HC Deb 09 December 1969 vol 793 cc390-4

11.5 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mrs. Gwyneth Dun-woody)

I beg to move, That the Defence Powers (Continuance) Order 1969, a draft of which was laid before this House on 13th November, be approved. The Emergency Laws (Re-enactments and Repeals) Act, 1964, repealed certain Defence Regulations, re-enacted a number of them with modifications, and continued the Ships and Aircraft (Transfer Restriction) Act, 1939, until the end of 1969. The purpose of the Defence Powers (Continuance) Order, 1969, is to extend the validity of the powers covered by Sections 3 and 16 of the Emergency Laws (Re-enactments and Repeals) Act, 1964, which will expire at the end of 1969, for a further period of five years. It does not contain any new power.

I have no wish to detain the House, but I hope that I shall be forgiven if I explain a little of what is involved. The Board of Trade has powers under the Import, Export and Customs Powers (Defence) Act, 1939, to control imports and exports. These powers are used—through the issue of Export of Goods (Control) Orders—to control the export from the United Kingdom of arms, military equipment and strategic goods. These export controls are necessary if we are to carry out international arrangements on the supply of strategic equipment and materials to Communist countries. They are not, however, sufficient in themselves to carry out our international obligations, and Sections 3 and 16 of the Emergency Laws (Re-enactments and Repeals) Act, 1964, enable the Board of Trade and the Minister of Technology to exercise control in three additional areas.

Section 3(1) of the Act enables the Board of Trade to control the movement, transport, disposal and acquisitior of strategic goods situated outside the United Kingdom by persons in and certain persons ordinarily resident in the United Kingdom, and also the re-export of strategic goods from the United Kingdom. The present exercise of the powers is contained in the Strategic Goods (Control) Order, 1967, and in the Control of Goods (Import Certificates) Order, 1951, as amended. The former Order prohibits the disposal of strategic goods without a licence to the authorities of or persons in certain specified countries. The latter Order enables control to be exercised on any possible further movement of strategic goods which have been exported to the United Kingdom from another country and in respect of which an import certificate has been issued.

Section 3(2) continues the power of the Minister of Technology to control the construction of ships under Regulation 55 of the Defence (General) Regulations, 1939, applied by the Restriction of Construction of Ships Order, 1940.

The list of goods subject to strategic export control includes a narrow range of ships such as warships, fast fishing vessels, hydrofoils, fast sea-going vessels and vessels with hulls and propulsion machinery made of non-magnetic materials. Vessels incorporating equipment which is included in the list are also subject to control.

Control is exercised by means of a licensing system under which shipbuilders are required to obtain individual licences to build ships of 100 gross tons or over for a foreign owner. This is the stage at which to assess whether the ship is of a type which should be banned.

There are problems in controlling the export of secondhand ships. Some are sold abroad; some are strategic in themselves and others only when they have certain items of strategic equipment on board. This difficulty of precise identification would mean that to attempt to make ships subject to export licensing in the same way as other strategic goods, probably including specific clearance every time a ship left a U.K. port, would require controls which would be impracticable to operate, and they could not apply to ships abroad. We therefore rely on Section 16 of the Act which extends to the end of 1969 the powers under the Ships and Aircraft (Transfer Restriction) Act, 1939, to control the transfer and mortgage of British ships and the transfer of their registry. The powers were originally taken to control the transfer of ships in wartime.

Section 4 of the Emergency Laws (Repeals) Act, 1959, provides that they may now be exercised only in the interests of national defence. The present powers forbid the transfer of any ship without the sanction of the Board of Trade. However, these strict provisions have been progressively relaxed by the issue of general sanctions. The most recent of these, issued by the Minister of Transport in 1959, permits the free transfer of all ships except former ships of war, ships on the COCOM list, and ships containing equipment on that list.

It is the intention to issue a revised general sanction shortly to take account of the revised COCOM list. Few applications for individual sanctions are received, and the powers presently administered are not burdensome either on the shipping industry or on Government.

Arrangements to control the export to Communist countries of goods of strategic importance are agreed internationally by a committee representing the N.A.T O countries, not including Iceland but including Japan. A review of the list of goods involved was completed earlier this year, and we are satisfied that it is necessary to renew these powers to comply with the new list.

11.10 p.m.

Mr. Charles Fletcher-Cooke (Darwen)

The hon. Lady has explained, with her usual clarity, the provenance and validity of this Order. This debate happens only once every five years, and is perhaps more important than the lateness of the hour and the sparseness of the attendance would indicate. Although one cannot fault the hon. Lady for what she has said, I would have hoped for a little more information about how the whole question of strategic control of goods and of shipping is working.

This is only half the picture. As she said, the powers for the export of strategic goods and for the sale of ships from this country come under a different Order. But, nevertheless, such powers would be futile and nugatory but for the Order we are discussing which stops up the gap of the third countries; that is to say, the control by persons in the United Kingdom of ships and strategic goods that are situated elsewhere and which might otherwise be moved from those third countries to destinations of which the United Kingdom Government disapproves. I will not needle or press the hon. Lady now, but some time, perhaps when the COCOM list comes to be revised, we would like to know how the whole system of strategic control is working.

Not long ago there was a good deal of dissatisfaction in the United States with the way in which the United Kingdom Government were operating this. There were complaints, for example, about the shipment of supplies and of ships from Hong Kong to Haiphong. There were complaints about shipments to Russia and to China. Although these complaints have in the last 18 months died down, they may arise again at any minute.

I suppose that it is partly under these powers that the whole executive machinery for the enforcement of sanctions against Rhodesia is operated. Perhaps the hon. Lady will confirm that. I imagine it is because of the powers under this Order, as well as under the other more direct Orders for the shipment of goods from the United Kingdom and for the control of merchant shipping in the United Kingdom, that we operate the sanctions against Rhodesia. If so—and this is no more than a minor complaint—we might have heard a little more from the hon. Lady beyond a mere list, albeit very clear, of the way in which the Government have operated these powers. It is a matter of public interest how they are operated and how watertight and effective they are. Unless they are effective, they are obviously futile.

Perhaps when we come to the debate on the COCOM list, and on a future occasion in relation to Southern Africa, we might be told a little more than the bare legal bones of the matter, and be told about the way in which, strategically and politically, we are able to control this important traffic.

11.20 p.m.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody

I beg leave of the House to speak again.

I understand the hon. and learned Gentleman's feeling that this Order carries political implications far beyond the simple genealogy of how we arrived at this point. However, I believe that some of the fears that he expressed are unfounded. This arrangement is working very efficiently.

I do not want to go too deeply into the question on this occasion, but my impression is that the Order deals specifically with the provisions for COCOM countries; that is, those countries which are joined together in COCOM which are asking for this kind of protection for strategic goods to be normally exported to Communist countries. This is the whole point of the Order.

Whilst I take the hon. and learned Gentleman's point that there may be a wider implication and that possibly we could debate this on the COCOM list, it is true that the sanctions against Rhodesia are operated on the Southern Rhodesia Act, 1965, not under this Order, which is, in a sense, designed to carry out a limited and specific job.

My impression is that there have been no complaints about the working of this arrangement. The hon. and learned Gentleman will be aware that our inter-nation obligations carry with them the right of our partners in COCOM to express themselves extremly forcibly and to object to particular cases if they wish. Therefore, I am sure that he will accept that they are content with the way that we are carrying out our obligations.

Nevertheless, should the time come when the House would like a wider discussion on the whole question, the Board of Trade will be happy to take that opportunity. The hon. and learned Gentleman will realise that one difficulty in discussing—I was about to say "embargoes", but perhaps I should say "control"—control of some strategic goods is that we do not necessarily want to go too deeply into the exact details of the situation, because it carries with it certain difficulties.

I am quite confident that the system is working well and that the Board of Trade has the interests of Great Britain at heart. If the hon. and learned Gentleman wishes to go further into the question we shall be only too delighted to discuss it with him at any time.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Defence Powers (Continuance) Order 1969, a draft of which was laid before this House on 13th November, be aproved.