Arms company faces Commons scrutiny: Labour aims to establish if firm broke trade embargoes. Tim Kelsey reports

THE arms-exporting record of Royal Ordnance, as a state-run and then a private company, will be put under parliamentary scrutiny in the new year in an attempt to establish if the company broke national and international embargoes.

David Clark, Labour's defence spokesman, is to table a series of questions challenging the Government to describe the extent of its knowledge of exports by Britain's largest weapons manufacturer since the early 1980s.

Royal Ordnance was a state-run business until 1987 when it was sold to British Aerospace.

Dr Clark also plans to write to Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, to ask him to comment on the report in yesterday's Independent which disclosed that Royal Ordnance has been accused of helping a German arms manufacturer breach sanctions.

It has been alleged during a court case in Germany that the company was involved in systematic evasion of international embargoes to a greater extent than that disclosed by the current Scott inquiry, with its remit restricted to arms supplied to Iraq.

East Germany, a former potential enemy, and the Nicaraguan Contras are among alleged recipients of machine-guns made by the German firm Heckler & Koch, but routed through Royal Ordnance in the UK when a state-run concern.

'I just find it appalling that the British Government must have been aware that these weapons were going to our enemies,' Dr Clark said. 'East German soldiers were trained to fight our men. It just shows how sleazy and corrupt the Government has been.'

The accusations were made during the trial of Walter Lamp, the managing director of Heckler & Koch, one of Germany's most famous arms companies, which manufactures machine-guns and rifles. They focus on an attempt to ship more than 1,100 machine-guns via the UK to the United Arab Emirates in 1987.

Italian police, who first discovered the shipment, believe that it was destined for Iraq. The prosecution has evidence of up to 50 shipments via the UK to several banned destinations.

Mr Clark intends to ask the Government how much it knew of the relationship between Royal Ordnance and Heckler & Koch both before and after it was privatised in 1987. The Independent reports today that H & K weapons were exported in 1992 to parts of the former Yugoslavia after the imposition of the UN embargo. At this time, H & K was a wholly owned subsidiary of Royal Ordnance.

Mr Clark will also be tabling a series of questions regarding alleged exports by Royal Ordnance to other destinations, including Iran. He is seeking to establish who gave sanction for these alleged exports and whether Margaret Thatcher or John Major, or any of their ministers, had knowledge of them.

This is not the first time that Royal Ordnance exports have come under scrutiny. The company has been accused by the US Senate of selling rocket propellant to Iraq. The Independent on Sunday disclosed last year that the company had been involved in an international network supplying artillery ammunition to Iran in the 1980s.

Separately, Royal Ordnance was accused of shipping explosives to the Iran-Iraq battlefield in spite of sanctions. It has also been forced to admit that it helped to construct a weapons plant for the Iranians. Royal Ordnance has repeatedly said it cannot be held responsible for the ultimate destination of its products, but that it exports its goods in full accordance with British law.

Royal Ordnance's relationship with H & K went back well before it bought the German company in 1991. In 1986, the two companies signed a letter of intent to collaborate on research and sales. But even before that, it has been alleged by the prosecution in the German court case, H & K guns were being imported by Royal Ordnance and assembled at its plant in Enfield, north London.

The prosecution claims that H & K used Royal Ordnance as a means of breaching stringent German export laws which forbid sales to trouble spots around the world, not all of which are banned under British law.

It is alleged that Royal Ordnance falsified documents and then helped with the re-export of the weapons to their real destinations. These, according to the prosecution, included the Lebanon in 1982, the Nicaraguan Contras in 1986 - H & K weapons, assembled in the UK, were found in a plane shot down by the Sandinistas - and the East German security forces.

German Customs officers have told the court, which is sitting near H & K's headquarters in Oberndorf, Baden-Wurttemberg, that more than 300 machine-guns were found in the East after reunification and claimed that these had been exported via Royal Ordnance.

(Photograph omitted)

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