It is a pleasure to speak in the House tonight, and I am delighted to see the Minister in his place, with whom I have had a few words. I apologise to him, because he has had a hard day already, but I am afraid it is going to get even harder in the next few minutes.
Stop the boats—stop the boats! Following today’s debate, the timing of my Adjournment debate could not be more apt and ironic. It is apt because I wholly support the Illegal Migration Bill and its intent, and it is ironic because before there is any chance of illegal migrants beings sent to Rwanda or anywhere else, they are being dumped on a barge in my constituency. To be fair—and I try my utmost to be fair—the situation is completely out of control and tens of thousands of illegal migrants have to go somewhere. However, where they go needs careful thought, consultation, preparation and execution. I regret to say that, in our case, none of these things has been taken into account—not one.
What has happened is this. Portland port is approached by the Home Office and sees a commercial opportunity. All negotiations are done in private and none of the statutory authorities is consulted. On 21 March, the Home Secretary rings me to say that a barge for 500 migrants will be placed in the port. The chief executive of Dorset Council has a similar call from Home Office officials. Please note that we were told the barge was coming; we were not asked, “What’s your opinion, how will you cope, what support do you need?” We were not told who will provide the healthcare, what extra funding will be available for the police, what responsibilities Dorset Council will have for the migrants, or what consideration has been given to the effect that such an influx of young men might have on a sensitive seaside resort—I could go on and on.
Instead, this contentious plan was imposed on us, with the Home Office now desperately claiming that it has consulted widely. It is true that, realising that it has gone about this in the wrong way, it is now calling Dorset Council, the health authorities and the police, but after the decision was made. None of these organisations supports the plan, and they have repeatedly made that very clear to Home Office officials, as I have to the Minister and the Home Secretary.
At the first multi-agency meeting, Dorset Council stated its clear position that it was opposed to the proposal, as did health representatives, who raised concerns with Home Office officials about the risk of an outbreak of infection on the barge, and the likely possibility of the severe mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder, that some of these young men might have. They just do not have the resources to cope, and any effort now by Ministers to suggest that these organisations are supportive and helpful is not correct. Dorset Council and statutory organisations, which are polite and professional, are constantly challenging the Home Office for more information, which is frequently not forthcoming.
Let me ask the Minister a question. Who are these migrants, where are they from and can he guarantee that they have not committed any crime—robbery, rape, assault or whatever? I would be most grateful if, when he sums up, he could guarantee that none of the 506 young men coming to us has committed a crime.
I have now received the first answer to the many written questions I am submitting to the Home Secretary. I asked how long individual migrants would stay on the barge, whether they would have to be on the barge overnight, whether there would be a curfew and what would happen if they did not return. This is the reply I received:
“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.”
I am not sure that a migrant who wants to disappear is going to answer the phone. Does the Minister? Were they accommodated in a hotel, as many are now, I can see that an 11 pm deadline might just work, but the barge is located in a highly restricted port. The only way out and back in is via one checkpoint on a bus. 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 cultural differences been taken into account? What happens to the hundreds of other migrants still stuck on the barge? How long before there is trouble on the barge?
On the barge itself, can the Minister confirm that it is designed to accommodate 222 people? If so, as we believe is the case, how will it house 506 people? It must mean doubling up in the rooms, but that still leaves 62 people without one. Surely overcrowding only increases the risk of a disturbance? Is it realistic to expect 500 young men to meekly return to their quasi-prison—that is what it will be—at 11 pm?
Worryingly, the police and crime commissioner, my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder), who is here tonight, and I were told by Home Office officials that it was in the migrants’ interests to behave, as it would help their asylum applications. So, come to the UK illegally, be a good boy and you can stay! I hope I am not being cynical, but that is certainly how it came across. That is really going to deter those wishing to come here. We also heard from the Minister’s officials that they were considering private healthcare for the migrants. When my constituents struggle to see a doctor and hunt for a dentist, I am not sure they will understand why those who have come here illegally should have preference.
Although the port is no longer a naval base, it is still home to Royal Fleet Auxiliaries and accommodates visits from His Majesty’s ships and nuclear submarines. So I ask the Minister, to what extent has the Ministry of Defence been consulted on the impact of the barge, including on emergency planning arrangements under radiological protection legislation, evacuation measures and site security?
In a similar vein, where is the Home Office risk assessment that I assume the Minister and his team have completed? If so, where is it? The police, who do not support the barge either, have calculated that enhanced community policing will cost about £700,000 a year. Who will meet that cost? Dorset police already struggles financially, being the second worst-funded force in the country. As our police and crime commissioner, David Sidwick, said in a letter to the policing Minister:
“it is disappointing that there was an absence of community or stakeholder consultation prior to the site proposal being launched and I note the impact upon public trust and confidence resulting from that omission.”
He went on to say:
“This means that without prior knowledge of the intent there has been no planning at all in regard of policing resources.”
As the Minister well knows, Weymouth is a sensitive, family-based seaside resort. Hoteliers, bed and breakfasts, and other small coastal businesses rely almost entirely on the summer for their revenue. As far as I know, no thought—there is certainly no evidence of it—has been given to the impact that a large influx of migrants might have on them.
The Minister told me on Monday evening that the Home Office had consulted widely. His interpretation of consultation is very different from the council’s. I have asked the council for a schedule of meetings in order to check the facts. As I have said, the council and I were first told that the barge was coming on 21 March. On 27 March, the chief executive of Dorset Council, the chief executive of Portland port and Home Office officials had their first initial conversation about the proposal. That was 10 days after the port’s board gave the project the green light. At the first multi-agency meeting on 29 March, Dorset Council stated clearly that it opposed the plan, as I have said. Since then, there have been about 10 virtual meetings of one kind or another.
In response to all those meetings, Dorset Council said to me:
“As with all these meetings our attendance is in the main to seek to gain answers to questions that to date have either not been answered or have not been answered with enough details to be meaningful. Our attendance should not be characterised as taking a supportive position but one of enquiry to gain facts.”
It is clear that the Home Office made its decision before consulting with anyone other than the port. Now, bombarded by questions that 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 goodwill has been squandered. It has been handled in the most discourteous way, and I am afraid that the Minister has not exactly covered himself in glory, either.
I understand that a contract has been signed. We would like to know when. Officials told us that withdrawing from it now would be a breach of contract. The Home Office has dug itself a hole—and worse, given that Dorset Council has no option other than to consider taking legal action. We know that the contract is for 18 months. However, the Home Office website states that it will be kept under review, which is pretty open-ended. Bearing in mind the scale of the problem nationally, I fear that the barge could be in place for years.
The website also explained why Portland port was chosen:
“The site will create new jobs and will bring investment into the area.”
What jobs, Minister? What new investment? The likelihood is that it will bring trouble. I have received no information whatsoever from the Home Office, other than, “You’re getting a barge.” [Interruption.] Would the Minister listen rather than interrupting again? Back on 21 March the Minister offered a meeting, but I was in no position to accept the invitation without consulting all those that the Home Office had singularly failed to consult.
This is an unholy mess not totally of the Minister’s doing, but the way that the proposal has been forced on us certainly is. I only hope that our plans to deter illegal migrants can be enacted soon. Most importantly, it 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 away. Placing more barges in sensitive ports such as mine is certainly not the answer.
The Minister for Immigration (Robert Jenrick)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing the debate. I will come to the specific points he raised in relation to his constituency in a moment. There is an important local dimension to the matter. The Home Office is acutely aware of that, as I will set out, but at the outset it is important to briefly set out the national context.
The situation in the channel has placed the UK’s asylum system under unsustainable pressure. The rise of illegal, dangerous and wholly unnecessary small boat crossings has left us in the invidious position of having to accommodate over 48,000 individuals in hotels, at eye-watering expense to the taxpayer. It is simply wrong that British taxpayers are footing the bill of almost £2.3 billion per year to accommodate illegal migrants. Those hotels are valuable assets that have been taken away from communities and the situation is placing pressures on local public services. The public are quite rightly demanding that we grip the problem and end the use of hotels.
The enduring solution is to stop the boats, which is what we are focused on. We have introduced the Illegal Migration Bill, which goes further than any previous immigration legislation, to fix this problem, and we substantially increased illegal working raids and returns. We have elevated our co-operation with France to unprecedented levels in order to drive up interception rates and arrests. However, as I have said before, we must suffuse the entire system with deterrents, and that includes our national approach to how we accommodate illegal migrants.
In the short term, that means switching to cheaper and more appropriate forms of accommodation, such as disused military sites and vessels. Such measures are in keeping with action being taken across Europe, with France, Germany, Italy, Ireland and the Netherlands all taking similar steps. The UK cannot risk being left behind and becoming a magnet for millions of people who are displaced and seeking better prospects. These alternative sources of accommodation, including the one we will locate in my hon. Friend’s constituency, are therefore undoubtedly in the national interest.
The Home Office is determined to work closely with my hon. Friend and key local stakeholders to ensure that the site in his constituency at Portland Port is delivered in a way that minimises the impact on the local community. We understand entirely the concern that his constituents
will feel and that he is articulating this evening, and we want to ensure that we allay those fears, wherever possible, in the weeks and months ahead, and certainly do as much as possible in advance of the arrival of the barge at Portland Port later this year.
When looking at proposals for new sites, the Home Office takes the impact on a local community into account, which is why we are working now with local partners, through the multi-agency forum that my hon. Friend referred to, and holding regular meetings with representative groups in the community.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I know that the debate is not easy for him, and I appreciate that. As he rightly said, the Home Office is now talking to all the bodies it should have been speaking to, but that is not the point. The point I am making is that all that should have happened before he imposed the plan on us. At least we could have then had an honest and frank conversation about whether it would be possible to cater for, look after and deal with all the issues associated with the migrant barge that I have raised in my speech. That has not happened.
I hope that in the time I have available, which I appreciate is not a great deal, I can answer as many of his questions as possible.
As soon as it became apparent that Portland Port could provide the support required, and before a contract was signed or a decision made by the Home Secretary, Home Office officials reached out to Dorset Council and had an initial meeting with the chief executive on 21 March. The multi-agency forum, which we have both referenced, met on 29 March, and has met at least four times since then.
These forums are a way to bring together the public and community agencies, including the NHS, the police and emergency services, alongside elected officials, such as town councillors, and residents groups. We at the Home Office will do everything we can to ensure that process is as successful and constructive as possible, accepting that many of those stakeholders and residents will come to those meetings from a position of either strong opposition or a preference that we were not proceeding in the first place.
The reason that people object is simply that we do not have the resources to cope with this. The Minister is putting a potential landmine into a highly restricted port, where young men will be trapped in a barge for many hours a day, with a few being let off God knows where. Where are they going to go, Minister? What are they going to do? What happens if they do not come back—a telephone call? I hardly think that that is going to work. It is just totally impractical, and the health services cannot provide the resources. For example, if an infection suddenly rages through the boat, as happens on big boats, the health services simply will not be able to cope. These are the sort of questions that should have been asked before the decision was made to put this boat, or barge, in the port.
Perhaps I can answer some of those questions, because we do have answers and we did think carefully about each of those questions prior to making the decision to proceed with the policy and to apply it to my hon. Friend’s constituency.
With respect to healthcare, we have worked with the UK Health Security Agency. We have taken its advice to ensure that no infectious diseases can spread on the barge or, where they do, that appropriate steps are taken. My hon. Friend referred to the decision to provide basic primary care on or adjacent to the barge. That decision was not taken, as he suggests, to privilege migrants residing on the barge. Quite the opposite: it was to ensure that those migrants place the least possible burden on local public services and so that it is not regularly necessary for migrants to register with GPs or take the appointments at GP surgeries that his constituents rightly demand. Given that the cohort of individuals will be relatively young, it is unlikely that they will place significant pressure on the local NHS, but we are working with it and with the local integrated care board to work through those challenges.
My hon. Friend asked about the regime on the boat. Again, it is designed to ensure that there are as few issues for the local community as is possible within the confines of the current law, which states that the vessel has to be a non-detained one. That means that we will implement a regime that very strongly encourages the migrants to return to the vessel for 11 pm and not, as my hon. Friend suggests, to roam the streets of the area. There will be a secure cordon around the vessel, which, again, will discourage people from walking into the community. There will be a bus that takes the 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 carefully control their movements as far as one can within the limits of the law.
My hon. Friend asked about the Ministry of Defence. We have worked with it; we sought its advice before proceeding, and we have considered the particular sensitivities of Portland port.
My hon. Friend asked about the police. We want to work closely with them. We have made it clear that we will provide a special grant to Dorset police that will cover the additional burden that this special national endeavour will have on their very limited resources, because obviously we want to ensure that the local community is reassured as much as possible. That means that there will be extra neighbourhood policing and further support for the police that is not coming out of the coffers of the local constabulary.
We have offered significant funding to Dorset council. It will receive at least £3,000 per asylum seeker residing on the vessel per year, which will enable it to provide extra resources and personnel to manage the project—albeit that we will not be placing many burdens on it, as the vessel will be managed by the Home Office and its suppliers. Wherever possible, we will pay for the services required for those individuals. So a significant proportion of that funding—which, as I have said, will run to millions of pounds—will be available to Dorset Council to do whatever it wishes. One would hope that it will choose to devote the lion’s share to the needs and desires of the immediate population, who will be most affected by this project.
Can the Minister confirm that this Stockholm Biddy—I think that is what it is called—is designed to accommodate 222 people, as it is according
to the internet, and will be taking 506? How will the barge be refurbished to accommodate these young men? How many rooms will be in fours, sixes or twos to accommodate that huge number?
I am not sure of the source to which my hon. Friend is referring, but we will not be putting more migrants on the vessel than is safe and appropriate. I do know that barges of this kind can accommodate either one individual per room or, in many cases, two. That may be the explanation. In some circumstances, organisations making use of the barge, such as construction companies or offshore oil and gas businesses, might choose to accommodate one individual per room, but the barge itself can comfortably accommodate two or more. We will obviously abide by the relevant laws to ensure that the migrants are properly accommodated, but—this is relevant to my hon. Friend’s point—it is equally important for us to minimise the potential for disturbances on the boat that would have an impact on his constituents and the local police.
My hon. Friend may not appreciate this, but in each of the actions that we are taking, the choices we are making are guided by how we can reduce the impact of the barge on the local community. If he, or the stakeholders with whom we are engaging, can think of any further steps we could take, we will obviously consider them and try to ensure that we take them whenever possible, unless there is a very good reason not to.
Chris Loder (West Dorset) (Con)
As my right hon. Friend will know, my neighbouring constituency is in many respects—although not entirely—affected in the same way as that of my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax). I am grateful for the brief dialogue that I had with civil servants a couple of weeks ago, but I am keen to see the risk assessments that have informed the points that my right hon. Friend is making. I have been asking for them for a couple of weeks, and I should be grateful if he could tell me when they will be available and can be presented to my hon. Friend and me.
I know that my hon. Friend met my officials, and I am sorry I could not be there as well; I was at a Cobra meeting to discuss the Border Force presence in Sudan this week. However, I think we will be meeting again soon so that my officials and I can discuss those points with my hon. Friend. We have considered the challenges, and will be pleased to answer as many questions as we can.
I see that there is only a very short time left, so let me draw my remarks to a close. We all appreciate that while this policy is undoubtedly in the national interest, it has a particularly serious impact on the community that both my hon. Friends represent. The Home Secretary, the Government and I stand ready to work with them to make this policy as successful as possible, to listen to the views of their constituents, and to mitigate the negatives as far as possible. My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset has our assurance that we will also do everything we can to stop the boats, and to stop this problem at source.
Question put and agreed to.