Torture trade comes to town: MPs condemn secrecy at ExCel arms fair

Last year the event was used to advertise illegal torture devices such as leg irons and electric batons

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The Independent Online

MPs fear that some exhibitors at  the world’s biggest arms fair, to be held in London in September, could try to use the event to promote the sale of instruments of torture.

The powerful Arms Export Control Committee had hoped to see the terms of the agreement between the company running Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI), Clarion Events, and the Government before the general election.

The four-day biennial event at ExCel in east London attracts about 1,500 exhibitors including major defence groups such as BAE Systems, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin to show  off everything from battlefield medical kit to warships to more than 32,000 delegates. It has also, however,  been used by some companies to advertise torture devices such as leg irons and electric batons. The sale of such products is illegal in the UK.

In a strongly worded report last year, the committee demanded to see the memorandum of understanding between private equity-owned Clarion and the Department for Business over the running of DSEI, which is negotiated in the months before the event. The MPs wanted to make sure that the agreement would ensure Clarion’s responsibilities if any exhibitors’ flouted UK regulations were made clear.

But the agreement will not be ready until after the election, even though DSEI registration commenced at the start of February.

Ann McKechin, the Labour MP for Glasgow North who sits on the committee, said: “It is disappointing that this has been delayed until after the election. This memorandum won’t be ready now until a matter of a few weeks before DSEI starts, when exhibitors and attendees will have already booked their flights, hotels and stands.

“There’s a lack of transparency here. We were given the indication that we would see the memorandum around the start of the year.”

Last year’s report warned that there was a “self-evident lack of clarity in the present criminal legislation”, meaning that firms felt they could get away with promotional material for items that could be used for torture. The committee added that it wanted to be informed of the details of the agreement with Clarion as early as possible this year.

A Whitehall source conceded there had been problems with a “very tiny proportion” of exhibitors in the past, but that they had been quickly ejected. The source added: “There have been a small number regrettable incidents of exhibitors displaying literature about goods whose export from the UK are banned.”

A Business department spokeswoman said: “We are working with Clarion to put a memorandum of understanding in place which sets out their obligations and those of their exhibitors under the law. We expect to publish this early in the summer.”

Providence Equity bought Clarion for more than £200m at the start of the year, a deal that prompted protests by the Stop the Arms Fair campaign group.