Labour plans to use anti-terrorism powers to stop small boat crossings

Keir Starmer vows to make the British coast 'hostile territory' for people smugglers bringing migrants across the Channel

Keir Starmer outlined how a Labour government will tackle the issue of small boats crossing the English Channel carrying migrants. PA
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Labour leader Keir Starmer has vowed to crack down on the “vile trade” of criminal gangs behind Britain's small boats crisis if his party wins the next general election.

Migration is a contentious issue, acting as a diving line between Labour and the Conservatives, and will continue to play out as they vie for voters' support in the run-up to the election.

Mr Starmer told a press conference on Friday that he will scrap the Conservative government’s Rwanda deportation scheme and use some of the money saved to fund a new “elite Border Security Command” led by a former police, military or intelligence chief.

“Tackling organised crime is always hard, especially across borders,” he said during his speech in Dover, Kent.

“This is a criminal enterprise that we are dealing with – a business that pits nation against nation, that 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.”

Mr Starmer said Labour would set up “a new command with new powers, new resources and a new way of doing things”.

The Border Security Command will bring together hundreds of specialist investigators from the National Crime Agency, Border Force, immigration enforcement, the Crown Prosecution Service and MI5, “all working to a single mission, all freed from the bureaucracy that so often prevents collaboration between different institutions”, he said.

Mr Starmer added that a Labour government would provide the security command, which he said would be an “elite force, not a Cinderella service”, with £75 million ($86.7 million) of funding in the first year.

The Labour leader said turning a blind eye to people smuggling was “not a progressive or compassionate position”.

He said “our asylum system must be rebuilt and our borders must be secured”, accusing the Tories of being driven from a serious party of government “on to the rocks of their own delusion” in their pursuit of “gesture politics” over immigration.

He said he does not doubt the government will get flights to Rwanda off the ground but argued the deportation policy will not work.

“We will restore serious government to our borders, tackle this problem at source and replace the Rwanda policy permanently,” he said.

Mr Starmer said he would also seek a new partnership with Europe to access real-time intelligence and that he has been to The Hague to push for a new security pact.

He said stronger powers are needed to bring smuggling gangs to justice, including the ability to shut off internet access, close their bank accounts and trace their movements using intelligence agency information.

Speaking directly 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 added that Labour's immigration policy would “align with global rules that protect individual human rights”.

“That is in our interests and the right thing to do.”

Mr Starmer labelled the government’s approach as “rank incompetence” and dismissed the Rwanda scheme as being unable to provide an effective deterrent.

Asked for his target number of crossings, Mr Starmer did not give a figure but said the numbers need to be reduced materially.

“That means ending the scheme absolutely, flights and all, it is not going to work, it is an absolute waste of money. It is a gimmick, not a solution,

“I'm not prepared to have a government that is run on gimmicks.”

The Labour leader highlighted his own previous experience as the head of the Crown Prosecution Service, and pledged to make Britain's coasts a “hostile territory” for people smugglers.

Among the measures set to be proposed by Mr Starmer are new border control stop-and-search powers, building on those created in 2000 by the Terrorism Act, along with new financial investigation powers, and search-and-seizure warrants to tackle organised immigration crime.

“Rebuilding our asylum system has become a test of political strength, a trial of leadership to resist the voices who fundamentally do not want to rebuild a functioning asylum system,” he said.

“It’s become a question of whether you can prioritise, at all times, the politics of practical solutions, and reject the politics of performative symbols, the gimmicks and gestures.”

Afghan migrant documents dangerous journey across Channel – video

Afghan migrant documents dangerous journey across Channel

Afghan migrant documents dangerous journey across Channel

Dover MP Natalie Elphicke defected to Labour from the Conservatives on Wednesday, accusing Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of failing to deliver on his promise to “stop the boats”.

The defection of Ms Elphicke, who joined Mr Starmer in the front row for his speech in Kent, was greeted with surprise by Conservatives, with Foreign Secretary David Cameron saying it showed Labour stood for nothing and Education Secretary Gillian Keegan saying she was a “very odd fit” for the opposition.

Updated: May 12, 2024, 10:26 AM