Starmer vows to ‘take control’ of small boats as he trades barbs with Sunak

Sir Keir Starmer insisted closer co-operation with the European Union on the small boats crisis meant “taking control of a situation the Government has totally lost control of”.

In a vicious political battle with the Government, the Labour leader described as “nonsense” the Prime Minister and Home Secretary’s claims that he would let the UK become a “dumping ground” for 100,000 migrants from the EU each year.

Sir Keir indicated he could be prepared to do a deal with Brussels which would involve the UK taking a quota of asylum seekers who arrive in the bloc in exchange for the ability to return people who cross the English Channel.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper arriving at Europol in The Hague
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer was visiting Europol together with shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

But he insisted that his focus was on ensuring that an anti-terrorism-style international crackdown could smash the gangs behind the “vile” trade, preventing people leaving in small boats from France in the first place.

Sir Keir visited The Hague, in the Netherlands, for talks with the EU’s Europol law enforcement agency.

Speeding up data and intelligence sharing with Europe as part of a new post-Brexit security pact and strengthening powers to restrict the movement of those suspected of organised immigration crime would form part of Sir Keir’s plan.

But the Tories seized on the suggestion that he would be prepared to negotiate with Brussels on the possibility of accepting a migrant quota as part of an EU-wide returns deal for people crossing the Channel.

Rishi Sunak
Rishi Sunak attacked Sir Keir Starmer’s plans to address the small boats crisis (Aaron Chown/PA)

Rishi Sunak claimed the plans could result in 100,000 EU migrants coming to the UK every year.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman said Sir Keir would let the UK become a “dumping ground” for Europe’s migrants.

But Sir Keir said the response was “typical from a Government that’s completely lost control of the situation”.

“It’s embarrassing that the Government is pumping out this nonsense,” he said.

“I can only assume it’s because they’ve got nothing sensible to say on the issue.”

Downing Street denied that a European returns deal was no longer a priority for Government, pointing to its cooperation with Albania – but said a “burden-sharing” relationship with the bloc was off the table.

As part of its plans, Labour says it would work to reach a new agreement to share real-time intelligence with the EU similar to the Schengen Information System II, a database of terror suspects and immigration offenders which the UK had automatic access to before Brexit.

The party has also vowed to strengthen powers to restrict the movement of people smugglers by making it quicker and easier to obtain civil orders, known as serious crime prevention orders, which are used to target offenders such as terrorists and drug traffickers.

More British officers would be stationed in Europe under the plans, with a “cross-border police force” focused solely on disrupting criminal gangs, Labour said.

In an interview with The Times newspaper, Sir Keir said he would also seek an EU-wide returns agreement for asylum seekers who arrive in Britain, which may involve a “quid pro quo” of accepting quotas of migrants from the bloc.

“That would be part of any discussions and negotiations with Europe,” he told The Times.

He would not be drawn on the number of asylum seekers he would be happy to take in under a deal with the European Union.

The Labour leader said his main aim was ensuring that people did not make it across the English Channel in the first place.

“I’ve been exploring today at Europol with police teams, with prosecutorial teams whether we can get a closer agreement that would allow us to share information more quickly, to have joint operations to take down those that are running this vile trade by stopping those boats getting in the water in the first place,” he told reporters in The Hague.

Challenged over seeking closer ties with the EU after Brexit, he said: “If we’re going to smash the gangs that are running this vile trade of putting people into the water to cross the Channel, then we have to operate where they’re operating.

“And they’re operating in France, across Europe, beyond Europe in fact. And that’s why I’m here talking about what we can do with our EU partners but also beyond that.”

Funding for the measures would be redirected from the Government’s plan to send asylum seekers on a one-way trip to Rwanda, which is currently held up in the courts following a series of legal challenges.

Responding to Labour’s plans, Mr Sunak told reporters during a visit in Devon: “Keir Starmer spent all of this year voting against our stop-the-boats Bill, the toughest legislation that any government has passed to tackle illegal migration.

“I think he spent most of last year voting against a previous Bill which has since then led to almost 700 arrests related to organised immigration crime, so I don’t think it’s credible that he really wants to grip this problem.

“And his plans today seem to amount to saying that we might one day accept 100,000 EU migrants every year. That doesn’t seem like a credible plan to me to stop the boats.”

Ms Braverman said: “He’ll let Brussels decide who comes to the UK.

“He’ll agree to make Britain the dumping ground for many of the millions of illegal migrants that Europe doesn’t want. And none of this will stop the boats.”

Downing Street said the Government was open to an EU-wide returns agreement, but would not accept a quota of migrants as the price for that.

Taking a hard-line stance on immigration crime will be seen as important to convince swing voters that Labour can be trusted to stem the number of Channel crossings, which has reached more than 23,000 so far this year.

Sir Keir’s meeting with Europol officials at The Hague comes ahead of a trip to Montreal, Canada, for a summit of “progressive” politicians.

Reports suggest he is also set to be hosted by French president Emmanuel Macron in Paris next week.

He could also be eyeing a meeting in the White House with US president Joe Biden in the coming months, whose “Bidenomics” and landmark green subsidy push has attracted admiration from the Opposition.