British Government policy on using agents in arms deals

The documents below are all sourced from The National Archives (TNA) in London.    They contain public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v2.0.


Letter C.Hewertson, Ministry of Defence, to J.A.Patterson, HM Treasury, 4 May 1967, T 225/2918 TNA.

From: C. Hewertson, DS13e

Main Building, Whitehall, LONDON S.W.1
Telephone: WHItehall 7022, ext. 7632

Our reference: DS13/900/6
Your reference:

4th May, 1967

J.A.Patterson, Esq.,
HM Treasury,
Treasury Chambers,
Gt. George Street,
London, S.W.1.

Dear John,

I mentioned to you on the telephone the general question that had arisen of employment of agents in our export activities. I said that from my own experience there appeared to be no bar to Government departments who engaged in trading employing agents – indeed, without them they could not effectively trade.

2. Subject to any guidance you may be able to give on any decisions or pronouncements on this subject, the line I propose to take is that we may employ agents to promote exports where it is clear that the market could not be exploited without their help; that we must see that the agents are persons or firms of repute; and that they are remunerated on a basis which reflects the services rendered and can be defended as fair and reasonable. It would be understood that the principles of control under which defence equipment is exported would not be prejudiced by the use of agents.

3. I hope you will be able to agree with the above approach. We shall, of course, have to deal with each case on its merits and work in close association with the Embassies whenever the question of a local agent arises.

Yours sincerely,

Cyril Hewertson
Cooper guidelines, 9 June 1976, DEFE 68/110, TNA.



1. The general principles of conduct for all public servants, whether uniformed or civilian, are laid down in relevant manuals (eg Queen’s Regulations, Non-Industrial Civilian Staff Regulations) and apply to all MOD servants in whatever capacity they may be employed.

2. In view of the current interest in the general subject of special commissions and similar arrangements in relation to commercial and business deals and the importance of maintaining strict standards in the Defence Sales field for which we are publicly accountable, there is a need for some special guidance which should be followed by Defence Sales Staff in this difficult and sensitive area. It will be for you to decide the details of arrangements to be made within this guidance, consulting me in difficult or abnormal cases.

3. Although there may well be political and strategic returns from Defence Sales the object is primarily to produce economic benefits by improving the UK balance of payments, providing employment and, where equipment is used by the UK forces as well as being exported, by reducing the unit costs of such equipment with benefit to the Defence Budget. Against this background, staff of the Defence Sales Organisation are to take particular care to observe the following principles:

a. Public money is not to be used for illegal or improper purposes.
b. Officials must not engage in, or encourage, illegal or improper actions; this requirement covers relations with representatives of United Kingdom firms as well as nationals of other countries.
c. Defence Sales are to avoid as far as possible the direct employment of agents. If agents must be employed then:

(1) The agent should be reputable in the area in which he is operating.
(2) The fee or commission paid to an agent should not in any case exceed the normal level for the area; and where the fee or commission is 10 per cent or more, or where, though it is less than 10 per cent, the total payment would appear excessive in relation to the level and proper work which the agent undertakes in the areas in which he operates, the agent should not be engaged without reference to me.

4. The same principles are to be observed in respect of arrangements made by Millbank Technical Services³ when acting on behalf of MOD. Arrangements may also be necessary in the context of Government-to-Government deals where MOD is in a back-to-back relationship with a United Kingdom firm. In these cases when the UK firm seeks MOD authority for a fee or commission to be included in the price Defence Sales will ensure that the principles in paragraph 3 above apply.

5. In all the above what is “illegal” or “improper” will depend in the last resort on the law or practice of the country or countries concerned, and it is for the foreign government to determine what are acceptable standards within its jurisdiction. But where these standards are less restrictive than those applied within the UK, any relaxation of UK standards should be applied by us with great caution.


Frank Cooper

¹ Frank Cooper, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Defence.

² Lester Suffield, Head of Defence Sales, Ministry of Defence.

³ Subsidiary of the Crown Agents.