Export Control Bill

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Mr. Page: I do not wish to disagree with my hon. Friend, but the Bill—which we all support—refers to goods of any description: it covers a wider area of trade than defence. Although that is a valuable and important industry, a further 80 or 90 per cent. of our manufacturing economy is also affected by the Bill.

Mr. Howarth: I agree with my hon. Friend, and we must never lose sight of that fact. The Bill gives the Government carte blanche to deal not only with the whole of British industry, but commerce and the world of art—for which the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West is rapidly becoming the official spokesman in the Committee.

I want the Minister to supply hon. Members and the public with the relevant information concerning the performance of his Department on the granting of export licences. It may also be appropriate for him to impart information about how the other European Union countries are operating and performing in that regard, because if we are all caught within the ambit of the European code, should not Parliament and the public be told how long it takes the French or the Italians to issue export licences not only for defence equipment, but across the board?

Nigel Griffiths: I showed the annual report to the Committee. I am aware that it is a mighty tome, and that hon. Members may not have had enough time to read it in detail. However, on page 295 it contains information on licensing performance, under the helpful heading of ``Performance on processing licensing applications''. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that there is a clearer way of directing hon. Members and the public to that information, I would be grateful for his advice.

Mr. Howarth: That could be interpreted as a very ambivalent heading but, as the Minister is a straightforward chap, I am prepared to interpret it straightforwardly. Would it be possible for me to see page 295? This is a weighty tome, as the Minister rightly said. However, I confess that I have not seen the document before. I wonder whether the hon. Member for Twickenham or the hon. Member for Richmond Park have seen it.

11.15 am

Mr. Page: Anyone who has watched American football will know that this is called running interference. My hon. Friend has made an important point about comparisons among our competitors in the European Union. In a world in which there is greater and greater competition in international goods, it is necessary to have the correct comparisons and to check the relative rates of efficiency. Ideas elsewhere about the processing of licences might be adopted here for smoother and more efficient working.

Mr. Howarth: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention.

The Minister's intervention was extremely helpful. Having had an opportunity to glance at the appropriate page of this document, I am bound to say that it contains the information that I was seeking. I therefore apologise to the Committee for detaining it on account of my having failed to see that information. [Interruption.] Well, at least I am being honest. It would also help if, through the European code, we could see how our competitor countries are treating this important matter.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham): I welcome the hon. Gentleman's openness. As someone who supports and recognises the importance of the arms industry, certainly to the region that I represent, I believe that it is important that the amendment gets the balance right between neutering the report—making it so anodyne that people do not understand it—and openness. The United States has a successful—

The Chairman: Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are discussing clause 9 stand part. We are not dealing with any amendments.

Mr. Jones: I just want to make the point that the report must have openness and transparency; otherwise, it will be a neutered report and will gather dust, as other reports have done, which was shown by the hon. Member for Aldershot not having read the relevant part of it.

The important thing is to get that balance right. Clearly, the United States has a successful arms export industry, but it also has openness. That must underline this annual report if it is to be meaningful, which is the key point. I also welcome the benchmarking in terms of licensing against other European countries, as well as the fact that the hon. Member for Aldershot thinks that something good is coming out of Europe.

Mr. Howarth: I did not say that.

Dr. Cable: The hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire threw out an interesting point in the course of his discussion of clause 9, and caused a brief flutter of excitement to which the Minister did not respond, and which was not taken any further. I was intrigued, and interested to know the implications of the so-called blacklist of countries. It would not surprise me if such a list existed—I do not know about it, and it is probably not improper either. Dodgy business practices are common, and in countries such as India, where there is great transparency and arms contracts have been investigated, it has been shown that the industry is replete with all kinds of practices. It would not surprise me in the least if, in order to protect Ministers, officials occasionally recommend that certain licences should not be approved because of the company rather than the criteria relating to the country. How will the Bill relate to the problem to which the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire referred? How will such a definition of a company be dealt with under the Bill? Will it be permissible for Ministers to ring-fence certain companies because of their reputation and the way that they operate? How will Parliament come to know about that practice generally or in relation to specific cases? The hon. Gentleman has raised an important issue, to which the Minister has not responded. I do not know where this hare might run, but the argument needs to be developed.

Mr. Page: My amendment is carefully phrased. The words ``the work of'' allow for a broader reference. That is necessary not just because of the statistical aspects but to give better guidance to the companies involved in handling and processing applications, so that time is not wasted in submitting export licence applications that will not succeed.

Nigel Griffiths: We have had a well informed debate on the clause. I congratulate the parliamentary draftspeople for drafting in three sentences one of the most vital clauses in the Bill. I want to reinforce the message that we intend to continue the practices that up to now have been voluntary, and make them statutory. I do not ask the Committee to take only from me the high quality of the Government's annual report. I quote the organisation Saferworld, which said that that report

    ``currently stands as the most transparent report published by any European country, and offers a potential template for best practice throughout the EU.''

I hope that in commending this clause, I have covered the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham and the hon. Member for Aldershot. We hope that our EU partners will follow our example so that we can see what happens when we reject licences. Of course, we have a procedure to inform our partners in Europe of that, and they must circulate the information in their countries, too.

The clause places the annual report on strategic import controls on a statutory basis. It requires my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to report to Parliament on the operation of the export licensing system for objects of cultural interest.

For those reasons, I consider the clause an important part of the Bill and am sure that the Committee agrees with me. I urge the Committee to agree that the clause should stand part.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Mr. Pearson.]

        Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes past Eleven o'clock till Tuesday 16 October at half-past Ten o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Benton, Mr. Joe (Chairman)
Baird, Vera
Cable, Dr.
Gray, Mr.
Griffiths, Nigel
Howarth, Mr. Gerald
Jones, Mr. Kevan
Laxton, Mr.
Liddell-Grainger, Mr.
Marris, Rob
Page, Mr.
Pearson, Mr.
Savidge, Mr.
Starkey, Dr.
Tonge, Dr.
Tynan, Mr.

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