An SNP politician who criticised UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia has received more than £400 worth of hospitality from a trade association whose members include arms firms who sell to the Saudis.
Philippa Whitford, MP for Central Ayrshire, attended three dinners at the expense of the ADS Group, a trade association which represents companies in the ‘aerospace, defence, security and space’ sectors.
Smart bombs with laser guided systems made by Raytheon in Scotland were linked to an alleged war crime in Yemen.
In February 2016, Whitford attended the ADS Group’s annual dinner in London’s Park Lane Hilton hotel while protesters outside condemned the role of the British government and arms companies for Saudi Arabia’s bombing of Yemen.
The UK backs a Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels on behalf of the ousted Yemeni regime.
The register of members’ interests shows that Whitford also received hospitality worth £92 from the ADS group at an ‘industry dinner with SNP MPs’ in June 2016.
Whitford is on record opposing arms deals involving Saudi Arabia and Israel, and she has expressed scepticism over the value of nuclear weapons.
During a House of Commons debate on 18 October, she said: “It is the issue of the extra petrol that we are pouring on the flames that is key. I have raised on a number of occasions the bombing of Médecins Sans Frontières hospitals, particularly in Sana’a last autumn.
“We are always told that “Saudi Arabia will investigate”, but that is not good enough. We should not be selling arms in this situation.”
The SNP’s defence spokesperson Brendan O’Hara confirmed he was also present at the June dinner.
He said: “At [the ADS’s] suggestion, and I agreed it was a good idea, they hosted a dinner in order that some of their individual company representatives (BAE Systems, Rolls Royce and others) could speak to me and a number of other SNP MPs, who had a direct constituency interest in defence, directly.”
Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade expressed concern and said: “Philippa Whitford and her colleagues have rightly and consistently opposed UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia and other human rights abusing regimes. However, ADS represents the biggest arms companies in the world, including many that are profiting from the destruction of Yemen.
“MPs should not be attending its annual banquet, going to events as its guest or giving legitimacy to an organisation that lobbies for even more arms exports and even greater military spending.”
Parliamentary rules mean that MPs do not have to declare hospitality unless more than £300 comes from a single source during one year. Therefore, the register of members’ interests does not show which other SNP MPs attended the June dinner and which, if any, attended the dinner in February.
When asked which other SNP MPs attended, neither Whitford’s spokesperson nor O’Hara responded.
When asked why the June meeting with ADS took the form of a £92 a head dinner, rather than a daytime office meeting, Whitford’s spokesperson said: “As a trade association, ADS brings together a number of businesses who operate in Dr Whitford’s constituency and others looking to invest in the area, often in the arena of events and dinner.
“It is part of her responsibility as an MP to engage with organisations who can support economic development and brings jobs to the constituency.”
In reply to the same question, O’Hara said: “I have had several meetings with the leaders of ADS over the past eighteen months here in my office at parliament… it was a good use of my time to meet representatives of seven or eight defence companies all at once [at the dinner], rather than having to schedule seven or eight separate meetings.”
Whitford’s spokesperson added that the MP “attended these events as the guest of civilian aerospace companies based in her constituency, such as Spirit Aerosystems”.
Although Spirit Aerosystems does have a significant civilian aerospace business, it also sells equipment to major defence companies. One of these companies, Northropp Grumman, has a long-running partnership with the Saudi Arabian military, selling it fighter jets and training the country’s military personnel.
When this was to put to her, Whitford’s spokesperson replied: “To clarify, Spirit Aerosytems in Dr Whitford’s constituency makes wings for Airbus.”
However, John Finnie MSP, justice spokesperson for the Scottish Greens, said: “Anyone open to this kind of corporate jolly in the belief that a firm’s military and non-military work can be kept separate is naive in the extreme.
“Unless such firms are explicitly committed to ending their role in the arms trade, they must be shunned so as not to normalise what they do.”
The SNP was criticised by the Scottish Greens recently after it emerged that Scotland’s enterprise agencies have given the defence industry £17m since 2007, despite the SNP’s public criticism of the arms trade.
As well as attending the above two dinners, Whitford received a £36 ticket to the Farnborough International Airshow in July. She also received a £180 ticket to the Confederation of British Industry Scotland’s annual dinner in September, both at the ADS group’s expense.
An ADS spokesperson said: “ADS represents the UK’s aerospace, defence, security and space industries, which together provide well-paid, high-skill jobs and sustainable growth right across the country.
“As part of our work we routinely engage with a number of stakeholders including parliamentarians to ensure they are briefed on the issues, opportunities and challenges affecting these strategically important industries.”
Pic: MilborneOne | CC | https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CSX55152-AermacchiM346-Italy-Farnborough2016-A1578.jpg