Political parties, campaigns, charities call on Treasury to fire “government's gunrunners”

21 March 2006

Budget call to close government arms sales unit

“Pay Day for Whitehall's Gunrunners”

Wed 22 March, 9.45am, outside Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, Westminster, central London (corner of Broad Sanctuary and Little Sanctuary) (Map)

Arms company executives arriving for the DESO Symposium, an annual closed-doors meeting with the Ministry of Defence's arms exports unit (coinciding with UK Budget Day) will be met by a line of pinstriped 'civil servants' armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, flanking 'Gordon Brown', whose Budget Day red briefcase will be filled with weaponry and subsidies for the arms industry.

LONDON: Political parties, campaigns and advocacy groups including the Liberal Democrats, the Campaign Against Arms Trade and the Corporate Responsibility Coalition are backing an unprecedented call today [Tuesday 21 March] for the closure of the government's arms sales unit, the Defence Export Services Organisation (DESO). They argue that it provides massively disproportionate support for arms manufacturers in comparison to civil industries, and promotes arms sales to human rights abusers and impoverished countries.

Established 40 years ago this year, DESO is a little-publicised but influential department within the Ministry of Defence which exists to promote overseas arms sales by private UK and foreign arms companies. 34 organisations have signed the call for DESO's closure, which launches a programme of action and campaigning coordinated by the UK Campaign Against Arms Trade. They include the Liberal Democrat Party, Plaid Cymru, SLDP, the Green Party, Landmine Action, MedAct, and the Corporate Responsibility Coalition, an alliance of over 130 charities and campaigns.[1]

In a statement published today they “call on the UK government to close the Defence Export Services Organisation and not to transfer its functions elsewhere in the public sector or to allocate public funds to enable them to be undertaken in the private sector.”

Relative to the arms trade's share of total UK exports (1.6%), DESO enjoys 13 times the budget of the government organisation which promotes all other civil exports, UK Trade and Investment (UKTI).[1] Last week the UK's Chambers of Commerce called for greater support for UKTI, whose budget has been reduced by over 25% since 2004.

Liberal Democrat Defence Spokesman Nick Harvey said:

“The Defence Export Services Organisation continues to occupy an extraordinarily cosy position in the heart of the MOD. In my view there is absolutely no justification for civil servants to be working for arms traders to support their aims of distributing arms around the world, and there is certainly no excuse for government funds being used for this purpose.”

Former Labour Cabinet minister Clare Short said:

“DESO is funded by taxpayers to promote arms sales. British Ministers are briefed to push all such sales when they travel. This distorts our economy and wastes the talent of our engineers. This must stop, which means that DESO should be closed."

Marion Birch, director of British medical charity MedAct, said:

"The human cost of the arms trade is the death, injury and disability resulting from the use of these weapons, as well as the incalculable mental suffering that they bring about. And yet civil servants at the heart of government promote arms sales indiscriminately around the world."

The government's gunrunners

The statement's signatories argue that the arms industry receives grossly disproportionate government support and subsidy. DESO's current head, Alan Garwood, has himself said that “no other industry sector has such a dedicated support department.”[2]

The organisations also argue that a dedicated government arms sales unit is a waste of hundreds of civil service posts, promotes arms sales to repressive regimes and impoverished regions, and undermines much less well-resourced initiatives to resolve conflicts and control the global arms trade. The UK Government is currently promoting an initiative to curb the global weapons trade through an international arms trade treaty, whose proposed principles are sometimes breached by DESO's own sales efforts. These routinely focus on:

  • undemocratic regimes like Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan and Turkey (all listed amongst DESO's 'Priority Markets')
  • impoverished countries like Pakistan, which spends more on its military than on health and education combined (the UK government signed a Memorandum of Understanding on 'defence collaboration' with Pakistan in May 2005; a 2006 DESO business briefing on arms sales to Pakistan was announced shortly afterwards)
  • 'Emerging Markets' in recently embargoed countries like Libya, where in January DESO opened its first new office of 2006, specifically to promote UK sales of 'security' equipment

Campaign Against Arms Trade campaigns coordinator Beccie D'Cunha said:

“The government can no longer justify promoting international arms controls while its civil servants help proliferate weapons around the world. Time's up for the government's gunrunners.”

For information or interviews, contact:
Campaign Against Arms Trade, 0207 281 0297, media(at)caat·org·uk


  1. Total UK exports in 2004 were £293,949m (ONS, Exports and Imports of Goods and Services); Total UK arms exports in 2004 were estimated to be £5,162m (DASA, UK Defence Statistics 2005); DESO's net operating costs in 2004-05 were £16.9m (Hansard, 9 November 2005 Col. 554W); UK Trade and Investment's net overseas trade and investment costs for 2004-05 were £76.5m (UK Trade and Investment, Resource Accounts 2004-05)
  2. Defence Director magazine, September 2005
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