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Security: Fake Bomb Detectors

Volume 745: debated on Tuesday 14 May 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will initiate an inquiry into the military and security implications of the failure of statutory safeguards concerning the sale and exports of false bomb detectors in the case of James McCormick.

My Lords, there was no failure of statutory controls as these objects were not subject to export control because they did not contain controlled materials and/or technology. The previous Government introduced a control on the export of these devices to Iraq and Afghanistan in January 2010 in response to concerns about the risk to the security of UK personnel through the use of these devices in Iraq. This is essentially a case of fraud and is subject to legal proceedings.

I am grateful, if somewhat surprised, by the Minister’s Answer. This was a fraud that went on over four years at a cost of about £60 million. To the mind of many of us, it was not fraud: rather, it was treachery, treason and potential manslaughter. Does the Minister agree that there is a stench of conspiracy or corruption, or is it merely incompetence? If so, what had military intelligence, MI5, MI6, export control and all the other agencies to do with that? This con trick could have cost the lives of our soldiers. Does that concern the Government? If the Minister does not feel that he can give me a full answer now, will he perhaps write to me and place a copy of that fuller response in the Library?

My Lords, the noble Lord asked a number of questions. I will try to answer as many as I can. Failing that, I would be very happy to write to the noble Lord. The UK defence industry contributes £35 billion to our wider economy, provides more than 300,000 jobs and makes a contribution of about £2 billion to our Exchequer. It is a crucial industry. With regard to the defence industry being corrupt, the defence industry, like many other industries, makes a very valuable contribution to the British economy, particularly through its export of defence equipment. This issue cropped up in mid-2009—that is when the department became aware of it—and hence we brought in the control in January 2010.

My Lords, is not the most worrying thing about this the fact that these “magic wands” are still in use today? I was in Baghdad in a vehicle approaching the Iraqi Parliament a week ago today and was screened by one of these fraudulent devices. It is a serious matter and we should say to our Iraqi friends that it is not only a question of protecting life but, if these devices are not withdrawn, it will reflect so poorly on the professionalism of the Iraqi security forces that it will deter people from visiting Iraq in future.

My Lords, the noble Lord raises a very important issue. Yes, this equipment was fraudulent and was sold to Iraq. We have notified not just Iraq but all the respective Governments through our Foreign and Commonwealth Office and embassies that this equipment is not effective and will not serve the purpose for which it was bought.

Will the Minister clarify a very simple and specific point: were these fraudulent bomb detectors given approval by any British government agency such as DSO?

My Lords, to the best of my knowledge no such approval was given. Most of our export is done through UKTI, which normally does not endorse the sale from this country of items of that nature. However, we have now brought in a policy within BIS to make sure that UKTI gets disclaimers signed by people who sell such equipment.

My Lords, I had not intended to speak but that answer rather worried me. If UKTI were happy to give authority for these completely ludicrous bits of kit that do nothing whatever, it does not reflect well on our nation. As noble Lords have said, it was dangerous for people in-country. Is it not extremely worrying if UKTI gave some sort of approval, even just by saying, “Yes, we’re happy for this to happen”?

The noble Lord raises a very important issue but I think he misunderstood my answer. UKTI plays an important role within our department to promote exports world wide. It has exhibitions and trade shows. It does not endorse the sale of such items.

My Lords, is it just me, or is there a sense of complacency in the replies that we are getting? This is a very serious issue. With the benefit of hindsight, I accept that it would have been difficult to prevent such a despicable act. However, now that this has happened, what steps are being taken by the Government to ensure that safety equipment that is not classified as military equipment or subject to the same export restrictions has adequate checks?

My Lords, in February 2010 when this matter came to our attention, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office informed all diplomatic posts of the UK Government of the concern about the effectiveness of certain hand-held bomb detectors and asked posts to share this concern with host Governments. This happened during the time of the noble Lord’s Government. Therefore, everything was done from the time it came to our attention to the time we put the controls in place.