Labour’s small boats plan makes waves – but is it new?

Katie Neame

Keir Starmer has hit the headlines today setting out Labour’s plans to respond to the small boats crisis, with an interview in the Times, an opinion piece for the Sun and a morning broadcast round.

The attention the Labour leader has received has been striking given that much of the policy he has announced is not really new, including the pledge to scrap the government’s policy of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda and plans to expedite cases to clear the backlog.

His announcement that Labour would seek an EU-wide returns agreement for asylum seekers has received particular attention, with parts of the right-wing press attacking the proposal and Tory Party chairman Greg Hands claiming the proposal amounted to a “shocking open door policy on immigration”.

But even that policy is not entirely new, with an early draft of Labour’s policy platform – leaked to LabourList in May – stating that the party would negotiate a replacement for the Dublin Agreement that includes safe returns of those who arrive in the UK and safe family reunions.

The Dublin III regulation is EU legislation that allowed the UK to return migrants to EU countries in certain circumstances. The regulation no longer applies to the UK following Brexit.

Starmer confirmed to the Times on Wednesday that his party would seek an EU-wide returns agreement, telling the paper: “We effectively exited the returns agreement we were in and have never replaced it. The first job is to secure the borders and make sure we are the ones determining who comes to this country.”

Asked whether Labour would accept quotas of migrants from the EU in exchange for a deal, the Labour leader said: “That would be part of any discussions and negotiations with Europe.”

Elsewhere in his interview with the Times, Starmer said his party would “smash the gangs” behind small boat crossings by expanding the use of ‘serious crime prevention orders’, which can be used to freeze individuals’ assets and restrict their movements.

“They’ve been used, these powers, for terrorism, for drug trafficking, but they’ve never been used for serious, organised immigration crime,” Starmer said, adding: “My own view is that they should be used for that.”

The Labour leader also said his party would axe Tory plans to block migrants crossing the Channel from claiming asylum in the UK, describing the approach as “unsustainable”. He told the paper: “We have to process the claims. Those who aren’t entitled to be here should be returned and returned quickly.”

Discussing the plans on ITV’s Good Morning Britain earlier today, Starmer faced scrutiny over his stance towards Brexit and whether he would consider concessions to the EU over freedom of movement.

Speaking from The Hague, he told viewers: “There is no return to freedom of movement. We have left the EU. There’s no case for going back to the EU, no case for going into the single market or the customs union and no freedom of movement.

“I’ve been really clear that that’s the parameter. I do not accept that that prevents us working with other police units here, with prosecutors here, to smash the gangs in this vile trade.”

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