Concealed weapons: MPs say Britain hiding arms trade figures under murky licensing system

Reuters / British Forces Media Office
The UK government is helping to conceal the scale of the country’s arms trade by encouraging the use of licenses, which obscure payments and those making the purchases from public view, according to MPs.

The report was published by the Committees on Arms Export Control (CAEC), which was composed of four influential select committees, covering defense, foreign policy, business and development.

It found that the Export Control Organization (ECO), which oversees military equipment sales, urges traders to apply for a less accountable form of license, the use of which could hinder oversight, allowing ethically questionable deals to be brokered in secret.

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ECO officials had previously advised exporters to apply for Standard Individual Export Licenses (SIELs). SIELs allow a lone shipment of arms to be sent overseas within two years of permission being granted, while the payments involved must be made publicly available.

Over the last five years, officials have increasingly urged exporters to use a more opaque licensing system called an Open Individual Export License (OIEL), figures uncovered by The Independent suggest.

The licenses permit an unlimited number of arms shipments to be transported to specified destinations over five years from the date of issue.

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OIELs do not require the end recipient to be identified, leading to fears military equipment could quietly find its way into the hands of oppressive and authoritarian regimes. The CAEC report argues the shift could, “increase the risk of breaches of the government’s own arms export control policies.”

The CAEC chairman, Sir John Stanley, warned, “there will certainly be a significant loss of transparency from the switching policy given that the government discloses the value of SIELs but not of OIELs.”

The CAEC also reiterated a past recommendation which they claim has gone unheeded.

“The government should apply significantly more cautious judgments when considering export license applications for goods to authoritarian regimes, which might be used for internal repression.”

Earlier this month a two-day Security Policing Conference and Exhibition organized by the Home Office was held in Farnborough, in the south of England.

News of the arms fair surfaced as Britain reportedly approved the sale of £16 million worth of anti-riot equipment, including tear gas and rubber bullets to countries on its own human-rights blacklist.