Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Angus Robertson (Moray): I shall briefly reiterate the position of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru, the party of Wales.

We consider this to be an important Bill that tightens up an important area of legislation, and in general we support it, especially because it takes on and responds to so many points made in the Scott inquiry. We also consider it to be a significant step forward because it tries to prevent the transfer of arms by United Kingdom companies and citizens to conflict or human rights crisis zones. We welcome the closing of loopholes, as described by the Minister, and the enhanced scrutiny procedures.

I hope that the Minister will take what I say in the spirit in which it is meant—one of general support. I think that my comments are in line with the overwhelming view of the majority of those who have spoken so far. We in the SNP and Plaid Cymru agree that a number of factors have been identified which, if not addressed, could undermine the Bill's effectiveness. We share the concern felt by many in the House and elsewhere that the draft Bill's reference to the need to consider the consequences of arms exports on sustainable development has been dropped from the final legislation. That point has been made repeatedly this afternoon. That is why the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) and I have joined the hon. Members for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) and for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) in tabling amendments Nos. 36, 38 and 39.

2.45 pm

Apart from sustainable development, all other export criteria, such as the need not to export weapons that could be used for internal repression or human rights abuses, have been included in the Bill, and rightly so. The Government have justified the omission on the ground that a new provision that gives the Secretary of State powers to issue guidance for consideration during the licensing process covers development issues. However—this point has been made, but it is crucial—although Parliament would have to be fully consulted when changes to the schedule of purposes were made, no such requirement exists for changes to the guidance. It is conceivable that, in the lifetime of the legislation, reference to the need to consider the impact of arms exports on sustainable development could be removed by the Government at any time, without any consideration by Parliament.

Sustainable development as a concept is already becoming recognised in United Kingdom legislation. The International Development Bill received its Second Reading in the House of Commons yesterday. Many hon. Members in the Chamber today who were present yesterday will know that that Bill explicitly refers to and defines sustainable development. I agree with the point made in yesterday's proceedings by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) that the Brundtland definition

8 Nov 2001 : Column 403

of sustainable development would have been preferable. None the less a sustainable measure is included in that Bill.

During the Committee stage of the Bill, the Government repeatedly stressed the importance of the issue. It seems contradictory that sustainable development is the only one of the consolidated criteria not in the Bill. I endorse the point made by the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Tony Worthington) with regard to Tanzania. The schedule of purposes should contain explicit reference to the need to ensure that arms transfers do not have any adverse effect on the economy or sustainable development of a country.

Government policy is based on assessing licence applications on a case-by-case basis. Although that is appropriate in most circumstances, there are concerns—we have heard many of them this afternoon—that that approach may be too narrow when considering the implications of arms transfers on sustainable development. One contract may not be significant on its own, but if part of a pattern of large-scale procurement its may contribute to a cumulative undermining of the development potential of the recipient state. That should be taken into account in the licensing process.

In the Bill as currently drafted, sustainable development is the only one of the eight consolidated criteria, which the Government consider before granting an export licence, not to be included in the schedule. It is instead referred to indirectly in the clause. That is despite the fact that, according to the Minister:

Earlier, he stated that the Bill had been so structured as

Indeed, it sends a clear political message that the Government do not regard protecting sustainable development as of equal importance to the other purposes, such as preventing internal repression.

The hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) made many valuable points about the issue of scrutiny. I suggest to him and to any other hon. Members who are interested in the matter that they have a second look at the scrutiny regime in Sweden, which is of particular interest. The Swedes, who brought in legislation not that long ago, have an interesting principle on which to base scrutiny procedure:

Interestingly, it also includes, implicitly, that export licences should not be granted if the recipient state

That is particularly relevant when we consider the defence systems and equipment international exhibition that was held in this country on 10 September this year. A number of repressive regimes and countries fighting on opposing sides in Africa were invited to that event. There were representatives from countries currently involved in

8 Nov 2001 : Column 404

the conflict in the so-called Democratic Republic of Congo, including representatives from Angola and Uganda. I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to explain whether the updated legislation would allow exports to such countries to continue. I, and many other hon. Members, would be concerned if arms from the United Kingdom could be used in such conflicts.

Amendment No. 36 goes back to the case-by-case assessment outlined earlier. I welcome the fact that the Minister signalled in his opening remarks that that would be taken into consideration. In the spirit of cross-party co-operation, I hope to get some clarification on why that amendment is not acceptable.

Amendment No. 38 deals with the question of different weapons technologies. I am rather confused and would welcome an explanation from the Minister.

Nigel Griffiths: I can perhaps help end some of the confusion. Does the hon. Gentleman know that he is wrong to say that sustainable development is the only criterion not included in the schedule?

Angus Robertson: I bow to the Minister's wisdom, but that does not detract from the case for including it in the legislation. I am happy to continue debating that if the Minister thinks that it is important.

The Minister argued that amendment No. 38 should not be incorporated because it highlights existing and not future or emerging technologies. That is rather confusing because such a proposition would affect much if not all legislation. I do not claim to have a crystal ball that would enable us to produce legislation to anticipate all possible future technological and weapons systems development, but surely we should deal with existing threats and be open to updating legislation as necessary.

I hope that the Minister will respond to the points that have been made by hon. Members from all the parties that have participated in the debate. I look forward to hearing the Minister deal with many of our concerns.

Mr. Lloyd: Some hon. Members have mentioned sustainable development, and I want to put a simple question to the Minister to which I hope that he will respond later.

The House is in favour of sustainable development being caught within the concept of this legislation. Hon. Members have pointed out that the EU code—I have some responsibility for the promulgation of that code—is not legally binding and was never accepted as being so at European level.

Is my hon. Friend the Minister convinced that if sustainable development were used as a criterion for refusal of a licence, it would stand up against judicial review instigated by an exporter facing such refusal? That is a fundamental consideration. Ministers are entitled to protection in using a criterion for the refusal of licences and to know that they can do so without others seeking recourse to the law. Like hon. Members on both sides of the House, I am not yet convinced that it would not be better for the provision to be both extant and in the Bill, so that it is clear not only to the House but to those who implement the legislation and are subject to it.

I turn to amendment (a), which was tabled by the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key). He asked me a little about my experience of Sierra Leone. My recollection is

8 Nov 2001 : Column 405

that I had very little to do with arms going to Sierra Leone—despite my reputation over the years. It is rather ironic if the purpose of the amendment is to allow the Government to act in a way that is consistent with the spirit of the legislation—the establishment of a licensing system that not only allows the legitimate export of arms, but controls and prevents arms sales that we do not want to occur—because there are some circumstances in which it is necessary for the Government to act, not simply quickly, but effectively and immediately.

It is true that, as United Nations embargoes would be implemented by Order in Council, they would fall outside the provisions of the Bill. However, there are other circumstances to consider, such as the present conflict in Afghanistan. Whatever hon. Members' views on that, it was not foreseen well before the event and could not easily have been planned for.

I can think of other such circumstances. After a period of prolonged but uneasy peace, Ecuador and Peru edged in a matter of days towards war. I also recall the situation in Indonesia with respect to East Timor. I went to East Timor for the referendum on independence. The European Union was faced with a mounting crisis in Indonesia and in relations between Indonesia and East Timor, and at very short notice imposed an embargo on weapons sales to Indonesia.

There are times, therefore, when it is necessary to allow Governments to act instantly. It is right and proper that there should be parliamentary control—in many instances I would be at the forefront of those saying, "Let's not trust Ministers"—but amendment (a) would shackle the Government, preventing them acting in ways consistent with foreign policy objectives and maintaining the security of our fighting troops.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will resist pleas to alter the definition of weapons of mass destruction. He is right in the example that he cited. Technology moves very quickly and we may not be able to foresee future weapons of mass destruction. It would be ridiculous for us to define downwards our capacity to control such technology, which we ought to be restricting. I therefore urge him to leave the words "weapons of mass destruction" in the Bill.

Next Section

IndexHome Page