Watch and read Starmer’s speech on his small boats plan in Elphicke’s seat

Katie Neame
Keir Starmer via Shutterstock
Keir Starmer via Shutterstock

Keir Starmer has today unveiled Labour’s latest proposals to reduce small boat crossings, pledging to end the Tories’ “talk tough, do nothing culture” on the issue with proposals including a new ‘Border Security Command’ – using cash currently allocated to the Rwanda scheme.

The Labour leader delivered a speech this morning on the Kent coast, in the Dover and Deal constituency of his party’s newest MP, the former Tory Natalie Elphicke, who defected to Labour earlier this week.

Starmer accused the Tories of “rank incompetence” and argued that rebuilding the UK’s asylum system has become “a question [of] can you prioritise, at all times, the politics of practical solutions and can you reject the politics of performative symbols, the gimmicks and gestures”.

He announced proposals including the creation of a new Border Security Command, which would bring together the key agencies of the National Crime Agency, Immigration Enforcement, CPS and MI5 and work cross-border with international agencies to tackle people-smuggling gangs.

Discussing Elphicke’s defection in a question-and-answer session with journalists following the speech, Starmer said: “This changed Labour Party ought to be a place where reasonably-minded people, whichever way they voted in the past, feel that they can join with our project to change the country for the better.

“And so it is an invitation to be less tribal in the pursuit of a better country and invite people to our party who want to join in our project of national renewal.”

You can watch back Starmer’s speech here, and a full transcript is below.

Here is the full text of the Labour leader’s speech:

Thank you, Mike, – what a fantastic campaign you are running. And thank you Natalie – it’s fantastic to be here in your constituency. Welcome to the Labour Party, it’s really great to have you on board. And thank you Yvette for everything you do on this brief and on this important challenge.

It’s great to be here in sunny Kent, the Garden of England. I used to play football around here for years, the uncompromising, no-nonsense, hard knocks, training school of the Kent Boys League. So, it’s a part of the world I’m very familiar with this part of the world.

But after elections last week, I have to say, it’s a part of the world the Tories are increasingly unfamiliar with. A county not just green and pleasant, but now also turning red. And on a day like this, I do have to apologise for keeping you all indoors. But we’ll be out there before too long.

But look – we’re here today on serious business. Because this is a community on the frontline of one of the gravest challenges we face as a nation. Illegal migration is a test of seriousness for all governments and would-be governments, and not just here – right across the world. A symbol, as I said in my conference speech last year, of a more volatile world, an age of insecurity.

It’s a hard nut to crack – I’m not going to pretend otherwise. Tackling organised crime is always hard, especially across borders. I know that from my work at the Crown Prosecution Service, on drug smuggling or counter-terrorism operations.

And let’s be clear at the start – this is a criminal enterprise 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. A vile trade – that preys on the desperation and the hope it finds in its victims. The common humanity that ultimately it seeks to extinguish.

Not so long ago, back in 2016, I went for myself to the outskirts of Calais. It was winter, it was freezing. The ground was mud sodden with rain and human waste. I saw the children there – the same age as my own. Back then, that was aged five and aged seven. Huddling together in a tent that offered almost nothing in the way of warmth. A desperate situation. That night, I went home and said goodnight to my children, each in their own bedroom, with central heating on.

I came away from that day profoundly depressed, and I would defy anybody to go into those camps and come away with any other reaction. That camp represented a monumental failure, across nations. People had been brutally let down, by governments of course. Not just in terms of the truly awful conditions but also because the failure of our asylum system had encouraged a false hope. A hope that had unequivocally made those people more vulnerable to exploitation. Gangs were hovering round the camp, that day, using it as a job centre for modern slavery.

Now – that camp has long gone, but the smuggling business remains. The exploitation remains. The peril. As Yvette said, the children dying in our waters. Just three weeks ago – a seven-year-old girl. The same age as one of the children I saw in that camp. That all remains.

So, no matter how good anyone thinks their intentions are, turning a blind-eye to this business, not understanding how important a rules-based asylum system is for tackling that exploitation, for removing the criminal business-model if you like – that is not a progressive and compassionate position, it is the complete opposite of a progressive and compassionate position. This problem must be tackled. These gangs must be stopped, our asylum system must be rebuilt, our borders must be secured.

But to do that. To finally grip this problem. We need to turn the page and move on from an unhealthy interest in gesture politics that has long defined this policy area. And which has dragged the Tories as a serious party of government onto rocks of their own delusion.

Let me give you a few examples of what I mean by gesture politics. September 2020: The Sun newspaper reports that the government was exploring the procurement of Yamaha jet-skis. The plan, allegedly, to patrol the English Channel and tow boats containing asylum seekers back to France.

October 2020: The Financial Times reports that the government is undertaking a “secret consultation with the maritime industry”. The plan now? Constructing “floating walls” or “marine fencing”, in order to block small boats. And presumably, in the busiest shipping lane in the world, all other boats.

December 2020: Yvette will remember this – Chris Philp, then the immigration minister, at the Home Affairs select Ccmmittee in front of Yvette, refusing to rule out the use of wave machines to blow back the boats. A policy that by then had – somehow – also managed to find its way into newspapers.

I could go on. After all, there is plenty more material: sound cannons, sonic weapons, various deployments of the Royal Navy – against advice and with little success – the list is endless.

And yet here we are. Over 8,000 people have made the perilous journey across the Channel in small boats this year. On track to surpass the record set in 2022.

Now, I want to be clear – there is no implied critique of the reporting here. If a government source tells you it’s going to build a wall in the English Channel, you better believe – that is a story.

But the question this record must raise is whether the latest gimmick, the Prime Minister’s Rwanda scheme, can really be taken as a serious solution to this important challenge? I don’t think so.

They will get flights off the ground – I don’t doubt that. But I also don’t doubt – that this will not work. A policy that will see just a few hundred people a year removed to Rwanda, less than 1% of the people who cross the sea in small boats every year, less than one per cent – for £600m, that is neither an effective deterrent or a good use of your money.

And then you look at the rest of our border system. And honestly, it’s like a sieve. Just the other day, the Home Office admitted it’s lost track of thousands of people they think have no right to be here. And yet still the government refuses to do anything than focus all its time and energy propping up Rwanda. Throwing good money after bad, hoping it will get a few flights – with what, a couple of hundred migrants off the ground, because it’s symbolic.

For party management. For the election. It’s gesture politics. £600m for a few hundred removed – that is gesture politics, and Britain can do better.

Labour will do better. We will end this farce. We will restore serious government to our borders, tackle this problem, at source, and replace the Rwanda policy – permanently.

Today we launch our plan to do that. A new approach to small boat crossings that will secure Britain’s borders, prevent the exploitation by tackling it upstream and smash the criminal smuggling gangs.

And as the first step in this plan – a new manifesto commitment. We will set up a new command with new powers, new resources, and a new way of doing things – Border Security Command.

This is about leveraging the power and potential of dynamic government, based on a counter-terrorism approach which we know works. An end to the fragmentation between policing, the border force and our intelligence agencies, a collective raising of standards, so that border protection becomes an elite force, not a Cinderella service, an essential frontline defence that communities like this can depend upon.

To do all that, Border Security Command will bring together hundreds of specialist investigators. The best of the best. From the National Crime Agency, the Border Force, Immigration Enforcement, the Crown Prosecution Service and yes – MI5, all working to a single mission, all freed from the cloying bureaucracy that so often prevents collaboration between different institutions.

I’ve seen this first-hand at the Crown Prosecution Service. Good ambition is never enough on its own. But I’ve seen how with determination, with leadership, with a single-minded focus, agencies can work together and deliver results. And not just within one country either. We can co-operate across borders, that’s not some kind of weakness, it’s absolutely essential. These criminals do not respect national borders.

When I was at the Crown Prosecution Service, we had prosecutors posted in Pakistan working on counter-terrorism operations. In the Caribbean, on smuggling. In West Africa, disrupting the flow of drugs coming from South America on their way to Europe and ultimately to Britain.

These operations are not easy. Just think about conducting a raid, I’ve been through this so many times, seen it in real time. If you’ve pooled all the intelligence in one place, if you’ve spent weeks, months, years, mapping out the patterns of criminal activity, bringing in prosecutors to help assess the vital evidence. You cannot have your raid in London going off a single minute earlier or later than the coordinating raids in Paris.

So yes – we need more co-operation on illegal migration. We need a new partnership with Europol. We need access to the real-time intelligence-sharing networks that are so crucial to our security and which the government so casually threw away as part of its botched Brexit deal.

That’s why I’ve already been to the Hague with Yvette, to start pushing for a new security pact with our European partners. But look – it is also my firm belief, based on years of experience in this area, that we also need new and stronger powers to bring these vile criminals to justice.

In some areas of criminal activity, counter-terrorism is the most obvious, we have made the decision that the crime justifies tougher measures.

Make no mistake, we have reached that moment with illegal migration. These vile people smugglers are no better than terrorists. They are a threat to our national security and a threat to life, and it is time we treated them as such.

That means new powers that, as with would-be terrorists, can be used pre-conviction with High Court approval, that can limit the ability of the gangs to conduct their vile business – before arrest.

Powers that will allow us to shut off internet access, close their bank accounts, trace their movements – using information provided by the intelligence services. Or powers like stop and search at the border. Or raiding and seizing evidence – before an offence has taken place.

Let me explain why. We use the term ‘small boats’. But these boats are not, for the most part, that small. The gangs now use dinghies that are on a scale way beyond anything you would see for legitimate recreational activity.

We should be working with our European partners to seize those boats, seize material here in the UK to collect further evidence, turn over every stone, use every reasonable power – and that is my message to the smugglers. 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.

And we will also rebuild Britain’s broken asylum system. As I said at the beginning – I believe in a rules-based asylum system. I believe that a system that processes claims quickly and humanely, and that finds ways, without squeamishness or cruelty, to detain and remove people who have no right to be here, is essential for security, fairness, and justice.

It is a form of deterrence in itself. Until we are seen around the world as a country that has a firm grip of the process at our border. Until we are busting the Home Office backlog arriving at decisions quickly, without a fuss, so that we can return people who have no right to be here, then yes, Britain will be seen as a soft touch.

It goes without saying, we do not have that effective deterrence at our borders at the moment. Our rules-based asylum system isn’t working. Ask anyone in this part of the world, that much is obvious.

So it’s not hard to see why the Prime Minister might want a path to deterrence, without the hard graft – the boring graft perhaps – of fixing the wider system. But I’m afraid, like so much of what he says these days, it’s magical thinking, a symbol of the unquenchable Tory desire for the shortcut. The easy-fix, the sticking plaster, gimmicks not serious government.

Let me spell it out again. A scheme that will remove less than 1% of arrivals from small boat crossings a year cannot and never will be an effective deterrent. It’s an insult to anyone’s intelligence and the gangs that run this sick trade are not easily fooled.

In fact, by allowing vast numbers of people into the country via this route, running up a perma-backlog of nearly 100,000 people, refusing to process the claims – so that even if they have absolutely no right to be here – they cannot be removed – billing the taxpayer for expensive hotel accommodation – because like Hotel California, there is no prospect of ever leaving. No prospect of a decision for or against – then let me be clear.

The government has achieved the complete opposite of what they claim. A Travelodge amnesty handed out by the Tory Party, that is warmer and safer than spending winter under canvas near a beach in Northern France. If you don’t think that’s what the gangs are telling the people they exploit – you’ve never met one of these gangs.

So, no – we have to restore integrity and rules to our asylum system. We have to clear the backlog so we can return people swiftly. That is the path, the only path, to real deterrence.

That’s why we will hire hundreds of new caseworkers for the Home Office, and we’ll do it straight away. We will create a new fast-track returns and enforcement unit that will make sure the courts can process claims quickly and we will save the taxpayer billions. The £8m we spend every day on hotels, an £8m a day message that Tory chaos has a cost.

Labour will stop the chaos. Labour will bust the backlogs. Labour will rebuild our broken asylum system. Now – these plans will be fiercely resisted, of course they will. That is par for the course on this issue. I have no doubt that the British people fully support a rules-based asylum system. No doubt that the fair-minded majority want a system that can secure Britain’s borders and uphold this country’s fine tradition of providing sanctuary for people fleeing persecution.

But this is a debate that has been captured by polarising voices. And so, every solution must run a gauntlet of bad faith objections just to get a hearing. On one side of the debate, it comes from people who claim they want to reform the asylum system, but in fact want to get rid of it.

People who believe, based on their principles, that people should be able to move across the globe, wherever, whenever, and however they want. No matter that this, in this age of insecurity especially, would lead to a chaos that, quite apart from other objections, does nothing to advance global justice.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the debate, some people pretend they want to reform asylum. When what they really want, is for the British state to act with impunity, to tear-up rules on a whim. Because ultimately, they do not want us to take in any asylum seekers whatsoever. I do not think there are many Tories who truly believe that. But what I do think is that they are too weak to admit that plainly. Too weak to say that this is not and never should be a world we live in.

Because Britain should show leadership on the global issues that drive insecurity and migration. Britain should step up to tackle climate change, famine and conflict. We do have a duty to work with other nations. And the state should not have untrammelled power against minorities or anyone. Our rules-based system should align with global rules that protect individual human rights. That is in our interest and the right thing do.

And so, 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 build a functioning asylum system. A question: can you prioritise, at all times, the politics of practical solutions and can you reject the politics of performative symbols, the gimmicks and gestures.

This is the story of what has happened to the government, the explanation of how a party that cares about illegal migration – there’s no doubt about that – finds itself with a record of failure as total and stark as this.

It isn’t just rank incompetence – though it is that, it’s also about who the Tories are now, and I’m afraid also about our politics as a whole, a culture that is part of the water in Westminster that rewards the grand gesture. The big talk, while disregarding the detailed practical action that over time, moves a nation forward, step by step.

Take Northern Ireland. Because in my lifetime, there is no more powerful example than that, and I was there in the room, helping create a police service that could work for all communities. Trying to move a nation slowly but surely towards the hard work, the long work, the patient work of real change.

Now – I don’t want to stretch the analogy too much. But that is what the hard graft of change means to me, and it is that kind of approach that tackling small boats requires now.

So I say to the British people: if I am elected to serve this country, if I earn that privilege, I will turn the page on Westminster’s ‘talk tough, do nothing’ culture. Not just on small boats. Not just on migration. On everything.

I don’t know if that’s a new politics or whether it’s a return to the bare minimum you should expect. But if you vote Labour – that is what you will get. And if you don’t believe me – after 14 years of broken promises from the Tories, that’s understandable.

But as the country’s chief prosecutor, I smashed the terrorist gangs. And I know we can now smash the people-smuggling gangs. I’ve dragged my party away from the allure of gesture politics, and I will do exactly the same to Westminster.

No more gimmicks. The character of politics will change and through that, we will deliver higher growth, safer streets, an NHS back on its feet, more opportunity in your community, cheaper bills in your home, and secure borders for our nation.

An asylum system – rebuilt. The criminal gangs – smashed. The exploitation of some of the most vulnerable people in the world – prevented.

An end to the chaos. A turning of the page. A politics returned to service and a careful, patient, determined renewal of our country with Labour. That is the future you can choose. That is what serious government can deliver. Thank you.

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