Nick Smith MP Labour MP for Blaenau Gwent
As we settle down for Christmas I am sure we are all looking forward to repeats of the Pirates of the Caribbean, Peter Pan or Treasure Island. But while we watch the action on screen, the Royal Navy are fighting real pirates to keep the seas safe.
Piracy is a real problem. Last week the Royal Navy apprehended seven men suspected of piracy in the Indian Ocean. They will stand trial in the Seychelles, one of only two countries in the region with agreements with the EU to try suspected pirates. Too often suspected pirates have been freed due to confusion over where they should be tried.
There are currently 10 vessels and 172 hostages held captive by Somali pirates. It is estimated that piracy costs the world economy £10bn each year in lost trade. This extraordinary figure raises the wider issue of how secure our seas really are.
Globalisation and technological advances allow us to trade with countries on the other side of the world at the push of a button. But these goods must then be transported across the seas. In fact globalisation is as much of a maritime affair as a communications one. Sir Jonathon Band, a former First Sea Lord, branded the sea ‘the original superhighway’.
Any activities, whether through piracy or terrorism, could have an extremely consequences for our economy and capacity to trade.
This problem is not confined to one area, as an island nation we rely heavily on imports from overseas. The Chamber of Shipping calculates that 95 per cent of UK trade is carried by sea, with 550 million tonnes of goods handled by British ports every year. A medium-sized container ship can carry over 100 times the weight and volume of the world’s largest freight aircraft.
We forget the connection between well stocked supermarket shelves and the free flow of trade by sea. The prosperity this brings depends upon the silent presence of our navy working to provide safe passage for ships. This lack of awareness of the navy’s role is known as ‘sea blindness’, and unfortunately this seems to be affecting those making policy at the MoD.
Most freight journeys travel through the world’s eight ‘choke points’, areas like Suez and Gibraltar, where ships must travel through narrow channels, making ships vulnerable to attack. 20,000 vessels sail through the Gulf of Aden every year, putting them at risk.
The Strategic Defence and Security Review made provisions for a surface fleet of 19 frigates and destroyers. However, by 2021 the average age of these ships will be 21 years old -; the age previously regarded as the end of their useful lives.
The British Chamber of Shipping recently described the government’s recent endorsement of armed guards for ships as a ‘distraction, perhaps a dangerous one’, that diverts attention from our lack of military assets. Britain no longer rules the waves, but securing safe passage across the sea is essential for our future prosperity. It is time to rethink the Strategic Defence Review, to allow us to target known trouble spots. We can be proud of our naval tradition, but with 71 per cent of the world’s surface covered by water it makes sense to plan for a stable naval future. Let’s keep Captain Jack Sparrow on the screen, and off the high seas.