Starmer will not set small boats target but pledges hostile territory for gangs

The Labour leader set out his plans in a speech in Deal, Kent, following the defection of local MP Natalie Elphicke.

Christopher McKeon
Friday 10 May 2024 21:19 BST
Sir Keir Starmer set out his party’s plans to tackle small boats in a speech two days after Dover MP Natalie Elphicke defected from the Tories to Labour (Gareth Fuller/PA)
Sir Keir Starmer set out his party’s plans to tackle small boats in a speech two days after Dover MP Natalie Elphicke defected from the Tories to Labour (Gareth Fuller/PA) (PA Wire)

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Louise Thomas

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Sir Keir Starmer declined to commit to “stopping the boats” as he set out his party’s plans to tackle cross-Channel migration.

The Labour leader said crossings needed to be reduced “materially” and he would “like it to come down completely”, but added he would not put a “false number” on his plans.

Speaking in Deal, Kent, on Friday, Sir Keir said a Labour government would expand counter-terror powers to cover people-smuggling gangs and create a new Border Security Command to co-ordinate efforts to halt the crossings.

His comments came as figures showed more than 9,000 migrants have arrived in the UK after crossing the Channel so far this year.

In a message to smuggling gangs, he said: “These shores will become hostile territory for you – we will find you. We will stop you. We will protect your victims with the Border Security Command. We will secure Britain’s borders.”

He also reiterated his commitment to scrap the Government’s Rwanda policy “straight away”, saying it was a “gimmick” he had no interest in pursuing.

Asked whether he would cancel deportation flights to Kigali, he told Sky News: “There will be no flights scheduled or taking off after general election if Labour wins that general election.”

But asked what would happen to any people deported to Rwanda in the coming months, he said Labour was “not interested in repatriating people”.

Sir Keir’s speech followed the defection of Dover MP Natalie Elphicke, who told the audience of party supporters in Deal on Friday that Rishi Sunak had “failed to keep our borders secure”.

Ms Elphicke said Labour would provide “a fresh approach” to the issue “that puts at its heart a commitment to border security”.

Under the plans outlined on Friday, Labour would establish a new border security command led by a former police, military or intelligence chief and modelled on an approach to counter-terrorism operations that Sir Keir said had already proven successful.

The new command would bring together officers from agencies including MI5, Immigration Enforcement and the National Crime Agency, focused on stopping people smugglers and “freed from the cloying bureaucracy that so often prevents collaboration between different institutions”.

Sir Keir said: “This is about leveraging the power and potential of dynamic government, based on a counter-terrorism approach which we know works.

“An end to the fragmentation between policing, the border force and our intelligence agencies, a collective raising of standards, so that border protection becomes an elite force, not a Cinderella service, an essential frontline defence that communities like this can depend upon.”

The unit would also benefit from new powers, expanding on those already used to combat terrorists, including enhanced stop-and-search powers and the ability to seize items before an offence has taken place.

Asked about providing a deterrent, Sir Keir said speeding up the processing of asylum claims and returning unsuccessful applicants to their home countries would be the most effective way of deterring people from making the journey, rendering it “a pointless exercise”.

He declined to say whether people would be returned to countries such as Syria and Eritrea, and declined to commit to opening up new safe routes.

“I don’t think safe routes is the answer to the vile trade that is being run to put people into small boats, I actually think breaking down the gangs is,” he told ITV News.

Sir Keir also said he would seek to negotiate a replacement for the Dublin Agreement to allow asylum seekers to be returned to European countries, but ruled out joining an EU scheme.

Home Secretary James Cleverly argued Labour’s proposals would “make the UK the asylum capital of the world”.

“This half-hearted, poorly thought through, pale imitation of what is already in place, but without the deterrent of Rwanda, will inevitably see numbers go up,” he told the BBC.

He argued Sir Keir is “inevitably going to have to have an amnesty” because he would not be able to return people to countries including Afghanistan, Iran and Syria.

Mr Cleverly also told LBC Radio the timing of Labour’s intervention was “comic”, because “we are starting to see the deterrent” of the Rwanda plan, although he could not give numbers of people who have left the UK for the EU.

Some 211 people made the journey from France to the UK on Thursday in three boats, provisional Home Office figures show.

This suggests an average of around 70 people per boat and takes the provisional total for Channel crossings in 2024 to date to 9,037.

This is up 35% on this time last year, when 6,691 crossings were recorded, and a 16% rise compared to the same period in 2022 (7,801), according to PA news agency analysis of the data.

Crossing continued on Friday as Sir Keir set out Labour’s plans amid sunny and breezy but hazy weather conditions at sea.

Young children were among those seen being driven away on buses and in taxis after being brought ashore in Dover, Kent. Pictures also showed a private ambulance leaving the port’s Border Force compound under blue lights. Maidstone-based Medevent Medical Services declined to comment on their attendance when contacted by PA.

Earlier this week, the Home Office stopped publishing the number of Channel crossings prevented just days after the policy was introduced.

Late on Wednesday night, the department said the decision to publish the data on a daily basis had been paused until further notice following “consultation with the French”. The reason behind the U-turn is yet to be disclosed but the Home Office previously described the statistics as “estimates” which were prone to “error”.

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