Mark Thomas notes it's boom time for arms dealers

By introducing deregulation by stealth, Patricia Hewitt is prising open the gates to an arms bazaar.

As responsible citizens, we have to choose between public rights and public protection, which is why I propose that anyone who looks like Hazel Blears, the Home Office minister, should be stopped and searched by the police. Some innocent people may be caught in the net but we can't risk her launching further attacks upon our liberties. I also believe we should forcibly attempt to remove the wasp or bee that she appears to be chewing.

My other fantastic plan is to run scientific experiments to test the logic of some of our more popular expressions. For example: "Britain is full up - we can't have any more people coming in." Those who believe that will be placed in the middle of Dartmoor with no phone, money or survival kit and told: "Seek help from the first person you encounter."

Another example is: "Guns don't kill people; people do." Those who believe that statement will be divided into two groups. One will be attacked by people wielding AK-47s and the second by people wielding other people, like clubs, in an aggressive manner. The survival ratio should give us a pretty good clue as to the truth of the original statement.

If guns don't kill people, why does the Ministry of Defence give them to the army? Surely, we'd be better off arming our troops with jellyfish and catapults. At least that way our boys could cause a nasty sting. And given a good bit of elastic they could cover 50, maybe 60, metres.

However, though Labour ministers talk tough on arms control, we might as well be at the "guns don't kill . . ." stage of the argument. Patricia Hewitt, you will remember, became "uber-corporate bribe mistress" at the Department of Trade and Industry last year when the DTI caved in under pressure from BAE Systems to water down official anti-corruption measures. This move was challenged successfully by the Corner House, the human rights and environmental NGO, and the matter settled out of court. So much for a tough regulatory stance.

Hewitt now plans to make it even easier for the arms dealers by introducing deregulation by stealth, and there are three ways by which it could happen.

First, she is cutting staff at the Export Control Organisation. To the casual conservative bystander, this might seem like a bit of winter trimming on the bureaucratic bonsai tree of red tape. However, the ECO is the body that approves licences for arms sales, both military-goods and dual-use. Ministers, if you bother to ask them, will say that the most important part of arms control is the licensing, so let's take them at their word and put aside the bizarre exports that have been approved, from Hawk jets

for Indonesia to military air-traffic control

systems for Tanzania that were criticised by the World Bank. If the ECO is so important, why cut staff by 25 per cent? After all, we're talking about licences for machines that take people's lives.

The criticism here doesn't come just from liberal hand-wringers, but even from the arms industry. The Defence Manufacturers Association is "deeply concerned" at the prospect of ECO cuts. The association's Brinley Salzmann said: "The last thing we want is for the system to become more arbitrary."

Second, Hewitt is considering privatising the ECO. Which would be a disaster. From the London Underground backlog in repairs and train-company subsidies to racist detention-centre staff, privatisation has been wrong. If the ECO follows the government's past form on privatisation, it will be flogging arms licences from the back of a van quicker than you can say "it's an undercover film crew from the BBC."

And once again the DTI is condemned by the defence manufacturers, who point out that whichever company takes the contract, whether Ernst & Young or Capita, is bound to have clients who apply for dual-use or military-goods licences, or will be bidding for contracts with companies that apply for them. And so there will be an inherent conflict of interest.

Third, rumour has it that the DTI is considering making an existing loophole even bigger. An open individual export licence enables a company to export a range of military goods to a country without applying for individual licences. This means that the final destination of the goods is not known: it could be a private arms dealer or it could be a government. In short, the government does not actually know what arms are being moved and in what quantities, unless it specifically checks them. Sir Richard Scott, in his inquiry into arms to Iraq, specifically noted the possibilities of abuse under these licences. Hewitt, it appears, is considering extending the life of a licence from two years to five - thus making any potential abuse even easier.

For all the talk of fighting corruption and the toughest regulations in the world, Hewitt is beginning to prise open the gates to an arms bazaar.

The DTI was unable to comment on the matter by the time we went to press.

Next Article