Quadripartite Select Committee Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 92-99)


13 MARCH 2006

  Q92 Chairman: Good afternoon, Minister. Welcome to you and your colleagues. Could I ask you to introduce your colleagues to the Committee?

  Malcolm Wicks: Glyn Williams is director of the Export Control Organisation, the ECO. Jayne Carpenter is head of policy and business relations in the ECO and David Whitehouse is head of ECO's Licensing Casework Group. I wonder if it would be possible to make a very brief opening statement?

  Q93  Chairman: If it is very brief, that would be fine, yes.

  Malcolm Wicks: I welcome the opportunity to give evidence with my colleagues. The Committee has our written answers to questions on the 2004 annual report and I certainly attach great importance to export control and getting it right. I am glad to have the Committee's input which I hope will strengthen the system further. In its last report the Committee said that it believed that the UK's export control system had improved substantially during that parliamentary session and that the Act and secondary legislation introduced in 2004, together with changes in reporting practice and more joined up working between departments, had brought us to a point where we had generally efficient and reliable export controls. We obviously welcome that broad judgment. Over the past 18 months, we have faced the challenge of implementing the new controls, some in areas which bring in activities not previously subject to control. We have sought to do this effectively while not overburdening business. We have also maintained a sharp focus on processing licence applications as promptly as possible and we could tell you more about that. We think the ECO wants to build on this good performance this year for a continuous improvement programme and again we could explore that with you in terms of IT systems and the rest. At one level, the ECO like other parts of government is about competent and cost effective public administration. You will forgive me if in answers to some of those questions on that aspect I bring in my colleagues who are the experts. At another higher level, however, it is about our role in combating terrorism and human rights abuses. That is a sensitive and complex question and certainly I would welcome the Committee's advice as we strive to get this right in the future.

  Q94  Chairman: Thank you. We are very grateful that you and your colleagues are here. We have given your department some indication of the details in the questions we might ask. This is not a memory test for people; it is about searching for the truth. We do acknowledge the work the government has done already, as you rightly point out. Can I start by asking whether the Export Control Organisation reviews the internet for contraventions of the export control system?

  Malcolm Wicks: The brief answer is that that is not a regular role of the ECO. We do not have a dedicated official looking at that. We recognise the importance of the internet of course. We have a restricted enforcement unit. This is a fortnightly meeting of an interdepartmental committee, chaired by our director, Mr Williams, on my right here, which reviews intelligence relating to procurement attempts and possible breaches of control. One of the actions they may take is to follow up leads by reviewing a company's website. That is in addition to other work we do through our DTI compliance officers.

  Q95  Chairman: The reason I raise that is, as you probably know, we have received evidence in the last session from Mark Thomas that suggested that UK companies were advertising torture equipment on the internet; that if you looked at the websites of a UK company, TLT International, stun batons and stun guns were for sale. If you looked at Army-Technology.com, the website run by SPG Media, a UK company, again you were offered introductions to Chinese and Korean arms manufacturers who advertised stun batons. Stun batons are on the government's proscribed list and they require a licence. They are weapons of torture. If journalists can spot these things on websites, has your department a similar track record of spotting UK companies who are advertising things of that kind that they should not be advertising, certainly without a licence?

  Malcolm Wicks: Our general approach is that having someone dedicated, say, full time to doing this would not be cost effective. We rely much more on an intelligence based approach in common with many other aspects of policing.

  Mr Williams: We do not do detective work on a speculative basis. We will follow up any leads that we are given from any source and, as necessary, pass them on to HM Revenue and Customs to follow up with their enforcement powers. You are really referring to the brokering controls on internet advertising of the Restricted Goods category. Clearly those are relatively new controls. They have not been in force for two years yet so we are still getting to grips with the compliance and enforcement side of that. I think it is not unusual that in the early days you will find examples.

  Q96  Chairman: Does the department not have a list of UK companies and their websites? From time to time, does someone pop along and check whether they are engaged in advertising kit that they should not be promoting without a licence? I can log on and do that. Why cannot the Export Control Organisation?

  Malcolm Wicks: We are not saying we do not. I said earlier that we will look at company websites. I suppose the resource question is whether making this a regular, daily part of the work would be cost effective. I suspect, like a lot of these things, there is probably no right and wrong answer. This is a relatively new organisation, a new area of policy, which I think we should all be proud of and we want to get it right, given the resources we have. We have as much interest as you in rooting out wrongdoing. If the Committee urged us to look at this we would look at it again. It is a question of just using resources appropriately and effectively.

  Q97  Chairman: Is it the responsibility of the ECO to do that or, in your view, is it the responsibility of HM Revenue and Customs because they are the enforcement agency? Who is dealing with websites or who should be in principle if they had the resources? Should it be the ECO or HM Revenue and Customs?

  Malcolm Wicks: My guess would be that there is no one agency dealing with websites. If we had reason to pursue an inquiry, we would use all available evidence at our disposal. I am not sure it would be sensible to say that we are websites and someone else is not. Customs will use that as part of their policing activities. We work very closely with Customs of course.

  Q98  Mr Hoyle: You spoke about resources. Does that mean the ECO is under-resourced?

  Malcolm Wicks: No, I do not think it does mean that. Whether we were talking about mainstream policing, the secret service, which is not my province, or combating social security fraud that used to be my province ministerially, nevertheless, with the resources you have, however adequate, there is always a judgment about how you use those resources. Much policing now is based on what people call the intelligence led approach.

  Q99  Mr Hoyle: You think they are adequately resourced?

  Malcolm Wicks: Yes.

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