Aug 28, 2023

Bibby Stockholm: ministers accused of playing Russian roulette with asylum seekers’ lives

Charity condemns plan to return people to the barge despite inspection finding failings in its plumbing system

Ministers have been accused of playing Russian roulette with asylum seekers’ lives after it emerged that hundreds could be moved on to the Bibby Stockholm barge despite an inspection finding failings that could take months to repair.

Urgent work is being carried out following an inspection of the plumbing on the barge, which is moored in Portland, Dorset, the Guardian has learned.

The Home Office contractor CTM has been given an eight-week deadline by Wessex Water to complete all repairs to ensure the barge, which is intended to house up to 500 people, complies with the legal requirements of Water Supply (Water Fittings) Regulations 1999.

It is understood that the Home Office plans to move asylum seekers back on to the barge before the repairs are completed.

The Home Office said the plumbing work was “scheduled and routine”, and not connected to the discovery of the potentially deadly legionella bacteria, which caused the barge to be evacuated earlier this month.

But this was contradicted by Wessex Water, who said it was prompted by the discovery of the bacteria. “After legionella was reported, we worked with the local authority and conducted an inspection of the water fittings on 23 August,” a spokesperson for the company said.

Dorset council’s public health team has separately run new tests for the legionella bacteria in the barge’s water system. The results are expected imminently.

The barge was evacuated four days after the first arrivals were brought onboard, and has been empty ever since. Refugee charities have expressed alarm at the idea of bringing people back on to it without remedial work being completed and all legal hurdles cleared.

The home secretary, Suella Braverman, is known to be keen for the barge to return to use as soon as possible after the chaotic scenes last month prompted speculation about her future.

Neither the Home Office nor CTM have disclosed the problems thet Wessex Water identified, but an eight-week deadline to correct them indicates they are sufficiently serious to require rapid work.

A CTM spokesperson said the company had received a report from Wessex Water after its inspection of the vessel on 23 August. They said: “We will be reviewing the findings alongside the vessel owner, Bibby, who, alongside other third-party stakeholders, will be responsible for carrying out any necessary actions within the required eight-week deadline.”

Steve Smith, the chief executive of the refugee charity Care4Calais, said: “The government is playing Russian roulette with the lives of asylum seekers over the Bibby Stockholm.

“Why are they planning to put asylum seekers back on the barge before repairs making it legally compliant with water legislation have been carried out? The government already placed people onboard the Bibby Stockholm when the presence of legionella was known. Now we know they want to do the same thing before repairs to the plumbing system have been completed.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “This was a scheduled and routine plumbing inspection which all public buildings, including accommodation sites, have to undergo periodically. This is not linked to the legionella traces found in the water, doesn’t affect the ability of asylum seekers to return to the vessel and the repairs can be carried out while people are onboard.

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“The Bibby Stockholm successfully completed all safety checks ahead of the first individuals boarding. The vessel completed a statutory inspection and refurbishment before undergoing final preparations to accommodate asylum seekers.”

The plumbing troubles are the latest problem to affect the 90-metre vessel, described as a floating prison by some of the asylum seekers briefly held on it.

The Fire Brigades Union has sent a pre-action protocol letter to Braverman outlining its concerns over fire safety. The 39 people who were briefly onboard also wrote to the home secretary, outlining the bad experience they said they had on the barge, adding that one of them was driven to attempt suicide.

The continued wrangling over the barge comes as the government is also struggling to hit its self-imposed target to move all Afghan refugees out of hotels and into more suitable permanent accommodation by Thursday.

Ministers had promised to end the use of hotels for Afghans as “bridging accommodation” by 31 August, but has struggled to find long-term alternatives for all those who need it. Rishi Sunak refused to say on Wednesday whether the deadline would be met.

With 6,000 Afghan refugees reported to have still been in hotels at the beginning of August, the prime minister appeared to acknowledge that some would still be there beyond the deadline.

Asked by GB News whether the target would be met, he said: “We’re making very good progress towards that. But more broadly, I think this is all about – tomorrow, yesterday, the day after – we’ve got to end the situation where we spend millions of pounds a day housing illegal migrants in hotels.”

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