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8.22 pm

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): The hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce) has obviously studied the subject and feels keenly about it. The House listened to his speech with interest.

The hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) is closely associated with arms control. She regretted the absence of the Leader of the House who took a keen interest in arms control when he was shadow Foreign Secretary and Foreign Secretary. May I echo her concern at his absence? Of all the ways in which the Government have treated the House with contempt, the one which I regret the most and which would be the most easily remedied is in relation to the presence of senior Ministers during important debates. The right hon. Gentleman was very concerned about arms control and argued vociferously in discussions on the Scott report that the then Conservative Government were to blame for their lack of legislation. The fact that he has made only one transit through the House in this debate is regrettable. I shall never fail to notice the absence of senior Ministers.

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It would be easy for them to encourage their supporters and the House by being present. Their absence is unfortunate.

Mr. Tom Clarke: The hon. Gentleman is an experienced Member. Did he give my right hon. Friend notice that he was going to refer to him?

Mr. Viggers: I did not. I have regretted only his absence, not his conduct, which I have not criticised. I may be reprimanded by Madam Deputy Speaker, but I would not normally regard an expression of regret at a Minister's absence as requiring the courtesy of a letter. Of course, I respect the fact that, as the right hon. Gentleman points out, if one is to make a personal attack, one usually makes it known to the Member concerned.

Dr. Julian Lewis: In support of my hon. Friend, I must point out that it would surely have been difficult for him to give notice of that reference because he did not know, before today, whether the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) would be present.

Mr. Viggers: During another debate, a Cabinet Minister was present on the Front Bench for a few moments. I saw him later in the day, and expressed my regret at his absence from the Chamber, and he replied, "I can't sit in there. I've got a country to run." That is regrettable. The House deserves the presence of senior Ministers.

The right hon. Member for Livingston was very vociferous during the discussions of the Scott report in 1996. He demanded legislation of the Conservative Government, who set up an inquiry to consider that. This Government came to power in 1997 and were greatly criticised for their inactivity in that respect. In the previous Parliament, the Quadripartite Committee—the meeting of the Defence Committee, the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Trade and Industry Committee and the International Development Committee—of which I am a member, criticised the Government for failing to introduce legislation as they had said they would. In February this year, the Committee said that it was dismayed by the lack of movement.

Finally, in March, a draft Bill was published, and then there was a reference to legislation in the Queen's Speech. Now the Bill is being introduced quickly but without much detail. That presents a conundrum—why inactivity, then sudden activity but little detail in the Bill? I have become very cynical in the past four years, and I suspect that there is a broader reason behind the timing and the strategy, because the Government are masters of timing and strategy.

Let us consider the broad political framework within which we must set the Bill. I will stay in order, Madam Deputy Speaker, because the background is very relevant. Let us look at the Government's position: the railways will stay privatised; air traffic control will be privatised despite everything; there has been no move on proportional representation; private medicine will contribute to the national health service; there are no concessions to the trade union movement; there has been a crackdown on habitual offenders rather than

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the adoption of liberal attitudes towards them; the Government are forcing single mothers to work; they are taking incapacity benefit away from many people.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I have allowed the hon. Gentleman some licence, but he is now wandering rather wide of the subject under discussion.

Mr. Viggers: I have finished sketching the background, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Looking at the glum faces behind the Prime Minister when incapacity benefit was being discussed, I realised that something needed to be done. How on earth could the Government cheer up this large influx of Labour Members? What could they do to make them feel that it was all worth while? What could they do that would cost nothing? The answer was to legislate on arms control, which will damage the defence industry, cost the Treasury nothing and cheer up Members such as the hon. Member for Cynon Valley. This is a framework Bill with no detail but it has cheered hon. Members up, and we have heard them saying how pleased they are to see it. The Government thought, "Let's throw the left wing a bone—one without much meat on it, of course."

Mr. Berry: If this Bill is only a bone being thrown to Members, why did every Conservative member of the Quadripartite Committee urge the Government to act on the matter even more quickly than they did?

Mr. Viggers: We were very happy to encourage the left wing in their hunt.

I welcome the Bill because the Scott report recommended a review of the primary legislation on weapons exports. It was unsatisfactory for that matter to be dealt with by an Act that was passed by the House of Commons in one day in 1939, in the run-up to war. That Act obviously had defects, but there are two major defects in the present Bill. The first is that we have had no sight of the proposed related orders and secondary legislation, so it is impossible for the House to judge the impact of the Bill. Secondly, the Bill is clearly defective because it continues the power of the Import, Export and Customs Powers (Defence) Act 1939 to control imports. Surely, after four years, the Government should be capable of remedying, updating and modernising that Act; they should deal not just with exports, but with imports as well. The Bill is defective in those two major areas.

The Government's handling of existing legislation is certainly defective and is failing exporters; we should not play down the importance of exports of defence equipment. The defence industry employs 350,000 people in this country; it has been calculated that 90,000 of those jobs relate directly to the export of arms equipment. The Government are letting down those people because they are failing to meet their 20-day target for consent for an arms export licence. They aim to give such consent within 20 days in 70 per cent. of cases, but they have done so for only 57 per cent. of applications. Their handling of appeals is worse; the Quadripartite Committee was told by members of the Defence Manufacturers Association that some applications for arms exports are so old, fusty and dusty that they think of sending them birthday cards every year; year after year, the Government have not done anything to deal with them.

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The Leader of the House of Commons said:

The House should not be satisfied with a Foreign Secretary—as the Leader of the House then was—saying that he has limited sympathy for a major British industry; the Government should do better.

There is no doubt that the Bill, which will be imposed on the industry, will put a heavy burden on business. Looking at it clause by clause—which, of course, will be done not here but in Committee—one can see that sweeping powers are taken for the Secretary of State to control the transfer of any kind of technology and technical assistance, of which a wide definition is given. Clause 2 governs the provision of information inside the United Kingdom, if it is transferred

That seems like a legal nightmare. Of course, it would make sense if we had secondary legislation and orders. However, we do not; the Bill is effectively a framework measure and I am not surprised that defence manufacturers have expressed serious concern about its effect on their industry.

I shall give another example of the imposition of control. Although details are not yet available, controls will be imposed on transfers between subsidiaries of companies and transfers of the control of technology by intangible means, including telephone and e-mail. That would mean that an employee using an e-mail or a telephone to talk to another employee of another subsidiary could be transferring technology and committing an offence under the Bill. There is therefore a sweeping power, which is worrying.

Finally, as I have said, control over extra-territorial activity may be impracticable. If it is followed through in all possible severity, it sounds like a job creation scheme for MI6. My conclusions to my brief contribution are: I am suspicious of the timing of the Bill; I am not reassured by the absence of detail; I am worried about the burdens on business; I am concerned that the Government are seeking to impose sanctions on citizens working outside UK territory; and I am worried about whether the measure is practicable. Is there a better way ahead? I think that our defence manufacturers and arms exporters are extremely responsible; almost without exception, those companies take their public responsibilities and world responsibilities very seriously indeed. Looking around the world, we see that it is not the United Kingdom that is responsible for the vast proliferation of arms in third-world countries, but other nations. The United States is a very large arms exporter and I believe that it is a responsible one, but I cannot say the same of Russia, China, India, South Africa and Israel, which are less responsible in this field.

The best route ahead is for us to work with our European Union and American allies, as well as our allies around the world. I think that we have leverage with countries such as Russia and India that will enable us to exert pressure on them, but I accept that the 1939 legislation needs upgrading and uprating. I therefore support the Bill, which will improve the moral climate and the stance with which the United Kingdom Government can negotiate further improvements from other countries, where the main blame for arms exports lies.

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