Asylum Seeker Accommodation Off Wirral Peninsula

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:06 pm on 25 May 2023.

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Photo of Robert Jenrick Robert Jenrick The Minister for Immigration 4:06, 25 May 2023

I am grateful to Mick Whitley for securing this debate. The concerns of Members of this House and their constituents should be taken seriously, and they are being taken seriously. I will set out shortly the work we are doing and are looking to do with Birkenhead.

First, however, it is right to set this in the national context, as the hon. Gentleman did, because the situation we as a country find ourselves in is not sustainable. The number of people crossing the channel in small boats has placed the asylum system under enormous pressure. The continued occurrence of these dangerous, illegal and wholly unnecessary journeys has left us in the invidious position of having to resort to using hotels to house asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute in order to fulfil our legal obligations. The enduring solution is of course to stop the boats and break the business model of the people smugglers, which is why we have brought forward the Illegal Migration Bill. In the meantime, however, it is right that we take steps to minimise the impact on local communities and reduce the burden on the taxpayer of the use of hotels.

The Home Secretary and I have been clear that hotels are inappropriate and we must shift to more suitable forms of accommodation. The hon. Gentleman mentioned a hotel in Kirkby in the Liverpool city region which was the subject of violence—unacceptable levels of violence—earlier this year, but that highlighted the difficulties of pursuing this route for housing asylum seekers and the need to find better, more sustainable solutions.

The challenge we are facing as a country is a significant one and it calls for innovative approaches, such as the use of military sites and vessels. These sites are undoubtedly in the national interest and the UK Government approach is in step with those of our northern European counterparts. A number of other European countries, such as Ireland, France, Belgium and the Netherlands, are looking at similar approaches and how they can house very large numbers of asylum seekers in ways that are of lower cost to the taxpayer and more sustainable while they work to find solutions to the migration crisis that the whole continent is experiencing.

We have not made a final decision to place a vessel in Birkenhead port. However, we have identified the port as a potentially viable location and are seeking to engage the local authority, the local NHS, police, other emergency services and other public agencies to help to inform a final decision. A multi-agency forum is being established, and will meet imminently, to assess the risks and identify mitigating actions. The forum, like others that we have established elsewhere in the country, will include representatives from national, regional and local public sector agencies and the Home Office. I hope that local stakeholders, including Wirral Council, will participate in the forum in the collaborative manner envisaged. It is certainly important for statutory officers, such as those of the council, to participate and fulfil their responsibilities.

I will use this opportunity to answer some of the hon. Gentleman’s specific questions. He asked whether the vessel would be, in his words, a “prison ship” or a non-detained facility. The Home Office has no intention of using the vessel as a detained facility. The migrants who would be housed on it would be living in a non-detained manner, which means that they could leave the boat and spend time on the shore, whether that be in communities nearby in Birkenhead or further afield. That would be carefully managed by the Home Office to ensure the safety of the migrants, community cohesion and the impact on local town centres and high streets. There are ways in which we are able to do that, which we have learned throughout our experiences elsewhere in the country, such as at the non-detained facility that we operate at Napier in Kent.

The hon. Gentleman implied that this was an unorthodox approach. It is one that is being used both in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe today. The Scottish Government have used vessels to house Ukrainian refugees, for example, in Leith in Edinburgh, over the last year or two. My understanding is that that experience has been broadly successful both for the refugees and for the local community. The local council has been extremely helpful in supporting those individuals and the Government have rightly provided resource to the council to meet the costs of doing that.

The barges and ferries that the UK Government are looking at have in many cases been used by British workers, such as those working on large construction sites, or oil and gas projects. Indeed, some are ferries that have been used for police and other staff at the Olympics or at COP26 in Glasgow. It would therefore be wrong to characterise them as inhumane or indecent. That is not the intention of the Government.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of the important regeneration project at Wirral Waters. As a former Local Government Secretary, I am familiar with that, as there was—and I believe continues to be—a role for Homes England in its development. Nothing that the Government do should in any way imperil the success of that important regeneration project. We have already made that commitment to the parties we have spoken to and, in our future engagement with Wirral Council, we will do everything we can, should that project proceed, to protect the integrity of the Wirral Waters scheme.

The use of a vessel, whether it be at Birkenhead or in any other location in the UK, would only be for a very limited period. In most cases, we have proposed using these vessels for 18 months, after which they would be moved away and a different solution found.

The hon. Gentleman raised the understandable concern about the impact on his local authority and other local services in his area. All parts of the country face pressures on public services, but I understand that Birkenhead has particular challenges in respect of deprivation and we as national Government should take those challenges seriously. If we were to proceed with the project, we would provide funding to Wirral Council to recompense it for any work it does to support the project. We would also provide funding for the police in Merseyside to ensure they are able to support the safety of the migrants on the vessel, the security of the port and the safety of residents in neighbouring communities. We would also work with the local integrated care board to ensure that there is suitable healthcare provision.

What we are offering on a similar vessel in Portland in Dorset is a basic primary care facility located on or beside the vessel sufficient to meet the immediate needs of the migrants, and reduce pressures on local GPs and primary care providers, and some funding to the local healthcare authorities to ensure they are able to provide that and that there are minimal knock-on consequences for the wider healthcare economy.

We are also working with the UK Health Security Agency to work through some of the challenges the hon. Gentleman raised around communicable diseases, and to ensure that, when migrants come to vessels of this kind, they have been properly health screened in advance and offered vaccines, where appropriate, and that the correct checks and processes are in place to ensure diseases do not spread throughout the vessel or into the local community. Those are exactly the sorts of questions that we would now want to work through with Wirral Council, the hon. Gentleman and other local stakeholders.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this debate to the Floor of the House, and for raising understandable and important concerns on behalf of his constituents. I believe that the policy of using vessels and pursuing larger sites such as disused military bases is overwhelmingly in the national interest, but I understand that there will be very serious concerns in the local communities that are most immediately affected. It is right that he raises those concerns and that we work with him productively to address as many of them as possible. The Home Office will continue to engage with the key stakeholders in and around Birkenhead as we work through our proposals. I hope that he and I can forge a productive partnership if we choose to take this forward.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.