Arms trade committee "paralysed" by partisanship
The conflict in Yemen has brought the UK arms trade under scrutiny. But Parliament’s main mechanism for overseeing the industry, the Committees on Arms Export Controls, is “paralysed” by problems of its own, writes Guinevere Poncia
Government ministers have had many tough days in Parliament recently, but 26 September would have been particularly daunting for Liz Truss. The international trade secretary had recently revealed that her department had granted two licenses to export hundreds of thousands of pounds of military equipment to Saudi Arabia, despite pledging to halt arms sales to the Kingdom following a landmark court ruling. Now she was turning up to the Commons to tell her colleagues that it happened again – twice.
Even to the most understanding observer, such a mistake is scarcely believable. But the scandal has also thrown the effectiveness of Parliament’s scrutiny of arms exports into harsh light.
Following the collapse of Thomas Cook this September, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee launched an inquiry into the firm within days. When ITV’s Jeremy Kyle Show was cancelled following the death of a guest who had failed a lie detector test, the DCMS Committee launched an inquiry into reality TV the same afternoon.
In contrast, no select committee hearing has been held specifically on arms sales since the mistakes came to light. When Truss was questioned by the International Trade Committee at a recent session, discussion on the arms trade lasted just one minute.
The Committees on Arms Export Controls – comprised of the Foreign Affairs, International Trade, Defence and International Development committees – appears to be the obvious body to scrutinise Government activity on contentious arms exports. But despite receiving a letter from Truss admitting the errors in September, the Committees – known as CAEC (pronounced ‘cake’) – have not met. In fact, CAEC has not held a session since May, and there are currently no scheduled meetings.
Those on CAEC are not shy of admitting its lack of public work. Ann Clwyd, a Labour Foreign Affairs committee member, has accused the government of deliberately “dragging its feet” to frustrate CAEC in doing its work. And on the mistakenly issued licences, she said in the Chamber that “I am sick of hearing about ‘rigorous and robust’ – this is neither rigorous nor robust.”
Another MP on the Committee, Lloyd Russell-Moyle, has said it is “an open secret within CAEC that it is broken”. In fact, the Labour MP was so frustrated at the failure to launch an inquiry into arms sales to Saudi Arabia that in May this year he convened his own citizen’s committee on arms export law. “CAEC is meant to ensure that the government follows arms export control law, which is clearly being violated by Saudi Arabia on several grounds,” he said at the time.
So what’s behind CAEC’s difficulties? And how can Parliament ensure the arms export industry is properly scrutinised?
The Government voluntarily suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia in June 2019 after the Court of Appeal found that it had failed to consider the Saudi-led coalition’s past alleged violations of international humanitarian law during the Yemen conflict when deciding to issue export licenses.
Saudi’s use of UK-made and licensed arms in the war in Yemen has been a controversy at the heart of the UK’s foreign and trade policy for years. The conflict in Yemen has been raging since 2015 and is responsible for what the UN currently calls the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis. Save the Children estimate over 11 million children are in desperate need of assistance to survive.
The Campaign Against the Arms Trade calculated that the UK had licensed £6.3bn worth of arms to Coalition forces in the first four years of the conflict. The vast majority of arms sales went to Saudi Arabia. Investigators have reported to the United Nations Human Rights Council that all sides in the conflict may have committed war crimes.
CAEC’s chair, Labour MP Graham Jones, attributes the group’s difficulties to the “partisan” approach of some who are more interested in “scoring points over the other side” than in a serious inquiry into the role of British arms exports in the conflict. “I think the problem in the past was that the debate starts out from a very partisan basis. Of course, then there isn’t the basis to go forward,” he says. “It has had the catastrophic effect of paralysing the committee and the committee stopped functioning.”
Russell-Moyle agrees that political divisions means they inevitably reach a verdict of the “lowest common denominator”.
This was demonstrated in 2015 when, in a highly unusual move, CAEC’s inquiry into the use of manufactured arms in Yemen produced two separate reports – one from the Foreign Affairs committee, and another from the International Development committee and what was then the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee. The Defence committee was absent from both.
While the Foreign Affairs committee extolled Saudi Arabia as a “crucial and indispensable partner” who has “enhanced the UK’s work in advancing many of our shared and vital strategic interests”, the rival report concluded that the UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia was one of “compromise”. It urged the Government to pressure the Saudis to conduct operations in accordance with international standards, and recommended that the UK suspend licences for arms exports to Saudi Arabia that could be used in Yemen, pending the results of a UN-led inquiry.
Ministerial and industry attitudes towards CAEC have also been apathetic. When defence manufacturer Raytheon declined to attend a session in March, the Committee instead put their questions to the company in a letter.
The international trade and foreign secretaries also failed to appear before CAEC during a 2018 inquiry; instead two junior ministers were sent out to bat. “I am sorry if you feel that you have got the monkey rather than the organ grinder,” Sir Alan Duncan told MPs. In their report, CAEC hit back, accusing the departments of being “disrespectful to the House.”
Both Russell-Moyle and Jones also point out that CAEC has fewer resources than other committees (the chair is currently unpaid). With four parent committees involved, CAEC also suffers from having to meet an unusually large quoracy, meaning sessions have been cut short. Russell-Moyle describes this as “embarrassing” and says he is “frustrated that colleagues aren’t stepping up to the mark” to hold the Government to account.
Work has also been hindered by a series of clashes between Jones and various NGOs reporting on the conflict in Yemen. The chair has repeatedly accused groups operating in the region of being “dishonest” and guilty of “gross exaggeration”. Jones says some NGOs have been “manipulating” figures of casualties in the conflict to suit their agenda, adding: “I think NGOs have been given a free pass for too long.”
The situation has led to questions about Jones’s impartiality. Last week he stood down as vice-chair of the APPG on Saudi Arabia amid claims of a conflict of interest. The chair, Russell-Moyle says, “does not command a neutral arbiter image”.
Jones tells The House the Committee will announce a new inquiry into the conflict soon. Secretaries of State are expected to appear before Members.
The chair believes CAEC’s problems can be overcome with a more rigorous approach to evidence and expert testimony. “I don’t want the committee to be focused simply on ‘Saudis buy bombs from Britain and drop them in Yemen,’” he says. “I have no intention of having an inquiry that starts with a partisan view, quite the opposite. I want to understand why there’s a civil war. What’s driving the conflict?”
Jones says he wants the upcoming inquiry to look at everything from civilian casualties and the use of ‘human shields’ to the impact of the conflict on the shipping industry (rebels have been accused of planting mines in the waters surrounding Yemen). “I’m going to suggest that we start with only inviting people who have expertise and knowledge and will offer intellectual and informative answers that will empower the committee members. I have no intention of asking for witnesses who simply have agendas. They will not be allowed to come before the committee. Because, quite frankly, I don’t want to listen to nonsense and end up with the committee divided.”
But Russell-Moyle is calling for the creation of a new stand-alone Parliamentary Committee comprised of Members from both Houses. He also wants to see the establishment of an “Ofcom-style” independent regulator for the arms trade.
One thing that’s certain is that as the UK looks towards its place in a rapidly changing world order, arms exports will remain an area of fierce contention. Whatever happens, Parliament will have to ensure this industry is scrutinised in an effective and meaningful way.
Guinevere Poncia is a Dods Political Consultant, specialising in foreign affairs, defence, security and technology. Find out more HERE.
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