Previous SectionIndexHome Page

8.36 pm

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak in this debate, which has been absolutely fascinating. I have tried to sit through most of it—unfortunately, I had to leave briefly—and the contributions that I have heard were sincere and covered a range of issues. Indeed, this has been one of the better debates that I have heard in the House. I should like to congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths), on his appointment; I am delighted to see him back on the Front Bench. I also congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on her well-deserved promotion.

I do not want to repeat the arguments that have already been advanced. Instead, I should like to develop a slightly different theme and approach the Bill from a different perspective. I do not claim to be an arms control or arms reduction expert, but I take an interest in defence matters and have the honour and privilege, as you once did, Madam Deputy Speaker, of representing this Parliament on the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. Hon. Members from all parties might be surprised to hear that issues such as arms control and reduction probably play a greater part in debate in such international arenas than ever before, certainly since the second world war. I also want to comment briefly on the contribution made by the Bill to a much wider debate in international defence forums, and to explain my conclusion that, far from damaging British defence interests, the Bill enhances them.

Defence manufacturers have welcomed this well-balanced Bill. We must remember that they are commercial organisations that exist not out of worldwide altruistic concern but to make money. They recognise that the Bill provides an opportunity to do just that, as it allows them to operate in a framework that will help them to continue as world leaders not only in the production and distribution of arms, but in anticipating the changes that are occurring in the defence world and in being ahead of the game.

Before I develop those arguments, I should comment on some of the spurious criticisms that have been made of the Government's record on arms control. It is outrageous for the Government to be criticised for delay by a party that had almost 20 years to do something about the control of arms exports. Not only did the Conservatives fail to act, but in 1990, they strengthened the powers under the 1939 Act, an emergency measure that was introduced under the immediate threat of war to conceal arms production and exports. That was right at the time. However, it is outrageous that all Governments let that position continue for so long. It is especially outrageous that the last Government allowed it to go on for 18 years and strengthened the legislation by ensuring that it could not be challenged by the European courts.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): My hon. Friend mentioned 1990. In the 1980s, the Conservative Government breached the regulations on aid and arms sales. We should also remind hon. Members of the Pergau dam scandal.

Mr. Smith: Exactly. It does not stop there. Great play has been made of the Conservative Government's White Paper. Why did they produce it? Because of the scandal

9 Jul 2001 : Column 612

of the sale of arms to Iraq. They were caught conniving with business and trying to persecute business people when they were found out. They were therefore obliged to make it appear as if they were doing something. I shall not develop that argument too far, but it is a damn cheek for Conservative Members to criticise the Government's record, which is a good record and one of which we can be proud.

It has already been said that, immediately after taking office in 1997, the Government took steps to strengthen our control over arms exports. They signed the European code on arms sales without hesitation, and played an important part in abolishing land mines—a leading role in the Ottawa summit, which has effectively removed land mines from the major arenas of war. It would be inconceivable for NATO to consider using land mines in an operation, especially one that involved European forces, even though the Americans have not signed the relevant treaty.

The Bill is ground-breaking because it will set standards for defence manufacturers and for exporting weapons that will be recognised throughout the world. It will put our defence manufacturers in a stronger position. I envisage that they will expect to support regimes and controls that do not allow them to abuse arms exports and that prevent arms from getting into the hands of children—something that has led to so much slaughter, particularly in third-world countries.

The security environment has changed fundamentally, and it continues to change. The threat is not from the former Soviet bloc or a clearly identifiable enemy. The current fear and great insecurity is caused by rogue, destabilised nations, which can threaten the first world with weapons of mass destruction. The great fear is of weapons delivered not on the end of a ballistic missile, but in suitcases or through the actions of terrorists and extremists. Where do they come from? Not from the obvious candidates of the past but from some of those smaller nations that are fundamentally destabilised by civil war and internal warfare, supported by the sale of illegal arms, and especially small arms.

There is a defence interest in this country, and throughout NATO and the United Nations, in removing that destabilising factor. That means that the future of the arms industry will change dramatically and fundamentally. The Bill will help us lead that change. The defence industry plays a role as vital as our military forces—and I need not tell you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I hope I need not tell other hon. Members, that although our military forces may be among the smaller forces in the world, they are undoubtedly the best, leading standards of military practice and military conduct throughout the world. In almost every recent conflict, including those in the Balkans, our forces have played a tremendous role. Our defence industries are right behind them, and I believe that they will be the industries of Europe tomorrow. This Bill will facilitate that development by introducing standards now that may seem by some to put us at a disadvantage, but which will undoubtedly put us in the forefront in years to come.

8.46 pm

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): I hope that I shall be forgiven if, in congratulating all those on both sides of the House who have made their maiden speeches today, I single out that of my hon. Friend the Member for

9 Jul 2001 : Column 613

Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk), who spoke with great commitment, conviction and clarity. He was a credit to the people who selected him to be the Conservative candidate, and to the people who elected him to be their Conservative Member of Parliament, and I am sure that he will go on to be a great credit to all those he serves in his constituency.

I can make that prediction with some authority, because I first met my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford, as he now is, in 1982 when he was an undergraduate student at Reading university, where he had set up a society—a multilateral society—that was campaigning to keep Britain's strategic defences strong at a time when my good friend the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), whom I really do greatly admire, was proudly proclaiming her conscience at Greenham Common with her sisterly friends. I believe that my hon. Friend has been vindicated by time and I know that, in future, he will go on to show that he still possesses the good judgment that he showed in abundance in those fraught and controversial debates.

I also give the warmest possible welcome to the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths). He may not be as senior a Minister as my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) would have liked to be present, but I am particularly glad to see that the hon. Gentleman has demonstrated that there is, in new Labour politics, such a thing as life after ministerial death. I congratulate him on his return to the Front Bench. I thought that he was a jolly chap, with a cheerful disposition, and a good Minister, and I was at a loss to know why he lost his job in the first place.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: That has finished him off.

Dr. Lewis: I certainly hope that I have not finished the Minister's prospects for the future. I would point out that he is not the first person to make a return from the living dead. The right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) did that once before, but I am sure that many hon. Members on both sides of the House are particularly anxious that he should not do so again.

The problem that we must deal with in addressing the Bill is that the questions that we would like to ask are not really susceptible to being answered at this stage. We would like to ask how practical it is. We would like to ask whether the measures that it proposes can be monitored and enforced abroad. We would like to ask whether it will be an effective measure or merely a unilateral gesture.

As has been pointed out time and again, all that depends on the specific secondary legislation, which we have not yet had a chance to read. Much has been made of the work of the Quadripartite Committee, and the first recommendation in the summary of conclusions and recommendations in its 1 May report states:

I am sure that the Committee had good grounds for making that recommendation. Sadly, it has not been heeded.

9 Jul 2001 : Column 614

Similarly, in an intervention on the shadow Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), who opened for the Conservatives, I quoted the view of Saferworld, which is remarkably similar to the points that were made from the Conservative Front Bench. Saferworld said:

Indeed. I shall say more about non-governmental organisations later, but our problem is that, because we are unable to have much of a debate about what is in the Bill, we are reduced to debating what is not in it and what may appear in the secondary legislation.

I want to discuss contributions from NGOs which, greatly to their credit, have taken a close interest in the subject over many years. I can sum up their concerns as five, which I have drawn from a compilation of what Oxfam and Amnesty International in particular have described in briefings to parliamentarians on both sides of the House.

The NGOs want licensed production controls that can be applied when goods of strategic and potentially lethal significance are made under licence overseas. We would therefore be unable to ban a product from being exported from this country to a certain destination while allowing the very same product to be made overseas and sent to the very same destination. They also want reference to be made to the effect on sustainable development. That point has been mentioned a number of times in the debate, but I must take issue with it.

Next Section

IndexHome Page