[Hugh Bayley in the Chair] — Arms Exports and Controls

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Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling, Conservative)
The hon. Gentleman, again, is on to a very important area, and that again highlights the need to get much more transparency about end users. He makes an extremely valid point, which applies even more strikingly in relation to non-democratic countries—one-party state countries such as Russia and China, in effect, where there is no clear boundary between the Government sector and the private sector at all. That is why we need to get the Government to accept that these Committees, and therefore the House, are entitled to end-use information.

On components for unmanned aerial vehicles, I can only refer the hon. Gentleman to what I just read out from the Foreign Secretary’s letter; he specifically refers to components that were for “incorporation into systems”. His view was that it was unlikely that they were used in Gaza, and I cannot take it any further than that, I am afraid.

If I may, I will just complete my points on individual countries. There are obviously a very large number of individual countries and others want to speak, and I want them to have their full time, but I make this point: in our report, we identified 12 countries in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s list of 28 countries of top human rights concern where it seemed to us that specific exports appeared to be in breach of one or more of the Governments’ arms export criteria. In our recommendations, we asked the Government to state why those exports were approved. Those 12 countries were: Afghanistan, China, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Syria, Uzbekistan and Yemen. We also asked the same question in relation to five other countries that are of concern to the Committees but are not on the FCO’s list of 28. Those five countries were Argentina, Bahrain, Egypt, Tunisia and Ukraine.

For most of those countries, as the House will see in the Government’s response to our report—the Command Paper—the Government came back with a fairly formulaic response, certainly as far as the opening of their reply was concerned. They used this formula:

“The Government is satisfied that the currently extant licences for”—

and then they put in the name of the country—

“are compliant with the Consolidated Criteria”.

I want to assure the House that we shall not let the matter rest there. In our view, there is a substantial mismatch between what has been disclosed about extant licences and the Government’s arms export criteria. We want to examine that further, and we shall take oral evidence shortly from the industry and non-governmental organisations, and from the Business Secretary and the Foreign Secretary.

I turn to the other area of our report, which is international arms control agreements. Virtually all international arms control agreements are designed to control or halt proliferation of both conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction. The Committees have therefore extended their scrutiny of the Government’s policy to the entirety of international arms control agreements. The Government give an explanation of their policy in relation to some of those agreements in their “United Kingdom Strategic Export Controls Annual Report”, but a number of key agreements are omitted. For example, there is no reference to the fissile material cut-off treaty, or the chemical weapons convention, or the biological and toxin weapons convention, or significantly, to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

In the Committees’ last report, they recommended that the Government, in their annual report, make their coverage of international arms control agreements comprehensive, instead of only partial. It is disappointing that the Government, in their response to our questions on their annual report, have not accepted that recommendation, but I assure the House that the Committees will continue to scrutinise the Government’s policy across the totality of international arms control agreements.

I come to a few of the specific agreements, starting with the arms trade treaty. We warmly welcome the British Government’s ratification of the arms trade treaty on the first day it opened for ratification—2 April 2014. It is also very encouraging that the 50th country ratification, triggering the treaty’s legal entry into force, has now been achieved. According to the Government response to our report, entry into force will take place on Christmas eve 2014—an excellent Christmas present to all those concerned with international arms control.

However, it is particularly disappointing that of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council only the UK and France have ratified the treaty thus far. The US has signed but not ratified, and China and Russia have neither signed nor ratified. The House will agree that it would be a dismally poor example to the rest of the world if the remaining three members of the P5 failed to ratify the arms trade treaty. I hope that the British Government will continue to do their utmost to get those key countries to do so.

One of the most important arms control events in 2015, if not the most important, will be the nuclear non-proliferation treaty review conference. In our report, we recommended that

“the Government states as fully as possible in its Response what are now its objectives for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in 2015”.

We did not get a particularly full response from the Government, but they did come back with three objectives:

“We want to agree further progress towards a world free from nuclear weapons and to highlight our actions in support of this; encourage action that will help to contain any threat of proliferation or non-compliance with the NPT; and support the responsible global expansion of civil nuclear industries.”

I hope that the Government will be rather more forthcoming, both to the Committees and to Parliament, about their detailed and specific objectives, and how they propose to try to achieve them in the run-up to the NPT review conference.

One of the great and largely unsung achievements of the Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher era was the intermediate-range nuclear forces agreement of 1987. The INF treaty is far and away the most important nuclear disarmament agreement that has been achieved since nuclear weapons were created. It was also the first and only time that the US and Russia reached a nuclear disarmament agreement based on zero-zero on each side. Against that background, it is of great concern that reports have appeared that Russia may be in breach of its INF treaty obligations. I took that up with the Foreign Secretary, who in his reply said:

“The US State Department’s recent annual ‘compliance’ report (Adherence to and compliance with arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament agreements and commitments) states that ‘the United States has determined that the Russian Federation is in violation of its obligations under the INF treaty not to possess, produce or flight-test a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) with a range capability of 500 km to 5,500 km, or to possess or produce launchers of such missiles.”

That is a very serious statement from the Foreign Secretary and the US State Department. In my view, if the INF treaty breaks down, it will be the most serious reverse for multilateral nuclear disarmament that has so far occurred in the nuclear weapons era. I therefore urge the Government to do their utmost to mobilise the maximum possible international pressure on Russia to restore its adherence to its INF treaty obligations.

To conclude, Ministers are never happier than when they can deal with difficult issues with comforting generalisations. The devil is always in the detail, and in no area is that more true than arms export controls. I therefore make no apology for the length of the Committees’ latest report, which, taken with the all-important volumes of evidence, runs to some 1,000 pages. I hope that it will prove a valuable resource to those in the House and outside who want to inform themselves about the actuality

of the UK Government’s arms control and arms export control policies, rather than just resting on ministerial generalisations.

The Committees are not remotely self-satisfied about our scrutiny and are sure that we can improve it further, but I believe that now in the UK Parliament we have the most detailed and most open parliamentary scrutiny of the Government’s arms export policies of any of the major arms exporting countries, including the United States, where, under the relevant legislation, there are financial cut-off thresholds below which exports do not have to be reported to Congress. We of course have no such financial thresholds in our Parliament and in the relevant legislation.

In the course of this Parliament, the Committees on Arms Export Controls have substantially widened and deepened our scrutiny of the Government’s policies. First, we have for the first time put alongside the list of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s countries of top human rights concern—the 28 countries to which I referred—the extant arms export licences approved by the British Government for each of those countries. That has been an extremely worthwhile and very illuminating exercise. It has certainly left me, on certain points, with considerable concerns, but others will draw their own conclusions.

Secondly, we have very substantially extended our scrutiny of the Government’s policies on international arms control agreements. That, too, is a crucial area, even though the subject tends to receive not much public attention, in Parliament or outside. Thirdly, we have in this Parliament extended our scrutiny to a whole series of additional export items, including drones, Tasers, cryptographic equipment, the UK Government’s gifted exports and Government-supported arms export exhibitions.

I hope that we have discharged our scrutiny responsibilities to the House of Commons effectively in this Parliament, and that we have created a strong and powerful springboard for our successor Committees to carry forward scrutiny of the Government’s policies in the key area of arms control and arms export controls in the next Parliament.

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Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North, Labour)
I am pleased that we are having the debate and look forward to the Minister’s response. This is the fourth day running that I have had meetings with him but, if this helps him, there are no plans for tomorrow.

I thank Sir John Stanley for his work as Chair of the Committees, for the analysis and the depth of their report, and for his preparedness to present it so well and in such detail today. I hope that we will see elected in the next Parliament someone as diligent and determined to ensure proper scrutiny of arms exports as he has been throughout this Parliament. We all owe him a debt of thanks, and it is sad to think that he will not be here after the next election, unless he changes his mind.

I want to make a number of points, but I will be brief. We should commend the late Robin Cook for our having this debate and these reports, and for the increasing tradition of openness in the Foreign Office on arms exports, human rights matters and recruitment policy in the diplomatic service of the future. The commendable changes that he introduced during his time as Foreign Secretary have stood the test of time. He will be remembered as a great Foreign Secretary for them, as well as for many other reasons.

While I want to raise detailed points about arms exports, we should think about the generality for a second. If we, as a country, export arms of any capacity or capability to another jurisdiction or regime, and those arms are used to abuse the human rights of people within those communities or within that society, that removes our ability to complain about those abuses because, in a sense, we are complicit due to our supplying weapons that have been used to oppress people. In that regard, the criteria adopted by the Committees and the Government’s response make interesting reading. I commend the Foreign Office for how its responses have been set out, because their helpful presentation means that one can quickly read the objection raised by the Committees and the Government’s response to it.

My first point is about Israel and Palestine. To reiterate what is said in the report’s introduction, we all witnessed what happened in Gaza recently. It was not the first operation—I hope it is the last operation, but it certainly was not the first—because there has also been Operation Cast Lead, among others. As my hon. Friend Ann McKechin pointed out, we have witnessed the destruction of Gaza several times over. There have been several worldwide appeals to rebuild Gaza only for it to be bombed and then rebuilt again some years later. We are exporting surveillance and other equipment to Israel, and indeed we are importing arms from Israel, but while the war crimes investigation organised by the United Nations Human Rights Council is ongoing, we need to think very carefully about our arms export policy for Israel.

I hope that the Minister is able to explain in detail the massive communications equipment order placed by Israel. I think the expenditure that has been cited is £7.7 billion, which is absolutely massive. I do not know what the equipment is for, but I cannot believe that a country of only 5 million people would want to spend so much on something that, while it could be used for commercial mobile phone services or something else, did not have a military component. I would be grateful to know what inquiries were made, what end-user surveillance there has been for Israel, and whether there will be restrictions on such exports in the future.

Paragraph 159 of the report describes the ongoing issues in Bahrain. For reasons that I do not fully understand, the Government decided at some point that it was safe to sell anti-personnel, riot control-type equipment and armoured personnel carriers to Bahrain. I was at the United Nations Human Rights Council a couple of months ago as a guest speaker in a seminar on human rights in Bahrain and the sale of equipment there. I talked to people who had been brutally assaulted on the streets of the capital city for taking part in a democratic protest. I hesitate to say this, but it seems that some of the equipment with which they were beaten may have been supplied by Britain. I also talked to the families of the medics who were threatened with permanent imprisonment, if not worse, for treating anyone who was injured during the disturbances. The human rights situation in Bahrain is very serious indeed, and I question why we are selling any equipment at all to Bahrain in the current circumstances.

Likewise, paragraph 141 makes the point about the repression of individuals and the unaccountable power of the police on Saudi Arabia. What it does not say—I am not making a criticism, but the report does not say it—is that it is very difficult to find out a lot about what is going on in Saudi Arabia because of the nature of its public media and the difficulties facing foreign journalists who try to report what happens there.

I realise that Saudi Arabia is a massive arms market—not only for Britain, but for other countries—and that seems to have an enormous impact on foreign policy relations with Saudi Arabia. However, the arms that have now appeared among ISIL forces in Iraq and Syria have all come from somewhere. They were not bought at the Defence Security and Equipment International exhibition, or anywhere else; they were bought from people who imported them from the USA, Britain and Russia—all kinds of places all over the world—because they had the financial resources to do so. Those arms were exported under licence at some point, and they have arrived with ISIL and are being used to kill large numbers of people in the most abominable ways. We therefore need to be a lot more assiduous and much tougher about what happens to the arms that we export.

I have deep concerns about Sri Lanka, which is also covered in the report. I would be grateful if the Minister could give us an indication of the Government’s current thinking about the supply of arms to Sri Lanka. I know that the Prime Minister took the correct and quite brave decision to go to Jaffna during the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting and he obviously expressed concern about the treatment of Tamil people at that stage. Are the Government now planning to resume the sale of equipment to Sri Lanka, or not?

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North made a point about the Defence Security and Equipment International exhibition, which has become more than a bit of an embarrassment. Caroline Lucas has pointed out that there were people at the exhibition advertising the sale of things such as electric shock equipment. Although that equipment is totally illegal in this country, it is on sale in London at an exhibition sponsored by the British Government. That is a cause of the deepest embarrassment, and I question whether we should be having the exhibition at all.

Paragraphs 120 to 122 of the report helpfully refer to nuclear weapons and their effects. This area is covered by several treaties, including the non-proliferation treaty. I asked the Minister a question about this on Monday, and I will continue to do so. The Austrian Government are hosting a conference on the humanitarian effects of nuclear weapons in Vienna at the beginning of December. That is a continuation of a conference hosted by the Mexican Government and, before that, by the Norwegian Government. Already, 135 nations have agreed to attend the conference, and 155 nations have supported New Zealand’s statement on the invitation to the next conference. This is a serious discussion about the effects of nuclear weapons on humankind as a whole, including not only those people who have already been affected by the explosions nearly 70 years ago in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but those affected by nuclear testing elsewhere. I hope that the Minister will tell me that the Government are at least seriously considering their invitation to the conference and that they will encourage the other permanent members of the Security Council to attend, too. If we want to live in a nuclear-free world, as everyone claims to wish to, surely attending that conference has to be a good step forward.

The report also cites the middle east weapons of mass destruction-free zone conference, which is now apparently supported by everybody. I have sat through a number of non-proliferation treaty review conferences during which a number of countries—principally countries within the region, and usually countries in the Arab League—have raised a proposal from the 2000 review conference that to stop the proliferation and spread of nuclear weapons across the middle east, as only Israel has nuclear weapons in the region at the moment, that middle east conference should try to create a region free of nuclear weapons and WMD. That has never happened, however. The Finnish Government were unable to organise it, but it has been reiterated that the conference will be held. At the last review conference, every permanent member of the Security Council—Britain, France, Russia, China and the United States—got up and said they supported that. Iran supports it. and Israel has not said no to it, so I wonder what is the impediment to that conference taking place, if all the players want to attend?

At the previous review conference, Egypt walked out. It did not leave the NPT, but its representatives said that they were angry at the lack of progress. If there is not progress on non-proliferation in the middle east, proliferation will happen, because somebody else will be able to develop nuclear weapons—the financial resources are certainly available—and we will then be in a very dangerous situation.

I welcome the section in the Committees’ report about chemical weapons. If anything good has come out of the crisis in Syria during the past two years—this is probably the only thing—it is that Syria at least acceded to the chemical weapons convention. The removal and destruction of chemical weapons from Syria is to be applauded. That step forward shows what can be achieved when the EU, the USA, Russia and Iran co-operate to try to achieve something.

The Committees report that Angola, Burma, Israel, North Korea and South Sudan have not signed the chemical weapons convention, however, and it is time that they did. It is time that the whole world signed up to it, because if we can have a worldwide convention on small arms and landmines, we should be able to insist that there is a genuine worldwide agreement on the abolition of chemical weapons, and then move on to other weapons.

We have to think carefully. It is too easy to say, “Sell arms to somebody—out of sight, out of mind.” That comes back to bite us, with civil wars and conflict, and with human rights abuses, some of which are carried out with weapons that have been made in this country. We should think carefully about that, before we so glibly say, “We support the arms industry.”

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Tobias Ellwood (The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs; Bournemouth East, Conservative)
That was going to be my next point. I cannot give the hon. Lady an answer today, but I had written down “timetable”. I will certainly get in touch with her to provide more information.

The hon. Lady and others mentioned the Defence and Security Equipment International exhibition. I have visited it many times and find it a little bizarre that one can buy things that are illegal in this country. The Government are reviewing their response to DSEI 2013 to consider any improvements to the processes that can be made before next year’s event. Officials from across Government will continue to work closely with Clarion Events to ensure that exhibitors comply with export and trade controls and understand their obligations.

Jeremy Corbyn—I almost called him my hon. Friend—and I have met four times in debates or meetings over the past few days. I will be astonished if we meet tomorrow at the Conservative party away day, but he is always welcome. I join him in paying tribute to the late Robin Cook, who pioneered much of the work that we are now taking forward. That is his legacy. Members on both sides of the House remember him for that, pay tribute to the work that he did in ensuring that Britain plays a more responsible role in arms exports, and encourage other countries to do the same.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned Gaza and the cycle of destruction. The matter came up at the UN General Assembly; Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General, was almost in tears when discussing whether destruction, reconstruction, destruction, and then reconstruction is what now happens. I digress slightly, but Britain must play its part with the EU and the international community to try to break that cycle.

The hon. Gentleman also raised concerns about Bahrain. There is no evidence of UK equipment sold to Bahrain being used in breach of the EU or national consolidated criteria on export licensing, but we have refused licences to Bahrain for internal security forces, where we are not satisfied about the risks around internal repression. If he has anymore thoughts on that, he can write to me and I will be delighted to respond.

I do not have the details to respond to the hon. Gentleman on Sri Lanka, but he mentioned the Prime Minister’s visit. It was bold to go out and make a case about the Tamil people’s concerns. I will write to him regarding our position on arms exports and Sri Lanka.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman mentioned the Vienna conference, which we discussed at Foreign and Commonwealth questions. The trouble is that it is unclear what the conference wants to achieve other than the removal of all nuclear weapons. It is Britain’s long-term intention to reach that position, but if we drop our guard before other hostile countries with nuclear weapons do, we will leave ourselves vulnerable. We share the long-term ambition, but differ on how we will get there.

The shadow Minister mentioned brass-plate companies and enforcement action. Existing legislation would, in certain circumstances, allow such action to be taken against brass-plate companies and their officers. However, any action must be justified by sufficient evidence. With other relevant agencies, the Government continue to pursue the possibility of using other legislation to discontinue the UK registration of such companies on public interest grounds. As he will appreciate, the issue is complex and raises difficult questions about the nature of the evidence that might be disclosed in any proceedings. We will update the Committees and the shadow Minister when any firm conclusions have been reached.

In conclusion, I again thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling and other hon. Members for their attendance today. I reiterate my thanks to the Committees on Arms Export Controls for their report and work. The Committees’ scrutiny remains an important aid to the licensing process, and I continue to look forward to their contributions and continuing dialogue over the coming year.

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