The UK’s deputy prime minister, Oliver Dowden, has stated that checks are still ongoing on a barge intended to accommodate asylum seekers, with the first group expected to be housed there within a few weeks.
Dowden expressed confidence that the Bibby Stockholm in Portland, Dorset, would soon become operational and assured that the government would consider the concerns raised about fire safety.
Despite multiple delays in the plan to relocate individuals to the 500-capacity boat, Dowden remained firm in the belief that it was necessary to reduce costs for taxpayers as part of a broader effort to prevent illegal immigration by sea.
Explaining the delay, Dowden explained that various inspections and measures needed to be carried out to ensure the suitability and readiness of the vessel.
Dowden stated, “I’m confident that in the coming weeks, we will have people on those barges.”
He also acknowledged that the government was already taking into account the concerns raised by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), which has expressed worries about overcrowding and access to fire exits, deeming the boat a potential deathtrap.
Dowden initially attempted to argue that the FBU was a significant donor to the Labour Party, but when it was pointed out that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) had also raised concerns, he assured that all concerns would be addressed.
Dowden highlighted some successes in the government’s efforts to prevent illegal immigration, noting a 90% decrease in the number of Albanians arriving on the English south coast and a 40% increase in interceptions in the English Channel after cooperation with France.
He reiterated the government’s commitment to clearing the asylum application backlog of 92,000 by the end of the year, mentioning an increase in caseworkers to aid in the process.
Despite promises from the prime minister to find alternative accommodations, the government has faced difficulties in moving asylum seekers out of hotels and into alternative options such as barges, cruise ships, and disused military bases. The use of hotels has increased in recent years due to a rise in the number of small boats crossing the Channel, with the government estimating a daily cost of £6 million.
The arrival of the first 50 people on the barge, originally scheduled for Tuesday, was delayed due to late representation from the HSE regarding working practices for port staff, rather than concerns about fire safety.
The HSE raised concerns about hi-vis clothing and separating pedestrians from vehicles but stated that their recommendations should not have caused the holdup.
In response to claims that the barge plan had been chaotic, Chancellor Rishi Sunak defended the initiative, stating that it was a novel approach to address a serious problem.
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