A DORSET MP hit out at the Home Office and says a minister ‘has not covered himself in glory’ over plans to site a barge housing hundreds of migrants at Portland Port, off the Dorset coast.
In a debate in the Commons on Wednesday (April 26), Richard Drax (Conservative, South Dorset) criticised what he said was a lack of consultation over the plans, claiming they had been ‘imposed on us with the Home Office now desperately claiming they have consulted widely’.
Immigration minister Robert Jenrick said the Home Office was working with stakeholders in Dorset and that extra funding would be allocated to Dorset Police and Dorset Council.
The barge was ‘in the national interest’, he said, in order to save taxpayers money housing migrants in hotels as part of the Government’s plans to ‘stop the boats’.
However, plans for the ‘quasi-prison’ barge required ‘careful thought, consultation, preparation and then execution’, a passionate Mr Drax said.
“I regret to say that in our case, none of these things have been taken into account. Not one,” he added.
He said he had received ‘no information whatsoever from the Home Office, other than, ‘You’re getting a barge’.
“What is clear is that the Home Office had made its decision before consulting with anyone other than the port,” Mr Drax said, opening a debate on the matter in the Commons.
“Now, bombarded by questions it cannot answer and opposed by all the statutory bodies, the Home Office is trying to smooth troubled waters.
“Regrettably, diplomacy is not the Home Office’s strong point and a lot of good will has been squandered.
“It has been handled in the most discourteous way and I’m afraid the minister has not exactly covered himself in glory either.”
He added: “This is an unholy mess, not totally of the minister’s doing, but the way this proposal has been forced on us certainly is.”
Mr Drax said questions over policing, health provision, and the management of people on the port site had not been answered.
And he also revealed Home Office officials had told stakeholders they were considering provate healthcare for migrants using the barge.
“When my constituents struggle to actually see a doctor, and hunt for a dentist, I’m not sure they will understand why those who have come here illegally should have preference,” he said.
Questions on how those living on the barge would interact with the community were also unanswered, he said, with a lack of detail in responses from officials.
“Who are these migrants? Where are they from? Can (the minister) guarantee they haven’t committed any crime? Robbery, rape, assault, whatever?,” Mr Drax said.
“I have now received the first answers to many written questions I am submitting to the Home Secretary.
“I asked how long individual migrants would stay on the barge. Did they have to be on the barge overnight? Would there be a curfew? What would happen if they did not return?
“This is the reply I received and I quote: “The site is self-contained. Although those living at the site would be free to come and go, if an asylum seeker were not back on site by 11pm, the team would make a call to check on their welfare.
“This would not be under curfew conditions, it would be based on following up on the safety and welfare of the individual.”
Mr Drax continued: “I’m not sure a migrant who wants to disappear is going to answer the phone.
“Were they accommodated in a hotel, as they are now, I can see an 11pm curfew might just work. But this barge is located in a heavily-restricted port. The only way out and back in is via one checkpoint, on a bus. So, how many migrants will be allowed out of the port at any one time, there being only one bus?
“Where will they be dropped in Dorset, or anywhere else? Who will monitor them? How much money will they have?
“In the summer, the beaches will be packed with families and young people. Have the cultural differences been taken into account?
“What happens to the hundreds of other migrants still stuck on the barge? How long before there’s trouble on the barge?”
Dorset Police – who ‘do not support the barge either’ – had estimated costs of community policing for the plan would cost around £700,000, Mr Drax said.
“Weymouth is a sensitive, family-based seaside resort,” he said. “Hoteliers, B&Bs and other small coastal businesses rely almost entirely on the summer for their revenue.
“As far as I know, no thought, or certainly no evidence of it, has been given to the impact this large influx of migrants might have on them.”
He added: “I can only hope that our plans to deter illegal migrants can be enacted soon. Most importantly, this will save lives and counter the trafficking gangs who ply their vile trade.
“In the meantime, I advise the government to start building secure reception centres and fast, as this problem is not going to go away and placing them on barges in very sensitive ports like mine is certainly not the answer.”
Mr Jenrick said the asylum situation has ‘placed the UKs asylum system under unsustainable pressure’.
“The rise of illegal and dangerous and wholly unnecessary small boat crossings has left us in the invidious position of having to accommodate over 48,000 individuals in hotel at eye-watering expense to the taxpayer,” he said.
“It’s simply wrong that British taxpayers are footing the bill, of almost £2.3bn a year, to accommodate illegal migrants.”
He said in the ‘short term’, the government needed to find other ways of housing the migrants.
“As I’ve said before, we must suffuse the entire system with deterents and this includes our national approach to how we accommodate illegal migrants,” he went on.
“In the short term, that means switching to cheaper and more appropriate forms of accommodation such as disused military sites and vessels. Such actions are in-keeping with action being taken across Europe.
“The UK can’t risk being left behind and becoming a magnet for millions of people who are displaced and seeking better prospects.
“These alternative sources of accommodation are therefore undoubtedly in the national interest.
“The Home Office is determined to work closely with the (MP) and key local stakeholders to ensure that the site … is delivered in a way that minimises the impact on the local community.
“We understand entirely the concern that his constituents will feel … and want to ensure that wherever possible we allay those fears in the weeks and months ahead and certainly to do as much as possible in advance of the arrival of the barge at Portland Port later this year.”
He said the Home Office did take the impact on communities into account and was holding regular meetings with stakeholdlers, including the NHS and other bodies.
He also said issues were considered before the decision was taken.
Private healthcare was ‘done to ensure those migrants placed as little burden as possible on local public services’, while the ‘regime’ on the boat was designed to ensure there were as few ‘issues’ as possible, given the vessel has to be a ‘non-detained’ one.
“There will be a secure cordon around the vessel,” he said. “But there will be a bus that takes migrants to agreed places where they might spend some free time or go to a shop, again, to discourage them from making journeys throughout the community and to careful control their movements as far as we can within the limits of the law.”
Dorset Police will receive a special grant to cover the ‘additional burden that this special national endeavour has upon on their very limited resources’.
And Dorset Council will receive ‘at least £3,000 per asylum seeker residing on the vessel per year’, he added, to allow the provision of resources and personnel to manage the scheme.
The additional funding would run into ‘millions of pounds’, he said.