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The barge, and accountability in British Politics

A reflection on the UK Government's policy of housing asylum seekers aboard the Bibby Stockholm, and what it says about accountability in British Politics.

7th August 2023

Image adapted from Bibby Stockholm, Falmouth Docks, 2023.jpg by Ashley Smith on Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

August 2023. The first asylum seekers arrive on the Bibby Stockholm, a barge chartered by the UK Government off the south coast of Dorset to house 500 of these migrants. In this article, I argue that it is a case-study in the lack of accountability that plagues British politics.

The United Kingdom has an uncodified constitution, a rarity in the modern geo-political order. This has its many advantages, a codified constitution places restrictions on democratically elected chambers and offices such that they can seem ineffective, leaving voters disenfranchised - case and point, the United States. It also means however that structures of accountability are ultimately transient where they do exist, relying on the faith that ministers and others will stick to established norms and conventions, even if this does not take place.

Demonstrating this is the way in which this policy has been pushed through with very limited scrutiny. No legislation or parliamentary vote was required to enact it (leaving elected representatives with limited avenues to challenging the policy), and no public consultation was required to be held on the policy. In fact, the Government has refused to even confirm the costs of chartering and mooring the vessel, estimated at £19,500 a day.[1] This is crucial to scrutiny of the policy, where one of its main stated aims is to reduce the costs associated with housing migrants, but where it is likely it will make no difference.

Further - on the 2nd August, the Fire Brigades Union wrote to the Home Secretary to highlight potential fire safety issues aboard the barge. In the letter, they expressed concerns relating to overcrowding, and the provision of fire exits aboard the vessel (housing 500 migrants but only designed to hold 220) [2] - legitimate professional and humanitarian concerns for a trade union in this sector.

The only government response (as of writing) to their letter was made on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme after the FBU’s concerns were posed to the Deputy Prime Minister, responding by drawing attention to the FBU’s affiliations to the Labour Party, delegitimising the union’s concerns.[3]

The policy has been pushed ahead with no responses responding to their specific concerns; further, no HMO license was acquired for the barge that would require it to be held to basic housing standards.[2]

The avenues to accountability on issues like this are limited, something that puts some of the most vulnerable people on this earth further at risk.


[1] Asylum accommodation: hotels, vessels and large-scale sites, House of Commons library, 7th July 2023.

[2] Firefighters’ union demands meeting with Braverman over Bibby Stockholm fire safety, Fire Brigades Union, 2nd August 2023.

[3] Dowden’s jibe at fire union over migrant barge safety ‘disgraceful’, The Guardian, 3rd August 2023.