Sunderland’s Conservative Party is embroiled in a race row, after the city’s full council meeting had to be stalled after concerns a councillor was stoking racial hatred.

Councillor Michael Hartnack tabled a motion to revise the council’s budget, with a proposal to launch a £380,000 Referendum on Sunderland’s ‘City of Sanctuary’ status.

The status – which aims to create a welcoming environment for anyone fleeing persecution, violence or finding themselves destitute – sets out a commitment to creating a welcoming place of safety for everyone relocating to the city, be it families, veterans or homeless people.

But the debate was halted after concerns it had strayed into rhetoric that could stoke racial tensions and leave protected groups vulnerable in the city.

Sunderland Labour Group’s dynamic city cabinet member, Councillor Kevin Johnston, said the debate demonstrated ‘blatant prejudice’ within the Conservative party, and called upon the standards committee to investigate Conservative members, who backed the motion.

He said: “Not only was this motion flagrant hypocrisy, given the Conservative Party voted along with us to become a City of Sanctuary, but it is yet another example of a party intent on stoking division in society to detract from the absolute chaos it has plunged this country into.

“City of Sanctuary status is – at its core – about having a basic sense of compassion. Of humanity. It is about protecting people who are in the most vulnerable position imaginable, ensuring they can come to Sunderland and live in safety, something that should be a basic right for everybody.

“To hear Councillor Hartnack make a rambling speech that lurched from commentary on the number of international students in the city to making divisive, sweeping statements about the number of people seeking asylum was frankly reprehensible. I do not believe this party speaks for the kind and welcoming people of this city.

“It is utterly abhorrent to see the Conservatives once again, stoking racial hatred that fuels division and has no place in our society.”

Labour Party members as well as other party councillors were united in condemning Councillor Hartnack’s comments and have since agreed to report each of the Conservative councillors in attendance to the standards committee.

Councillor Graeme Miller, leader of the Labour Group in Sunderland, said: “The public rightly expect councillors to conduct themselves with propriety and decency, and the Conservative Party and councillors representing it in this chamber have shown themselves to possess neither of those attributes. They should hang their heads in shame today, seeking to stoke tension and further distress for people who have faced untold hardship.”

Councillor Phil Tye, chair of Sunderland Labour Group, provides accommodation to a Ukrainian refugee who was forced to flee the country following the outbreak of war.

Speaking after the meeting, he said: “These hate filled, misleading statements are nothing but a veiled attempt to stoke hatred and mislead the city’s residents about the true meaning of City of Sanctuary status.

“Being a City of Sanctuary does not mean that we have ‘agreed to take in significantly higher asylum seekers than our neighbours’ like Cllr Hartnack alluded to, it simply means that we will ensure our city is welcoming to those who do come here.

”In fact, it is the UK Government, led by Rishi Sunak, which decides how many people come and live here, but Cllr Hartnack knows that, as his party voted in favour of Sunderland becoming a City of Sanctuary in the first place.

“I am glad that councillors from across the floor have come together to request that the Tory Whip be removed from every Sunderland Conservative Councillor for their repulsive attempts to stoke hatred in our proud city.”