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Migrants: Barges

Volume 832: debated on Wednesday 20 September 2023


Tabled by

To ask His Majesty’s Government whether adequate provisions have been implemented to prevent the spread of infections on barges used to house migrants.

On behalf of my noble friend Lord Roberts of Llandudno, and with his permission, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

I can assure both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord that the health and welfare of individuals in asylum accommodation, including vessels, is our utmost priority. The Home Office has worked throughout with the UK Health Security Agency on the management of contagious diseases and the policies relating to that, particularly in respect of vessels. Medical facilities and isolation rooms on board have been designed by local NHS services, with UKHSA input.

My Lords, the data from Dorset Council discovered that the legionella strain found on the “Bibby Stockholm” was the most deadly. Public health officials remain concerned that the Government, by doubling the number of asylum seekers on the boat, put them at risk of infectious diseases that spread very fast in overcrowded places, such as diphtheria, scabies and gastroenteritis, all issues that have been found at Manston and other places. Can the Minister confirm that the legionella was successfully removed and that the Home Office will follow public health advice about the number of people kept in places to reduce disease spread caused by overcrowding?

I can confirm that the Home Office went above and beyond the UKHSA’s initial advice in managing the legionella situation, which was to have no new arrivals to the “Bibby Stockholm”, and decided to evacuate the barge immediately. We have robust and well-rehearsed processes in place across the government estate to test for legionella bacteria and it is not unusual to identify it in water systems, which is why they are subject to regular testing.

My Lords, has the Minister had the opportunity to consider, at least initially, yesterday’s devastating report from the public inquiry into the scandal that is Brook House detention centre? I will not waste your Lordships’ time with the details, but they are worth a read. Has he had the opportunity to read the published remarks of His Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, and his comments about how he has been thwarted by Home Office Ministers in doing his job of independent review? I am sure that noble Lords would be grateful for a response.

As the noble Baroness well knows, sadly this Question is limited to the adequacy of the implementation of measures to spread infection on barges.

The Companion is quite clear. I am afraid I will not be drawn on the Brook House inquiry report in this session.

My Lords, if, as the Minister says, there are robust measures to ensure the health and well-being of people put on barges, why were a number of refugees and asylum seekers put on the barges before the health measures were in place?

The health measures were in place, and it was only at a very late stage that the Home Office was made aware of the findings of Dorset Council. At that time, as I say, the Home Office decided to go beyond the recommended position from the UKHSA, which was not to put any more migrants on the barge, and instead to evacuate it, which was surely the responsible thing to do.

My Lords, will the Minister take on board—no pun intended—the concern for not only the asylum seekers who were subjected to this but Home Office officials, and presumably contractors, who must also have been exposed to the legionella?

As I said in my initial Answer, one of our paramount concerns is the health and welfare of migrants and our staff. I can reassure the House that no one has contracted legionnaires’ disease as a result of the finding of this presence in the water supply.

My Lords, the barge is only one solution to the growing numbers who need to be accommodated. What provision of healthcare is being considered at MoD sites such as Wethersfield and, potentially, Scampton? Will GPs be on site and what all-round healthcare will there be to ensure that those resident there are kept safe?

I am very grateful to the right reverend Prelate for that question. One of the great advantages of the utilisation of large sites and barges for the housing of migrants is that specific contracting can be provided for the provision of healthcare for migrants. I can reassure him that there is a GP service available to all the residents of the large sites. A nurse is present routinely throughout the week at various times. The health of the migrants is, as I say, something the Home Office takes very seriously. Furthermore, the provision by contract on these large sites prevents the utilisation of local GP resources in the environs of the large sites, either at Wethersfield or for the barge in Dorset.

My Lords, what confidence can this House have in the Government’s efforts to contain the spread of infectious diseases on barges when the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, referred to by my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti, has had his contract terminated because he has been too critical of the Government’s policy? I will tell the Minister one thing: it is not the inspector’s contract that needs terminating.

As I replied to the noble Baroness, that is a long way from the topic of infection on barges. The term of office of the chief inspector was time limited. It is clearly open to the Home Secretary not to renew the appointment.

My Lords, can the Minister explain this to me, because I have not really understood it? Presumably the Government instituted health checks before any migrants were put on that boat, so why was it only the Dorset Council review that threw up these very negative findings? If the Government did not know about this, why did they respond to it so quickly?

My Lords, I understand that one of the reasons for trying to house these migrants on the barge is to try to reduce the costs on the Government as far as this whole episode is concerned. Will my noble friend tell me what budget the costs for this project and other projects come from?

My noble friend is absolutely right. Presently, the hotel bill for migrants is in excess of £8 million per day. It is vital that the use of hotels is drawn down and stopped as swiftly as possible. I can reassure my noble friend that the budget is there in the Home Office for the accommodation of migrants. It is equally important that the taxpayer obtains value for money.

My Lords, as the Minister has ruled that this Question is about barges only, once it is clear that the barges are safe and there is no danger to health, can he arrange for one of them to be brought up the Thames and moored outside the Houses of Parliament to provide accommodation to Peers from outwith London who are finding that the escalating costs of hotels in London is using up all our daily attendance allowance?

I have a certain sympathy for the noble Lord’s point. I can reassure him that the use of barges to house asylum seekers is done routinely by our friends in Europe. The German Government housed asylum seekers on this very barge between 1995 and 1998. The Dutch and Belgian Governments have equally done so. The standard of accommodation is high. The noble Lord will recall that the Scottish Government housed Ukrainian asylum seekers on two vessels in Scotland. I think that one of those vessels, the MS “Victoria”, was used to house policemen during the Olympics. This is civilised living accommodation, and clearly I shall inform the Port of London Authority of the noble Lord’s suggestion.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm the cost of the barge sitting there empty at the moment? Reports are that it is about £50,000 a week. Can he confirm whether that is the case, and can he say, for the cost of that, how many immigration officers could be employed to clear the backlog?

I can reassure the noble Baroness that the correct due diligence and financial assessments are carried out and reviewed regularly to ensure that all vessels progressed for asylum accommodation provide value for money to the taxpayer. There is, of course, an intangible benefit, which is that by emptying the hotels we return them to their proper use for the benefit of the communities where they are located. As my right honourable friend the Immigration Minister has repeatedly made clear, it is a problem across the House that these hotels are not in use for their normal purpose, and it is very important that they are emptied as swiftly as possible.