Quadripartite Select Committee Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300-319)


25 APRIL 2006

  Q300  Robert Key: Will the list for a treaty include dual-use items?

  Dr Howells: Hopefully it will include all items that could be used as weapons. We are very, very keen to see that there is not the kind of modification and reconfiguration of what at the moment look like civilian products for military uses, and I would see that as part of a much wider dialogue about how we approach this whole subject.

  Q301  Mr Borrow: Minister, in that same speech you mentioned the capacity-building requirements of other countries in terms of arms control and that the work that the UK was doing in terms of outreach work had moved beyond simply popping over somewhere to have a little chat and back again and that you are doing more targeted work. Could you explain what sort of detailed outreach work the UK is doing in countries in terms of the prospective treaty, how many countries are likely to need support and whether countries other than the UK will need to contribute to that support if internationally the treaty is going to work as it should work?

  Dr Howells: This is a very, very important point. We know that if this treaty is going to mean anything and if it is going to be effective then we have to help those countries to build up their own capacity to make it happen, so we have held extensive discussions with our allies, with China, with Russia, with the US to try and understand how best this could come about. I am due to go to Moscow very shortly, for example, where there will be quite extensive discussions about how we might take this forward. Probably the most optimistic signal is that the UN General Assembly is interested in it and they seem to agree with us that the best way to secure an arms trade treaty that is going to work is through a UN-based process. We looked at other ways in which we might do it—the Ottawa way and there were a number of suggestions—and we think that this is the proper way to do it, but it does involve painstaking work, it involves a lot of diplomacy, and we have to try to convince some very big arms manufacturers that they are best served by this as well as, if you like, those countries that suffer most as a consequence of the proliferation of arms. It is a big diplomatic offensive that we have undertaken, but we are determined to press on with it. It is something which the Foreign Secretary first aired about a year ago, I have taken it on a little now and we are determined to press on with it.

  Q302  Mr Borrow: Have we got any practical details in terms of the cost of doing an effective programme in this area and the numbers of experts in these areas that will be required in order to give the support to capacity building in other countries and whether that pool of expertise actually exists in the first place?

  Dr Howells: The outreach work to promote effective export control is certainly, as you say, Mr Borrow, extremely important in the fight against proliferation. EU outreach activities include seminars, visits, covering topics such as industry awareness, capacity building, customs procedures and assistance with drafting legislation, which is also very important, and a good current example of EU outreach work is the EU's €1.5 million pilot project running from 2005 to 2007 on the export control of dual-use items. We have four nations identified as key partners in this pilot project: China, the UAE, Serbia and Montenegro and the Ukraine, and that is proceeding.

  Q303  Robert Key: Minister, there was a lot of progress made during our recent Presidency of the EU on the Code of Conduct on Arms Exports; in fact, at working level the EU Code was agreed, then it ran into the sand. What went wrong?

  Dr Howells: Mr Key, the revised code is certainly agreed, as you say, at a technical level and the Council has agreed to adopt the new arrangements at an appropriate juncture. The new arrangements should see a legally binding common position which will further enrich and entrench Member States' strong commitment to common standards. The main changes envisaged are these: an increase in the scope of the code so that its criteria cover all applications from brokering, transit, trans-shipment and intangible technology transfer licences—which have been very difficult as you know—in addition to physical exports that can be uncovered, and I can remember from my own time in DTI the difficulty that we had with issues like intellectual property rights—those intangibles are extremely difficult to control in so many ways—and an obligation on Member States to refuse export licences if they consider that there is a clear risk that the items covered by the licence will be used to commit serious violations of international humanitarian law. This amendment was suggested by the international committee of the Red Cross which I think is pretty clear evidence that the EU is open to suggestions from external parties.

  Q304  Robert Key: Forgive me, but what do you mean by that, pressure from external parties?

  Dr Howells: The Red Cross, NGOs, we are listening to non-governmental organisations in a way which I at least—I do not know about you, Mr Key—find very refreshing.

  Q305  Robert Key: Sure.

  Dr Howells: It brings experience on the ground in areas where weapons have been used to bear on the deliberations.

  Q306  Robert Key: Which nation is blocking it then?

  Dr Howells: Trevor, you have had long experience of this one.

  Mr Moore: I was the chairman of COARM—

  Q307  Robert Key: Congratulations on your success; what a pity the politicians could not live up to it.

  Mr Moore: We are hoping that consensus can be reached, but we do not think it is particularly constructive to point fingers. Consensus has not yet been reached but we hope that that can be achieved—

  Robert Key: Mr Moore, I am not asking you to point fingers, I am asking you, within these four walls, to just tell us—come on now, in the spirit of friendship—

  Mr Keetch: Write it down.

  Q308  Robert Key: Next time we visit these countries perhaps we can suggest they should mend their ways. Minister, can you help us? A shrug of the shoulders will do.

  Dr Howells: I cannot help you.

  Q309  Chairman: The broadcasting sign is up there, in fairness—

  Dr Howells: Trevor is quite right, Mr Key, I do not think it would be constructive to point fingers at this stage. We are negotiating very hard on this and we are convinced we can make progress.

  Chairman: It was a very good try, if I might say so, Robert. Shall we move on?

  Q310  Robert Key: One final point. Will this EU code actually be applied to dual-use items again?

  Dr Howells: As far as I am aware, yes. All countries will certainly have to take particular account of the final use of any products which they know are being exported for the purposes of licensed production in third countries.

  Q311  Mr Davies: I think a very important constitutional point just came out of the exchange you have had, Dr Howells, with Mr Key. Am I not right that if the provision which was, of course, included in the proposed draft European Constitution last year under which meetings of the Council of Ministers in legislative mode would be in public, we would know who it was who was opposing this particular code of conduct or this particular set of agreed restrictions? That is a concrete difference, is it not, between the present regime in the European Union and the one that would have been brought about had we had the European Constitution in place?

  Dr Howells: I am sure you are absolutely right, Mr Davies.

  Q312  Mr Davies: Thank you, Dr Howells. We have an arms embargo with China, do we not?

  Dr Howells: Yes.

  Q313  Mr Davies: That is something many of us feel should not be relaxed in the present circumstances. It was therefore with very considerable surprise that I learned that export licences had been granted for engines for combat aircraft, specifically the Rolls-Royce 140 Spey engine for the JGH-7 combat aircraft in China. How can that be?

  Dr Howells: The China arms embargo prohibits the export of military aircraft and helicopters, vessels of war, armoured fighting vehicles and other such weapons platforms. However, the UK interpretation of the embargo does not extend to components of these weapons. Aircraft engines and radar therefore are not caught by our interpretation of the embargo. However, export licence applications for this type of equipment are assessed very rigorously on a case-by-case basis against the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria. The criterion, Mr Davies, sets out clearly our commitment to assess the risk that exports might be diverted under undesirable conditions and used for internal repression, external aggression or the risk of reverse engineering or unintended technology transfer, which is also very serious. Where we judge the proposed export might be used in contravention of the criteria those export licence applications are refused.

  Q314  Mr Davies: Yes, but, Dr Howells, the fact is in this case that the export licence has been granted and an aero engine for a combat aircraft is a key part of a combat aircraft, so this is a gaping hole, is it not, in the arms embargo with China?

  Dr Howells: Mr Davies, we look very carefully at each one of those on a case-by-case basis and, if we consider that it would be used for internal repression, or any of the other—

  Q315  Mr Davies: I am not suggesting combat aircraft are going to be used for internal repression, but it does build up the offensive capability of China and the whole point of the arms embargo is that we should not build up the offensive capability of China. I put it to you that our policy has been completely incoherent and we are simply standing idly by and allowing the Chinese to make a mockery of the system. They cannot purchase from us a complete combat aircraft but they are perfectly capable of producing their own air frames anyway, and we kindly supply the aero engines. We are in fact deciding to provide the Chinese with an additional offensive air capability. You cannot really be much more in breach of the purpose of the arms embargo than that, can you?

  Dr Howells: I certainly do not believe that (a) we are standing idly by, Mr Davies, and (b) we are enhancing their capability.

  Q316  Mr Davies: I am sorry, Dr Howells: are you telling the committee that supplying an engine for a combat aircraft is not enhancing the capability? Are you seriously telling the committee that?

  Dr Howells: I would have thought that a spare engine or any other part of an aircraft allows them to maintain that capability. It does not extend that capability, I would have thought.

  Q317  Mr Davies: No, but the engines are being fitted to new aircraft as they are coming off the production line. No doubt spares are being supplied as well. That is increasing capability, is it not, and spares are also increasing capability? Surely, Dr Howells, you will not disagree with me about that. The capability of an air force is the capability to fly and if you supply spares you enhance their capability to fly; they can fly more hours. What you are doing, I think, is just trying to wheedle out of a very embarrassing situation which the Government has got itself into, in which you have been declaring that the Government is signed up to the EU arms embargo for China, that the Government supports the objectives of the arms embargo, and then you have been, as I say, allowing a coach and horses to be driven through that by granting these licences for these aero engines. The Chinese must be laughing all the way from Harbin to Chungking, I should think.

  Dr Howells: I would not describe my answer as trying to wheedle out of anything. I thought I was quite candid with you about it, and I am certainly not trying to apologise for it in any way, nor trying to rationalise it as some kind of means of making money out of China. I would say this to you, Mr Davies,—

  Q318  Mr Davies: What is the objective then?

  Dr Howells: Let me say. We have certainly got a developing dialogue with China on export controls and we have taken a lead on the China leg of the EU Export Control Outreach Pilot project, which I have just described. We have gained knowledge of Chinese export controls in the Government's very serious approach to export controls and we have tried to clarify that to them, and we think we understand China as well as any country does now. We are working to foster China's emergence as a responsible global player and to encourage it to define its interests more broadly in somewhere like Africa, for instance.

  Q319  Mr Davies: Dr Howells, I think you have let the cat out of the bag by saying that you are leading the way when it is quite clear that what the Government is actually doing is that the Government wants to relax this embargo without daring to say so, and you are trying to push things as far as possible and even breach blatantly the spirit of the embargo by granting this kind of export licence.

  Dr Howells: No, we certainly do not want to do that and we do not want to lift the embargo before there is agreement throughout the EU on this—

  Mr Davies: You are trying to push in that direction and you are leading the way.

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