HL Deb 10 December 2003 vol 655 cc753-5

3.10 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Salisbury

asked Her Majesty's Government: Whether the international arms trade would be most effectively regulated through multilateral means.

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, there is already substantial multilateral work to regulate the trade in arms and other strategic goods, most notably the EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports, for which the Government were a driving force. There is also a variety of other multilateral regimes that work to strengthen international strategic export controls. The UK is an active and constructive member of all the key regimes and appreciates their importance in raising international standards in export controls.

The Lord Bishop of Salisbury

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does she agree that, after the passage of the Export Control Act 2002, the secondary legislation which followed it and the pledge given at the last general election to control British arms brokers "wherever they are located" will be unmet because a broker will still be able to transact a deal that is illegal in the United Kingdom simply by crossing the Channel? Will the Government therefore continue to throw their weight behind the drive to obtain an absolutely comprehensive international arms trade treaty?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, in answer to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury, I believe that the secondary legislation to which he refers that is to come into operation on 1st May 2004 will tighten up on brokerage as regards the control regime for arms exports. We are confident that that will happen. Indeed, we have been a driving force in ensuring that it works across the European Union as well.

The right reverend Prelate asked whether we agree with the work that has been done by Amnesty International and Oxfam on the arms trade treaty. The Government fully support the aim of raising global export control standards. As noble Lords will know, the UK operates some of the most vigorous export control policies in the world and actively works to encourage other states to apply similar principles. We support in principle any measures that will bring the practices of other arms exporters into line with our own.

Baroness Northover

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree with the recent UN reports on the Democratic Republic of Congo that foreign companies there are fuelling conflict with the rapid spread of small arms? Should not the UK Government take action to investigate properly the British companies listed in the UN report and not simply, as happened yesterday, announce aid for the area?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, as for the position in the DRC, I shall be happy to reply more fully to the noble Baroness in writing. As I recall, we have asked for evidence of the perpetrations by companies to which she referred. So far, that evidence has not been forthcoming.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, reverting to the Question and without any criticism of Her Majesty's Government on this affair, whose words and aspirations are totally laudable, multinational control of the arms trade is just a nonsense. Let us consider, for example, the exocets which did so much damage to that ship in the Falklands. Is it not quite ridiculous to pretend that we can ever achieve a multinational agreement?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, the view taken is that the more multinational control there is, the safer and more accountable would be arms export regimes around the world. That is very much the view taken by the NGOs. However, I agree to some extent with the last point made by the noble Lord, that it is unlikely that that will happen in the near future. None the less, we must strive towards that aim because of the importance placed on strategic export controls in countries' national foreign policies. That is why there is something in the last point made by the noble Lord.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, can the noble Baroness tell the House what proportion of the very large number of bad debts within the Export Credits Guarantee Department are attributable to British arms exports? Does that not indicate that we need much stronger home controls?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, on the specific issue of bad debt and how that refers to our own regime, perhaps I may write to the noble Lord. I do not have the detailed answer. However, I reiterate the point I made in my first response to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury. Britain has one of the strictest and most transparent arms export licensing systems of any country. Noble Lords may recall that when we came into government in 1997, we banned all torture equipment. That was the first time that such a ban was ever brought into force.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, the noble Baroness said that we have not received any evidence about the allegations made against British companies operating in the DRC connected with the illegal exploitation of resources and hence the illegal flow of arms in that country. Does she realise that, on 19th November, the UN Security Council passed a resolution requiring those states whose companies were named in the expert panel report to conduct their own investigations, not simply to wait until evidence is presented to them?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that information. What I sought to make clear in my earlier response is that we need to see evidence which backs up those allegations, as well as the naming of the companies.