HL Deb 27 February 1998 vol 586 cc123-4WA
Lord Gladwin of Clee

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their policy towards disclosure of details of military and related police assistance provided to foreign governments. [HL861]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Gilbert)

Military and related police assistance is provided in support of a range of foreign and defence policy aims. It can be an important factor in the development of the United Kingdom's relations with countries in all parts of the world, and can make a significant contribution to regional stability by promoting military effectiveness, which helps to deter aggression. This assistance is a key element of defence diplomacy. All requests for military assistance are considered in the light of the Government's wider foreign policy.

Many foreign governments regard such assistance as contributing to their national security and are thus sensitive about public disclosure of information about it. As a result of this sensitivity, it has been the practice of Ministers to decline to answer questions concerning the detail and nature of training assistance. This convention has continued to apply since the introduction of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information, which recognises defence, security and international relations as reasons for withholding information.

The Government have been considering this practice against our commitment to openness. As a result, we have decided that the public interest would be served by greater disclosure of the details of military and related police assistance provided to foreign governments. In future, details of the amount of assistance provided by our Armed Forces will be produced annually and published in the Ministry of Defence's Performance Report, starting with that to be produced following the end of this financial year. These details will include the numbers of overseas personnel trained, by country, the numbers of United Kingdom personnel involved in providing training or assistance overseas, again by country, and levels of any subsidies provided by the MoD. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office will publish details of the training subsidy programme funded by them. This information will also be made available to the public on request.

All other requests for information in relation to training and assistance provided will, with immediate effect, be considered on their individual merits, but with a presumption towards disclosure unless this would be against the public interest as governed by the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information. In practice, it is possible that information may need to be withheld where foreign countries have legitimate security concerns, where our bilateral relations might be damaged or significantly weakened by disclosure, or where disclosure would harm our own national security. We would also not normally intend to make available personal details of students or training personnel, for reasons of personnel privacy, or provide information which might threaten the safety of individuals. Where a contractor could demonstrate that his sales prospects could suffer specific harm as a result of releasing information on military assistance, this would be weighed against the public interest in deciding to what extent disclosure should proceed, but the amount of information withheld will be kept to the minimum

The new practice represents an appropriate balance between the need to ensure that genuine defence and foreign policy interests are protected, and legitimate parliamentary and public interest is these matters. It will ensure that significantly more information is available than has previously been the case.