As Whitehall dithers our European rivals cash in

Nobody wants to sanction the export of arms to oppressive regimes, or even a piece of large-bore pipe that eventually becomes part of a ‘supergun’. But machine tools?

On the face of it, the UK’s trade relations with India look to be in good shape. Government ministers are lining up to visit — with Stephen Byers out there earlier this month, e-business minister Patricia Hewitt last week, and others to follow.

Such ministerial interest should come as no surprise, both India and Pakistan are becoming business partners of major importance.

In fact, the UK was the third-largest foreign investor in India last year (after the US and Mauritius) and trade between the two countries grew by more than a third last year.It now looks set to exceed the agreed target of £5bn by the end of this year.

Of course, India’s 1997 nuclear weapons tests were a setback, coming the same year that Labour launched its commitment to an ‘ethical foreign policy’. The UK took steps to slow down defence co-operation — but even this looks to be picking up. BAE Systems, for example, now looks set to clinch a deal, worth up to £1bn, to supply India with Hawk jet trainer aircraft.

In such a climate, you would expect exporters of humble machine tools to find it relatively simple to get waved through into this market of golden opportunity. But that would appear to be far from the case. The DTI and the Foreign Office seem to be holding up requests to sell to some Indian customers — ordinary engineering companies that have nothing to do with India’s nuclear weapons programme. And as Whitehall dithers, our European rivals are cashing in.

So what’s the problem? It looks as if government officials are terrified that sometime during a machine’s 20-year working life, it may be used for something incompatible with an ‘ethical’ foreign policy. And that they’ll get the blame.

Obviously, nobody wants to sanction the export of arms to oppressive regimes, or even a piece of large-bore pipe that eventually becomes part of a ‘supergun’. But machine tools? Come off it!