Sunak set to push on with asylum barges despite Bibby Stockholm fiasco

Government has ‘no problem’ hiring more vessels, says minister as pressure grows on PM to tackle small boats after Channel deaths

Adam Forrest
Political Correspondent
Sunday 13 August 2023 12:13 BST
Police board Bibby Stockholm following Legionella bacteria discovery

Rishi Sunak’s government is to push on with finding more barges to house asylum seekers, despite the plan to put migrants in the Bibby Stockholm barge descending into “utter farce”.

The PM is under intense pressure on small boats after the Dorset barge was evacuated over Legionella bacteria found in the water supply, and the deaths of six people after a boat sank off the coast of France.

Welsh secretary David TC Davies said on Sunday that it was “quite possible” more migrants will be housed on barges because the government had “no problem in principle with hiring barges”.

Despite fierce criticism – and exasperation from Tory MPs worried by “staggering incompetence” – ministers still intend to find more docks to housing migrants vessels elsewhere in the UK, the Sunday Telegraph reported.

Plans to use a boats to house migrants near Liverpool had to be scrapped after being declined by the port operator, while the government had also run into opposition at docks in east London and a site Edinburgh.

One senior source in the port industry told the newspaper that various ports were “worried about a bit of a local backlash”, while another source said “one or two ports” might agree to asylum vessels.

Senior Tory David Davis said the “startling incompetence” of the Home Office had been revealed after all 39 people on the Bibby Stockholm were taken off due to Legionella bacteria. Former Tory MP Scott Benton said that the barge had become a “complete and utter farce”.

There have calls for home secretary Suella Braverman to be sacked. And Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown said the Home Office should be broken up into different departments.

But right-wing Tory MP Sir John Hayes, a leading figure in the Common Sense Group, said he remained in favour of “concentrating arrivals and the barges are a great idea.”

Suella Braverman facing calls to resign (PA Wire)

Up to 10 unused student accommodation and former office blocks are also reportedly under consideration, averaging about 500 places per site, as the government looks to get migrants out of hotels.

Asked if the government will hire more barges to house migrants, Mr Davies told Times Radio: “It’s quite possible … Obviously we’ve got no problem in principle with hiring barges or using former military accommodation.”

The cabinet minister claimed that the “very quick action that the government took this week to remove people because of the just the possibility that Legionnaires could spread, actually demonstrates how we’re putting the safety of people first”.

Meanwhile, campaigners described the deaths of six people after a boat sank off the coast of France as an “appalling and preventable tragedy”, while MPs called for more action from Mr Sunak to stop criminal gangs profiting from the dangerous journeys.

French lifeboat enters the port of Calais following a rescue operation (Reuters)

Some 59 people were rescued by British and French coastguards on Saturday after an overloaded vessel carrying migrants got into difficulty near Sangatte.

Some Tory MPs criticised France following the deaths, amid reports that a French warship PSP Cormoran was monitoring the overloaded small boat across the Channel when it sank. Fisherman Matthew Coker told the Mail on Sunday the military boat was “escorting” the vessel.

Sir Iain Duncan Smith said the French policy of escorting small boats to English waters was “madness”, adding: “I think the whole thing encourages them to risk the journey more, which is a mistake – you see what happens when they do that. They end up dying.”

Home Office figures show that 755 people crossed the Channel in small boats on Thursday – the highest daily number so far this year – confirming that the total since 2018 has passed 100,000.

Ex-Tory chairman Sir Jake Berry called for the UK to leave the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) after the tragedy, claiming it could help “solve the issue” by allowing Rwanda flights to take off.

Labour’s cabinet minister Bridget Phillipson said people traffickers were “running rings” around the government and the said Home Office was “increasingly shambolic and completely incompetent”.

Care4Calais said the incident was an “appalling and preventable tragedy”, while the Refugee Council warned “more people will die” unless more safe routes to the UK are created.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman described the incident as a “tragic loss of life” and said she had chaired a meeting with Border Force officials later on Saturday.

Meanwhile, the people who had been on the Bibby Stockholm, which had been billed as a cheaper alternative to expensive hotels for those awaiting the outcome of their claims, are now back being housed in alternative accommodation.

Ms Phillipson, Labour’s shadow education secretary, told Times Radio that she “wouldn’t want to see people accommodated on barges for a minute longer than is necessary”. Labour has been criticised for saying it may have to keep migrants on barges until the asylum system could be improved.

The Home Office has said the health and welfare of asylum seekers “remains of the utmost priority” and that the evacuation took place as a precautionary measure, with all protocol and advice followed.

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