The UK have not been subject to independent scrutiny for more than nine months after the mysterious disappearance of the Commons watchdog on the export of weapons and military equipment. The committee on arms export controls, which has not been re-established at the beginning of this parliament last May. The watchdog ceased its work after its chair Sir John Stanley retired in March following 15 years at the helm. However, so far parliament has failed to set up the watchdog – made up of members of the business, foreign affairs, defence and international development committees – allowing the government to grant export licences for weapons with no independent oversight.
Arms trade campaigners are anxious that there is scrutiny over the government’s decision to continue allowing arms exports to Saudi Arabia when there are human rights concerns about the weapons’ possible use for repression in Yemen. Amnesty International and Saferworld say more than 100 licences for arms exports to Saudi Arabia have been issued since bombing in Yemen began in March 2015, with a value of £1.75bn in the first half of the year. Law firm Leigh Day, representing Campaign Against Arms Trade, is considering legal action against the government unless it suspends all licences permitting UK-produced arms to be sent to Saudi Arabia. Its lawyers said the Department of Business has failed to reassure them that the government was following its own rules when assessing the risk that the goods exported might be used in contravention of international humanitarian law.
The absence has been criticised by Andrew Smith, from Campaign Against the Arms Trade. He said the work of the committee under Stanley was “very good and very valuable” and was “needed more than ever” given the government’s decision to continue allowing sales of arms to Saudi Arabia despite concerns about their use in Yemen.
Crispin Blunt, the Conservative chair of the foreign affairs committee, said the delays had been because of “bureaucratic complexity”. But one source with knowledge of the process said the committee “seems dead in the water” with little appetite to revive it.
Ann Clwyd, Labour MP for Cynon Valley, who was on the committee for years, called for the watchdog to be established urgently as she expressed suspicions that there were forces who did want arms sales scrutinised. “There have been more and more delays. I’m very unhappy there hasn’t been anything for at least eight months,” she said, adding that the “global situation regarding conflict and arms transfers, not least as it affects the Middle East and north Africa, makes it vital to have the committees functioning at the earliest possible date”.