Pirate threat 'means more armed guards on UK ships'
A number of major UK shipping companies now carry armed teams to combat the threat of Somali pirates, a leading industry security spokesman has said.
The prime minister said in October that UK ships could carry armed teams.
Gavin Simmonds, defence and security head at the Chamber of Shipping, estimated that 20-30% of UK ships in the high risk area had armed guards.
But a security industry spokesman said the process for approving security firms was "not fit for purpose".
"There are a number of major UK companies who would not have wanted to have gone against the government's advice and did not change their policy on this until after the prime minister's announcement was made," Mr Simmonds told the BBC News website.
But since then they had started the practice of carrying armed guards, he went on, "And I am totally confident that they are being carried in compliance with all the new procedures."
He was speaking as the UK prepared to host an international conference on the problems of Somalia on Thursday.
However, Peter Cook, director of the Security Association of the Maritime Industry (Sami), said the circumstances surrounding approval of companies to provide armed teams for UK ships were "challenging".
Ship security personnel normally use semi-automatic weapons such as AK-47 rifles. To use them on a British ship is like using them in the UK - and the security company has to seek authorisation from the Home Office under Section five of the Firearms Act.
The company may also need to seek to become a registered firearms dealer and seek an Open-ended Individual Trade Control (OITC) licence to allow for the transfer of arms and equipment.'Takes time'
"If a shipping company wants to have an armed team on board then they have to identify whom they want to use," said Mr Cook.
"Once the shipping company is content that the company has fulfilled those requirements, then it will provide the company with a letter saying that there is a contract that will happen when the company has all the correct licensing in place.
"The company can't go through the licensing process with the Home Office until they have the letter. And then for the Home Office to provide all the correct licences can take quite a period of time."
But contracts normally come up on a short-term basis, he went on. "If you know that your ship is going to go through a high-risk area in five days, what you say is, 'I need a team in five days to embark my ship at a particular port,' - let's say Muscat.
"You haven't really got time to go through the whole process - that is why I'm saying it is not fit for purpose. I'm confident that in due course a lot of the problems will be ironed out. However, it is taking some time."
A Department for Transport spokesman told the BBC News website: "We have been quite clear that we need to offer those flying the Red Ensign every opportunity to protect their crews and vessels against these dangerous criminals.
"Since publishing guidance to the industry on the use of armed guards in December, a limited number of shipping companies have submitted their counter-piracy plans to the Department.
"As part of this, their choice of Private Security Company (PSC) is required to gain the relevant firearms clearance, and we understand this process is ongoing."
Since the Somali piracy threat emerged in 2008, 799 ships have been attacked and 168 hijacked, says the International Maritime Bureau. More than 3,000 crew members have been held for ransom.
But no vessel with an armed security team aboard has ever been taken, commentators say.
The danger to British vessels was underlined last month when a liquefied petroleum gas tanker, the Happy Bird, was fired on by pirates in two skiffs near the island of Socotra off the Horn of Africa.
The armed team aboard the Happy Bird returned fire - only warning shots, Arthur Redapth, managing director of the Happy Bird's operators, Bernhard Schulte Ship Management, told the BBC News website. And the pirates made their excuses and left.
The Happy Bird is an Isle of Man-registered ship and was not subject to previous UK restrictions on carrying weapons.
Isle of Man rules restricting the carrying of weapons only apply up to 12 miles off the Manx coast, Mr Redpath's deputy, Dermot Curtin, pointed out. "The Isle of Man authorities weren't in favour of it, but there was no legislation that said you couldn't do it."