Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 132)



Sir John Stanley

  120. The Government in its White Paper offered a solution to this particular problem, how to combine proper controls over the proliferation of scientific information which might be relevant to the development of weapons of mass destruction and try and let that control live sensibly alongside proper legitimate academic work. In the last two sentences of paragraph 3.2.3 in the White Paper, it says, "A possible solution to this ..", which is the problem, " ... would be to add a provision to the weapons of mass destruction related offences proposed in section 3.1 above ..", that is in the White Paper, "... making publication of controlled technology relevant to the development of weapons of mass destruction an offence. This would apply whatever the medium of publication." The wording there is quite clear and certainly much more restrictive than, Professor Floud, you suggested in your opening remarks when a lecturer in neurology or whatever it might be, or various parts of chemistry, might fall within the ambit of it. It is making publication of controlled technology relevant to the development of weapons of mass destruction an offence. Given wording of that sort applied to the Schedule in the draft Bill, would that set your mind at rest, or would you like to offer any proposals to the Committee as to how you feel the legitimate requirements of academia can be squared with what I think we are all agreed on, the pressingly important need to ensure information relevant to the production of weapons of mass destruction does not proliferate around the world and get into the wrong hands?
  (Mr Bohm) I think the problem is in deciding what information is relevant because that could be very basic scientific research or it could be very specific technology well advanced to the point of application. There is no distinction in those words which enables a teacher to decide whether some piece of information which could be useful, beneficial indeed, in medicine or agricultural, or many fields, might also not be perverted. It is the dual use problem. Those words make not the beginnings of an attempt to distinguish. The Government's own approach in other spheres in this field has been to talk about information intended for use in connection with a programme of weapons of mass destruction, and if we were talking about intent I think we would find very much less difficulty because I think most of us on this side found it very difficult to imagine ordinary academic teaching and research being carried out with any kind of intent of that kind at all. Indeed in the face of warnings by Government to the possible dangers, I think, as Professor Floud said, the universities have been in the forefront of objecting to and pointing out the dangers of proliferation and would be very keen to take that advice. I think it is the looming sledgehammer which remains worrying.

Mr Cohen

  121. This issue of intangible technology has been around for a few years now, mainly since reports that the head of the Iraqi Biological Defence Unit got a PhD at the University of East Anglia, which caused great concern. Arising from that, the then Education Minister wrote a letter to Mr Edwards, the then Chairman of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, saying, so that universities do not unwittingly assist proliferation, "... the Government will provide information and guidance. Because the focus of proliferation concerns naturally shift from time to time, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office will keep the universities up-to-date through the CVCP with the current list of countries and technologies where a proliferation risk arises." I have that letter in front of me, it is dated July 1994. Clearly that was a system in place. Is that system not working satisfactorily from your point of view or from the Government's point of view, as far as we know?
  (Professor Floud) I think there have been lengthy discussions since 1994 about this particular scheme, the so called Voluntary Vetting Scheme, and I think the Government has agreed that when it gives advice to universities it will also indicate whether or not an applicant will be allowed permission to enter the UK. I think they have also revised the list of disciplines which are concerned. So our view is that this is significantly more satisfactory than the original proposal, and I do not think we have serious concerns about it at the moment, but Dr Tilbrook might like to answer.
  (Dr Tilbrook) Any work which is done for defence application—and here I am talking about work done specifically for a UK defence application—is very, very well controlled by a strong contractual procedure between us and the organisation funding it, whether it be an industrial company, DERA or the MOD. The controls which are put in place in those circumstances are extremely adequate.

  122. Do you get this list? I would be interested to know how regularly you get this list of countries and individuals perhaps from the Foreign Office to you as the successor body, saying these people or people from these countries should not be allowed to study here. Do you then pass that on to the universities and they do not allow them to study? Is that what happens?
  (Professor Floud) That is my understanding, yes.


  123. May I just explore in the brief time we have remaining to us your possible solutions to the problem? In one way the Government I thought did address your first point in paragraph 8 by saying on page 13 of Command 5091, if I can draw attention to it, "... a licence should be required only where the provider of information knows or is informed by Government that the activity in question is intended for use in connection with a weapons of mass destruction ...", and in a very useful footnote it says that any information in the public domain would be excluded. Does that not go a very long way to meeting your worries and concerns and in fact cover your first point in paragraph 8?
  (Mr Bohm) Mr Chairman, I think it would, if it was in primary legislation, meet it entirely. I think that is the only difference on that point. I do not think there is really a disagreement about what the right policy ought to be. I think there is a disagreement about whether it should be seen, visibly and obviously, to be entrenched.

  124. So if we persuade the Secretary of State to include a provision of that kind in the Bill at an appropriate place in the Bill that would really meet you? The fact the Government has made a commitment is actually very important in itself.
  (Mr Bohm) Yes.

  125. You want to have it—
  (Professor Floud) Yes, in tablets of stone.

  126. Going back to your example of the project you were talking about. Could that not be solved, as indeed we have found in the dealings in other issues of intangibles, where the Government issue an open general licence which would allow that type of an exchange to take place?
  (Mr Bohm) If the Government were willing to issue open general licences it would indeed. It has not done so. The existing licensing regime does actually prohibit the export of cryptanalytic material, the general controls on cryptographic material have largely gone but they are retained in the techniques of cryptanalysis. That would have effectively interfered with this project. My particular example happens to run up against a current control.

  127. Right. The information of the kind that was being exchanged as part of that project, that was not information in the public domain. If the public domain provision was in force or in place would that have solved your problem?
  (Mr Bohm) It would not have solved it totally because like many research projects the researchers wish to conduct their research in private and publish at a moment of their choosing subsequently. If they were compelled to publish each exchange as it went along, I think that would be fairly powerfully inhibiting even where the content of everything is ultimately going to be published. I think it is a legitimate academic desire to save the material up and publish it at the moment of your choice without your academic competitors getting too much wind of it. It would mean that a pure public domain exception would not solve that time lag problem.

Mr George

  128. I am reassured that if DERA or the MoD gives a contract there are strong security measures in place, although even the strongest measures will not be up to defeating a truly determined potential misuser of information. It is one thing the Government or the MoD passing down information to vice chancellors. Are you satisfied that when information gets down to the level of academics, do they tend to be conscious of the requirements of the Government in terms of protecting very sensitive information or would they say "Look, I am not interested in what these people in the MoD or the Government tell us. I am a student or researcher and I am not having them telling me how I should teach or research". Are you satisfied the word has got down to academics at the coal face?
  (Dr Tilbrook) I am very satisfied on that because certainly at Imperial College we have a number of individuals who have been strongly involved in this industry for a number of years and they would not have been able to retain that role under the respective funding bodies who want to be put in work with us unless we had adhered in the strictest way to everything or expressed desires for confidentiality.

  129. There have been some spectacular failures. My colleague, Harry Cohen, mentioned one and I think another of the heads of the Iraqi nuclear programme did a masters or doctorate at Birmingham University. Those are two pretty substantial failures. Are there any cases you would like to tell us in public or perhaps write to us about in private where it has been known that there has been a leakage of information to a foreign country that has been detrimental to the interests of UK Government or western governments in general?
  (Dr Tilbrook) I personally am not aware of any in my sphere of work.

  130. If you find out perhaps you would let us know?
  (Dr Tilbrook) Yes.

  131. Lastly, the Americans tend to be slightly more paranoid than even we are on these issues. Have you had any discussions with your American colleagues as to how they resolve or fail to resolve the problem in relation to the machinery of Federal Government, be it the Department of Defence, Energy or whatever? What kind of constraints do they operate under within the area that we are talking about?
  (Dr Tilbrook) That is something I am afraid I cannot comment on. I have no knowledge of that.
  (Professor Floud) Perhaps I could say that in terms of the example that has been given, we all learn from the past. The reason why the universities have accepted the voluntary vetting scheme in the way that we have talked about earlier on was because of learning from the past. I do not think that we should be accused of failing to do so.


  132. Against the point, if I could illustrate it, for example, would a university accept a North Korean post graduate who happened to be interested in ballistic trajectories?
  (Professor Floud) Well, would the Government give such a student a visa to enter this country?

  Chairman: I am afraid time does not allow us to do proper justice to the case as a whole. This is by way of a preliminary hearing. It is a draft Bill. There is a consultation period. You have alerted us very helpfully to some further concerns. We have got the Secretary of State in our sights in about 40 minutes time. I am sure that there will be ongoing discussions on this to try and meet the concerns of the strategy. It seems to me we have come some way but not the whole way. Thank you very much indeed. I apologise for the brevity of our exchanges.

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