HL Deb 27 October 2003 vol 654 cc7-10

2.52 p.m.

Lord Judd

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In so doing, I declare an interest as a trustee of Saferworld, an NGO deeply involved in security issues.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what arrangements they have in place to ensure that their arms export policy is co-ordinated with their policy towards global terrorism.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, in 2001, when the Foreign Secretary reviewed our arms exports policy in respect of the terrorist risk, he concluded that the consolidated criteria on which we assess all arms exports should remain unchanged. Accordingly, the Government will continue to take account inter alia of, first, the attitude of any buyer country in relation to terrorism and international crime and, secondly, the need to avoid diversion of United Kingdom exports to terrorist organisations.

Lord Judd

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Does she agree that if the stand against terrorism is to be successful, hearts and minds and a consistent commitment to human rights are essential? How, therefore, do the Government reconcile the FCO human rights report which spells out anxieties about human rights in Indonesia and Saudi Arabia with a 20-fold increase in arms sales to Indonesia over the past two years to the value of £41 million and sales of £29 million to Saudi Arabia? In both cases it appears that there are no foolproof end-use monitoring systems in place. Has not the time come to limit arms sales to NATO allies and, in exceptional circumstances, to UN missions in which others may be involved, with close monitoring of the use of those arms?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I do not believe that the last point made by my noble friend is fair because all countries do have the right, under the UN Charter, to self-defence. In order to maintain effective self-defence, countries require not only armed services, but the equipment required for those forces to operate. However, where I do agree with my noble friend is that it is important to take into consideration humanitarian matters. That is why we have a painstaking system in place. Within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, more than 150 staff work on licensing issues. I am sure that my noble friend will be pleased to hear that their submissions are based on advice from experts in human rights, in sanctions and in counter-proliferation, as well as on work with lawyers and the relevant geographical sections— including, of course, the considerations raised by my noble friend in relation to Indonesia and Saudi Arabia.

I can also tell my noble friend that I am the Minister responsible for these duties, which are taken extremely seriously by the Foreign Office. I can further tell him that many staff from the DTI, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development also feed into the process.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the region to which Britain and our competitors in arms exports have been exporting most successfully over the past 20 years has been the Middle East, not entirely the most stable region of the world? Having inherited from the preceding Conservative government the extraordinary industrial policy of supporting the arms industry while not supporting other industries, does she believe that it is now time for the Government to think again about a much more restrictive approach on behalf of themselves, the European Union and the West as a whole to the further proliferation of arms in unstable regions of the world?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, in making such a highly persuasive argument, I think that the noble Lord must also acknowledge that Britain has one of the most restrictive and transparent arms export licensing systems of any country anywhere in the world. This Government have made strategic exports more accountable than has almost any other country. Further, in 1997 we introduced the publication of an annual report on strategic exports, which was entirely the right thing to do. We are clear, we are transparent, and I hope that the noble Lord will acknowledge that the policy introduced by this Government has been very successful.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, is not the real and most serious problem the one mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, in his reference to "end-use"? Presumably we do want to provide arms to governments who are fighting terrorism; that is the global task of the age. However, difficulties arise when some of those weapons get out of the hands of governments and into the hands of terrorist groups and other undesirable organisations. Is this not a question of the need to concentrate more closely on monitoring end use and introducing systems for such monitoring? Further, while we are on this subject, can the noble Baroness reassure noble Lords that no arms are going to the illegal regime in Zimbabwe after the embargo we placed on them in 2000, and that no arms are reaching the Mugabe regime through the back door?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, it is because the Government believe that the point made by my noble friend Lord Judd and reinforced by the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, is entirely right that they carefully assess the possible risk of diversion before a decision is made as regards any export licence application. We understand the importance of ensuring that UK equipment does not end up in the hands of undesirable end-users. I am sure that the noble Lord will be pleased to hear that the Government are committed to carrying out end-use monitoring where it will genuinely add value to our efforts to minimise the risk of misuse and diversion.

Turning to the question of Zimbabwe, of course there are no arms export licences granted to that country. Whether arms get in by the back door may be an entirely different question. I shall check to see whether any information is available on that point and write to the noble Lord.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, as I know myself, the role of individual Ministers is extremely important? As my noble friend mentioned in a previous answer, these issues are not dealt with entirely by officials. I repeat: the role played by individual Ministers is supremely important because they have the ultimate weapon of resignation.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I mentioned earlier that I am the Minister responsible and I have listened carefully to the words of my noble friend. Of course the role of Ministers is very important in this area, but it would be entirely misleading to suggest to noble Lords that Ministers take every single decision on arms exports. Most of those decisions are devolved under criteria which are published for all to see and are well understood by the four Whitehall departments I listed in my earlier response. These decisions are devolved to civil servants. Where cases raise issues of doubt or sensitivity—noble Lords have heard reference to at least two countries this afternoon which are extremely sensitive—those decisions are referred to the appropriate Ministers.

The Lord Bishop of Guildford

My Lords, does the Minister accept that one of the problems we face in this field is that yesterday's allies can sometimes turn into today's terrorists? In the uncertain world in which we live, it is possible for weapons that were supplied under one regime to be used in an entirely different context by another generation. Does she further accept that not only is there a moral reason for imposing the highest possible levels of restriction in this field, but a reason of self-interest as well?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I acknowledge that there is a risk. However, if one takes the argument of the right reverend Prelate to its logical conclusion, we simply would not be able to have any kind of trade in anything on the military list. The right reverend Prelate may espouse that position—if he does, it is entirely noble—but it is not the position of Her Majesty's Government. We consider particularly whether there is a real risk of internal repression, external aggression or the fuelling of regional conflicts. We do so painstakingly in a number of departments, and I hope that I have been able to reassure your Lordships that we do so transparently.