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Arms Export Licences (Saudi Arabia)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:24 am on 26th September 2019.

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Photo of Elizabeth Truss Elizabeth Truss The Secretary of State for International Trade and President of the Board of Trade, Minister for Women and Equalities 11:24 am, 26th September 2019

Today, I will be tabling a written ministerial statement updating Parliament on the latest situation in relation to the undertaking given to the Court of Appeal on 20 June about export licences for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners. As the Government informed the Court on 16 September and followed up with an affidavit today, my Department identified errors in the export licensing procedure in relation to the Saudi coalition’s activities in the conflict in Yemen.

As I stated publicly on 16 September, I unreservedly apologise for the export licences that my Department issued in error. I have also given my unreserved apology to the Court. A procedure to ensure that export licences for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners are not granted for goods for possible use in the conflict in Yemen was put in place on 20 June 2019. That followed the Court order and the then Secretary of State’s statement to Parliament.

The Export Control Joint Unit subsequently issued export licences for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners and, in line with the agreed procedure, these were signed off at official, rather than ministerial, level. It subsequently came to light that two licences were in breach of the Court undertaking, and one licence was granted contrary to the statement in Parliament, as these licences were for goods that could possibly be used in the conflict in Yemen.

Without seeking to prejudice the independent investigation, it appears that information pertaining to the conflict had not been fully shared across Government. I took immediate action as soon as the issue was brought to my attention on 12 September: taking immediate steps to inform the Court and Parliament; putting in place immediate interim procedures to make sure the errors could not happen again; and instigating a complete and full internal review of all licences granted for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners since 20 June. The Department’s permanent secretary, on my behalf, commissioned a full internal investigation.

The Court and Parliament were informed on 16 September with the appropriate detail, and the interim procedures mean that senior officials in the Department for International Trade, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence guarantee that the latest information available to Government is used in their advice. All recommendations to grant licences for the export of items for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners will now be referred to Ministers, rather than being signed off at official level. The full review of licences for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners is currently being undertaken, and this internal review is still ongoing.

As a result of the internal review so far, we have identified one further licence that has been granted in breach of the undertaking given to the Court of Appeal. This licence has not been used and has now been revoked.

My officials are also carrying out an urgent review of the composition of the coalition. This has identified a further licence that is in breach of the parliamentary statement. We reassessed the licence in light of the latest information and subsequently revoked it in so far as it applies to Jordan.

My officials continue to review all the information relating to licences granted for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners since 20 June 2019, and we will be open and transparent with the Court and Parliament as to any new issues that emerge. In addition, the DIT permanent secretary, on my behalf, has commissioned a full independent investigation, which will establish the precise circumstances in which the licences were granted and whether any other licences have been granted in breach of the undertaking to the Court or contrary to the parliamentary statement, and it will confirm that procedures are in place so that no further breaches of the undertaking can occur.

This investigation will be led by an independent senior official: the director general of policy group for the Department of Work and Pensions. It is possible that more cases will come to light. As I have done so far, I will keep the Court and Parliament informed as to any new information that emerges.