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Volume 493: debated on Monday 1 June 2009

The UK takes the protection of merchant shipping very seriously, and many personnel, both in the UK and overseas, are engaged in activities relating to the suppression of piracy around the horn of Africa. This includes the provision of command and control functions for both UK and international military vessels. We are working with the UK shipping industry, other Departments and international partners to co-ordinate, educate and support merchant shipping in the region.

With the Santa Maria in 1961, the Achille Lauro in 1985, the attempted hijacking of the Seabourn Spirit in 2005 and the attempted hijackings of other cruise ships in the past few weeks, how confident is the Minister that the British travelling public, who form the vast majority of cruise ship passengers, are safe off the horn of Africa? Obviously we are talking about pirates now, but they could well graduate from commercial ships to cruise ships.

There has been a big increase in the number of patrols: there are not only those run by the European Union; many other nations have also been participating. Even though most of those other nations are not prepared to fall under the command of others, they are more than happy to co-operate and ensure that what is being done is properly co-ordinated and therefore most effective. There is also a big operation involving the exchange of information from the United Kingdom in Northwood to ensure that we can pass information between nations safely and securely, so as best to attack the problem of piracy. Piracy is a real problem around the horn of Africa, but it will not be solved entirely in the maritime area.

Can my right hon. Friend tell us what he knows about the involvement of the Kenyan armed forces in the work of defeating piracy in the horn of Africa? I was in Kenya last October and many parliamentarians there were concerned about the situation, so I wonder where we stand now.

We should be enormously grateful to the Kenyan Government for the assistance that they have been giving us and for being prepared, in some circumstances, to bring those accused of piracy to justice in the Kenyan legal system. Kenya is directly affected by piracy, which attacks trade to Kenya. Indeed, a lot of the World Food Programme supplies to parts of Somalia come through Kenya; those ships have been targeted and are at risk too.

Increasing numbers of ransoms are being paid, and the pirates are now investing that money in better equipment and better weaponry. Does the Minister share my concern that if the problem is not nipped in the bud, the situation will escalate to the extent that many more people may be killed?

I am sorry to say that it is a bit late to nip the problem in the bud as the hon. Gentleman suggests. It has been going on for some time now, and the amount of activity and the preparedness of the pirates to go further out to sea to attack vessels—right out into the Indian ocean, for example—make it extremely difficult to offer full protection over such vast areas of sea. The reactions of the international shipping organisations need to be properly thought through. Their governance of their ships, and their preparedness to co-operate in the channelling of shipping that now takes place, and to accept our advice, ought to reduce the problem. We believe that this activity has led to an increase in the number of unsuccessful attacks, but in the past those organisations have been prepared to offer ransoms, which are hugely attractive to the individuals involved. It is hard to put in place sufficient deterrents to counteract the attraction of such large amounts of money.

Will the Minister confirm that if the Royal Navy comes under armed attack from pirates, it is entitled to use lethal force immediately? Will he also confirm that if the Royal Navy captures armed pirates, there is no longer any risk of their claiming asylum, and that they will instead be handed over to the nearest appropriate jurisdiction?

We have looked into that question, and made sure that the Royal Navy has rules of engagement sufficient for the tasks that we ask it to do. In any circumstances, it can always defend itself if it comes under attack. The hon. Gentleman knows that to be true, because he knows a considerable amount about this subject. We have no intention of providing a taxi service for asylum seekers through the Royal Navy. We have received the co-operation of countries in the area— Kenya, in particular, as I have said—in bringing these people to justice. We will take robust action, and we are also helping with the biggest single effort being made at the moment—the co-ordination of the many different nations operating in the area. There are Russian and Chinese ships in the area, as well as those of NATO countries, and they are all prepared to co-operate and to co-ordinate their activities. The Royal Navy has provided a superb facility in assisting and enabling that co-operation to take place.