Suella Braverman has blamed Home Office civil servants for the shutdown of the Bibby Stockholm barge.
The Home Office aims to house 506 men on the barge while they wait for their asylum applications to be processed. However, the vessel had to be evacuated earlier this month, just four days after asylum seekers were moved onto the boat, due to the discovery of legionella bacteria in the water system.
“Am I disappointed with what’s happened? Am I frustrated with what’s happened? Am I angry with what’s happened? Absolutely I am. And I’ve made it very clear to the parties involved, to the civil servants involved who oversaw that,” Braverman told Today on BBC Radio 4.
But she added: “I ultimately take responsibility. The buck stops with me for everything that happens at the Home Office and we are working very quickly to remedy the situation and move people back onto the barge as quickly as possible.”
Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA trade union, accused Braverman of “cowardly attacks” on officials, saying the home secretary “knows full well that she can tour the broadcast studios blaming civil servants, safe in the knowledge that they are not allowed to publicly defend themselves”.
Braverman also blamed contractors for failing to ensure safety protocols were completed before asylum seekers boarded the barge, which is moored at Portland Port, Dorset.
“A large part of that work was contracted out to third parties,” she said. “I’m very disappointed that those processes were not properly completed.”
Braverman said the Home Office “followed all of the advice and protocols” from the fire authority, Dorset Council, Dorset Police and the Health and Safety Executive before asylum seekers were moved onto the Bibby Stockholm earlier this month.
Dorset Council has said it informed the barge’s operators CTM and Landry & Kling about the legionella issues on 7 August, the day asylum seekers boarded the barge. It said the Home Office was informed a day later. However, Braverman said ministers were only told about the discovery traces of the bacteria on 10 August.
Braverman said asylum seekers will return to the barge "as soon as all relevant checks are completed".
The Fire Brigades Union has said it will launch a legal challenge to stop asylum seekers being moved back onto the barge, however. The union has warned of further dangers beyond the legionella bacteria, including concerns over the operation of fire exits and overcrowding – with single rooms having been designated for double occupancy.
The union has given the Home Office a deadline of 4pm on 31 August to respond before it takes legal action.
FBU general secretary Matt Wrack said the home secretary had refused to meet the union to discuss its concerns and accused the government of displaying “a lack of transparency and a callous disregard for the safety of both firefighters and those who are due to be housed on the barge”.
“Fires do not discriminate based on immigration status, and neither can fire safety regulations,” Wrack said. “Everyone, no matter where they are from, has the right to live in safe and decent accommodation, and firefighters have the right to expect that they will not be recklessly endangered.
“This is an industrial issue for the Fire Brigades Union, as our members are the ones expected to respond to any fire aboard the Bibby Stockholm. We have therefore decided to move towards a legal challenge on this matter.”