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7.33 pm

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford): I am most grateful for the opportunity to make my first contribution in the House. I preface my remarks by congratulating the hon. Members for Redcar (Vera Baird), for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), for North Durham (Mr. Jones) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) on excellent maiden speeches. My only regret is that they chose today to make them before me, but excellent they were in their entirety.

I wish to begin by paying tribute to my predecessor, Mr. Bowen Wells. Bowen served his constituents for 22 years, first as the Member for Hertford and Stevenage, and after 1983 for the redrawn division of Hertford and Stortford. In addition to his roles in the Government, Bowen played an active part on various Committees of the House, culminating in the previous Parliament with his chairmanship of the International Development Committee. Members on both sides of the House have told me of his extensive knowledge of the problems of the third world and of his dedication in seeking their solution. I am pleased to report that Bowen remains as committed to that cause now as he was when he first entered the House and that he is continuing his work to help the poorest nations of the world.

In the constituency, Bowen's dedication to service was just as strong. He believed, as I do, that Members of Parliament have a duty to serve every constituent, no matter how they may have voted. Indeed, many people in Hertford and Stortford have told me that they felt lucky to have Bowen as their Member of Parliament; they described him as one of the last gentlemen in politics. I am not sure whether they will say the same of me. At school, I played rugby in the front row, as hon. Members can probably guess from my shape, where we do not take a genteel, subtle approach. Indeed, some would say that we take no prisoners. I therefore suspect that people will regard me as less of a gentleman and more of a player.

Hertford and Stortford is a wonderful constituency to represent. Situated in the south-east corner of Hertfordshire, it is in many ways the epitome of shire England. It has a combination of attractive market towns, historic villages and that soft, gentle rolling countryside that could only be England. I live in Much Hadham, in the heart of the constituency, and I know how lucky I am, as are many of my constituents, to live in such a beautiful part of England. However, in both the towns and villages, we are having to face up to new pressures and challenges.

Our towns are struggling to compete for shoppers and some local family firms such as Gravesons in Hertford have had to close. Our roads cannot cope with the traffic, but for many people their car is not a luxury but a necessity. Our public services are unable to recruit and retain the staff they need. Our health service is in debt, school class sizes have risen, and by Christmas our county could be short of 250 police officers.

Equally importantly, development at the edge of towns such as Bishop's Stortford, Hertford and Ware is draining the life away from the town centres, while putting a great strain on essential services. Without concerted and co-ordinated investment in our roads, our public services and our local amenities, our town centres, and those mentioned by the hon. Member for North Durham, could face a future of decline.

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At the same time, our rural communities face the greatest agricultural crisis in a generation. Sadly, Whitehall seems to have other priorities. It seems determined to force us to build thousands of extra houses, many of them on our green belt. Those problems of town and country are interwoven, and I for one will fight and fight again to ensure that we breathe life back into our towns and that we defend our green belt from excessive development.

The Bill before the House today seeks to strengthen the controls on the export of defence equipment. No one doubts the need to improve the accountability and transparency of decision making in Whitehall, by Ministers and officials alike, and I take a direct interest in that issue, for two reasons.

First, the economy of Hertfordshire has a long and respected tradition in the defence and aviation sectors, and many of my constituents work for leading names in those industries. Secondly, I have a long-held interest in matters of defence and international security. Indeed, I believe that the first duty of Governments is to ensure the security of their people.

While it is right to try to keep military hardware out of the hands of tyrants and terrorists, it is also essential, as several hon. Members have pointed out, that we recognise the right of every nation, large and small, to defend itself. As the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) pointed out, that right is upheld in the United Nations charter. Without the means to deter and repel aggression, that right is worthless. Many small nations today—the names of which are familiar to us all—would not be enjoying their independence had they not had the means to defend their freedom.

It is freedom that has brought me to this House. I believe that personal freedom—freedom of speech, the freedom to be oneself, free choice, free enterprise, or simply the freedom from constant intrusion and interference in our daily lives—lies at the heart of a civilised society, but throughout my lifetime each of those liberties has been steadily eroded. There is always a plausible reason—always a good excuse—but every intrusion, ban and restriction tilts the balance away from us as individuals and local communities and towards the large lobby groups, multinationals or big business. Indeed, the Government are perhaps the largest lobby group of all.

Only an effective Parliament can restore that balance. Throughout this country's history, this House, more than any other institution, has been the champion of our liberty. We, as Members of this House, are privileged, for we are free to speak without fear or favour. We also have the opportunity to provide a voice for those who are rarely heard. That is why I say that we all have a duty to challenge Government—every Government—and to question and hold to account those in authority, not for ourselves but for those whom we seek to represent.

In recent years, I have been saddened to watch the status of this House diminish in our nation's affairs. The impact of the European Union, a burgeoning media and the development of semi-detached Government agencies have all served to undermine the role of this place; yet I still believe that this House can and should remain at the heart of our national debate. That is why, even though I am a new boy, I passionately believe that we must strengthen the House's Committees, extend the scope and powers of scrutiny and ensure that the career of a

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parliamentarian is as respected as that of a Minister: after all, it is likely to last somewhat longer. The recent Hansard Society report is an excellent manifesto for restoring the House as our national forum, and I strongly support its aims and conclusions.

To be elected to this House is an honour. I will do my best to serve my constituents as well as I can. I know that I will make mistakes along that path and probably upset some people in the process, but none of that will matter if I can make a small difference to the lives of some of my constituents.

To be a member of this House is also a privilege because it affords each of us the chance to speak freely and hold authority to account. It gives us the opportunity to provide a clear, distinctive voice for those values that we each hold dear to our hearts. I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for this opportunity to make my first contribution, and to right hon. and hon. Members for listening to me with such patience.

7.43 pm

Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South): It is a new experience for me to congratulate an hon. Member on a maiden speech. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) on a thoughtful and well-judged speech. He rightly paid tribute to his predecessor, who was renowned in the House for his work with the third world. I am sure that the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford will continue in the same vein.

The hon. Gentleman said that he lives in a lovely part of the country. I hope that if I holiday down there, I will be able to experience his delight in that part of the country. He gave notice that he will be a champion for his constituents. I wish him well in this House over the next few years.

I congratulate my hon. Friends for North Durham (Mr. Jones), for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), for Redcar (Vera Baird) and the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) on their excellent speeches. The talent that has been displayed today demonstrates that the House is in very good hands for the future.

I wish, in welcoming the Bill, to show my support for the opportunity that it provides. We can rightly be proud of the fact that we are overhauling export control powers for the first time in 60 years. The Bill clearly responds to the increasingly complex and volatile world in which we live, and I believe that it will bolster and enhance the vital and significant role that we can play in making the world a safer place now and in the future.

I welcome the action that the Government have already taken on export controls, including the adoption of a European Union code of conduct on arms exports and the publication of comprehensive annual reports on strategic export controls. The fourth report is currently being prepared, and I believe that it will be welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

In addition, the Government have strengthened and improved the effectiveness of export controls. A key measure that comes to mind is the Landmines Act 1998, which has been referred to today. The Act gave effect to the Ottawa convention banning the import, export and manufacture of all forms of anti-personnel land mines.

We have sought to minimise the risk of United Kingdom defence exports being diverted to undesirable end-users by putting in place procedures to strengthen the

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process of risk assessment at the export licensing stage. We have played a leading role in contributing to the work of international bodies, which has resulted in the UN conference taking place in New York today on illicit trade in small arms and light weapons. More clearly needs to be done in this area, and I welcome the further advances that the Bill will make possible.

I should like to focus on two specific areas addressed by the Bill—the trafficking and brokering of weapons and related equipment and the transfer of technology by intangible means. It is important to recognise that the UK arms industry employs thousands of workers. I declare an interest as a former official of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, which covered the defence industry. The arms industry is a vital component of an already declining manufacturing base, and I believe that it deserves support. We must also recognise, however, the distasteful and dangerous side to the arms trade through the trafficking and brokering of arms to areas of instability and conflict.

At present, a licence to broker in arms is not required. As the former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers) and my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) have pointed out, in a country where one needs a licence to marry, go fishing and drive a car, that is clearly absurd and must be addressed. The benefits of a system of licensing have been articulated succinctly. As the director of Oxfam, David Bryer, has said, tougher licensing will make a real difference to countless people in developing countries whose lives are wrecked by bullets and guns sold by British arms brokers.

In an increasingly volatile world, with the worrying proliferation of rogue states, the balance of world power will in large part be decided by the military hardware and destructive capability of individual nation states. There is increasing evidence that significant amounts of arms flowing into regions of conflict are being transferred there by arms brokers. For example, in 1995 a company based in the Isle of Man was involved in supplying arms to Rwandan rebels based in Zaire.

I therefore welcome the new powers that the Bill will provide to enable a licensing regime to regulate the trafficking and brokering of arms. Among other things, it will cover all major weapons and weapons platforms, light weapons and small arms, ammunition and key items of military equipment. I particularly welcome the fact that details of those applying for licences will be placed on a register, which will make the process more transparent and open, and it would be further enhanced if such a system were made available on an international basis.

A key area of concern remains, however. Although the Import, Export and Customs Powers (Defence) Act 1939 allows the Government to regulate exports from and imports to the UK, it does not allow them to impose controls on UK persons overseas trafficking in goods between overseas countries or brokering such deals. Although I welcome the Government's intention to tackle the issue through secondary legislation under the Bill, it is essential that such legislation effectively addresses that serious omission by controlling the activities of UK citizens and companies wherever they are conducted.

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Concern was recently articulated by Dr. Ian Davis of Saferworld. He said that if full extra-territorial measures are not taken, the danger is that British citizens will simply evade controls by operating from another country. A recent case provides a perfect example. In 1997, Sandline was involved in supplying Sierra Leone with military hardware from Bulgaria. It is vital that the measure covers such cases.

It has been argued that legislation would be difficult to implement and police, but there is increasing international co-operation to deal with trafficking in other goods, such as humans and drugs, and to combat organised crime through organisations such as Interpol and the use of joint intelligence operations. Surely such international co-operation could be used to combat and police the international arms trade.

Previous legislation was compromised by the fact that extra-territorial questions were not dealt with adequately. I am sure that the House will welcome and appreciate the Government's intention to introduce secondary legislation that will allow powers to tackle such questions.

My second focus is on the transfer of technology by intangible means. At present, a licence is needed to export certain technologies. Controls on technology and software exports derive mainly from various international export control regimes. However, for technologies and software—mainly military—to be subject to national control, export licences are currently needed only when technology or software is exported in a physical form, such as a disk. Crucially, that does not include export by electronic or other intangible means.

That provision does not dovetail with the European Council regulation in respect of dual-use technology and, furthermore, it clearly highlights the inadequacy of the 1939 Act, which gives the Government power to control only tangible exports. The Act falls short of the provisions required in the age of e-mail, fax, telephone and sophisticated computer technology. Indeed, when the 1939 Act was passed, the bright age of the computer had yet to dawn.

In the 21st century, it is plain that the central means of communication—especially over considerable distances—will be electronic. It is thus vital that we recognise that advance and the potential and power that it provides. The current loophole under the 1939 Act will obviously be effectively and systematically exploited unless we close it.

For that reason, I welcome the new powers that the Bill provides to allow the Government to control transfers of technology by intangible means. The measure will allow for the establishment of controls on military technology exports, in line with those that already exist for dual-use technology. Those controls will, rightly, include the export of documents, blueprints, manuals, diagrams and so forth by both tangible and electronic means. I also welcome the provisions made for the introduction of controls on the transfer of technology by non-electronic tangible means, together with controls on the provision of technical services where they would assist in the development of weapons of mass destruction or related missile programmes.

I welcome the Bill. It provides the UK with a more adequate legislative framework and will promote global peace. I welcome powers to prohibit the supply of weapons to regions of conflict, while allowing legitimate trade by British defence companies. I welcome powers to

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introduce a licensing requirement on the export of military technology by electronic means as well as in tangible form. At the same time, the Bill responds to the Scott report by ensuring that the Government are accountable to Parliament for the use of those new powers by providing for parliamentary scrutiny of the secondary legislation introduced under them. In the main, the Bill meets the rightful criticisms made in the Scott report about the lack of such provisions in the 1939 Act. It will undoubtedly contribute to meeting our global obligations and in making the world a safer place.

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