Previous Section Index Home Page

26 Mar 2009 : Column 146WH—continued

26 Mar 2009 : Column 147WH

Suppose we grant a major export licence to India, for example—I am sorry, I do not want to pick on India—which involves aeroplanes going to a particular country. There could be a clause stating that those aeroplanes, or other military equipment, cannot be re-exported to an embargo destination. If that country re-exports, we can say, “We don’t trust you. In future, we will grant no more licences.” Sanctions can be applied. In such cases, it will be clear what is going on, although in other cases it might be more difficult.

Lembit Öpik: I do not want to detain the hon. Gentleman long—I agree with him. My issue is really for the Minister. It seems self-evident that we should make the changes that have been suggested, but the challenge for the Government will still be one of enforcement. That will be straightforward with large, heavyweight hardware. In his summation, I would be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on the hon. Gentleman’s proposal, and on whether the Government have thought about enforcement and how we can ensure that subterfuge and illicit trading are prevented.

Roger Berry: We all want to hear the Minister, and there will be plenty of time for interventions. There are other hon. Members and right hon. Members who wish to speak, so I will move on to one or two final topics before I sit down.

For many years, the Committees have expressed concern about the export of arms to Israel that might be used in the occupied Palestinian territories. That subject took up a large part of the evidence-taking session that we had in January with the Minister, and a more recent evidence-taking session with a number of NGOs and defence manufacturers. Given recent events in Gaza, it is hardly surprising that a number of hon. Members might wish to raise that matter this afternoon.

For some time, Government policy has been that export licences for arms exports to Israel should be refused if there is a risk of the items being deployed aggressively in the occupied territories. Such licences are judged on a case-by-case basis, but the Government have made it clear that arms export licences will be granted to Israel only if there is no significant risk of their being used aggressively in the occupied territories.

In 2002, the Government announced their policy on incorporation, which the Committees felt was a breach of that principled policy. Specifically, it allowed the export of head-up display units manufactured in the UK to the US for incorporation in F-16 fighter jets, which are known to be exported to Israel. In 2006, the British Embassy in Tel Aviv confirmed that F-16s had been used offensively in Lebanon and Gaza. More recently, there have been extensive reports that F-16s were used in the recent offensive against Gaza. F-16s are particularly good at precise targeting because of the quality of their head-up display units.

We criticised the announcement made by the Foreign Secretary in 2002 that head-up display units and similar incorporated items could be exported to the US without serious questions being asked about the ultimate end use. When we made that criticism, we were told that the importance of the UK’s trade relationship with the United States outweighed the consolidated arms export
26 Mar 2009 : Column 148WH
criteria on human rights and regional stability—so we had to overlook it because of our special relationship with the United States.

When the Minister was questioned on 21 January, he told the Committees that it was not yet known whether F-16s taking part in the most recent assault on Gaza had UK head-up display components. I think that the Foreign Affairs Committee was told, on 4 March, that an assessment of that was under way. Will the Minister tell us when the assessment is expected to be finalised and laid before Parliament? When will we know whether the F-16s that took part in the most recent assault in Gaza had UK-manufactured head-up display units incorporated in them?

In his letter of 19 February to our Committees, the Minister said that, at that evidence session,

Will the Minister confirm that, following the policy change in 2002, the Government have no means of preventing Israel from using F-16s incorporated with UK-manufactured head-up display units aggressively in the occupied territories? Will he confirm, so that it is absolutely clear, that licences for the export of head-up display units have been granted in the full knowledge that Israel would be the ultimate end user?

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): I have a briefing from Campaign Against Arms Trade that touches on the point that my Friend just made about the F-16 fighter aircraft, but it also mentions the Apache helicopter. It asserts that those helicopters

Does he know whether Apache helicopters were used in the Israeli assault on Gaza in December?

Roger Berry: I can confirm only that I have read that in press reports, so the Minister might be the best person to answer the factual question. I picked F-16s because of their unique role in conflict in the middle east, but I could equally have selected Apaches. I have read in the press that Apaches were used—no doubt the Minister will respond to that point.

On direct exports to Israel, the Minister said, in the 21 January evidence session, that the Government would not issue a licence where they had human rights or other concerns under the consolidated criteria. He also said that it was not clear which equipment had been used in the recent conflict, and that that was being investigated. Will the Minister advise the House as to the outcome of that investigation?

Let me speak personally on this issue. I have heard similar sentiments to mine expressed by other members of the Committee, but this is not the Committee’s policy. I have always had some difficulty in understanding the practice of UK policy on this issue. Leaving the incorporation issue aside, the policy has been that licences would not be granted for arms export sales to Israel if there was a risk that they would be used in the occupied
26 Mar 2009 : Column 149WH
territories. We all know the UK Government’s position on the legal status in the middle east, so it is hardly surprising that that would be a desirable thing to do, but I have never understood how that policy works in practice. Do the Israel defence forces have one stash of weapons with a Union Jack on it, which it they have been told they cannot use in the occupied territories, and another stash that they can use in Gaza, the west bank and east Jerusalem? I genuinely do not understand how that works.

There is another issue that I do not understand. Like everyone else in the Chamber, I am sure, I condemn violence unequivocally. One reason why I wanted to be a member of the Committee when it was set up is that I believe that conflict represents the failure of diplomacy, as the cliché goes. I think that we should try to resolve conflicts without violence wherever humanly possible, and that we should certainly try to control the arms trade to ensure that arms do not get into the wrong hands. I passionately believe that it is deplorable that Hamas sends rockets into Israel, and I believe that Israel’s armed intervention in the occupied territories, some of which I have seen, is equally deplorable. I am even-handed on this issue, but our policy on arms exports and embargoes is not even-handed. On one hand, we have Israel, the most powerful military state in the middle east, being in breach of countless United Nations resolutions and in illegal occupation of much of the middle east, but there is no arms embargo on it. On the other hand, there is an arms embargo on Hamas. I am not a defender of either side; I simply make the observation that it is extraordinary that there is no such arms embargo, given the conflict over the years and certainly the recent conflict in Gaza. Why is that?

There was an announcement that the UK Government would do all that they could to prevent arms from getting into Gaza. That is fine, but there was no announcement at the same time that there would be an embargo on arms sales to Israel. I find that double standard difficult to comprehend, and it prompts me to ask what Israel would have to do in the middle east to qualify for an arms embargo. I do not raise this issue flippantly, and I do not believe that my view will command universal support. Indeed, I have been verbally abused by otherwise reasonable people for expressing such views. I am simply asking why there is that double standard in arms export control policy in the middle east. That question deserves an answer.

Finally, let me address the happier topic of the international arms trade treaty. Our report concluded that the Government were to be commended for and supported in their efforts to achieve a comprehensive and effective international arms trade treaty. In December, a large majority of Governments voted in favour of a UN General Assembly resolution to establish an open-ended working group on such a treaty. The only state to vote against the resolution was the United States, but perhaps it will change its view in a few months. I hope that it does. Of course, there were also a number of abstentions. Non-governmental organisations were adamant, in their evidence to the Committees, that if the scope of the treaty was not wide enough, the UK should not be a signatory to it. I have two questions for the Minister on that. First, what took place at the first open-ended working group on the treaty? Secondly, does he share the NGOs’ concerns about its scope?

26 Mar 2009 : Column 150WH

There are many other topics that I could discuss, such as bribery and corruption, but in fairness to colleagues who wish to speak, and to give the Minister plenty of time to respond to the long list of questions that is building up, I shall conclude. I reiterate that the Committees believe that the Government have made substantial progress in recent years on controlling UK arms exports, and that we are pleased that they have accepted a number of our recommendations. We recognise that they have also disagreed with a number of recommendations, but honest people may have different views.

However, we have real concerns about the issues that I have raised in the past half an hour and the issues that colleagues will raise. We want further progress to be made on extraterritorial controls, which should be a simple matter. We also want the Government to do their level best to ensure that the re-exporting of UK arms does not continue to be a problem. All of us, whatever our views on arms sales to Israel, would also desperately like to know what the Government’s policy on the issue is. There are therefore big issues to consider further, and I am grateful that the Minister is here to respond to all our questions.

3.10 pm

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry), who chaired the four Committees with great diligence and effectiveness during their consideration of the reports.

At the Committees’ evidence session on 11 March, we took evidence from non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty International, Oxfam and Saferworld. I asked whether they could cite specific examples of UK arms exports that had breached the EU consolidated criteria, and I was supported in that by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow). At the time, the NGOs were unable to come up with specific examples, with the exception of Israel, to which I shall come. They said that they would like to go away and reflect further, and as of today’s debate, we have not heard further from them. I would therefore conclude that, in broad terms, and with some exceptions to which I shall come, the British Government are in pretty full compliance with the terms of the EU consolidated criteria. However, there are three areas of policy that need further careful consideration by the Government. One is components, and the remaining two relate to two particular countries, to which I shall come.

On components, the Government need to carry out a serious review of their present policy and particularly of whether it complies with the EU consolidated criteria. In the Committees’ evidence session with the Minister, I specifically raised with him the issue of the head-up displays and the F-16s and I asked whether there was any evidence that they had been used in the recent operations in Gaza. There is also the issue of Apache helicopters, which the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) raised in an intervention. Equally, there is the issue of whether British components have been incorporated in unmanned airborne vehicles—UAVs. There are a number of other examples of British components ending up in other countries’ complete weapons systems, and of those systems in turn ending up in undesirable hands.

26 Mar 2009 : Column 151WH

I certainly recognise that this is a significant and difficult policy issue for the Government. Many British companies that employ considerable numbers of people and transact high-value business manufacture components for weapons systems. At the same time, however, it can make no sense and is, indeed, of dubious ethics to have an arms export policy that prohibits a complete weapons system from going to a particular destination, but which is so leaky that components for that same weapons system can go into similar or identical weapons systems in another country and then end up in a destination prohibited by the Government. I hope that the Minister will agree that that is an unacceptable position to get into, although it is precisely the position that the Government are now in in some areas. In his reply to the debate, will the Minister therefore give us an undertaking that the Government will carry out a full review of their arms export policy in relation to components for weapons systems on the military list of the EU consolidated criteria?

I hope that the Minister will be able, in due course, to reply fully and frankly in an entirely open policy statement. I use the phrase “entirely open” deliberately. Following the Minister’s evidence session in front of the four Committees, he wrote the letter of 19 February 2009, to which the Chairman of the Committees referred. Although our Chairman quoted from that letter, the Minister and his Department had classified it as restricted. Having read the letter in full, however, I consider that classification wholly unnecessary, because there is nothing whatever in it that could not perfectly well be put in the public domain, although the terms of the letter might cause the Government limited embarrassment. I consider that the word “restricted” was put on the letter solely to gag the members of the Committee and to prevent them from making it public. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that. When he returns to the issue of components, therefore, I hope that he will address it in full and detailed terms and in a fully public way.

Roger Berry: I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. I gave that quote knowing that it had subsequently been derestricted, and I make that clear so that no one thinks that I actually read from a restricted document. However, he makes a good point when he asks why the document was restricted in the first place.

Sir John Stanley: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. His intervention is entirely correct. I have discussed the issue with the Clerk of the Committees, and the current position is very unsatisfactory. We are having this debate while discussions are taking place between the Clerk of the Committees and the Minister’s officials as to which bits of the letter are declassified and which are not. That is a profoundly unsatisfactory position to be in.

John Bercow: Obviously, the Secretary of State in any Department is ultimately responsible for all that happens or fails to happen in it. It would be a matter of some interest to establish when the decision on the restricted status was made and by whom. Did the Minister make it or was he acting under orders? We really need to be told.

26 Mar 2009 : Column 152WH

Sir John Stanley: I am sure that the Minister who is replying to the debate has heard what my hon. Friend said.

I turn now to the two countries to which I want to refer. The first is China. I have been going through with considerable interest a very useful report entitled “Good Conduct? Ten years of the EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports”, which was produced by a variety of EU NGOs in June 2008. The report states that in the five-year period 2002 to 2006, the UK received approval for licences to export military equipment to China valued at just over €450 million. That represents a substantial element of arms export business. That value of that business must, I believe, be set alongside China’s performance on human rights. I shall not go into that in detail, because all hon. Members present will be familiar with China’s human rights record, but I shall clarify one area: the Chinese record on capital punishment.

As hon. Members may have seen, Amnesty International has recently produced a further, updated report on the matter, and it was covered in detail in The Independent on 24 March. The newspaper report stated:

Elsewhere in the two-page spread is a picture of a rather attractive tourist-type posh bus. When one looks at it more closely, the bus is distinctly more sinister. The report about the bus states:

The report continues with a quotation:

It concludes:

I fear that around the world there will be Governments who think that a death bus is an important item of public expenditure for their regime, and that they will make purchases.

If the record of China on human rights internally is put alongside its systematic, ruthless and continuing denial of human rights in Tibet, its continuing threatening posture towards Taiwan and the close interest that it now takes in its near neighbour Nepal, which itself has a Maoist-led coalition, the British Government need to look closely at the question whether we should be doing hundreds of millions of euros of arms-export business with China. I urge the Minister to review policy in that area.

Next Section Index Home Page