Export Control Bill

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Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North): May I posit the possibility that arms manufacturers might sometimes be ruthless, hardnosed and uncaring? Would not the amendment give their lawyers the opportunity to drive a coach and horses through any export control? They could claim that a relevant industrial organisation had not been consulted and that they could therefore challenge any legitimate use of the export control. The Government would have to consult with the most improbable organisations in case there was a challenge.

Mr. Page: The hon. Gentleman raises a valid point, but provisions for such a consultation process have been written into Bills that have been enacted and are, therefore, possible. I freely admitted that the amendment was not a polished jewel, and I would not want members of the Committee to pick it apart on the basis of its literal sense. The Minister will no doubt do that and try quite adequately to destroy it. However, the principle behind my argument reflects what industries are saying, and I am talking not only about defence industries. Subsection (1) relates to goods of any description. We are an exporting nation, and the provision could apply to anything, including foods and medicine.

Mr. Gray: Does my hon. Friend agree that the answer to the point raised by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge) is that subsection (1) refers not to particular export licences, but to the Secretary of State's ability to make provision for their introduction? It would therefore be perfectly reasonable to consult the relevant industrial organisations before such provision was made in secondary legislation. We are talking about statutory instruments, not licences.

Mr. Page: My hon. Friend is right. I was trying to answer the specific concerns of the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North, but my hon. Friend has given the broader view, which is correct.

We are an exporting nation, and subsection (1) refers to goods of any description. A provision should therefore be inserted in the Bill to compel direct consultation. There is a useful and powerful section of the DTI that deals with trade associations. It is absolutely right that when an order is being considered, a relevant trade association should be consulted. That is what we want to achieve through the amendment.

The amendment will also ensure that the assurances given to the House during consideration of the draft Bill last spring are translated into reality. So much of the Bill's importance hangs on the content of the orders to be made by the Secretary of State. It would be invidious of the Government to resist the amendment, unless the Ministers wish to obstruct their declared aims. I would like the Minister to say that the amendment is not well drafted, but that he will ask for it to be withdrawn and will produce his own polished jewel of an amendment on Report.

Nigel Griffiths: I have studied the seven words in the amendment with great care, and despite digging deep into my lexicography I cannot find seven other words, or indeed any other words, that would make the amendment sensible or practical. The hon. Gentleman showed great wisdom in limiting his bet to 10p. I am not a betting person—I am one of the probably very few people who have stayed in Las Vegas without betting a cent. However, it is not just a question of whether the amendment is necessary.

I thank the hon. Member for Aldershot for his perceptive description of the consultation that has taken place so far, and which industry has valued. I am sure that he has given the industry some wise advice on that. We have a commitment to making consultation a key part of the legislative process. Members will remember that the Bill was published in draft form in March and that, before that, in 1998, the consultation paper was the subject of comments from a wide range of valued contributors, from industry through to non-governmental organisations and others. The draft Bill was the subject of full, public consultations. Comments have been made by the Quadripartite Committee and the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee in another place.

I can assure the Committee that when draft orders are submitted to Parliament and published, they will be made available to the Committee as soon as possible, and certainly before it scrutinises clauses 2, 4, 7, 10 and 15. We welcome comments from all interested parties on the orders. The Government's record on consultation is already good. The care that we have taken to consult industry throughout has been reflected in the comments that we have received. The DTI and others have a valuable on-going dialogue with industry on the operation of our controls, and there is a joint working group with the CBI that examines a range of issues, including forthcoming legislation.

Mr. Gray: If indeed the Minister's record of consultation with the industry is as good as he describes, what could possibly be wrong with accepting the amendment? It would simply oblige the Government to do what they claim to be doing already.

Nigel Griffiths: Accepting the amendment would have a number of unfortunate consequences. Most important, European Community law on export control often takes direct effect in the United Kingdom. Although the UK may sometimes need to make orders to implement such law—for example, to set out the enforcement provisions—it would mislead industry and make a pretence of the consultation process if the Government were obliged to consult on orders that implement legislation on which there is no room for change. In addition, we must take account of our obligations to other international bodies as quickly as may be, which would not necessarily allow consultation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North made a good point about the wording, but it would be difficult to find a wording to which his comments about culture and who should be consulted did not apply. The amendment would require my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to consult industrial organisations about the process of drawing up an order concerning objects of cultural interest—including items of historic or scientific interest—and that would not be appropriate. For all those reasons, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be willing to withdraw the amendment.

11.45 am

Mr. Gerald Howarth: We have had an interesting debate. I shall not disappoint the hon. Member for Richmond Park. I am unashamedly supportive of the military in this country. It is one of the few institutions that commands continuing respect throughout the nation and I am proud to represent the home of the British Army. If that is the kind of brigade that I represent, perhaps the hon. Lady will be happy to represent the bleeding heart brigade as the Committee's spokesman for NGOs. Despite my trenchant remarks about her, the hon. Lady and I are perfectly amicable outside the Chamber and the Committee Room. I think that the profound political disagreements that exist are extremely healthy.

Dr. Starkey: Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that the interests of the military are always wholly at variance with those of NGOs? For example, does not he accept that in conflict prevention the interests of many NGOs and the military tend in the same direction?

Mr. Howarth: I entirely agree, and military personnel at Aldershot who have been involved in conflict zones, with whom I have discussed such matters, have been only too anxious to work with NGOs. The reservations of the military concern the extent to which their role is that of peacekeepers as opposed to peace enforcers. However, that is a matter for another debate.

The Chairman: Order. May we kindly return to the amendment?

Mr. Howarth: Indeed, Mr. Benton. I had anticipated that you might intervene, but was unable to prevent it. You are right to bring me back to the point.

The hon. Member for Richmond Park suggested that the amendment was intended to provide advantage to defence industries. She spoke with near contempt for those industries. People should know about her attitude—particularly those Hampshire people who are represented by a Liberal Democrat. They should know that that is what the Liberal Democrats think. They have contempt for our defence industries, which are hugely successful. Defence exports run at £5 billion a year. The arguments for defence exports were well rehearsed on Second Reading and I do not intend to rerun them now. However, I think that people in the Hampshire constituencies that are currently represented by Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament will be interested to know that at least one hon. Member from that party has such a disparaging attitude to our defence industries.

Dr. Tonge: The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that I have no contempt for defence industries, but that I frequently wonder aloud why they receive such special treatment from Government. I do not see why they should, and in the present context I see no reason to give them prior consultation with priority over the other organisations concerned.

Mr. Howarth: I am sure that the Committee is in agreement with the hon. Lady. However, when I wounded my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire, my purpose was to show that we did not want to restrict the amendment to the defence industries, and that we were interested in broadening its scope. That is why my hon. Friend was able to say that he acknowledged that a little polishing here or there would be advantageous. He especially mentioned the food and pharmaceutical industries, which could be covered by the Bill in due course. We have acknowledged the need to consult them. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West made a valid point about cultural matters. There is no question of special treatment for the defence industry, but the Bill is principally geared towards defence exports. We do not want to give defence special advantages, but want to point out that it plays an important role in the Bill and that consultation with those who speak on its behalf is important, as the Minister acknowledged.

I was disappointed that the Minister did not rise to the bet offered by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire, but he made some interesting points. He said that unfortunate consequences could arise if the amendment were made, citing one on European Community law about which the wider public should be aware. He said that, in many cases, European law has immediate effect and we have no power to amend it. People who are not accountable to the British public could enact a European law on artistic or defence exports. Any United Kingdom Government and Parliament would be powerless to change such a law, so the Minister cannot give any guarantee to be able to consult. The British people, Government and Parliament would be presented with a fait accompli that they would have no power to change. That was a serious admission for him to make, and on that basis I feel that the matter should be considered on the Floor of the House.

 
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