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House of Lords

Monday, 3rd June 1996.

Reassembling after the Spring Bank Holiday Recess, the House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Bristol.

Torture Weapons

Lord Jenkins of Putney asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will take action in the light of admissions by dealers on the recent Channel 4 "Dispatches" programme that a trade in weapons of torture exists.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Fraser of Carmyllie): My Lords, the allegations made related to offshore trading rather than exports from this country. It appeared from the programme that individuals were willing to engage in offshore trading but I am not aware of any specific sales. While there is no law in the United Kingdom for the control of offshore trading, the Government are considering whether to cover this in the forthcoming consultation on a range of export control matters following the Scott Report. The Government deplore the use of torture and would never through their general export services knowingly support the export of equipment for such purposes, nor grant an export licence from this country for licensable goods which were to be used for torture.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, the House will be relieved to hear that news, and I thank the Minister for it. However, is it not the case that licences were issued in this respect? I have a letter from the Minister's colleague, Mr. Ian Taylor, to Mrs. Ann Clwyd in another place in which he says that the licence in question was not for goods originating in the UK but a transhipment licence relating to trade between two other countries. If that practice is fairly well established, it is a very serious matter, is it not? It means that, as rumour has it, we take a profit from, for example, a trade in weapons of torture made in Mexico which finish up in Zaire but which do not land in this country. Is there much of this trade going on? If so, ought we not to know a little more about it? The letter to which I referred ends with these words:

    "No further details can be released about this matter".
Is it not the case that we really ought to know?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, the noble Lord is correct. A letter was sent to Mrs. Ann Clwyd in which it was revealed that one licence had been granted in 1993 in respect of a transhipment of goods from another country to a third country. It is the only one that has been granted. It is important that no company or individual in the United Kingdom currently possesses authority under Section 5 of the Firearms Act to manufacture, possess or trade in the electric shock batons that were the source of interest in the programme.

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That remains the position. As I indicated in my opening Answer, it would not be the view of the United Kingdom Government that an export licence should ever be granted from this country in respect of licensable goods which were to be used for torture.

Lord Peston: My Lords, I find this a trifle disturbing. The Minister's noble friend answered categorically, and it was very much welcomed, that the Government wished to have no involvement whatsoever with weapons of torture. That certainly led me to believe that, so far as the Government knew, no British company was involved in any such activity. In the light of his current Answer, will the noble and learned Lord tell the House what he means by "offshore trading"? Was the event that occurred a matter of offshore trading by a British company; and did the Government simply not know about it when we asked about it a couple of weeks ago? Is the case to which the Minister referred simply a one-off, and do the Government now know that there is no offshore trading either? Without doubting the bona fides of the Minister, I should like some reassurance.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that final observation. I wish to clarify that there is no export of the batons in question from the United Kingdom, because no one has a licence to manufacture them within the United Kingdom. I indicated the restrictions that we should impose on any goods to be used for torture.

The difficulty lies where there is offshore trading; that is to say, where a British company might be part of a deal which moved certain items from one country to a third country without those goods being manufactured in the United Kingdom or indeed ever passing through the United Kingdom. As I indicated in my original Answer, we have no law in place to prevent such offshore trading. However, as part of the consultation on export licence recommendations in the Scott Report, we intend to address the matter of offshore trading.

Lord Peston: My Lords, I thank the Minister and ask him again to clarify the position so that it is absolutely understood. Is he saying that the trade in question is between two countries away from this country but that, nonetheless, the company concerned would be a British company, and it is simply that we have no way of knowing that and no way, until the Minister does what he says, of controlling such trade? Is that the case? Is it at least possible that a named British company could be buying weapons of torture in country A abroad and selling them to country B abroad, and that, first, we know nothing about it and, secondly, could not do anything about it at this moment?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, I need to set the context of my answer with reference back to the Channel 4 "Dispatches" programme. In the programme it appeared that, by one device or another, when individuals were asked whether they would provide such batons they indicated that they did not manufacture them in the United Kingdom and could not export them from the United Kingdom but that they might be able to source them from a third country and make them

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available. Although those indications were given, my understanding was that we are not aware of any specific sales under that arrangement. The important matter is that of consultation. We should look to see how that might be dealt with.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone: My Lords, I hope that my noble friend will acquit me of pedantry. However, while I can understand what is meant by an instrument of torture--namely, the thumbscrew, rack and so on--does he agree that the purpose of "weapons" as such is to incapacitate or kill? One realises the horror of such things, but what exactly is a weapon of torture?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, my noble and learned friend is being anything but a pedant. It will be readily enough understood that there is a wide range of items which are used properly every day but which could be applied to offer up the most appalling acts of torture. My noble and learned friend is correct in that the export of weapons and paramilitary equipment, including electric shock batons, is already strictly controlled from the United Kingdom. For such items the control is in place. Clearly, power drills and similar items which could cause dreadful injury are simply not subject to the same kind of control.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, it is welcome to learn that the Government are considering measures to prohibit the use by British companies or individuals of suppliers in third countries of torture equipment. However, does the Minister agree that that will have minimal effect on the commission of torture worldwide? Will the Government consider means of making more widely available copies of a report by the United Nations rapporteur on torture, Dr. Nigel Rodley, who is a British citizen? One copy of that report is available in your Lordships' Library but it is not readily available to members of the public.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, if there is any way by which the report to which the noble Lord referred can be made more readily available, we should clearly have no objection to it. I do not know how much more the Government could do. I wish to emphasise that we utterly oppose and deplore the use of torture. We have ratified the United Nations Convention against Torture, and although the noble Lord puts forward a rather bleak prediction about the continued use of torture around the world, I hope he appreciates that the United Kingdom Government are fully committed to promoting the provisions of that convention.

Lord Monkswell: My Lords, can the Minister comment on newspaper reports that the Department of Trade and Industry is obtaining market intelligence of the demand for weapons--or instruments--of torture and providing that information to British companies?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, I am not aware of those reports. If there are such reports, they are not true.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, will the Minister be good enough to clarify just one point before we close this matter? The letter of which he is aware refers to a

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transhipment licence. In the event of a transfer from one country to another under the orders of a British company here, but not coming physically to this country, can he say whether a transhipment licence is required or whether such a transaction can take place without a transhipment licence?

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