Therefore it is important, at a macro-level, that we should be perfectly clear in our mind of the merits of including, on the face of the Bill, guidance to impose on the Government an obligation to specify conditions regarding the time scale for the granting of licences.
I shall not cite any specific instances, but I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) informed the House earlier in the year of a case in his constituency, and my hon. Friends the Members for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) and for Salisbury have told the House of cases in their constituencies. I am sure that the Minister knows that there are many other cases around the country. I hope that when he responds to the debate he will seize the opportunity to tell the House that he accepts the amendmentthere is still an off-chance that he might, but I suspect not. I hope that, in the event that he does not do so, he will take the opportunity to tell the House, and through the House British industry, that the Government do understand that if the system of licensing is to work, they must ensure that departmental officials take seriously the need to handle these export licence applications expeditiously, because if they do not, they will lose British business its export markets.
Finally, I shall refer to some comments by the Defence Manufacturers Association which, as the Minister knows, represents the smaller businesses in the defence manufacturing field. In a submission at the time of Second Reading, it said:
Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston): I also represent a constituency where thousands of workers work in the defence industry, and I also am keen to see that many of the brilliant aircraft that are produced in and around my constituency are exported to many other countries. Is the hon. Gentleman assuming that if a time limita deadlineis set for the Department to determine a licensing application, the outcome will be more likely to be positive than negative? It would appear to me that some civil servantsand Ministersmay err on the side
The hon. Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick) makes a valid point. I am not seeking to alter decisions, but I noted earlier that industry prefers certainty. The House has heard that export orders have been lost because of delays in Government decision making. Business wants decisions to be made quickly so that orders are not lost. It is no good for a Minister to come along 10 days after an order has been lost and say that an export licence has been approved. Indeed, companies could reap an advantage if they knew at the outset that they were not going to get export licences for particular contracts. They would not then waste their time trying to pursue a contract.
The amendment does not specify a time limit on the consideration of applications. The power would be permissive in that, if the amendment were accepted, the Bill would state that a Minister "may" issue guidance with regard to the time scale for applications. That is a modest and fair way to proceed.
Nigel Griffiths: Amendments Nos. 28 and 35 relate to the guidance to be published under clause 7, and I shall explain why neither is appropriate. First, however, it may be true that civil servants were undervalued when the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) was a special adviser at the Department, but I assure him that no one values civil servants more than I do.
Nigel Griffiths: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has had a chance to put the record straight. I assure him, the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) and other hon. Members that there has been an improvement in the delivery of the service. More of the 20-working-day targets are being met now than in the recent past, and that shows that the Government take the issue seriously.
Amendment No. 28 would provide for the publication of guidance about the time necessary to process applications under clause 7. That publication would not be mandatory, so I am pleased to tell the House that it is
The amendment, however, raises important issues to do with the time taken to process licence applications. The Government recognise the difficulty that any delay in processing an individual export licence application can cause the exporter concerned. We aim to ensure that the controls are applied efficiently and impose minimum burdens, but the objective of giving every applicant a decision as quickly as possible cannot outweigh the need to give every application careful assessment against the relevant criteria. That can take time, especially if the application is particularly complicated or if there are concerns about the destinations involved. In an uncertain world, the international status of a destination country can change overnight, and what was an acceptable export last time may thus cease to be acceptable.
The Government are working hard to reduce the time taken to assess export licence applications. We have set demanding targets for processing standard individual export licence applications. In most cases, it is necessary for such applications to be circulated to other Government Departments. Our aim is to provide a substantive response to 70 per cent. of applicants within 20 working days.
Those targets are set out in a service and performance code, which is published by the Department's export control organisation. Information on performance against those targets is already published in the Government's annual reports on strategic export controls.
Amendment No. 35 would do two things. Proposed new subsection (3) would provide that all guidance published relating to the exercise of licensing functions for export or transfer controls would constitute guidance under clause 7. Proposed new subsection (6) would require all such guidance to be laid before Parliament and published within 40 days. In effect, any guidance on export licensing would have to be laid before Parliament and published within 40 days. Under the Bill, the Secretary of State will be obliged to lay before Parliament guidance issued under clause 7.
Let me outline why we do not consider it sensible that all guidance, including practical guidance on procedure, should have to be laid before Parliament. The Export Control Organisation publishes on its website a range of guidance for exporters, which is updated constantlyif necessary, on a daily basis. To lay that material before Parliament every time it was updated or changed would unnecessarily overburden the procedures for laying documents before Parliament. That would be unnecessary, because that material is accessible to all Members and the public on the DTI's website or on request from the Export Control Organisation. Moreover, in the Government's view, it would be inappropriate.
We believe that clause 7 should be used to lay before Parliament key guidance documentsfor example, where new international commitments have been entered intoand, of course, the consolidated criteria. Proposed new
The House will not deny the Government credit for making public and transparent the criteria against which licence applications are assessed. We have gone further, pressing the EU to adopt a similar code of conduct for arms exports to ensure that common standards apply across the EU. No one is in any doubt about the importance that we attach to the existence of the consolidated criteria and the EU code, and the Bill will, for the first time, make reference to the criteria in legislation. The consolidated criteria are based predominantly on that code of conduct.
It is quite proper to obtain parliamentary approval for new legislation, but this matter does not require new legislation to be made. If changes to the criteria were made, the Government would, of course, announce them. Parliament or parliamentary Committees could consider any change in the usual way, but it would not be appropriate for such changes to be subject to formal parliamentary scrutiny of the kind that applies to new legislation. In view of the explanations that I have given, I invite the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) to withdraw the amendment.