Trigger warning: this article includes reference to suicide.
Article updated and republished 9 November 2023 to reflect feedback provided by the Home Office.
The Bibby Stockholm isn’t what anyone would choose – asylum seekers would apparently rather kill themselves than go on board (or remain on board), and the local community doesn’t want it, either. It wasn’t even the Home Office’s first choice.
Industry sources have told One Life To Live that while the government was negotiating its first barge for asylum seekers, ministers dithered and faffed for so long that two other barges, both of which were preferred options, slipped through their fingers. Finally, they had no choice but to settle, at that time, for the Bibby Stockholm – elderly, expensive, and, as it would transpire, carrying deadly legionella. As the Guardian reported on 22 September:
“The worst results related to samples from 9 August, two days after asylum seekers were briefly put on the barge… In these results, eight of the 11 samples taken were unsatisfactory and three were borderline. Some of the bacteria found was the deadliest strain legionella pneumophilia serogroup 1.”
A contractor for the Home Office has since then completed a programme of works to bring the legionella levels within “satisfactory tolerances”, so that the government can push ahead with its strategy for housing asylum seekers on the barge.
The Bibby Stockholm: she ain’t no lady
The Bibby Stockholm was built in 1976 – so it’s 47 years old, and feeling it.
Having squatted empty on the water for the past four years, it’s hardly surprising that the Bibby Stockholm’s decaying hull needed extensive repairs in dry dock. Horatio Clare at the FT reported a manager at the Falmouth Hotel as saying, “The word is that the rooms look nice but the hull was rotten”. The article goes on to say:
“Dock workers echoed this: a man who works in the dry docks told me that in places the steel hull had decayed to the point where it was dangerously thin, necessitating the replacement of entire sections.”
It wasn’t fire-safe, and an additional gangway had to be fitted. The water system was harbouring the deadliest strain of legionella, and the plumbing inspection also failed.
The barge doesn’t even have its own on-board power, but relies on three diesel-fed generators on the quayside (the Bibby Stockholm is the size of an office block – who powers an office block with generators?). And the decision to use the barge, planning-permission-free, is now tied up in the High Court. You couldn’t make it up.
Value for money?
On top of everything else, the Bibby Stockholm costs more than hotels per head per night. So the entire government strategy is now a laughing-stock. A leaked Home Office memo revealed that the barge would need to contain around 1,000 people to deliver ‘value for money’. The Bibby Stockholm was originally designed to accommodate 222 people (based on one person per cabin). The Bibby Marine’s own factsheet from their website – dated before April 2023, as evidenced by WayBackMachine – shows this clearly (though the current version of the fact sheet has been edited to reflect the increase in numbers):
Once this change was completed, the Bibby Stockholm was to have a total of 546 asylum seekers and staff (up to 506 ‘guests’ and 40 staff). Now, according to Matt Dathan at The Times, that number must drop to 425, a further blow to any hope of ‘value for money’:
“The maximum has been reduced to 464 in what David Neal, the chief inspector of borders and immigration, branded a ‘shambles’. The 8 per cent reduction was disclosed by the contractor running the barge to Neal during his inspection of the vessel on August 25. The figure was confirmed by Simon Ridley, second permanent secretary at the Home Office.”
This new, reduced number, is further backed up by the fire safety assessment completed for the barge by the primary contractor, CTO (revealed following a freedom of information request), which highlights, in more than one place, how long it would take to evacuate 425 people.
It could all have been so different
While I think the last place any asylum seeker should be sent to live is on a barge on the water, the fact remains the Home Office hasn’t even been smart about being cruel.
The Bibby Renaissance had been under consideration. It houses 664 guests across 333 cabins, but the Home Office would almost certainly have increased this to four people per cabin. Built in 1991, it has on-board power (as the Bibby Renaissance vessel factsheet attests) – no need for those expensive, diesel-hungry generators.
The Bibby Progress was the second choice. At the time, it was designed to house 314 guests across 159 cabins, but with “flexible layouts” and “capacity for over 500 guests”. Perhaps the Home Office planned to double-up the occupancy, or to achieve the target of 1,000 beds across TWO barges. It is understood that this vessel also has on-board power sources and would not require external generators (although the Bibby Progress vessel factsheet doesn’t mention this).
Lost and now found: the missing barges
The transponders on both of these vessels have been switched off for a few months now, so you can’t use tracking websites to find out where they are. So I’ve been wondering who outsmarted the Home Office and chugged away with its barges. And I’ve just found out: an article in the Sunday Times, entitled ‘Is the Netherlands full up with refugees?’, revealed that “Before the end of the year another 1,000 will be accommodated on two ‘floating motels’, the Bibby Progress and Bibby Renaissance — sister ships of Britain’s controversial Bibby Stockholm.”
So, there you have it. It was the Dutch all along, and the Home Office was left holding the Bibby. It seems the government was unable to fulfil its own plan or negotiate successfully with the barges’ owners. Disorganised and indecisive, they dithered their way into settling for an extortionately expensive poisoned chalice. One which has done nothing to stop the boats or cut the hotel cost.
In response to this article, a Home Office spokesperson stated:
“The Home Office’s supplier has completed an agreed programme of work to protect the health of occupants … Subsequent legionella sampling has shown levels to be within satisfactory tolerances.
“The Bibby Stockholm is part of the government’s pledge to reduce the use of expensive hotels and bring forward alternative accommodation options which provide a more cost effective, sustainable and manageable system for the UK taxpayer and local communities.
“The capacity of the Bibby Stockholm remains around 500. The number of people onboard the vessel at any one time is likely to vary due to a number of factors, including individuals exiting the asylum system once a decision has been made.”
Background provided by the Home Office (and government factsheet for more information):
- The use of vessels is a tried and tested approach that mirrors that taken by our European neighbours and the Scottish Government and offers better value for the British taxpayer.
- The health and welfare of asylum seekers remains the utmost priority. We work continually to ensure the needs and vulnerabilities of those residing in asylum accommodation are identified and considered, including those related to mental health and trauma.
- The Bibby Stockholm has previously safely and comfortably housed workers from various industries, including shipyard workers, construction workers and offshore construction workers.
- Staff are rigorously trained and every step is taken to ensure the safety of residents. All asylum seekers are able access healthcare and are signposted to do so.
- There are established standard procedures which providers are contractually obliged to follow to manage the safety, security and well-being of those they accommodate.
- All asylum seekers undergo health checks and a screening interview to establish any vulnerabilities, and the basis of their asylum claim.
- The Home Office works with third-sector partners through funding of programmes aimed at providing mental health and wellbeing support to adult asylum seekers and joining them up with mainstream mental health provision.
- We expect high standards from all our providers, and any asylum seekers who have problems can get in touch with Migrant Help 24/7, every day of the year.
- The Home Office and its accommodation providers have robust processes in place to ensure that where someone is at risk, they are referred to the appropriate statutory agencies of police, NHS and social services to promote appropriate safeguarding interventions.