Keir Starmer says he would reverse Rwanda deportation policy – even if it reduces small boat crossings

Labour Party Party leader Sir Keir Starmer and deputy leader, Angela Rayner arrive at the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool. Picture date: Saturday October 7, 2023. (Photo by Stefan Rousseau/PA Images via Getty Images)
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and deputy leader Angela Rayner in Liverpool on Saturday for the party's conference. (PA Images via Getty Images)

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has said he would scrap the controversial Rwanda deportation scheme if he became prime minister – even if it proved successful in bringing down the number of dangerous small boat crossings over the English Channel.

The Illegal Migration Act would allow the government to send migrants crossing the Channel from France to the UK back to their country of origin, or to Rwanda in east Africa.

However, the policy has been held up in the courts. Next week, the Home Office is bringing a challenge to the Supreme Court after the Court of Appeal ruled in June that the multimillion-pound deal was unlawful.

Starmer has opposed the scheme in the past.

Appearing on the BBC's Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg programme ahead of the Labour party conference, he was asked, as a "pragmatist", if he would still scrap the policy if the Supreme Court ruled it legal and the number of small boats crossing the Channel declined.

"Yes," he said.

"I think it's the wrong policy, it's hugely expensive. It's a tiny number of individuals who would go to Rwanda and the real problem is at source."

Watch: Keir Starmer will reverse Rwanda policy even if Channel crossings decline

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Put to him again by guest presenter Victoria Derbyshire if he would scrap the policy even if the criminal gangs facilitating the crossings declined and fewer people were getting on the boats, Starmer said: "You're putting this to me on the basis that it's working. We've been told by the government time and again that even saying they've got a Rwanda scheme will reduce the numbers – that hasn't happened.

“Let me tell you pragmatically what I'd do about this issue, because nobody wants to see these crossings across the Channel. They will only stop if we smash the criminal gangs who are running this vile trade [of people smuggling].

"Those boats that are being used now across the Channel are being made to order, transported across by gangs to the northern coast of France, and people making millions of pounds are putting people in those boats. We have to break that."

Britain's main opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer arrives for an interview with the BBC on the first day of the annual Labour Party conference in Liverpool, north west England on October 8, 2023. (Photo by Paul ELLIS / AFP) (Photo by PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images)
Starmer in Liverpool on Sunday morning. (AFP via Getty Images)

'Start at the beginning of the process, not at the end'

Starmer said he was "convinced" he can break down the gangs.

"We start there because you don't start with 'What are we going to do at the end of the process’ when you've failed to control your borders. You start by controlling your borders."

Conservative chairman Greg Hands seized on the comments, arguing Starmer "failed to give another option" to the Rwanda scheme.

"Labour aren't serious on the boats and making the tough choices the country needs," he said.

Small boat crossings and Rwanda policy – the latest

Home Office figures show more than 25,000 people have been detected crossing the English Channel in small boats so far this year.

That is about 23% below the equivalent number (just over 33,000) at this point last year. There were 45,774 arrivals across 2022.

Rishi Sunak has made "stopping the boats" a pillar of his premiership, as one of his five key pledges as prime minister.

THE ENGLISH CHANNEL, ENGLAND - AUGUST 24: A boat carrying around 50 migrants drifts into English waters after being escorted by a French tug from the French coastline on August 24, 2023 The English Channel, England. Most of the small boats are collected on the border by UK Border Force vessels and brought into Dover port, after French naval ships accompany them to the border. Another boat then collects the small rubber crafts and loads them to be taken to a UK border Force facility. Over 100,000 migrants have crossed the Channel from France to England on small boats since the UK began publicly recording the arrivals in 2018.  (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
A boat carrying about 50 migrants drifts into English waters in August. (Getty Images)

Central to that is the Illegal Migration Act, which passed in Parliament in July following a lengthy tussle between the House of Commons and House of Lords.

The legislation aims to prevent people from claiming asylum in the UK if they arrive through unauthorised means.

The government also hopes the changes will ensure detained people are promptly removed, either to their home country or a third country – such as Rwanda.

Its legal battle over the controverisal Rwanda policy – critics of which include the Archbishop of Canterbury – is set to be heard at the Supreme Court from Monday.

The Home Office is bringing the challenge after the Court of Appeal ruled in June that the multimillion-pound deal was unlawful.