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Torture Weapons

Volume 572: debated on Tuesday 7 May 1996

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2.45 p.m.

Whether torture weapons are still being manufactured in and exported from this country in spite of the exposure of the trade on television and in the Press and, if so, whether this trade is carried out under licence.

My Lords, the Government are not aware of torture weapons being manufactured in the United Kingdom. An export licence would be refused for the export of any weapons intended for such purposes. The United Kingdom is a party to the United Nations convention against torture. The Government deplore the use of torture and would never knowingly support the export of equipment for such purposes.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that reassurance. Is she aware that, despite those reassurances, the export of torture weapons is taking place? Is she further aware that specific companies have been named and that the veracity of the report of Mr. Martin Gregory on Channel 4 was challenged by Mr. Heseltine, which resulted in a libel settlement of £55,000, paid either by Mr. Heseltine or the taxpayer? Will the Minister look again at this problem? In addition to that, there has also been a report by Miss Sarah Wilson in the Scotsman. The Daily Mail, the Press Association and the Guardian have all referred to specific companies which are manufacturing or trading in these weapons, either directly or indirectly. Will the noble Baroness look at the whole matter again?

My Lords, the noble Lord opposite has made many points and has taken quite some time to make them. I hope the House will allow me equal time so that I can deny all the allegations that the noble Lord opposite has made. The companies which are the subject of the allegations publicly denied them. The Home Office, the DTI, the Scottish Department and the Ministry of Defence, as well as various police forces, undertook the investigations. We have some of the toughest export controls in the world, and we shall act on any credible evidence that they are being evaded. The noble Lord mentioned many things which appeared in the newspapers—it is touching that he believes everything that he reads in them. But I say to him that, as was made clear in the agreed statement to the court, while the department accepted that the implications of the comments were not justified, that did not entail the acceptance of the accuracy of the allegations made against the Government in the programme. As I have said, the Government deplore the use of torture, and I stand by that statement.

My Lords, we have all been horrified by reports about the export of instruments of torture. Can my noble friend say what the Government are doing to oppose torture wherever it is occurring?

My Lords, my noble friend is right. The Government do everything they can to oppose torture wherever it is occurring. They receive information from both government and other sources such as Amnesty International. Our embassies abroad regularly discuss our anxieties on human rights with countries which are believed to practise torture. The United Kingdom also plays an active role in the United Nations in supporting and developing international initiatives aimed at the prevention of torture. The United Kingdom also contributes to the United Nations voluntary fund for the victims of torture. I repeat again that the Government deplore the use of torture and would never knowingly support the export of equipment for such purposes.

My Lords, perhaps I may acknowledge what the noble Baroness has said on behalf of our Government and applaud it. Having said that, does she agree that there are cunning, terrible people who, despite the laws of our country, do these horrible things? Would it not be possible for our Government to see that their honourable policy is totally and thoroughly maintained at all times?

My Lords, what the noble Baroness has said is very interesting. But does what she has said about not exporting such terrible pieces of equipment apply also to electric shock batons?

Certainly, my Lords. No companies or individuals in the United Kingdom currently have authority under Section 5 of the Firearms Act 1968 to manufacture, possess or deal in electric shock batons.

My Lords, the answers given by the noble Baroness sounded most forthright to me and very much committed the Government to neither producing nor exporting weapons of torture. I take it that I am right in interpreting what the noble Baroness has said as being categorical. However, perhaps I may ask her—this is not a trick—whether her answers depend on the definition of the word "weapon". Could other items which are made in, and exported from, this country be used for torture? Can the noble Baroness assure me that she meant to say that no "instruments" of torture—if I may use that word rather than "weapons"—are made here or exported?

My Lords, I would never assume that the noble Lord, Lord Peston, would ask me a trick question. Innumerable ordinary domestic and industrial products can be misused for improper or objectionable purposes for which, clearly, they are not intended—for example, DIY power drills, woodworking clamps and even toothpicks and cigarettes can be misused. I hate to think of all the possibilities. It is not practicable to seek to control trade in perfectly legitimate goods. The export of weapons and of restraint weapons—that is what we were talking about—is controlled by, as I have already said and I repeat forcefully, some of the toughest export controls in the world. I repeat that we shall act on any credible evidence that those controls are being evaded.

My Lords, the noble Baroness says that we would not permit United Kingdom companies to deal in implements of torture. Does she recall that the Channel 4 "Dispatches" programme cited the example of a person in the United Kingdom buying implements of torture from Mexico and exporting them to a third country? Is that unlawful? Have the Government drawn the attention of the police to that particular instance of export via a third country?

My Lords, that programme certainly made such allegations; but the Government are not aware of any such cases. The United Kingdom does not have extra-territorial jurisdiction in respect of dealing in goods for which an export licence from the United Kingdom would be required. However, the Government are considering whether to cover such offshore sales—that is what the noble Lord is referring to—in the forthcoming consultation on a range of export control matters following the Scott Report.

My Lords, can the noble Baroness say whether the Government consider leg irons to be implements of torture?

My Lords, leg irons are restricted articles for which export licences would not be granted.

My Lords, this is an important subject in which the Government's veracity is at stake—

Oh yes, and I have to pursue it, if noble Lords will forgive me, by saying this—

By asking a question, then. Is it the case that the Government are stating their intention without enforcing it in practice? If that is the case, and since one cannot pursue the matter further at Question Time, there seems no alternative but to pursue it in another way by, say, an Unstarred Question or a short debate.

My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord does not accept what I am saying. I repeat that the Government deplore the use of torture and would never knowingly support the export of equipment for such purposes.