Arms-and-aid details held back by Foreign Office

THE Foreign Office has refused a request from MPs to reveal details of arms sales to countries which have received development aid.

The refusal has angered members of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee which is investigating the Malaysian aid-for-arms scandal. Next week the committee is to question Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, and Baroness Chalker, the Overseas Development minister, over the Pergau dam affair.

They face accusations that the British Government gave Malaysia pounds 234m in development aid and pounds 45.8m in soft loans towards the building of the Pergau dam, which officials warned was 'an abuse of the aid system' in order to secure a pounds 1bn arms export order for British defence companies. A UK company, Balfour Beatty, won the contract to build the dam.

The Foreign Office agreed to supply a list of countries and projects which had received money from the Overseas Development Administration under the Government's Aid and Trade Provision. But officials refused to give details of arms exports to these countries from British companies on the grounds of commercial confidentiality.

Yesterday the select committee met and agreed to press their request for details of arms exports by British companies.

Figures collated by the Independent show a strong correlation between the amount of aid granted and the value of arms sales between 1980 and 1992-93. UK overseas development aid is supposed to support the world's poorest countries. But research by the World Development Movement shows that some of the recipients of the largest sums are relatively rich. Malaysia's gross national product per capita is dollars 2,520 compared with dollars 100 to dollars 120 in Somalia and Ethiopia.

The arms exports figures, compiled by the Stockholm International Peace and Research Institute, show some of the main recipients of UK aid also received some of the biggest arms export orders. The 10 listed in the table are all in the top 33 countries out of the 79 to which British defence companies exported weapons systems between 1980 and 1992-93. India, Indonesia, Oman, Nigeria, Jordan and Pakistan are in the top 12 countries which placed orders with Britain in terms of the value of weapons delivered.

Decisions the select committee is likely to investigate include the granting of pounds 117m aid for another dam project in Sri Lanka. As the Independent on Sunday revealed two weeks ago, the pounds 202m Samanalawewa Dam project won aid in 1985 despite objections from ODA officials on technical and economic grounds. Sri Lanka awarded arms export orders to British firms worth pounds 36m in 1985 and 1986.

Foreign Office ministers will face further challenges in the Commons on Tuesday. Liberal Democrat leaders have tabled a half-day debate on the Pergau dam scandal. Two Foreign Office ministers, Mark Lennox-Boyd and Alastair Goodlad, will face attacks over the misuse of aid funds.