Sunak stand-in blasted for 'childish' attack on firefighters over migrant barge

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Firefighters raised concerns over the safety of the Bibby Stockholm (Image: 2023 Finnbarr Webster)
Firefighters raised concerns over the safety of the Bibby Stockholm (Image: 2023 Finnbarr Webster)

"Childish" Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden was blasted today for claiming firefighters only raised safety fears over a barge due to house hundreds of migrants because their union donates cash to Labour.

Mr Dowden, standing in for PM Rishi Sunak who is on holiday in Disneyland, suggested the Fire Brigades Union highlighted concerns over the Bibby Stockholm because of its links to Keir Starmer’s party.

Challenged over the FBU's warning of fire safety issues with the vessel, Mr Dowden told the BBC: “Of course we will take into account those concerns, and that’s exactly what we are doing. I would just gently say that the Fire Brigades Union has donated £850,000 to the Labour Party since 2010 and is affiliated to the Labour Party.”

Following the DPM’s outburst, FBU assistant general secretary Ben Selby told the Mirror: "The Fire Brigades Union is the professional voice of firefighting - we represent the overwhelming majority of firefighters, control room staff and fire safety inspectors. Fire safety is a serious matter and this situation calls for a grown-up approach. We are sounding the alarm because it is our duty to do so.

Sunak stand-in blasted for 'childish' attack on firefighters over migrant barge eideziqkeiqhhinvOliver Dowden is deputising for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak who is in California (PA)

“Speaking out for the safety of the public and our members has nothing to do with our democratically-decided political affiliation, and it is disgraceful for Oliver Dowden to suggest this. As Mr Dowden knows, we have invited the Home Secretary to meet with us to discuss the significant concerns we have in relation to fire and operational safety onboard the Bibby Stockholm and in other asylum seeker accommodation. We have yet to receive a response to our request."

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The 305ft vessel Bibby Stockholm arrived in Cornish waters in May for checks and refurbishment. The 1970s-built, 10,659-ton vessel with 222 cabins was towed to the Isle of Portland, Dorset, last month but plans to move migrants onto the barge have been delayed amid safety fears.

Mr Dowden insisted he was “absolutely certain we will be able to get people on this vessel in the coming weeks”. The FBU had raised concerns about the plans to initially accommodate about 500 people on the barge, which is designed to house about 200.

Mr Selby sparked Tory anger last week when he said: “The Government has already scrapped vital fire safety measures for asylum seeker accommodation. Now, it wants to put more than 500 people onto an offshore barge designed to hold around 200. This is a cruel and reckless approach to the welfare of asylum seekers, and puts the safety of firefighters at risk."

Charities helping refugees criticised the DPM’s comments today. Care4Calais chief executive Steve Smith said: "FBU members risk their lives to keep our communities safe 365 days a year. Rather than making childish political comments, government ministers should be heeding their concerns about the Bibby Stockholm and abandoning this cruel and inhumane plan. It would be good to see some well thought out, evidence-based decision making, rather than ill-considered, knee-jerk reactions to try to sustain an unsustainable policy.”

Refugee Council campaigns chief Mark Davies said: “The concerns over fire risks and other safety issues are really important and affect the lives of some of the world’s most vulnerable people. It is wrong to approach them in this way. This barge is a visible sign of the moral failure of the UK Government to put in place a fair and humane asylum system. To treat refugees like this is shameful.”

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Ben Glaze

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