Sir Keir Starmer to pledge 'elite' Border Unit with anti-terror powers to stop small boats

Labour will create a new Border Security Command to tackle people-smuggling gangs bringing migrants across the Channel, Sir Keir Starmer is set to announce.

The "elite" unit, to be part-funded by scrapping the Tories' Rwanda deportation scheme, will be led by a former police, military or intelligence chief and be granted new powers under the Counter Terrorism Act.

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These powers will allow officers to conduct stop and searches at the border, carry out financial investigations and issue search and seizure warrants targeting organised immigration crime.

Sir Keir will outline the measures in a speech on the Kent coast on Friday, when he will vow to "replace gimmicks with graft" and draw on his experience as the former head of the Crown Prosecution Service.

The Labour leader will say: "Let's be clear at the start, these are criminal enterprises we are dealing with.

"A business that pits nation against nation, thrives in the grey areas of our rules, the cracks between our institutions, where, they believe, they can exploit some of the most vulnerable people in the world with impunity.

"It's a vile trade that preys on the desperation and hope it finds in its victims."

The speech comes after the defection of Dover MP Natalie Elphicke, who joined Labour from the Conservatives on Wednesday, accusing the prime minister of failing to deliver on his promise to "stop the boats".

The move was met with shock and bafflement on the Conservative benches, given Ms Elphicke has previously attacked Sir Keir on immigration and seen as being on the right of her party.

It left some Labour MPs less than impressed too, with the Brexiteer apologising on Thursday over past comments supporting her sex offender ex-husband.

Ms Elphicke said the "key deciding factors" in her defection were housing issues and "the safety and security of our borders".

Speaking from the constituency of his newest MP, Sir Keir will accuse the government of "rank incompetence" on immigration, dismissing the Rwanda scheme as being unable to provide an effective deterrent and accusing the Conservatives of operating a "Travelodge amnesty" by housing migrants in hotels rather than processing their claims.

Over 52,000 people are stuck in the asylum backlog while some 8,826 migrants have arrived in the UK after crossing the Channel so far this year, provisional Home Office figures show.

This is up 32% on this time last year, when 6,691 migrants were recorded, and a 14% rise compared with the same period in 2022 (7,750), according to PA news agency analysis of the data.

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Labour has previously vowed to scrap the Rwanda scheme and focus its efforts on targeting people-smuggling gangs and clearing the asylum backlog.

The new command will be funded by diverting £75m of the money allocated for the first year of the scheme, which is yet to be up and running.

The policy has been mired in setbacks since it was announced two years ago, with the first flights expected to take off in the summer, Downing Street has said.