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Export Controls

Volume 733: debated on Monday 28 November 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what consideration they are giving to provisions concerning the export and re-export of arms and to the export of software or technologies that can be used against civilian populations.

My Lords, the Government have set out their position on the issue of re-export controls on a number of occasions. The Government do not believe that statutory extra-territorial controls on the re-export of UK-origin goods would add to the effectiveness of UK export licensing. On the second part of the Question, the Government take their export control responsibilities very seriously and do not license the export of controlled equipment where there is a clear risk that it could be used for internal repression or human rights abuses. We take any reports of exports being misused overseas very seriously, and the extent to which export controls should apply to surveillance equipment is something that the Government are considering actively, particularly in relation to Syria and Iran.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. Has she had the chance to read the testimony of the Iranian journalist Saeid Pourheyder, who was tortured and subjected to a mock execution? He had been identified by British surveillance technology allegedly sold to Iran by a company called Creativity Software. Will the Minister say what discussions her department had with officials from that company in 2009, and what was discussed during those meetings? Why was the 2010 European Union prohibition on all,

“equipment which might be applied to internal repression”,

in Iran not implemented in this case?

My Lords, 2009 was in the previous Government’s time, but I will look back to see if there is anything that I have missed. However, I can tell the noble Lord that at the moment, alongside our EU counterparts, we are supporting the progress of EU restrictions on surveillance software to Syria. All member states have agreed in principle to the prohibition on selling, supplying, transferring or exporting equipment to monitor the internet and telephone communications on mobile or fixed networks. However, surveillance technology is not controlled under our current export-licensing system as it has legitimate applications. For example, it allows companies operating in dangerous locations to monitor the location of staff, and parents to locate their children’s telephone if they are missing. So there are many legitimate uses for this technology. However, we are most certainly looking at it and will report back.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the Foreign Secretary’s statement of 13 October, when he announced a proposal to introduce a mechanism to allow immediate licensing suspension of software and other export items to countries that are experiencing a sharp deterioration? In light of her answer about Creativity Software, have the Government had any discussions with the company since the Foreign Secretary’s statement on 13 October, with a view to suspending its ability to export these items?

I am afraid that, at the moment, all I know is that the company referred to is exporting quite legitimately, as far as we know. We do not know of any re-exporting involving that company, but certainly we are considering most actively the extent to which export controls should apply to surveillance equipment, particularly in relation to Syria and Iran.

My Lords, I think that most of us would agree with trying to stop arms exports that can be used for internal repression in countries that do not benefit from democracy. However, can the Minister explain which body, in this new technological world, actually decides which items can be used for internal repression and which cannot? This is surely a difficult area. How do the Government cope with that, and how do they decide on which side of the border a particular product lies?

My noble friend is quite right: this is very complicated. We live in a technological age that moves at enormously fast speed. We also do not wish to cause suffering to the innocent people of another country by restricting goods unless we absolutely have to and feel that it is right to do so. That is what we are doing at the moment. I wondered whether anybody would ask me where they could find out what is restricted and what is not. It is always very helpful to have this information. Trade data are available online at if anybody would like to look that up. Information on export restrictions is available on the BIS website. It is the ministry of business that deals with this, which is why I am answering the Question.

What the Minister has said is welcome as far as it goes, and I fully understand the difficulties with surveillance technology, but I should like to ask her this. First, when does she think the Government will arrive at a firm decision on being more restrictive on the export of surveillance technology? Secondly, what about exporting to other countries which might then re-export to oppressive regimes? What can the Government do about that?

The Government do not want goods of UK origin to be re-exported for undesirable uses—of course not. However, the introduction of a statutory re-export control does not make our current export-licensing system more robust. We have talked this through with the European Union. The difficulty is that our law cannot be applied to another country to which something has been passed on. However, we make the questioning of anybody who is looking for an export licence from us very robust, particularly if it is for export to difficult countries, to make absolutely sure that we are clear about why they are doing it and where the goods are going. If, when they come back the next time, we discover that something has happened—that there has been a re-export—we will have an opportunity. However, it is most frustrating that we cannot do more. If anybody can come up with any other suggestion for us or the other members of the European Union, we will be only too happy to listen.

My Lords, the tension that occurs between promoting commercial interests and seeking the improvement of human rights overseas is highlighted by the UK’s role as a major arms-exporting country. We also need to consider the role of government agencies in the support and promotion of arms sales. In its role as a supporter of UK growth, does BIS regularly analyse the industrial and economic benefits of MoD procurement decisions so that a proper cost-benefit analysis can take place? If not, why not? Can we expect to see such analyses being published?

I think that the answer is yes, it does—I am sure that it does. I will check to make absolutely sure, as I am sure that the noble Lord will ask me about this again otherwise. I will return to this with the information that he has asked for, if I may.

May I ask my noble friend what approach the Government adopt towards the export or re-export of arms or software to the Israeli army for potential use in Palestine?