[Mr David Amess in the Chair] — Arms Sales (Human Rights)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:33 pm on 17th September 2015.

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Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development) 2:33 pm, 17th September 2015

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I am reminded of the early days of the Scottish Parliament, when it was chaired by Sir David Steel, who was also addressed as “Sir David”. If the House of Commons ever seeks a change, who knows, they might welcome that opportunity back up the road.

I pay tribute to Ann Clwyd for securing this very valuable and timely debate. I also pay tribute to her long-standing commitment to the issue of the arms trade and to the peace movement. She is joined in that by Jeremy Corbyn. Sadly, he has not made it to Westminster Hall today, although I do not know what the conventions are. I also pay tribute to all the Members who have made extremely valuable speeches. I hope that the Minister will have time to respond to their points, particularly the specific points about countries of concern such as Israel, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, and some of the powerful points made by my hon. Friend Dr Cameron on the issue of child soldiers.

When I was a student, I had the opportunity to visit New York and the United Nations, which is committed to the building of peace and stability around the world. I was struck by a display—nowadays, we would call it an infographic—that showed the proportion of arms sales to the cost of just about everything else that the UN is there to try to achieve: the cost of universal free education; the cost of ending hunger; and the cost of providing clean water and sanitation to everyone in the world who lives without that. The arms trade dwarfed all those other things. That image has stayed with me ever since. I saw it in the days before smartphones were ubiquitous, so I was not able to grab a photo of it, but I know that similar infographics and statistics are all too readily available nowadays.

Figures reported recently in The Independent showed that British companies secured export deals for weaponry that were worth £8.5 billion in the past year. By comparison, the departmental expenditure limit for the Department for International Development is only slightly more than that figure, at £11 billion.

The trade in arms is “the trade in death”, as it has been described by numerous thinkers and peace campaigners, not least various popes. Today is the anniversary of the speech to this Parliament by Pope Benedict XVI, in which he spoke about the arms trade and its insidious impact on stability and security around the world. The money that goes to waste on arms when it could be spent on much better and more important things is truly shocking, and one of the great scandals of the modern world.

The regulation around arms has also come up many times. Amnesty cites the interesting fact that there are more international laws regulating the trade in bananas than regulating the trade in weapons. Even with the arms trade treaty, which I will come back to, it seems that very little consideration is given to the end-use of a lot of weapons. The arms trade is seen simply as a valuable export market and a way of achieving economic growth, but economic growth should not come at any cost.

The UK Government’s dealings on this issue go way back. In 1966, Denis Healey set up the Defence Sales Organisation, which was located within the Ministry of Defence. Today, it goes by the name of the UK Trade and Investment Defence and Security Organisation. However, its essential purpose remains, which is to sell UK military equipment overseas.

As we have heard today, all too often such sales are made to regimes that have a terrible record on human rights. According to the Campaign Against Arms Trade, UKTI DSO is staffed by about 130 civil servants, to say nothing of the high-profile political and royal visits that work behind the scenes to promote the trade in arms. That support for military sales helps arms to account for less than 1.4% of UK exports. According to CAAT’s research, sectors covering the remaining 98.6% have 107 dedicated civil servants. That is completely out of proportion, given the things that we are trying to achieve.

As we have heard, in 2014 the UK approved arms export licences to 18 of the countries that the FCO lists as countries of concern. Despite the well-documented repression and human rights abuses, some of those countries have been priority markets for UK arms sales. Since the UK Government do so much to help companies to promote their sales, it is inconceivable when it comes to issuing export controls that licences will be refused. Regulation through export licensing is at risk of becoming little more than a bureaucratic exercise. As we have heard, it seems that the only time that arms export licences are revoked is when the Government are shamed or embarrassed by coverage in the media, for example, during the Arab uprising.

We live in a world in which there are structures and conventions that ought to prevent that. I mentioned the arms trade treaty, which is the subject of a hugely successful and long-running campaign by a large number of civil society organisations around the world. Article 13 requires annual reporting on the sales. I wonder whether the Minister can tell us today whether the annual report will include an assessment of the end-use and the end-users of UK-supplied equipment and arms. Article 10 requires regulation of brokering. Perhaps the Government can tell us when it will introduce a register of arms brokers in the UK.

Of course, the debate today is taking place in the context of the DSEI exhibition at the ExCeL centre in London. Amnesty has identified nine companies that have violated UK law at past DSEI events—at least one at each event between 2005 and 2013. What steps are the Government taking to enforce controls at their own arms fairs? Will they commit to prosecuting any company found in breach of the law?

At the end of the day, the arms trade is a choice; it is not a necessity or something that we should depend upon, celebrate or think is the only way of growing the UK economy. It is increasingly difficult to see how the trade, especially in its current forms, can be compatible with the human rights obligations to which this country has rightly chosen to commit, so I look forward to the Minister’s response.