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It is worth mentioning that our country has been an important supporter of the UN programme of action on small arms and light weapons. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood has rightly pointed out that the trade in small arms and light weapons is the part of the arms trade that does most damage in facilitating the
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abuse of human rights, causing instability and preventing development. That programme of action commits all UN member states to controlling small arms through better export control, improving the way in which stockpiles of weapons are managed and taking measures to take weapons out of circulation. That programme of action is particularly important in countries affected by conflict and violence.

The UK has provided more than £31 million to help states implement those commitments under the UN programme of action. For example, we have funded the Nairobi-based Regional Center on Small Arms, which has helped to strengthen controls in east Africa. We have also supported Viva Rio, a non-governmental organisation that has helped collect and destroy some 600,000 weapons in Brazil and that provides young gang members with alternatives to violence. The UN programme of action is scheduled for review again this summer. We will encourage UN member states to use the opportunity of that review to step up efforts to help those states most seriously affected by gun violence.

Throughout last year, we took steps to improve further how we operate the licensing arrangements. Hon. Members, particularly members of the Committees, will be aware that we introduced a new IT system last September that allows applications to be issued and processed online. Perhaps most importantly, in terms of today’s debate and the points raised by hon. Members, we also began the review of export control legislation.

On that review, we need to ensure that export controls are having the intended effect and that there are not disproportionate burdens on business. We need to recognise, in terms of how trade is conducted, that we live in a rapidly changing world. That is why the public consultation document included a wide range of options on further change and sought evidence and views from respondents generally and, in particular, from experts in the sector. We received 23 substantive submissions from a range of groups, including NGOs and industry, and more than 5,000 letters and e-mails touching on a range of individual points.

As my hon. Friend has set out, the Government’s initial response to that consultation was published on 6 February, and in it we committed to introducing change in areas of concern to the committee. Notably, as the Prime Minister announced in November, we committed to extending export laws to control brokering and trafficking of small arms by UK persons anywhere in the world and extending the controls on man-portable air defence systems and certain cluster munitions to UK persons anywhere in the world. As my hon. Friend has said, that commitment will add sting sticks to UK-listed torture equipment. We will also seek to start European Union negotiations to introduce a new torture end-use control. That is a significant package, as my hon. Friend has acknowledged, and it will lead to significant enhancements in our controls in areas where there have been concerns in the past.

My hon. Friend asked specifically when we would publish our conclusive response to the consultation. I understand why he asked that, but I hope he understands that I cannot give him a definite date. We are still working through various responses and thinking through a number of highly complex issues, but clearly we want to make progress as soon as we can.

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My hon. Friend asked specifically whether, if we are unable to secure a European Union ban, we would consider a national control. Of course, we would consider a national control but, as he acknowledged, an EU-wide measure would be by far the most preferable outcome, which is why we will have serious negotiations with fellow member states. Nevertheless, we will keep in reserve the question whether we must introduce our own national measure. It would not be as good as an EU-wide measure, but we would consider it.

My hon. Friend asked specifically about criterion 8, and we will send the final version to the committee. He also asked about publication more generally of criterion 8. He will remember our discussion, when I appeared before the committee and indicated a number of our concerns about publication. Nevertheless, we are considering whether publication of criterion 8 would be appropriate. I cannot give a definite date by which cross-Government internal discussions will be concluded, but we are seeking to reach a decision shortly.

Other points that Members raised about further controls that may or may not be incorporated into export control legislation are more complex.

Roger Berry: Given that the overwhelming majority of the Government’s proposed legislative changes were put forward by the committee and others when the Export Control Act 2002 was drafted, will the Minister speculate on why the arguments then that things could not be done have been able to be dispensed with so easily?

Mr. Thomas: My hon. Friend asks a challenging question, not least because I was not in the Government when the 2002 Act came into force. He is a persuasive and effective advocate for the committee, and I suspect that his influence has worn Ministers down.

We genuinely take the committee’s comments seriously. I know that its members put in a substantial amount of work thinking through the complexities of suggestions that are put to them. I do not always agree with my hon. Friend, and I am sure that on one level he is reassured by that, but when the committee makes a recommendation, we consider it seriously.

We still need to determine precisely which activities to control involving UK persons overseas in relation to small arms, MANPADS and cluster munitions. For example, we must think through issues concerning transport, finance, insurance and reinsurance and renegotiation of contracts. We are considering those issues, and I hope that deals with the concerns of the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), who highlighted what he called “anomalies”. I would not use that word, but we are considering what further controls there should be.

We are considering the case for tighter controls on export of non-controlled goods for military end use, and whether we should introduce a pre-licensing registration system for arms traders. We are working with a series of stakeholders and, as I have said, we aim to publish a further response later this year.

We have already introduced legislation to control the export and trading of sting sticks, and it will come into effect on 6 April 2008. We aim to introduce legislation to extend controls on small arms, MANPADS and
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cluster munitions by 1 October this year and to make any further changes to matters under discussion by 6 April 2009. That is our aim, but I would not want the House to hold us rigidly to those target dates. The issues are highly complex, but those are the dates for which we are aiming.

Sarah Teather: I asked about smart cluster munitions, as it was not clear whether they were included in category 2. Do the Government intend to include them in category 2? Why have they decided not to include such munitions in category 1?

Mr. Thomas: The hon. Lady gives me the opportunity to move on to cluster munitions, which I intended to do. A number of hon. Members have referred to the negotiations on the Oslo process, and whether there is clarity on alternatives to cluster munitions. The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling asked specifically what alternatives there are. We have taken all the steps that we can so far, including taking so-called dumb cluster munitions out of service. We want to ensure that taking all cluster munitions out of service would not put our forces in harm’s way. Although we are not currently using cluster munitions in Iraq or Afghanistan, such use may be necessary in other scenarios, but we are committed to trying to make progress.

The negotiations on the Oslo process are serious; its purpose is to secure a ban on weapons that cause unacceptable harm to civilians. We want a good agreement that will make a genuine and lasting difference, which means an agreement that major cluster munitions users and producers will sign. We are playing a key role in those negotiations. We are seeking not loopholes, but agreement on definitions that will genuinely make what comes out of the Oslo process workable and effective.

A number of Members asked whether enforcement of export controls is effective enough. The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) referred to recent successful prosecutions. Last year, there was a prosecution for an offence of trading sub-machine-guns between Iran and Kuwait, and another for the illegal export of missile technology to Iran. One case resulted in a four-year prison sentence and the other resulted in an 18-month sentence and a fine of £430,000, which were by no means insignificant sanctions. We are considering whether we need to alter the balance in terms of fines, penalties, and other sanctions for breaches of the law in that area.

The introduction of the new IT system has freed up some additional resources that we are using to strengthen awareness of the controls and compliance work. We continue to seek to enhance the annual and quarterly reports that we publish. This year, we aim to introduce a public, searchable database of licensing decisions. There has been an increase in usage of the electronic self-help checker tools that we provide to assist exporters in their licence applications. As the Chairman of the committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood knows, we have been reviewing the methodology for criterion 8 assessments. In terms of our country programmes, we have launched new guidance for DFID staff on how to use those criterion assessments. That will enable us to continue to develop the effectiveness of our staff in those areas.

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I turn now to some of the specific country issues that have been raised by hon. Members. The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling mentioned the current arms embargo on China. We have no plans to support an immediate lifting of the embargo. He is right to note that there is no consensus in the European Union at the moment on the issue of embargo lifting. I suspect the right hon. Gentleman is aware of it, but I draw his attention to the code of conduct as well as to the embargo. The code of conduct is as important, if not more important, in terms of the effect it has on exports to China. It is an effective means of controlling those exports, particularly because it covers the high-tech defence equipment that the modern Chinese military want to acquire. I draw hon. Members’ attention to the fact that some 33 applications for arms sales to China were refused last year, which is an indication of the continuing seriousness with which we take and review each individual application that comes before the export control organisation.

Sir John Stanley: Will the Minister answer the question asked by me and the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) and tell hon. Members—or undertake to do so by letter—what conditions the Government believe must be satisfied by the Chinese Government before they judge it right to lift the EU-China arms embargo?

Mr. Thomas: In the end, a political judgment will have to be made. Our view of whether the correct situation exists to lift the ban will be affected by a series of questions, issues of human rights and how we think such military equipment would be used. I will reflect on whether I can give him further information and clarity by way of correspondence, but I say to hon. Members that in the end a political judgment will have to be made. I suspect that the right hon. Gentleman and other members of the committee will already have a sense of the different issues that will help to inform the decision on whether arms embargoes can be lifted.

On the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), as she will recognise, Israel like all other countries has a right to self-defence. Nevertheless, there are clearly cases where some defence exports are of more concern than others. All applications to Israel are rigorously assessed against the criteria that the export control organisation uses. If issuing a licence is considered to be inconsistent with that criteria, it will be refused. My hon. Friend may be aware that in 2002, the Government refused some 84 individual licences to Israel. Since then, the annual figure for refusals has fluctuated between nine and 26. In 2007, for example, some 24 standard individual licences were refused. I reassure my hon. Friend that we keep each individual application for arms sales to Israel under close review.

My hon. Friend also raised the issue of Sri Lanka, and I understand her concerns about human rights. She
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will be aware that Sri Lanka has been the subject of debate on a number of occasions in the House, which has involved discussion of not only the deteriorating human rights situation, but the increasing ethnic conflict, which is a source of considerable concern to many constituents and hon. Members. That is one of the reasons why the Government took the decision to suspend the debt relief that was granted in the wake of the tsunami last year. It is also one of the reasons why, again, applications for arms sales to Sri Lanka are reviewed carefully. In 2007, six standard individual licence applications for Sri Lanka were refused. We regularly consult the British high commission in Colombo about the possible impact of exports in terms of the arms trade to Sri Lanka. Given the situation in Sri Lanka, I do not envisage any significant change in that practice. We do not want any exports from the UK to facilitate further human rights abuses or inflame the conflict that is taking place.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) raised the issue of exports to Colombia and Saudi Arabia. Let me confirm that licences are not granted where there are significant human rights concerns. Criteria 2, 4 and 7 are relevant to that issue. Again, we considered applications to Saudi Arabia and where there are concerns we will turn those applications down.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Before the Minister sits down, will he say something about the issue of dual use not applying to licences, to which I referred in my speech? The report seems to state that that is a serious shortcoming. If it is as much as a shortcoming as the report states, what do the Government intend to do about it?

Mr. Thomas: As I have indicated to hon. Members, we are reviewing the legislation, and in our initial response we have set out where we are already committed to taking action. We are considering action in a series of other areas, and we will make a further response in due course to the House.

I should also mention the issue of corruption in defence procurement, which a number of hon. Members talked about. I draw hon. Members’ attention to the White Paper, “Eliminating World Poverty: Making Governance Work for the Poor”, which the then Secretary of State, now the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, published in July 2006. That committed the Government to a series of additional pieces of work on corruption—not least the establishment of a dedicated unit within the City of London police. We are also considering whether there is further action we can take to encourage transparency in defence procurement. That work is under way. The police unit has been established, and there are further steps that the Government are considering.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes to Five o’clock.

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