Time for tougher regulation of the Arms industry

The UK’s arms industry is one of the most prolific and lucrative in the world. From fighter jets to armoured vehicles to small arms, our arms dealers have a lot to offer the world by way of military equipment.

No one will deny the power this industry wields in Britain. Until as recently as 2002, UK citizens and companies could arrange the transfer of arms between any other countries in the world (apart from those under a binding UN arms embargo) with complete impunity and no oversight. It took decades of campaigning and the undeniable involvement of UK dealers in bloody conflicts in Rwanda and Liberia to change that, but we still have a long way to go to open ensure full oversight of this still very shady industry. You only need to look at the UK’s supply of military equipment to Saudi Arabia now being used indiscriminately on civilians in Yemen to understand how far.

That’s why I have been working with our Defence Spokesperson Judith Jolly on her Private Member’s Bill to introduce a UK Register of Arms Brokers. Despite progress made on licensing individual arms deals, there is ongoing risk that unscrupulous arms brokers operating under the radar may engage in unlicensed arms brokering beyond the knowledge and reach of UK export control enforcement. Such is the risk that it has prompted a significant number of countries, including Australia, South Africa, the United States and 18 EU Member States, to introduce a requirement that arms brokers first register with national authorities before applying for a transaction licence.

The government will no doubt hide behind their wafer-thin commitment to less regulation and less red tape, but a properly functioning public register, with a robust ‘fit and proper person’ test would enhance transparency and enable the Government to prevent the registration of individuals and entities that have, for example, been convicted of a serious criminal offence to ensure that they are prevented from obtaining authorisation to engage in arms brokering activities.

This mechanism would bring controls on UK arms brokers into line with those of a series of related processes, such as the Section Five Firearms registration process for UK based gun dealers and National Security Vetting for contractors working under UK MoD projects. These systems all require a series of background checks, including past criminal activity and an assessment as to the claimant’s suitability. It is illogical therefore that individuals wishing to broker thousands of small arms overseas are themselves subject to virtually no eligibility testing.

The Second Reading of the bill takes place this Friday afternoon, and with enough attention we could push the government to give it time for a Committee Stage later in the year. Liberal Democrats have always led the way on insisting proper regulation and scrutiny of the arms industry here in the UK, and I hope you will support us in continuing this fight.

Please sign Judith’s petition, and share with anyone who you think will join us to campaign for this important measure

* Fionna Tod is the Parliamentary Adviser on Foreign Affairs, Defence and International Development

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • I’m not clear what problem you are trying to fix here. If you want to broker an arms deal between two countries, even without the arms passing through the UK, then you need an export license. And to apply for an export license, you have to register with a government department (BIS).

    If “there is ongoing risk that unscrupulous arms brokers operating under the radar may engage in unlicensed arms brokering beyond the knowledge and reach of UK export control enforcement” then they are breaking the law already. Are criminals really going to sign up to a register before brokering an arms deal without a license?

    It may be appropriate to add some sort of “fit and proper” test into the export licensing process (if it’s not already there), but the most important issues with an export license are what goods are being supplied, and where are they going, which have to be explicitly stated on the application.

  • Conor McGovern 8th Jun '16 - 4:20pm

    Our government should not be taking part in the arms trade, full stop.

  • Eddie Sammon 8th Jun '16 - 6:44pm

    Is the aim of this bill to create a responsible British arms industry or just to damage it? There’s lots of criticism, little praise and a singling out of the popular left-wing enemy Saudi Arabia, whilst Iran helping “Assad the hospital bomber” receives little criticism.

    It’s like getting GreenPeace to regulate the oil industry. There’s just little confidence that they’d come up with something workable or pro the survival of the industry.


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