Keir Starmer vows to abolish Rwanda asylum program ‘immediately’

  • Written by Sam Francis and Paul Seddon
  • Political correspondents, BBC News

Video explanation, Keir Starmer told the BBC’s Chris Mason that Rwanda money should be spent on additional policing

Sir Keir Starmer has pledged to scrap the government’s Rwanda scheme “immediately” if his party wins the election.

The Labor leader said he would use the money saved to hire specialist investigators to deal with small boats crossing the Channel.

He also wants to use counter-terrorism powers to “crush” people-smuggling gangs.

Rishi Sunak said ministers had already recruited more police to this area.

Speaking to the media, the Prime Minister said: “We have a plan, and we will land our planes.”

Sir Keir revealed new details of his plan in Dover alongside local MP Natalie Elphicke, who defected from the Conservative Party to join Labor on Wednesday.

In a brief speech, Ms Elphick took aim at her former boss, claiming that “nothing shows Rishi Sunak’s lack of delivery more clearly than on the issue of small boats”.

In his speech, the Labor leader said he would establish a new border security command to work with Border Force, MI5 and the National Crime Agency in prosecuting gangs running small boat routes.

The party says this new unit will be led by a former police, army or intelligence chief, who will report directly to the Interior Minister.

Sir Keir said scrapping the Rwanda scheme would free up £75m in the Labor government’s first year to hire hundreds of extra investigators and “intelligence agents”.

He has already pledged to cancel the government’s plan to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda, which was first announced in 2022 but has been delayed due to legal challenges.

Ministers hope the scheme, due to start in July, will deter people from trying to come to the UK across the English Channel in small boats.

But Labor says the scheme will not stop people trying to make the journey.

According to the National Audit Office, payments to Rwanda will cost £370 million over five years, plus £120 million if more than 300 people are transferred, and £20,000 per person.

He was pressed when his party would scrap the scheme, Sir Keir told reporters that Labor would “get rid of this policy immediately”.

He added: “I will not pursue a policy that I do not believe will work, which will cost me a fortune.”

Video explanation, Natalie Elphick: Sunak has failed on small boats

Asked how much of a reduction he would like to see in small boat crossings, the Labor leader did not specify a figure but said he wanted the levels to fall “significantly”.

“We will restore serious government to our borders, address this problem at its source and permanently replace Rwanda’s policy,” he added.

Sir Keir also said his party would expand powers under the Blair-era Terrorism Act to enable police to search people suspected of being involved in people smuggling.

There will also be new powers allowing for “direct monitoring” of their financial accounts and court orders to hand over financial information.

Suspected smugglers may also find their access to the Internet, banking and travel restricted.

Labor says these new powers will require new legislation to be passed in Parliament, something Sir Keir insisted would happen “very quickly”.

like First reported by The TimesThe party also aims to negotiate access to the EU’s Eurodac database, which records the fingerprints of people aged 14 or over who arrive in European countries without permission.

Labor did not say whether this would include implementing EU legislation on which the scheme is based. She says this will be a topic of discussion during the negotiations.

Peter Walsh, of Oxford University’s Migration Observatory, said Labour’s plan was “unlikely to be a game-changer”.

He told the BBC that the plan “on the face of it looks very similar” to the existing Small Boat Operations Command, the new military force that monitors and intercepts ships attempting unauthorized entry into the UK through the Channel.

He added: “The devil will be in the details.”

The Conservative and Labor parties have accused each other of creating an “amnesty” – generally understood to mean allowing all who enter the country illegally to remain with a full legal amnesty.

Labour’s plans, which the Conservatives have dubbed an “amnesty for illegal immigrants”, would allow those arriving in the UK on small boats to apply for asylum – something currently prohibited under the Illegal Immigration Act.

Labor has repeatedly denied it has plans to amnesty those who enter the country illegally.

Sir Keir accused the Conservatives of a “Travelodge amnesty” by not processing asylum claims and housing people in hotels instead – although the plans also fall short of an amnesty because they involve deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda.

Nearly 9,000 people have crossed the English Channel in small boats so far this year, provisional Home Office figures show.

This represents an increase of almost a third (32%) on the same period last year, when 6,691 people crossed, and a 14% increase compared to the same period in 2022 when the number of people crossed 7,750.

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