Starmer Takes On Sunak Over Migration With Small Boats Plan

(Bloomberg) -- Keir Starmer pledged millions of pounds for border enforcement as part of a strategy to tackle the rise in migrants crossing to British shores in small boats if his poll-leading opposition Labour Party wins a general election expected in the autumn.

Most Read from Bloomberg

Labour will create a new Border Security Command staffed by hundreds of investigators, officers and prosecutors using new counter-terror powers to disrupt people-smuggling gangs, as well as scrapping the Tory government’s plan to deport to Rwanda those arriving in small boats, Starmer said Friday in a speech in Deal, southeast England — part of the constituency held by Natalie Elphicke, who defected to Labour from the Conservatives earlier this week, taking a swipe at the governing party’s record on migration.

Starmer, who repeatedly referenced his background as a former prosecutor, railed against the government’s “talk tough, do nothing culture,” dismissing the Conservative plan as a “sticking plaster” and “gimmicks.” He added: “We will end this farce, we will restore serious government to our borders, tackle this problem and replace the Rwanda policy permanently.”

Labour’s immigration plan is a fresh incursion into territory that’s traditionally a Conservative strength, and comes after Starmer also promised to ramp up defense spending and fight the election — due within nine months — on the economy. The Labour leader is also seeking to put an end to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s oft-repeated argument that Labour is just “sniping from the sidelines” and “doesn’t have a plan.”

Elphicke’s presence at the event served to illustrate the usefulness to Starmer of her defection, despite her right-wing views, past criticisms of Labour and previous support for her ex-husband during his trail for sexual offenses. Many of his MPs and frontbenchers have expressed unhappiness at her joining the party, but there’s important symbolism in the MP representing Dover — on the front line of the small boats crisis — slamming Sunak’s policies on migration.

“It’s clear that Rishi Sunak has failed to keep our borders secure and cannot be trusted,” Elphicke said, speaking before Starmer. “A fresh approach is needed - an approach that puts at its heart a commitment to border security.”

Sunak has made “stopping the boats” one of his five key pledges to the British electorate, and he’s promised to send a first flight of asylum seekers to Rwanda in July. Ministers argue the deterrent effect of the deportations will help stop migrants making the perilous boat journey from France in the first place.

But while the government has argued the mere threat of the Rwanda plan led to crossings coming down by more than a third last year, they’ve surged to record levels in 2024, with more than 8,800 people making the journey so far. Highlighting the issue, Sky News reported that dozens of migrants were brought ashore at Dover on Friday by the border force.

“Let me spell it out again: a scheme that will only remove 1% of small boat crossings a year cannot, and never will be, an effective deterrent,” Starmer will say. “It’s an insult to anyone’s intelligence, and the gangs that run this sick trade are not easily fooled.”

Starmer said his plan will be funded using existing resources, as well as £75 million ($94 million) diverted from scrapping the governing Conservatives’ plan to deport arrivals to Rwanda. There was no mention of how he’ll facilitate legal routes for migrants to get to the UK.

Pointing out that boat crossings have risen since the UK left the European Union, the Labour leader said he’ll work more closely with counterparts in the continent and seek a security agreement with the bloc. He said he’s confident a Labour government could pass any necessary legislation “quickly.”

Starmer’s plan includes:

  • Creating a new Border Security Command that would work with international agencies to disrupt smuggling gangs and have a commander reporting directly to the home secretary

  • Hiring hundreds of specialist investigators, intelligence agents and cross-border police officers

  • Expanding stop-and-search powers under the Terrorism Act 2000 for those crossing the border and suspected of involvement in people smuggling

  • Extra powers for investigators to monitor the financial accounts of suspects

  • Search and seizure warrants for premises used by suspects even before an offense has taken place — a power currently restricted to terrorism

  • Restrictions on the access to banking, the internet and travel for suspects

  • Hundreds of new case workers to help clear a backlog in processing asylum claims

“Rebuilding our asylum system has become a test of political strength, a trial of leadership,” Starmer said. “It’s become a question of whether you can prioritize, at all times, the politics of practical solutions, and reject the politics of performative symbols - the gimmicks and gestures.”

(Updates with Starmer remarks starting in second paragraph.)

Most Read from Bloomberg Businessweek

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.