[Jim Sheridan in the Chair] — Piracy (Somalia)
Richard Ottaway (Croydon South, Conservative)
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. For small vessels the region is, in truth, a complete no-go area. For the piracy of the 17th and 18th centuries, the prize was the cargo, and the crew walked the plank or went over the sides, but that has changed; now, the crew are equally valuable. That attitude of the pirates is causing the problem. That is not to say that the cargo is not still important—shipowners are paying substantial sums to get their cargo out—but as we see particularly when yacht crews are held, in international terms the yacht is worth nothing while the owners still have a high value.
The Government initially resisted the establishment of private armed security guards on board British vessels. When the Minister gave evidence to us during our inquiry, the Government’s position was that armed guards would not be welcome. However, the Prime Minister announced in October or November last year that we will now put armed security guards on board British vessels, and that view is echoed by the International Maritime Organisation. The Committee welcomes the U-turn.
The operation of a private armed guard on board a British vessel is subject to British law—the law of the flag applies on board any vessel. The Government published interim guidance, at the heart of which was a policy based on the Crown Prosecution Service policy of lawful self-defence. We were critical of that, because the CPS guidance was not written with piracy in mind. Indeed, it states:
“If a…firearm…was used…this may tip the balance in favour of prosecution.”
To me and to the Committee, that seemed to be off-loading responsibility for the use of armed guards on to shipowners. The simple question we posed in our report was: if armed guards on board a ship see an armed skiff approaching, can they open fire? That is the test. The initial interim guidance contained little to help make a judgment on the use of force.
In the Government response, as I pointed out in my point of order, clarification was promised by April 2012, which then became May, then June. I have no idea why there was a delay, but I like to think that it was because international co-ordination and consultation with the IMO were necessary. Indeed, earlier this year, at the invitation of the Department for Transport, I attended a particularly constructive piracy conference at the IMO. What is important, however, is that the UK plays a leading role in the establishment of any guidance, and that is why I regret the new guidance not being available for us to see, because we cannot really comment. We are in limbo—the guidance is out but we are unable to comment on it today. The UK should be playing a leading role, but the issue is current. I want to ask the Government whether they have been happy with the use of armed guards on ships from implementation up to now. How many applications have been received to establish armed guards on board a ship?
The House might be interested to know about the Italian ship Enrique Lexie, which was carrying two Italian marines on board. Though the facts are in dispute, there was an exchange of armed fire with small vessels and two fishermen were killed. For reasons that are not clear, the Italian vessel then went into an Indian port and the marines were arrested amid a dispute about whether the incident took place in international or territorial waters. The matter is unresolved, but the incident highlights the importance of the need for clear guidance and international agreement on the use of force.
We can see how easily diplomatic incidents can occur in the absence of proper guidance or internationally agreed standards. That is mainly because so many factors are involved in international waters, such as a British ship with a foreign crew going into another country’s waters; several jurisdictions are in play. I was interested to read that the IMO has called for an international standard for the use of armed guards, so I shall read the newly published guidance with interest to see whether such a standard has been established. I hope that a Minister might be able to summarise the guidance when he makes his contribution to the debate.