Export Control Bill

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The Chairman: I shall now put the Question on the programme motion.

Question put and agreed to.

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that there is a financial resolution in connection with the Bill, copies of which are available in the Room. I should also remind hon. Members that adequate notice should be given of amendments. As a general rule, my co-Chairman and I do not intend to call starred amendments.

Clause 1

Export controls

Mr. Page: I beg to move amendment No. 33, in page 1, line 2, leave out `may' and insert `shall'.

In keeping with my comment that I do not want to delay the Committee, I shall be remarkably brief. Hon. Members who have served on a number of Committees will know that ``shall'' and ``may'' are old friends. We have cantered over considerable ground and taken up considerable time debating their relative values, so I shall not spend much time expanding on them.

The purpose of the amendment is to probe the Government's intentions and to ask the Minister to define them a little more closely. That is because we have no secondary legislation against which to evaluate them—that phrase might come up once or twice during the Committee's deliberations. The Minister has been remarkably helpful and has pointed to a pile of legislation in the Room, but that is the old legislation, and we want to see the new legislation.

When the Secretary of State came to the Dispatch Box on Second Reading on 9 July, she stated that the Bill would introduce

    ``new powers to control the arms trade'',

and we all say amen to that. She said that it would offer

    ``greater democratic accountability for the exercise of those powers'',

and we all say amen to that. She added that it would ensure that

    ``Britain cannot be used as a base for''

the illicit

    ``trafficking and brokering of arms to conflict zones and areas of instability.''

Again, the whole Committee would agree with that. Finally, the Secretary of State noted that the Bill would provide

    ``one of the most effective and comprehensive export control regimes in the world.''—[Official Report, 9 July 2001; Vol. 371, c. 542.]

I want that to happen, because I would like to think that where this country leads, others will follow. Such a development would mean the gradual tightening of control over those who trade illicitly in arms, making it harder for them to operate. That will make the world a safer place. I would like to think that we are as one in moving towards those aims. In all that, there is also the intention to introduce a general licensing system for arms trafficking and brokering.

The terms used by the Secretary of State on Second Reading were unambiguous, and she supported them with moving examples of the suffering caused to individuals and families when arms reached the wrong hands. She drew to our attention some of the terrible circumstances in Africa. In newspapers and other media, we have all seen horrendous scenes; some of them turned my stomach. On Second Reading, she said:

    ``When we consider the Bill, therefore, let us remember what it will mean to people throughout the world.''—[Official Report, 9 July 2001; Vol. 371, c. 542.]

We would all echo that sentiment.

Clause 1(1) gives the Secretary of State, in a permissive sense, power to make orders to impose controls on the export of any goods, and to make provision about matters connected with the imposition of export controls. The word used is ``may''. It is a logical possibility that he or she, depending on who is Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, may decide not to make orders imposing such controls in general or specific terms. If he or she failed to do so, the commitments made on Second Reading would not be honoured. That would breach a promise. Through the amendment, my hon. Friends and I invite the Government to convert the promises into an obligation to the House and the country to meet the general and specific needs.

Nigel Griffiths: By replacing ``may'' with ``shall'', the amendment would impose on the Secretary of State the legal requirement to make orders for the imposition of export controls of any description. It would remove the Secretary of State's discretion to take action or refrain from doing so when the United Kingdom's national interest might be at stake and when international obligations allowed such national discretion.

It is essential to recognise the fact that export controls may be imposed to comply with the UK's obligations under various international export control regimes. Such obligations would normally result from agreements between the UK and other sovereign states, in an EU or other international context. However, export control orders may be made for reasons determined by the UK itself, in the form of unilateral action in exceptional cases, such as export controls on broadcasting equipment to Yugoslavia, or in the timing or manner of introduction of orders to comply with international obligations.

In the absence of international agreement, it will be for the UK to decide whether to take action. In such cases, the Secretary of State must be allowed to have discretion to propose export control orders for parliamentary approval, or the discretion to decide not to do so, depending on the circumstances. The imposition of an obligation, as required by the amendment, would remove the Secretary of State's essential discretion to act or refrain from acting in the UK's interests when a choice had to be made. It is important that he or she has some discretion, so I invite the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Page: In view of the Minister's clear and concise response, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: I beg to move amendment No. 34, in page 1, line 2, after `order', insert

    `, after consultation with the relevant industrial organisations,'.

The amendment is extremely important. As we know from our discussions, and as the Minister has just acknowledged, clause 1(1) is wide-ranging. There is no limitation on the scope of the goods that could be subject to export control. It could therefore cover virtually any manufactured or traded good in the United Kingdom. The powers are extremely wide. Our amendment would impose on the Government the obligation to consult the relevant industrial organisations. Naturally, the Govt would want to do that, and I am sure that the Minister will tell us that that is their intention.

The Bill deals principally with defence exports, although it is much more comprehensive than that. Defence exports are, however, the key issue. I am aware that the Government have had lengthy negotiations with, for example, the Defence Manufacturers Association, the Society of British Aerospace Companies and the National Defence Industries Council. I am not suggesting that the Government have brought the measure before Parliament and the country without consulting the relevant organisations.

However, it would be tactful of the Government to acknowledge the concern that has been expressed about the haste with which the Bill is being advanced through Parliament—the fact that it is being pushed through without the relevant secondary legislation being made available to us for scrutiny. It would mitigate the Government's embarrassment if they were to accept the amendment because, by doing so, they would be showing that they understood such concerns. They would demonstrate that, although they have not been able to bring forward for the Committee the ``dummy orders'', as the Minister described them in his letter to us, as evidence of their good will they are prepared to accept a provision in the Bill that obliges them to consult the relevant industrial organisations.

I am sure that that would be welcomed by the Defence Manufacturers Association and the Society of British Aerospace Companies, for whom the Bill has serious implications. From speaking to the DMA, I know that it accepts the need to update the Import, Export and Customs Powers (Defence) Act 1939. I know that it has had meetings with the Minister, and I think that the Minister would accept that those meetings were cordial. There was not much dispute about the general principle. However, in advance of bringing the orders before Parliament, the Government should accept that they have an obligation to consult with the relevant industrial organisations.

That is fine as regards the defence industries, but the Bill deals with industries well beyond defence. It would be to the Government's advantage, given the sweeping powers conferred upon them by the Bill—which re-enact sweeping powers already available under the emergency legislation of 1939—if they included in the Bill the obligation to consult. The Government and any future Government would be emphatically bound to that obligation. In the case of industrial or commercial activity that is not subject to export controls, but could be in future, there will be a reassurance in the Bill that the Government will consult such industries before bringing orders before Parliament.

11.15 am

Logic and reason militate in favour of the amendment, and the Government would be well advised to accept it. They would lose nothing by that; their powers would not be materially circumscribed. By accepting the amendment they would acknowledge that before enacting sweeping powers, they should consult those who would be affected. They would also advertise to industry and commerce that they desire partnership and do not want to rush measures through without appropriate consultation.

These days, sadly, too few Members of Parliament have commercial experience, too few represent the core of the outside world, and too many have arrived here by the route of being special advisers and political activists. However experienced Members of Parliament may be, Parliament no longer has the breadth of experience that it once had. Therefore, hon. Members may not have suitable experience on which to draw in assessing the possible impact of export control orders on industry and commerce.

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Prepared 17 July 2001