‘Shameful!’ - Peterborough Labour group hits out at ruling Conservatives over city council’s Syrian refugee policy

A row broke out between opposition political groups at Peterborough City Council after Labour councillors turned on the ruling Conservatives over its “shameful” response to taking in Syrian refugees.

A motion from Labour’s Councillor Richard Ferris to support the Syrian Vulnerable Person Scheme was voted down after an acrimonious debate which saw two cabinet members - and one former cabinet member - vote against the rest of the Conservative group.

Outside the Council chamber at Peterborough Town Hall on Bridge Street. Photo: Paul Franks/Peterborough Telegraph

Outside the Council chamber at Peterborough Town Hall on Bridge Street. Photo: Paul Franks/Peterborough Telegraph

Council leader Cllr John Holdich was also accused of denigrating Syrian refugees by Labour and Co-operative councillor Ed Murphy who was in turn slapped down.

The Labour group insisted that Cllr Ferris’ motion did not set a number of refugees to be taken in - with a final figure to be decided upon later - while Cllr John Shearman insisted that central government would fund every refugee brought into Peterborough for at least two years through the foreign aid budget, with the council bearing no costs.

But the motion was rejected at a meeting of the full council on Wednesday (October 14) after it received 18 votes in favour and 27 against, with one abstention.

The Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors were joined in their support for the motion by a few members from other political groups including Cllr Yasmeen Maqbool (cabinet advisor for children’s safeguarding) and Cllr Lucia Serluca (cabinet member for city centre management, culture and tourism), while a third Conservative to vote in favour of the motion was Cllr Sheila Scott who stepped down in July as cabinet member for children’s services.

Beginning the lengthy debate, Cllr Ferris called on the council to show leadership and sign up to the vulnerable person scheme.

He said: “All of us would have been shocked by the human tragedy that’s unfolded in Syria. Twelve million people have left their homes, more than 200,000 have been killed.

“These refugees are becoming increasingly vulnerable and with the onset of winter you can only imagine the suffering. Many families are going hungry and are dependent on food handouts.”

Cllr Ferris said the scheme was based on taking in the neediest people such as women and children at risk, unhealthy people and survivors of torture.

And he claimed the council was one of only a few lone authorities in the region not to have signed up to the scheme.

He added: “This is a modest motion, we can effectively name our conditions - no firm numbers. All I’m asking for is that we take a principled stand and we sign up to this scheme as many many local authorities have done.”

Seconding the motion, fellow Labour group member Cllr Ann Sylvester said: “I’ve received emails and expressions of disappointment that Peterborough City Council has yet to make any declaration of support for this scheme when other councils have done so.”

In response Cllr Holdich told the meeting: “I would not like the city to believe that Labour and Liberal councillors have the monopoly on caring for others, because that is simply not the case.”

Highlighting his opposition to the motion, he said: “The last time this happened on this scale when things were not sorted first, we ended up with over 80 per cent of the region’s refugees and asylum seekers.”

Pressure on school places, housing and GP surgeries were all mentioned, with Cllr Holdich stating that he needed further information from the government before taking any more action.

He added: “In the last six months we have picked up 62 unaccompanied minors off the street and, together with those already in care, it is costing the council and the people of Peterborough a million pounds a year.”

Cllr Holdich’s speech drew the ire of Labour councillors such as Cllr Shearman who said the government had promised to fund refugees who come to the city - “no ifs, no buts.”

The Labour group then continued to show strong support for the motion.

Cllr Lisa Forbes said: “This country has a tradition that we can be extremely proud of in offering sanctuary to refugees.

“This chamber should be able to distinguish between immigrants and refugees. Taking refugees is the right and decent thing to do.

“I would not want Peterborough to become a place which is unwilling to help and play our part in welcoming refugees in their hour of need.

“Just imagine how desperate you must be, and the horrors you must be trying to escape and flee, in order to consider putting yourself and your children into an inflatable dinghy or a dilapidated boat to try and cross the sea.

“I really need to know that if we in Britain were ever in a similar situation there are countries out there who will show us generosity and humanity and give us sanctuary.

“I call upon all councillors in this chamber to show humanity, decency and compassion and support Cllr Ferris’ motion.”

Responding to Cllr Holdich’s speech, Cllr Murphy said: “It was really shameful, all it was was an attack on people because of their predicament.

“It’s really shameful the way you attacked these people, it’s very unhuman. Particularly as it’s come from you it’s quite a shock.

“I really don’t want to see this motion fall because it puts the message out that this council is even less compassionate than David Cameron.”

Cllr Nick Thulbourn added: “My family has lived a few miles from here since records began and we have an outward looking culture.

“For me as a true local I want you to stand up and take in my culture. And my culture is you turn round, you face the world, and you actually say ‘we were helped and we will help you’.

“You need to truly look at yourselves. We’ve welcomed you and we want you to welcome others. We would not have beaten the Nazis without this type of thing.”

However, members of the cabinet who were opposed to the motion defended their stance.

Cllr Nigel North said: “Peterborough is a great city and it has become so because it works as a community. There are over 100 languages spoken and most faiths are represented as well as people from most countries in the world.

“However, I must agree with the leader on this motion. To protect the services to the people of Peterborough, to protect the numbers in the schools, to protect those on the housing list, to protect those who need to use GPs, we must find out from the government exactly what support in writing we will receive for these people if we welcome them to the city.

“I fully accept these people are in dire need, but Peterborough has worked hard in the past to do its bit and there are other cities that could do more.”

Cllr David Seaton also hit back at Cllr Murphy’s accusation that Cllr Holdich had attacked refugees. He said: “Yes we are concerned about this, yes we want to do something about it, but yes we want to know exactly what the impact for Peterborough is before we start.

“Cllr Holdich did not attack these people, that’s an absolutely disgrace Cllr Murphy. He never said anything of the sort, it’s a rubbish claim.

“Surely it’s absolutely right that the leader of this council is certain that we can support those who are here and those who come, before we can agree a motion like this?

“Cllr Ferris has set out the terrible conditions that these people are in, but we do need to understand whether it’s 12 months’ support - Cllr Shearman said possibly 24 months’ support.

“And support for exactly what? Housing, schools, health, social care? We’re not saying no, we just want to understand more.

“And I’m sorry Cllr Shearman, but if you think a letter from government has no ifs not buts in it, then you haven’t learnt a lot since you became a councillor because by crikey, the small print isn’t even the small print.”

UKIP councillors also opposed the motion. Cllr Frances Fox said: “I am very, very anxious that people that really are refugees come here and get help. but when you say 20,000 people can come over, most of them have been economic migrants.

“They won’t be refugees because if they were they wouldn’t be able to pay money to get boats etc.

“And if you say 20,000 people, what about the multiplication when their families come over?

“I’m not against helping refugees, but they must be genuine and it’s not. And the reason it’s not is in 2004 the Conservatives, New Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party all signed up for open borders, and that’s caused a lot of bother too.”

Cllr John Whitby said his party had advocated taking in refugees from Syria two years ago but that the current scheme was a kneejerk reaction to photographs in the media.

He said: “Bear in mind those photographs were actually of people who were not running away from Syria, they had already left Syria and were leaving Turkey for a better life.

“We should put support and effort into trying to end the conflict so people can return to their homeland and supporting them when they get there, rather than bringing them over here.

“We’re just going to add more pressure on to what we are already struggling to provide.”

Former cabinet member Cllr Scott said: “This is a personal matter to me and a matter of conscience. I cannot ignore the fate of women and children from Syria and what they have had to tolerate in the last few years, and continue to have to tolerate.

“I believe we should open our doors as every other council will.”

Summing up his motion, Cllr Ferris made a final plea not to turn it down. He said: “You don’t live in a camp, in many cases you don’t even survive in a camp. Babies and toddlers are at risk of freezing to death.

“I can’t live with that on my conscience.

“Please please please don’t throw this out, show some heart, because some of the comments and some of the hysteria around this chamber are reminiscent to some of the things that were said in 1938 and we all know what happened to the Jews.”

A second motion on Syria from the Liberal Democrat Cllr Nick Sandford was also turned down.

The motion called on the leader of the council to write to the Prime Minister expressing dismay at how few a number of refugees the UK is willing to take.

It also called on the cabinet to do all it practically can to work with other local authorities and other organisations to provide assistance to refugees that are being settled in Peterborough.

Opening up the debate on the motion, Cllr Sandford said: “The attitude of the Conservative government and our Conservative council doesn’t make me proud it makes me ashamed, and I think they should be ashamed of themselves.”

How they voted for Cllr Ferris’ motion:

For (18): Labour - Ferris, Forbes, Jamil, Khan, Martin, Murphy, Shearman, Sylvester, Thulbourn, Yonga

Liberal Democrat - Davidson, Sandford, Shaheed

Conservative - Maqbool, Scott, Serluca

Liberal Party - Saltmarsh

Independent - Swift

Against (27): Conservative - Aitken, Brown, Casey, Coles, Elsey, Faustino, Fitzgerald, Harper, Hiller, Holdich, Iqbal, Lamb, North, Over, Peach, Rush, Sanders, Seaton, Stokes

UKIP - Frances Fox, Herdman, Okonkowski, Whitby

Werrington First - John Fox, Judy Fox, Lane

Peterborough Independent Forum - Harrington

Abstention (1) - Knowles (no affiliation with any group)

Apologies for absence - Ash, Bisby, Fower, Johnson, Miners, Nadeem, Nawaz, Shabbir, Sharp, Thacker