Comment & analysis

Concern over UK’s faltering commitment to transparency

30 August 2013 Roy Isbister

Following the UK Government’s recent U-turn on public reporting requirements for arms exports, Roy Isbister examines the implications of the decision and calls on the UK to follow through on earlier commitments towards greater transparency.

The UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) recently announced changes to its proposed reporting requirements for arms exports (see Notice to Exporters 2013/18), changes that represent a major step backwards from the Government’s previous commitments to improve transparency and public information on defence and security exports.

The oft-repeated observation that sunlight is the best disinfectant applies in spades to international arms transfers. Transparency in this area is crucial if governments are to be accountable to their citizens; it discourages and prevents illicit or irresponsible arms sales; and promotes the adoption of good policy by highlighting poor practice and encouraging debate.

In February 2012, as part of the UK Government’s response to the questions raised regarding the Arab Spring and in effect acknowledging that the current reporting system was inadequate, the Secretary of State for BIS, Vince Cable, put forward several proposals to improve the transparency of the export licensing system. Among these was the suggestion that all open export licences contain a provision requiring exporters to periodically report on transactions undertaken under these licences. Consultations were held with industry and civil society representatives to determine possible changes to reporting requirements, especially with regard content of the reports, when they should be submitted and what the business burden would be for providing then.

Consequently, Mr Cable announced that the Government would collect information, on a quarterly and annual basis, on rating (i.e. Military List category), description of the item, quantity and/or value, destination and generic information on end-users. A majority of companies stated in their formal responses, (see Saferworld summary) that such reporting requirements could be accommodated within existing resources or with only minimal additional resources, prompting the Government to conclude that “an increase in information reported may in the long term lead to a reduction in the burden in business … because the availability of detailed and comprehensive information on a company’s use of open licences could facilitate less frequent and more structured compliance audits”.

However, according to the changes abruptly announced by the Government at the end of July 2013, companies will now be required to report on only an annual basis, and only on the number of times an open licence is used and the country of destination. Because open licences allow exporters to make repeated deliveries of controlled goods to multiple destinations without imposing limits on quantities or values, this represents a direct blow to earlier transparency commitments. In real terms this means that for example, in the case of an open licence which authorised exports to Egypt, the public record would not distinguish between an export of a few minor components for naval radar systems and an export of a large quantity of heavy machine guns which might be used against civilians.

In Notice to Exporters 2013/18 from the BIS the claim is made that “[m]any companies have expressed concerns that this would place an unacceptable administrative burden on exporters”. The Notice continues: “We have listened to this feedback and as result the Secretary of State has decided that we should dispense with quarterly reporting and move to a lighter-touch annual requirement”. This is not consistent with industry’s answers during the consultation process, nor is it easy to understand how such a burden would arise in any case. For internal purposes companies already keep information on the type, quantity and destination of arms exported, and, as one of the conditions of being able to use open licences, are already required to present this information to the Government upon request. Moreover, in the last EU Annual Report on Arms Exports, 16 Members States reported on the value of exports, broken down by destination and Military List category. The UK Government has for many years claimed to have one of the most comprehensive reporting regimes in the world, yet this is a clear example of one area where it is lagging far behind rather than leading.

In addition, the manner in which the Government has now gone back on its previous undertakings raises questions about what began as a transparent and well-managed process, whose original outcomes reflected the consultations held with interested parties.    

As recently as 1 July 2013 (see Notice to Exporters 2013/15), it seemed the Government’s intentions were unchanged. While it did then announce there would be a short delay before the system was up and running, no mention was made of any plans for substantive change. The first indication of a change of heart came on 18 July when in response to an unrelated question in the House of Commons by Sir Bob Russell MP, Mr Cable said that some procedures relating to quarterly reporting would be dispensed with, without referring to the overall content of that reporting. All of which suggests this change was made at the last minute, behind closed doors, and based on information contrary to that communicated by industry during the public consultation. 

This sudden U-turn by the UK Government is doubly disappointing. It does virtually nothing to improve the UK’s system of reporting on arms exports, a system that the Government has itself effectively admitted is not good enough, and it also presents serious doubts about the way the process of review has been managed. If the Government is to improve on transparency it must follow through on its earlier commitment to provide meaningful data on actual exports of arms under open licences.

Roy Isbister is Head of Arms Transfer Controls at Saferworld

For a timeline of the UK transparency initiative, click here. Find out more about Saferworld's work on arms transfer controls.

“The Government is doing virtually nothing to improve the UK’s system of reporting on arms exports, even though it has in effect acknowledged the current system is not good enough”

Roy Isbister