International Military Sales Ltd, Westminster Hall Debate, 11 Mar 2014


Ben Wallace (Wyre and Preston North, Conservative)
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. May I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests? I have been the chairman of the all-party group on Iran for the past nine years, and I am a former overseas director for the aerospace company Qinetiq.

I want to highlight the relationship between International Military Services Ltd and the Ministry of Defence, and a specific case as it relates to Iran. It is a sorry passage in our history and the UK’s relationship with that country. It is not only a sorry story, but un-British in that the process that I will describe has been marred by double dealing and obfuscation. The Minister will be relieved to know that I am not talking about recent history; I am talking about way back in the 1960s and 1970s.

In the days of the nationalised defence industry, the British Government established a private limited company as its trading arm to sell weapons and aerospace equipment abroad and munitions to overseas buyers, mostly to other Governments. A lot has changed since then and the aerospace industry has been almost completely privatised. For that reason, in 1991 it was decided to wind up this little shell company that was wholly owned by the Government. It would have been wound up, but for one problem—a debt owed by that company to the Government of Iran, equivalent to between £400 million and £500 million.

The debt may explain why, 23 years later, the company still exists. What was the cause of the debt and what should we do to put it right? Between 1971 and 1976, the Shah of Iran paid up front—quite rare in those days, and even today—the equivalent of £650 million for 1,500 Chieftain tanks and armoured vehicles. When in 1979 the revolution deposed the Shah, Britain quite rightly ceased those exports until the country had settled down and we clearly knew its intentions.

However, we chose not to return the equivalent of the £450 million that Iran had paid us. Instead, we sold the tanks to Saddam Hussein, who then proceeded to use a number of those tanks against the people of Iran. I think it is widely accepted that the west’s support for Saddam Hussein was a catastrophic error. That period of history is well behind us, and I hope we will not make such mistakes again. However, since that time, and despite Iran’s attempts through the rule of law to access the funds owed, the UK has held on to them.

I am not here to urge the British Government to break the successful sanctions regime, but I am here to urge that we honour the debt once and for all.

Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke, Conservative)
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. If the matter were to be resolved, what impact would it have on the sanctions that Iran has to adhere to, given what we know about some of their motivations and activities?

Ben Wallace (Wyre and Preston North, Conservative)
There would be no impact, because in this country we have the facility of the High Court. The funds are already held by the High Court on behalf of the Government, but should the High Court make a ruling, or a settlement be reached, they could be handed over within the parameter of the High Court and held until such time as they were unfrozen through the sanctions licensing scheme or made available as a result of a change to sanctions. This is not about releasing funds tomorrow morning to the Iranian Government, but about putting a wrong right, putting our relationship with Iran on a more open and just footing, and, hopefully, putting the matter right.

However, I am afraid that this matter does not quite end there, because Britain and Iran are signatories to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, an international treaty whereby we effectively arbitrate over contracts. In 2001, the court ruled in favour of Iran to recover the debt. The onus is on the United Kingdom to honour its treaty obligations.

If we fast-forward to 2013, however, we find that Iranian officials, who had set out from Iran with UK visas issued by the Foreign Office, come to this country to access the services of the commercial court. On landing at Heathrow, their passports are removed from them, their visas are revoked and they are detained for a number of days in asylum centres. That was not a particularly British way to resolve an issue, especially given that we had only recently issued their visas. It was a worrying sign.

To date, the Home Office has not been willing to give me a full explanation of the reasons behind the officials’ detention. However, I am sure that the Home Office will be careful, because any court—any judge—would look very poorly on something that is done without a valid reason, as this case involves access to legitimate justice and our courts. Let me be clear: I am not seeking to change the sanctions regime and I am not seeking to hand this money over. However, in the current environment, in which we are trying to put UK-Iran relations on a better footing, I am seeking a swift settlement for all parties.

Across a range of areas, Iranian entities that are not under sanction and are not involved in any way with the Iranian Government are suffering as a result of the UK’s fear about extraterritorial US sanctions. That is because many of those sanctions, while they do not deal with US companies, have an extraterritorial reach that can unfortunately leave many British entities with a Hobson’s choice—trade with us or trade with Iran.

We are now in the rather perverse position in which the US Government are issuing letters of comfort to US banks to allow them to trade with Iran, and to allow them to have approved and licensed financial transactions with Iran, while our banks are receiving no such comfort or protection from the reach of Congress. American banks in the US are protected from Congress by the US Administration, but British banks are thrown to the lions.

As sanctions become a more common foreign policy tool—with some success; they have certainly helped to contribute to the process of Iran coming to the table—we in Britain should make it very clear that we will follow the rule of law, fill in the detail and ensure that sanctions are clearly adhered to. However, that does not discharge us from our outstanding obligations.

Previously, there have been numerous rulings in the UK, Germany and the US courts that clearly distinguish the difference between the discharge of an obligation by a party—in this case, the obligation of International Military Sales Ltd to the Iranians—and the payment of the funds to a designated entity. They are two separate issues and to conflate them, as people have tried to in the past, supposedly as a reason for not resolving this matter, is to put unnecessary and unreal barriers in the way.

I would like to hear from the Minister. I am grateful to him for coming to Westminster Hall today, because I am aware, as chairman of the all-party group on Iran, that Iran policy is way above my pay grade. It is made by the P5+1, and in No. 10 and the White House. However, I would be very grateful if the Minister at least recognised the importance of resolving this matter. We should wind up the company, which has existed in limbo for 35 years, and we should discharge the MOD’s obligation to a brass plate somewhere else in London. We can then put this sorry tale behind us.

Philip Dunne (The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence; Ludlow, Conservative)
It is a pleasure, Ms Dorries, to serve under your chairmanship at this later than anticipated hour; I am grateful to you for keeping Westminster Hall open. I thank my hon. Friend Mr Wallace for securing this debate. It is important that we have this opportunity to put on the record the Government’s position on the subject that he has raised today.

I know that my hon. Friend, who is chairman of the all-party group on Iran, has taken a keen interest in this matter since he joined the House. It is entirely appropriate that he should have secured this debate . He has raised the issue of a dispute, and it is important to try to get a little clarity on the record as to the nature of that dispute. It relates to a number of contracts—not to a single contract—between the Iranian Ministry of Defence, which I shall refer to as MODSAF, and International Military Services Ltd, known as IMS. I am pleased to have this opportunity to outline the Government’s position regarding the dispute. As my hon. Friend has acknowledged, I am, of course, somewhat limited in what I can say, given pending litigation in the High Court between IMS and MODSAF. The UK Ministry of Defence itself is not a party to those proceedings.

I will make a number of key points in responding to this debate. First, I wish to make it clear that the Government would like the matter to be resolved as soon as practicably possible, which I think was the main challenge laid down by my hon. Friend. We share his determination in that respect, not least because, as he said, the dispute can be traced back to 1979 and the demise of the Shah’s regime in Iran. At that time, IMS, a company wholly owned by the MOD, had approximately 60 contracts to supply MODSAF with defence equipment and services. The change in regime in Iran saw the cancellation and termination of those contracts, resulting in a number of legal disputes.

The vast majority of the disputed contracts were settled on 22 October 1990, but four contracts were not. The two largest of those four contracts involved, as my hon. Friend said, the sale of more than 1,000 main battle tanks and armoured recovery vehicles. These contracts were referred to the International Chamber of Commerce for arbitration. The ICC ruled on 2 May 2001—more than 10 years later—in favour of MODSAF. By agreement between the parties, MODSAF agreed not to pursue payment of the awards until the outcome of a planned challenge to the awards by IMS. That was under the proviso that IMS paid, by way of security, a sum sufficient to meet the awards into the High Court. That payment was made in December 2002.

IMS subsequently challenged the ICC awards through the Dutch legal system, as the seat of the ICC arbitration, culminating in a final ruling on 24 April 2009 by the Dutch Supreme Court. The challenge by IMS was partially successful, in that the Dutch Supreme Court partially set the ICC awards aside.

The Government and IMS accept the ruling of the Dutch Supreme Court. However, there are legal issues that remain unresolved as to the precise amounts payable to MODSAF and crucially, as my hon. Friend said, as to how the sanctions regime that had been subsequently imposed impacts on the awards and the circumstances under which MODSAF is entitled to receive payment. These issues are subject to litigation, with a High Court hearing scheduled for June.

In addition, as I have already mentioned, there are other contracts under dispute. In relation to one of these, an infrastructure contract, the ICC tribunal ruled in favour of IMS on 28 January 2005. Prior to the Dutch Supreme Court ruling in 2009, international sanctions were imposed against the Iranian Government, in the context of their potential nuclear aspirations. In 2008, MODSAF itself was designated under the relevant sanctions regulations. Notwithstanding the recent sanctions relief included in the joint plan of action agreed with Iran, the bulk of the sanctions remain in place until a comprehensive settlement is reached on the nuclear programme. It would be inappropriate for the Government to comment any further on these issues, given the pending litigation.

However, the Government would like to see a final and appropriate resolution of these long-running disputes, and we hope that the recent progress in reaching an understanding on a variety of issues with the Iranian Government will facilitate that objective.

Ben Wallace (Wyre and Preston North, Conservative)
I am not referring specifically to this case. In general, given previous rulings, does the Minister not recognise that it is perfectly acceptable for a court to deal with the discharge of an obligation separately from how that obligation is then paid to an entity? They are not the same things.

Philip Dunne (The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence; Ludlow, Conservative)
My hon. Friend pre-empts the conclusions to my remarks, but I can confirm that we anticipate a resolution being possible, ideally without recourse to the High Court action in June. We would be happy to see the parties engage to reach a settlement on the outstanding issues before it gets to court. We think that can be done irrespective of the sanctions regime. Once a settlement has been reached to agree a final amount, the payment of that amount becomes a matter for the prevailing sanctions regime in place at that time. I agree that those are separate issues, but the ultimate payment cannot be made while the sanctions regime is in place.

I want to mention a couple of other factors that the House needs to be aware of. All the negotiations that have taken place on this matter have been conducted by employees of IMS on a confidential basis, in turn routinely channelled through legal representatives. Also, given the title of this debate, I should like to clarify the relationship between the Ministry of Defence and IMS. IMS is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Ministry of Defence; all but one of its 20 million shares are held by the Secretary of State for Defence and the other single share is held by the Treasury Solicitor. It is governed by the Companies Act, with accounts filed in Companies House. The company formally ceased trading in 2010 and now exists purely to resolve the disputes that I have already touched on.

Alison Seabeck (Shadow Minister (Defence); Plymouth, Moor View, Labour)

Nadine Dorries (Mid Bedfordshire, Conservative)
I am sorry, Ms Seabeck, but because you were not here at the beginning of the debate, it is not in order for you to intervene. [Interruption.]

Philip Dunne (The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence; Ludlow, Conservative)
I should have been happy to take the intervention. If the hon. Lady has a point, perhaps she can make it to me afterwards.

Nadine Dorries (Mid Bedfordshire, Conservative)
May I clarify that Ms Seabeck is not allowed to intervene in this half-hour debate because she is the Opposition spokesperson?

Philip Dunne (The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence; Ludlow, Conservative)
Thank you, Ms Dorries. We all learn something new every day.

IMS employs two part-time staff members and three directors. The position of the Ministry of Defence and the Treasury is that the company should be wound up once the final disputes have been settled. I think that that addresses a number of points raised by my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend mentioned the incident that took place in January last year, in which three Iranian officials were detained and deported from Heathrow airport. The former Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my right hon. Friend Alistair Burt, wrote at the time to the UK legal representatives of those concerned, explaining that although it was not the intention of the Government to cause undue anxiety, since the attack on our embassy in Tehran in 2011, Iranian officials had not been allowed to visit the UK in their official capacity. The Government regret any distress caused to those involved. Following the softening of the sanctions regime, we think it would now be possible for Iranian officials to engage with IMS, either on neutral territory or, indeed, here again in the UK, if they were willing to return.

To sum up, the Government and IMS recognise and accept the rulings of the Dutch Supreme Court in this matter. A number of issues remain unresolved and are subject to potential litigation, but we hope that a final settlement can be agreed soon. The parties are not very far apart in financial terms, and we hope that they can come to a resolution without further recourse to the courts. I hope that I have explained the Government’s position on this matter.

Question put and agreed to

Sitting adjourned.