Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Lloyd: I, too, had not realised that the Bill controlled the export of artworks and was fascinated by the concept of dual-use Picassos. I was also fascinated by the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill) about the role of the royal family in export licensing. In this country, we are considering the role of our royal family in judging hospital architecture; perhaps that is a comment on the relative values of the Swedes and the British.

New clause 6 goes to the heart of the debate about the relationship that we as a society want with the Executive through a democratically elected Parliament. As the Minister knows, I am one of a number of Members in the Chamber—my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) is another—who have engaged in the art of licensing. Of course, practical issues are involved, but we must consider whether prior scrutiny is desirable and helpful. I have enormous respect for the Minister, and urge him to consider the fact that Ministers themselves may be advantaged by that form of engagement with parliamentary colleagues. That point is profoundly important. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West will remember the lonely Tuesday nights and Wednesday mornings that he spent as a Minister; perhaps, at 3 am, he had a red box full of all manner of things and was under enormous pressure to issue or refuse export licences. Ministers are under genuine pressure.

I shall comment briefly on the arguments against prior scrutiny. One of the issues is confidentiality, which is extremely important for Government. It is not the role of Government to breach confidentiality. It is vital that the position of trust assumed by Government is reflected by those in the parliamentary domain who engage in scrutiny. Ironically, in almost every case in which controversy has arisen, information was leaked into the public domain not by the Government, but often by aggrieved manufacturers with an interest in seeing the matter go forward.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ochil noted that through the Intelligence and Security Committee, we already entrust parliamentary colleagues to examine some of the most detailed and secret aspects of Government activity. We could replicate that level of trust by allowing a Committee of trusted Members of both Houses to engage in prior scrutiny. Confidentiality is not a problem that need detain us.

8 Nov 2001 : Column 438

Delay is another issue that has been mentioned. I know from experience that when the Labour Government came to power in 1997, we were faced with an enormous backlog of licensing decisions from the previous Government, who had under-resourced that system which, to be brutally honest, may have operated a little more cavalierly in the near past. The strong improvement that the Labour Government made in the process by tightening controls had a knock-on effect. I pay tribute to those in the various Departments responsible, who faced extraordinary levels of work.

Delays were rarely caused by Ministers, because they would have the relevant paperwork for a relatively short time. I see no reason, either in logic or in the process, why the same time frame would not allow a Select Committee to examine licence applications on their way to the Minister concerned. The problems are not insurmountable and are not a serious limitation on the viability of such scrutiny.

Only a limited number of export licences are genuinely controversial or difficult. They can be difficult for Ministers even if they are not controversial, because they may not be widely known. I know that it would be greatly to the advantage of Ministers, who after all are politicians and represent the political system, to have the advice of trusted and senior colleagues. I have wrestled with such decisions myself and I have known how difficult it is to come to a firm conclusion, sometimes because complex information and uncertainties or unknowns are involved.

In such circumstances, I would have greatly welcomed the opportunity for an exchange of information or an exchange of view with others who also recognised the need for public accountability. The one difference between a Minister and the civil service is that, in the end, a Minister must be prepared to account for every one of those decisions in this place and in the public domain. Parliamentary colleagues understand that, and it is not the role of the civil service to second-guess that job.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to give the matter serious consideration. I do not expect him to come to the Dispatch Box tonight and tell us that there has been a change of thinking. I am aware that the issue must also be considered by various members of the Cabinet. However, the argument will not go away. I am convinced that ultimately there will be prior scrutiny through the parliamentary system. That is desirable, and I believe that it will come. I ask my hon. Friend not to close the Government's mind to the matter, and to tell us that he recognises the force of the arguments that have been heard, which was recognised by the former Foreign Secretary. We must keep the debate firmly open. If it is not opened by the Government, it will be kept open by Members of Parliament.

5.15 pm

Nigel Griffiths: I should like to respond to a number of the points that have been raised. First, I shall deal with the issue of mercenaries. Seeking to control mercenaries would go significantly beyond the scope of the Bill, and it is not our intention to do so. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) has received a response on that matter today from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the lead Department on that issue, and I hope that that will be satisfactory.

8 Nov 2001 : Column 439

My hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) raised a number of points and I shall touch on the most germane of them. Cultural exports and strategic export controls come under the Import, Export and Customs Powers (Defence) Act 1939. As we are replacing that Act, the Bill has to replace its export control powers in full and needs to cover both those categories. We have decided, mainly for reasons of clarity, that the annual report on cultural exports should be separate from the annual report on strategic export controls.

My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) made a powerful speech from the heart, which I commend to hon. Members. Those hon. Members who have not dealt with arms control issues as Ministers—those who have can only ever be a small minority—do not realise the soul-searching and scrutiny that Ministers and civil servants put into the work. That includes those who are making assessments of diverted end use, inquiring into previous use, and going into the real detail of the licences. It is a difficult job, often done under great pressure at all stages.

I am fortunate never to have found myself having time constraints; I have always been able to give due and detailed consideration to the licences. I know, however, that I come in at the end of a long process during which the licences have been scrutinised by colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence. In defence of other Ministers before me, I do not believe that all Ministers took the view of our late colleague Alan Clark. Many Ministers from both parties have taken this issue very seriously.

This gets to the heart of the reasons that the new clauses have been tabled. I have thought seriously about the new clauses, but I urge hon. Members to reject them. We are wrestling with the emotive issue of sending arms to countries that have been the subject of controversy, but which are not the subject of United Nations or European Union embargoes. In some cases, of course, the UK imposes its own embargoes, so we do not rule that out. As hon. Members have hinted, however, this can leave the market open for others with less scrupulous controls than ours to move into it. Those people would also not have a report such as this annual report, which has been commended in Europe as almost a showcase report on how to list the strategic controls and the licences granted. There are important issues here, and they impinge on some of the individual cases that have been raised. I know that my colleagues are aware of that, and I do not want to comment on them further.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill), the distinguished Chairman of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, raised more doubts than I had had about the two regimes that had been commended to me, Sweden and America. I will not add to his comments on Sweden, but in America applications are notified only after a contract has been signed. Here, we advise exporters before they sign a contract as to the likelihood of their getting a licence. That is a useful addition.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, in America only major contracts are covered. Using a telling phrase, he said that it was the small, nasty contracts that could be swept under the table. Certainly, small—possibly not nasty—contracts may require even more scrutiny. They may require

8 Nov 2001 : Column 440

disproportionate—but that should not be taken literally!—scrutiny and other work on the part of those responsible for vetting licences.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. May I gently remind the Minister that he must face the Chair?

Nigel Griffiths: I humbly apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

One of the complexities that caused us to reject the recommendation of the Quadripartite Committee is the fact that we would have to decide what threshold would catch the small, nasty contracts that my hon. Friend said the Americans did not catch. I have served on one of the most senior Select Committees, and I have seen the Clerk scrambling around to secure a quorum for a meeting to quiz top civil servants and others on billion-pound budgets. I fear that some £10,000 contracts that might be seen as controversial could go to what could be seen as a hotspot.

Next Section

IndexHome Page