UK government's arms export watchdog has been shut down for six months

Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg told 'any government that is serious about ending the use of our weapons against innocent civilians abroad' would have committee up and running

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Monday 22 June 2020 16:26 BST
Delegates at the 2019 DSEI arms fair in London
Delegates at the 2019 DSEI arms fair in London (Getty Images)

The watchdog that scrutinises the UK's arms exports has not been operating for six months, it has emerged – amid concerns that sales approved by the government are fuelling conflict and repression abroad.

Parliament's Committee on Arms Export Control (CAEC) has not yet been reconstituted after being dissolved ahead of last year's general election, meaning Britain's arms exports are not facing the usual scrutiny.

It comes amid a pending Supreme Court case on arms exports to Saudi Arabia, and a call from MPs and human rights groups to stop selling rubber bullets and tear gas to the US for use against peaceful civil rights protesters.

Britain is the second biggest arms exporter in the world and sells weapons to regimes with poor human rights records, despite government controls on the issuing of licences. But MPs warned they were being "kept in the dark" on the arms trade while campaigners said the lack of scrutiny from parliament would fuel abuses.

In a letter to Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg, Labour's shadow minister for peace Fabian Hamilton said that "any government that is serious about ending the use of our weapons against innocent civilians abroad" would ensure the committee was up and running and had the powers it needed.

The committee currently has no chair or membership, and the currently highly bureaucratic procedure for getting it up and running requires the agreement of four other select committees.

The unusual system has caused problem before, with a nine-month gap in sittings in 2015 after the retirement of the then chair Sir John Stanley. That gap came at the height of the Saudi Arabian war in Yemen and delayed a committee investigation into the conflict.

"The Committee must be reformed as soon as possible. UK arms sales are having devastating consequences around the world. Time and again the government has shown that it cannot be trusted to follow its own rules. It has consistently prioritised arms company profits over human rights," said Andrew Smith of Campaign Against the Arms Trade.

"Right now, the Saudi Air Force is using UK-made fighter jets to drop UK-made bombs over Yemen. Following last year's Court of Appeal ruling we know that that these arms sales were illegal as well as being immoral. Similarly, we know that UK-made tear gas has been used in Hong Kong and exported to police forces across the US.

"This cannot be left another six months. Parliament must be able to effectively scrutinise arms sales and hold the government to account for its role in fuelling and enabling these abuses."

Lisa Nandy, Labour's shadow foreign secretary said: "It’s been six months since the General Election and the committee that scrutinises arms exports hasn’t yet been re-established. We’re calling on government to get it up and running with delay. Our weapons are our responsibility. We must not be kept in the dark any longer."

Mr Hamilton's letter said: "There are currently many conflicts being fought around the world in which Britain sells arms to one or more of the warring parties, including the ongoing conflict in Yemen.

"Furthermore, the Consolidating EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria states that 'the government will not grant a licence if there is a clear risk that the items might be used for internal repression'. Consequently there is a mount and legitimate concern over a number of existing licences that could allow the potential use of British equipment - such as rubber bullets - in places like Hong Kong, the United States, and other destinations of concern. The CAEC needs to be allowed to scrutinise these licences at the earliest opportunity."

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in