Tony Blair’s defence secretary joined the head of a large UK arms manufacturer to criticise the Foreign Office for delaying controversial arms exports in 1997, after Labour had come to power boasting of a new “ethical foreign policy”.
Previously classified government documents released on Tuesday show that George Robertson, defence secretary in the Blair government, harshly castigated the then foreign secretary Robin Cook in a letter over the supply of military material exports.
Robertson’s letter, written in November 1997, came days after Richard Evans, the then chief executive of British Aerospace — now BAE Systems — wrote to Cook to complain about the slow release of spare parts for Hawk aircraft that the company had sold to Indonesia, documents from the National Archives show.
The supply of the Hawks was contentious because of fears that they would be used against insurgents fighting for the independence of East Timor, then a province of Indonesia but now the independent state of Timor-Leste.
The Indonesian government had promised to use the aircraft only for pilot training.
Although Cook had vowed on becoming foreign secretary to pursue an “ethical foreign policy”, he allowed a £160m contract for the sale of 16 Hawk jets to Indonesia to go ahead because the previous, Conservative government had authorised the sale.
Blair himself intervened to support British Aerospace’s interests around the same time as the letters were sent to Cook, the newly published papers reveal.
Robertson wrote to Cook to echo complaints from Evans, the letter reveals, about delays to checks on the suitability of military exports, highlighting that only 40 per cent of goods were being cleared within the target of 20 days.
The checks involved multiple government departments, alongside Cook’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
“Although we maintain a common front in public on this, I understand that the great majority of delays are in FCO consideration of applications,” Robertson wrote.
He noted that he had heard that FCO staff were making a “major effort” to overcome the delays and he was “grateful to hear it”.
But added: “At best these delays lead to a loss of goodwill, at worst to a loss of orders.”
Evans complained in his letter, which was copied to Robertson and Margaret Beckett, at the time the trade and industry secretary, that some clearances of exports were taking as long as 60 days and the Indonesians had grounded some Hawk jets because of a lack of parts and were likely to “question the situation”.
“We need the Hawk licence clearances quickly,” he wrote.
The UK government was finally forced to suspend export licences for the aircraft in September 1999 because of the worsening violence in East Timor. The last six jets were not delivered.
Other documents from the archive show Blair personally supported British Aerospace’s commercial ambitions in inter-governmental discussions around the same time.
A letter from John Holmes, Blair’s then private secretary, dated October 10 1997 records that the prime minister had raised at a summit with Helmut Kohl, the German chancellor, the UK’s support for a joint bid by British Aerospace and German aerospace manufacturer Dasa for the defence assets of Siemens, which were for sale. They faced a rival bid from France’s Thomson-CSF.
“Kohl sounded sympathetic and said that he would talk to Siemens when he saw them on Sunday,” the letter records.
The British-German bid for the assets was announced as the winner in November 1997.