‘No firm date’ for ‘stopping the boats’, Sunak tells MPs

Rishi Sunak made ‘stopping the boats’ one of his five priorities for 2023.

Christopher McKeon
Tuesday 19 December 2023 19:30 GMT
Rishi Sunak made his pledge to “stop the boats” one of his five priorities for 2023 (James Manning/PA)
Rishi Sunak made his pledge to “stop the boats” one of his five priorities for 2023 (James Manning/PA) (PA Wire)

Rishi Sunak has said there is no “firm date” for meeting his promise to “stop the boats” as Channel crossings approached 30,000 for the year.

The promise was one of the five priorities the Prime Minister set out at the start of 2023, when he said he would pass a new law making sure those arrived by small boat would be “detained and swiftly removed”.

Although Channel crossings have fallen by a third since 2022, some 29,437 people have still made the journey so far this year.

Asked by Home Affairs Committee chair Dame Diana Johnson when he would have “stopped the boats”, the Prime Minister said: “There isn’t a firm date on this because I’ve always been clear from the beginning.

“We will keep going until we do. This isn’t one of these things when there’s a precise date estimate on it, this is something where before I took this job they had only ever gone up, now they’re down by a third.”

During his routine questioning by select committee chairs at the Liaison Committee, Mr Sunak stressed his Rwanda policy as a vital part of “stopping the boats” and said he was “highly confident” that the Government would be able to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda.

Responding to questions about whether airlines had declined to operate the flights due to fears it would harm their reputations, Mr Sunak said: “You wouldn’t expect me to comment on commercial conversations that are necessarily private but I’m highly confident that we can operationalise the (Rwanda) Bill in all its aspects.”

The Government’s Safety of Rwanda Bill passed its second reading in the Commons on December 12 and will be discussed by a committee of MPs in the new year.

Mr Sunak told the Liaison Committee he was “always happy to engage with colleagues” on the contents of the Bill, but would not commit to a specific timetable for the Bill.

He also declined to discuss the cost of the scheme, now expected to exceed £290 million, saying secrecy was necessary as the Government might “want to have other conversations with other countries” about similar schemes.

Mr Sunak was unable to say when he would clear the backlog of asylum claims, which stood at 109,442 cases at the end of November.

He pledged to clear the backlog of “legacy” cases, those made before June 28 2022, by the end of 2023.

The “legacy” backlog has fallen by nearly three-quarters since June 2023, reaching 18,366 by the end of November.

Asked whether he would meet his pledge, Mr Sunak said: “We’re not at the end of the year yet, so the final statistics haven’t been published, but we are making very good progress.”

But the rest of the backlog – those applications made on or after June 28 2022 – continues to rise, reaching 91,076 at the end of November.

Asked when the overall backlog would be cleared, the Prime Minister declined to give a date, saying: “We haven’t set a target for that publicly but obviously the priority was clearing the initial legacy asylum backlog.”

Following the Prime Minister’s appearance at the Liaison Committee, Labour shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock said: “A year on from making his public pledge, Rishi Sunak has just admitted there is no firm date by which he will meet his target to stop the boats.

“He also promised to clear 91,000 old asylum claims by the end of this year, but he is set to fall far short of this target too.

“Labour will smash the criminal smuggler gangs through a new cross-border police unit and security partnership. We’ll also hire more than 1,000 extra caseworkers to speed up processing and staff a 1,000-strong new returns unit to remove people with no right to be here.”

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