Letter from the Chairman of the Quadripartite
Committee to the Defence Manufacturers Association
I have now had the opportunity to read your
letter of 25 September addressed to William Benson, providing
the DMA's reaction to our July Report. It has of course been circulated
to Committee Members. I gather that you copied your letter to
the departments concerned. I therefore thought it helpful to put
on the record now the reactions of myself and several of my colleagues
to the points raised, and copy them to the four relevant Secretaries
of State. I will deal with your points in the order you raised
them in your letter.
(a) You note that "the Government is able to
take decisions of substantially greater impact on foreign relations
and the lives of people overseas . . . without prior parliamentary
scrutiny . . . There is not a wellspring of UK public opinion
demanding the changes envisaged." I believe that the
quadripartite committee representing a very broad range of political
opinion is in a far better position to judge public opinion on
these issues. As we argued in Para 80 we do believe that the public
have specific and particular concerns about arms sales which justifies
prior scrutiny. May I assure you that we are quite capable of
distinguishing between lobbies and genuine public opinion. Governments
have in fact consulted Parliament before committing the nation
to military action, and such action is subjected to constant scrutiny
through ministerial statements and debate.
I am sure your members will accept that our
Reports, and the 1998 Report from the Trade and Industry Committee,
have laid much emphasis on the unacceptable degree of delay in
dealing with some applications, and with appeals. We are confident
that there would in the overwhelming majority of cases be no delay
at all. The small minority where the Committee would require notice
of a pending decision on an application would almost inevitably
be cases which had in any event been of sufficient complexity
to have led to a breach of the indicative time-limits. The Committee's
proposals are designed so far as possible to accommodate scrutiny
of proposed licences within the overall time limits laid down
by government departments. But, let me stress for the benefit
of your members who have not had the chance to read para 88 of
our Report that it will remain entirely open for the Government
to grant a licence, without complying with prior scrutiny procedures.
3. CUSTOMER DELIVERY
You refer to the growing expectation for delivery
in four weeks or less, and the importance of UK industry being
able to preserve its competitive position by meeting tight schedules.
(a) "We believe that the potential workload on
the Committee would be even higher than it currently believes
. . . We are convinced that the sheer scale of the workload required
has not been properly taken into account, both on officials and
on Members of the Committee." We have not published our
internal working assumptions on our likely workload. There can
therefore be no grounds for your belief that we have underestimated
it. Our proposals to handle licence applications in two stages
will mean that the vast majority of the licences will be cleared
as a matter of routine. We are satisfied that we will be able
to handle the workload.
(b) "We believe that the proposed
system would result in significant additional staff work by the
already stretched resources within the DTI, MOD(UK), FCO and DfID
. . ." That is of course a matter for discussion between
ourselves and departments. Some discussions have already been
held at official level.
(c) ". . . as well as Industry.
. . . We believe it would be unfair for the Committee to make
decisions on export licences, specially in cases of possible/likely
refusals, unless the companies involved were allowed to make representations
in support of the applications . . ." This seems to be
based on the misconception that the Committee proposes to make
decisions. We do not. Proceedings will be conducted in confidence.
It is not envisaged that evidence will be taken from any parties.
There is therefore in our view no reason to foresee any effect
on industry's resources.
(a) "Industry has strong concerns about the essential
issue of confidentiality . . . Clearly it would be essential under
my new system for this confidence to be maintained."
The Committees set out at para 84 the Stage 1 information required:
it does not include the identity of the intending exporter. As
we have set out in earlier correspondence, and demonstrated in
our recent Report, we are quite capable of keeping information
(b) "If the introduction of the
system proposed results in customer knowledge that the application
might be made public, this could prove to be a major disincentive
to buying British. Some important customer nations could find
it an affront to national pride to have their countries; procurement
decisions subject to possible Parliamentary debate in another
country". The confidentiality of Stage 2 notifications
is in the final analysis a matter for the Government, and for
discussion between the Government and the Committee. In any event,
neither the price of an item nor the identity of a supplier would
be relevant. It would for example have been possible to come to
a view on the Zimbabwe Hawk spares, or on the supply of military
radar to China, on the basis of information which is already in
the public domain.
Applications are indeed not now public, but
of course licences granted are published, albeit tardily, in the
Annual Report. It is not uncommon for other Parliaments to debate
such matters. But in any event I hesitate to accept that the sensitivities
of customer nations should be regarded as an absolute bar on parliamentary
"There is no explanation of how this
system might work. . . . The Committee has not yet worked this
out." I regret that you seem to think that it is the
role of the trade association you represent to involve itself
in how an organ of Parliament operates. Your members can be assured
that the undertakings given in para 85 will be honoured, in respect
of all the Committee's proposed responsibilities.
The Committee has of course no intention of
relying on the technical knowledge of individual Members for its
work, any more than do Ministers or most officials. In the rare
cases where clarification of the function of an item is required
beyond what is readily available, means can readily be found.
In our work to date, we have only on rare occasions found it necessary
to seek such clarification.
8. STAGE 2 SELECTION
"The report does not clarify how this
(Stage 2) selection process would take place. . . . This undermines
the potential for a system to be put in place forthwith . . .".
That a trade association should be unfamiliar with the practices
and procedures in private deliberative meeting of parliamentary
committees can scarcely be advanced as argument against operation
of the proposed system.
9. STAGE 2 PROCESS
"The DTI's Export Control Organisation
would have to delay the issuing of a licence . . .".
The 10 working days proposal is intended to give the Committee
a short time in which to forward any observations. We are of course
aware of the workings of the system and hope to come to detailed
working arrangements. These could in due course ensure that the
Committee was alerted to a pending decision on a licence application
one way or another sufficiently early to ensure that the process
of Stage 2 scrutiny did not cause delay.
The target turnaround time of 10 working days
to which you refer of course only applies to uncirculated
ELAs, which you will know are the minority, and which are in any
event likely to be almost wholly uncontroversial.
I am surprised and disappointed that your letter
makes no reference to the time and effort we have devoted in our
two Reports to looking in considerable detail under our existing
procedures to all licences refused and to all refusals
appealed against. You might wish to draw the attention of your
members of paras 57-58 of our recent Report.
"Comparison of our system with those
of other nations is flawed. . . . The introduction of additional
bureaucracy and delay into the UK export control system could
have much more profound and damaging effect than in either of
the two countries that the Committee has used for comparison."
Our recent reports stressed the differences between the two existing
prior scrutiny systems we have examined in detail. We have not
compared the systems but used our analysis of them to inform our
conclusions as to an appropriate system here. I am astonished
that you should in all seriousness advance the absence of parliamentary
scrutiny in France as a reason to resist its introduction here.
We do not know when the next Session is to begin.
We are happy to consult with industrialists on their concerns.
Your memorandum makes no reference to the unsatisfactory
way current licence decisions are made. The current arrangements
have left Parliament and public frequently depending upon partial
leaks and slanted briefing and sometimes distorted media reporting.
I should have thought that the Industry and Parliament have a
common cause and interest in ensuring a scrutiny system conducted
on the basis of the facts of a case rather than the retrospective
recriminations that occur in Parliament and the press when controversial
sales are made in secret which have not been subject to any parliamentary
In some cases it leads to sudden reversal of
decisions and abrupt alteration in licensing policy which, surely,
has not necessarily served the industry's interests or enhanced
the nation's reputation as a reliable supplier. Our proposals
would mean that all decisions would command greater respect and
authority having been subjected to the sensible and pragmatic
scrutiny procedures we have recommended.
30 October 2000