‘Why are you here, Sir?’
‘Not that Johnny Depp, Sir?’
No – Somali pirates….’
The Met Police security at Portcullis House at 18.30 on Thursday was rather better humoured (but probably far more effective) than most of the security screens you meet. On Thursday Chris Bellamy attended a meeting chaired by Eric Joyce, MP, ex-British Army and now involved in a number of working parties dealing with piracy – the number one Maritime Security problem at the moment. There were brief opening talks by journalist Liz MacMahon from Lloyd’s List who has written 220 articles on piracy in the past year, and Peter Cook, founder of the Security Association for the Maritime Industry (SAMI), who recently won Lloyd’s List‘s ‘Newsmaker of the Year’ award.
The good news was that pirate attacks – and, therefore, successful attacks, in the Indian Ocean and off the east coast of Africa were well down on last year. The not-so-good news was that the proportion of attacks that were successful had risen, and also that piracy attacks on the other side of Africa, in the Gulf of Guinea, had increased. The decline in attacks in the Indian Ocean could be attributed to successful Naval operations, but also to the longest Monsoon in at least ten years. The Monsoon was now abating, so this welcome trend might not be irreversible…
Last October David Cameron announced that British-flagged ships would be allowed to carry armed guards. Peter Cook had been widely quoted as saying that the minimum strength of an armed team – four – should not be reduced in attempts to cut costs. However, there was another problem. Although British-flagged ships could now carry armed teams, those teams were in danger of carrying illegal weapons. Why? Because the provenance of each weapon – as well as its serial number and other details – had to be squeaky clean. Many weapons were held in floating armouries – on the High Seas, and therefore out of the jurisdiction of littoral states. This seemed an ideal solution. But, having allowed British-flagged ships to carry armed teams, the British Government had not got as far as licensing or approving the principal floating armoury whence the weapons could be drawn. This was at sea off Sri-Lanka, licensed by and operating with the full approval of the Sri Lanka Government. The ship itself was joint Mongolian- Sri-Lankan flagged. In discussion, with several shipping companies represented, it emerged that there were estimated to be 17-20 floating armouries around the Indian Ocean – mostly Mongolian flagged. At the moment, however, a British security team drawing weapons from one of these floating armouries would be in breach of the law. If they got into a shooting match with pirates, this could cause a problem.
On the face of it, solving the problem the problem should be quite simple. Approve the Sri-Lankan- Mongolian floating armoury, and maybe another one at the other (west) end of the Ocean. But the subject had so far elicited little interest from the relevant Ministers. Chris suggested that maybe a Parliamentary Question could unlock the problem.
After a lively discussion, which also included the problems of charging and trying pirates, the meeting adjourned to ‘the other part of the Palace’. Portcullis House, built in the 1990s, is linked with the main Houses of Parliament by an underground passage. The old and the new have been merged skilfully: 1990s tudor-gothic revival with the 1830s gothic revival and pugin. You descend some stairs, pass between a stone lion and unicorn, and are very quickly passing below Big Ben and into the catacombs below the Palace of Westminster. A good deal of ‘networking’, appropriately lubricated, then followed.