Developments in UK Strategic Export Controls – Report Summary

This is a House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.

Author: Committees on Arms Export Controls

Related inquiry: UK arms exports in 2019

Date Published: 28 October 2022

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The export of military and dual-use items inevitably raises major questions of ethics, national security, and international law and often causes controversy. It is not just the items being exported or their destination that can cause concern, but also the criteria for permitting such exports, the policing of such activities and the quality and transparency of the data available on these exports.

Despite major developments being made during our inquiry on export controls, we have seen a continued reluctance from Government in engaging with Parliament, stakeholders, and the public on these changes. The new UK Strategic Export Licensing Criteria were implemented without consultation or warning and came into immediate effect; there was no consultation on the Export Control Joint Unit (ECJU) transformation programme; and disappointingly neither the Foreign Secretary nor the International Trade Secretary were available to provide oral evidence to this inquiry. This all risks giving the impression that the Government do not attach the appropriate importance to stakeholder concerns or to Parliamentary scrutiny of strategic export controls.

Successive Governments have pledged to improve the transparency and level of information available on arms exports, but progress has been limited and the associated new IT system has been continuously delayed. There is also a worrying lack of openness and data on compliance with, and enforcement of, export controls, making it difficult to ascertain whether non-compliance and law-breaking is confined to a few companies or is more widespread. Providing more data on items exported, the destinations of arms exports and the numbers of convictions and penalties, would help enable more effective scrutiny and increase public confidence in export controls.

The ECJU plays a vital role in assessing licence applications and ensuring that businesses are compliant with the terms of granted licences, however the unit appears inadequately resourced. Delays in processing licence applications have resulted in firms losing orders and suffering reputational damage, undermining their export potential. In contrast to the ECJU, HMRC is increasing the resources in its teams who play a key role in the enforcement of export controls. It will be important to assess the impact of these increased resources.

It is important that arms export controls have the capacity to adapt rapidly to changing global circumstances, such as those in Afghanistan in 2021. A failure to respond quickly and effectively can result in UK military items falling into the hands of adversaries. The quickening pace of technology advancements and the expected changes in the character of conflict are also presenting challenges. There needs to be swift and holistic action in light of these changes if the current international export control regimes are to remain fit-for-purpose.