[Janet Anderson in the Chair] — Strategic Export Controls

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:21 pm on 22 February 2007.

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Photo of John Stanley John Stanley Conservative, Tonbridge and Malling 3:21, 22 February 2007

It is a pleasure to follow Roger Berry who, once again, has given thoroughly effective leadership to the Quadripartite Committee in carrying out its important and complex annual scrutiny of the Government's policy on arms exports. I shall cover three subjects, two of which the hon. Gentleman has already dealt with, but I hope that I can give one or two additional perspectives on them, as well as introducing a new dimension.

I should like to start with the international arms trade treaty. As has been said, there is perhaps a slightly worrying degree of mutual admiration between the Quadripartite Committee and the Government on that subject. I now risk adding to that by welcoming the entirely spontaneous and voluntary decision of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to offer to the Committee its draft submission to the UN Secretary-General in response to his request for Government views on what the content of the international arms trade treaty should be. That was an excellent initiative by the FCO and the members of the Committee have been very glad about that opportunity.

Perhaps I can take this moment to put on the public record two issues that relate to the treaty, which are I think very important. First, the Quadripartite Committee concluded at paragraph 186 of the report that

"the International Arms Trade Treaty must... (b) cover the trade in all conventional arms, including dual-use goods and technologies".

I am glad to see from the FCO's submission that it is the British Government's intention to try to extend the treaty to cover dual-use items. I fully appreciate that it is an extremely complex, commercially sensitive and difficult area, but we managed to cover dual use in the EU context, and I therefore hope that it will be possible to cover it in the worldwide international arms trade treaty. I do not suggest to the Minister that it should necessarily be a make-or-break issue. There may be points, when we have had the negotiation, at which we must settle for half or two thirds of the loaf on the basis that that is better than none, but I welcome the Government's efforts to get dual use included, and I very much hope that they will succeed.

The second issue that I want to raise is one to which I drew attention in an earlier debate in this Chamber on the report of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs on east Asia. We covered issues of proliferation, particularly with respect to North Korea. We always use the expression "arms trade treaty", but often we lose sight—I do so myself—of the crucial issue of trying to interdict movements of weapons that are internationally criminal or that violate international treaties, when those weapons are actually in transit.

When those weapons are in transit by air it is relatively easy, in theory at any rate, to seal them off when the aircraft comes on to a runway or landing strip. That can be sealed if the host country is willing. When they are in transit on land, again, it is relatively easy to interdict them, but there is a huge loophole in international law when weapons, or components of weapons, are being transited by sea. That fact was brought out in the FCO's response to our east Asia report:

"There is currently no legal base for intercepting shipments on the high seas containing ballistic missiles or components, materials or technology for them, which makes direct action against such shipments extremely difficult."

What applies to ballistic missiles and their components, and similar technology, applies to the whole gamut of conventional arms also.

I should therefore like to flag up to the Minister and the Government the fact that there is a huge legal loophole and that, in this world of global terrorism and global illicit trafficking of weapons and components, we must address the issue of trying to interdict those shipments when the ships carrying them are outside territorial waters, where they are subject to no legal control whatsoever at the moment.

The Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Kingswood, raised the issue of trafficking and brokering with great force and in a very compelling way. The issue that was transparently clear to the Quadripartite Committee and pretty well every other party outside the Government is that the present Government policy is nonsense. It does not stack up. Extraterritoriality—the ability to prosecute, in the United Kingdom, UK residents who commit trafficking and brokering offences that would be criminal if they were carried out in the UK—applies to so-called instruments of torture.

I recognise that officials have made a valiant effort in the relevant statutory instrument to define instruments of torture. We have descriptions of leg irons, shackles and types of handcuffs, and so on. However, in reality, no comprehensive definition of instruments of torture is possible. Almost anything can be used as an instrument of torture. As we know from the accounts of survivors, the victims of Nazi torture were subjected to having their flesh being burnt with lighted cigarettes. Appallingly, today, the torture instrument of choice in Iraq appears to be the electric drill.

At the other end of the scale, the Government are applying extraterritoriality to long-range missiles with a range in excess of 300 km. What is the sense of a cut-off range set at 300 km? Again, that policy makes no sense, and that was brought home vividly when I asked a question of the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Ms Hewitt. The exchange took place before the Committee on 3 April 2003 and was reported in paragraph 112 of the evidence in the first joint report of 2002-03. I asked the Secretary of State:

"How can you defend missiles above 300 k and not shorter?"

She turned to the official alongside her, Mr. Glyn Williams, and replied to the Committee:

"I wonder whether Mr Williams would like to comment on that because I am not aware of the detailed thinking on that one."

That was the end of her reply. The reality is that there is no logic, sense or justification for setting a range cut-off date for extraterritoriality in relation to missiles.

The hon. Member for Kingswood has referred to trafficking and brokering. I do not believe that that involves torture equipment to any significant degree, because there is no money in that and the people involved are interested only in money. It does not occur with long-range missiles because, by and large, that is Government-to-Government business. It occurs, as the hon. Gentleman said, with automatic weapons, rocket-propelled grenades, man-portable missiles and so on. The Government have conceded the principle—I commend and congratulate them on that—but they seem unwilling to concede the practice.

It is sad and regrettable that the Government in their reply simply parked the issue in the 2007 review and said that

"at this stage" they

"would not wish to prejudge the outcome of the review."

The issue has been around, as far as the Committee is concerned, for seven years. The Committee's excellent Clerk—I warmly echo the tribute to him by the hon. Member for Kingswood—kindly produced a complete list of the Quadripartite Committee's recommendations on trafficking and brokering. They began exactly seven years ago in February 2000. I have totted up the list of recommendations that the Clerk gave me, and we have made no less than 34 on this matter.

Every recommendation must have prompted a review with a submission to Ministers on how the Government should respond, so there must have been at least 34 reviews. The matter has been reviewed to death, and it is unnecessary to review it further. The Minister need not say so in the public domain—that would be embarrassing—but he may say it privately in the Tea Room that in his heart of hearts he knows that the Government's answer is just a cop-out from making a decision. All the issues are on the table and the facts are known, so I appeal again to the Government to scrap the review. Ministers do not need more information. The case for accepting the Committee's recommendations is clear-cut and overwhelming, and I hope that the Government will consider accelerating their decision, perhaps in response to this debate.

Another issue arises from a recommendation that the hon. Member for Kingswood quoted, but I have a particular angle to which he did not refer and which I hope will be helpful to the House. I want to put it on the record that I am referring to the recommendation in paragraph 158:

"We recommend that the Government explain the policy—that no weapons, equipment or components which could be deployed aggressively in the Occupied Territories will be licensed for export from the UK to Israel—in its reply to this Report. It would assist us if the Government gave examples of the equipment to which, in the light of the policy, it has refused to grant export licences."

Our report was finalised on 19 July last year, and I am certain that had it been finalised one month later, after the invasion of Lebanon, when we used the phrase,

"which could be deployed aggressively in the Occupied Territories", we would have added, "and in Lebanon."

I want to deal as factually, dispassionately and objectively as possible with the Israeli armed forces' use of cluster bombs in Lebanon. The facts as I know them from independent sources are as follows. The use of cluster bombs was on a truly massive scale and probably unprecedented in recent times. The United Nations produced a fact sheet in November 2006, and estimated that the number of bomblets dropped on Lebanon by the Israeli armed forces was some 4 million. The estimate excludes those that were dropped by the Israeli air force. This month, the UN produced a map showing that the total area in southern Lebanon over which the cluster bombs were sown covered a total of 2,400 sq km. The skilled statisticians in the Library tell me that that is equivalent to one and a half times the area of Greater London. It is worth reflecting on how we might react in this country if 4 million bomblets, with a known percentage failing to detonate, had been dropped in an area of the UK one and a half times that of Greater London.

Another fact that I want to put on the table comes from the UN Secretary-General's report of September 2006 on the implementation of the UN Security Council's ceasefire resolution 1701. That report states that an estimated 90 per cent. of all the cluster bombs dropped in Lebanon were dropped in the 72-hour period between the date of adoption of resolution 1701 on 11 August and the ceasefire which came into effect three days later on 14 August. In other words, in that 72-hour period, with the ceasefire about to come into effect, the Israeli armed forces chose to conduct a truly massive bombardment of a large area of southern Lebanon with cluster bombs that have—I repeat—a known rate of failure of detonation.

Those cluster bombs have, as we know, resulted predictably—I would say with absolute certainty—in a significant number of civilian deaths and maimings. I have noted with interest during the past few weeks that even the US State Department has reported to Congress that the Israelis' use of cluster bombs in the Lebanon conflict may have been in breach of agreements between the US and Israeli Governments on the use of cluster bombs. That background brings me to the UK dimension.

There is a UK dimension, because there is a commercial interface between the UK and Israel on cluster bombs. I have four questions for the Minister. I suspect that he will not be able to answer them in his response to this debate, but I hope that he will answer them in writing. I know that all Committee Members will be pleased to hear his answers.

The first question that I put to the Minister arises out of the paragraph 158 recommendation to which I have spoken in full. It is therefore on the record in full. In that recommendation, the Committee specifically asked the Government to provide examples of equipment for which they have refused to grant export licences to Israel. Their response to our request was 100 per cent. silence. I have been around long enough to become suspicious whenever Governments are silent, and I wonder whether they have anything to hide.

Why were no examples given of refusals? We know that cluster bomb components are made in the UK, and, from the answer given by the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, on 7 November 2006, that the Ministry's stockpile contains a significant number of cluster bombs that are apparently redundant for MOD use and described as being "out of service". I would be grateful if the Minister present told us whether there have been any requests to the Government for the exporting to Israel of components or, possibly, complete cluster bombs from the one known UK manufacturer, BAE Systems, and from the one holder of complete cluster bombs, the Ministry of Defence.

The second question that I put to the Minister arises out of another written answer given by the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, this time on 31 January 2005:

"I am not aware of any UK company manufacturing cluster munitions for export since 1998."—[Hansard, 31 January 2005; Vol. 430, c. 729W]

That answer is two years old. Does it still hold good or has there been any change in the period between its publication and today? Is any UK company manufacturing cluster munitions, which applies to components and to complete cluster bombs, for export?

The third question that I put to the Minister arises out of another answer given by the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, this time on 17 November 2003. It revealed that the Ministry has a truly massive contract with Israel Military Industries to purchase ground-launch cluster bomb shells, which come to this country having been manufactured almost entirely—apart from the fuse—in Israel. The fuse and the final packaging are produced in this country.

The answer revealed also that the contract involves the import from Israel Military Industries of 30,000 cluster bomb shells. Given the use made of cluster bombs by the Israelis in Lebanon last year, do the Government still consider it appropriate to provide such financial support through contracts to the Israeli cluster bomb manufacturing industry?

My final question to the Minister arises out of the answer that the Minister for the Middle East gave in his written ministerial statement on cluster munitions on 4 December 2006. He said that

"we announced our plan to withdraw from service by the middle of the next decade our so-called 'dumb' cluster munitions and called on other countries to do the same."—[Hansard, 4 December 2006; Vol. 454, c. 1WS.]

The policy question that I put to the Minister present is this: is it really going to take so long—to 2015—to withdraw dumb cluster bombs from the inventory of the British armed forces?

Those bombs, by virtue of being dumb, have no self-destruct mechanism. There is a known and apparently unavoidable rate at which bomblets do not detonate. Therefore, unless one is 100 per cent. certain that a dumb cluster bomb will land solely among one's military enemy, one will inescapably put civilians at risk. Should not the Government, in light of what happened in Lebanon, give serious consideration to trying to accelerate to a substantially nearer date the phasing out of dumb cluster munitions by the British armed forces?

In conclusion, the Quadripartite Committee appears to be a somewhat unwieldy body, but it has proved, by the rather empirical basis on which it was set up, to be the right mechanism for discharging this Parliament's important responsibility for scrutinising the Government of the day in the area we are considering. Though we in the Committee are not remotely complacent, and though we will consider at all times how we can improve our performance, I sincerely believe that the mechanism in place is one of the best mechanisms, possibly even the best, for the parliamentary scrutiny of arms exports by any country in the democratic world.