Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer clash over 'stop the boats' migration plan

The Prime Minister dismissed the Labour leader as just 'another leftie lawyer' standing in the government’s way

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons. PA
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Rishi Sunak brushed off accusations he had failed to get to grips with asylum policy at a hostile Prime Minister's Questions session on Wednesday, accusing Labour of having no plan to “stop the boats”.

The Prime Minister dismissed Keir Starmer as just “another leftie lawyer” standing in the government’s way, as Mr Starmer accused Mr Sunak of being deluded for thinking his latest plan to tackle the crisis in the country's immigration system will work.

The tough new Illegal Migration Bill, unveiled on Tuesday, promises to remove illegal migrants “as soon as reasonably practicable” to Rwanda or a “safe third country”.

The legislation also extends detention powers, promising faster processing and restricting appeals and judicial reviews. People who enter the country via the Channel will be prevented from claiming asylum while in the UK and it also removes the right of migrants to return once removed.

The plan has been criticised by the UN's refugee agency, which said the new bill amounts to an “asylum ban” that will prevent people fleeing war and persecution from seeking refuge in the UK.

Mr Sunak said Mr Starmer, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, had been “on the wrong side of this issue his entire career”.

“He described all immigration law as racist. He said it was a mistake to control immigration and he has never ever voted for tougher asylum laws”.

He added: “He’s just another leftie lawyer standing in our way.”

Mr Starmer said the government had introduced five separate plans to tackle the problem, but all of them had failed.

He said the government had “lost control” of the country's borders, adding that he voted against the last piece of legislation because it “wouldn’t work”.

“Since it became law the numbers have gone up. He’s proved me right. He should be apologising, not gloating.”

The Speaker had to interject several times to tell MPs to settle down during the heated clash.

Mr Sunak said the government is determined to ensure the UK remains a compassionate and generous country and that changes to the law to prevent small boat crossings are done fairly and legally.

“That’s why we will break the criminal gangs”, he said.

“We have announced new agreements with Albania and France, tougher immigration enforcement and new legislation that makes it clear if you come here illegally you will be detained and swiftly removed.

“What we haven’t heard is the honourable gentleman’s plan. It’s open door immigration and unlimited asylum”.

Asked by Mr Starmer when the plan will stop the boats, Mr Sunak said the government would be implanting the plan “as soon as we can pass it through parliament”.

“I look forward to your support.”

Mr Starmer noted that the government said it will detain people who are not eligible to claim asylum here and then return them.

“Well, they already tried that under the last legislation. Last year 18,000 people were deemed ineligible to apply for asylum, that's the easy bit, the talk, but as for the action, Prime Minister, how many of them have actually been returned?”

Mr Sunak replied: “As a result of the plans we've brought forward we have almost doubled the number of people returned this year … precisely because of the law that the Conservative government passed last year they have now been able to arrest more than double the number of people they did before; 397 in the last six months.”

The SNP Westminster leader asked the Prime Minister whether the Illegal Migration Bill means women who are sex-trafficked to the UK on a small boat will not get modern slavery protections.

Stephen Flynn told the Commons: “On International Women's Day, can I ask the Prime Minister to reconfirm that under his proposed new asylum laws women who are sex-trafficked to the UK on a small boat by a criminal gang will not be afforded protection under our modern slavery laws?”

Mr Sunak replied: “It's precisely because we want to target our resources and our compassion on the world's most vulnerable people that we need to get a grip of this system, make sure that we have control over our borders, make sure our system and resources are not overwhelmed, so that we can help the people most in need.

“There is nothing fair, there is nothing compassionate, about sustaining a system where, as we saw recently, people are dying on these crossings. That is not right. And our plans will stop that from happening.”

Mr Sunak will travel to Paris on Friday to meet French President Emmanuel Macron for the first bilateral summit between Britain and France since 2018.

Suella Braverman, the UK’s Home Secretary, will take part in the meeting which is expected to include discussions on migration, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said.

Asked if the public should expect to see a new agreement between the two nations aimed at tackling illegal Channel crossings, he left the door open.

“Migration, I am sure, will be a topic on Friday”, the spokesman told reporters on Wednesday. “It’s an issue that’s not new to the UK and indeed France are themselves looking to take a number of steps [to stop illegal migration].

“In terms of agreements, of course we continue to work with EU countries both at EU-level and bilaterally, but equally with France we have relatively new or expanded work tackling small boat crossings in the Channel and we’re looking to do more.”

Downing Street condemned comments made by BBC host Gary Lineker in which he compared the government’s Illegal Migration Bill to Nazi Germany.

The Prime Minister’s press secretary said the pundit’s remarks were “not acceptable” and “disappointing”.

“It's obviously disappointing to see someone whose salary is funded by hard-working British [licence-fee] payers using that kind of rhetoric and seemingly dismissing their legitimate concerns that they have about small boat crossings and illegal migration,” she told reporters.

“But beyond that, it's up to the BBC, who I think have said today that they'll be having a conversation with Gary Lineker and it's not for me to comment further.”

Asked if the Conservative government was considering lodging a formal complaint to the BBC, the press secretary said she was not aware of any member of government mulling such a move.

Mr Lineker drew widespread criticism for controversial comments he made on Twitter on Tuesday. He called Ms Braverman’s bill “an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s”.

A spokesman for the BBC said Mr Lineker would be “spoken to” over his comments and “reminded of his responsibilities”.

Updated: March 08, 2023, 3:57 PM