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Westminster Hall

Thursday 5 November 2009

[Mr. Greg Pope in the Chair]

Arms Export Controls

[Relevant documents: First Joint Report from the Committees on Arms Export Controls, on Scrutiny of Arms Export Controls (2009): UK Strategic Export Controls Annual Report 2007, Quarterly Reports for 2008, licensing policy and review of export control legislation, HC 178, and the Government response, Cm 7698.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Mary Creagh.)

2.30 pm

Roger Berry (Kingswood) (Lab): It is a pleasure again to introduce a debate on our Committees' report on arms export controls, the Government's response, and related matters, but first, may I say how pleased I am to see you in the Chair, Mr. Pope? I am trying to think of a good reason why you, and not someone else, are in the Chair, but I am pleased to see you. I do not know whether you chose 5 November as the date for this debate, but it is an interesting choice.

I thank my colleagues on the four Select Committees: the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Defence Committee, the International Development Committee and what is now the Business and Enterprise Committee, but last year was the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee. Colleagues on all four Committees have worked incredibly hard to produce, again, a unanimous report, and I am grateful for that work. I am also grateful to the staff of the four Select Committees who served us so admirably, and particularly to our Clerk.

Thanks also go to the officials of the Departments that have had the great pleasure of responding to our questions over the past 12 months. I also thank the many individuals and organisations who submitted written evidence, and particularly those who appeared before the Committees as witnesses. We had three evidence sessions this year. One of those sessions was with the then Economic and Business Minister with responsibility for export controls, my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, South (Ian Pearson), and officials from what was then the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. We also heard evidence from the then Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), and officials from the counter-proliferation department at the FCO. Finally, we heard from non-governmental organisations and defence manufacturers in the form of the United Kingdom Working Group on Arms, which is essentially made up of Saferworld, Amnesty International UK, Oxfam GB, and the Export Group for Aerospace and Defence, or EGAD. I thank them all. I also thank the Minister for being here to respond to our debate.

Let me say at the beginning, as I always do, that the Committees recognise, acknowledge and compliment the Government on their significant progress over the
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years on arms export control policy. The system today is completely different from what it was when I first entered the House. In fact, when I first entered it, I did not know what the system was because we were not told. There has been enormous progress in recent years, and the Government deserve credit for that.

We value the greater transparency and accountability, particularly given the current focus on trying to secure an international arms trade treaty. We acknowledge the Government's leadership in that area, and support them. Having said that, it is natural to use this opportunity to identify some areas where there are still differences of opinion, sometimes significant, between our Committees and the Government. I shall select a few areas, and I know that my colleagues will pick up others.

Let us start with extraterritoriality. Over the years, the Government have extended extraterritorial controls on brokering, and we welcome that. They have done so for a good reason, and I cannot find better words than those chosen by the Government in their response to our last report. They said that the case for extending extraterritorial controls on the arms trade was

That is a clear, explicit statement. It is not good enough for one country simply to say that it will not license arms exports for a particular end user. It would be more sensible if countries took cognisance of the fact that that is not effective, because the trader could simply hop on a train or plane and do the same deal elsewhere. The Government's case for extraterritorial controls for UK brokers is that if we do not want them to pursue deals from the UK, we do not want them to do so from any other country either. That is an admirable summary of why we should have robust controls regarding UK brokers overseas.

From April, controls on the brokering of small arms and light weapons have been extended to cover the activities of UK persons when operating offshore. Previously, extraterritorial controls had not applied to small arms in such circumstances. The Committees welcome that change, for which we have argued for some time. Let us not forget that small arms and light weapons are today's weapons of mass destruction. Someone is killed every minute as a result of conflict involving small arms-500,000 people a year. The weapons that kill most people are precisely those, so extending extraterritorial controls on UK brokers who deal in such weapons is a welcome development of Government policy. It has never made sense to exclude small arms from such controls.

However, as we have previously argued, surely the Government's logic should be the same as that of the Committees-that all trade in goods on the military list should be brought within such extraterritorial controls. I said last year that the Government had outsourced policy making, but I shall be more charitable. They took the sensible view that NGOs and defence manufacturers are active partners in developing arms export control policy, and that it was sensible for them to ask whether NGOs and defence manufacturers-EGAD-could get together to consider ways of extending extraterritorial brokering controls to other items on the military list.

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In our report, we said that the Government should set a deadline for those discussions, which were to result in draft proposals. Their response was that they had received a proposal, as we knew-it was delivered in the summer-and that they intended to respond to it formally by the end of October. It is now November and to the best of my knowledge we have not had the Government's response. Will the Minister tell the House whether the Government have yet sent their formal response to the proposal by the NGOs and defence manufacturers on the further extension of extraterritorial controls, and if not, why not?

We also recommended that the Government extend category B-that is what we are discussing-to include anti-vehicle land mines, as both the NGOs and EGAD had said that there was a valid case for doing so. In response to our report, the Government said that they would consider that, so will the Minister tell us their timetable for re-examining whether anti-vehicle land mines should be placed in category B?

Talk of extraterritoriality naturally takes us to the wider issue of brokers. For the third year in a row-it may be more than three years-the Committees have recommended in the report the establishment of a register of arms brokers. Previously, in oral evidence, the Government had conceded that the principle of a register of arms brokers had certain advantages, but they raised the question whether the administrative burden of introducing such a system would justify the benefit. However, I was pleased to see that in the Government response to our report, they said that they would be happy to consider the issue again. I welcome that, as I am sure other colleagues do, not least because the Committees visited Ukraine-I shall come to that visit again in a moment-and our experience there demonstrated, as we say in the report, the need for a register of brokers. Perhaps now is the time to explain.

A few years ago, Saferworld-one of the NGOs that has been very actively involved in putting its views to our Committees, for which we are grateful-invited a group of Ukrainian parliamentarians to come to the UK to observe our system of parliamentary scrutiny and to learn how parliamentarians here were involved in holding the Government to account for arms export control policy. The Committees met our colleagues from Ukraine and we had a useful visit.

Earlier this year, at the invitation of the Foreign Office, three members of the Committees-the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow), who is not here, and I-visited Kiev. It was a return visit, essentially as part of the Foreign Office's commendable outreach programme, to enable us to have discussions with parliamentarians, officials and civil servants in Kiev about arms export controls and parliamentary scrutiny. At one of those meetings, the Ukrainian deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs happened to hand over a piece of paper that we discovered, when we subsequently had it translated, was essentially a list of UK brokers operating from Ukraine. Of course, Ukraine inherited a massive amount of former Soviet military equipment, and Ukraine itself is a major manufacturer and exporter of arms, so that list of UK brokers was of some interest. That matter is being examined.

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My point is that the list seemed to be-how can I phrase this tactfully? It was not clear that our diplomatic representatives in Kiev were aware that such lists existed and were so easily accessible; I think that that is fair to say. That confirmed our view that if we are seriously to get a grip on international brokering of arms, it would be extremely helpful if there was a register of UK arms brokers, so that the UK knew which individuals and companies it was dealing with.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) (LD): Has the hon. Gentleman ever heard a conclusive argument against having a register of arms brokers, and is it not interesting that in Ukraine, members of the Rada were unaware that they had a register? I remember questioning them when the Defence Committee was in Ukraine, and they were unaware that there was a register in Ukraine. I have yet to hear a substantial argument that says that there are good reasons not to have a register. Administrative costs or the bother of administering a register cannot be the only reason.

Roger Berry: I do not know whether there is a register of Ukrainian arms exporters in Ukraine. All I know is that we were given a list of names of UK brokers who had been licensed to export from Ukraine. We were seeking reassurance. There was no criticism of Ukrainian foreign policy at all; that is a matter for Ukraine. We were seeking assurance that if those UK brokers were engaged in arms deals, they were in no way breaking UK law. That was the basis of our interest and that is why names are useful, because we can then check what those people are doing. I have not heard a powerful argument against a list of brokers other than the cost of setting it up and administering it, but the Minister may wish to say more on that later.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): My hon. Friend is dealing with the issue of Ukraine, where there are vast numbers of arms left over from the Soviet Union. Was he confident that the Government of Ukraine had any accurate inventory of what arms existed in the country before brokers arrived there to buy and resell them?

Roger Berry: I emphasise that our purpose was not to examine Ukraine's policy in relation to its domestic affairs. Our concern was to discuss parliamentary scrutiny with fellow parliamentarians. However, in the case that I have identified, in which we knew-were advised-that UK brokers were licensed to export arms from Ukraine, our concern was to be reassured that those people were operating within UK legislation, and of course if they were not, action would need to be taken. I am afraid that I cannot answer my hon. Friend's question; I do not know the answer.

The issue that that point raises for the Government is that embassies and diplomatic posts should be actively engaged in examining what is happening with UK arms brokers operating overseas. I would like to ask the Minister a direct question. Subsequent to the event that I have described, or as a result of any other information, have discussions been held on the role that our embassies and diplomatic posts could play in obtaining the
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co-operation of foreign Governments in helping the UK to police our brokers? We need to have that knowledge and information to ensure that UK brokers are operating within UK law.

Let me move on to re-exports. There are many ways in which individuals can circumvent arms export controls or try to do so. Clearly, one is to operate entirely out of the country. We need to address that problem, and increasingly we are doing that. Another issue arises if UK exports are sold to a country and then re-exported to another, third country that may be subject to an embargo in some form. I am thinking of exports to Burma or Guinea-Guinea is the most recent example that springs to mind.

The Committees have repeatedly made the point that it should be a standard requirement of licensing that export contracts for goods on the military list contain a clause to prevent re-export to a destination subject to either a UN or an EU embargo. The most important issue in relation to arms export controls is end use-where the weapons end up and who has the right to use them. The rest, in a sense, is peripheral. The ultimate end use of the weapons-how they are used-determines the outcome. Self-evidently, that is about stopping weapons getting into the hands of individuals who might use them for internal oppression or external aggression. As I said, it is the ultimate end use that matters. Therefore, it seems to us that if a licence is granted for an arms export to a particular country, it is very sensible to have a clear commitment that will prevent re-export to an embargoed destination.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I want to draw a link between two parts of the hon. Gentleman's speech that he has not linked. Is he aware of a report in The Guardian, the substance of which is that arms were exported from Ukraine to Guinea, which has an international embargo on it? I am not in any way suggesting that UK arms exporters were involved in that, but the importance of what the hon. Gentleman is saying about preventing arms from being re-exported to countries where an embargo is in place is surely re-emphasised by that story?

Roger Berry: The case of Guinea provides a powerful argument for an international arms trade treaty rather than its being a re-export issue. The press report alleges that one country exported to Guinea when it was under a regional arms embargo. A regional embargo on arms exports to Guinea was imposed in the last week or so, so that matter seems to provide the case for an international arms trade treaty and is not strictly a re-export issue.

Let me give an example of a re-export issue that came up the last time we debated this. Some years ago, the UK exported aircraft to India, and there were rumours in the press that India was then going to re-export them to Burma. As it happened, that did not occur. If the UK feels that it is wrong to grant an export licence for arms to Burma, which it clearly does, and it is the subject of an embargo-we do not export arms to Burma-presumably UK policy should be to try to prevent any re-export of arms to Burma from a third country. Therefore, the whole case for a re-export clause is precisely to be consistent about that.

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The Government have previously rejected our recommendation on that matter for two reasons. The first relates to the difficulty of enforcement. There are always difficulties in enforcing laws. We spend a fair amount of time in this place passing legislation that, if we are frank about it, we know is not always enforced 100 per cent. Indeed, 50 per cent. or perhaps even 10 per cent. would be a success. Enforcing legislation, therefore, is always difficult. If there were a re-export clause in a licence agreement that said an applicant could not export to an embargoed destination, that would make it perfectly clear to the applicant and the recipient what the Government felt was appropriate.

At the end of the day, we may not be talking about going to court over the matter. If an applicant exports to country A with a re-export clause that says that country A shall not export to an embargoed destination, and country A goes ahead and does that, I assume that the British Government would say, "Don't anyone come rushing to us in the near future, saying can we please have a licence to country A, because you won't get it." So, the clause does not have to be enforced by going to court. It can be enforced by the simple message that, "If you breach this re-export commitment to which you have signed, then, sorry, no more arms export licences."

The second reason that the Government give for their unhappiness with the re-export clause relates to the risk assessment. It is the case that there is a risk assessment under which licences are considered. The argument is that the risk assessment is sufficient. So, when an applicant is exporting to a country, they always ask the question, "What is the risk that that country will re-export to an embargoed destination?" The answer will help to form their decision. The Government will argue, "If we had any fear that that might take place, we probably would not grant the licence." The truth of the matter is that risk assessments are sometimes inaccurate. We exported aircraft to India and it was rumoured-based on a fair amount of evidence-that there was serious consideration of India re-exporting to Burma. Our Committee genuinely does not see any disadvantage in having a re-export clause. In fact, it believes that there are major advantages in such a clause being introduced.

Several EU countries, namely France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain and Sweden, use re-export controls to some degree. Will the Minister say when the Government will report back to the Committees on their assessment of whether the introduction of non-re-export clauses would enhance the effectiveness of the licensing process? I know that I mentioned a number of countries, but let me just pick on France. Will the Minister say how effective France's non-re-export clause provision is? We have a common code on arms exports in the European Union, but that does not mean that we all do the same thing; we do not. The code is interpreted differently by member states. None the less, there is a real issue that other countries in the EU have approached the matter differently, and I would be interested to hear from the Government why we have it right and they have it wrong.

Let me return to the issue of the international arms trade treaty. Light weapons worth some £27 million appeared in Guinea. The press said that they had possibly come from Ukraine. However, those arms arrived in Guinea despite the fact that an embargo had been imposed by the Economic Community of West African
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States: so, the region had imposed an arms embargo on Guinea. Clearly, individual countries or regions can adopt particular policies, but if it is possible, the arms brokers will find a way around them and continue their activities. Therefore, countries have to act individually, as we do, but acting collectively is much more effective. That was the ambition for an international arms trade treaty that was launched about a decade ago. The demand for such a treaty has been effectively supported by our Government.

As one would expect, we have argued that if we are to have a treaty, it should be comprehensive, enforceable and as strong as possible. I am pleased that the Government, in their response to our report, agreed with our conclusions and confirmed that they were working-as we know that they are-with partners in civil society and industry to build up support for an arms trade treaty.

During our last debate, I noted that in December 2008, a large majority of Governments-131-voted in favour of a UN General Assembly resolution that established an open-ended working group on the arms trade treaty. The only state to vote against the resolution at the time was the United States, with 19 countries abstaining. I understand that last week, states at the UN voted overwhelmingly in favour of negotiating a strong and robust ATT, with 153 in favour, 19 still abstaining and one voting against, which was Zimbabwe. As Members know, the United States under the new Administration is strongly in favour of an arms trade treaty.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): I should like to update my hon. Friend. Members of the Foreign Affairs Committee were at the United Nations last week, and we had discussions with a number of people. I will not reveal the conversations because they were confidential, but there was a level of optimism that progress is being made on the arms trade treaty. The Obama Administration's shift away from the approach of the Bush Administration is clearly an important part of that.

Roger Berry: I am grateful to the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee for his comments. Concern has been expressed-particularly by the non-governmental organisations-about the fact that decisions at the UN diplomatic conference in 2012 are to be taken on the basis of consensus. The concerns arise from the fact that the word consensus could be interpreted to mean the lowest common denominator-a unanimous decision that is not very effective. For example, is it an arms trade treaty that will be acceptable to Zimbabwe? If that were the case, that would not be a particularly effective treaty. Does the Minister share the concern of the NGOs on the scope of the ATT, and the risk that the term consensus might be interpreted in that particular way?

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