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9.3 pm

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester): I, too, think that the debate has been positive. Briefly, in my remarks, I want to look back and make an assessment of the Government's progress on their ethical foreign policy and on human rights issues.

From the start, may I say that Liberal Democrat Members welcomed strongly the statement of the Foreign Secretary in 1997 that there would be a change in foreign policy, with the ethical element at its heart. From our perspective that was welcome and a fine contrast to some activities in the 18 previous years. However, we believe strongly that those words are easy and need to be followed by fine actions. We recognise good action on Jubilee 2000 and the abolition of land mines, but a number of major holes remain in the Government's ethical foreign policy.

By far the biggest hole is the Government's failure to introduce legislation on arms exports. The right hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) referred to that and cross-party Select Committees have criticised the Government. Five years after the Scott report, it is disgraceful that no such legislation has been introduced in any Queen's Speech in this Parliament, let alone passed. Of course, we welcome the fact that, in recent months, the Government have said they will introduce a draft export control Bill, and that, in the past two or three years, they have changed elements of legislation in relation to arms exports. It is good that the Government are producing an annual report on export licences, and we welcome that. However, on reading the detail, it is difficult to judge the use to which some arms are being put. There is little detail about end use. For example, the

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entry for the Channel Islands sets out the purchase of stun grenades, rifles and other firearms. Anyone would think that the Channel Islands are preparing to go to war, but the real detail is that these items were purchased for a museum. That illustrates the nonsense of not having more information in the annual report. Nevertheless, its publication is welcome.

I am pleased also that the Government have made it clear that they want to tackle the work of brokers. However, there are difficulties in determining how to deal with British brokers who are operating from foreign countries. We need to know more about how the Government propose to tackle that issue.

The greatest failure of the draft legislation that we have seen so far is not to put in place a system of pre-scrutiny of arms exports. If there is to be a genuine attempt to have an ethical foreign policy, that must start by allowing a cross-party group of Members to engage in pre-scrutiny to assess where arms are going.

I understand that there are some concerns about the delay that pre-scrutiny might cause within the system. There are business men in my constituency who share these concerns. When they have been trying to export goods, they have been frustrated at times by long delays. However, I do not think that pre-scrutiny would cause delay. The vast number of products and goods that are being exported would not be required to go through such a system. It may be that only about 10 or 12 would. The process, which is already very delayed, would not be held up much more by allowing a cross-party group of Members to engage in pre-scrutiny.

The second argument to be advanced is that pre-scrutiny would cause competition difficulties. It is said that if we were to open up the process, commercially sensitive contracts would be open for all to examine. It is suggested that other companies that perhaps were not aware that contracts were up for bidding would suddenly start to get in on the bidding process. Again, I think that that is a bogus argument against pre-scrutiny. It is not as if a Committee of Members will put up a big notice saying, "These contracts are out for bidding." If we trust Members, as we do now, to scrutinise MI5 and MI6--our intelligence services--surely we can trust them in the same way to examine arms exports.

If I were a Minister, I would want a "get out of jail card"--an insurance policy. What more effective insurance policy could one have as a Minister than knowing that a decision that might have to be taken in private had been endorsed by a cross-party group of Members in advance? That is one of the most compelling arguments. It would assure a Minister that his lonely decision has already been considered by a number of Members and approved. That system is good enough for the United States, which has overcome the possible difficulties. It is good enough also for Sweden.

Cross-party groups and the Quadripartite Committee and others all recommend the system as the way forward. I was pleased to hear that in a Select Committee this afternoon the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry said that he still has an open mind on the matter. I hope that the Minister will comment on that.

If we are to have proper practice in place, there must be proper end-use monitoring. There is a concern that if we are exporting arms, it is extremely difficult to track down where they end up. I accept that it will be a difficult

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system to implement, given that monitoring will be difficult. However, having pre-scrutiny in place would surely allow pressure groups and others, via Members, to highlight some of the potential concerns about how end misuse could take place.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I am pleased with what my hon. Friend is saying about the need for pre-scrutiny of arms sales. Will he accept from me, as someone who served in the early days on the Quadripartite Committee, that that Committee has moved a long way from the point at which it started in agreeing the present position? If a disparate group of Members can do that, I am sure that the Government can make the same journey.

Mr. Oaten: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. If four respected groups have come together in that way, there is still the opportunity for the Government to listen to the concerns that have been expressed. I hope that the Government will indicate that the issue is still open for discussion.

One reason why we need to have a system of pre-scrutiny in place is what has been taking place in Indonesia. For those of us who are interested in human rights issues it seems a fine example of why we need to have proper arms export controls in place. One of the most disappointing things that the Government did was to continue with the contracts to supply Hawk jets to Indonesia. There were ample opportunities to review those contracts, and it was disappointing that the Foreign Office allowed them to stand. It is difficult to prove that Hawk jets have been used in human rights violations; equally, it is hard to prove that they have not been so used. We know, for example, that water cannon have been used in Jakarta against students protesting there. A pre-scrutiny panel would not have allowed such arms sales to Indonesia to continue.

I shall touch briefly on a couple of other issues on which I would welcome the Minister's comments. This morning I met the Reverend Jackie Maraputi, who is a representative on human rights issues of the Protestant Church in the Moluccas. The Minister will know of the extremely difficult situation in that region over the past 12 months. The good news that Reverend Maraputi told me was that the Protestants and some of the Muslims are working closely together for reconciliation, and there is real hope that some of the difficulties in the region will be overcome as a result of that effort. Those difficulties have led to almost 8,000 deaths in the past two years.

The most encouraging thing that the reverend told me was that some of the more extreme Muslim militant leaders have decided to take part in that process. What support can the British Government or the British Council offer to help to fund that process? He made it clear that the problems can be solved without outside interference, but that funding and support from the British Council would be extremely helpful.

The bad news was that some of the human rights violations continue. The forced religious conversions are still taking place. There are appalling cases of the forced circumcision of children as young as six. People are forced to change their names and married couples are forced to

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undertake a different marriage service to change their religion. All that, I am told, sometimes takes place with the Indonesian army watching and, on occasion, handing out medicine to those who have undergone forced circumcision. It would be helpful if the Minister would indicate whether he is prepared to put pressure on the United Nations or the European Union for the independent monitoring of events on some of the Indonesian islands.

Finally, in relation to Indonesia, there is concern about the situation of those who are trying to avoid such atrocities. There are estimated to be about 2,000 refugees in the islands of Seram, Dura and North Molucca. They are hiding in the jungle, and they need aid and food. Will the Minister confirm that the best way of achieving that would be to put pressure on the Indonesian Government to get food and vital medicine into the jungle? Again, we need monitoring to establish the extent of the problem.

In conclusion, I do not suggest that the problems in Indonesia are a direct result of the arms that we are providing. However, we want the Government to be more active in the region. The example of Indonesia demonstrates the need for proper arms control to be in place. None of us can say that a jet, a cannon or other military equipment has not been used in the Indonesian region in a way that we would find repulsive. I hope that if the Government are given the chance to govern again, they will quickly introduce legislation on arms exports. That remains a serious hole in the ethical foreign policy which we on the Liberal Democrat Benches support.

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