Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60 - 79)



Sir John Stanley

  60. Foreign Secretary, we have, of course, the Government's response to the last report which we put to the four Secretaries of State at the end of the last Parliament and that response was in Command 5141 which was published last July. Since then you will be aware of the powerful case for prior parliamentary scrutiny on the limited basis put forward by the Quadripartite Committee in the last Parliament. The case has been put forward in the proceedings on the Export Control Bill on both sides of the House and in both Houses. You will be aware, also, that as of yesterday a total of 173 Members drawn from all three major political parties in the House of Commons signed Early Day Motion 826 which says that "This House believes that specified defence export licence applications should be subject to prior scrutiny by a Committee comprising Hon. Members". The new Quadripartite Committee is, of course, considering this matter and it is the Committees' intention to respond fully to the Government's response in Command 5141. The question I want to put to you is this: so far as you and the other three Secretaries of State are concerned, do you have now a closed mind on this issue or are you in fact going to be prepared to look again at the case that we shall be putting to you in response to the comments you made to our predecessor Committees' report?
  (Mr Straw) I suppose I had better say, in terms of now being asked about the state of mind of myself and my colleagues, that is also a state of mind the Government is indivisible to.

Donald Anderson

  61. Why?
  (Mr Straw) Did I hear Mr Anderson say why?

  62. That is right.
  (Mr Straw) If I may just be allowed to talk about my own state of mind. I do not have a closed mind about this at all. I think there are considerations which I say, with respect, I think need to be taken into account very carefully by Members of Parliament about prior scrutiny because it is not a one way street. I think if there were prior scrutiny you could end up with a situation, as they have in Sweden, which I see recommends itself to some people, where the parliamentarians who are involved in the prior scrutiny, as I understand it, have to take what amount to Trappist vows of silence and are not able to take part in any parliamentary debates which follow. I am looking very carefully at the proposals which are being made by Lord Campbell-Savours in the House of Lords for a system which would have a Committee which is similar to the Intelligence and Security Committee in terms of its appointment and responsibility, but it is different from the Intelligence and Security Committee because the ISC does not do any prior scrutiny work with respect to the intelligence agencies, and neither in my judgment could it or would it be appropriate. It could but it would not be appropriate for it. Sir John, I am a Member of Parliament as well as a Member of the Government. As I tell my electors in Blackburn as frequently as I can I only have the job in Government as a result of having a job from them in Parliament and so although, of course, here I am on one side of the table and you are on another, I do not happen to think that I should dispose of my responsibilities or my concern as a Member of Parliament to ensure that Ministers are held properly to account because of one thing. I can be absolutely certain, as I look at my future as well as my past career, that when that finally comes to an end, whenever it does, I will have been a Member of Parliament seeking to hold executives to account for longer than I have been a member of an executive. I think both jobs are important. I think we have to try and work through to get the best system that we can which leads to efficient, consistent decision making in Government and proper parliamentary scrutiny. May I just say this last point. I have looked carefully at other systems so far as information is available. I think the system that we have established over the past five years in the United Kingdom is far and away the most transparent system in the whole of the European Union by a long shot, and that includes Sweden. It is different from the one in the United States but the United States only involves prior scrutiny by Congress on a rather variable basis but what is not variable is a very high threshold in terms of the value of the contracts. At the moment we are world leaders in terms of parliamentary scrutiny for export licences. That does not mean for a moment that we should not try to improve the system but it does help to put our system into perspective.

Sir John Stanley

  63. I welcome the fact you say you have an open mind, I hope that applies equally to the other three Secretaries of State.
  (Mr Straw) It absolutely does. I speak on behalf of them. As I say this is an indivisible government.

  64. Excellent. Foreign Secretary, you would agree, I am sure, that when in the last Parliament a group of us went to study closely the systems in both Sweden and the United States we came to the conclusion that whilst they were both systems of a sort which had a form of prior scrutiny that we did not feel that we wanted to replicate either the Swedish system or the United States system here. I think you will acknowledge that we put forward in the last Quadripartite Committee a system which we thought was extremely well tailored to the particular requirements of the UK Parliament. I think you would agree, also, that in the UK Parliament it is wholly commonplace for Members to serve on both Select Committees and the slightly different Intelligence Committee and at the same time not be subject to any Trappist requirements on the floor of the House. So, bearing those points in mind, I hope it will be the case that you will look very, very closely at the response we are going to make to you with the open mindedness which you conveyed on the part of yourself and your three colleagues.
  (Mr Straw) Yes, I will.

  Chairman: Unless there are any other questions, there is a private session that we need to go into. Publicly may I say, Secretary of State, thank you very much indeed. May I say to the public: may I ask you to leave as quickly as possible so we can move to private session.

The Committee sat in private

Sir John Stanley

  65. Can you just confirm, Chairman that the modus operandi for this session will be as for a normal private evidence session by a Select Committee, in that a full transcript will be taken and if the Secretary of State wishes excisions to be made on the grounds of security that will then be the subject of a discussion/negotiation between the Secretary of State and the Committee, but that a full transcript will be taken?

  Chairman: That is correct.
  (Mr Straw) That is my understanding.


  66. Secretary of State, I think there are three areas that you have identified particularly that we need to discuss further in private session . There is the undercutting issue, that first cropped up in relation to China. On India and Pakistan, you said you wanted to tell us more, and on Tanzania, you said you wanted to tell us very much more. Shall we take them in that order?
  (Mr Straw) On undercutting ***

  67. Why could your answer on the Code not have been in public session?
  (Mr Straw) That was a question of going into more detail, Chairman.

  68. You will appreciate that all Select Committees are very jealous of their transparency and try to keep out of private session as much as possible. On the first question on the Code, in my opinion at the moment I cannot see why you could not have said that in open sessions without causing problems.
  (Mr Straw) In any event, as we know, the arrangement is that we can go through a transcript afterwards and we can then decide whether the Secretary of State has let the cat out of the bag or not. Mr Dowse?
  (Mr Dowse) If I can add. Under the system whereby the EU Code of Conduct operates between Member States, any information on undercuts, even if individual states are not identified, is agreed is confidential between Member States, inter-governmental discussions.
  (Mr Straw) That is a better answer.
  (Mr Dowse) That was why we could not deal with questions of specific numbers of undercuts in the open session. The point about the embargo is the EU embargo on China was agreed at the time of the Tiananmen massacre, as a response to those events. It long predates the Code of Conduct. At the time that embargo was set up, the EU did not have much experience in applying arms embargoes. It was drawn in such a way that there was rather wide scope left for individual national interpretations. We have tried in recent years, and partly at the instigation of the previous Committee, to see if we can achieve a closer and more common national interpretation of the EU embargo on China and we concluded that we cannot actually do it. As part of that process we have examined national interpretations of the embargo. ***

Donald Anderson

  69. May I ask what is the procedure for a review of the operation of both the EU Code and the embargo, because consistency of application must be the aim. Is there a regular forum for seeking to learn from experience and improve?
  (Mr Dowse) There is a working group that meets in Brussels monthly under the Common Foreign and Security Policy called COARM which is constantly discussing various aspects of the implementation of the Code. To give you an example, the Code when dealing with undercuts says that a Member State will not license an essentially identical transaction where another has refused. There is an ongoing debate as to the meaning of "essentially identical" so the actual operation of the Code is really under constant review. There is also an annual report made by the EU collectively, Member States collectively, of the operation of the Code and at that time there is a more general review known. We have brought forward some ourselves over the years already for ways in which the Code might be developed, ways in which the annual reports could be made fuller and more transparent. One of our policy objectives is to try and get the overall EU national report to be as transparent as our own. We would like to encourage a wider standardisation of practice and we have had some success in that respect but we would like to have a lot more.

  70. Are there complaints about delays?
  (Mr Dowse) Delays in licensing?

  Mr Anderson: Yes?
  (Mr Dowse) Not within the EU. I think the way in which the process operates within the EU, we have not experienced delays. In terms of the actual process of dealing with licences in this country from exporters, we recognise that we are not meeting our targets and we need to do that.
  (Mr Straw) I was expecting a question about that in open session. I should just say, as Mr Dowse has just pointed out, that I am concerned personally about the time some of these applications take. We are taking a personal interest now in ways in which the process can be speeded up. It has to be said, the fact that this ends up as such a transparent system does mean because we come before your Committee you can examine in closed session individual cases or sometimes, as with the Tanzanian case, it becomes a matter of great public debate. You have to keep very careful records. Also the fact that four departments are involved adds to the complication. I am looking at ways in which we can speed it up, it is not satisfactory.


  71. May we move on to India and Pakistan.
  (Mr Straw) I think I was being asked about why quite a lot of SIELs were refused. ***

Mr Lansley

  72. Thank you for that. It is more or less what I anticipated that you would then go on to tell us. The question in my mind is: there is substantial awareness generally of India having both a civil space programme and a question of military use of ballistic missiles. There seems to be a persistent inability for us to be able to distinguish between what might be used in one programme and what might be diverted to another and with a friendly government. It seems a pity we cannot arrive at a point where we can be much more certain about end use control over potential dual use items, so that we can be in a position where we can give assistance to India in its civil space programme, for which there are perfectly good applications and India should have every reason to be able to participate in such a programme, whilst separating that from the big issue of weapons of mass destruction.
  (Mr Straw) The problem is not a problem at our end, I have to say. ***
  (Mr Dowse) If I could just expand on that slightly ***

  73. I do not think the burden of my question was to seek to move you to a blanket ban but whether there was some way that a friendly government is a distinct case.
  (Mr Straw) ***

  74. The question from my point of view is the intimate relationship between end-use control in this particular instance and licensing or otherwise of an application, and our ability to put in place with a friendly government and a perfectly legitimate intention in a civil space programme, for example, some of those applications to try and put in with them an end-use control in which we have some confidence.
  (Mr Straw) ***

Mr George

  75. Jack, my views on India and Pakistan are fairly equidistant, partly as a result of having an almost equal number of Indians and Pakistanis in my constituency. On the sale of Hawks and this trust one has for India, and having a better relationship with India and an improving relationship with Pakistan, could you tell us this even in private session—this may be commercial in confidence. I presume if the Indians asked for a couple of Hawks without any restrictions on them militarising them, this would mean some difficulties for the Government although the Hawk is not a particularly good bomber or fighter. If the Indians said "Ah, it will only be used for the principal purpose of the Hawk", namely training purposes, would you then put in some conditions to say "yes, but you must give us some form of guarantee that the Hawk will only be used for training purposes"? If you do that, are they likely to tell you thank you very much but we will now look to the Swedes, the French or the Russians for a trainer that can be used for military purposes?
  (Mr Straw) I am sorry but I cannot go down that path because it would be on the basis of completely inadequate information for me to make a prior judgment about an application that we have not received; that is the situation. In respect of any country, at the risk of repeating myself, what we have to do is to apply the criteria. Obviously the criteria take account of the circumstances of individual countries because issues of regional stability and so on and repression are to do with circumstances from an individual country, but they vary very much not only between countries but over time and the circumstance in a country can change quite rapidly, and you then have to make a judgment about whether the change, if it is a change for the good, is it going to last or not. That is why I must not be led down this path. Frankly, although I try to avoid raising such matters, it would place any Secretary of State at risk in terms of future legal action if I was to say "if we get an application on this basis I will judge it on that basis" when we have not seen the application. If we get an application for any kind of equipment which falls within the goods which are subject to these controls we will judge it on the basis of these criteria. What else can I say, or should say is more to the point.

Donald Anderson

  76. Basically where are the sanctions? We went through this with South Africa in the early 1980s with Coastguarder aircraft for legitimate coastal surveillance, which could have a military use also. Are we suggesting seriously that we put some conditions on a licence. And if those conditions are breached where do we stand?
  (Mr Straw) With respect to Mr Anderson, I cannot get into discussing what conditions could possibly be imposed in respect of an application not received. There may be a case for prior scrutiny but there cannot be a case, I do not think, for prior decision making on the basis of entirely hypothetical applications.


  77. Right. That leaves five minutes. I think there is more on Tanzania.
  (Mr Straw) I am happy to come back. Sorry, what did you say?

  Chairman: I think you said there was more on Tanzania.
  (Mr Straw) As it happens, Mr Berry, I sought to be as forthcoming as I could in the public session, rather to a greater degree than I had anticipated in advance, because as you know I spoke to you and the Clerk yesterday about this. ***

Tony Worthington

  78. In the Communiqué from the Government of Tanzania it referred to other countries being involved. Would that be Rwanda and Burundi in terms of air traffic control?
  (Mr Straw) That is the only reference, interestingly enough, to other countries that I have seen. I was not aware of this at the time when it was a particularly relevant consideration. I do not recall questions of other countries being involved when the matter came before the Committee because after all this is about an application from an exporter here in respect of an export to a particular country which had been within the HIPC programme which is Tanzania. When I read through the letter which came from BAe systems and the Government of Tanzania, which was earlier today, I noted that it was being said by the Government of Tanzania that they are under an obligation, an extant obligation, to I think Rwanda and Burundi to run air space for them. If you ask me whether I was aware of that at the time we took the decision the answer to that is no.

Tony Baldry

  79. One very simple observation, Secretary of State. I hope you will recognise there is a fair degree of cynicism about the Government's commitment to sustainable development, which I am sure will be explored in the debate on the Export Control Bill, because if the Government collectively says this sale to Tanzania is sustainable then it makes one wonder what hurdles would have to be erected for the Government to decide that a sale was not sustainable. Teasing aside, the fact that the Secretary of State for International Development has effectively decided to suspend development aid to Tanzania rather throws that whole position into doubt, that is all. The reason why the Tanzanian decision has caused such a furore is, I think, that it just calls into question the Government's real commitment to sustainable development.
  (Mr Straw) I cannot speak for your state of mind so far as cynicism is concerned. I think the cynicism is entirely misplaced, let me say, if you are cynical about it. The Government's commitment — and it is a commitment for the Government as a whole — to international development is one which is almost without parallel. It needs to be borne in mind that money in the short term in terms of any spending round which is allocated to our development programme is money that is not available, for example, to other programmes, including since I was responsible for a much larger programme before—

  Mr Baldry: I was not talking about international development, I was talking about the sustainable development definition in this Bill.
  (Mr Straw) So far as sustainable development is concerned, I went into the matter personally with a huge amount of detail. I have to ask these characters whether I can disclose this to the Committee, even in private. ***

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