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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:39 pm on 17th September 2015.

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Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Shadow Foreign Secretary 2:39 pm, 17th September 2015

It is a great pleasure to participate in this debate under your chairmanship, Sir David. I begin by congratulating my right hon. Friend Ann Clwyd on securing this debate and above all on her passionate and determined campaigning on this issue over many years. I also thank the Members who served previously on the Committee on Arms Export Controls. I echo the comment on the need to re-establish that Committee as quickly as possible in the new Parliament.

I begin by saying that in an uncertain world, we need to acknowledge—uncomfortable though it is for some—that the defence industry plays a part in enabling us to protect our own security. States have the right to acquire the means to defend themselves. We are commemorating the 75th anniversary of the day in the battle of Britain when the RAF in effect defeated the Luftwaffe. If we had not had Spitfires and Hurricanes, where would we have been as a nation?

My hon. Friend Rachael Maskell raised an important point about Daesh. She is absolutely right that it has in all probability acquired weapons that had been supplied to others: the Government of Iraq and perhaps the peshmerga, to whom we have supplied some heavy machine guns. We did that because they are trying to protect themselves from a brutal group of people who rape, enslave and sell women, decapitate aid workers and recruit child soldiers. Dr Cameron spoke about the effect that that has on children. Their childhoods have been stolen, which is something I saw for myself in the Democratic Republic of the Congo when I was the International Development Secretary. We have to acknowledge that defence is an important industry in the UK, providing 160,000 jobs directly and 100,000 indirectly.

Just as arms exports can be a force that enables countries to protect themselves, the opposite can also be the case, and that is why it is vital that we have a responsible trade in arms exports. It is why we have to ensure that the system has proper accountability and transparency and is correctly exercised, including in respect of human rights. We have the export licensing criteria and the EU consolidated criteria, which show what can be achieved by working together within the European Union. I pay tribute in particular to the last Labour government and the late Robin Cook, who played such an important part in bringing that about. Reference has also been made to the arms trade treaty, which Britain campaigned on for many years and was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2013.

It has been said in the debate—we will no doubt hear this from the Minister—that we have one of the toughest regimes in the world. The rules are there and they are clear; the issue is how they are applied in respect of particular applications, and scrutiny of that is the responsibility of the Committee on Arms Export Controls. We have heard how during the Arab spring, there was a great deal of controversy over UK arms exports to middle eastern and north African countries, including Bahrain and Libya. The Committee expressed some concerns, which led to some of the licences being revoked. The Committee asked questions about the decision-making process that led to the granting of the licences in the first place and about the speed with which decisions are taken when it is finally decided that there is a risk of breaching the guidance. I think that that led to the then Foreign Secretary, William Hague, to announce that the Government would

“introduce a mechanism to allow immediate licensing suspension to countries experiencing a sharp deterioration in security or stability.”—[Hansard, 7 February 2012; Vol. 540, c. 7WS.]

We heard from my hon. Friend Jo Stevens that there is a question on how that is applied. Improvements have been made to the transparency of the system, and transparency is important, because it allows all of us to hold the Government and the Committee to account.

The Committee expressed concern when the Government decided that they would delete from the consolidated criteria the words:

“An export licence will not be issued if the arguments for doing so are outweighed by…concern that the goods might be used for internal repression.”

The Government’s argument in response was that it was a general statement that formed part not of the criteria, but of the introductory text. If that is the case, I wonder why it was felt necessary to remove the words, because they did seem to send a signal. Sir John Stanley, who chaired the Committee, expressed concerns about that. At the time, he expressed the concern that too many licences were initially being given that subsequently had to be suspended or revoked. I think that change was in a backwards direction. The Government may try to argue to the contrary, but the change sends a signal.

The question of Yemen and the great humanitarian crisis there has been raised in the debate. My hon. Friend Paul Flynn described how more than 80% of the population is in need of humanitarian assistance, including 10 million children. Some 500,000 children are severely malnourished. The aid agencies have serious access problems and report aid being diverted, not on the basis of need, but depending on where people were and who they were believed to be supporting in the conflict. I know the Minister has a lot to reply to and will not have time—if he could write to us all, it would be appreciated—but will he respond to reports of attacks on civilian targets, including those on “Newsnight” last week? What discussions are he and his FCO colleagues having with their Saudi counterparts about the conflict and these concerns? Given that it is reported that since the conflict began, the Government have issued a further 37 arms export licences to Saudi Arabia, does he know whether the defence equipment we have sold has been used in that conflict? Has he made an assessment of whether that is consistent with the consolidated criteria?

In the “United Kingdom Strategic Export Controls Annual Report 2014”, published in July this year, the Government set out that their policy on arms exports to Israel would be “subject to further review”. Will the Minister confirm whether that remains the case?

Finally, will the Minister comment on the invitations issued to countries to attend the biennial Defence and Security Equipment International arms fair this week? We heard from a number of Members that they include countries on the FCO’s list of countries of concern on human rights grounds. What criteria were used to judge whether those countries, given that they are on that list, could be invited? Were any countries not invited because they were on the list and the Government thought it inappropriate? Given what Dr Mathias said, will he confirm that no cluster bombs or torture equipment are being displayed or sold at the fair?

The debate has been extremely important, and we are all grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley for giving us the chance to raise these matters. Like everyone, I look forward to the Minister’s response.