Early last week it was reported that the UK Government had granted export licences for products that could be used to make chemical weapons to a company based in Syria. Rightly, many were hugely concerned that this could happen during the current turmoil. Labour has previously argued that our arms export procedures, already some of the most stringent in the world, could be made more progressive, but this demanded urgent investigation.back
My colleague Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna was quick off the mark and raised this immediately, as did David Winnick MP with the Secretary of State in the House of Commons last Monday. David asked, "although the civil war in Syria started in early 2011, a UK firm was granted a licence to sell chemicals to the regime in 2012... Is there any murderous regime anywhere with which we are not willing to do business?".
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond responded in a pretty condescending tone, just asserting that David was "without much detailed understanding of what he is talking about". Mr Hammond went on to explain that "export licences were granted for some industrial chemicals that could have been used in a process that might be involved in the production of poisonous gases", and claimed that "those export licences were revoked - no such chemicals were exported". So they could have been used, he accepts, but we shouldn't worry because none were sent. Still, this remains a real concern: why are licences being agreed in the midst of a civil war?
But all is not as the Defence Secretary claimed. The Chair of the Committee on Arms Exports Control, the Parliamentary body scrutinising this policy area, directly contradicted the Defence Secretary. Tory MP Sir John Stanley, has written to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Vince Cable, demanding that he explain precisely why the Defence Secretary's dismissive assertions turn out not to be true.
Sir John wrote: "The Government must also explain why the Secretary of State for Defence on September 2 in the House of Commons, and the Business Department on September 3 both stated that none of the potassium fluoride or the sodium fluoride had actually been exported to Syria under the Government approved licences, when the Secretary of State for Business's letter to the Committees of 10 April 2013 makes it quite clear that some quantities had already been shipped."
Over a matter so serious how could the Government be so wrong and so unaware of the facts? The world is discussing how to respond to Assad's chemical attacks and yet this government can't even tell us if they have been supplying material that can be used in chemical weapons.
It is not just the dismissal of legitimate and important questions but the disregard for due diligence that will be so problematic for many. It is absolutely right that a number of certain industrial chemicals have legitimate uses, but heightened scrutiny and awareness must be applied when they are being sent to a war zone where the use of chemical weapons could lead to international military action.
To be so unaware is either complacency or incompetence. Either at the MoD are unforgivable.
We will be waiting for answers from the Defence Secretary as to how much has been shipped and what systems are in place to monitor the products on the ground in Syria. Maybe he can also tell us of all instances that export licenses to Syria for such products were granted, when, and when each of the 14 chemical attacks inside that country, as cited by the Chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee, took place? Why was the export license granted during the civil war and was it after what we now know to be a pattern of chemical attacks by Assad?
Some clarity over this should bring the reassurance we desire and the country deserves, but confirmation that the chemicals were sent when the Defence Secretary told Parliament the opposite is a very serious issue indeed.