Skip to main content


Volume 774: debated on Thursday 13 October 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether, in the light of the killing of 140 people following a Saudi air strike on a funeral in Yemen, they are reassessing the licensing of United Kingdom weapons sales to Saudi Arabia since the conflict in Yemen began.

My Lords, the UK Government are deeply concerned by the conflict in Yemen, including recent events in Sanaa. As part of the careful risk assessment for the licensing of arms exports to Saudi Arabia, we keep the situation under careful and continued review. All export licence applications are assessed on a case-by-case basis against the consolidated EU and national arms and export licensing criteria, taking account of all relevant factors at the time of the application.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Following the deaths of the 140 people attending a funeral last week and the 4,000 civilians who have died in Yemen and fearful of being indicted for complicity in war crimes, our allies in the United States have ordered a full review of their arms sales policies to Saudi Arabia. Given that the United Kingdom has licensed £3.3 billion of weapons sales to the Saudis since the conflict in the Yemen began, will the Minister explain to us why we are not also having a comprehensive review?

My Lords, as I sought to outline, although I did not go into detail in the first response, we look at these matters thoroughly every single time, so we have consolidated criteria by which we operate every single application. That applies to all export applications, not only to those where it would be at first sight obvious that any material might be involved in conflict. I can add for the noble Lord that my honourable friend Tobias Ellwood, the Minister for the Middle East, has travelled overnight to Saudi Arabia to have meetings with Yemeni and Saudi leaders, including Yemeni President Hadi, as the UK along with others have expressed our concerns over the continuing conflict. Discussions will focus on the air strike on the funeral hall in Sanaa on Saturday and on the attempts to revive the political process.

My Lords, what action will be taken against those civil servants and officials who deliberately misled Ministers into believing that arms being sold by British companies were not being used in Yemen when they knew the contrary to be true and they were deliberately misleading Ministers? In so far as they cannot be held in contempt, because they did not give that evidence to Select Committees of Parliament, what action will be taken against them?

My Lords, I am not aware that there was a misleading. I am just guessing, but I think that the noble Lord may be referring back to a Written Ministerial Statement in September that sought to correct a series of PQs and Westminster Hall debates about alleged breaches of humanitarian law. The noble Lord shows his assent to my assumption. I read out as a Statement here an Answer to an Urgent Question in another place which made it clear that policy was not changed; the fact was that changes were made to ensure that the parliamentary record was consistent and that it accurately reflects policy. There was no need to change the information that I gave to this House, and I stress that. I am not aware that I have been misled by officials at any time.

My Lords, we welcome Mr Ellwood’s visit to Saudi Arabia. We all understand the dependence of the British arms industry on sales to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf—of course, that dependence can only increase as we leave the European single market and walk away from co-operation in European defence procurement—but the Saudi Government seem to be becoming increasingly sectarian in terms of the split between Sunni and Shia, and Saudi money continues to flow to places such as Pakistan, Indonesia, and Britain to support radical Islamic views, rather than moderate Muslim views. Is it not time that the British Government conducted an overall review of their rather dependent relationship with Saudi Arabia and took more control of it?

My Lords, the noble Lord, with whom I enjoyed working on these matters, always has a really strong global view of issues, and I value that. What I can say is that when we were at the Human Rights Council—I hasten to add that that is not the royal “we”; the UK Government were there and I attended for a week, courtesy of the Chief Whip giving me a slip to do so—we were pleased to be able to reach strong consensus on the Yemen resolution, when a resolution had been brought forward by Saudi Arabia that would have been counterproductive. So there are ways in which the UK can work with the like-minded in places such as the Human Rights Council to focus attention on the need for Saudi Arabia to take account of wider views of its actions.

My Lords, bomb fragments found at the scene of the funeral carnage were those from an Mk 82 American guided bomb. Saudi Arabia is one of the most barbaric countries in the world, with beheadings, amputations and the enslavement of women, while, at the same time, exporting its medieval version of Islam to neighbouring countries such as Syria, Sudan and Yemen. Can the Minister give me a good reason why the West—principally the United States and ourselves—supplies some £7 billion-worth of arms to Saudi Arabia each year? I might add that boosting our trade by exporting the means of mass killings is not a good reason.

My Lords, we comply with international humanitarian law, but I say strongly that I understand the sense of outrage felt by the noble Lord about the killings being suffered by the people of Yemen. I undertake that the UK will continue to press as strongly as we are able in the diplomatic sphere to achieve a peaceful resolution but, in the meantime, continue the aid that we provide there.