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Session 2001- 02
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Standing Committee Debates
Export Control Bill

Export Control Bill

Standing Committee B

Thursday 19 July 2001

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Export Control Bill

Clause 8

Guidance

9.30 am

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): I beg to move amendment No. 20, in page 5, line 31, leave out `falling to be'.

This is the first of a series of amendments to clause 8 that relate to the procedures governing the guidance. The underlying principle of the debate is the assiduity with which parliamentary scrutiny is protected in law. That takes me back to the Scott report, which told how some particularly nasty equipment fell into the hands of a pernicious dictator. It was about more than that: it was about decision making and the culture of secrecy in Whitehall, and the lack of accountability and parliamentary scrutiny. We must ask whether the legislation does justice to Scott's evaluation.

The Committee was put together hurriedly, and most of its members have not yet read the voluminous background literature. The Scott report is hefty, and so is the Quadripartite Committee's report and the evidence given to it. That might explain why Labour Members have been quiet so far. They should ask what would happen under a future Government who do not share the concerns of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths). What would happen if that Government were not willing to give Parliament the benefit of the doubt, and did not have idealistic concerns about passing on weapons technology? Do we have sufficient safeguards against a repetition of the arms to Iraq scandal? Labour Members should brood on whether the Minister's reassurances are sufficient, or whether the legislation should be toughened up.

Guidance is a technical term of art, but it is the lowest form of pond life, and offers almost no opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny. Guidance allows Ministers to inform Parliament of intended changes. That is expressed in clause 8(3) in the magisterial phrase,

    ``guidance . . . shall be laid before Parliament and published in such a manner as the Secretary of State may think fit.''

The Secretary of State may not see fit to tell Parliament anything, or at least not much, and not punctually. The phrase is open to enormous abuse, so we must clarify the purposes of guidance.

In any common-sense approach to the Bill, some aspects of arms export control must be subject to perfunctory treatment in guidance. Many mechanical, technical and bureaucratic processes should be dealt with in that way: there is no reason for Parliament to brood over every minor technical change in export control. Worryingly, however, the Bill suggests that guidance may govern more than just such details.

Subsections (1) and (2) refer to licensing—in other words, to technical detail. That proves no problem. Subsection (4), however, mentions export criteria. That worries us because that phrase has far-reaching policy implications. I hope that the Minister will say explicitly what that phrase means. What are export criteria and what do they govern?

I have put that point as sharply as I can to produce both debate and clarity on the matter. Our understanding of export criteria is that they could include major changes to the export control system. For example, they could include changes to the European code of conduct, which was one of the Government's big innovations that introduced far-reaching controls on the export process. I would remind members of the Committee that the EU code of conduct has incorporated into the arms control regime such factors as respect for human rights in the country of final destination; the internal situation of the country; and the problems associated with end use, which the Minister assured me about on Tuesday.

My understanding is that the EU code of conduct could be changed by guidance. Therefore, export criteria—big issues of policy within the code of conduct and elsewhere—could be changed merely by the issuing of guidance. The code of conduct currently has the force of law, and it can be changed only with parliamentary approval, but it would lost that protection if it could be modified in guidance. We need a clear explanation from the Minister about what comes within the category of export criteria. We must be convinced that big policy issues—strategic decisions about export controls—cannot be abused as I have described, even by an ingenious Minister who is anxious to get round the controls. It is important that we have that assurance.

It would be desirable to modify the legislation to protect ourselves. We have suggested amendments that would steer us towards that end. The first would split the categories into two. The legislation is currently fine for mechanical guidance, but export criteria should be governed by the affirmative procedure. This House and the other place should separately approve any change. I remind members of the Committee that in his report Scott was anxious that the affirmative procedure should be embedded in the legislation. Active parliamentary participation in and scrutiny of the decision making process are necessary to end the secrecy culture. If we are faithful to the spirit of the Scott report, the Government should have no problem accepting that affirmative procedures should be adopted on export criteria. Therefore, we have split the process and distinguished between guidance, which should operate mechanically, and export criteria, which should be governed by the affirmative procedure in this House and the other place. That should not present a problem for the Government, but the Minister must tell us if it does.

The second safeguard would put some beef into the phrase in the clause that provides that the Minister may inform the House at his own discretion. We want to beef that up by introducing a time limit. If the Minister issues guidance, even limited guidance, that should be done within a specific time frame—governed by a ticking clock—and not years after the event. That is a minor change, but it introduces some discipline into the process of legislative scrutiny, and puts a little meat on the bones of the issuance of guidance.

We hope that the Minister and his colleagues will see fit to make those changes. They are not far-reaching, and we believe that they are in the spirit of the Scott report and the all-party consensus on the Quadripartite Committee.

The Chairman: May I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are discussing amendment No. 20? He has touched on amendments Nos. 21, 22, 23 and 24.

Dr. Cable: I apologise, Mr. Benton.

The Chairman: For the sake of progress and to save time, it seems to me that those amendments can be taken together if the hon. Gentleman is happy with that.

Dr. Cable: I am. They hang together and it would be sensible to consider them together.

The Chairman: Therefore, with amendment No. 20 it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 21, in page 5, line 38, leave out ``under this section'' and insert

    ``under subsection (1) or (2).''

No. 22, page 5, line 39, leave out

    ``in such manner as the Secretary of State may think fit''

and insert

    ``within 28 days of issuance.''

No. 23, page 5, line 44, leave out ``or 2'' and insert ``2, 4 or 5''.

No. 24, page 5, line 46, at end add—

    ``(5) Any change to the guidance referred to in subsection (4) which alters that criteria relating to export licensing decisions shall not be made unless a draft of it has been laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.

    (6) any change to the guidance referred to in subsection (4) which does not alter the criteria relating to export licensing decisions shall be laid before Parliament and published within 40 days of issuance.''.

Mr. Bob Laxton (Derby, North): The hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) made the unfortunate assumption that Labour Back Benchers may not be aware of the details and ramifications of the Scott report. Although that report was published before I came to this place, I have read it, and I sat on the Select Committee for Trade and Industry, which produced a report on strategic export controls. I have also, from time to time, sat on the procedurally rather tedious Quadripartite Committee, which lasted a considerable time but gave me detailed knowledge of the subject, although I would never claim to be an expert. The same applies to many of my Back-Bench colleagues. The hon. Member for Twickenham was rash to make assumptions about a lack of knowledge on this side of the Committee.

Mr. Richard Page (South-West Hertfordshire): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Twickenham for agreeing to consider these amendments together rather than separately. They hang together and paint a continuous picture. The hon. Gentleman outlined the Bill's raison d'etre—the efficiency of the parliamentary scrutiny of the whole export control system. That is why we are here today, and amen to that.

I shall not expand on the hon. Gentleman's arguments to any great extent. The proposal treats the licensing process and the export criteria as equal. That is fine, provided that there are no dramatic changes and only minor alterations. The Bill provides that changes to the guidance

    ``shall be laid before Parliament and published in such a manner as the Secretary of State sees fit.''

My remarks are addressed specifically to Labour Members. We are creating legislation that we hope will endure for a long time, so why should we be concerned about the existing situation? The reason is that we all know that changing primary legislation in the House takes an inordinate amount of time. The pressure to get legislation on the timetable and in the queue for introduction is enormous.

9.45 am

I put it to Labour Members that we must pass legislation that endures. The Government have a small majority that enables them to do as they wish, which I freely accept, but as surely as night follows day, the wheel will turn and the Government's position will not last. Therefore, the legislation that we pass must stand the test of time.

 
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Prepared 19 July 2001