on arms sales emerged yesterday raising further questions about the
propriety of Britain’s dealings with the kingdom and the government’s
defence of them.
Documents seen by the Commons export control committee reveal
Whitehall’s concern about Saudi demands that "appropriately discreet
arrangements" should be made to secure defence contracts.
One document states that the Saudi government "would certainly not
officially approve the payment of fees although they undoubtedly expect
appropriately discreet arrangements to be made".
Written by Lester Suffield, a former head of defence sales, it
continues: "Statements to this effect are made by senior Saudis to visiting
senior businessmen in somewhat elliptical language whenever a suitable
opportunity occurs …"
The documents, released at the National Archives, were obtained by the
Commons committee as part of its inquiry into British arms sales – including
allegations by the Guardian of corruption.
They show that in 1976 Sir Frank Cooper, then top official at the
Ministry of Defence, drew up a new directive covering the conduct of civil
servants negotiating arms sales. "Public money is not to be used for illegal
or improper purposes," it said. "What is ‘illegal’ or ‘improper’ will depend
in the last resort on the law and practice of the country or countries
concerned and it is for the foreign government to determine what are
acceptable standards within its jurisdiction."
The documents show Cooper approved "agency fees" of about 15% on
contracts for the Saudi air force and national guard.
The defence secretary, Des Browne, yesterday told the committee that
the documents also suggested that officials were conscious about the use of
public funds and the need to "restrain payments". Asked whether, since the
1970s, UK civil servants had been "aware of, connived at, and have
facilitated defence exports to Saudi Arabia tainted with corruption", he
reiterated the MoD’s assertion that such claims were "totally unfounded".
A bribery investigation by the Serious Fraud Office into earlier
dealings between Britain and Saudi Arabia was dropped in 2006 after Tony
Blair and Lord Goldsmith, the then attorney general, said it would harm
Britain’s security interests. The SFO spent £2m and two years amassing
documents that showed BAE, the UK’s biggest arms company, had transferred
£1bn to Washington bank accounts controlled by Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia
and large amounts to Swiss bank accounts linked to agents for Saudi royals.
The US justice department has launched an investigation into the
allegations. The MoD told the Commons committee yesterday that a request for
information by the US was "currently being considered by the Home Office in
the normal way".