The Government are not currently putting forward any legislative proposals for the use and regulation of armed guards. The possession of firearms is already regulated by the Home Office under the Firearms Act 1968. We have issued UK-flagged shipping guidance, and we intend to bring forward further work in the near future.
I thank the Minister for his answer and welcome the announcement that armed guards can now be used in the protection of UK ships in areas affected by piracy. He will be aware, however, that the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee has described the Government’s interim guidance as “thin on detail”, while ship owners have called for regulation to clarify the use of armed guards. When do the Government intend to bring forward clearer guidance or regulation on this issue?
The protection of the UK fishing fleet is a very important issue, especially given the piracy situation off Somalia. This is not a new development; armed guards were on British flagged ships long before we came into power. The issue was ignored, wrongly, by the previous Administration. We therefore made a conscious decision on whether we ignored it, wrongly, under UK law, or did something about it. Guidance was introduced, although I agree with the Select Committee that it needs to be firmed up. At the moment, we do not need legislation, but if we do, we will bring it forward.
That is very difficult to do because no British-flagged ship under armed guard has been taken by pirates; they have attempted to do so but have not succeeded. That is an indication of why it was right and proper for us to move forward on this. There has recently been a decline in attacks. That is partly to do with the excellent work that NATO and our European colleagues are doing with the Royal Navy, partly to do with armed guards, and partly to do with best practice; a lot of it is to do with the weather, as well. We keep a very close eye on this, because it has a significant effect on our shipping as well as on the shipping of other European Union member states.