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6.17 pm

Nigel Griffiths: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I thank hon. Members for the important contributions they have made to this vital Bill, not only on Report but on Second Reading and in Committee. Those who have

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participated in the debates have provided thorough and useful scrutiny of the Bill's provisions—indeed, so useful has the scrutiny been that it has informed the amendments that have just been made.

The Bill is the result of years of intensive work. Current export control powers were introduced more than 60 years ago. I shall outline the main advances shortly. The Bill is the product of an open and consultative approach, which I have every intention of continuing. The events of 11 September mean that there is now an even greater need for new controls on arms to be passed by Parliament. While work continues on new emergency legislation in the wake of events in America, the Bill plays an important part in strengthening and modernising the powers available to us to control the arms trade.

Whatever the technical details, we should never lose sight of the bigger picture, especially the humanitarian objective. The Bill is about controls on lethal weapons. There is, regrettably, too much evidence of what such weapons can do, which is why we are working with like-minded nations to reinforce and extend international counter-proliferation efforts. The Bill will make a significant contribution to that work.

One of the most important improvements is that the Bill provides for proper parliamentary scrutiny of secondary legislation. As well as negative resolution procedures, the Bill provides for both draft and delayed affirmative resolution procedures. It is worth remembering that the Act it will replace makes no provision at all for parliamentary scrutiny.

As well as replacing existing powers to control exports, the Bill will modernise our controls and provide powers to control the electronic transfer of relevant technology. It is essential that the controls that apply to exports should apply also to technology that may be communicated by telephone, fax or e-mail. The House will welcome the new power to allow the Government to bring controls on military technology into line with those on dual-use technology.

An equal welcome has been given to the new power to control the provision of technical assistance overseas. We intend to use the power to implement the EU joint action, which relates to controls on technical assistance.

Yet another widely welcomed measure allows us to control trafficking and brokering in arms. For the first time, the UK Government will have a comprehensive power that will allow them to introduce controls on UK involvement in trade between overseas countries in goods that are subject to export controls.

These measures will allow us to prohibit UK involvement in the illicit supply of weapons to regions of conflict. We all have a vested interest in ensuring that UK arms manufacturers that are at pains to comply with our export controls regime are not undermined by unscrupulous foreign agents and foreign companies. That is why the Government will continue to press for action to be taken at an international level.

We shall continue to press for international embargoes to be imposed on countries and regions of conflict. That is the best way to stop the supply of arms to those regions. We have supported, and we shall continue to support, efforts within the EU to secure a political commitment from all member states to introduce controls on arms trafficking and brokering. I am advised that such a commitment is imminent.

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The Bill will also ensure greater transparency in decision making by setting out in the schedule the purposes for which export controls may be imposed. It will therefore be clear to all concerned exactly what the statutory parameters for imposing controls are. The Bill also provides for the publication of guidance about licensing decisions, and requires such guidance to be taken into account in licensing decisions.

The major improvement in transparency is backed for the first time by a statutory requirement on Government to produce annual reports on strategic export controls, and a separate annual report on items of cultural interest. The NGO Saferworld has said of our annual reports on strategic export controls that they

The annual reports are instrumental in enabling the Government to be held to account for their decisions. It is right that future Governments will be required to continue to report to Parliament annually.

There is no question but that the Bill will transform the UK's export control regime. It provides a new framework that allows for the introduction of an effective and comprehensive new set of export controls. I commend the Bill to the House.

6.22 pm

Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford): It has been a long haul to get where we are today. The Minister rightly paid tribute to the many Members who have contributed to the Bill's evolution, not least the members of the four Select Committees that came together to form the Quadripartite Committee.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) and my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page)—they have not contributed to our debates today—for the work that they did on the Bill before they were substituted at half time, as it were, by me and my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key).

The Bill has had the longest gestation period of almost any Bill in recent years. The Scott report, which gave rise to the Bill, was published in February 1996, five and a half years ago. The Conservative Government accepted the report's recommendations and immediately issued a consultation document. The Labour party's manifesto in 1997 gave a firm pledge to take action. That was followed by the publication of the White Paper in 1998. Yet after that the Government sat on their hands, so it has taken three years for the Bill finally to be introduced. That is all the more remarkable given the fulminations of the current Leader of the House back in 1996 at the time of the Scott report. Yet when he was in a position to influence the timing of legislation, he and the Government allowed the matter to drift disgracefully.

Even now, we are merely at the end of the beginning. There can be little doubt, especially after this afternoon's debate, that there is still a great deal more work to be done when the Bill is considered in another place. Nevertheless, I do not wish to be too churlish; I recognise that the Bill will bring transparency and openness, which were previously lacking, and I welcome that. It deals with difficult questions.

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Although the control of the export of goods related to armaments is clearly important, it is not always easy. I shall provide a brief illustration. A few years ago, when I was working for the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, I accompanied her on a regional visit. We were returning to London from a Royal Air Force station, and had to wait for a short period while the plane was being prepared. The commanding officer of the station asked if we would be interested in seeing something, and took us to a disused hangar on the periphery of the base, where there were a large number of steel cylinders. They were in fact the Iraqi supergun but, even after I was told, that was not obvious. They may still be there for all I know.

Opposition Members welcome the Bill, but our welcome is qualified. As happens all too often, the Government have decided that most of the legislative detail will be left to secondary legislation, of which we have seen only draft orders at a late stage during discussion of the Bill. It will be difficult to judge the Bill's impact on British industry and commerce until we see those orders, which will be published after the Bill has become law. That is a bad principle for any Government to follow.

On Second Reading on 9 July, we made it clear that we believe that the Import, Export and Customs Powers (Defence) Act 1939 is inadequate, inappropriate and ripe for revision. However, what we have in its place is effectively no more than an enabling measure. Neither the Government nor British industry or its customers know precisely how the Bill will work. The Quadripartite Committee, which brought together the Defence Committee and the Select Committees on Foreign Affairs, on International Development and on Trade and Industry, recommended that the Government publish draft secondary legislation before Second Reading. In the event, the dummy orders, four of them stretching to nearly sixty pages, were first seen by members of the Standing Committee when they were published in October, halfway through their deliberations. That is a travesty of which the Government have every reason to be ashamed.

At the heart of the Bill lies the schedule which, for the first time, sets out in statute the purposes for which the Government can impose export controls. That brings welcome additional transparency, but the Bill also allows the Government to change the schedule simply by order without the need for further primary legislation. What is more, the Government can override the provisions of the schedule and impose export controls outside those provisions, again simply by means of secondary legislation. That was rightly criticised by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee of the other place.

In their consultation document on the Bill, the Government used weasel words:

For those unfamiliar with the workings of this place, that may well sound a sensible compromise. But as anyone who works here knows, it is not the reality of the situation. Parliament does not decide whether to debate a negative resolution: the Government do. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells said on Second Reading,

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We have rightly spent time this afternoon seeking to persuade the Government to change their mind. Lord Scott made it plain in his evidence to the Quadripartite Committee that he would prefer the affirmative resolution procedure to be used. The negative resolution procedure is not necessarily restricted to technical and uncontroversial orders, as the Government have tried to claim. Some of the orders that have already been laid before Parliament raise issues deserving examination. Yet at every turn, the Government have sought to resist the greater involvement of Parliament in a way that those concerned with improving the accountability of Ministers and the scrutiny of Government decisions will find difficult to understand.

When the dummy orders finally arrived on the desks of the members of the Standing Committee and were taken off the internet by British industry, the Government tried to justify their methods in the accompanying notes published at the time. The Government claimed that the export control provisions of the dummy orders represented a consolidation and a rationalisation of controls that were already in force; that the operation and enforcement of certain controls on the electronic transfer of dual-use technology were already contained in statutory instruments; that the dummy order includes provisions on the purpose for which information held by the Secretary of State may be disclosed; and that the new legislation simply codified existing practice.

The dummy orders increased the maximum penalty from seven years to 10 years, both under our national legislation and for offences under directly applicable European Community legislation. These are not matters of technicality. They raise hugely significant issues, yet the House is expected to believe that they will be dealt with adequately by statutory instruments and a short debate Upstairs.

One of the other main issues that has occupied our attention this afternoon has been the strange omission from the Bill of any reference to sustainable development. As has already been pointed out, in the consultation paper on the draft legislation, which was published in March this year, the schedule to the draft Bill contained in the table a section headed "Sustainable Development", which made it clear that the Government intended to take into consideration in granting licences a serious adverse effect on the economy of any country, or the potential for sustainable economic development in a country.

In the first paragraph of her speech on Second Reading, the Secretary of State said:

Yet that is precisely what the Bill is not about, as the references in the draft Bill were subsequently removed. That absence from the Bill has caused concern to a number of NGOs and to a large number of hon. Members in all parts of the House, as has been evident this afternoon.

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