The government’s position on arms exports is in a state of confusion today (7 January), following reports that the new trade minister has ethical concerns about promoting arms exports.
Stephen Green, the former head of HSBC and a Church of England priest, will take up his post as a minister next week, as a member of the House of Lords. But the Daily Telegraph today claimed that Green has “issues” with promoting arms exports, previously considered a part of the role.
The report has now been rebutted by the Department for Business. A spokesperson for the department said, “Lord Green will be playing a full role in promoting the [arms] industry”.
Green’s role as trade minister includes facilitating arms exports through UK Trade and Investment (UKTI), a unit of the Department of Business. While arms account for less than two per cent of UK visible exports, UKTI devotes more staff to its arms wing than to all other sectors combined.
Both Labour and Conservative governments – and now the coalition government - have been criticised for facilitating deals for private arms firms, many of which are now multinational companies rather than British businesses.
Recipients of such arms have frequently included repressive regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, as well as countries in conflict with each other, such as India and Pakistan.
In a speech last year, Stephen Green pointed out that “HSBC’s research shows that the ‘climate business’ sector already generates annual revenues of more than $500 billion [£323 billion], larger than the global aerospace and defence industry”.
This morning, Kaye Stearman of the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) welcomed news of Green’s doubts about promoting arms exports.
She said that Green appeared to recognise “that the arms trade is unethical and that it is immoral to export arms indiscriminately around the world, to undemocratic and abusive governments and to areas of conflict. The arms trade fuels conflict, destroys lives and wrecks economies.”
Stearman told Ekklesia that "Lord Green is also a realist and recognises that industry needs to tackle the urgent problems of climate change”. Citing his comments last year, she insisted that industries tackling climate change “provide an ethical alternative to the arms trade”.
Even if Green commits himself to promoting arms exports, the rumours of his concerns are likely to cause embarrassment for the government, given the strongly pro-arms trade position of other ministers. Defence minister Peter Luff boasted last year that there would be no “embarrassment” from the coalition government about participating in the arms trade.
One rumour circulating today is that responsibility for promoting arms exports will be removed from Green and given to Gerald Howarth, a junior minister at the Ministry of Defence. While in opposition, Howarth - who is an Anglican churchwarden - gained such a reputation for defending arms companies that campaigners nicknamed him “the honourable member for BAE Systems”.
“Stephen Green is not the only person to question why ministers should promote deals for multinational arms companies,” said Symon Hill, associate director of the thinktank Ekklesia, “Many arms exports go to repressive regimes or countries with desperate poverty”.
He added, “It would be a tragedy if Green suppressed his conscience. And it would be unwise for David Cameron simply to shift roles around so that a different minister promotes arms deals.”
Hill described the situation as “an opportunity for ministers to address the reality that arms contribute heavily to global instability and poverty, meaning less security for both Britain and the world.
"Given that arms account for less than two per cent of UK exports, and that arms firms have announced heavy job losses in Britain, ministers need to take this chance to ask why the arms industry continues to receive such political and financial support at a time of economic cutbacks."