23 July 2014
Last updated at 04:18
The defence secretary is facing calls to suspend or revoke remaining licences
Britain is exporting millions of pounds worth of arms to Russia despite fears it is arming the separatist rebels in Ukraine suspected of shooting down a Malaysia Airways plane, MPs have said.
A committee report said 251 licences for the sale of controlled goods worth at least £132m remained in force.
It comes after the PM criticised other EU countries’ arms deals with Moscow, given its backing for the rebels.
The government has pledged to stop arms sales which could fuel the conflict.
Ministers say UK policy has not changed.
The cross-party Commons Committees on Arms Export Controls said only 31 UK licences had been halted or suspended.
Permits covering sniper rifles, night sights, small arms ammunition, gun mountings, body armour, military communications equipment and “equipment employing cryptography” remained in force, it said.
The government said it was keeping all licences under review and the majority of licences that remained in place were for “commercial use”.
The disclosure comes after David Cameron strongly criticised European countries such as France which are continuing to pursue defence sales to Russia despite Moscow’s backing for the separatists.
But France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius hit back on Monday, suggesting Britain should look at the number of Russian oligarchs in London before criticising his country.
Moscow’s support for pro-Russian groups in Ukraine has come under renewed scrutiny after the fatal crash of Malaysian airliner MH17 with 298 people on board, which the UK and US believes was shot down by a surface-to-air missile launched from a rebel-held area.
The prime minister has said EU nations should consider stopping all military sales to Russia, while Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said an embargo on future arms contracts was under consideration following a meeting in Brussels on Tuesday.
Sir John Stanley, the Conservative MP who heads the committee, said the relatively small number of licences which had been withdrawn reflected the “circumscribed” nature of the UK’s moratorium, which he said referred only to equipment which could be deployed against Ukraine and did not cover Russia’s wider defence needs.
While he said that Britain had been in the vanguard of European countries in taking action to curb defence sales to Russia, it had still not gone far enough.
“Russia is an authoritarian regime. We should have been applying a more cautious approach for some time in regard to Russia,” he said.
Sir John has written to Mr Hammond asking if he will be suspending or revoking the remaining licences.
The committee also strongly criticised the award of licences for the export of chemicals which could be used in the manufacture of chemical weapons to Syria.
It said the award by the previous Labour government of five licences for the export of sodium fluoride had been “highly questionable”, while the decision of the current government to issue a further two licences for sodium and potassium fluoride after the civil war had begun was irresponsible.
It said that the current government’s claim that it had no grounds to refuse the licences was “grossly inaccurate”.
The committee – which is made up of the Commons foreign affairs, defence, international development and business, innovation and skills committees – also expressed concern ministers had watered down their policy on the export of equipment to countries where there were concerns it could be used for internal repression.
It said that a “broad” test that an export licence should not be issued if there was “concern” the equipment could be used for internal repression had been dropped from the latest set of government guidelines issued earlier this year, and only the “narrow” test that there had to be a “clear risk” of repression remained.
A government spokesman denied there had been any watering down of restrictions.
“The definition as first announced to Parliament in October 2000 was unequivocal: we will not a grant a licence where there is a ‘clear risk’ the equipment might be used for internal repression,” he said.
“That is the policy that has been applied consistently by successive governments.
“There has been no change to that policy. We do not agree with the committees’ claim that there has been a ‘significant change’ in government policy.”