Export Control Bill

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Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West): I am trying to follow the hon. Gentleman's argument. Is he suggesting that the legislation should be drawn more tightly to ensure that any future Conservative Government could, at some distant point in the future, be prevented from subverting it so as to allow the country to sell arms to countries to which most members of the Committee would not want arms to be sold?

Mr. Page: My point is that a situation could arise in which Labour Members might say, ``Gosh! Golly! Shock, horror! I wish that we had agreed, in that Committee on 19 July 2001, to the affirmative resolution procedure under which changes in criteria could be debated by the House.''

I say to the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) and to the Committee that it may not be a Conservative Administration who arouse concern; it could be another Labour Administration. We have seen this Labour Administration move across the political spectrum like Halley's comet. They may whistle in another direction in their next incarnation.

I endorse what the hon. Member for Twickenham said. We support the amendments, which argue for the affirmative resolution procedure.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): As I am passionate about this element of the Bill, I want to reiterate the argument so that we all understand exactly what we are saying. The amendments are designed to give more power to Parliament so that it can scrutinise the export of arms and so that the onus is not entirely on the Secretary of State. I feel so passionately about that because of our good old friend, sustainable development.

We discussed sustainable development in a previous sitting and we were told that we need not worry since all exports would be subject to the European code of conduct on arms sales. Subsection (4) of the clause on guidance refers to the consolidated criteria and I am reliably informed that they refer to the European code of conduct. Hon. Members can see that if they read the criteria, which are laid out beautifully on page 61, appendix 1 of the House of Commons research paper on the Bill.

Sustainable development would therefore be protected by the Bill, because the guidance says that the consolidated criteria—the European code—will be adhered to and anything to do with sustainable development, human rights or economic development will be considered before arms export licences are granted. However, the guidance also says that a Secretary of State may change the guidance, so a less scrupulous Secretary of State who did not agree with the European code of conduct could conceivably say that the guidance should no longer relate to it. If, heaven forbid, the Opposition ever get into government and if, heaven forbid, we stop being a member of the European Union, they might say that we will no longer adhere to any European code of conduct. If that happened, no matter how far in the future it might be--after all, the last arms control agreement was formulated in 1939—sustainable development would not be considered. Effectively, we would be back to square one because a future Secretary of State had changed the guidance. That is why we feel so strongly about this matter.

Vera Baird (Redcar): I support the openness implicit in amendments Nos. 22 and 24. The Bill is intended to provide openness at each stage, consistent with the speed and efficiency necessary to permit proper exports. I draw the same distinction as the hon. Member for Twickenham between licensing and export criteria. Without parliamentary scrutiny, I, too, fear that a future Secretary of State might use the ability to change guidance in a manner inconsistent with the rationale behind the Bill.

I mean no disrespect to the hon. Gentleman in recalling the proposal discussed during our debate on clause 1 that no Secretary of State should make an order under the Bill without consulting the relevant industrial organisations. That point was soundly made by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) with the intention of giving the defence industry the advantages of access and persuasion. However, that is not possible, as the amendment was resisted. If such access and persuasion are to be available to any future Secretary of State who is considering guidance, their impact must be restricted. Parliament must be able to scrutinise the resulting guidance.

An amendment that we shall come to later would require due regard to be paid to ``commercial confidentiality''. That, too, takes account of the possibility that a future Secretary of State may have a point of view different from that of the present Secretary of State on the preparation of guidance. Such points might conflict with the need to ensure that guidance cannot be corrupted and they make me apprehensive. More parliamentary scrutiny of guidance on export criteria is necessary.

If the amendment were mine, I should not press it to a vote, but I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to reconsider his position and beef up parliamentary scrutiny. [Interruption.] If I have offended anyone by saying ``corrupted'', I apologise for that ill-chosen word. I certainly intended no allegation of mala fides. I heard the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page) rumbling. I hope that he does not rumble any more.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): I, too, have some sympathy with the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Twickenham, but for a slightly different reason. They bear on one of the key failures of the Bill--the failure to provide us with full details of the secondary legislation that lies at the heart of the measure. Sweeping powers are being given to the Government—to any Government; the powers will endure for the time being, if not for another 50 years—and it is our responsibility as parliamentarians to question whether Governments should have such excessive and unfettered powers.

The clause is permissive. The Secretary of State ``may'' issue guidance—it is not imperative that he do so—about the manner in which the licensing function is to be carried out, the reasons that ``may'' be regarded as justifying export licensing decisions and the

    ``matters to which regard ought to be had''.

The provision should not be permissive. It should be mandatory that the Secretary of State issue such guidance, so that everyone knows how the licensing functions are to be carried out, the reasons that underlie the policy and the matters that are to be taken into account—perhaps including sustainable development, as the hon. Member for Richmond Park suggests, although in my view that is not a key criterion. We should know what the ``matters'' are; we ought to know what the framework is.

Subsection (1)(a) is about the manner in which the sweeping licensing powers are to be used under clauses 1, 2, 4, 5 or 6(1). Clause 6(1) says that the

    ``Secretary of State may by order require any persons carrying on activities in relation to which controls are capable of being imposed by an order under any of sections 1 to 5''

to do various things, including keeping records. That could place a huge burden on industry. I am thinking not of companies such as BAE Systems, which is a substantial organisation, but of the many other companies, some small, in the defence industry. We all have such companies in our constituencies; they are an important component of Britain's defence industrial base.

The Bill, the meat of which has not been provided, invites us to give the Government sweeping powers to impose all those conditions on business. The hon. Member for Twickenham takes an interest in business matters, particularly in small businesses. I shall not say that my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire is a small business man, because he is a man of very adequate proportions. I hesitate to say of substantial proportions, but he is a business man. He does not run a huge business empire, but the imposition of more Government regulation could make a big difference to the way in which his business prospers. I remind the Committee that the Bill is not limited to defence equipment, but relates to any conceivable goods, so if we are to go down the road of greater openness in export licensing, the Government ought to be much more explicit with business, industry, commerce and the art world about what their policy on such exports involves.

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Business likes to know the parameters within which it may operate—it likes certainty. Therefore, it is the Committee's duty to look to the future and to imagine how the powers conferred on Ministers when the Bill becomes law will be used in practice and what burdens they might impose on business. Sure enough, business will complain to us if it finds that the legislation is onerous and that we have not investigated it carefully enough at this stage of the legislative process to try to limit its onerous nature.

Aldershot and Richmond Park share some common ground on this issue, although I do not claim that it is middle ground. That might seem to the Minister to be an unholy alliance, although I am sure that it will do more damage to the hon. Member for Richmond Park than to me. None the less, the Government owe it to industry to issue clear guidance so that those engaged in exports—in defence exports, in particular—know the criteria against which their ability to export will be judged.

The notes on clauses refer to internal security. If I were the manufacturer of Land Rovers in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor), I would be concerned about whether I could export to a friendly country given that there is a grey area as regards whether Land Rovers can provide a platform for machine guns and be used for internal repression. I would want to know where I stood.

If we are to go down the route of greater transparency, we should all know what the Government are doing in our name as regards authorising such exports. It is entirely legitimate for the United Kingdom to supply equipment to friendly Governments with whom it enjoys good relations to assist them to maintain order—that is entirely honourable.

As members of the Committee might know, I made what I hope was an impassioned plea on Second Reading for defence exports to be regarded as wholly honourable in principle. It is entirely honourable for this country, with its expertise in defence, to provide those of its friends who could be subject to threat with defence equipment so that they can defend themselves. Had we been able to provide Kuwait with more Hawk aircraft or more defensive equipment, it would not have been such a pushover for Iraq. I therefore have no qualms about championing the moral case for defence exports from this country. I understand that others do not agree, but they will have to answer for their views to the defence industries in their constituencies. I am happy to answer to those in mine for my views.

This is a matter of legitimate debate in this country, so the Government should be clear about which criteria they are applying and give adequate guidance to industry to enable it to have a degree of certainty about what it may do. I realise that circumstances change. This country might be dealing with a friendly Government with whom it has had enduring relations over many years--perhaps for decades or centuries--but as a result of a coup or other change, an unacceptable Government could take their place. Alternatively, in a situation such as that in Zimbabwe, someone regarded as acceptable could become beyond the pale and we would have to adjust our licensing arrangements accordingly.

For those reasons, the Secretary of State should be obliged to issue guidance. If such guidance is given, any changes to it should be laid before Parliament in the way proposed in the amendment. Therefore, I am pleased to support amendment No. 24.

 
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