Starmer: Refugee plan a “desperate attempt” to distract from partygate

Elliot Chappell

Keir Starmer has described the announcement of the government’s plans for asylum seekers as a “desperate attempt” by Boris Johnson to distract from revelations surrounding ‘partygate’ and the fine received by the Prime Minister.

In an interview today, two days after Downing Street revealed that the Metropolitan Police Service had handed Rishi Sunak and Johnson fines as part of its investigation into Covid rule breaches, the Labour leader argued that the Prime Minister was using the policy announcement to “distract from his own law breaking”.

He also described the plans, which including sending asylum seekers to Rwanda for processing, as “extortionate”, adding: “They’re going to cost the taxpayer billions of pounds. And they just reflect a Prime Minister who has got no grip, no answers to the questions that need answering and no shame.”

The government announced this morning multimillion-pound plans for asylum seekers who cross the Channel in small boats to be flown for processing to Rwanda. Politicians the plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda as “evil” and “inhumane”.

“We’ve been saying for some time that we need to have joined-up arrangements with our partners in France. We need a much better Home Office streamlining of applications but there’s no getting away from this today – this is a desperate attempt by the Prime Minister,” Starmer said this afternoon.

Defence select committee and Conservative MP Tobias Elwood similarly described the plans announced by the government this morning to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda as a “massive distraction” from the fine issued to the Prime Minister.

Labour-affiliated union Unite condemned the plan as a “hideous, inhumane proposal” that will see the government “selecting people by gender, exploiting their isolated status, then sending them 4,500 miles to a country which in living memory has been traumatised by genocide”.

“The UK government will task decent men and women working in the UK, inevitably including Unite members, with the odious responsibility of processing and transporting these vulnerable human beings at an enormous cost to the public purse,” a statement shared by the trade union added.

The police revealed on Tuesday that they have made another 30 referrals for fixed-penalty notices, in addition to 20 handed out in an initial “tranche” of fines two weeks ago, as part of its investigation into social gatherings held in Whitehall and Downing Street in breach of Covid rules during the pandemic.

A No 10 spokesperson said earlier this week: “The Met Police have now explained that the FPN issued to the Prime Minister will be in relation to the following incident: On June 19th 2020 at the Cabinet Room, 10 Downing Street, between 1400 and 1500 you participated in a gathering of two or more people indoors.”

The June 19th party was reportedly a surprise birthday event held for the Prime Minister, organised by his wife with the Chancellor in attendance. Minister Conor Burns previously argued that Johnson had been “ambushed with a cake”.

The fixed-penalty notice issued to Johnson makes him the first sitting Prime Minister to receive a criminal sanction for breaking the law. His wife Carrie Johnson, who also lives at the Downing Street residence, has received a fine as well.

The police are investigating 12 gatherings, including events held in the Downing Street garden, inside No 10 and in Johnson’s official Downing Street residence. The police have not specified to which of the gatherings the other fines relate.

It emerged after the first tranche, however, that a party held for former head of the Covid taskforce Kate Joseph and the leaving party for private secretary Hannah Young were two of the events that have resulted in fixed-penalty notices.

In a statement, the MPS said: “We are making every effort to progress this investigation at speed, this includes continuing to assess significant amounts of investigative material from which further referrals may be made to Acro.”

The police began interviews with some of those involved in the events three weeks ago. They have also taken evidence from more than 100 ministers, advisers and officials, including the Prime Minister and Sunak, through questionnaires.

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