The death and destruction superstore

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PARKER HALL'S PDW is, the company says, the most advanced machine pistol of its kind. It will spit out 400 rounds of 9mm bullets a minute and can shred a man at 100 yards. At pounds 800 a gun, it will also make the company lots of money.

This "wonderful example of British engineering", as David Cockayne, the chief executive, calls it, is expected to be much in demand for military and police forces around the world.

Mr Cockayne said: "I would not want to knowingly send this to governments who are oppressive, but one cannot guarantee that they will not find their way there. As far as making money out of guns goes, well, no one wants to see death and destruction. But guns don't kill people; people kill people. There is a demand for guns and that's why this business exists."

And business is booming for Britain's arms manufacturers. There was no shortage of buyers at yesterday's Contingency and Operational Procurement Exhibition (Copex), one of the country's biggest defence fairs, at Sandown Park, in Surrey.

The fair has become a focal point for protesters since it first took place, 16 years ago. Last year 24 demonstrators were arrested outside Wembley Conference Centre, in north London. A few years ago campaigners against the arms trade branded the fair the "torturers' Tesco" in response to claims that electric-shock torture batons were on sale there.

Yesterday, once again, there were pickets outside. The exhibition was in the public spotlight as the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, published his annual report on the export of weapons yesterday afternoon. And recently ministers have faced questions over illegal torture equipment advertised on an official government website.

Carl Meadows, a Copex executive, said: "The anti-arms-trade campaigners thought that once Labour got in power, the arms trade would simply be banned. How naive can you get? Of course, everything that is sold abroad needs a DTI [Department of Trade and Industry] export licence, and of course, the Labour Government has an ethical policy on defence sales: they are meant not to sell to dictators. But of course, they do; the DTI can give a licence to anyone it wants to."

The Campaign Against Arms Trade accuses Copex of ultra-secretiveness and is demanding a "citizens' inspection" of the exhibition. If the campaign manages to make such an inspection, it will not find many wild-eyed Rambo characters. The arms trade is a business with serious money, attracting serious players.

But demonstrators outside Copex yesterday were not admitting defeat. There were banners reading: "Stop Selling Torture and Repression". A Buddhist couple sat cross-legged on the ground, steadily beating a drum, with pictures of Buddha, Christ and the Dalai Lama before them. Les Gibbons, a social worker from Fareham, Hampshire, who was arrested at Wembley last year, said: "We are here because we think it is wrong to profit from weapons of death. We are here because a lot of people object to this. The public are with us, not the people inside there."