§ 8. Mrs. Jane Kennedy
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence which countries Ministers have visited in the last year for which the purpose of the visit included promotion of arms sales.
§ Mr. Aitken
Ministers in my Department during all visits abroad take the opportunity to discuss matters of mutual concern—including, where appropriate, defence exports. I shall write to the hon. Member providing her with a list of such visits by Defence Ministers in the past year.
§ Mrs. Kennedy
Does the Minister accept that the Government will have to adopt greater openness in defence matters and, in particular, provide more detailed information on arms and defence equipment sales to specific countries? If the allegations in Sunday's edition of The Observer are true concerning the GCHQ phone tap of the Lonrho organisation in 1989, under the instruction of the former Prime Minister, Baroness Thatcher, does he accept that that merely underlines the scepticism that the Opposition feel about the sudden-found commitment to open government, as claimed by the Government? We shall monitor the Government's performance in that regard with particular interest.
§ Mr. Aitken
In general terms, the Government support greater transparency concerning arms export matters. There is no question of allowing defence exports on an indiscriminate basis. We are playing our full part in the various international discussions on arms exports that have followed the Gulf war. We are also playing a full part in terms of the new United Nations register, which was set up largely as a result of the initiative of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. We, too, await the greater emphasis on new information that that register will provide. I should make it clear, however, that there must be an element of confidentiality in any form of Government-to-Government negotiation. That has been the normal practice in defence export matters under successive Governments, both Labour and Conservative.
§ Mr. Churchill
Is my hon. Friend aware of recent reports suggesting that at least one British defence contractor has supplied equipment to India which would help that country to acquire a nuclear weapons capability in contravention of the British Government's embargo on the export of such equipment? Is it not time that British and European defence contractors were put on notice by their Governments that they cannot expect to receive Government contracts if they breach their own Government's embargoes in this particularly sensitive matter?
§ Mr. Aitken
My hon. Friend is entirely right. Any breaches of those Government embargoes are treated as a most serious matter and will be thoroughly investigated.
Does the Minister recall that during his days on the Back Benches he was an eloquent supporter of open government? Does he recall his speech to the House on 2 February 1989 on the Official Secrets Bill, when he claimed that the House had been misled 20 years earlier over the sale of arms to Nigeria? Does he not think, now that he is a Minister, that history could well be repeating itself with his refusal to come clean about our arms deals in the past decade with Iran and Iraq?
§ Mr. Aitken
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his moling in Hansard, but he draws a false conclusion from it. There has been a substantial sea change in Whitehall under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, away from the old habits of unnecessary secrecy which were championed ferociously 18 years ago by the then Labour Prime Minister and Front-Bench spokesmen. Now there is greater emphasis on a new era of more responsible openness in all matters.