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Small arms dealers less regulated than scout leaders – Tania Mathias MP

Aden Simpson | PoliticsHome

4 min read Partner content

Ahead of today’s Whitehall debate, Conservative MP Dr Tania Mathias reprimands the Government for having no control over the amount of small weapons we export, or where they end up.

The UK is the sixth largest exporter of arms in the world, and business is booming. As tensions rise around the planet so too has the demand for weapons, with global sales increasing 14% in the last five years. According to SIPRI, the UK’s arms exports have risen 26% in the same period, now supplying 4.5% of the total demand. And that’s just what we know about.

The bulk of these figures are constituted by the sale of so-called ‘large weapons,’ such as aircraft. The quantities and destinations of these transfers are either government-to-government, or heavily regulated, transparent, and no matter how controversial, they are highly politicised.

This is not the case however, for trade in small weapons - including the notorious AK47 - which some estimate are responsible for 90% of all conflict deaths.

The majority of small weapons traders are individuals, and according to Dr Tania Mathias MP for Twickenham, because we don’t sufficiently vet lone arms traders in the UK, we simply don’t know how many small weapons we’re exporting, or who ends up using them.

“I suspect there’s more vetting for a scout leader than there is for a man who’s selling arms to a Nigerian child soldier,” said the Tory MP.

“We know that so-called small weapons cause more deaths than anything else: it’s around 300,000 fatalities a year, and 900,000 injuries. So we’re talking about a billion people affected each year by small weapons. And at present we don’t track the numbers or the transfers of these weapons that are coming from UK dealers.”

UK traders in small weapons often need only apply for an Open Individual Export License. While this contains a list of regions to which the dealer is not permitted to supply, they may supply unlimited quantities of weapons without stipulating the end-user, or calculating the value of the transaction. And according to Mathias, these individuals are apparently not even subject to a criminal records check.

“My point is if we lead the world in demonstrating how new democracies can set up elections, we should also be leading the way in trade of small weapons. And I don’t understand why we’re lagging behind.

“I’m doing this debate because I have presented these questions to Business Ministers, and I’m not satisfied with the answers.”

To demonstrate this systemic lack of diligence, she gave the example of a UK arms broker, Gary Hyde, who was given a ‘Section 5’ certificate to supply prohibited weapons after being vetted by Yorkshire Police. In 2013 he was convicted for brokering an illegal deal that took place in 2007, shipping 70,000 assault rifles, and 32 million rounds, from China to Nigeria, a destination for which he had failed to obtain a license. While under investigation, from 2007 to 2012, Hyde was still able to supply parts and ammunition to several UK police forces as well as the Ministry of Defence.

“It has taken years in some cases, where UK arms dealers who have been found guilty of illegal trade, before their licence has been removed by us in the UK,” she said.

“There isn’t even exchange of information between departments, such as the Home Office. How could someone be supplying weapons to our police force while being investigated for selling them to Nigeria? It’s absolute nonsense. We need to be sharing this information.”

Little has changed. The Government launched an open consultation in 2014 - A Call for Evidence - to determine whether a pre-licensing register would improve vetting of traders. “But funnily enough,” said Mathias, “most of the people responding were people who were trading in small weapons.”

The report’s conclusion, published in July last year, reads: “Having considered the range of responses received as part of the Call for Evidence process, the Government considers that there was no consensus or sufficiently powerful arguments in favour of implementing a comprehensive register.”

“They seemed to go along with what these traders wanted,” she added, “so the Government response was to do nothing.”

Most importantly, without vetting licence-holders, and without tracing transfers through exporter, importer and end-user, Mathias argues that not only is it impossible to quantify how much money these dealers are making, but we have no idea where these weapons are ending up, or whether civilians or British soldiers are dying by weapons originating in the UK.

“The important thing is that there are more responsible people involved. With government-to-government transfers, such as aircraft, then we do know; it’s on our books. We have senior cabinet people talking about larger weapons and where they are going, which I would say have a lot more precision than the AK47 in the child’s hands.”

“And I know it’s a different argument of the offshore,” she added, “but I doubt they’re filling out their tax returns.”

Read the most recent article written by Aden Simpson - Digital skills and the future of the labour force - Baroness Morgan


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