The puns aren’t funny any more

The puns aren’t funny any more

We’re up the creek without a paddle, the wheels are coming off and it’s all coming off the rails


When I first started campaigning against the Bibby Stockholm, I caught myself endlessly using maritime metaphors that I hadn’t been particularly conscious of before. Since we’re an island nation, it should come as no surprise that our language is peppered with references to the sea and shipping.

I’ve unconsciously talked about not wanting to touch things with a bargepole, battening down the hatches, being up the creek without a paddle, blowing [the plans] out of the water, being on board with things, shots across the bows, and much more besides.

As time’s gone by and things have gone horribly wrong with the Bibby Stockholm (could it ever have been any other way?), I’ve fallen into very non-maritime yet transport-related expressions like the wheels are coming off, it’s a tram-smash, and it’s all coming off the rails.

And boy, is it ever. The IRC has called the Bibby Stockholm a ‘monument to government failure’.

Before the asylum-seekers arrived, the Home Office was dogged by stories about the delay (and the outlandish cost of those delays); the condition of the Bibby Stockholm and its rotten hull; performative cruelty; the fact that the barge won’t be cheaper than hotels; the potential for a ‘floating Grenfell’; and much more. But then the men came.

It all went wrong on Day One

The asylum-seekers began as a very small and sad-looking cohort as they walked up the gangway on the morning of Monday 7 August. They reached an interim cohort of 22 at one point. Using the financial modelling I’d previously put together, I found that it was more expensive to keep the men on the Bibby Stockholm than to book each person their own suite at the Savoy Hotel and to buy them dinner at Langan’s. They’d still have had a fiver left over for bus fare home.

As the cohort grew to 39 men by Friday 11 August, we learned at lunchtime that Legionella had been discovered on board – on the MONDAY. Unfortunately, the only people who didn’t find out on the Friday – let alone at any point beforehand – were the asylum-seekers themselves. How they must have wondered about the helicopters buzzing overhead. It took legal caseworkers to break the news to them later that afternoon, not the official representatives, and the men weren’t all off the Bibby Stockholm until 7pm.

Amongst all of this are two sad truths (well, there are lots, but here are two key ones):

The Home Office doesn’t know what it’s doing

It comes as no surprise, given everything that happened at the other large-scale containment sites (Napier Barracks, Penally, Linton-on-Ouse, RAF Wethersfield, and RAF Scampton) that the government just doesn’t think things through. Someone, somewhere, comes up with a new wheeze and it’s seized upon as looking bold and strong, and like the Home Office is in control. Then it all starts to unravel.

The UK has only accommodated asylum-seekers on the water on one previous occasion: that was the Earl William, a detention ship used at Harwich Port in 1987. The former Sealink ferry had a maximum capacity of 120 immigration detainees, making it the largest detention centre in the country at the time. Note that at 100 metres it was the same length as the Bibby Stockholm, but held less then a quarter of the cohort!

It didn’t go well then, either. In the Great Storm of July 1987, the Earl William broke free of its moorings, collided with a number of barges out in the harbour (gashing holes in its side) before sinking onto a mud flat at low tide. The lower levels of the ship were completely flooded.


Too many private companies are involved

There is Bibby Marine, owners of the rustbucket that is the Bibby Stockholm. There is Portland Port, where the barge is berthed. There is a primary contractor, CTM, and their subcontractor Landry & Kling. There is almost certainly a private security company, and probably a private catering company to boot. There’s a company which runs the shuttle buses. Maybe more, who knows?

At each level of sub-contracting, there will be a margin to be earned by the contractor above – likely to be anywhere between 15 and 25%. Each company taking its cut will knock seven bells (whoops, there I go again) out of any possible value to the asylum-seekers or the taxpayer. And not a single one of these organisations has ever dealt with accommodating asylum-seekers in the UK before. What could possibly go wrong?

Private companies are driven by their own agenda, which is primarily about profit, reputation management and self-preservation. In the Legionella crisis, one can well imagine none of the contractors being sure who had responsibility for what, and no one wanting to be the messenger that the Home Office shot. The news of the bacteria hit on Day One – what a nightmare! One can imagine all hands on deck, the ruffle of hundreds of fingers frantically flipping through contracts, and the various representatives in-fighting like rats in a sack. All caught between the devil and the deep blue sea (there I go again). Little wonder the crisis was so badly handled.

It’s time for this travesty to end

It’s time for the Home Office to admit that’s it’s all at sea: it has no idea what it’s doing. They really scraped the barrel with this plan, which is now surely dead in the water.

Let the Home Office buy itself out of its multiple contracts, as it was forced to do when the plans for Linton-on-Ouse were scrapped last year, and let’s forget about containing asylum-seekers on water ever again. Or at any containment site. Let them live in communities, and in society, like they did before COVID.

It’s time to abandon ship.