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Piracy: Royal Navy

Volume 706: debated on Thursday 22 January 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the capability of the Royal Navy to safeguard United Kingdom trade routes against piracy and other illegal activities.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as a long-retired lowly officer of the Royal Naval Reserve and a member of the parliamentary naval association.

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the families and friends of Marine Travis Mackin, Captain Tom Sawyer, Corporal Danny Winter and Acting Corporal Richard Robinson, who were killed on operations in Afghanistan recently.

The Royal Navy has already had demonstrable success in tackling piracy and illegal activities around the Horn of Africa, which is a vital artery of world trade.  The best effect can be achieved by operating in the multinational partnerships, Operation Atalanta and the combined maritime force. However, these problems cannot be tackled solely within the maritime environment, and we must continue to work with the international community to tackle them at their roots through the provision of humanitarian and development assistance.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply and join her in the condolences that she has offered. Does the United Kingdom have a data centre for long-range identification and tracking—LRIT—and, if not, does she agree that an estimated 1,000 British merchant ships would be trading but would not be LRIT-compliant, opening up those ships and, indeed, the United Kingdom to security violations? Is she aware—I am certain that she is—that Royal Navy manpower is down by some 6,500, or 14 per cent, and that the fighting fleet is down by some 29 ships, or 25 per cent, since 1997? Does she agree with me about the law of elasticity—that when a property is overstretched, it breaks and can no longer do its job?

My Lords, we have made it clear on a number of occasions that while we regard our Armed Forces as stretched, we do not accept that they are overstretched. Our contribution to tackling problems such as piracy is extremely important. The noble Lord will be aware that the first EU naval task force is headed by a British commander and its headquarters are at Northwood. On data tracking, we should place significant emphasis on international co-operation; that is the basis on which we are working under, of course, the umbrella of United Nations resolutions.

My Lords, I join those on these Benches in the earlier tribute. Clearly, the payment of ransom encourages further piracy. Are the Government or the international community taking active steps to discourage owners of vessels that have been captured paying a ransom, and does the maritime force have any instructions to make the physical handover of any ransom that much more difficult?

My Lords, the Government are against the paying of ransoms in such circumstances, which we have made clear. The majority of our international partners agree with that. It is an area where the greater the level of international co-operation, the more likely we are to get to a situation where we are all pursuing the common objective. It is important that we emphasise that we are not only dealing with incidents of piracy but trying to prevent these incidents happening in the first place. Again, co-operation has been extremely important.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that, in safeguarding our trade routes, if we capture pirates there needs to be an urgent resolution of how and where we bring those pirates to trial so that there is proper retribution for their illegal acts?

My Lords, my noble friend is right. Piracy is a crime of universal jurisdiction and any state is entitled, as a matter of international law, to prosecute anyone who has been involved in piracy. It is an area where we are considering whether we need to change our domestic law. But the agreement we made with Kenya on 11 December last year will be extremely helpful, because it has agreed to take and to try pirates who were captured in one incident and that is to be extended should the situation arise again.

My Lords, what inhibitions are there of either a practical or a legal nature which would be an impediment towards the arming of some of these massive tankers with weaponry that is appropriate and adequate to repel attacks from small boats?

My Lords, there can be a danger in private-armed situations, which is why we have placed our emphasis on international co-operation to police these waters, to try to deter and to prevent incidents of piracy. So far those have been extremely successful, but we should not be complacent because the threats are very real, specifically in that part of the world.

My Lords, following the very good point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, let us assume that a piracy attack on a British merchant vessel is intercepted by a Royal Naval vessel and pirates are captured. I would assume that there would be no other place where those pirates could be tried other than in the United Kingdom. Perhaps they come from Somaliland and the worry would be that they will claim political asylum. How do we get around that?

My Lords, that is precisely why we have developed the agreement such as the one I mentioned we have with Kenya. HMS “Cumberland” apprehended pirates and we had the agreement with Kenya, which means that they are now to stand trial in that country. There are difficulties. We are aware of the danger of bringing pirates here who would want to claim political asylum, which is why we are looking at our domestic laws. Our arrangement with Kenya provides us with a satisfactory situation at the moment.

My Lords, we join the Minister in sending our condolences to the families of the servicemen who were tragically killed in Afghanistan. I understand that the Chinese are sending two warships to the Gulf of Aden to combat piracy. Will they be attached to the EU combined task force or the US one, or will they act independently?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to say that there are several aspects to the international effort on piracy and the Chinese have recently indicated their willingness to help in this situation. We are trying to make sure that we have an international contact group so that those countries that wish to make a positive contribution can do so.

We have had extremely good co-operation between the NATO force that was in the area until December and the EU mission that we now have, as well as the combined maritime force which has been ongoing for some time. We are extremely hopeful that the Chinese will wish to participate in the co-operating mechanisms to make sure that we maximise the effort and international co-operation.