In my last column I wrote about the government’s proposal to house asylum seekers at the Northeye site in Bexhill. At that point, the news was still very new for residents and our public service providers. It was also new to me and my small team which supports me.
At the time I submitted my last column, I had just held meetings in my local office and on the Northeye estate with groups of local residents who will be most impacted by this proposal. I listened to their concerns and committed to getting answers from the Home Office to the many questions which they have asked of me. Their local councillors from Rother and East Sussex County Council joined me for these meetings. We were all doing our best to get answers to questions and put as much information as possible into the public domain.
I absolutely understand the concerns of those directly living next to the Northeye estate and those of the hundreds of residents of Bexhill who have written to me to express their views. I have drawn together a long list of concerns and questions from both residents and our local authorities and public service providers which I sent to the Home Office. Last week, at my request, I chaired a meeting in Bexhill with the senior Home Office officials leading this project and those who provide our public services so that questions could be raised and facts gathered. The meeting involved East Sussex County Council, Rother District Council, Sussex Police, East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service and NHS Sussex. All these public bodies deliver local services which will be impacted by the proposal. It was therefore important for them to get a better understanding of the proposals and build a working relationship with the Home Office team who are tasked with delivering it. A summary of the information gathered at the meeting is now available on my website www.huwmerriman.org.uk . Constituents who do not use the internet can phone my constituency office on 01424 736861 to request a hard copy be sent to them.
I will continue to hold meetings with local stakeholders in the weeks ahead and will keep my website updated with news and information. However, operational matters will now be dealt with by focus groups consisting of local public bodies and the Home Office as a direct result of our initial meeting. The Home Office confirmed that there will be an engagement process with residents in the community. Residents will have opportunities to ask questions and a dialogue will be established with them. I have asked for this process to begin as soon as possible.
There are some questions and suggestions being made about me which I will address. Firstly, that I suggested the Northeye site to the Home Office. This is completely incorrect. I was not consulted about the site or asked for my views at any stage by the Home Office. Last year, there were local rumours that the Home Office was looking at the site, I asked the then Immigration Minister if this was the case and added my own thoughts for good measure. I was told that it had been looked at but was not being taken forward. Things obviously changed but I was not aware until a few days before the public announcement.
I also get asked if I support the Northeye site proposal. Whilst this decision was not of my choosing, I support the government policy and legislation going through Parliament to move asylum seekers from hotels to accommodation sites as part of a range of measures to deter people from making the Channel crossing in small boats. This dangerous way of entering the UK illegally and the criminal gangs profiteering from it must be stopped. As soon as this legislation is passed, any asylum seeker crossing on a small boat will be put in a detained camp (so not in Northeye).
The term ‘Nimby' has been laid at me. This first came up when a journalist referred to me as actively challenging the decision. During a BBC South East interview on this subject, I used this term to reference MPs who say they support government policy, and vote for the legislation, but won't accept it can impact them or their constituency. I've not used that phrase to describe anyone else bar MPs. It's important to me that I am straight as to my position and do not try and be all things to all people.
I believe I am best able to represent constituents if I am open, transparent, and realistic about these proposals. I am more able to get the support and resources from Government which will be needed if I work with the Home Office rather than make populist soundings which people want to hear. If this site proceeds, and this is not a decision which I will be taking, my best chance to ameliorate the impact is to use my working relationship across Government rather than burning bridges.