Press release

Change in UK policy on employing armed guards to protect against Somali piracy

UK-registered vessels will be able to employ armed guards to defend themselves against pirates in exceptional circumstances.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government


UK-registered vessels will be able to employ armed guards to defend themselves against pirates in exceptional circumstances under new guidance confirmed by the government today.

The move comes after a significant increase in the number of attacks against vessels in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden in recent years. Evidence shows that vessels with armed guards are less likely to be successfully attacked, which is why the government has been working in recent months to allow the lawful use of armed guards in exceptional circumstances.

The guidance published today includes the factors ship owners should include in a risk assessment and advice on selecting a private security company (PSC). Shipping companies wishing to use armed guards will also be required to submit a detailed counter-piracy plan to the Department for Transport in advance.

Shipping Minister Mike Penning said:

The word ‘pirate’ can conjure up cartoonish images of eye patches, parrots and wooden legs, but the reality is much more serious. Modern pirates are dangerous, organised criminals who have shown they are not shy of using violence to achieve their goals. We have not taken this decision lightly. It is clear that we must offer those flying the Red Ensign every opportunity to ensure the safety of their crews and vessels.

By allowing the use of armed guards in a structured, legal framework we can move to a system where ship owners can provide an adequate deterrent against this scourge on the maritime industry.

Under the changes published today, any PSC employed to put armed guards onboard UK ships will require authorisation from the Home Office for the possession of prohibited firearms. The Home Office and police will also carry out checks into the PSC and its personnel before an authorisation is granted.

The guidance published today will be kept under review to ensure it reflects continuing work being done at both a national and international level to counter the increase in piracy around the world.

Notes to editors

The guidance to the UK shipping industry on the use of armed guards on vessels is available on the Department for Transport website.

The exact circumstances under which the use of armed guards could be permitted are:

  • when the ship is transiting the high seas throughout the high risk area (an area bounded by Suez and the Straights of Hormuz to the North, 10°S and 78°E)
  • the latest best management practices are being followed fully but, on its own, are not deemed by the shipping company and the ship’s master as sufficient to protect against acts of piracy
  • the use of armed guards is assessed to reduce the risk to the lives and well being of those onboard the ship

In the last 4 years, 64 people have lost their lives as a consequence of Somali piracy. Currently 12 vessels and over 240 hostages are in the control of pirates off the Somali coast.

  • Maritime security

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Published 6 December 2011