Export Control Bill

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Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West): I was fascinated by the lengthy peroration by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), most of which did not relate to the matter under debate. He discussed clause 6 and an alteration to the first line of clause 8, neither of which is among the amendments before us.

I am not as pessimistic as others who have spoken and I see the issue differently: if the Secretary of State wanted to tighten export controls, he or she could do so more easily. The object of some amendments is to fetter the power of the Secretary of State. The tone of the discussion suggests that, were that power to be fettered and when the wheel has turned, a Secretary of State could make it easier to export. However, in certain circumstances covered by the Bill, future Governments might want to make it harder to export not only arms, but objects of cultural interest, which have frequently been overlooked in the debate.

We can all recall instances of a proposal that an object of cultural interest be exported resulting in a lot of people in the arts establishment and the Government getting in a panic about a worthy piece of art that nobody had thought about before. If the discretion of the Secretary of State were fettered too much, which is what these amendments would do, that might have an adverse impact unintended by those proposing the amendments.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Nigel Griffiths): We have learned the lessons of the past decade and a half in terms of lax licensing controls. For that reason, affirmative procedures have been adopted in key areas of the Bill. I do not believe in a ``one size fits all'' approach to legislation. I shall explain why I think the clause appropriate and why the amendments are, by and large, unnecessary. I do not have to remind the Committee that there was no clause 8 on guidance in the draft Bill. We have introduced it to be as clear as possible.

We particularly want to emphasise the status and importance of the criteria for considering licensing decisions and I agree with some telling points made by the hon. Member for Aldershot. There must be as much certainty as possible for manufacturers just as the public and those who do not support any arms exports must know the criteria so that they can make equal representations to him or any other hon. Member.

We agree that we are striving to be both clear and practical in the guidance and flexible, not so anyone can duck below the bar, but so that we can account for the many and varied factors in an uncertain international environment. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), I am not as pessimistic as some about the future actions of any Government. Lessons have been learned on both sides of the House. Perhaps we are sadder and wiser for that, but some of us are angrier, and rightly so. We drafted clause 8 on guidance in that spirit.

Before I go into the detail merited by the points raised by hon. Members, I shall talk about the overarching principle of future Governments' actions. We have signed up to the European Union code of conduct and will not withdraw from it. Hon. Members have expressed concerns about the views that future Governments might take. Of course, I cannot speak for those Governments, whatever their complexion, but it is unlikely that any Government would seek to withdraw from the EU code of conduct while the United Kingdom remained a member of the EU.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: Will the Minister give way? [Laughter.]

Nigel Griffiths: Certainly.

Mr. Howarth: I am sorry to disappoint the Committee; my question is nothing to do with Britain's membership of the EU.

A key point on Europe and defence exports is the degree to which others play the game. We are known to be unusual because we play cricket, perhaps not always very well. The French do not play cricket, and nor do the Germans. Can the Minister envisage a situation in which other European countries flout the regulations to the extent that Britain and its industry might feel hugely disadvantaged, so much so that it ought to secede from the arrangements on European arms exports control?

Nigel Griffiths: When I am presented with any evidence of flouting of the EU code, I will want to take it on at a ministerial level with my counterparts in the EU. That is the way to deal with any alleged flouting or contravention of the EU code by other countries. The code has been signed up to by all the Governments who share the aim of ensuring that arms do not get into the hands of regimes subject to international or EU embargoes and, in our case, embargoes laid down by the UK.

Mr. Howarth: Industry will tell the Minister that it is not always possible to give chapter and verse on such questions. That is my experience of international banking, from before I entered the House, and it is a source of frustration in the industry.

We operate a policy of not exporting combat aircraft to Taiwan. The Americans and French do it, and I do not know whether it comes within the EU code of practice. However, I should like the Minister to examine the issue, because Britain has a self-denying ordinance on the matter, but the French do not.

10.15 am

Nigel Griffiths: The hon. Gentleman makes a point about a specific case—it may even be a constituency matter—and I have made no secret of the Government's policy of imposing, when they think it right, unilateral arms restrictions. That policy is now in the public domain, and will be enshrined in statute if the Bill is passed. The current practice is the subject of public debate and discussion, but it is not under consideration in the amendments before us today.

The amendments are about the Secretary of State placing guidance before Parliament, and about the publication of that guidance. Amendment No. 24 would require parliamentary approval for any guidance issued under clause 8(4). It would add two new subsections to the clause. New subsection (5) would require any changes to guidance in relation to the criteria to be subject to approval along the lines of the draft affirmative resolution procedure. New subsection (6) would involve the negative resolution procedure for any guidance that brought about no change in the criteria. Amendment No. 21 would require any guidance issued under subsections (1) and (2) only to be laid before Parliament and published.

The effect of amendment No. 24 would be to introduce parliamentary approval for matters that are not legislative, but which represent policy that is normally determined by international agreements and discussions in which the Government participate. Yet the underlying concept is increased accountability, and the Government certainly want the Bill—by different means—to create that.

The guidance referred to in clause 8(4) and elsewhere in clause 8 is guidance about announced policy, and about the way in which existing or future obligations concerning licensing decisions should best be carried out in furtherance of agreed policy. The consolidated criteria in themselves count as guidance, as is made clear in clause 8(4). Changes to the criteria, particularly those parts that give effect to the EU criteria, would be based on agreement with our European partners in the context of the common foreign and security policy, under title V of the treaty on European union, and would be subject to scrutiny by both Houses in the usual way. If there were to be changes to the criteria, the Government would announce them, and it would be for Parliament or parliamentary Committees to consider any changes in the usual way. Of course the Quadripartite Committee would have a role in scrutinising any changes with Ministers. Any other guidance issued under clause 8 could also be subject to parliamentary consideration in that way.

Those are matters concerning Government policy, and largely as agreed within the EU and in the context of the international control regimes. They are not changes in secondary legislation, which would of course justify a formal procedure for parliamentary approval.

Amendment No. 21 would have the effect that the consolidated criteria and any other published guidance falling into the categories described in subsection (4) would not need to be laid before Parliament or published. That is because it limits the guidance that may be laid before Parliament and published to that issued under subsections (1) and (2) only. However, as amendment No. 24 proposes a specific and new treatment of guidance referred to in subsection (4), amendment No. 21 would appear to be consequential on that.

The important underlying concept of accountability is raised. Amendment No. 24 is intended to achieve that by formal parliamentary procedures. The Government consider such procedures in this case to be inappropriate for the reasons already mentioned. I therefore invite the hon. Member for Twickenham not to press that amendment.

We will give consideration to the question of accountability and how it is reflected in the Bill as it stands. I hope that that reassurance will persuade the hon. Gentleman that we are serious about greater accountability and greater transparency.

Amendment No. 22 appears to be intended to require any guidance issued under clause 8 to be laid before Parliament and published within 28 days of being issued. It is already common practice for the Secretary of State to lay before Parliament and publish guidance of the sort described in clause 8. For example, in October 2000 we laid before Parliament and published the consolidated criteria. The current text already obliges the Secretary of State to lay guidance issued under the clause before Parliament and to publish it, and I cannot see the need to specify a particular timetable, let alone a limit of 28 days. The vigilance of members of the Committee and other hon. Members will ensure that the Secretary of State is accountable for the length of time that she takes to make a decision.

Where guidance is issued under the clause, we consider it vital that it be disseminated to industry and other parties as soon as possible. Indeed, it is likely that we would place a copy of any issued guidance in the Libraries of both Houses on the day that the guidance was issued. That is why we consider amendment No. 22 to be unnecessary; I invite the hon. Gentleman to withdraw it.

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Prepared 19 July 2001