The British Government was accused of "breathtaking laxity" in its arms controls after it emerged that officials authorised the export to Syria of two chemicals capable of being used to make a nerve agent such as sarin a year ago.
The Business Secretary, Vince Cable, was today to be asked by MPs to explain why a British company was granted export licences for the dual-use substances for six months in 2012 while Syria's civil war was raging and concern was rife that the regime could use chemical weapons on its own people.
The disclosure of the licences for potassium fluoride and sodium fluoride, which can both be used as precursor chemicals in the manufacture of nerve gas, came as US Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States had evidence that sarin gas was used in last month's atrocity in Damascus.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills insisted that although the licences were granted to an unnamed British chemical company in January 2012, the substances were not sent to Syria before the permits were eventually revoked last July in response to tightened European Union sanctions.
In a previously unpublicised letter to MPs last year, Cable acknowledged that his officials had authorised the export of an unspecified quantity of the chemicals in the knowledge that they were listed on an international schedule of chemical weapon precursors.
Critics of the Business Secretary, whose department said it had accepted assurances from the exporting company that the chemicals would be used in the manufacture of metal window frames and shower enclosures, said it appeared the substances had only stayed out of Syria by chance, and called for a full explanation.