Select Committee on Defence Fourth Report


247. Limiting the proliferation of weapons, from small arms to biological agents, is one of the major political issues of our time. It is, quite literally, a matter of life and death. Export controls are only a part of the solution, but are a crucial part of it. To be reasonably effective, such controls must be applied internationally, and countries must have the skills and resources to identify and to stop illicit exports. But, as international drugs trafficking shows only too clearly, it is unrealistic to expect legislation and border controls to do more than slow proliferation.

248. Over the last five years, we have probably given more sustained and detailed attention to the Government's policy and administration in the area of export controls than any parliamentary select committee has previously given to any specific area of policy. But few areas of policy have so deserved to be subjected to the searchlight of parliamentary scrutiny. Decisions in this area can affect the national security of our country, the ability of industry to trade competitively, whether distant parts of the world live at peace or at war, whether individuals live or die.

249. Before we began our inquiries, this was an area of government best known for its secrecy. With the publication of Annual Reports on Strategic Export Controls, a little light has been visible from behind the closed door. But sometimes the impression of openness is misleading, and information has been published which has led commentators, quite reasonably, to the wrong conclusions.

250. Our task has been to ensure that secrecy is only maintained where it is genuinely justified. Secrecy engenders mistrust, and it is in the Government's interest to be as open as it can be in this area. As the Government has discovered, negative public comment will not be prevented by a lack of openness, or partial transparency. Our confidential investigations into the Government's decisions have suggested to us that the Government has little to be ashamed of. The prize of greater transparency is therefore one worth winning: the prize of public trust.

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Prepared 18 May 2004