Skip to main content

Somalia: Piracy

Volume 734: debated on Wednesday 11 January 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what naval contribution the United Kingdom will make towards, and what advice they will give to British-registered vessels on, combating piracy near Somalia after the current monsoon season.

My Lords, the Government continue to provide support to the multinational naval operations off the coast of Somalia. For example, we provide the operational commander and headquarters for the European Union’s counterpiracy operation and we will provide a ship to the combined maritime forces throughout 2012 for counterpiracy tasking as part of the forces’ wider operation. The Government urge all shipping transiting the high-risk area to comply with the industry’s best management practice. The Department for Transport has also published interim guidance on the use of armed guards in exceptional circumstances to defend against pirate attacks.

Is my noble friend aware that despite the welcome news that he has given today the situation remains extremely worrying as the geographical area of the ocean covered by the pirates gets ever wider? Is my noble friend further aware that already 10 per cent of shipping is being rerouted around the Cape at a cost of £3 billion and it is forecast that that may rise to 30 per cent? Against that, should we not confront the pirates in two further ways: one by deploying UAV aircraft to pinpoint exactly where the mother ships are that support the pirates; and, having pinpointed them, surely the naval operations should go on the front foot and sink them rather than just react to situations?

My noble friend is quite right that this is a very serious situation spreading of course not only to the Gulf of Aden area, but out into the Indian Ocean and the west of Africa. He perhaps would accept that the statistics show—maybe because of diversion of shipping but for other reasons as well—that successful attacks fell dramatically last year. There were 127 attacks in 2010, 47 of which were successful, and by 2011 there were more attacks—150—but only 25 were successful. The success rate for the pirates in achieving their ugly objectives has been much reduced. Nevertheless, my noble friend is absolutely right that very firm action is required. The matter of UAVs is under consideration but there are difficulties, even for UAVs, in covering such an enormous area. We are talking about somewhere twice the size of Europe. On the question of vigorous action when these pirates are encountered, the Government believe that interim guidance is a strong first step, as initiated by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, in his discussions on these matters in Australia a few months ago. The details laid down are definitely an advance in dealing with pirates in a most vigorous manner, and rightly so.

I welcome the Minister’s comment that the Royal Navy will be providing a ship to support the anti-piracy operations off Somalia. The Minister will also be aware that the Navy has been unable to meet its full-time commitments for a duty ship over the past few months. Noting such other contingencies coming up, such as the potential closure of the Hormuz Strait by Iran, will the Government now recognise that they have cut back too far on the size of the destroyer and frigate force?

My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord will not be surprised at my answer that these matters are kept under constant review. We need to deploy in the most effective manner the forces that our resources allow us to deploy, and we will continue to examine all needs and priorities in that light.

My Lords, I am very glad that I gave way to the noble and gallant Lord because I thoroughly agreed with his intervention. If we are half-serious about dealing with this menace, should not the first and indispensable step be to cut off the flow of funds to the pirates? Every week literally millions of pounds are passed to the pirates from ship owners and particularly from underwriters. The largest share of this probably comes from underwriters in the City of London. The means used to pass the funds may be unconventional but the payments are perfectly legal. If we were to criminalise the payments and use the existing apparatus of criminal assets seizure legislation and money-laundering legislation to interdict them, would that not be a very substantial step in the direction of dealing with the problem?

I say to the noble Lord that actually the first step is to deal with the conditions on land that give rise to the piracy operation by sea; that is where we start. However, he is quite right that the flow of cash and finance is a very important part of this. We are working with Interpol and with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime to see whether we can be more effective in tracing the patterns of finance. It is not easy but it is certainly an area where we should concentrate.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the work of the Mission to Seafarers, the world's largest provider of port-based humanitarian and welfare services for seafarers and their families, which has provided assistance to victims of piracy, especially in the region around Somalia? Will he consider engaging with the Mission to Seafarers to develop a model of support for families of hostage victims?

Yes, I say to the right reverend Prelate that that seems an excellent initiative and idea, and something that we will certainly consider most carefully.

Will my noble friend reflect on the fact that in the past two years since 2009 there has been a sevenfold increase in the number of piracy incidents that have taken place off east Africa, according to the IMO; that there are some 2,300 crewmen being kept hostage at the moment, according to NAVFOR; and that the ransoms paid out in the past two years went up from $80 million to $135 million? In that regard, what will be the contribution of our Government to the conference on Somalia in London at the end of the month, and, more importantly, to the maritime security conference that will take place in Dubai next week?

My noble friend is absolutely right; these are two very important conferences. He was correct to mention the latter one, but I particularly emphasise his point about the conference on Somalia that has been organised for London on 23 February. It is a major initiative that will bring together all parties concerned not just with piracy but with the issues of what to do with the failed state condition we face in Mogadishu at the moment. The conference will be well attended and I believe that it will be extremely effective in focusing on the problems of the area, of which the piracy element is a very important part.

Will the Minister tell us something about what would be the greatest deterrent to piracy: namely, bringing pirates to justice? Deterring pirates is one thing but bringing them to justice is by far the most effective deterrent. Will he tell us whether the success rate in that matches the successes reflected in the earlier statistics he mentioned?

A considerable amount is being done but I concede that it is not enough. The aims have been to develop prison transfer facilities in the Seychelles, where progress is being made; and also in Kenya, which has taken the brunt of the problems of dealing with captured pirates and bringing them to justice. We are working with the Seychelles to upgrade all operations, with both financial and technical support. We are working with the Kenyans and with Somaliland, which are willing to develop both custody facilities and judicial facilities. All these things are going on and are a very important part of the overall aim of defeating the piracy infection.