Where Portsmouth’s leaders stand on controversial asylum seekers issue

Asylum seekers arriving in Greece
Asylum seekers arriving in Greece

Bells ring out in tribute

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IT’s an issue that has stirred up a huge amount of discussion and emotion.

On Tuesday, a controversial proposal was put to the full council in Portsmouth urging members to agree the city must be removed as a ‘cluster area’ taking in asylum families.

Tory councillors Luke Stubbs and Steve Wemyss, backed by all of their party, believed it was the right thing to do given the strain an influx in asylum seekers would have on already stretched local services.

Activists lobbied members to oppose backing the motion, which requested the council wrote to Theresa May demanding she relieve Portsmouth of its duties.

They believed it wasn’t right given the city’s outpouring of support for asylum seekers who have fled war-torn Syria in an attempt to find safety and sanctuary.

But their efforts weren’t enough, and the plan to challenge the home secretary was voted through 21 to 16 in the council chamber.

Labour sided with the Lib Dems and the Tories and Ukip were united in their support for the motion.

One Ukip councillor, Julie Swan, abstained from the voting process.

It came despite Freedom of Information figures being presented during the debate by Friends Without Borders showing Portsmouth only houses 124 refugees in a city with a population of 210,000.

Eighteen of those are children, but none of them go to schools in the city.

But the Tory administration says those numbers could rise to levels that the city simply cannot cope with – and it’s important a halt is put on the situation before it escalates further.

Here political reporter MILES O’LEARY gathers a cross-section of views over the council’s decision.

CLLR STUART POTTER, UKIP

(Correction - the print edition of this story in today’s paper incorrectly said Cllr Potter was in favour of Portsmouth being a cluster area for refugees. This is incorrect.)

If senior judges lived in a working class household say, Fratton, North End, Stamshaw, Buckland or Paulsgrove, they may well sing a different tune that harmonised more with their surroundings.

Surely the root of the issue here would be how to stop the war in Syria, thereby stopping the displacement that forces many to risk life and limb to find safety so far away from their own culture and loved ones. Or, why Saudi Arabia does so very little to aid its neighbours?

Why is the government not forcing these issues? Could the answers be as simple as money? Oil? The selling of arms? The desire for the Orwellian perpetual war to save western economies? I very much welcome the proposal of Portsmouth not being a cluster zone for refugees. Why the failure to mention that Portsmouth is the most densely-populated city in the whole of Europe? The UK’s poverty is here before our eyes, Ukip observes our streets everyday, but unlike our peers we’re not bullied into silence on these subjects.

All voices of our community deserve to be heard, deemed politically correct or not. Families that stretch back generations in Portsmouth, and quite literally built it, cannot find council housing.

Often forced into over-priced, private accommodation, they lose all hope of a future locally, turning to drink, drugs, even pregnancy thinking it’s the way to secure a home. Surely these problems should be addressed first? Charity begins at home. You cannot lend someone a loaf of bread if you do not have bread yourself!

Throwing about accusations of racism hoping to whip others into your way of thinking is not only manipulative, but numbs the true meaning of such words.

The pendulum has swung so far to liberal left it should be the duty of us all to make sure it does not swing as far to the right, as throughout Europe. Even in Germany refugees homes are burnt down.

It’s not covered by Sky/BBC, as it’s not in their agenda. Why expect the poor to tolerate the decisions of a few? It’s so clearly breaking up the indigenous communities. When did it become fair to prioritise the minority over the majority? Such actions are leading to racial tensions in the streets where you propose to house migrants/refugees.

The only unlawful actions UKIP see, is the total and utter neglect of our own city’s inhabitants regardless of their race, colour or creed.

I remind you that we’re only ever as strong as our weakest link. Apply that to our society, as a classroom, how dare you force citizen’s to accept what they have not yet come to accept.

The disgusting way people marry the atrocities of the European holocaust to further their argument is shameful. I would go further, since the survivors moved in greater numbers into Palestine there’s been unrest to present day. Some would say at the price of the Palestinians, and their homelands!

Shame on those who want this in Portsmouth streets. UKIP want something better.

When the UK rises from its knees, the rest of the world will benefit from it.

CLLR STEVE WEMYSS, CONSERVATIVE

The first thing to acknowledge is the distinction between an asylum seeker and an economic migrant.

The former is escaping persecution or conflict, the latter is seeking to improve their life. I don’t criticize either group for seeking to come to this country to do that. In their shoes I might do the same. However, while most people will have some sympathy with a refugee, many believe that this country needs to be more discerning over the economic migrants we allow to settle here.

In either case, and in any event, there will be a limit to the support that can be provided to these groups, and in Portsmouth we are reaching that limit.

The previous administration of the council had known there was going to be a shortfall of over a 1,000 school places in Portsmouth, but had failed to address the problem.

The new Conservative administration is spending £17m of a £23m capital program to address the problem, but those places aren’t ready yet. In the meanwhile demand is increasing and, across the whole of the city, there are only 36 primary school places available. Citizens have a right to expect that the city council has the ability to provide school places to people already here.

Past numbers of asylum seeker schoolchildren has varied between three and 14, but that is no guarantee of future numbers. So, while the number of asylum seekers may be relatively small, their potential impact on our ability to provide school places could be huge.

CLLR COLIN GALLOWAY, UKIP

I am Jewish, and two generations ago, this country let my people in, and helped my family survive.

So you would think I have an affinity for the asylum seekers, and of course I do.

But I am stuck between a rock and a hard place.

I have not been elected by Westminster – I have been elected by the people on the hardened streets of Portsmouth.

I have been elected to represent them and be the bridge between them and the council.

I also work down at the ferry port – and that is effectively where I have three surgeries a week.

I listen to my colleagues, they live in the same ward that I represent.

They are not saying they hate refugees, but they are saying they have had enough.

Go down to the housing department as a single man who has lived in Portsmouth all of his life trying to get a house to live in – you would be lucky if they told you that you would be able to get a place in the next 20 years.

My duty is to the people of Portsmouth, first and foremost.

These are the people who I represent, who control me and tell me what I should do.

They need their councillors to be a voice for them.

These people need schools, they need doctors, they need accommodation.

Central government should also help us. What the motion asked for was not tieing us in as a cluster area for asylum seekers. It needs to be made fairer.

CLLR AIDEN GRAY, LABOUR

Tuesday was a very sad day for Portsmouth, as the city effectively asked the door be closed on those who are in such desperate need due to the humanitarian crisis in Syria and across the Middle East.

As a city we have seen so much good will, compassion and support being offered from all sections of our community, with donations and offers of help for all those who have desperately tried to flee such awful atrocities and have gone through so much to find sanctuary and safety.

We should do what we can to alleviate the refugee crisis.

Portsmouth has a wonderful and diverse community.

We should lead the way, to show compassion and support to those who have gone through hell. We could have sent a message to the rest of the UK that we all need to step up, work together with communities and cities to help. The UK is a place of refuge, a beacon of hope and haven of stability.

That should be a source of pride, not fear. Our country is a permanent member of the Security Council, one of the richest, so of course there is a heightened expectation that the UK should do much more than we are to offer these people sanctuary.

The prime minister and Conservatives once preached the virtues of a ‘Big Society’ of popular action beyond the realm of the state. Was there ever a better moment for the big society to show its mettle than in supporting refugees?

Instead of doing the right thing, sending a message of hope and taking a share of responsibility, our city’s administration sent a message that another Good Samaritan, not Portsmouth, can worry about it.

MALCOLM LITTLE, BRITISH RED CROSS

At the Red Cross in Portsmouth, we see this decision as a real step backwards for a city, which has such a proud history of helping those fleeing persecution.

While the Red Cross recognises many local authorities face considerable financial pressures, it is unfair and misleading to attribute this to asylum seekers, when accommodation and support costs are met by the Home Office and the number of asylum seekers dispersed to Portsmouth is relatively small compared to national levels.

And amidst the debate about numbers of people and the cost of supporting them, let us not forget these are vulnerable mothers, fathers and children - many of whom have undergone years of violence, exploitation and torture and been forced to risk their lives by taking dangerous paths to safety.

We are extremely concerned about the message this vote gives to people who deserve to feel welcomed and supported. We have been honoured to work with the council and other partners over the years to welcome vulnerable people and it’s been heartening to see how generously Portsmouth residents have responded recently to the refugee crisis - described as the biggest humanitarian challenge we’ve faced since the Second World War. It’s important the government works with local authorities across the country and makes sure they feel adequately supported in helping refugees settle in their areas.

We would also urge the council to focus its energy on encouraging other authorities to join them in supporting families as the UK prepares to welcome Syrians as part of the resettlement programme.

SIMON MAGORIAN, STAND UP TO RACISM

IT’s sending out a very negative message.

It’s going against the wishes of the people of Portsmouth – people want the council to do more.

It flies in the face of people like Danny Harmer who played at the Wedgewood Rooms, the guys at Al Burrito, as well as church and faith groups who used their back rooms to store donations for asylum seekers.

Stand Up To Racism will be taking stuff back out to Calais on October 17 - there are loads of things going on.

From what I gather, the only people who came out to support the council where the six members of the Pie and Mash brigade.

I am outraged, but sadly I am not actually shocked because the vote went on tribal lines; the Tories and Ukip voted one way, bar the one Ukip abstention, and the Lib Dems and Labour were the ones standing up for asylum seekers.

It sends out a really negative message that we are the only council in the country saying “no room at the inn”.

This is the biggest refugee crisis since the end of the Second World War, when there was a huge number of displaced people.

There are now two million in Lebanon, one million in Jordan, about 1.8m in Turkey, David Cameron is offering to take 20,000 and in Hamburg they are going to take 13,000.

And yet in Portsmouth we have only taken 124. To say we are overwhelmed is nonsense, there are hundreds of properties available.

The population in Portsmouth since the war has gone down.