HL Deb 12 May 1993 vol 545 cc1275-8

2.45 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether their actions, taken in concert with other maritime nations, have yet led to a reduction in piracy at sea in South-East Asia and the Far East.

The Minister of State, Department of Transport (The Earl of Caithness)

My Lords, there are indications that effective enforcement by the coastal states has led to a significant reduction in the number of attacks by pirates or armed robbers in or near Malaysian, Singapore and Indonesian waters. However, there are reports of an increased number of attacks in the South China Sea area.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his reply. While it appears that there has been a reduction in the number of incidents since my Question a year ago, does he agree that it is tragic and intolerable that a British captain and his first officer should have been shot and killed in an attack on their ship near Indonesia last December? Will he accept that unfortunately the oriental successors of Long John Silver are alive and well and engaged in armed robbery with violence?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, there is nobody who was not shocked by the callous murder of Captain Bashforth and his chief officer. We are pressing the Indonesians hard for a full report and inquiry into the captain's brutal murder. Since my noble friend asked his earlier Question, the coastal states in that area have apprehended a number of people on charges of armed robbery and piracy.

Lord Harvington

My Lords, I am glad to hear what the noble Earl just said. Does he agree that, in days gone by when the Pax Britannica saw to all such things, these matters were rather better managed than they seem to be today?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, times have moved on and we must respect the territorial waters of the coastal states.

Lord Ironside

My Lords, in view of the fact that the Government have rejected a general role for the Royal Navy in putting down piracy, does my noble friend agree that there is a very strong case for the Hong Kong Patrol Squadron, which already deals with a lot of incidents in our sovereign waters there, to extend its role to cover these piracy issues? Therefore, is there not good reason for the Hong Kong Patrol Squadron to extend its role after June 1997?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, we have not rejected the role of the Royal Navy in the matter of piracy. A different matter is armed robbery within the 12 mile coastal limit. That is a very different question. In exactly the same way that we have responsibility for the waters up to 12 miles from our coast, so a coastal state has responsibility for its 12 mile area. As regards Hong Kong, I know that the Hong Kong Government have raised the matter of piracy direct with the Chinese Government.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, in view of the fact that under international law for many centuries the penalty for piracy has been death, can my noble friend confirm that if Her Majesty's forces catch pirates that penalty will now be imposed?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, that question would have to be resolved if we caught a pirate on the high seas.

Lord Tanlaw

My Lords, does the Minister think that possibly there is value in considering Sir James Brookes' method of 150 years ago whereby the successful suppression of piracy was not done at sea but by finding out where those people lived on shore and dealing with them properly on land?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the noble Lord is right. That is why we find it so encouraging that the coastal states in that area have apprehended a number of people who are at the moment awaiting trial. But we must remember that piracy and armed robbery are not confined to that part of the world. There are other incidents off the African and South American Coast.

Lord Geddes

My Lords, can the Minister say what role, if any, the IMO has in that context?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, it has a substantial role. The United Kingdom was part of an IMO delegation working group that went out to Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. The subject will be raised in the IMO at the Maritime Safety Committee later this month.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, does that mean that the British Government have taken the initiative in developing an anti-piracy strategic policy for those areas? If not, can the Minister say whether the Government will produce an initiative reflecting our history as a sea-faring nation? Although it is good to know that until recently there was a drop in the number of incidents, looking at the press over the past few weeks there seems to be an increase in piracy, particularly off the African and South American coasts. It looks, therefore, as though it is an international problem.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, it is not for us to dictate an armed robbery or piracy solution to the problem that is faced in various parts of the world. However, we work with the coastal states and help them wherever we can. I believe that we are the first and only country so far to have produced a notice to mariners—the M Notice—in considerable detail on how to avoid piracy and what to do in the event of an attack.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, is it correct that the IMO recently set up a monitoring station in South-East Asia? If so, does my noble friend have any information so far in regard to its success?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, we are trying to improve the evidence that we receive of armed robbery and piracy attacks. Of course, it is up to the captain of the ship to report the attack in the first place. That is why statistics are poor. However, we hope that that will improve in the future.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, does my noble friend believe that the Beijing Government are aware of the damage done to their reputation through apparent failure to control entrepreneurial and criminal elements from the mainland of China, which have in recent months shown a number of piracy activities in Hong Kong territorial waters?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, it does not do the reputation of any country any good to be associated with either armed robbery or piracy. The Hong Kong Government have taken the matter up most strongly with the Chinese Government.