The company that runs London’s DSEI arms fair has been taking MPs on holiday.
Clarion, the conference company that runs the huge defence exhibition which took place last week in London’s Docklands, is reaching out to MPs by sending them on military-themed European mini-breaks and helping to pay for their breakfasts and dinners too.
British-made weapons are currently being used in Yemen, in a war that’s causing death and starvation. It isn’t hard to make a case that the arms trade is pretty evil. If so, this is the banality of evil. The type of low-level, very British lobbying that might happen over some nice lamb chops in Westminster.
DSEI (Defence and Security Equipment International) is a huge arms trade sales fair that takes place every two years in London’s Docklands.
For three days this month the Excel Centre in London was filled with stalls displaying everything from sniper rifles to tanks and bombs: it’s lethal killing kit for sale, but presented in the standard stalls-in-a-hall trade fair-style you might find at the Ideal Home Show. A kind of Ideal Death Show.
DSEI relies heavily on government support: a government department, UKTI, arranges for foreign “delegations” to come to DSEI from regimes with appalling human rights records — countries like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
The British army even gives these foreign delegates uniformed officers to escort them around the arms fair and back to their hotels.
DSEI is run by Clarion, a conference firm that has turned increasingly to arms fairs. Clarion also run non-lethal events like Coffee Fest and Classic Motor Show. But it makes big money from 15 defence fairs, including DSEI.
It also runs Bidec, an arms fair that takes place in Bahrain in October, and Milsim, an arms fair based in Singapore which happens next January.
According to the current register of MPs’ interests, Clarion helped pay for a two-day trip to Italy in July for Torbay Tory MP Kevin Foster and his wife.
The £559 trip included some military-themed tourism in the form of visiting “the sites of World War II battles and Commonwealth and Polish cemeteries as part of the ‘Monte Cassino battlefield tour’.”
The Battle of Monte Cassino was a key struggle between the allies and the German axis near Rome in WWII.
Clarion helped to pay for the trip as part of its sponsorship of the all-party parliamentary group for the armed forces.
Such groups, known as APPGs, bring together MPs with a common subject interest. They are widely seen as very open to corporate lobbying, as they allow big business to fund MPs’ trips and events.
Labour MP Madeleine Moon, who also sits on the armed forces APPG, says she and “a small number of MPs and peers who take an interest in defence” also went on the same trip.
So it is very likely that Clarion helped to fund more MPs on the Italian mini-break, but they have yet to record the details on the register.
The APPG has around five Conservative MPs, along with three Labour MPS and two Lib Dem lords.
The all-party group for the armed forces is funded almost entirely by big donations from the arms industry.
Since 2015 this group of MPs has received £94,000 from arms firms including BAE Systems, as well as £7,000 from Clarion.
In 2017 so far the group has received £42,000 from arms firms, including Babcock, Raytheon, Thales, Northrop Grumman and Boeing Defence — all of whom exhibited their rockets and warplanes at DSEI.
Many of these firms have a history of bribery and corruption. BAE Systems paid $400 million in 2010 to settle charges of bribery in Saudi Arabia and other countries.
Allegations of bribery against BAE have included lurid details like the supply of prostitutes, Rolls-Royces and Californian holidays as well as plain cash. Boeing paid a $615m fine over a huge bribery scandal in 2004.
The arms trade has historically involved sleazy and lurid influence peddling. But it also involves much more banal attempts to buy influence or good feeling by the arms industry.
According to the register of MPs’ interests the armed forces APPG uses the money it gets from the arms firms and from Clarion to, among other things, buy MPs breakfast and dinner.
Robert Courts, the Conservative MP who took over David Cameron’s Witney seat in Oxfordshire, and North Wiltshire Conservative MP James Gray both list receiving “11 dinners value £40 each; four breakfasts value £14.25 each; total £497” from the weapons industry-funded armed forces APPG in the current register of MPs’ interests.
So ultimately money that comes from selling missiles with names like “Maverick” or “HARM” or “Storm Shadow” or “Vulcano” is transformed into breakfasts for our members of Parliament.
I asked James Gray, who is chairman of the APPG, whether the overwhelming funding from arms firms meant his group wasn’t really an organisation representing the defence industry, not the soldiers, sailors, airmen and airwomen who make up the armed forces. He did not reply.
There is in fact a separate APPG to represent the “armed forces covenant.” The covenant means the conditions of service, wages, housing and post-army careers of soldiers and other armed forces. It gets no funding from the arms industry.
DSEI gets a lot of government support but, thanks to protests, it is increasingly controversial.
In July London Mayor Sadiq Khan said he was “opposed to London being used as a marketplace” for dictators and autocrats who come to London to buy weapons at DSEI, although he “had no power to stop it.”
So DSEI organiser Clarion and the defence firms that exhibit there have a strong motive to give money to MPs to pay for their group, dinners and trips.
Follow Solomon Hughes on Twitter @SolHughesWriter.
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