Union demands meeting with Home Secretary over Bibby barge fire safety fears

The firefighters’ union has called for an urgent meeting with the Home Secretary over safety concerns raised about a giant barge due to house migrants.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) said it has written to Suella Braverman asking to discuss fears about overcrowding and access to fire exits on the Bibby Stockholm.

It followed reports of the union’s assistant general secretary Ben Selby warning firefighters believe the vessel is a “potential deathtrap” – a comment later dismissed by Energy Secretary Grant Shapps.

In the letter, Mr Selby said: “Firefighting operations on vessels such as the Bibby Stockholm provide significant challenges and require specialist training and safe systems of work. The diminished safety provisions only exacerbate our operational concerns.

“The FBU has expressed concerns about plans to exempt accommodation provided by the Home Office for asylum seekers from needing an HMO (house in multiple occupation) licence. We are concerned about the risks on a large floating structure used to accommodate asylum seekers in long-term housing and would expect the risk assessment to recommend substantial prevention and control measures to tackle overcrowding, access to fire exits and other safety matters on the vessel.

“The FBU seeks an urgent meeting with you and your officials to discuss these matters. We have substantial expertise, including from earlier disasters such as the Grenfell Tower fire and the subsequent public inquiry. We are concerned above all to prevent another tragedy and to guarantee public safety.”

A Home Office spokesperson said on Wednesday evening: “The Bibby Stockholm is being readied for the arrival of the first asylum seekers and will comply with all appropriate regulations. The vessel will adhere to all relevant health and safety standards, including over fire risk and to suggest otherwise is wrong.

“This is part of the Government’s plan to reduce the use of expensive hotels and offer alternative accommodation that is more manageable and better value for communities, just like our European neighbours are already doing.

“We continue to work closely with Dorset and Portland councils, as well as the local NHS and police services, to manage any impact in Portland, including providing substantial funding to local services, to address the local community’s concerns.”

Earlier on Wednesday, Mr Selby told Sky News the union’s main concern is the number of people due to live on the barge, which was initially designed to accommodate around 200 but could now house 500.

But Mr Shapps insisted on ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “It certainly won’t be a deathtrap.

“This actual ship was previously used by Germany to house migrants, there’s no reason why it wouldn’t be absolutely safe. Ships are used to transport people all the time and there’s no inherent reason why that (not being safe) would be the case.

“That’s actually why these final safety checks are being carried out.”

The plans to move migrants on to the barge, docked in Portland on the Dorset coast, have been beset by delays, with Government sources now suggesting the first arrivals may not be on board until next week.

Staff were seen carrying provisions on to the vessel on Wednesday morning.

Pictures showed a food delivery being unloaded from a Bidfood wholesaler truck, suggesting final preparations ahead of the arrivals are under way.

Steve Smith, chief executive of refugee support charity Care4Calais, told PA he fears housing migrants on the barge is an “accident waiting to happen” amid fire safety concerns.

Mayor of Portland Carralyn Parkes criticised the plans and described them as “cruel” while raising concerns about the impact the move could have on the island’s infrastructure and services.

Asked if asylum seekers will be housed on the barge next week, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told LBC’s Nick Ferrari: “The Bibby Stockholm will be in operation as soon as it’s passed all the checks and regulations – as soon as possible – that’s the key thing.”

Questioned on why Bibby Stockholm has been “such a shambles”, Mr Sunak replied: “It hasn’t. The point here is not is it next week, is it yesterday, the fact is this is an example of me doing something different that hasn’t been done before to help solve a serious problem.”

Highlighting the sweeping asylum reforms made law under the Illegal Migration Act and claiming there are “lots of people who are lined up to try and stop me” in his bid to curb Channel crossings, he added: “We’re making a difference, I’m going to keep going on this… I’m going to throw everything at it.”

Pressed on when the Government will stop Channel crossings, the Prime Minister said: “It can’t be soon enough.”

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