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Volume 535: debated on Monday 14 November 2011

The UK takes seriously efforts to tackle piracy off the horn of Africa and makes a direct contribution to a number of international efforts to counter piracy. We provide the operational headquarters and operational commander to the EU’s Operation Atalanta, we provide the deputy commander and HMS Somerset to the US-led combined maritime forces operation, and RFA Fort Victoria is currently under the command of NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield. Successful naval efforts must be complemented by proactive measures by commercial shippers.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to ensuring that our commercial vessels can carry armed guards. Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House that that will in no way diminish the assets of the Royal Navy that are applied to tracking down those involved in piracy?

Yes, I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that this move is in no way intended to be a substitute for action by the Royal Navy; it is an additional measure. No matter what degree of resource navies from around the world put into the counter-piracy effort, it would not be possible for there always to be a naval presence on hand when a ship is attacked. No ships that have had any sort of security or that have followed best practice have been pirated.

Following the point made by the hon. Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride), has the Minister had any discussions with the Secretary of State for Transport on the arming of commercial vessels? Will he tell us a little more about that, because it should not be a substitute for the duties of the British Navy?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that there has been a lot of discussion between the Home Office, the Department for Transport, the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office. Companies can apply for authorisation to carry firearms on ships. The Home Office will shortly issue guidance. Types of weapons will be considered on a case-by-case basis, but they will have to be appropriate and proportionate. Vessel owners will have a responsibility to ensure that guidance is followed, and necessary safeguards will have to be implemented.

When were the rules of engagement for royal naval ships off the horn of Africa last reviewed, and when will they next be reviewed? Can we ensure that we are not tying the arms of our armed forces personnel behind their backs when they are fighting piracy?

I assure my hon. Friend that the rules of engagement are kept permanently under review. Having looked closely at this issue, I am confident that we are not in any sense causing our people to fight with their hands tied behind their backs. The rules of engagement are, in my view, entirely appropriate to the task that they are being asked to perform.

The hon. Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) said that the Prime Minister stated two weeks ago that there would be draft regulations on proposals for arming British merchant-registered ships. Will the Minister confirm what the legal status of those individuals will be, what the rules of engagement will be and, more important, how they will interface with UK personnel who are already deployed off the horn of Africa?

I say again that the details of how this policy will work are a matter for the Home Office. It will shortly issue guidance that will cover some of the points that the hon. Gentleman has raised. The Home Office has taken a view on the legality of the policy and it is satisfied that it is legal within existing legislation. On the interface with the armed forces, the armed guards who might be carried on ships—that is a matter for the owners to decide—are there in a preventive capacity. The Royal Navy and other navies will continue to patrol the entire area. The focus of the military effort is to deter and disrupt. As I said a moment ago, it would not be possible, no matter how much resource navies were to deploy, always to have somebody there in a preventive capacity. All ships that have taken the necessary precautions have successfully prevented themselves from being pirated.

To follow up the question on rules of engagement, will the Minister ensure that ours are as robust as possible and allow people defending ships to engage the enemy, or the pirates, at the maximum distance possible, to give those ships more time to take evasive action?

I say again that I am perfectly satisfied that the rules of engagement provide the armed forces with as much flexibility as they need to deal effectively with the situations that we expect them to find. I have to say that the UK has been pressing international allies for a bolder set of tactics, and we continue to press them to agree to that.