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Piracy (Horn of Africa)

Volume 529: debated on Tuesday 14 June 2011

3. What recent assessment he has made of the threat to UK shipping from piracy off the horn of Africa. (59273)

7. What recent progress his Department has made on its work to counter piracy off the horn of Africa. (59277)

Thanks to international navies and the self-defence measures used by large sectors of the shipping industry, there have been no hijacks in the critical gulf of Aden trade artery since November 2010. However, piracy continues to pose a significant risk to shipping and seafarers in the Indian ocean, with 18 successful hijacks having taken place this year, so we are not complacent. Britain is playing a leading role in the counter-piracy operations at sea, and we are leading the international work with regional countries to help put in place penal and judicial facilities to deal with this evil.

The Minister is no doubt aware of the role of many British service personnel, and indeed ex-service personnel, in protecting shipping off Somalia in particular. Does he agree that in the end, only when Somalia has a high degree of law and order, which it does not at the moment, will the problems be properly solved?

That is exactly why Her Majesty’s Government are putting so much effort into leading the international initiatives to help rebuild that failed state. Indeed, the Department for International Development has a four-year, £250 million programme for Somalia, which will focus on building regional judicial and penal structures, strengthening the police, strengthening regional coastguards and trying to help coastal communities find alternative livelihoods. As the hon. Gentleman says, the problem will be solved only on land.

We need to have a deterrent to piracy, and currently the British Chambers of Commerce states that 80% of those who are captured are then released. What measures can we put in place, and can my hon. Friend expand on the international agreements that we need to counter piracy?

I share my hon. Friend’s great concern, because catch-and-release simply encourages further piracy. I recently visited the EU Operation Atalanta naval headquarters at Northwood, and the Minister for the Armed Forces made it very clear to me that the Royal Navy and other navies are doing all that they possibly can not just to capture pirates but to gather sufficient evidence for them to be put on trial in courts in the region. That is why I and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary are working very hard with regional countries to build the vital penal and judicial capacity.

I regret that the Minister’s reply was rather complacent. At a conference in Singapore last month, his colleague the Defence Secretary will have heard several Asian Defence Ministers express alarm at the considerable rise of piracy in the Indian ocean. Suggested solutions have included a greater use of convoys, Q-ships and private security; particularly importantly, changed and toughened rules of engagement; and possibly exclusion zones. The international community is united on the need for the matter to be brought to a head. As we are a major maritime nation, when will the Government get a grip and take a lead to combat this menace, particularly by getting international agreement and changed rules of engagement?

I can understand the right hon. Gentleman’s frustration. As I explained, there has not been a successful hijack in the gulf of Aden artery this year, because activity has been displaced into the ocean, and we are having significant successes. I can tell him that the EU agreed in May to amend its operational plan to deliver more robust action. I cannot discuss that publicly, but it is largely the result of efforts being made by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that we are very much on the case.