DEFENCE EXPORTS – 17 October 2007

Dr Julian Lewis: When you introduced the debate, Sir Nicholas, you said, quite understandably, that this is one of a series of debates on defence that have rightly been occupying the House’s attention in recent days. If only that were true. It would have been true had the debate been held a few months ago, but as we can see from the Government’s representation here today, the Government do not regard the debate as one about defence at all. The Minister answering for them is not a Minister for Defence, but for the Department whose title, I believe, is the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, or DBERR for short. As I would understand it from any lexicon, the word “deburr” would mean something like “to take the rough edges off something”, which I am sure is what the Government have been trying to do by making this meretricious and indefensible move.

The significant aspect of the debate is not so much the difference between the opinion of every Opposition speaker, on the one hand, and on the other hand that of the Government and of the one speaker from the Labour Back Benches who so far has defended their move. What is significant is the debate that took place in a series of interventions on that one speaker, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-East, by his Right Hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar), who was a distinguished junior Defence Minister at the time when the Government were producing sensible documents such as the strategic defence review.

The Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs (Mr Pat McFadden): The hon. Gentleman might wish to correct his references to hon. Members. I am happy to defend all my own comments, but I am the Member for Wolverhampton, South-East. I believe that the hon. Gentleman was actually referring to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor).

Dr Lewis: I am happy to acknowledge that error, and I only hope that that will not be the sum total of misapprehensions on which the Minister is able to correct this side of the House. His hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) and his right hon. Friend the Member for Warley have between them absolutely encapsulated the reason for the change. Had DESO remained with the Ministry of Defence, we would not have seen the sort of concern and outrage that has resulted from what is purely a political gesture. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) said in his excellent opening speech, and as numbers of hon. Members have said since, that gesture is clearly meant to appease those people who object to the Serious Fraud Office having dropped the BAE Systems inquiry.

Mr Nicholas Soames: My hon. Friend really knows his stuff in this area and was a very distinguished Shadow Minister. Is he aware that the head of DESO once told me that the former Prime Minister, the former Member for Sedgefield, was absolutely assiduous in helping the cause of British defence exports throughout his time in office, and was always prepared to help DESO in its overseas work in the greater interests of the United Kingdom’s commercial success?

Dr Lewis: I can well believe that. Indeed, given that very commitment by the Prime Minister’s predecessor, the whole strategy of the present incumbent in seeking to distance himself from what he no doubt regards as the tainted legacy of his predecessor adds to an understanding of the reasoning behind the decision. One might think that the Government would be rather discomforted by the fact that, so far, only a single Member of the Labour Back Benches has spoken up for their decision, whereas every other speaker – not least my hon. Friend and former boss as Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr Soames) – has excoriated it. It would be a mistake to think so, however. I am quite sure that every speech that points out the unjustifiable, indefensible and outrageous nature of this decision – both in its own right and in its execution – will enable the Government spin doctors to point to the Government’s critics and say:

“You see, we have delivered. We have upset and outraged all those people whom you oppose because they believe in a strong defence industry and in strong defence exports”.

David Taylor: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for spelling out in his own terms the importance of the arms industry. Does he believe that the shock departure of the chief executive of BAE Systems yesterday was linked to the al-Yamamah deal, to which he referred earlier, or might it have been linked to other corruption inquiries in relation to the arms trade that involve BAE in South Africa, Tanzania, Chile and the Czech Republic?

Dr Lewis: I would be astonished if there were such a link, and there is something that I have not quite understood, either from the tenor of the hon. Gentleman’s speech or from his interventions. Either he accepts that there is a role for a legitimate arms industry for export from this country, or he does not. He indicates that he does. We must therefore question the entire relevance of his speech – one that sought to minimise the importance of the industry – to the Government’s decision to move an efficient Government agency from the Ministry where it is most appropriately sited to a different one, where there is no experience and where effectively the Government will be starting from scratch in the representation of such an important industry.

I am not being party political when I say that it is emblematic of what has occurred that the Liberal Democrat party has not seen fit to send a Back Bencher, let alone a Front-Bench spokesman, to take part in the debate. No party would have been more in the vanguard of opposing the arms trade and calling for changes of this sort than the Liberal Democrats. However, they have got what they want, and they are now involved in their favourite spectator sport – from our point of view – of engaging in another round of leadership elections. Those elections are not due until some time near the end of the year. Are we therefore to expect a merciful release from Liberal Democrat contributions to all our debates between now and the end of the year, or is it simply that they are leaving this debate alone because they know that their objectives have been achieved in relation to arms exports and defence representation?

The point has been made repeatedly about the advertising of the post to head DESO only days before the announcement of DESO’s abolition. Yet this is the Government who entered office talking about joined-up Government. What we must remember is that, if the Government are dissatisfied with the uses to which exported arms may be put, it lies in their hands to lay down rules and regulations on countries to which arms are exported. As it is, we are seeing a sort of reversion to old style unilateralism. By emasculating the organisation, the Government are now saying, effectively, “Let’s leave it to other countries – countries that have more ethical foreign policies than us, such as France, the USA, China and, of course, such as our old friends the Russians.” Vladimir Putin has been pictured shaking hands with President Ahmadinejad of Iran on the front pages of today’s newspapers.

I believe that what has happened today is a gesture to certain parts of the old Labour constituency, and our reaction is enabling the Government to say, “You see, our gesture means something because you have upset the forces of darkness.” But they are not the forces of darkness, they are the forces that enable £5 billion a year of revenue to flow into this country’s economy and that are rightly regulated by the Government, who decide where arms exports can go. It is a sign that the habits, practices and indulgences of manipulation, spin and devious techniques did not die with the passing of Tony Blair as Prime Minister.