Ministers have been accused of failing to take sufficient account of human rights concerns when awarding licences for arms exports.
In a hard-hitting report, MPs on the Commons Committees on Arms Export Controls called for a worldwide review of the government policy on military sales to authoritarian regimes. They said ministers needed to explain whether the 600 licences still valid to Arab countries - including nine for Syria - fully complied with the Government's position that exported equipment must not be used for internal repression.
The committees - made up of members of the Business, Defence, Foreign Affairs and International Development Committees - also strongly rebuked ministers for classifying equipment such as sniper rifles, submachine guns and armoured fighting vehicles as "crowd control goods".
The report said the revocation on human rights grounds of an unprecedented 158 licences since the start of the Arab Spring last year showed that ministers needed to be more cautious about issuing them.
"Whilst the promotion of arms exports and the upholding of human rights are both legitimate Government policies, the Government would do well to acknowledge that there is an inherent conflict between strongly promoting arms exports to authoritarian regimes whilst strongly criticising their lack of human rights at the same time," it said. "Whilst the Government's statement that 'respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are mandatory considerations for all export licence applications' is welcome, those considerations do not appear to have weighed sufficiently heavily on either the present Government or its predecessor."
The report expressed particular concern about the licences still extant for Arab countries, including 124 for Egypt and 97 for Bahrain as well as nine for Syria covering chemicals, cryptographic equipment, and £200,000 worth of "all-wheel drive vehicles with ballistic protection". It said the Government should say whether it was still satisfied they did not breach the policy that licences should not be issued where there is "a clear risk that the proposed export might provoke or prolong regional or internal conflicts, or which might be used to facilitate internal repression".
The committee chairman, Sir John Stanley, said: "The Government should apply significantly more cautious judgments when considering arms export licence applications for goods to authoritarian regimes which might be used to facilitate internal repression."
Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt denied ministers had been insufficiently rigorous in assessing licence applications to Arab countries. He said the Government had a strict policy that proper account must be taken of the concerns and risks associated with arms exports.
"It is wrong to allege that in the run-up to the Arab Spring, UK export controls were lax," he said. "When the licences in question were issued, they were properly assessed in light of the prevailing circumstances. Once the circumstances changed, the risk was reassessed and licences were revoked. This is evidence of a system that is working, not failing. There is no evidence that equipment supplied by the UK was used to facilitate internal repression during the Arab Spring."
He said the Government's review of arms export policy was confined to north Africa and the Middle East and covered "every kind of regime and every kind of country". He said: "It would therefore be wrong to infer that we are failing to pay appropriate ministerial attention to exports to all countries of concern, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere."