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Register of Arms Brokers Bill [HL]

Volume 776: debated on Friday 18 November 2016


Relevant document: 5th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee

Clause 1: Register of Arms Brokers

Amendment 1

Moved by

1: Clause 1, page 1, line 5, leave out “by Order in Council” and insert “lay before each House of Parliament a draft of an order to”

My Lords, I start by thanking the Minister and her officials for a really useful meeting last week. Amendments 1 and 2 are technical and would rectify shortcomings in the original Bill debated at Second Reading, as highlighted by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee report of 25 October this year.

With the leave of the Committee, I should like to outline briefly the purpose of the Bill. It is a small Bill to meet an obvious need. Its purpose is to require British arms brokers to register before they can trade. It brings arms brokers into line with those of other countries, such as the US—a country not recognised as being in favour of unnecessary regulation. Here, I should point out that a strong regulatory regime is already in place to ensure that licences are granted to export appropriate goods to states which we trust to act responsibly with the arms that are purchased.

At Second Reading the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby summed up the issues really well. He said that the Bill,

“builds upon existing legislation about licensing and export control, so we have a set of criteria and an assessment process in place so that all companies involved are scrutinised and licensed. We are doing the work that would provide the register. So the principle of identifying and monitoring arms brokers is established.

Secondly, there has been a recommendation from the House of Commons Committees on Arms Export Controls that the Government establish a register of UK arms brokers. So besides have a principle of identifying and licensing brokers, even in our own parliamentary system there has been some expert scrutiny of that principle and a recommendation that it is taken forward to a formal system of registration”.

Finally, I refer to the right reverend Prelate’s recent experience of being involved in the crafting and implementation of the Modern Slavery Act. He said:

“In the language of that world, which is analogous, there is the issue of … supply-chain transparency: how people trade and make it transparent for the benefit of all concerned, pushing back against temptations towards corruption”.—[Official Report, 10/6/16; col. 958-59.]

As I said, these are two technical amendments, which were prompted by the DPRRC. I beg to move.

My Lords, I apologise for speaking, as I did not have the opportunity to take part at Second Reading.

I am a little puzzled by the meaning of new Section 4A(2) proposed in Clause 1. As I read it, it would mean that members of the Ministry of Defence, civil servants, members of the Armed Forces and the Treasury and various Ministers,

“involved in the financing, transportation, freight forwarding, or taking of any other action that facilitates the manufacture, export, or import of military equipment or military technology”,

should be registered. I find that odd. It is quite obvious that members of the Armed Forces and civil servants in the Ministry of Defence are involved in the design, improvement and manufacture of weapons to be used by our Armed Forces, but I do not really understand why they should be registered as arms brokers.

My Lords, I must also apologise for not having been able to participate at Second Reading. However, I am glad to say that I cannot think of a Bill that is more pressing or important in the highly dangerous world in which we live.

Weapons are lethal. I have always held the view that the export of arms is so dangerous that it should be only to recognised allies, in the context of alliances to which we belong, or in the case of very specific arrangements that further defence interests as we see them and which can be monitored. The ethos has to be changed from one of exporting arms unless there is a reason not to, to seeing arms as very dangerous, hazardous and unwise things to export unless there is a very good reason for doing so. I believe that that underlying ethos is crucial. In the context of what I have just said, the amendment speaks for itself. As far as I am concerned, I warmly applaud it, as I do the Bill, and hope that it succeeds.

Perhaps I can better help the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, by explaining that the issue he raised comes under the second group of amendments. The amendments in the first group are merely technical to determine how such legislation could take effect.

I am quite happy for the noble Baroness to answer my query when we come to the second group. I shall wait patiently to hear what she has to say.

One does not often hear those words in the House. It was very gracious of the noble Lord to agree to reorganise his speech in order to get the answer that he wants from the noble Baroness.

We have gone back slightly over ground that was raised at Second Reading and I do not want to carry on that trend. We should focus on the amendment. As has been said, this amendment has been recommended by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and it is entirely appropriate for the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, to bring it forward for the Committee’s consideration today.

Having said that, I feel very strongly that this is a gap in an existing and strong system, as was referred to by the noble Baroness in her introductory remarks. We have a strong regime that deals with these difficult areas, and we have licensing and registers already in place. The additional work required is very small, but it fills a lacuna in our existing arrangements, which is very important, in that we do not currently focus on the agents or people in the supply chain, as she says. I recommend the amendment to the House.

My Lords, I start by congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, for steering her Bill into Committee today. I know that there was an interesting and thoughtful debate at Second Reading, during which my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe expressed some of the Government’s reservations about the Bill.

I will pick up on one or two points before I commence my remarks. On the vetting of trade control licence applicants, presently only the eight elements of the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria are considered when granting or refusing export or trade control licences. The Government have no plans to introduce any further changes to those criteria.

The noble Baroness mentioned the need for greater transparency. The UK already publishes one of the most comprehensive reports concerning strategic exports. This includes reference to all our international reporting requirements, as well as information on export licences issued, refused or revoked by destination, including the value and type—for example, military—and a summary of the items covered by the licences.

The straightforward amendments in this first group, which stem from recommendations made by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee in its fifth report, seek to clarify the Bill’s order-making power. The amendments simply change the type of subordinate legislation the Bill provides for so that it is in line with the other powers conferred in the Export Control Act. It remains the Government’s view that this power is not necessary to introduce a register along the lines of that being proposed by the noble Baroness.

Section 4 of the Export Control Act already confers a power on the Secretary of State to introduce trade controls on the acquisition, disposal and movement of goods, and activities which facilitate or are otherwise connected with these actions. As such, we already have the means to implement further controls, such as a register, via secondary legislation if the Government consider it to be in the public interest to do so.

It was very helpful of the noble Baroness to explain some of the Government’s thinking on this matter, but she has highlighted one of the key questions, and I am sure that if I do not stand up and press this, the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, will. If the Government already have the powers under the existing legislation, will she explain concisely why it is they will not act on what is so clearly a lacuna?

Of course. I look forward to receiving a letter on this point. Perhaps the word “lacuna” has caught the noble Baroness unprepared and I should explain a little further—I am not entirely sure myself whether I have got the right word.

The noble Baroness made it very clear that the powers exist, and indeed we discussed that at Second Reading. However, there is a reluctance in the Government’s mind, as I have detected from what she said, around whether or not it is necessary to do so. You do not have to be a reader of lurid fiction or even have an imagination to recognise the sort of people who populate the world in which this activity goes on. Many firms are of high regard and good standing, but there is a penumbra —I am sorry, I must stop using these complicated words; there is a shadow—in which other people operate.

It would be helpful to the progress of this Bill and more generally to the world at large if the Government could be a little more forthcoming about the reasons why they do not support this. In addition to the licensing and registers already in place and the complicated processes that are gone through in government to ensure that licences are properly awarded, they should be able to focus on the people concerned.

One cannot get into the mindset of such people, but we have such a thing as brass-plate companies. They operate in name only. They are shell companies that have no presence other than a brass plate. Therefore, the kind of people that the noble Lord is talking about will operate under the radar regardless. The existing legislation is adequate, according to the Government, in controlling such behaviour as far as we are able to.

I thank the Minister for her explanations. We have already gone into the next amendment, which I will introduce in a moment. To bring us back to Amendments 1 and 2, I guess that this is very much a legal point. We looked at the issues raised by the committee. We took some legal advice and came up with another form of drafting. It seems as though the Government’s lawyers are less than happy with what we have come up with, but I thank the Minister nevertheless.

Amendment 1 agreed.

Amendment 2

Moved by

2: Clause 1, page 1, line 14, leave out “in Council laid”

Amendment 2 agreed.

Amendment 3

Moved by

3: Clause 1, page 1, leave out lines 16 to 18 and insert—

“(b) a person may only be entered in the register if he or she is a fit and proper person to be registered as an arms broker.(4A) The Secretary of State shall specify in guidance what is meant by a “fit and proper person” in subsection (4)(b).”

This amendment is really the nub of what we are trying to achieve. It calls for a fit and proper test for arms brokers. The majority of British arms brokers are decent, upright citizens who have chosen this particular profession and would most certainly pass any fit and proper person test as defined by the Secretary of State. However, as the Minister indicated earlier, some are brass-plate operators and work in offshore tax havens such as the British Virgin Islands, Cyprus, Hong Kong, Liechtenstein or Gibraltar. They pay no tax on considerable earnings.

The events of earlier this year highlighted the key role that offshore shell companies have played in large-scale tax avoidance, prompting a series of reforms and proposed new legislation in the Criminal Finances Bill, which will come before this House some time early next year. There is widespread political support to crack down on these activities and make it harder for individuals to use such offshore vehicles for tax avoidance, including greater powers of disclosure over such overseas assets.

Crucially, these offshore company vehicles have not just been used by those seeking to avoid paying tax. There is a direct link to arms brokering in that they are also the vehicle of choice for arms brokers wishing to conceal their activities. Here, I am clearly not referring to perfectly bona fide arms manufacturers, Ministers, members of the Cabinet or whatever who, if they are caught within the remit of the Bill, are caught totally unintentionally.

A registration system of arms brokers, including mandatory disclosure of all overseas company assets, would serve as a major enforcement tool for Her Majesty’s Government to tackle illicit brokering. It would also be fully consistent with complementary to parallel initiatives being pursued to clamp down on tax avoidance using the same overseas company vehicles and structures. As such, it would be wholly inconsistent with emerging government policy in this area and a huge missed opportunity to exclude arms brokering activities from the process of establishing greater oversight and regulation over offshore companies.

The UK has one of the most active and lucrative arms industries in the world and, at a time of global instability, it is critical that we play our part to ensure that it is transparent. Over 30 industries in the UK require registration, from bouncers to beauticians, yet people who make millions trading weapons, bombs and military equipment have no such scrutiny. The amendment would require all UK arms brokers to pass a fit and proper person test, bringing us into line with most western countries, including the USA and Australia. I beg to move.

My Lords, the amendment is critically needed. It relates to my previous point. Ideally, we should export arms only when they are furthering our defence policies or our strategic alliances for specific purposes. If they are exported outside that context, it should be in a very carefully considered way that contributes towards world peace and stability. Of course all the huge issues of end use and the rest are critically important for context. From that point of view, I can imagine that only the most responsible citizens are qualified to be involved in this trade. The amendment is very important if we are to take the whole purpose of the Bill as seriously as we should.

My Lords, perhaps I may press the Government a little on the extent of this register for arms brokers. My noble friend Lady Jolly has spoken about how, in the past, companies in the overseas territories and Crown dependencies have been used for quite extensive arms brokering to foreign companies. Many of us will remember a number of instances of that. I and others will also be aware of the extent to which our Government provide support to companies based in the overseas territories and Crown dependencies in their exporting activity but do not register and regulate them entirely. That is a possible loophole, which the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, might even describe as a lacuna. It is important that we should be clear quite how far registration and regulation extends. Questions of transparency and proper regulation are always left ambiguous when offshore companies operating in our overseas territories and Crown dependencies are engaged, and historically they have been very active, in the arms brokering trade. I would like further clarification on that.

My Lords, I know that I do not hear very well, but I did not hear the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, answer the points I made on the first amendment, although I heard her say on that one that she would respond to them when taking Amendment 3. I gather that we are now on that amendment and I look forward to hearing from her.

The point I thought the noble Lord was making was to do with the breadth of the measure having to cover Secretaries of State, members of the Cabinet and British arms manufacturers who deal perfectly legitimately and regularly overseas. Do I understand the noble Lord aright?

The noble Baroness is moving in the right direction, but as I read her Bill it would cover the Ministry of Defence, civil servants working for that ministry, members of the Armed Forces, the Treasury, Ministers in the Treasury and anyone involved in the manufacture and supply of arms for our own forces. I am sure that that is not her actual intention, and I am not a lawyer although I am descended from lawyers, but that is my reading of her Bill. It may be that she needs to look at this point before the Report stage.

I thank the noble Lord for that clarification. I am not a lawyer either and neither am I descended from lawyers, but I will most certainly take advice from them and ensure that, should the Bill reach the Report stage, I table any necessary amendments to exclude those particular groups. The aim of the Bill is to catch arms brokers who for the most part operate in small or single-individual companies hiding behind brass plates. Recently there have been several instances of brokers trading illegally. They have been charged and served their time, but because there is no registration, they can come straight back and trade again. That is the purpose of the Bill and so that is what the fit and proper person provision is for.

I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for saying that she will have a look at this point, and I look forward to hearing what she decides on it at a later stage.

My Lords, I am tempted to say that we probably all want to be sure those who are caught by the broad definitions which have been read into the Bill by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, are indeed fit and proper persons. I hope that Ministers would not object if that was a test which was applied to them, although the idea that it might be applied by civil servants to their incoming Ministers might be a bit of a shock to those who aspire to high office. I will not perpetuate that myth any further, and I am sure that the point can be dealt with as we move forward to the Report stage.

Again, the noble Baroness has done a good job in producing a better set of words to try to capture the issues that are in play in the Bill. A further point that she might want to consider before we reach Report is that it might be worth also looking at the recent report from the UN Human Rights Council, which has brought out the principles under which international trade should be regulated in order to make sure that human rights are not breached. Obviously, it is a tricky area and she has acknowledged that the people who operate in this world are often registered outside UK territorial reach and therefore we are not able to pursue them through the British courts or other areas. This is exactly the point raised by the UN Human Rights Council. It is about the need for us all to work together to try and make sure that any gaps in the system are not left unfilled. But these are broader issues than the context of this Bill and I therefore support the amendment as it is framed.

My Lords, this amendment would remove references to the consideration of criminal history and tax status to leave the determination of who is a fit and proper person to guidance that would be issued by the Secretary of State. Any fit and proper person test as a prerequisite for inclusion on a register would need to apply to all categories of applicant, including businesses, individuals, non-governmental organisations and other entities, and be robust enough to hold up to legal challenge if necessary. The Government, who remain committed to better regulation where it is necessary, consider the existing control regime to be sufficiently robust and fully in line with our obligations under the international Arms Trade Treaty. Requiring brokers to register in the way proposed would make the system considerably more complex.

I will pick up on a couple of points the noble Baroness made. The first we referred to earlier, which is brass-plating. Existing legislation would, in certain circumstances, allow enforcement action to be taken against brass-plate companies and their officers. However, there needs to be sufficient evidence to justify any such action. On her other point on tax evasion, HM Revenue & Customs considers all credible information regarding potential breaches of UK strategic export and trade controls, and takes a range of enforcement action based on the particular factors of each case.

I will refer to something that the noble Lord, Lord Judd, raised on human rights issues. Risks around human rights abuses are a key part of our assessment. We do not export equipment where we assess that there is a clear risk that it might be used for internal repression, would provoke or prolong conflict in a country, or would be used aggressively against another country.

Each licensing decision is currently considered on its own merits against the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria, known as the consolidated criteria. This provides a thorough risk assessment framework and requires us to think hard about the impact of providing or brokering arms and equipment and their capabilities. These are decisions we never take lightly.

I should make it clear that the UK operates one of the most robust and transparent export and trade control systems in the world. We are confident that, by considering all applications against the consolidated criteria, we employ a thorough risk-based approach to determine whether to grant a licence to a particular end-user or broker.

Finally, we are proud of the fact that the UK has been at the forefront of addressing concerns on arms brokering by introducing controls that apply not only in the UK but extraterritorially. That was the point that the noble Lords, Lord Wallace and Lord Stevenson, made. It is quite a technical issue and I can write to noble Lords to clarify further. As I said, it applies not only to the UK, but extraterritorially to UK persons overseas. This signifies our clear intention to prevent UK persons escaping brokering controls by simply operating outside the UK.

I thank the Minister for responding to my intervention, but I do not believe she has quite taken the point. My concern is that weapons are so dangerous and potentially negative in their effect that they should be exported only in situations in which peace and stability are at risk, or an agreed necessary military action, in the context of an alliance, is undertaken. I cannot see really, logically, why anyone else would come in with a desire to export arms if it did not fit into that context. If it did fit into that context, why would somebody else have to apply? It therefore seems to me that if we are going to have these free-standing individuals operating in the market, they need to be incredibly responsible citizens who fully understand what the purposes of foreign defence policy, stability policy and all the rest really are. Otherwise, we are in a situation in which the conveyed message is that it is okay to export arms, unless we establish through our very effective controls systems that there is a very good reason for not doing it, whereas I think there has to be a very good reason for doing it. From that standpoint, this amendment moves in the right direction.

Amendment 3 agreed.

Clause 1, as amended, agreed.

Clause 2 agreed.

House resumed.

Bill reported with amendments.