CONSERVATIVE
New Forest East

ARMS EXPORT CONTROLS – 9 July 2001

Dr Julian Lewis: I hope that I shall be forgiven if, in congratulating all those on both sides of the House who have made their maiden speeches today, I single out that of my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mark Prisk), who spoke with great commitment, conviction and clarity. He was a credit to the people who selected him to be the Conservative candidate, and to the people who elected him to be their Conservative Member of Parliament, and I am sure that he will go on to be a great credit to all those that he serves in his constituency.

I can make that prediction with some authority, because I first met my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford, as he now is, in 1982 when he was an undergraduate student at Reading University, where he had set up a society – a multilateral society – that was campaigning to keep Britain's strategic defences strong at a time when my good friend the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), whom I really do greatly admire, was proudly proclaiming her conscience at Greenham Common with her sisterly friends. I believe that my hon. Friend has been vindicated by time and I know that, in future, he will go on to show that he still possesses the good judgment that he showed in abundance in those fraught and controversial debates.

I also give the warmest possible welcome to the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths). He may not be as senior a Minister as my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers) would have liked to be present, but I am particularly glad to see that the hon. Gentleman has demonstrated that there is, in New Labour politics, such a thing as life after ministerial death. I congratulate him on his return to the Front Bench. I thought that he was a jolly chap, with a cheerful disposition, and a good Minister, and I was at a loss to know why he lost his job in the first place.

Mr Gerald Howarth: That has finished him off.

Dr Lewis: I certainly hope that I have not finished the Minister's prospects for the future. I would point out that he is not the first person to make a return from the living dead. After all, the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Peter Mandelson) did that once before, but I am sure that many hon. Members on both sides of the House are particularly anxious that he should not do so again.

The problem that we must deal with in addressing the Bill is that the questions that we would like to ask are not really susceptible to being answered at this stage. We would like to ask how practical it is. We would like to ask whether the measures that it proposes can be monitored and enforced abroad. We would like to ask whether it will be an effective measure or merely a unilateral gesture.

As has been pointed out time and again, all that depends on the specific secondary legislation, which we have not yet had a chance to read. Much has been made of the work of the Quadripartite Committee, and the first recommendation in the summary of conclusions and recommendations in its 1 May report states:

"The Bill itself is largely an enabling Bill. The meat of the proposals being made will be in the secondary legislation to be made under the Bill. We recommend that every effort is made to ensure that a draft consultative version of the relevant secondary legislation is published before the House is asked to give the Bill a Second Reading."

I am sure that the Committee had good grounds for making that suggestion. Sadly, it has not been heeded.

Similarly, in an intervention on the shadow Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (David Heathcoat-Amory), who opened for our side, I quoted the view of Saferworld, which is remarkably similar to the points that were made from the Conservative Front Bench. Saferworld said:

"The key challenge ahead is to ensure that the controls introduced are as comprehensive as possible; the devil will be in the detail of the secondary legislation proposed in the DTI consultation paper which accompanied the draft Bill. In the absence of detailed mechanisms for putting the principles set out in the primary legislation into operation, parliamentarians, and also NGOs and the defence industry, will find it impossible to judge the overall impact of the new legislation."

Indeed. I shall say more about non-governmental organisations later, but our problem is that, because we are unable to have much of a debate about what is in the Bill, we are reduced to debating what is not in it and what may appear in the secondary legislation.

I want to discuss contributions from NGOs that, greatly to their credit, have taken a close interest in the subject over many years. I can sum up their concerns as five, which I have drawn from a compilation of what Oxfam and Amnesty International in particular have described in briefings to parliamentarians on both sides of the House.

The NGOs want licensed production controls that can be applied when goods of strategic and potentially lethal significance are made under licence overseas. We would therefore be unable to ban a product from being exported from this country to a certain destination while allowing the very same product to be made overseas and sent to the very same destination. They also want reference to be made to the effect on sustainable development. That point has been mentioned a number of times in the debate, but I must take issue with it.

Mr Roger Berry: It would help the House if the hon. Gentleman gave his personal opinion on each issue. Does he endorse the views of the NGOs or is he simply reading out their brief?

Dr Lewis: I am happy to give my view; that is precisely my intention. I urge the hon. Gentleman to contain his impatience. He may be pleasantly surprised to find that I have more sympathy with some proposals than he would perhaps expect, having heard the reference to me by the hon. Member for Cynon Valley.

The NGOs say that they are concerned about the effect on sustainable development, but I have less sympathy with that than with the first point to which I referred. If a country has a fundamentally democratic regime, it should have the right to make what decisions it thinks best regarding its own priorities. If a fundamentally democratic regime in a poor country fears that it is in danger of being overthrown and that the regime that will replace it will be massively detrimental to the country's future, I would argue that that Government should have the right to decide whether to spend a proportion of the national wealth on importing weapons to defend itself against subversion or incursion. It is up to such a democratic Government to decide; it is not for us to make the decision for them, on the grounds that we know better than a democratic Government in a poor country what they should be doing to safeguard their country's future.

That proposition is very different from the common ground that I suspect exists between the hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) and me on the question of not allowing arms sales to undesirable regimes. Such regimes are covered by other aspects of what is proposed. I do not consider it right for a Western Government such as ours to second-guess the priorities of a respectable Government in a struggling country that is trying to develop, but also trying to protect itself.

Mike Gapes: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr Lewis: I will, but then I must make some progress.

Mike Gapes: Let us suppose that two countries have elected Governments, but are also engaged in a long-standing territorial dispute. Exporting weapons into the area could inflame the regional conflict and lead to its continuation, and that might fuel an arms race in the region.

Dr Lewis: I do not accept the premise. I was talking about countries with representative democratic Governments, albeit perhaps rudimentary ones. I believe that we learn this lesson from history: when two countries have Governments of that sort, such circumstances seldom arise in the first place.

Mike Gapes rose

Dr Lewis: I must make some progress. I realise that the hon. Gentleman does not accept my point, but we must leave it at that for the moment. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will make a speech of his own later.

We do not usually find Governments who are broadly representative and broadly democratic racing to war with one another. That is certainly true of developed societies, and I would also argue that it is more likely than not to apply in developing countries as well.

The NGOs' third concern is the one that I mentioned briefly in an intervention. It relates to end-use certificates, and whether they can be followed up through monitoring. On the whole, I agree with recommendations suggesting that more needs to be done. It will probably not be possible ever to follow up more than a tiny fraction of these abuses, but I do not accept the argument that just because the whole problem cannot be solved, a sanction should not be provided to make an example of those who can be caught abusing the system. I note that the hon. Member for Kingswood indicates assent. I am delighted to have reached across the divide in the House on this issue.

The NGOs also have a strong case in regard to something that I have not heard mentioned in the parts of the debate that I have been privileged to attend. I am sorry that mine has not been a continuous presence. I refer to the question of whether British airlines that transport goods that we would ban, and that would be covered by the legislation, will have any responsibility for the transport of illicit goods and strategic weapon exports, or whether they will be able to say, "What goes into the packing cases in our cargo holds is not a matter for us." I would be grateful if the Minister told us whether those who transport the weapons will be affected by the secondary legislation.

As for prior parliamentary scrutiny of specific licence applications, I must say that I am inclined to sympathise with the Government. They have stated at various stages of the process that it would involve such difficult questions of commercial confidentiality and competitive disadvantage that it is probably impracticable – but I am happy to leave them to fight that out with their own Back Benchers.

Are these measures enforceable? We have seen from what little legislation has been placed before the House that, if someone can be caught in breach of the law as it will be in the future, that person will now face a maximum of 10 rather than seven years in jail. However, I should like to know who will enforce the electronic interception provisions, for example. Indeed, who will address the oral communications issue, which is mentioned in the legislation itself?

Although the controls provided in the Bill are massively lacking in detail and substance, they are enormously wide-ranging in scope. I shall briefly survey a few of them. Clause 1(1) deals with

"export controls in relation to goods of any description."

Clause 2(1) deals with

"transfer controls in relation to technology of any description."

Clause 2(5) states:

"In this Act –

" 'transfer', in relation to any technology, means a transfer by any means (or combination of means), including oral communication and the transfer of goods on which the technology is recorded or from which it can be derived".

Although it is easy to conceive of such an offence being committed, it is enormously difficult to conceive of such an offence being prevented or detected and punished.

Clause 4(1) deals with

"controls prohibiting or regulating participation in the provision outside the United Kingdom of technical assistance of any description."

Clause 5(1) deals with

"trade controls in relation to controlled goods of any description."

That is what we are talking about in relation to trafficking and brokering overseas.

As I said, those are fascinating goals and worthy ideals. However, we want to know whether it will be good legislation. To make it good legislation, what precisely do the Government propose to do about all those matters that they wish to control? I ask the Minister what opportunities we shall have to examine in detail the specific provisions being proposed to make those mostly worthy aims into practicable realities.

I believe that a few little nuggets in the legislation are sufficiently specific to be worth singling out for praise. Clause 6(1), on information, is well worth while in requiring anyone involved in activities potentially subject to control to keep records as specified in the order, to produce them when demanded, and to give such other information as required.

Mr Gerald Howarth: I am becoming increasingly alarmed as my hon. Friend reads out the litany of draconian powers that the Bill confers on Ministers. What provisions does he think the secondary legislation might contain to flesh out some of those quite fearsome powers? They make me feel that I should be voting against the Bill.

Dr Lewis: My hon. Friend is making my point for me. It is possible for us to look at the Bill and for me to take one interpretation that encourages me to support it and for him to take another that encourages him to oppose it. As I said, none of us will be in a position to know what to say about the legislation until we see what the Government are proposing to do.

I doubt that it could be argued that many of the proposals are more draconian in principle than the 1939 legislation which they supersede. After all, that was emergency legislation introduced on the eve of war. The question is how the overarching new structure will be applied in practice. Will it be applied too tightly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Gerald Howarth) fears, or will it be applied so loosely that it will be subject to the very criticisms that the 1939 legislation attracted when the Scott report was published?

There are essential problems of practicality and gaps in our knowledge. There is a bit of a hidden agenda among some Labour Back Benchers who seem more concerned with getting at the arms industry as a whole than with achieving anything very effective for the countries concerned. Sometimes the export of arms is a necessary development to allow countries to preserve their emerging democratic systems.

With the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), I had the sobering experience of visiting Sierra Leone and seeing at first hand the effects of atrocities carried out not with high-tech weapons but with machetes. Only last week, I was reminded of that visit by a radio programme recorded in Sierra Leone that talked about the irony of the fact that in one part of the country large dumps of small arms that had been captured or handed-in were being destroyed, while Britain was sending new small arms to the Sierra Leone army precisely in order to reinforce stability and underpin the democracy that we hope will be permanently restored.

We need to think not only about arms but about the people who have them. Weapons are not in themselves bad: what matters is the use to which they are put. I do not believe that it is right for a poor, struggling democratic system to be denied the arms that it needs to defend itself against insurgents, just because it is poor.

I was ashamed of my own party's conduct in the early 1990s, because when moderate Bosnian Muslims were suffering so greatly and the Governments of Western Europe and NATO were not prepared to do anything about it, we also refused to allow arms to go to those people to allow them to protect themselves and their families. The then Conservative Foreign Secretary – to whom we are always supposed to genuflect and who is often quoted by Ministers as though every word that he ever says, especially on Europe, should be carved in stone – said that we did not want to arm or to allow to be armed the Bosnian Muslims because we did not want to create "a level killing field".

If there is not a level killing field, there is an uneven killing field, where those who are doing the killing can do it with impunity. That is why, when making decisions about arms sales, it is not enough to say that arms going to a certain destination are automatically a bad thing. Sometimes, arms are necessary to deter, to defend or to liberate. We know a lot about that, because this country made mistakes in the past, disarming when we should not have done so.

I welcome the Bill's broad principles, but I do not want it to become a cudgel with which those who always hate anything to do with armaments, defence or force, even in the cause of democracy, can belabour those of us who believe in their necessity.