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Arms (Exports and Remote Warfare)

Volume 686: debated on Wednesday 16 December 2020

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about enabling arms exports oversight by the United Kingdom Parliament and the devolved Parliaments and Assemblies; to prohibit the use of lethal autonomous weapons; to make requirements about transparency in arms exports and the use of drones and other remote weapons; and for connected purposes.

I am very proud to be here on behalf of the Scottish National party and others. I am grateful to the supporters, and a wide range of non-governmental organisations and civic society who are very concerned by this topic. I am particularly grateful to the Oxford Research Group’s remote warfare programme, Drone Wars UK, the UN Association, Amnesty International, Article 36, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, Scientists for Global Responsibility, the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, and the Quakers, as well as to our excellent Clerks of the House and Roddy McGlynn in my team for getting us here today.

There are three strands to our proposal. We believe that change is needed urgently to how the UK deals with: arms exports—that is sending material elsewhere for other people’s control; drones—that is material that may be deployed globally either from the UK or not, but under the UK’s control; and lethal autonomous weapons—that is new technology that represents a very dangerous evolution in warfare. We also believe that the existing structure of scrutiny within this House—which is, of course, a matter for this House, although we think it needs to be looked at in the round in this piece of legislation—is not fit for purpose.

It is worth establishing a few points. I am an SNP Member of this House proudly working towards an independent Scotland and energising democratic prospects, so why should I care about UK arms exports? There is a simple answer: we are not independent yet and this is an issue of pressing domestic—however we define it—and global concern. It is incumbent upon us to try to effect change here, to make Scotland’s voice and concerns heard, and thereby demonstrate the stance of an independent Scotland. Whatever is in Scotland’s future, I believe that this is a pressing domestic issue for all of us everywhere.

It is also worth establishing—it may be controversial for some—that I am not against the defence industry. Defence companies represent important research and development, precision manufacturing, high-end engineering, academic contributions and partnerships, and aerospace developments that are key parts of Scotland’s economy now and going forward—and the UK’s as well. They also play a part in the defence ecosystem and the national security of these islands. I believe the Bill will help to strengthen their position by removing the stigma that is, in some quarters, associated with their efforts by bringing a transparency to their effects globally.

There are, as I say, three strands to the proposal. On arms exports, we must assess the scale of what we are talking about. The UK is the world’s second-biggest exporter of arms, worth £11 billion in 2019. That has a significant economic impact domestically, but it also has a significant impact on other countries’ domestic affairs globally and it is right that we in this place properly scrutinise those effects. Although the existing arrangements give a façade of scrutiny, they contain no effective mechanisms for democratic oversight or transparency. Currently, the Minister grants a licence—after consideration, I do not doubt—but there is no transparency to that process. We do have the Committees on Arms Export Controls, which sits across and is composed of four Committees of this House, but it seldom meets, the Chair is unpaid, it did not sit at all for nine months in 2015 and it took six months to be established in 2020. It barely publishes reports—the last was two years ago. We do not think, therefore, that the current system is working, and we do not think it is adequate for where we are now and where we will be in the future. We propose to create a Select Committee with status, with budget and with heft within this House to properly approve licences on ministerial recommendation, to move the scrutiny and move the power to this place on behalf of the people of these islands.

There are security implications, of course. We would model the new Select Committee on the Intelligence and Security Committee. We believe that the solutions can be found. We would also task it with seeking, as part of its deliberations, input from the devolved Administrations and civic society to ensure democratic accountability and transparency within its processes. Of course, the organisation of how the House scrutinises the Government is a matter for the House, but this is a wider question. The architecture is not fit for purpose, but it also needs new purposes going forward, particularly on drones.

Drones—new technology that is evolving very fast—have changed warfare already. We saw in the last few weeks in Nagorno-Karabakh that the deployment of drone technology was pivotal in the outcome of that conflict and in the suffering of many, many civilians. UK Government policy on drones is opaque and effectively incompatible with democratic oversight. It is also put to shame—there are other countries doing this better—by the US and Israel, who have much more transparent and accountable policies on drone use.

The legislation we seek to bring forward would update UK policy on drones, particularly on the rules of engagement, adherence to international law, and—this is really important—post-strike assessments to learn lessons on how the technology is evolving. We would have that overseen by the new Committee. This would be a modern, democratic oversight that will not present problems for a modern, democratically overseen military command and would move power back to where it should be.

The third strand of the legislation relates to lethal autonomous weapons. This is, as yet, experimental technology, but it is evolving very fast and, I believe, in a deeply dangerous direction. Drones are remote and can operate worldwide, but there is still a human finger on the trigger. The development of artificial intelligence and facial recognition technology, as well as other related technologies, could remove that human element from control of these weapons altogether. They should be banned pre-emptively. I am not the first person to call for that; 30 nations, the UN Secretary-General and, indeed, the Pope have called for a ban, on moral but also technological grounds.

The UK can genuinely take a lead on this and, in a bipartisan spirit, I urge it to do so, because that would be a genuinely globally significant development. Ban lethal autonomous weapons pre-emptively and work to build a global consensus on the practicalities of meaningful human control over weapons systems. That would be of global significance. If global Britain got behind that effort, it would be a meaningful contribution and I would be the first to applaud.

In conclusion, we believe that the Bill is necessary, pragmatic, workable and urgent. There is a lot of support for it across the House and in wider civic society. In that bipartisan spirit, I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Alyn Smith, Kirsty Blackman, Deidre Brock, Amy Callaghan, Stewart Hosie, Caroline Lucas, Chris Law, Stewart Malcolm McDonald, Kirsten Oswald, Liz Saville Roberts, Tommy Sheppard and Hywel Williams present the Bill.

Alyn Smith accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 12 March, and to be printed (Bill 235).