Bibby Stockholm: Asylum seeker barge heads to Dorset coast

  • ITV News West Country's Richard Lawrence's live report as the barge moves towards the Dorset coast.

A barge that will be used to house more than 500 asylum seekers has left Falmouth Harbour and is on its way to Dorset.

More than a month behind schedule, the Bibby Stockholm has left the harbour where it was docked for work to be carried out ahead of its journey to Portland Port.

The vessel will house 506 men who are waiting for their asylum claims to be processed.

It is being manoeuvred by two tugs, Mercia and Percuil, which will pull it out of the harbour and down the coast towards Weymouth.

The barge is set to house more than 500 asylum seekers when it arrives in Portland. Credit: BPM Media

The government says it needs to reduce the cost of housing asylum seekers and insists the use of the barge will be more cost-effective than using hotels.

It says there are currently about 51,000 asylum seekers in hotels across the UK, costing the taxpayer about £6m a day.

  • Watch as preparations get underway for the barge to arrive in Portland Port

The government says it will continue to "work closely" with local councils ahead of the barge's arrival and aim for "minimal disruption" for local residents.

However, plans to moor the vessel in Portland Port have been with opposition, with one local councillor saying the scheme was 'forced' upon those living there.

Councillor Louie O'Leary from Dorset Council said: "I'd put the barge outside the House of Commons so all these folks, whether they be Liberal Labour or Conservative whatever party, they can see the mess they've made every day when they go outside then can't they."

A map tracking the Bibby Stockholm's journey. Credit: MarineTraffic

Campaigners in Falmouth, also opposed the government's use of the barge, describing the process of housing asylum seekers there as "cruel".

"Immigrants should be allowed to be on land, not stuck in that boat", Madog Rigby-Hancock, a Cornish protester told ITV News.

"I think treating people like prisoners who have fled persecution and terrible hardship in their own countries is something that a lot of people are very unhappy with", Sinead Hanks added.

There has also been resistance to the government's plan in Dorset. Lorraine Beckett from the No To The Barge campaign group said the arrival of the vessel will be a "sad" moment for the people of Portland.

"True Portlanders are going to see a real change in their island", she told ITV News West Country.

"I don't think once it arrives and they're onboard, we'll see our beautiful island again."

  • Reaction from campaign group No to the Barge ahead of the vessel's arrival in Portland

The government's immigration bill is being debated in Westminster as the vessel makes its way to Dorset.

However there remains opposition to the barge in Westminster, with one Dorset MP writing to the government calling for the plans to be scrapped.

Chris Loder, MP for West Dorset, says he will be writing to the government to ask for the scheme to be paused until 'safety standards' are confirmed.

"The Marine and Coastguard Agency has a responsibility to ensure the safety of vessels. As far as I understand it they have deemed the vessel fit to sail, but I'm not aware that they are confident that there can be double the number of people onboard the vessel and can operate safely", he said.

Despite not commenting directly on the use of the barge, the Labour Party has been critical of the current backlog of asylum applicants in the UK.

Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary, said: "The asylum backlog has reached a record high because the Home Office simply isn't taking asylum decisions and also isn't going after the criminal gangs.

"Although Rishi Sunak promised to end hotel use, hotel use is actually going up", she added.

Analysis from ITV News West Country's Political Correspondent David Wood:

There will almost certainly be sighs of relief in the Home Office and its ministers now that Bibby Stockholm is finally on the move. The barge has become a symbol of the government's efforts to tackle the journeys of illegal migrants coming to the UK.

The asylum system is under serious pressure and there is a backlog of applications. Whilst people's applications are being processed the taxpayers foot the bill for their accommodation with many people being put up in hotels, at a cost of around £6million a day. Ministers insist that the Bibby Stockholm is a cheaper form of accommodation. 

However, the relief in the Home Office isn't being felt by local politicians with one Conservative telling me this morning this whole thing is a "shambles and a disaster".

Local politicians had been kept in the dark about the initial idea until it was announced and haven't had all of the contracts and financial arrangements shared with them.

The local council, police and NHS are each receiving hundreds of thousands of pounds to provide any necessary services to help the 500 migrants who will eventually call the barge home. One MP said to me that ministers are "throwing cash at the problems" to win over the local stakeholders who have a role to play.

Local politicians have only recently given up all hope of stopping the barge altogether and have turned their thoughts to ensuring there is little or no impact made by the arrival of the barge. The feeling, certainly with the Conservative-led Dorset Council and local Conservative MPs, is that the area is the wrong place for the barge, that it'll bring too many new people into an area that's struggling with services like healthcare.

Nationally, for the government, the imminent arrival of the barge at Portland Port will be seen as a political success but for local politicians it is the complete opposite. Local politicians will try to make the policy work, however, behind the scenes I am convinced they will still try to persuade ministers to find another port for Bibby Stockholm.