Claim: “Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has defended the UK’s ‘careful export licensing regime’ amid calls for the UK to stop arms exports to Israel" – Press Association, April 3.

Doorstep answer: Recently an all-party parliamentary committee condemned the Government for being secretive about how it grants arms export licenses. But it is no secret that the UK has sold Saudi Arabia bombs and bombers worth £23bn for its war in Yemen.

What does Britain export?

The UK is one of the biggest arms exporters in the world. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the UK was the seventh largest exporter of major conventional weapons between 2018 and 2022. According to the House of Commons Library, the UK won foreign defence orders worth £12bn in 2022. This was a £4.6bn increase on the previous year. UK defence exports are dominated by the aerospace sector, which accounted for 68% of the total value of UK defence exports between 2018 to 2022.

READ MORE: SNP demand recall of Parliament amid Israeli killing of Gaza aid workers

What rules govern arms exporting?

The legislative framework for the UK’s export controls is found in the Export Control Act 2002 and the Export Control Order 2008.

Any British company wanting to export military or dual-use (ie that could have both military or civilian use) goods to other nations must apply for a licence from the Government. Licensing covers not just physical goods but software and technology. These licenses are issued by the so-called Export Control Unit (ECJU) within the Department for Business and Trade.

The ECJU assesses licence applications against statutory Strategic Export Licensing Criteria. Theoretically, these criteria are supposed to reflect the UK’s obligations under international law, and the risk that the goods might be used in violating human rights, for example torture, or for internal repression.

Do the controls work?

Notwithstanding the Government’s view that it “operates one of the most robust arms export control regimes in the world”, there are many who question the export of military equipment to countries with poor human rights records or who may be involved in conflict.

For instance, the Campaign against Arms Trade (CAAT), which calls for an end to the international arms trade, says “the majority of UK arms exports continue to go to highly autocratic regimes” and countries that are “actively engaged in armed conflict”.  

CAAT has twice taken the UK Government to court to obtain a judicial review of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which has been engaged in a long war against the Houthi regime in Yemen.

The National: Houthi soldiers in Yemen

READ MORE: Scottish Labour defers to UK party bosses on selling arms to Israel

Note: between 2018 and 2022, the Middle East was the largest market for UK defence exports, accounting for 43% of total exports over this period. It is hard to imagine a more politically volatile region or one with a poorer track record in human rights or internal repression.

In 2022 the UK issued 13,200 defence export licenses. This is the highest number of licenses since records began. The figure was driven by the delivery of Eurofighter Typhoons to Qatar, along with substantial bomb and missile deliveries to Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Saudi bombing of the Yemen since 2015 has destroyed hospitals, schools, homes, markets, weddings, funerals, and water facilities. These attacks have killed at least 9000 civilians. Since the start of the war, the UK has sold over £23bn worth of arms to Saudi Arabia – including combat aircraft, bombs and missiles, and a constant supply of spare parts, maintenance, and technical support for the Saudi Air Force.

Weapons and military goods made in Scotland, from Dumfries and Galloway, Fife, Midlothian, Glasgow and Lanarkshire, are being used by the Saudi-led coalition. At least 16 arms companies operating in Scotland have applied for military export licences to Saudi-led coalition members since 2008.

The National: Palace of Westminster, London (David Mirzoeff/PA)

Parliamentary scrutiny

Until early 2024, Parliament scrutinised the UK arms control system through the Committees on Arms Export Controls, or CAEC.

The CAEC drew on membership from four parliamentary backbench select committees: Defence, Foreign Affairs, Business and Trade and International Development.

In October 2022, the CAEC published a highly critical report on the current UK arms export control regime. This expressed serious criticism of the refusal of senior government ministers to appear and give evidence. The committee said this “risks giving the appearance that the Government do not attach the appropriate importance to parliamentary scrutiny of strategic export controls”.  

Most damningly, the parliamentary watchdog noted: “We share stakeholders’ concerns about the transparency of information available on open licenses."

READ MORE: Scottish stars call for end to UK arms exports to Israel - full letter

The very fact the main voice for parliamentary scrutiny of the arms export control system thinks the procedures are opaque is obviously at odds with the PM’s latest statement.

In response to a recent update of the criteria used in issuing export licenses, the CAEC proposed the introduction of a post-shipment verification scheme to monitor the end-use of military equipment exported from the UK. For many people, the absence of such a monitoring system will seem indefensible and is certainly at odds with the PM’s assurances about the alleged “careful” verification regime. However, the Government is still resisting the introduction of such monitoring, perhaps because of the diplomatic implications.


In early 2023 CAEC called for the creation of a dedicated select committee on arms export controls. But internal wrangling among Conservative MPs blocked this proposal.

In January 2024, the Business and Trade, Foreign Affairs and International Development Committees withdrew from CAEC. The Business and Trade Committee has taken over scrutinising arms export control policy, suggesting the priority is more arms sales rather than protecting human rights ...

Fact check rating:

The National:

Zero for the Rishi Sunak’s explanation of the UK arms export control system. As clear as mud, just like the license system itself.