information between Departments. I have absolute confidence that the unit, when it receives information, implements that in doing its work. The issue is the sharing of information. That is why we have conducted an internal review of the licences already issued as well as asking another Department to look across the board at where information was shared. This is not an issue about the process, which was deemed by the Court of Appeal to be rigorous and robust; it is about how that process has been followed. A lot of people are saying, “Why can’t we do this quicker?” It is very important that we get this right. In the interim period, I have put in place a procedure that makes sure that there is senior sign-off from all three Departments—the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the DIT—as well as ministerial sign-off. There was not ministerial sign-off on these licences. This was done under the previous procedure. There will now be ministerial sign-off on all the relevant licences.

Can I appeal to colleagues please to ask single-sentence questions and give brief replies, because in that way we will get through as many as we possibly can in the truncated period?

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. It is important when we get things wrong that we own up to it and take responsibility. Can she please assure this House that no further licences will be granted to Saudi Arabia or its coalition partners for weapons that could be used in Yemen, especially when many are Scottish-made?

I agree that it is important that we are clear when errors have been made, and I am clear that that is the case. I am confident that we now have a robust interim procedure while this investigation is conducted and make sure that we have a proper procedure in the long term to ensure that the process is followed.

First I call the longest-serving member of the Committees on Arms Export Controls—Ann Clwyd.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Does the new Minister realise that it took almost a year, at the start of this Parliament, to set up the Committees on Arms Export Controls because the Government dragged their feet—and, I would say, dragged their feet deliberately? I am sick of hearing about “rigorous and robust”—this is neither rigorous nor robust. Representatives of the various parties in the Saudi-led coalition were recently at the arms fair. Can she give us an assurance that no new undertakings or contracts were agreed to service or export new goods to the countries involved in the coalition in Yemen?

The role of the joint unit is to scrutinise licences. I can assure the right hon. Lady that we have put in place an interim process to make sure that all available Government information is reflected in advice to Ministers on the issuance of these licences to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners and that that will specifically have ministerial sign-off.

I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. Britain has played a leading role in both diplomatic and humanitarian aid in Yemen. What more political pressure can we bring to bring about a political solution in Yemen?

My hon. Friend is right that we play a significant role in terms of aid to Yemen—we have provided £770 million-worth—and it is important that we work through the UN, to which the Foreign Secretary is committed, to seek as quickly as possible an end to conflict in Yemen.

When Court orders are contravened a couple of times, it can perhaps be dismissed as a failure to follow procedures, but when it happens on multiple occasions, it suggests that there is a systemic problem; the system is not working. Will the Secretary of State look at implementing a policy of the presumption of denial in respect of all export licences to countries listed as human rights priorities on the annual Foreign Office human rights report, so that those exports to those countries would be banned in the first instance?

To be clear for the hon. Gentleman, it was on 12 September that the errors were identified within the Department and notified to me. We then notified the Court and immediately conducted an internal review of all the licences already issued. All these issues relate to decisions that were made before 12 September, and that is why we have put in place the new interim procedure.

It is of vital reputational importance that we maintain the most rigorous and robust export licensing regime in the world. To that end, what is the basis upon which these licences are granted, as in this instance?

The basis on which these licences are granted is in line with the consolidated criteria. Specifically for Saudi Arabia and the coalition partners, we are very much cognisant of the Court of Appeal’s ruling and the undertaking of the former Secretary of State to Parliament.

Despite repeated assurances from the Government over the years that they had acted within the law concerning export licences for arms to Saudi Arabia, we found out last week that the Government had acted unlawfully and today that there might be further breaches. When will this Government recognise the plight facing the Yemeni people and immediately suspend all existing and future arms exports to Saudi Arabia?

I acknowledged in my statement that there have been errors in the way that this procedure has been followed, which is why we have put in place interim measures to deal with this and are conducting an internal review, as well as an investigation by another Department.

The Secretary of State’s apology is welcome, but the narrative is shameful. In August this year, 236 Yemenis were killed, and the bombing raids reached 20,000. Last week, a bomb fell on a mosque, and a bomb fell on a family eating their dinner. What do they put on the death certificate? Do they put “death caused by administrative error”?

As I said earlier, I unreservedly apologise for the errors that were made. That is why, when this was brought to my attention as Secretary of State on 12 September, I took immediate action to stop this happening.

The Court of Appeal identified a failure by the Government to meet their legal obligation to make a systematic assessment of past possible violations of international law. The Secretary of State today has acknowledged a failure to share information across government. Surely these failures demonstrate that we no longer have a robust system of arms control in this country.

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. We have found specific errors, for which I have apologised and taken immediate action to address, but overall, as the Court of Appeal itself points out, we have a robust and rigorous process.

May I make a declaration? I have just returned from a two-day visit to Abqaiq in Saudi Arabia, facilitated by the kingdom, and in the coming days I will include that in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

As Chair of the Committees on Arms Export Controls, I would like to thank the Secretary of State for writing to me immediately on this issue and making it very transparent what the problems were. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is fighting vile terrorists in Yemen who are using human shields. Does she agree that we are approaching the point where our current arms export regulations are not sufficient to deal with the issue of the rebels—the terrorists—using human shields and that the number of civilian casualties is a result of that?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. In this particular case, we have already identified a problem in sharing internal information within government which led to these exports licences being issued. Of course we are doing further investigation into that, but that is the specific issue around the breach of the Court of Appeal judgment. That is where I am putting my focus as Secretary of State.

I refer Members to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. These mistakes are highly regrettable and point to the need for the Government to put their house in order in terms of the overall suspension as quickly as possible. Is it not lamentable for any Member of this House to imply that the suffering in Yemen is principally caused by any arms relationship or our coalition partners rather than the disgrace of the Houthi Islamist regime?

The hon. Gentleman makes an effective point, but the specific issue I deal with as Secretary of State for International Trade is making sure that our export licensing regime is in line with the process that we have laid out as well as the judgment of the Court of Appeal.

Order. I would like to accommodate remaining colleagues, but colleagues who ask long questions do so knowing that they are stopping other colleagues from contributing. I am sure that they are not going to do that, because they are comrades and they will behave in an egalitarian manner. I feel absolutely certain of that, starting of course with Lloyd Russell-Moyle.

Last year, the Department issued 30 million rounds of Warsaw Pact weapons to Saudi Arabia incorrectly. Then the Court of Appeal judgment and now this. Is it not time for the joint unit to be turned into an independent unit like any other regulator and for the Committees on Arms Export Controls to be turned into a proper Committee of the House?

As I have said, errors were made and that is why we have asked the director general at the Department for Work and Pensions to conduct a full review of how this process is being operated.

Are any sanctions available for the companies involved in these mistakes, some of which presumably know full well that they should not be applying for the licences in the first place?

The issue is the issuance of licences. That is the issue I look at as Secretary of State and make sure that it is in place properly.

Can the Secretary of State describe the action of British officials in Saudi Arabia in overseeing the use of British weapons by the Saudi forces in a process agreed with her Department and the Ministry of Defence?

This specific issue is how our process was administered within government. The specific cause of these errors, as we have identified so far, has been the lack of information sharing, but of course I will take up the right hon. Gentleman’s point, too.

Was there a change to UK policy on arms sales to Saudi Arabia in 2016 to discontinue consideration of past Saudi humanitarian law breaches?

In the light of continuing breaches of international humanitarian law by the Saudis, and another disregard for the law by this Government, will the Minister withdraw her appeal?

The issue in question is specifically about whether or not the process was followed, and today we have submitted an affidavit to the court with full details.

With regard to the kindness of the House, may I be the first to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) for securing this urgent question to expose the utter incompetence around this issue. Thousands of UK citizens, military and civilian, are working on projects that are designed to be beyond the reach of this Parliament. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that they are not involved in projects in Yemen?

The question refers specifically to the process of issuing export licences, and that is what I have been focusing on.

Is it not the case that this Government will always seek to break their own rules and turn a blind eye to breaches of humanitarian law when there is money to be made and deals to be had?

As soon as this issue was brought to my attention on 12 September, I took action to ensure that such things cannot happen.

In reality, these so-called errors were discovered only after third parties took the UK Government to court, and the Government have fought this issue all the way through the courts. Rather than having an interim procedure, is it not time to end arms sales to Saudi Arabia altogether?

The breach in the Court findings is specifically about how the procedure was followed, and that is what we must focus on.