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Westminster Hall

Thursday 22 February 2007

[Janet Anderson in the Chair]

Strategic Export Controls

[Relevant documents: First Joint Report from the Defence, Foreign Affairs, International Development and Trade and Industry Committees, Session 2005-06, HC 873 and the Government’s response thereto, Cm 6954; The Minutes of Evidence taken before the Defence, Foreign Affairs, International Development and Trade and Industry Committees on 7(th) December 2006, HC 117-I.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Michael Foster.]

2.43 pm

Roger Berry (Kingswood) (Lab): It is a pleasure to introduce the latest report from the Quadripartite Committee on strategic export controls and the Government response. May I begin by saying a few words of thanks? First and foremost, I thank the members of the Quadripartite Committee. As hon. Members know, many years ago the House decided to scrutinise the Government’s policy on arms export controls by having a joint Committee comprising the Select Committees on Defence, on Trade and Industry, on International Development and on Foreign Affairs.

Occasionally, Select Committees have difficulty arriving at a consensus, although many Committees do so successfully. However, we can claim that four Select Committees simultaneously have again arrived at a consensus in this report. Therefore, I hope that the Government will take our recommendations and views four times more seriously than perhaps those of some other Select Committees—apart from those represented here today, of course. In all seriousness, that consensus could not have been arrived at without enormous efforts by my colleagues, and I should like to express my gratitude to them for their efforts in producing, yet again, a unanimous report.

I also place on record our thanks to those who staffed the four Select Committees. In particular, we thank Glenn McKee for his excellent work as Clerk to the Quadripartite Committee. We are grateful for his excellent drafting. He demonstrated wisdom beyond belief. The caveat has to be made that the responsibility for the report is clearly ours, but we are grateful to him. Things would not have been anywhere near so easy for the Committee without his work on our behalf.

I thank all those who gave oral and written evidence. I also thank officials of Departments who had responsibility for preparing answers to a significant number of questions. We are grateful to them for that. I thank those who appeared before the Committee as witnesses: the Export Group for Aerospace and Defence, representing defence manufacturers in the UK; the UK Working Group on Arms, representing non-governmental organisations, specifically Amnesty International UK, Oxfam GB and Saferworld, all of which made a great contribution to our deliberations;
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and Mark Thomas, broadcaster and journalist, who gave us helpful evidence, following his investigations.

For the first time, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Revenue and Customs Prosecution Office gave evidence to our Committee, on the enforcement of export controls. We have for some time felt that, as a Committee, we ought to devote more time to the issue of the enforcement and monitoring of the export control regime, and we are grateful to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for giving evidence to the Committee in preparation for the report.

I thank the two Ministers who gave oral evidence to the Committee: my hon. Friends the Minister for the Middle East and the Minister for Science and Innovation, who as we speak is at the south pole. I exaggerate slightly: he is in Antarctica, in, I assume, his capacity as Minister responsible for science. He jokingly said to me that that was the furthest he thought he could go to get away from having to reply to the debate this afternoon. I assume that he was joking and I hope that he is safely ensconced in a warm part of Antarctica. I am pleased to see present my hon. Friend the trade and industry Minister, who will reply on behalf of the Government this afternoon.

I should say at the outset that the Committee as a whole has always acknowledged the progress that the Government have made in the area of arms export controls. I shall not list all the innovative changes made in recent years, but progress has been made. That is recognised by the Committee and, indeed, by all those who gave evidence to us. With regard to recent events, I particularly welcome the Government’s decision not to outsource the work of the Export Control Organisation. The Committee could never quite understand why the Government were contemplating outsourcing such an important area of activity and so, with many others, we celebrated the Government’s announcement that they would not go ahead with that proposal.

We value the quarterly reports that we now receive. There is not just an annual report; we can now access quarterly reports. There is now greater transparency and therefore accountability in relation to information on arms export licensing than there has been in the past, which is another development on which we congratulate the Government.

We welcome the leadership that the Government have shown on the international arms trade treaty. Recently, I was at an Amnesty International event with the Minister for the Middle East at which Amnesty and other organisations were congratulating the Government on that treaty. They said, rightly and as I am sure we will do shortly, that there were things that they would like in the treaty that they were worried might not be in it, but that they recognised seriously the role that the UK Government have played in pursuing an important measure to get the arms trade under control internationally. It would be enormously helpful if the US Administration were not opposed to that exercise. I know that the UK Government are doing all they can to help on that.

In our report, we have paid tribute to the Government’s efforts in a number of areas. However, given the opportunity offered by the debate, you, Mrs. Anderson, would expect me and other hon. Members present to focus on areas on which we have
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concerns. We have raised concerns about a number of areas of Government policy, in terms of both policy formulation and policy implementation, and I want to focus on a few of those in the time available.

Most of our concerns fall in one of two categories. The Export Control Act 2002 was a major step forward in formulating the legal basis for arms export controls, but there are still significant loopholes that need to be addressed. Secondly, it is not just the legislation that matters, but its enforcement. We can pass legislation in this House, day in and day out, but its enforcement in the real world is what matters. It is fair to summarise the report by saying that our concerns fall under those two categories: loopholes in legislation and enforcement.

One concern that we have raised time and again—indeed, we raised it before the Export Control Bill was published in 2001—was that the proposals to tackle arms brokering and trafficking would not be comprehensive. Sadly, that is where we are today. We welcome the introduction, for the first time, of extraterritorial controls on arms trafficking and brokering in the Export Control Act, but their coverage is limited.

The Committee has repeatedly called for the tightening of controls on brokering and trafficking. Currently, UK citizens abroad who operate outside the UK are regulated only if they trade in missiles with a range of more than 300 km or in torture equipment, or if they trade to an embargoed destination. Therefore, the controls do not cover trade in missiles with a range of less than 300 km.

The Committee has long argued that it is essential to increase the scope of extraterritorial controls to deal with problems in the arms trade. The weapons that are most likely to be used by terrorists and in armed conflicts around the world are rocket-propelled grenades, MANPADS—Man-Portable Air Defence Systems—and automatic light weapons. Millions of men, women and children live daily in fear of armed conflict that is usually based on the use of small arms and light weapons. Some 500,000 people are killed every year as a result. That is one person every minute. By the end of this debate, another 360 people will have been killed as a result of small arms proliferation.

Small arms are, arguably, today’s weapons of mass destruction, given the death and injury that are caused by their use, but there is currently no control on British citizens who broker or who may broker small arms deals from outside the UK. At the time of the 2002 Act, and before, the Committee argued, as did many others, that the Government missed an opportunity when they failed to regulate all UK citizens and companies involved in arms trafficking and brokering abroad, whatever the nature of the arms. The Act is being reviewed this year and we welcome that. Will the Minister assure us that the full extension of extraterritoriality to arms brokering and trafficking will be actively considered?

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): I do not know whether this is an appropriate point in the hon. Gentleman’s speech to ask about the regulation of brokers operating within the United Kingdom. Does
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he share my concern about the Government’s dismissal of the Committee’s call for a register? I find it odd that they are rejecting it on the grounds that someone might break its terms and embarrass them. Surely the point of having a register, such as that for GPs, is to ensure that standards are upheld. I cannot understand the Government’s reasons for rejecting the recommendation.

Roger Berry: I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, as I do not understand the Government’s position either. People have to register births, deaths and marriages and a variety of other things, such as having a TV licence or running a lottery. Trading in arms is, arguably, a serious activity. Evading controls on arms dealing is probably more serious than not paying one’s TV licence, although I recommend that people should pay their TV licence. The hon. Gentleman makes a fundamental point. One effective way of sending out the message that lawful brokering is okay—that is not in question—but unlawful brokering is not, is to have a register of brokers as well as full extraterritorial controls. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support on that.

I remind my good friend the Minister that our party fought the 2001 general election, in the run-up to introducing the path-breaking 2002 Act, with this commitment:

It did not say “some arms brokers” or “those who are trying to flog long-range missiles, but not those who are trying to flog small arms.” As tactfully as I can, I remind the Minister and the Government of that commitment.

In rather more considered terminology, the Committee concluded, at paragraph 195, that

That is saying the same thing as I said a moment ago, but is not quite as punchy as I tried to make it.

The Committee genuinely cannot understand why extraterritorial controls do not exist across the piece. The Government’s response thus far has been that the matter will be considered in this year’s review, but I hope that the Minister will accept today the logic of our argument that it is nonsense to exclude from control brokering in the weapons that are of most use to terrorists and that cause the most damage in areas of conflict around the world.

I move to the issue of dual-use goods—goods that might have a civilian or a military purpose. In its report, the Committee refers, as many others have done, to the so-called Land Rover/Otokar case. I shall be brief on this, because many hon. Members present will be familiar with it. The Committee considered the use of Land Rover Defender military vehicles by Uzbek troops during the Andijan massacre in May 2005. According to the Government, and we entirely accept their understanding of the situation, Land Rover did not sell the military vehicles themselves, but sold flat-pack civilian Land Rover Defenders to a Turkish company, Otokar. The company assembled
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them and the Turkish Government then handed them over to Uzbekistan, where they were used during the Andijan massacre of 2005.

The Government rightly told the Committee that

That is correct; there is no doubt about that. However, anyone vaguely familiar with the arms trade, even if only from reading the odd newspaper article about it, would have known perfectly well that there was a real risk regarding the use of Land Rover flat-packs that were exported from the UK to Turkey, given that Turkey was clear, at that time, about supporting military transfers to the Uzbek Government. Anyone with the vaguest knowledge of the arms trade would have had bells ringing in their brains. They would have thought, “Hang on a minute, is it not possible that an export from the UK that has a dual-use”—it could be a civilian vehicle, but could be modified into a military vehicle—“going to Turkey could end up being used by a Government with a questionable human rights record?”

The Government’s response to date has been that they understand that concern, but that when the goods left the UK they did not require a licence—that is true—so there was not a lot that could be done. If Land Rover or any other company had sought a licence for the export of a military vehicle to Uzbekistan at that time, it would almost certainly not have been granted. A European Union embargo was subsequently introduced because the situation was so serious.

We must try to take the dual-use product situation more seriously. Our report states:

A simple confirmation from the Minister that that is what the Government intend to do would be helpful, because there is a serious problem.

Arms controls can be circumvented in various ways, whether by accident or intentionally—I make no judgment about the Land Rover case. One obvious way of circumventing arms export controls is by having the kind of arrangement that existed in the Land Rover/Otokar case.

That leads me on to the closely-related question of incorporation and offshore production. We would argue that it is currently another area where the Government simply do not have the kind of controls that they need. UK companies, like other companies engaged in arms manufacture and export, are increasingly involved in arms production in other countries. That can take many forms: it can be done through a subsidiary, a joint venture or licensed production. If the final assembly takes place outside the UK, our present controls are limited to controls on the transfer of technology.

Our report makes the modest recommendation:

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The Government’s response to our report indicated that they were not entirely convinced of the need to do that, but they have given a commitment to consider the matter further. We very much hope that they can be persuaded on this issue.

The arguments that I have made thus far are ones that the Committee has been putting forward for a number of years. This year, we examined two issues for the first time, taking an interest in the internet and in arms fairs, for which I give particular thanks to Mark Thomas. On the question of the internet, I had the pleasure of going to Oxford at his invitation to meet students of Lord Williams’s upper school. They demonstrated how easy it was to set oneself up as an arms broker. I recommend that Members of Parliament might wish to consider setting themselves up as arms brokers and seeing what they can buy over the internet. The Quadripartite Committee might even wish to do this, because it might be a way of testing the system.

Those youngsters showed me that it was simple to form an arms broking company and start importing things from other parts of the world. The example that springs to mind is instruments of torture. They acknowledged that the UK has legislation that prevents the manufacture and export of certain instruments of torture, so they wondered whether they could get such stuff from somewhere else, and surprise, surprise it is straightforward to do so. They obtained thumb cuffs, wall cuffs and sting sticks.

A sting stick is a cylindrical metal piece of equipment that is about 4 ft long and has metallic spikes sticking out of it. It is used to thrash people and is a very nasty instrument, so much so that the Palace authorities would not give us permission to bring one into our Committee for Members to see what young people could obtain on the internet. We had to show the Minister in question the sting stick outside. I suspect that doing so was still a bit dodgy because sting sticks are dangerous weapons, but parliamentary privilege perhaps applied.

The important point is that those young people demonstrated how easy it was for anyone to set themselves up as an arms broker and import illegal items into the UK. I am concerned about illegal guns in the UK. It appears that it is easy to obtain guns in the UK in numbers that would surprise. The point that the Committee was making by referring to the internet in the report was that we could see little or no proactive policing of the internet in respect of companies that were promoting business in breach of arms export controls.

The report stated:

The Government’s response said that they would consider the issue further and would write to the Committee in due course on the issue. To date, we have not received that letter. We look forward to receiving it as soon as possible.

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