Labour policy on arms sales 'fails ethical test'

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ARMS MANUFACTURERS are more likely to have their export licence applications approved by the Labour Government than under its predecessor, new figures have revealed.

The disclosure casts doubt on how much has changed under Labour's "more ethical" foreign policy, which was supposed to prevent arms exports to repressive regimes.

Fewer than 1 per cent of applications were turned down between August 1997 and August 1998, the Government disclosed in evidence to a House of Commons committee. The number of applications was running at almost the same rate as under the Conservatives.

The figures emerged as ministers faced criticism for their failure to implement the recommendations of the Scott report into the Arms to Iraq affair, which was completed nearly three years ago.

A report yesterday from the Trade and Industry Select Committee said there were "gaping holes" in Parliament's ability to hold ministers to account. Emergency legislation passed 60 years ago was still in use, yet plans to update it would not be implemented this year.

The committee expressed "disappointment" that controls on the end-use of weapons exported from Britain still had not been tightened. It also called for new rules on the "licensed production" of arms abroad by British companies, a growing trend that was revealed in The Independent in October.

The Government's first annual report on arms sales, delayed since the summer, is expected in the next few weeks. The new figures on the proportion of arms export licences that are refused were given to the committee in evidence from the Department of Trade and Industry. Although they do not give a full picture, they do give an indication of what has happened since the general election.

In the year from August 1997, 11,723 individual arms licence applications were granted and 89 refused - 0.75 per cent. In the 10 months up to the general election in May 1997, 9,846 such licences were granted and 85 refused - 0.85 per cent. On average, there were 984 licence applications per month in the period before the election and 977 after.

Rachel Harford, of the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, said the figures confirmed the suspicion that there had been little change. "The present system is weighted heavily in favour of the military industry," she added.

Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, said there was a need for up-to-date legislation. "It is all the more necessary since the evidence seems to suggest that this Government is refusing a similar proportion of applications to its predecessor," he said.

A Foreign Office spokesman said looking at the proportion of licences refused was not a sensible way of measuring the implementation of the policy.

"The Government has kept in close contact with industry ... and British firms understand the new rules. You would not expect them to submit applications which they knew would be refused," he said.