HC Deb 13 January 1998 vol 304 cc133-5
6. Mr. Pickthall

What plans he has to secure agreement on an EU code of conduct on conventional arms exports during the UK presidency. [20418]

17. Mr. Timms

What plans he has to secure agreement on an EU code of conduct on conventional arms exports during the United Kingdom presidency. [20429]

Mr. Robin Cook

We aim to agree a code of conduct on arms sales with our European Union partners during the United Kingdom presidency.

Mr. Pickthall

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on this important initiative, but can he assure us that we shall have a tightly drawn agreement, and not just a rationalisation of existing divergent export policies? For example, will the code ensure that when a contract is refused by one European Union country, it cannot be snapped up by another?

Mr. Cook

I can assure my hon. Friend that we shall seek as tight a draft as we can obtain, and that will certainly reflect much of the language in the tougher criteria that we introduced in July. My hon. Friend puts his finger on what must be the single biggest gain of a European code of conduct: the inclusion of a provision that makes it obligatory on any European state that is thinking of taking up a contract that another state has turned down to provide advance notice of that intention. That should ensure that when any member of the European Union turns down such a contract on grounds of reference to human rights, for instance, it will not be undercut by a partner. That will provide a much firmer, stronger base for the policy.

Mr. Timms

I welcome my right hon. Friend's commitment to achieving high standards in the code rather than looking for the lowest common denominator. I urge him to stand firm by that commitment. How much priority is his Department giving to securing agreement on the code and what progress has been made in preparing the ground for an agreement before the end of the British presidency?

Mr. Cook

I am pleased to answer my hon. Friend as he asked the question in answer to which we announced the original code back in July. I am very glad to say that that has resulted in a tightening of our criteria. In answer to my hon. Friend's question today, I have to say that most member states of the European Union have now bilaterally expressed their support for a code of conduct, have applauded what we did last July and would like to see it turned into a European agreement. I hope that we shall soon be ready to take a text to our partners and to get agreement from them.

Mr. Sayeed

Is the Foreign Secretary certain that the enforcement and policing of the code of conduct will not allow the French to cheat yet again?

Mr. Cook

As we are currently in negotiation with our French partners on the text, it would be impolitic of me to accept any suggestion that the French ever cheated. We hope to reach an agreement that will ensure that we share common standards and will notify each other of what we are doing. That openness is the best way of ensuring that the code is adhered to.

Mr. Howard

Pending the securing of such an agreement, will the Foreign Secretary look into the delays in granting licences, which are causing British firms to lose orders for equipment to which there cannot be any sensible objection? Is he aware that the firm RBR International asked on 15 May last year for urgent clearance of the sale of helmets to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for use by personnel in Kabul? As a result of the delay in granting that clearance, the order went to Scandinavia and the firm has received no approaches for any equipment from UNHCR since. Is that what the Foreign Secretary intended to achieve by his so-called ethical foreign policy?

Mr. Cook

I am not familiar with that individual case—[Interruption.] If the House will allow me. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has never raised that case with me on any day since 15 May. If he is so concerned, of course we shall be happy to entertain any views that he may wish to express on a particular sale.

We have adopted criteria which are plainly designed to achieve the outcome that sales of equipment to any regime that might use it for repression will not get a licence. That has to be the right approach. The great consensus of British opinion is behind us. If the Conservative party wishes to opt out of that consensus, that tells us more about the Conservative party than about our policy.