Bibby Stockholm policy is discriminatory, Home Office report finds

<span>Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

A government assessment of housing asylum seekers on the Bibby Stockholm barge has found that the policy discriminates on the grounds of sex and age, in the latest blow to the controversial initiative.

The vessel, which is moored off Portland on the Dorset coast, has the capacity to house up to 500 single men, and has so far cost the taxpayer £22.5m.

An equality impact assessment by Home Office officials published on Wednesday concluded that policy flouts the 2010 Equality Act on two grounds and that changes may have to be made. It found that the policy is “directly discriminating in relation to age [and] sex” because the barge is only suitable for men aged over 18 and under 65.

However, the assessment points out such discrimination is permitted under the act “if treatment is justified as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”. It argues this condition is met.

On age discrimination, the assessment says: “The policy aim is to ensure we meet our legal obligations to accommodate asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute and to enable the move away from accommodating individuals in hotels, which is expensive and unsustainable. There is a greater need to accommodate male asylum seekers in the 18-65 age range, therefore we are achieving a clear and legitimate aim.”

It also says the act permits sex discrimination in relation to communal accommodation. It adds: “As there are far more male asylum seekers than females and many of the female claimants have children, it has been decided that is appropriate to use the site for male asylum seekers only.”

But it suggests changes will have to be made to ensure compliance with the law. It says: “In relation to demonstrating that the accommodation is managed in a way that is as fair as possible to both men and women … we are considering measures to ensure that as far as possible the accommodation is comparable to other asylum accommodation. In this respect, we will ensure that the service on site is the same ie, full board service, access to transport, access to NHS healthcare.”

Campaigners say the assessment opens the way for legal challenges against housing people on the barge.

Carralyn Parkes, the mayor of Portland town council, said: “I would hope that there are lots and lots of human rights lawyers who are looking at this and considering taking action against the government.”

Parkes, who as a private citizen is challenging the barge on planning grounds in the high court in February, added: “It’s absolutely insane that this is being done now. These sorts of impact assessments were being called for when they announced that they were going to bring the Bibby Stockholm to Portland, these things should have been done well in advance.”

She added: “There should have been consultations with the community, there should have been planning permission applied for. But the government was in a headlong rush to create a gimmick so that Rishi Sunak could shout about stopping the small boats.

“There has been no consideration given to the impact it was going to have on the people who are going to be housed on the Bibby Stockholm. They’ve acted completely recklessly right the way throughout this whole process.”

Charlotte Khan, head of advocacy and public affairs at Care4Calais said: “Placing humans in prison-like barges and camps, held behind barbed wire fences and segregated from the rest of society, is discriminatory by its very nature and it’s telling that the government’s own equality impact assessment accepts that’s the case for certain groups.

“People on the Bibby Stockholm have consistently told us that they feel that the government are treating them like animals by putting them on the barge. It’s no wonder then that the Bibby Stockholm has become a symbolic illustration for this government’s proxy war against asylum seekers. It needs closing down before the survivors of torture and persecution are put through more suffering.”

A spokesperson for the Refugee Council said: “The Bibby Stockholm is not a suitable or safe place to house those who come to our shores seeking our protection. For those onboard it feels like a prison and they are not able to get the specialist support they need.

“People who have fled war oppression and persecution deserve to be treated with compassion and humanity. They should be housed in our communities not fenced off for months on end left feeling desperate and isolated.”

Last week a coroner demanded a response from the Home Office to the suspected suicide on the barge in November of Leonard Farruku, a 27-year-old Albanian national.

In August, the barge had to be evacuated after a deadly strain of legionella was detected onboard.