‘Small Boats Week’ fiasco vindicates Portland mayor

Meme by Sadie Parker

Suella Braverman is the kind of person who cuts corners and ploughs on regardless. Nothing gets in her way. Not our constitution. Not parliamentary sovereignty. Not the rule of law. Now, in her latest project, the Bibby Stockholm detention barge for asylum seekers, those behaviours have put the lives of people under her department’s care at risk. The question must be asked, has Suella Braverman gone too far?

August 7 to 12 was ‘Small Boats Week’ in the government’s communications calendar, the idea being that there would be lots of positive articles singing the praises of Number Ten for government action to halt what Braverman has termed ‘an invasion’ by people seeking to claim asylum here. This is an exaggeration even by the migrant-hating Daily Express’s standards. There are some 35 million refugees globally – only a tiny fraction of whom are hosted by the UK, it told its readers recently. The UK ranks the sixth ‘most popular’ destination for refugees, behind Germany, France, Spain, Austria, and Italy. Seventh-place Greece, nevertheless, has a per capita total of 356 refugees per 100,000 population, which is over three times that of the UK.

Back to Small Boats Week… here’s a recap of what happened with the Bibby Stockholm.

Timeline of a preventable fiasco

Meme by Sadie Parker

25 Jul 2023: Legionella tests conducted by Dorset Council, as per legal requirement.

07 Aug: The Home Office sent the first 15 asylum seekers to the Bibby Stockholm barge.

07 Aug: Positive legionella test results were received. Dorset Council informed the contractors, who have a legal duty to inform the Home Office.

07 Aug: Cllr. Carralyn Parkes launched a legal challenge in a personal capacity against the Home Office for mooring Bibby Stockholm at Portland Port without planning permission.

08 Aug: Legionella results were discussed at a meeting between Dorset Council, various agencies, the contractors, and the port owners, with a Home Office official present.

10 Aug: The Home Office put six more refugees onboard, despite Dorset Council flagging the Legionella test results the day before (as the contractors had not yet done so).

10 Aug: The Home Office ruled a refugee with TB would be sent to the barge

11 Aug: All 39 asylum seekers on board the Bibby Stockholm were evacuated

12 Aug: Three Bibby Stockholm asylum seekers reported feeling unwell; they had not been warned to not drink the water or take a shower while on board. (This number is now up to four.)

Legionella bacteria can cause a serious type of pneumonia (lung infection) called Legionnaires’ disease. It is highly resistant to the antibiotics typically used to treat pneumonia and is fatal in approximately 10 per cent of cases. However, it is not contagious. Rather, the disease is contracted by inhaling small droplets of water, suspended in the air, containing the bacteria. This is why the water systems of public facilities like schools, hospitals, and prisons have to be regularly and rigorously tested for the bacteria. It is even more essential to test a building or vessel that has been out of commission and stood unused for some time, as was the case of the Bibby Stockholm.

The majority Tory Dorset Council had sounded the alarm about this old barge long before it docked in Portland Port on July 17 this year, with concerns about the lack of appropriate resources to cope with it, safety risks, and horror at the inhumane conditions onboard – particularly the overcrowding. In this they were backed by the local Dorset West MP, Chris Loder.

Built in 1976, the barge had previously been used to house 222-300 homeless in Hamburg in the mid-1990s after a major re-fit, then in 2005 it was deployed in Rotterdam to house asylum seekers, followed by two years in the Shetland Isles 2013-2014 to house workers building the Shetland Gas Plant, and finally a brief stint in Sweden housing construction workers building a wind farm.

Nobody has ever tried to cram 500 residents on board, as our government plans to do. Ben Selby, the Fire Brigades Union assistant secretary, has described the Bibby Stockholm as having the potential to become “a floating Grenfell”. Since it has only two main exits, no life-jackets onboard, and an evacuation point on the quayside that is too small for 500 people, he considers it to be “a death trap”. Ruairi Kelly, an SNP Councillor for Glasgow who worked on the Shetland project 2013-14, has said the barge was claustrophobic, but they worked 14-hour shifts, so were only ever on it for about 8 hours a day to eat and sleep, and only for 3-week stints at a time. He doesn’t think it will be suitable for asylum seekers who are not allowed to work and who will have very little money to go out.

These concerns have fallen on deaf ears. The government has said it is more cost-effective to house asylum seekers on barges, than in hotels. But does this claim stack up?

No, and for two reasons.

The backlog processing asylum claims

The first is because Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick – he of painting over cartoons to make reception centres for unaccompanied child refugees “less welcoming” fame – admitted on live TV that the build-up of the backlog of asylum claims was a deliberate government policy. The part that he didn’t say out loud was that the government was happy to allow the backlog to build because it could use it as a wedge issue in its electioneering, and also as a distraction from failures in other policy areas.

A backlog in processing asylum claims began to accumulate in 2013 when the government downgraded the profile of caseworkers, with a corresponding fall in productivity from 14 cases per day per caseworker then to only 4 cases per case-worker per day today. Unsurprisingly, the backlog now stands at over 170,000. Some claimants have been in limbo, unable to work and contribute to the country that has “welcomed them” for over a year. This is staggering mismanagement. No wonder it is costing £6 million a day to put asylum seekers up in hotels, but that’s the government’s fault, not that of the refugees.

The uncompetitive procurement of Bibby Stockholm: more cronyism?

The second reason the Bibby Stockholm may not be cheaper than hotels is because of the costs of procurement. These costs are not transparent, but it does rather look as if Suella Braverman has outdone the ferry-less ferry deals of our erstwhile hapless Transport Minister Chris Grayling. The little we know is she has hired three barges for 18 months at a cost of £1.6 billion. (The other two barges were not allowed to dock in Liverpool and Edinburgh and have been sent back to their owners). The deal was on a non-compete basis, which should ring alarm bells for any taxpayers concerned about value for money.

While the barges are owned by Bibby Maritime, founded six generations ago by slave-trader John Bibby, they were leased via an Australian company called Corporate Travel Management. CEO Jamie Pherous explained that the deal started with calls from a person close to then UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

“They’ve just basically said, ‘We’ve got this problem. Can you solve it for us?’ We went, ‘Yeah, absolutely. Give us 12 hours,’” Pherous said.

Why, if the privately owned ports of Liverpool and Edinburgh refused a barge, couldn’t Portland? The answer lies with the Langham family, the multi-millionaire UKIP-enthusiasts who own Portland Port. They have reportedly signed a £2.5 million-deal with the Home Secretary to allow the barge to be moored there. (The exact amount of the 18-month deal has not been announced, but according to their website, a vessel the size of Bibby Stockholm should expect to pay berthing fees in excess of £4,000 per day.) Since this was a private deal and the council’s authority does not extend to the water beyond our shores, the Home Office decided to go ahead without seeking the normal planning permissions, meaning local people had no say in something that impacts them enormously.

A proposal to take the contracting parties to court was abandoned by Dorset County Council, because these companies have much deeper pockets than the Council. It has been left to Portland Mayor, Carralyn Parkes, to sue them in a private capacity, as Portland Town Council do not have the statutory power or the funds to pursue such a case.

Assuming the Bibby Stockholm is worth one-third of the £1.6 billion 18-month lease, that’s a cost of £533.3 million for 18 months, or £355.6 million annualised. A pro-rata berthing fee of £2.5 million equates to an annual charge of £1.67 million. Costs for food, healthcare and security are estimated to be around £20,000 per day. All in all, that puts the cost of the barge at just shy of £1 million per day, or £2,000 per day per refugee, assuming 500 refugees on board. This does not compare favourably to housing a refugee in a hotel at a cost of £137 per day per head.

Meme by Sadie Parker

Will Suella Braverman pay the price of her folly?

It appears that like the colossally expensive Rwanda scheme, the Bibby Stockholm is yet another of Suella Braverman’s astoundingly costly PR stunts. Somebody has to stop that woman from setting fire to billions and billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money the way she does. When the news broke of the evacuation of all 39 of the refugees on board the Bibby Stockholm, only 2 of whom had arrived by small boat (the others having come in via an airport, presumably the route the government wishes them to take), the blame game started. Government’s approach was to blame Home Office staff, (i.e. not Suella Braverman) or failing that, Dorset County Council.

Look how spectacularly that backfired. The government probably did not expect Dorset County Council and Mayor Parkes to put up the fight that they did, but thanks to social media and local press, the message got out that Braverman had approved sending refugees to the barge BEFORE legionella test results were known, putting her on the back foot. Furthermore, it is possible that Braverman should not have even signed a contract to lease the Bibby Stockholm before the legionella test results were back, let alone house anyone on the barge, if government rules for the procurement of venues are applicable.

As well as the Bibby Stockholm fiasco, Small Boats Week was marred (from the government’s perspective) by:

  • the revelation that a hard drive containing data on people trafficking operators was stolen from a safe at Lydd Airport in Kent, where the control room for the drones that monitor small boats is located;
  • one of the government’s £420k “eye in the sky” drones crashed in the Channel (possibly the same one that crashed on 5 Jul and was recovered by a fisherman);
  • a Border Force cutter was put out of action due to a technical glitch;
  • the milestone of the 100,000th refugee to arrive by small boat since records began was surpassed;
  • the record was set for the highest number of refugees to arrive on any given day (750);
  • Rishi Sunak’s Small Boats Week video was fact-checked and found to contain the lie that there are safe legal routes to the UK (there are not), and
  • Tory Party Chairman Lee Anderson’s foul-mouthed tirade, followed by the admission that the government had failed.

As the saying goes, you could not make it up. Instead of showing off how tough they’re being on traumatised people fleeing war and torture, the government ended up showcasing its incompetence. This is clearly a Murphy’s Law government. Whatever it can mess up, it will mess up, and to an extent far worse than anybody could possibly imagine.

Four of those evacuated from the barge later reported flu-like symptoms, but it looks as if Suella Braverman will escape any attempt to question her integrity, hold her accountable, or lament her lack of professionalism. Braverman has not been seen or heard of since Small Boats Week. She appears to be hoping to get away with the dishonourable Johnsonian trick of brazening it out, hiding from all scrutiny, and refusing to resign. Some Tory MPs are briefing the press that “she is sh*t” and she has to go. Anonymously, of course. However, Rishi Sunak has rowed back from a September reshuffle, and the more time that passes, the safer she looks.

Indeed, Rishi Sunak has since admitted that he will not meet his pledge to stop small boats before the next general election. Furthermore, the entry into force of Suella Braverman’s landmark Illegal Immigration Act (2023), which is unconscionably cruel and has caused major upset up and down the country, has now been pushed back a second time until November. What a climb down.

What can we do?

You may be scratching your head wondering what was the point of any of this? Apart from a tiny minority of racists, this is not who the British people are, or how we want  vulnerable refugees to be treated. This government’s actions have whipped up division in the UK, made us look Putinesque on the world stage, chipped away at yet more of our rapidly sinking reputation, squandered millions if not billions of taxpayers’ money, and utterly failed. Government has even managed to knock another percentage point off its standing in the polls, while Labour is back up to 50 per cent in some. Cruelty does not yield a political dividend.

No doubt we will see more of the scorched earth style of government in the dying days of this era of Tory rule, slashing, burning and vandalising everything that is good about our country. In the meantime, we can back Carralyn Parkes in her David and Goliath fight against the Home Office, by contributing to her crowdfunder.

If you would like to read more articles by Sadie Parker, click here.