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Saudi Arabia: Arms Export Licences

Volume 799: debated on Thursday 26 September 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given earlier this morning in another place:

“Today I will be laying a Written Ministerial Statement updating Parliament on the latest situation in relation to the undertaking given to the Court of Appeal on 20 June about export licences to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners. As the Government informed the court on 16 September and followed up with an affidavit today, my department identified errors that had taken place in the export licensing procedure in relation to the Saudi coalition’s activities in the conflict in Yemen.

As I stated publicly on 16 September, I unreservedly apologise for the export licences that my department issued in error. I have also given my unreserved apologies to the court. A procedure to ensure that export licences were not granted for goods for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners for possible use in the conflict in Yemen was put in place on 20 June 2019. This followed the court order and the then Secretary of State’s Statement to Parliament.

The Export Control Joint Unit subsequently issued export licences to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners and, in line with the agreed procedure, these were signed off at official rather than ministerial level. It subsequently came to light that two licences were in breach of the court undertaking and one licence was granted contrary to the Statement in Parliament, as these licences were for goods that could possibly be used in the conflict in Yemen.

Without seeking to prejudge the independent investigation, it appears that information pertaining to the conflict had not been fully shared across government. As soon as the issue was brought to my attention on 12 September, I took immediate action: taking immediate steps to inform the court and Parliament; putting in place immediate, interim procedures to make sure the error could not happen again; instigating a complete and full internal review of all licences granted for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners since 20 June; and asking the DIT Permanent Secretary to commission, on my behalf, a full internal investigation.

The court and Parliament were informed on 16 September with the appropriate detail. The interim procedures mean senior officials in the DIT, the FCO and the MoD guaranteeing the latest information available to government is used in advice. All recommendations to grant licences for the export of items for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners will now be referred to Ministers rather than being signed off at official level.

The full review of licences for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners is currently being undertaken. This internal review is ongoing. As a result of this internal review, we have identified one further licence that has been granted in breach of the undertaking given to the Court of Appeal. The licence has not been used and has now been revoked.

My officials are also carrying out an urgent review of the composition of the coalition. This has identified a further licence which is in breach of the parliamentary Statement. We have reassessed this licence in light of the latest information and subsequently revoked it in so far as it applies to Jordan. My officials continue to review all information relating to licences granted to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners since 20 June 2019, and we will be open and transparent with the court and Parliament as to any new issues that emerge.

In addition, the DIT Permanent Secretary has commissioned on my behalf a full independent investigation. This will establish the precise circumstances in which these licences were granted, establish whether any other licence has been granted in breach of the undertakings to the court or contrary to the parliamentary Statement and confirm that procedures are in place so that no further breaches of the undertaking can occur. This investigation will be led by an independent senior official, the director-general of policy group, in the Department for Work and Pensions. It is possible that more cases will come to light. As I have done so far, I will keep the court and Parliament informed as to any new information that emerges”.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating that Answer to the Question raised in the other place. I welcome the fact that, in the particular crisis that we are enduring, we can hear the note of contrition, recognition of having done wrong, obeisance to the rule of law and respect for it when wrong decisions have been taken. One can only hope that a wider attitude of such a nature could be evident in all parts of government at this time. It would be wrong for me to ask a question without recognising how much I welcome—and we must all welcome—that note of honesty, integrity and recognition of wrong when it happens.

Of course, it raises the question about the communication that happens between different departments of government, and that too has been addressed. We look forward to further reports as to how those things work out. There has been mention of reviews and investigations. It is therefore frustrating that we have to wait for their outcomes before we ask the really penetrating questions.

However, it would be good if the Minister could give an assurance that, as well as turning up aberrations that have occurred in the past, which we have heard about and which have not yet perhaps reached their conclusion, some attention will be given to how legitimate it is to supply Saudi Arabia, which has committed so many offences against human rights, raised so many questions in the area of appropriate behaviour and is so deeply involved in the internecine struggles in Yemen which have produced the most savage happenings and atrocities that we can imagine, even in the present day. Will some regard continue to be given to the appropriateness of supplying Saudi Arabia with arms and the monitoring that can be done to ensure that those arms are not used in ways that our Government would not want them to be used?

I thank the noble Lord for his questions and comments. Yes, we recognise that there have been mistakes. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has made it quite clear that she apologises fully for these breaches, and we have every intention of halting them happening again.

The noble Lord linked the issue relating to possible human rights violations. The UK takes all allegations of violations of international humanitarian law extremely seriously. Whenever the UK receives reports of alleged violations of human rights, we routinely seek information from all credible sources—this is important—including from NGOs and international organisations. We regularly raise this issue with our allies in Saudi Arabia and are pleased that they are conducting investigations into any violations that have happened through the group that they have set up.

My Lords, I also welcome the detailed account that the noble Earl has given of the steps that have been, and are being, taken to remedy the circumstances that bring us here today. There is some interest in the notion that the Secretary of State felt it necessary to apologise to the court. Perhaps that might become a policy throughout government. Perhaps the noble Earl might like to reflect the welcome that that has received in this House when next he goes to No. 10 Downing Street.

I guess that the noble Earl has before him the Question that I asked on 4 September and the response from the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad. On that occasion, I asked about the question of export licences and I was assured—I stress again that I am quoting the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad—that,

“we have adhered to the undertaking to grant no new licences”.—[Official Report, 4/9/19; col. 1005.]

It now appears that that statement, which I have no doubt was given in good faith, requires revision.

What is the financial value of arms being exported to Saudi Arabia since 20 June under existing licences? I ask this because the undertaking given to the court only applied to new licences. Relevant to some of the points made by the noble Lord who spoke on behalf of the Labour Party a moment ago is the question of the total amount and total effectiveness of arms originating in United Kingdom and sent to Saudi Arabia, and the use to which they are put.

The noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, said he would write to me. Again, I am sure that that was said in good faith, and I hope that that might now be pursued—perhaps more easily be pursued given the nature of the investigations that are being carried out. However much we welcome the steps that are now being taken, the truth is that this is yet another matter of gross embarrassment for this Government.

I thank the noble Lord for his questions. He raises a number of points in relation to his question to my noble friend Lord Ahmad which, of course, as he rightly says, would have been answered in the greatest of good faith.

Perhaps I should clarify further on the licensing of arms to Saudi Arabia. We have already undertaken not to grant new licences for exports to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners which might be used in the conflict in Yemen. As the noble Lord is aware, we continue to assess all other export licence applications against the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria. I understand the concerns raised in both Houses and by the department as well that there have been breaches. However, I should reiterate the fact that we have one of the most robust export licensing control systems in the world.

The noble Lord also mentioned the value of arms sales to Saudi Arabia. I am afraid that I do not have that information with me. I will consult with my noble friend Lord Ahmad and colleagues in the department to ensure that the noble Lord gets a response.

My Lords, I too warmly welcome today’s Statement. As the noble Earl will know, the report on Yemen by the International Relations Committee of this House, of which I was then a member, concluded that Her Majesty’s Government were on the wrong side of international humanitarian law in selling arms to Saudi Arabia when there was such a clear risk that they might be used against civilians in Yemen. Is the noble Earl in a position to say a little bit more about what criteria will be used by the Government to determine whether and when this risk has been definitively removed before seeking to renew any export licences on arms sales to Saudi Arabia?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question. I was aware of the report from the committee on this issue. As I said earlier, we are confident that the UK export controls provide a robust means of assessing human rights concerns. Human rights are a core consideration in assessing export licence applications, and we will not now grant that licence as that would be inconsistent with the licensing criteria. These criteria require us to think very hard about the implications of human rights on granting licences.

Perhaps I should just repeat briefly that the interim procedures put in place mean that, on future licences, senior officials in DIT, FCO and the MoD are guaranteeing the latest information available to Government is used in this advice. All recommendations to grant licences for the export of items to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners will now have to be signed off by Ministers, as opposed to at official level.

My Lords, I have lost count now of the number of times in the last 24 hours we have been told by government Ministers that this Government act lawfully. But four days into this Government, they were not only in breach of a court order that was made in June by granting licences to Saudi Arabia but in breach of undertakings that were given to Parliament. We know now of four instances and we can guarantee there will be more in a relatively short period of time into this Minister’s role.

We are reassured that no further trade is taking place with Saudi Arabia in this respect until this is all sorted out, but in the middle of this the Government invite the Saudi regime to come to the world’s biggest arms fair in London and allow them to look at what we can sell them there, while we are apparently not selling them anything because of their humanitarian failures. The real question here is: why did it take a court order in June that the previous Conservative Government were acting unlawfully to stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia in the face of all its behaviour? Is it the case that this regime can behave just as it likes and it will get the support of this Government in terms of arms sales unless the court says that to give them to them would be unlawful?

My Lords, I cannot agree with the noble Lord. The judgment of the Court of Appeal back in June endorsed the view of the Divisional Court of July 2017 that the processes we have applied were rigorous, robust and multi-layered. The noble Lord is quite right that, regrettably, there were errors in that process, which are very rare. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has commissioned this independent investigation to ensure that these do not happen again. As the noble Lord has said—he drew attention to humanitarian law—we have undertaken not to grant new licences for exports to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners for items which might be used in the conflict in Yemen.