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MONDAY   1   DECEMBER   2014

HoC Arms Export Controls Committee:  Scrutiny of Arms Exports (2015):

In the chair: Sir John Stanley MP

1st group of witnesses:

Vince Cable, BIS Secretary

Edward Bell, Head, Export Control Organisation

Chris Chew, Head of Policy, Export Control Organisation

The following is transcribed from the Hansard video http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=16660 @ 15:37:35

– JS: We are now going to turn to arms export policy to countries of concern, and we are going to start with Israel. Secretary of State, I wrote to you on 14th August this year as follows:  Following your statement on August 12th that the Government would suspend 12 of its extant arms export licences to Israel in the event of a resumption of significant hostilities, please could you identify which are the 12 extant licences to which you were referring within the list of the 470 extant licences to Israel that you detailed in your reply to me of 12th May 2014? And in your reply to me of 3rd September you responded to my request as follows: We do not feel it would be right at this stage to give public exposure to the licences. I have to say, Secretary of State, that does seem to us to be a very flimsy and non-transparent reply to a straight-forward request for information. And given the terms in which you did reply, the Committees are left wondering whether the real reason for your unwillingness to tell us the details of these 12 licences is to protect the Government from possible embarrassment, embarrassment first of all because the Government has approved the 12 licences in question – which is why they are extant – and embarrassment also because the Government has clearly has identified these 12 licences and the arms or components or technology that are covered by those licences as items that could well be used for internal repression if there is a resumption of significant hostilities. And as you have concluded that that could happen in the future then it would seem likely that those same items, British items, may already have been used by the Israeli Defence Forces in the recent actions that they have taken in Gaza resulting in the deaths of very, very, substantial numbers of men, women and children who were not in any way Hamas militants. And so, Secretary of State, I have to ask you why is the Government not prepared to reveal the details of these licences to this Committee?

– Vince Cable: Well, let me the second part of this question first, and that is the issue of transparency and declaration. The reason why we haven’t volunteered the detail is precisely the reason why we haven’t volunteered that information to you on exports to Russia. It’s got nothing at all to do with the merits or otherwise of the country; it’s to do with the fact that these are extant licences and they are open, operational licences. And there is an assumption in Government that any company that was exposed in this way could reasonably sue the Government. That is why we haven’t done it. What we have done in the past, and to try and help you in your work –  you will know this in relation to the exchanges that we had on Syria –  is that where material is confidential we are very happy to relate it on a confidential basis so that you can be clear to yourselves what’s happening. I think the public declaration of information on extant licences is something we do not release, whether it’s to Israel, Russia or any other country. So that is the explanation. In regard to the licences themselves, I would just explain what was actually a very complicated story of the summer. When the fighting broke out it was very clear that issues of arms licencing would occur and investigation was initiated into what equipment was involved. And I think it’s slightly in parenthesis but it’s important to explain I think that our trade with Israel doesn’t consist of selling tanks or aircraft to their defence services. Much of it covered by the licencing regime consists of supply chains, complex electronic equipment. Because Israel is a very high-tech exporter whose companies are involved with those supply chains. So it’s not a straight forward matter. So that there was an investigation undertaken, as you say of 400 plus items. Out of that it was identified I think that out of that 40 could conceivably or potentially be used in a way that would be against the Consolidated Criteria in the Gaza conflict, and of those 40 twelve were identified as potentially presenting a risk, and that’s why the action was subsequently taken. So that’s the numerical explanation. In terms of where we are going now, we have done – and this I think answers both parts of your question – what we have done is initiated an investigation into all of the extant licences to Israel, what they are, what potential risk they might pose, whether or not an error was made in maintaining them or not is the issue. And we are going to present a report and we are going to present it to you when it is ready, subject of course to the confidentiality proviso that I stated at the beginning.

– EB: Yes, there is a review under way of extant export licencing and the licencing new applications for Israel, and we will make the results of that review public.


– JS: Secretary of State, I found the first part of your answer frankly completely extraordinary. You do reveal details of extant licences. Can I refer you to Annex IX of our latest report, where there are 200 pages of details of extant licenses to Countries of Concern, including Israel. So with greatest respect, it is absolute nonsense for you to say that you do not give details of extant licenses. You do. You give them to the Committee and the Committee has published them. I stress – if you are referring to names of companies – I stress that in the original letter that I sent to you I did not ask for the names of the companies; I merely asked for the details of the extant licenses.


– VC: Well in that case I misunderstood your question. I thought you were wanting full information, rather on the lines of our previous correspondence on Syria. So I misunderstood your question. But certainly, information compatible with what we’ve done before is not a problem, shouldn’t be a problem, and we’ll make it available.


-JS: Well will you then very kindly, by December 15th give us, among the 470 extant licences to Israel, which are the 12 that you were referring to in your reply to me? Can we have that information?


– VC: Absolutely. I thought you were asking for the names of the companies, which is where the…

– JS: No, no reference was made to the names of the companies in my original letter or in my question.


– Richard Benyon: Secretary of State, in your announcement in August about the possibility of suspending and revoking arms export licences to Israel, the words “in the event of a resumption of significant hostilities”. It’s been put to us that the phrase “significant hostilities” appears nowhere in existing transfer control criteria, nor in any user guides on implementation of criteria currently used by licensing officials working across the EU. Can I ask you or your official where the phrase “significant hostilities” comes from? Because there is a concern that this demonstrates a weakening of UK arms export policy.

– VC: Well, I think it is a question you will have to put to the Foreign Secretary because this came from his judgement. Because as you know I don’t run my own foreign policy or defence policy. We rely on the Foreign Office for judgements in military situations. He advised us that this would be an appropriate rhetoric.

– RB: So even though your Department has primary responsibility for the issuing of export licences….

– VC: Yes, but we rely on the Foreign Office for advice on the political and the human rights and the conflict elements within it.

– RB: But you surely govern the policy in these areas. So if another department tries to push a different agenda which would actually change your department’s policy, would there not be a free and full and frank discussion, shall we say?

– VC: Well, there were full and frank discussions, and this was the outcome.

– RB: It’s been reported in the press – in the Independent on the 23rd November –    that Britain approved the sale of arms to Israel worth over £7m in the six months before the offensive in Gaza earlier this year, and that this included components for drones, combat aircraft and helicopters along with spare parts for sniper rifles. Which would, if that’s true – and we’ve all been the victim of improper press reporting – but if that were true that would suggest rather more than simply systems which you rightly say that Israel is a very high-tech country, and a very advanced country and there is a free flow of IT and related technologies between ourselves and them. So surely this comes down to about there being a clear risk that certain types of arms and their components have been used by Israel and they could be used in the future. Therefore, surely this is a point in time when there should be a revoking of these licences now.

– VC: Well I think what I would say about that is – the Chairman has already asked for a list of the extant licences, and I think that will be available to you and will answer your question. I would just make another point, that various groups have taken legal action of judicial review on this set of issues and so there obviously is a limit of what we can say on the particular question you asked without creating serious problems of compromising the Government position, much as though I would love to be as open with you as I can.


[Passage omitted: Mike Gapes and Mike Crockart ask about Hong Kong and Russia respectively]


– JS: What is particularly important to put into the public domain is whether the export has been approved to go to a private sector company or whether it’s been approved to go to a state security organisation. And that is particularly relevant for a country of human rights concern. And therefore I do put it to you for serious consideration that the Government should move its policy on and as a matter of course should be disclosing both the end users within countries, as well as the countries of destination themselves  […….]  very important for a country like Israel.

[Passage omitted: Ann McKechin asks a general question about export of surveillance technology; Mike Crockart on the Export Control Organisation’s computer system]

2nd group of witnesses: @ 16:18.28

Philip Hammond, Foreign Secretary

Jessica Hand, Head, Arms Export Policy Department

Peter Jones, Director, Defence and International Security, FCO

[passage omitted: Mike Gapes and Julian Lewis ask about Russia; Chair and Mike Gapes ask about Hong Kong; Ann Clwyd and Julian Lewis ask about Bahrain, Qatar, Kurdish groups opposing ISIL; Fabian Hamilton asks arms gifted to opposition groups in Syria; Ann McKechin asks about encouraging countries to join the Arms Trade Treaty; Mike Gapes on whether the UK will attend the Vienna conference on the humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons; Mike Crockart on surveillance and communications technology]

@ 17:15:10

– John Stanley: Foreign Secretary, lastly a question about export policy towards Israel, which the Business Secretary generously passed across to you. Richard Benyon.


– Richard Benyon: Yes, following the public concern about events in Gaza, the Government announced the possibility of suspending and revoking arms export licences to Israel and I quote: “in the event of a resumption of significant hostilities”. Now, as we put in the Committee, the words “significant hostilities” appear neither in any user guides nor in any existing transfer control criteria. I put it to Dr Cable that this is a possible shift in policy, and he said “not me ‘guv”, the Foreign Secretary makes these decisions and his department just implements the policy.

– Philip Hammond: The Foreign Secretary provides advice to the Business Secretary, who makes the decision [ed: ripple of laughter in the Committee]. That is the legal position. So, the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary provide advice; export licensing decisions are made by the Business Secretary. He is the secretary of state as provided for in the legislation. However, I am not seeking to hide behind that, I do provide advice and I will tell you how we arrived at the expression of that advice in the way that we did. This came in the aftermath of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, when we reviewed the extant licences and we identified 12 licences where they relate to technologies or items which we believe might give rise in the circumstances of renewed conflict to a concern about their use in contravention of criterion 2c, the international humanitarian law criterion. Unless and until there is a resumption of significant hostility we do not judge that the items delivered under those 12 licences give rise to that concern. If there was a context of a significant hostility we judge that the precautionary principle would apply and the licences should be suspended.

– RB: Sorry to a pedant, but the words “significant hostility” potentially then does shift in terms of how policy is decided in these areas.

PhH: No, I think the issue here is that where licences are extant and there is any turbulence in the situation, changing facts on the ground, we would expect to regularly review whether any of the consolidated criteria were engaged. In this case we were under pressure to set out our views about these licences. And what we have done, gratuitously, there’s no obligation on us to do this, we have expressed in advance what we think would be the situation. So we’ve identified 12 licences and we have said if a set of circumstances on the ground were to arise, i.e. there were to be a resumption of hostility, the advice that I would expect to give to the Business Secretary in those circumstances is that it would be appropriate to suspend those 12 licences. So we have provided a forewarning of the advice that would likely be delivered in those circumstances.

– JS: Fabian Hamilton, last question.

– Fabian Hamilton: A very, very simple question. Can you therefore reassure this Committee Foreign Secretary that isn’t one rule for Israel, which is often in the headlines for its conflicts, and another rule for everybody else, that what you apply to them would apply to everybody else?

– PhH: Yes, we use the same consolidated criteria, and in this case we’ve got a slightly unusual situation because there has been a period of intensive conflict; it has then ended; I think that conflict is not continuing. And we have looked at systems that are licensed for export, components that are licensed for export, in the light of whether there is a risk that they would be used in breach of international humanitarian law; and in the case of these 12 licences we have judged that there would be such a risk if significant hostilities were to resume. And that’s why we’ve make the announcement that we have.