Export Control Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Gerald Howarth: May I suggest that the Aldershot test in such circumstances would definitely be for mandatory export?

Dr. Cable: That is very helpful, but it might not be helpful to the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West who would, I am sure, want to preserve it for the nation.

Rob Marris: It would not be a work of art; it would be an object of cultural interest, but I would not find it an object of cultural interest.

Dr. Cable: We have enjoyed a light diversion, but there is an important point behind it. How would such a case, albeit an exotic one, be dealt with? My understanding is that under the Bill, the Government would have temporary powers and the matter could then be referred to Parliament. They would not be obstructed by the changes that we are considering.

I was intrigued that the Minister did not, in his answer, use any arguments that Ministers have previously employed in trying to justify lack of affirmative action. Affirmative action has repeatedly been considered in the responses to the Green Paper, the White Paper and the draft Bill and by the Quadripartite Committee. On those occasions, Ministers repeatedly argued that they did not want to impose too much of a burden on Parliamentary business, in saying that they did not want an affirmative approval process. The Minister did not use that argument today, so I hope that he has absorbed the response that parliamentarians gave to that ministerial excuse: that Parliament is the best judge of how to use its own time. I note that the Minister has advanced a little way beyond the arguments that the Government have given in the past for refusing to allow an affirmative approval process.

I heard a very helpful phrase in the Minister's comments: that the Government are ``giving approval'' to accountability. I interpret that present participle as active, meaning that the Government are currently thinking about how to improve accountability in the Bill. Perhaps on Report there will be a slightly different text. I hope that my optimistic interpretation is correct and that the Government are still thinking about the matter and might come back with better drafting that will meet many of our concerns.

Given that we have had a good cross-party consensus about some of the matters that we have discussed, I do not see any advantage in pressing the amendment. I hope that when we reach the next stage of parliamentary deliberation there will be some Government amendments to meet my concerns. In that spirit, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Chairman, being of the opinion that the principle of the clause and any matters arising thereon had been adequately discussed in the course of debate on the amendments proposed thereto, forthwith put the Question, pursuant to Standing Orders Nos. 68 and 89, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Question agreed to.

Clause 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 9

Annual reports

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North): I beg to move amendment No. 5, in page 6, line 2, leave out

    ``as soon as practicable after the end of 2002''

and insert

    ``within seven months after the end of 2001''.

The amendment is one of the less important of those that I tabled to this clause, so I shall not press it. However, I appeal to the Government to show good faith in the matter and deal with reports expeditiously. More widely, I hope that they will show flexibility and openness in considering amendments to the Bill. Whether on clause 9 or other parts of the Bill, I hope that the Government intend to look carefully at the possibility of permitting prior scrutiny. That was recommended by the Quadripartite Committee, and was fully expanded on on Second Reading. It is done in other legislatures, and I know that the Secretary of State has promised various hon. Members that she will consider the matter. I ask the Minister to look at my suggestion sympathetically, and I hope that it will be debated on Report.

Nigel Griffiths: I am at one with my hon. Friend in wanting to ensure the timely publication of annual reports. We can be proud of our annual reports. We have opened up export licensing to an unprecedented degree. I welcome his constructive comments and his intimation that he intends to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Savidge: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

10.45 am

Mr. Page: I beg to move amendment No. 43, in page 6, line 4, after `6(1)', insert

    `with due care towards commercial confidentiality'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 44, in page 6, line 4, after `6(1)', insert

    `which would include the work of Export Licensing'.

Mr. Page: I move the amendment with a degree of temerity, bearing in mind that the hon. Member for Twickenham said that the quality of debate was going up as time advanced. However, I am encouraged to proceed by the fact that he then destroyed his whole argument by referring to the possibility of Liberal Democrat Ministers. I realise that I have given the Minister a stick with which he can beat me when he responds to the amendments.

I should be very surprised if the Minister agreed to include amendment No. 43 in the Bill, and I do not want to see it there. Its purpose is to give him the opportunity to flesh out the editorial instructions and guidelines that will underlie the drafting of the annual report.

The annual report has been generally welcomed on all sides as something that can make the processes by which decisions on exports and export controls are taken much more readily available and accessible, so that people can see what is going on. I am a great believer in more openness and accountability. The hon. Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) may regard that as a form of corruption, but I do not. I should like as many people as possible to see as much as possible of what is going on.

However, we must be slightly careful. In its report, the Quadripartite Committee said:

    ``we see no harm in putting the Annual Report on a statutory basis''.

It is most important that it should be so. Only recently, the Government announced that they were going to produce an annual report, then scrapped it because it was getting too complicated and troublesome. I therefore welcome the fact that the annual report will be produced on a statutory basis.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): Before my hon. Friend moves on from his point about annual reports that do not occur, does he recall that when we were in office we produced two annual reports on the environment and on the countryside, which carefully examined how far the Government had progressed down those tracks? Both were abolished by the Government when they came to power, like the governmental report to which my hon. Friend referred.

The Chairman: Order. That intervention is not relevant to the amendments, and it is best not to pursue it.

Mr. Page: You are absolutely right, Mr. Benton, and I was going to tell off my hon. Friend for introducing such a diversion into our discussion of the statutory basis of the annual report, which we welcome wholeheartedly. We want to ensure that the report is produced in a way that is satisfactory for all concerned.

The export of arms and military technology is a field of activity that attracts a great deal of competition, not only inside, but outside the United Kingdom. Some organisations in this country oppose any form of such exports. The Bill refers to the activities of foreign countries' security services in seeking to obtain, directly or indirectly, information about the activities and contracts of UK-based companies and the markets that they are targeting. Although it is vital that the annual report is as informative as possible, it is equally vital that it has a care not to divulge information that is potentially useful to companies elsewhere in the world that are aiming to win orders in competition with British firms. There is a duty of care towards companies operating in or out of the UK, which—in the view of official Opposition Members, and perhaps Liberal Members also—should be extended to deal with concerns that have been expressed over the commercial terms on which their activities depend. It should also be extended to credit and financing arrangements, manufacturing locations, transport issues and, most importantly, employee safety.

I shall not expand the point, although it goes deeper. However, it would make a mockery of the reporting arrangements envisaged in clause 9 if they were to be the basis for action by small groups of activists of the kind that appear to be accumulating in Genoa or the sort of activists who mount campaigns against companies going about their legitimate business, which brings to mind the conditions faced by Huntingdon Life Sciences. I shall not develop that point, but the report must be as informative as possible while providing that type of protection.

In amendment No. 44, I have asked that the words

    ``which would include the work of Export Licensing''

be added to the Bill. The amendment should be included because the clause, as drafted, simply requires the Secretary of State to offer an annual report to the two Houses of Parliament on the operation of the Bill, if it becomes law. However, it fails without the amendment because it does not guarantee that Parliament or the wider public will receive an automatic assessment of the effectiveness or speed of the export licensing system. The amendment would ensure that that information would reach Parliament, which would allow the performance of the export control organisation within the Department to be monitored. It is the logical corollary to the revised procedures and controls that the Bill is supposed to introduce.

It is also a matter of vital importance to the companies engaged in exporting from UK. I understand from a parliamentary answer provided by the previous Secretary of State that

    ``The Government aim to provide a substantive response to Standard Individual Export License (SIEL) applications within 20 working days, except in special circumstances.''—[Official Report, 10 May 2001; Vol. 368, c. 305W.]

This figure came up on Second Reading and I shall repeat it here: only 57 per cent. of those applications were processed within 20 working days in the year 2000. The figures provided by the Department of Trade and Industry on the average length of time taken to process those applications do not take account of the periods during which the applications were referred back to the manufacturer for further information.

I can now take the next hour and a bit—I did not intervene when my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot was discussing examples—going through specific examples of where this country refused export licences and the orders were promptly taken up and supplied from countries such as Italy and France. I am not discussing weaponry; I am discussing the supply of machine tools and similar equipment. There are various companies throughout the world to which British exporters cannot supply, although the products that they require are not of a military nature. There is an unofficial blacklist that exists and it is most confusing to British manufacturers. Abroad, on the Asian sub-continent, there are companies that have many subsidiaries. Some of those subsidiaries carry out perfectly standard day-to-day operations that have nothing to do with armaments or nuclear work. If they want to buy equipment—measuring equipment is an example that comes to mind—they cannot be supplied by a British company because of the blacklist. As soon as we say no, that equipment is supplied from one of our EU partners.

The Minister would have difficulty in putting an objection to our EU partners on that matter because they would legitimately say, ``We see no reason for you to have refused the request.'' We sometimes draw our lines too firmly and tightly.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 19 July 2001