THE Royal Navy could be given tough new powers to deal with pirates off the coast of Somalia.
Gangs of Somali pirates roaming the vast Indian Ocean currently hold more than 800 seafarers ransom. The escalating problem is estimated to cost the global economy £7.5bn a year.
But the Royal Navy, which has a near-permanent presence off the Horn of Africa, is powerless to bring the pirates to book.
Instead, international law dictates many pirates picked up by warships are released back to Somalia where they can continue their criminal activities.
In a House of Commons debate, Foreign Secretary William Hague, pictured, warned pirates may face harsher treatment in the future.
He said: ‘Royal Navy ships have robust rules of engagement. We are examining what can be done to change the balance of risk to make it more risky to be a pirate off Somalia.
‘I am anxious to do that and we are talking to our international partners about it.’
Piracy traditionally dies down during the monsoon season between June and September.
The government is expected to announce harsh new measures to coincide with the expected spike in piracy after the summer.
The changes are understood to be centred on international jurisdiction so Britain can charge pirates.
Current rules stipulate that warships on anti-piracy patrols – as Portsmouth-based frigate HMS Richmond was earlier this year – can stop suspected criminals and take them aboard.
But they can not be detained for trial.
Instead, sailors sometimes end up looking after pirates, feeding them and giving them small amounts of money before they are allowed to head back ashore without charge.
The navy can not fire on the pirates unless it is in self-defence.
Occasionally, only after pirates have been let go, are their small vessels, known as skiffs, blown up by the navy.
Former navy boss, Admiral Lord Alan West, said this must change.
‘We need to get our act together and have the ability to take robust action from warships,’ he said, adding: ‘We need a more co-ordinated campaign against piracy and we need to be able to take a pretty hard line on this.’
Poverty is a driving factor in the rise of piracy in Somalia, which is currently suffering from famine.
Former First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Jonathon Band, said: ‘Giving the military a tougher role is part of it but we’ve also got to get to the heart of the issue on the ground, which is a really serious issue.’