Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Eighth Report


172. Our first report of the new Parliament recognises the progress which has been made in improving accountability for the Government's operation of strategic export controls in the last few years. Those efforts have been widely commended. Independent commentators are willing to describe the UK's arrangements as the most transparent in the world. We, once again, join in that praise for what the Government has achieved.

173. As ever, greater accountability leads to demands for more. That is a positive development, indicating that the Government's work is not wasted—people do care, and care deeply, that the UK should operate its system of export controls fairly and in accordance with the highest ethical standards.

174. The basis of the system is that there are publicly declared criteria against which decisions are being made. Some will argue with the nature of the criteria, and individual ministerial decisions will often involve fine, and in the end subjective, judgements about a particular case.

175. No set of criteria can capture the nuances of every circumstance, and it would be impossible to envisage circumstances where no decision of a Minister could be open to criticism. That is why scrutiny is so important—by examining, reflecting on and debating what choices have been made, we can hope that the quality of decision-making will improve.

176. In this report we have concentrated on the application of the sustainable development criterion and the regional stability criterion—in future reports, no doubt, events and decisions will lead us to concentrate on other criteria. The conversation between the Government and Parliament which this report continues is part of that "iterative" learning process which the Foreign Secretary described to us himself. Through that process, everyone's understanding of the nature of the criteria by which ministerial decisions are made will be improved and the consensus on what the criteria mean in practice will, we hope, become more widely shared.

177. The process of refinement is far from over, and the eventual implementation of the Export Control Act will give it new impetus. We will be examining that new statutory framework closely, and we will continue to probe and dissect the evidence which the Annual Reports provide of how the export control system is being operated. We believe that the arrangements for the control of strategic exports could be made more fair and effective by a system of accountability which involved some form of prior scrutiny of licence applications by Parliament. We will continue to work towards this goal.

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Prepared 19 July 2002