The government has narrowly avoided a Commons defeat on a Tory MP’s amendment which would have forced councils to reveal how many lone child refugees they had the capacity to take, in an attempt to restart the Dubs scheme.
The amendment to the children and social work bill, introduced by the Conservative MP Heidi Allen, was defeated by 287 votes to 267 on Tuesday.
More than two dozen Tories were thought to have been considering voting in favour of the amendment, which would have required every local authority in England to declare their capacity for resettling children, with figures collated at least once a year.
In the end, despite nine Tory MPs signing the amendment, it was backed by just three: Allen, the former education secretary Nicky Morgan and Tania Mattias.
Ministers announced last month that the numbers arriving under the system, introduced through an amendment by the Labour peer Alf Dubs, a former kindertransport refugee, would be capped at 350. This was despite campaigners’ insistence they had been promised that about 3,000 lone refugee children from camps in Europe would be brought to the UK.
The government had argued that councils had no more space to accommodate child refugees from Europe, which has since been disputed by several local authorities.
Debate before the vote was tense, with Theresa May seen approaching David Burrowes, an MP who had previously spoken out about the closure of the scheme, to ask him to vote with the government.
At the announcement of the vote, Labour MPs shouted “shame” across the benches, watched by child refugee campaigners in the public gallery, including the actors Juliet Stevenson and Toby Jones.
Before the vote, Allen had said she hoped the government would reach a compromise, with ministers promising that a survey would be carried out but would not specifically identify the places available for child refugees from Europe.
“This is not hard to do,” she said. “This is not forcing capacity that doesn’t exist. It’s OK for areas like Kent to say ‘no more’, I understand and respect that. But this is a national solution that different parts of the country can respond to differently.”
A report published by the home affairs select committee on Monday called on the government to change its mind over the Dubs scheme. It said it was unclear how thoroughly the government had consulted councils, suggesting that up to 4,000 extra children could be sheltered if central funding was provided.
The prime minister’s spokesman told reporters on Tuesday morning that the government was not in favour of the audit, but it was committed to publishing regional breakdowns showing where unaccompanied child asylum seekers were being looked after.
“We have a record of which we are justifiably proud in relation to refugees, giving sanctuary to 8,000 last year, and children are continuing to arrive every year. This is not an amendment the government supports,” he said.
“We don’t think this is the right approach … we think it is right we focus on protecting the children who are already in the UK and spreading that burden across the country evenly. But the key point is that we are also making sure we don’t provide the incentive, as the prime minister said, for children to make perilous journeys in the hands of people traffickers to get to mainland Europe.”
Dubs said he was certain MPs would try new ways to reopen the scheme. “The councils are clear that they can do more, the anti-slavery commissioner has been clear that this safe and legal route protects children from the deprivations of the traffickers, and the country is clear that children in danger should be protected,” the Labour peer said. “The campaign isn’t over, our better nature will surely carry the day.”
Labour MP Yvette Cooper, the chair of the home affairs select committee who went to Calais and Dunkirk with Allen last month, said: “Despite the strong cross-party support in favour of continuing with the Dubs scheme, and the votes from all sides of the house, the government has whipped its backbenchers to vote against.
“Campaigners in and outside parliament will not give up on this. The home affairs select committee is also continuing its inquiry. And I hope ministers will listen and think again.”
Stevenson, who attended the debate in parliament with charity Safe Passage, which has done much of the legal work to kickstart the process of transferring lone child refugees to the UK, said: “Today is a great day for people traffickers. Safe Passage estimates that the decision will be worth hundreds of thousands of pounds to them. As a result of the closure of the Dubs scheme children now have even fewer safe and legal routes to sanctuary open to them.”
Other charities also expressed dismay at the result, including the Red Cross and Unicef. Lily Caprani, deputy executive director at Unicef UK, called the result “hugely disappointing” and said the loss of legal schemes made children more vulnerable to traffickers. “This crisis is not going away. This country must not turn away from doing its bit to help the most vulnerable.”
Mike Adamson, chief executive of the British Red Cross, said: “We share the government’s concerns about trafficking, but believe that it is restricting routes such as Dubs that leaves children vulnerable to exploitation. The UK can and should do better than this.”
Josie Naughton, co-founder of Help Refugees, which works in camps across Europe, said: “We are disgusted that today politics has got in the way of protecting vulnerable children.”
The Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, said the vote “shames Britain”, but it was not the end of MPs’ efforts.
“It would be in the best interests not only of the children stuck in Europe, but of the government itself, to stop fighting the decent majority who want Dubs to remain open,” he said.