Mr. O'Neill: I take on board the point, made by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) about the ping-pong process that we have undergone. The issue has been lobbed over the net, one way and another.
Sweden has a sanitised committee made up of the great and the good and it is chaired by a member of the royal family who may or may not have expertise in such matters. I have been a great supporter of things Swedish and certainly the great traditions of the Swedish Social Democrat Governments of the past. However, on this issue, the Swedish experience is not particularly valuable or one that we should replicate in the United Kingdom. The committee there does not enjoy much confidence from Swedish non-governmental organisations.
In the United States, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is very much under the control of its chairman. When we were in the United States, the committee had a Republican chairman, Jesse Helms, at the time of a Democrat presidency. To say that the committee became a political football is an understatement.
We must also recognise that the Foreign Relations Committee has a high financial threshold. I think that it examines only those contracts worth more than $14 million, which is a pretty large sum. However, that means that many small, nasty contracts can be swept under the table without anyone knowing about them. The scale of the American task, and the manner in which it is applied, does not lend itself to the type of prior scrutiny that we seek.
As a Quadripartite Committee, we do not seek the power to instigate inquiries. In some sensitive contracts, it would be to the advantage of all concerned to have a broader degree of scrutiny and consultation.
Many of us are disappointed that the Government have stepped back from dealing with the issue in the way that we had hoped. In their response to the Select Committeein Cm 5141they go over the top. In responding to a point about "Principle", a sentence begins with the word "However". It was obviously not written by my hon. Friend the Minister; he went to a good Scottish school and we were always told never to start a sentence with "however". I shall ignore that small point.
The Government went on to identify several arguments. The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) touched on confidentiality. Select Committees are consulted on a variety of matters. They are regularly consulted on a need-to-know basis on security, foreign affairs and defence. Cynics might say that hon. Members are put on a Committee only once they have received security clearance and dubious candidates are not successful, although I am not certain of that.
Mr. Battle: Many applications resemble what in local government terms would be called outline planning permission. They are not detailed applications. Would not it be appropriate for outline plans to be considered by Committees? That would resolve many problems that are presented as obstacles to prior scrutiny.
On confidentiality, the Intelligence and Security Committee comprises several hon. Members and representatives of the other place. It is a hybrid Committee, but it deals with matters of great sensitivity. At least two of the participating Departments in the export licence procedure are regularly involved in it. We could be precious and say that the Government's position is insulting to the integrity of hon. Members, but it would be better to explain that we are already involved in the process. There is no need to make a major change to our responsibilities.
The other argument is that prior scrutiny will make subsequent scrutiny more difficult, but we would probably not need to give the matter further consideration. We also heard about the old sore of processing delays. That is plumbing new depths in civil service cynicism. If there is sensitivity or difficulty, the DTI et al will move with glacial speed. Weeks become months and months become years. A coup can be followed by a counter-coup, the bad guys become the good guys, and we are not sure whether our enemy's enemy is still our friend. Some of us were involved in defence debates when the late Alan Clark was the Minister who sold everything to everybody, although I accept that he did that at the highest possible price. We recognise the pre-Scott days. Tactics are available if people want to use them.
The argument about resource implications is even worse than the argument about delays. I think it was a Victorian academic who promulgated a list of reasons for not doing what one does not want to do. I think that unripe time was the only cliché omitted from the list.
The Government are missing a serious opportunity. We hear much about the exclusiveness of the Executive, but the Executive now have an opportunity, on a sensitive subject, to share some power and influence with the House, the legislature. We are not demanding that the Executive consult. We are simply saying that they "may consult"; there is no obligation. We are not even saying that they should consult with the Quadripartite Committee; they could consult any of the Committees with the relevant expertise. New clause 6 would provide Ministers with the maximum possible flexibility. It is a very modest amendment.
I would like to think that this discussion will continue. Although we rightly praise the Government for their openness and transparency in so many aspects of the export licensing process, it is becoming ever more apparent that there will always be sensitive issues. There are not many such issues; as we heard, on current reckoning, they number about 50. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) said, many of those issues can be addressed essentially as outline planning permissions, as applications about applications. For those reasons, I believe that the Government are missing an opportunity.
Some of my colleagues on the Trade and Industry Committee and I have been nominated for the Quadripartite Committee. Some of us will be suggesting that one of the early items on the agenda should be to invite to the Committee assorted Secretaries of State and others, such as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, to justify the nonsense that was given in the July reply and which I have been trying to highlight.
Although I do not think that the issue is worth pressing to a vote now, I think that it will continue to engage the House. We have got our teeth into the issue and we are not going to let go. We also require much better arguments than the ones we received in the Government's
Mr. Liddell-Grainger: One of the points that the Minister may be missing is that it should be up to Parliament to decide whether an export licence should be granted for an item of national importanceI dare not mention the cow in formaldehyde again. If this Government or a future Government decide to export an item of national importance and they get it wrong, they will be held to account. However, if they allow a proper debate in the House on granting a licence, the House itself will have to decide whether to allow the item to go overseas. The House should be able to make such decisions, as the issue encompasses not only arms but technology, works of art and a plethora of other items for which you as a Minister