'UK arms export data must be made more accessible'
09 March 2012
Ian Prichard, research coordinator of Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), explains how CAAT's new web app aims to make 'impenetrable' government data on arms export licensing useable
It is hard to think of an area of government policy and practice that merits transparency more than arms export licensing. With UK arms being used to suppress protests in the Middle East and North Africa, there is a pressing and undeniable public interest in knowing what further arms are being authorised for export.
On becoming Prime Minister, David Cameron acknowledged the importance of transparency across government and called for "new standards of transparency", with requests for data addressed with "a presumption in favour of transparency". More recently, on 7 February, Business Secretary Vince Cable emphasised the importance of transparency to the export licensing systems and made proposals to increase the amount of information made available to the public.
Arms export licence data is collected by the Export Control Organisation (ECO) in the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). However, the ECO then provide highly aggregated data that is accessed via an online database that is almost impenetrable.
Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) has developed a new web app that provides easy-to-access and highly-searchable information on UK arms export licensing. It provides details of approvals according to destination country, type of licence, type of equipment and value from January 2008 onwards. The application, available via CAAT website, conforms to accessibility standards and provides the raw data for use by other programmers.
The new web app substantially increases transparency of the licensing system and, it is hoped, will lead to greater accountability. We foresee its use by parliamentarians, the media, non-government organisations and members of the public, concerned by the UK's arms exports.
Nevertheless, there are still limitations. While the new web app makes the government data as accessible as possible, licences cannot be completely disaggregated using the information provided by government. This, as well as the failure to provide data in a standard form for processing, should be easy to address should the government be willing do to so. However, more fundamentally, the government data is only provided after a time-lag of several months and provides no information on companies making the licence applications.
As well as promoting accountability in and of itself, we hope the web app will prompt the government to apply its own open data policies to arms exports and substantially increase the level and accessibility of information available.
You can access the app online at caat.org.uk/resources/export-licences
and email questions and feedback to email@example.com