The Independent View: The first thing Vince should cut is funding for the arms trade

Vince Cable’s new department, the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, was saddled with the heaviest round of cuts in the first round of cuts announced by the coalition government. They will have to find £836m of savings in 2010. Meanwhile the rest of us have been asked to participate in a comprehensive spending review.

There is one candidate for cuts that many in the Liberal Democrats and the country at large would be pleased with – an end to government support for arms exports. One way the government helps arms companies sell their weapons to other countries is through its UK Trade & Investment department.

UKTI supports a range of different export industries, from IT to pharmaceuticals. In 2008, it opened the Defence & Security Organisation (UKTI DSO) to promote arms exports.

UKTI DSO is at the heart of the government’s support for the arms trade. It exists purely to help private arms companies sell to other countries. Regions of conflict, governments that abuse human rights and countries where there are significant development needs are high on its list of ‘key markets.’

Liberal Democrats in parliament have played an active role in trying to enforce arms controls. But as long as the focus of government policy is to sell, not constrain, arms it is hard to see how meaningful arms control will be implemented.

A quick look at the numbers provides a stark demonstration of the privileged position given to the arms industry.

UKTI’s Sectors Group employs 142 staff to support 34 industry sectors, but through UKTI DSO it now dedicates 160 staff to arms sales. That’s 56% of UKTI’s industry specific staff resources when arms sales comprise only 1.5 % of total exports and sustain just 0.2% of the national labour force. More special treatment for an industry, where, at a conservative estimate, each export job receive a subsidy of around £9,000 a year.

If taxpayers’ money is to be spent subsidising industry, let’s choose to reallocate the resources to socially-useful and productive activities which could generate more jobs. The renewable energy sector, for one, has similar skill sets to arms production and enormous market potential.

So what will the new government do about its arms trading unit, the UKTI Defence & Security Organisation?

Last year, the Conservatives said they wanted to increase the support given to arms exports, and use arms sales ‘as a foreign policy tool’ – a truly alarming prospect. On the day of the budget Peter Luff, Minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology, promised more support for arms exports, pledging a “very, very, very heavy ministerial commitment to the process”, and adding there’s no “embarrassment in this government” about promoting arms sales.

But, in the past, many senior Liberal Democrats have supported the campaign to end government support for arms exports including Nick Clegg and Vince Cable, now the Minister responsible for UKTI.

For many years the Lib Dems led the way among the three main parties on ending support for the arms industry. They now have an opportunity to put that commitment into action – by cutting UKTI DSO.

This is the sort of issue on which their influence on the coalition will be judged by those who believe in a peaceful, just and democratic world.

Ann Feltham is Parliamentary Coordinator, Campaign Against Arms Trade

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

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13 Comments

  • Gemma Mason 28th Jun '10 - 1:24pm

    “The first thing Vince should cut” – You have to remember Vince isn’t in a position to cut anything. The Conservatives have the controlling share in Coalition PLC.

    Hence we are seeing the poor, elderly and disabled being hit the hardest.

  • It’s nice to finally see a post I agree with on LDV.

  • Andrew Suffield 28th Jun '10 - 6:29pm

    It would be nice to kill off that stuff. I’m not optimistic though, it’s one of the very few major exports we have left so it’s probably not affordable. Annoyingly enough we don’t even make most of the weapons in the country – they’re just routed through the UK because of this government support.

    As a nation we have a really bad track record at ethical foreign trade.

  • It’s all well and good, but what do you do with the highly skilled jobs, very concentrated in specific parts of the country, that rely on the arms trade and defense contractors which will inevitably be lost?

    In principle, nobody can really argue with this. But there are real world ramifications of such a move that have completely been glossed over in this piece.

  • Antonio Lorusso 29th Jun '10 - 12:59am

    Unless the British Arms Industry are idiots they can sell their own stuff around the world without having a 160 man sales team provided at someone else’s expense, namely ours. Same goes for UKTI, and all the government departments and quango’s that are de facto departments of private industry.

    This is corporate welfare and needs to be done away with every bit as much as social welfare.

  • Andrew Suffield 29th Jun '10 - 4:06am

    Unless the British Arms Industry are idiots they can sell their own stuff around the world without having a 160 man sales team provided at someone else’s expense, namely ours.

    See, that’s just the thing. They can – and the British arms industry isn’t actually British (it’s mostly American), and the only reason they’re operating out of the UK is because of that free support. If we take it away then their business will happily continue just fine, but it will be relocated to a country with more favourable taxation, and we’ll be a few billion short on government revenue and another one million unemployed. The support our government gives to the arms industry is basically a bribe to keep them here.

    I’d really love to get rid of it, and I’d probably be campaigning for it if the economy was in surplus. But in this decade, I can’t see anybody in the government supporting calls for us to get rid of one of our largest industries. We don’t have very many of those left.

  • “UKTI’s Sectors Group employs 142 staff to support 34 industry sectors, but through UKTI DSO it now dedicates 160 staff to arms sales. ”

    So what about the 1500 plus UKTI staff employed by non defence sector groups overseas?

    Get you fact correct, please. It make for a more coherent argument. You are just repeating CATT diatribe

  • @Duncan “In which case the reason Vince Cable and the Lib Dems are in the coalition for is what exactly? If they genuinely have no influence on what the coalition government does they should leave it now.”

    Vince Cable isn’t in a position to cut anything because he isn’t the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, nor is he involved in the MoD

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