DIY Arms Sales

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The British-backed European Union decision to lift the arms embargo on China is not just about military equipment.

Lifting the ban on weapons exports is a goodwill gesture to China's authoritarian government from a Europe that wants more business with the east.

To get a sense of which companies were pushing the deal, I asked for details of the businessmen who joined the stream of ministers on recent trips to China. Unsurprisingly, a group of bankers and venture capitalists from 3i, Barclays and Standard Life lead the way. However, when Gordon Brown made his high profile visit to China this year, the chancellor's official visits included a trip to the Shanghai branch of DIY superstore B&Q. This raises the depressing possibility that Britain wants to sell arms to the repressive Chinese regime so that B&Q can thrive.

Labour has developed a great enthusiasm for B&Q. Health secretary John Reid recently hired Stephen O'Brien - former marketing director at Kingfisher, the firm which owns B&Q and electrical retailer Comet - to run the health department's 'Marketing Intelligence Unit' helping hospitals 'sell' their services in the new, competitive NHS. I personally missed the popular clamour to make hospitals more like DIY superstores, but I am sure Reid knows what he is doing.

This January trade secretary Patricia Hewitt got the B&Q bug when she made Gerry Murphy her 'Retail Business Champion'. Murphy has been boss of Kingfisher since February 2003. Hewitt wants him to 'cut red tape in the retail sector', including 'ensuring multiple visits to retailers are avoided'. B&Q's record suggests more red tape and more visits from official inspectors might be in order. Last July B&Q was fined £550,000 after a 68 year old grandmother was crushed to death by a forklift truck in one of its Dorset stores. The forklift driver was reversing without a lookout. The firm already had six warnings about forklifts driven without lookouts, and received the largest safety fine ever imposed on a shop.

Last March B&Q was fined £10,000 after a door fell 20 feet onto the head of a customer in a Glasgow store. The 63 year old man was knocked unconscious. Luckily the door hit a display before it hit the customer, so he only suffers chronic pain rather than having been killed. In fairness to Hewitt's new business champion, Murphy was boss of B&Q when they were fined, but the actual incidents took place before he started at the firm. However, keeping up the tradition, last June four people, one of them a paramedic, were hospitalised after an accident at a B&Q in Worthing. Kitchen display cupboards fell 15 feet onto shoppers. The paramedic who rushed to the scene of the injury was himself hurt when a cupboard fell on his back while he was putting a fluid line into the hand of one of the injured shoppers.

Despite this Hewitt showed no embarrassment about putting this particular fox in charge of the henhouse, and instead declared the world would follow her lead, arguing:

'We are seen by international observers like the IMF, OECD and World Bank as leaders in the field of regulatory reform. But there is much more to do. We want to use the expertise in business and the public sector to identify further areas for reform, and Gerry Murphy will play a significant role in helping us work in partnership with retailers.' Watch out below.