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Local Tories issue legal threats over military base plans for asylum seekers

A group of people thought to be migrants are brought in to Dungeness, Kent (Gareth Fuller/PA)
A group of people thought to be migrants are brought in to Dungeness, Kent (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Ministers have unveiled plans to house asylum seekers in disused military bases to accommodate their “essential living needs and nothing more” despite legal threats from local Conservatives.

Robert Jenrick, the immigration minister, also announced on Wednesday he is “continuing to explore the possibility” of using ferries and barges to reduce the “eye watering” reliance on hotels.

Despite opposition from within the Cabinet, he confirmed that up to 3,700 people will be housed at RAF Wethersfield in Essex and RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire, with an extra 1,200 going to a separate site in East Sussex.

The third location is a former prison in Bexhill that went on to be used as a training facility by the United Arab Emirates, the PA news agency learned.

Mr Jenrick said Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was “bringing forward proposals” to use the Catterick Garrison barracks to house asylum seekers in his constituency to show “leadership”.

Charities said the military accommodation is “grossly inadequate” to house people who have fled war.

Senior Conservative Sir Edward Leigh responded by saying an injunction will be sought against the “thoroughly bad decision” in Lincolnshire, after a similar threat came from Essex.

Mr Jenrick told the Commons the Government remained committed to its “legal obligations” to house the destitute but said “we’re not prepared to go further”.

“Accommodation for migrants should meet their essential living needs and nothing more. Because we cannot risk becoming a magnet for the millions of people who are displaced and seeking better economic prospects,” he said.

The minister insisted the sites are “undoubtedly in the national interest” and said “single adult males” only will be forced into the barracks, as he seeks to reduce a hotel bill he put at £2.3 billion a year.

Using repurposed barrack blocks and portacabins, Scampton and Wethersfield will be used to accommodate around 200 people initially before capacity “gradually” increases.

Sir Edward, a former minister who represents Gainsborough in Lincolnshire, said using the former home of the Dambusters RAF squadron could jeopardise a £300 million regeneration project.

Addressing Mr Jenrick, the MP said: “I can inform him that the moment this is confirmed the local authority in West Lindsey will issue an immediate judicial review and injunction against this thoroughly bad decision which is not based on good governance but the politics of trying to do something.”

RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire
RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire (Callum Parke/PA)

Tory-run West Lindsey District Council said it was “extremely disappointed” by the plans to use Scampton and is “considering all legal options, including urgent judicial review proceedings”.

The plans were going ahead in the Braintree constituency of Foreign Secretary James Cleverly despite him arguing Wethersfield “wasn’t appropriate for asylum accommodation”.

Writing on Facebook on Wednesday, Mr Cleverly said: “Although this decision isn’t the result my constituents and I wanted, I have received assurances that community safety will remain paramount.”

Braintree District Council, which is also controlled by the Conservatives, had already said it was “preparing to apply to the High Court for an interim injunction”.

Mr Jenrick said a “separate site in East Sussex” would also be used, which the Home Office described as a “non-military” location that will house up to 1,200 people, without giving further details.

PA learned the site used to be Northeye prison until its closure in 1992 before being used for training by the UAE.

Local MP and transport minister Huw Merriman said: “I know that this decision will have an impact on local authorities and public services. It will also be of great concern to local residents.”

Robert Jenrick
Robert Jenrick announced the plans (James Manning/PA)

Ahead of the announcement, multiple newspapers had been told that ferries and barges would also be used to house asylum seekers.

But Mr Jenrick was not able to set out any imminent plans, with a Government source stressing “nothing has been bought” and there are “no barges or ferries”.

However Tory-led Dorset Council said it was aware of talks between the Home Office and the owners of Portland Port “to site floating accommodation for asylum seekers in the port”.

“We have serious concerns about the suitability of the location for this facility,” the council said.

The Refugee Council said it was “deeply concerned” by the plans, saying the suggested accommodation is “entirely unsuitable” to the needs of asylum seekers.

Enver Solomon, the charity’s chief executive, said: “These sites are wholly inadequate places to house vulnerable men, women and children who have come to our country in search of safety.

“We must ensure that people fleeing war, conflict and persecution can access safe, dignified, and appropriate accommodation while in the UK asylum system.

“They are also unworkable and will add yet more cost and chaos to the system.”

Alex Fraser, the British Red Cross’s UK director for refugee support, said the proposed sites are “entirely inappropriate for people and will lead to significant suffering”.

“Military sites, by their very nature, can re-traumatise people who have fled war and persecution. These sites may also put vulnerable people at risk of exploitation,” he added.

Amnesty International UK’s Steve Valdez-Symonds said the “huge and expensive backlog” in asylum claims he blames on the Government is “no excuse for failing to treat people properly”.

“People who have escaped terror and torture, endured criminal exploitation and traumatic journeys should be treated with basic human dignity, not corralled on barges or other grossly inadequate and isolated accommodation,” he added.

“The consequences of dismal accommodation – subjecting people to prolonged squalor, social exclusion, mental and physical ill health, even outbreaks of fatal disease – keep being ignored.”