The government is to press ahead with plans to move asylum seekers onto the Bibby Stockholm as early as tomorrow. The last few days have seen arguments between fire safety authorities and MPs over the suitability and safety of the vessel intensify. Last week, the Fire Brigades Union wrote to Home Secretary Suella Braverman to raise concerns over fire safety. The government wants to accommodate 500 asylum seekers on the barge instead of the 222 it is meant to house. Deputy PM Oliver Dowden announced that the government is proceeding with its plans to move refugees in next week. He suggested that the fire authority’s concerns were politically motivated, insisting the government had addressed any remaining safety issues.
In an article in today’s Telegraph, the Deputy PM wrote:
“Barges have been used by other countries, so why not us? Indeed the Bibby Stockholm that is causing the Left-wing activists so much alarm has been used to house migrants safely and securely by the German government before us. We did not hear the howls of outrage from them then”.
But not everyone in the Tory party agrees. Richard Drax, in whose constituency the barge is docked, claimed that “none of the key questions” had “been answered”. The Labour Party accused the Conservatives of leading the asylum seeker system into a state of chaos, with backbenchers attacking the plan to move refugees onto the Bibby Stockholm as “callous”.
When asked about last week’s delay, the government said that the Health and Safety Executive was still to sign off on “working practices”, including issues with vehicle parking and hi-vis clothing.
But the Fire Brigades Union remains firm in its opposition. The FBU’s assistant general secretary Ben Selby told The Guardian:
“As the only professional voice, firefighters believe the Bibby Stockholm to be a potential death trap.”
In a letter to the Home Secretary last week, the FBU wrote:
“The FBU has expressed concerns about plans to exempt accommodation provided by the Home Office for asylum seekers from needing an HMO license. We are concerned about the risks on a large floating structure used to accommodate asylum seekers in long-term housing and would expect the risk assessment to recommend substantial prevention and control measures to tackle overcrowding, access to fire exits and other safety matters on the vessel.
“The FBU seeks an urgent meeting with you and your officials to discuss these matters. We have substantial expertise, including from earlier disasters such as the Grenfell Tower fire and the subsequent public inquiry. We are concerned above all to prevent another tragedy and to guarantee public safety.”
The barge consists of 222 cabins on three decks along narrow corridors. Only two exits to an outdoor compound, the size of a five-a-side football pitch and surrounded by a metal fence, are available. Migrants will only be free to leave by bus or under security supervision.
Government dismisses safety concerns and accuses fire authorities of playing politics
Speaking on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, Grant Shapps refuted the FBU’s claims:
“It certainly won’t be a death trap.
“This actual ship was previously used by Germany to house migrants. There’s no reason why it wouldn’t be absolutely safe. Ships are used to transport people all the time, and there’s no inherent reason why that [not being safe] would be the case. That’s actually why these final safety checks are being carried out.”
A government spokesperson added:
“This is the reality of what’s behind union opposition to our plans. Labour and its union backers are gleeful at the idea of housing migrants in hotels because it suits their political games. And that’s why they don’t want to stop the boats – because they’ve also calculated it’s to their gain.
“It’s a betrayal of our country and the British people. It’ll be up to this Conservative government to sort this problem in the face of Labour’s mock outrage and repeated attempts to block our plans.”
Rishi Sunak told LBC:
“The Bibby Stockholm will be in operation as soon as it’s passed all the checks and regulations – as soon as possible – that’s the key thing.”
According to The Mail on Sunday, immigration minister Robert Jenrick confirmed that approximately 50 asylum seekers will arrive at the controversial barge in the coming days. He reiterated that the government plans on housing 500 asylum seekers on the Bibby Stockholm.