A major Conservative donor has urged the Government to U-turn on its decision to paint over cartoon murals at an asylum centre for lone children as a minister defended the controversial move on the grounds the art was “unapproved”.
Lord Brownlow, who has reportedly given the Tories £3m, said he was “ashamed” of the decision to remove artworks of cartoon figures at Dover’s Kent asylum intake unit, such as Mickey Mouse and Baloo from The Jungle Book, because they were “too welcoming”.
Since the revelation, there has been an outcry, including among the Tories and in Whitehall.
But in the Lords on Monday, Home Office Minister Lord Murray defended the decision, telling peers that contracted support workers at the site were not given the green light by his department to paint the art.
“The murals… were provided by our detention contractors and were not commissioned or approved by the Home Office,” Lord Murray said.
“It’s clearly the correct decision that these facilities have the requisite decoration befitting of their purpose.”
Lord Brownlow – an ally of Boris Johnson, who was embroiled in controversy after helping provide a “bridging loan” towards the former prime minister’s refurbishment of his Downing Street flat, hit back. “I’m quite frankly ashamed of your last answer minister,” he said.
“I think the people in this House and the wider community would have preferred your answer to be: it was a mistake to paint over those murals and that a contractor will be commissioned to repaint them.
“We’re a welcoming country and whilst I accept your Bill is needed to deter, it is time we show some compassion.”
Lord Murray replied: “The decoration of these facilities is a matter for the Home Office.
“This is a detention facility for those that have entered the country unlawfully and it’s appropriate that it be decorated in a manner which reflects its purpose.”
Lord Coaker, Labour spokesperson on home affairs, urged the minister to reflect on comments by Lord Brownlow, and also by Lord Dubs – a former child refugee who fled the Nazis, and now campaigns on refugee rights.
Lord Coaker called for an apology and U-turn, saying the Lords was “appalled” by the situation. He added: “Is that really the Government’s position, that it was perfectly justified to paint over these murals?”
Lord Dubs has already criticised Mr Jenrick’s “shocking” order in comments to i.
Labour has said Mr Jenrick, an ally of Mr Sunak, is “putting Britain to shame”. The Liberal Democrats described the order as “the worst kind of trivial nastiness” and a “waste of taxpayer money”. Former child refugee Joel Kazadi told i the order was “an act of abject cruelty”.
The murals were painted over last Tuesday, hours after i first revealed Mr Jenrick’s call for this to happen.