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UK arms export fines quadruple in two years

UK fines for arms export violations have quadrupled in recent years. In the past five years, the Government has imposed more than £2.6 million fines on companies conducting unlicensed strategic exports, but there has been a marked increase in the last two years.

A Freedom of Information request by Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) found that, since January 2017, 47 fines had been issued for a variety of export offences involving military rated or ‘dual use’ goods.

Of note, there were only four fines in 2017 and 2018 – when EU regulation still applied to UK arms exports. In 2020 and 2021 – after the UK had left the EU – there were 31 fines, an increase by some 675%.

Of these fines, 28 (60%) were for the export of military rated goods without a licence. Seventeen (36%) were for dual use goods without a licence. Dual use items are goods, software and technology that can be used for both civilian and military applications. Two fines were issued for a breach of licence conditions in relation to export of military rated goods.

The largest fine was issued in September 2020, nine months after the UK left the EU, for dual use goods sold without a license – an infraction that cost more than £210,000. HMRC did not release details of fines before 2017 to AOAV.

This recent rise in fines could be part of a post-Brexit bonanza, one in which corporations feel unshackled from EU regulations, and are testing the boundaries of the arms exports that are permitted.

Collaborating with Byline Times, AOAV has repeatedly examined the ethical issues associated with recent UK arms exports. Last year, it reported that the Government had approved the export of tear gas to a third of the world – fuelling concerns that such gas could be used in human rights violations – and that it had approved the export of sniper rifles to a number of countries on the Government’s own list of human rights concern. 

The revelation of a sharp uptick in offences comes as the Government’s own Control Arms Export Committee (CAEC) faces widespread criticism for its inaction in regulating UK arms exports. Indeed, it has been more than 1,345 days since a minister appeared at the committee, and 1,303 since CAEC wrote a report.

“It has been more than three-and-a-half years since the parliamentary body charged with overseeing the UK’s arms exports produced a report or spoke to a minister,” Ben Donaldson, head of campaigns for the United Nations Association UK said.

“During that time, atrocities have been committed in Yemen with the help of UK weapons, a court has ruled that the UK’s export decisions were unlawful, and the Government has admitted to repeatedly breaking the court’s orders. The system of parliamentary scrutiny is utterly broken while the UK Government gets away with murder.”

HMRC has also stated on multiple occasions in recent years that several fines imposed on UK arms exporters have been rejected by the companies – leading to an escalation by the Government, either through the seizure of goods or prosecution.

HMRC did not respond to requests for comment.