Cooper sets out plan to tackle small boat crossings

Yvette Cooper
[BBC]

Home Secretary Yvette Cooper has set out the first steps towards setting up a UK Border Security Command, which the government hopes will reduce small boat crossings in the English Channel.

Work to recruit an "exceptional leader" to head the body will begin on Monday, with the government preparing a bill to create counter-terror powers aimed at tackling organised immigration crime.

The Home Office says the command leader - expected to be appointed within weeks - would draw together work of intelligence agencies, police, Immigration Enforcement and Border Force.

The measures are Labour's alternative to the Conservatives' plan to deter small boat crossings by sending some arrivals to Rwanda.

Prime Minister Sir Keir Starmer confirmed on Saturday the scheme would be scrapped when he called it "dead and buried".

Throughout the election campaign, his party promised to divert £75m from the Rwanda policy to set up the Border Security Command.

The Conservatives dismissed the proposal, with then-Home Secretary James Cleverly telling the BBC Labour's border command would do exactly what the government's small boats operation was already doing.

He said by scrapping the Rwanda scheme Labour were "going to do less and somehow hope to achieve more". "That’s not credible," Mr Cleverly added.

Kevin Saunders, a former chief immigration officer for Border Force, also expressed concern about the government scrapping the Rwanda plan.

He told Times Radio the scheme had caused "unease in the camps in northern France". "They were very, very worried. And we saw people fleeing to the Republic of Ireland because they didn't want to be included in it," he said.

Ms Cooper said Labour would "tackle the root of the problem" by targeting the criminal smuggling gangs "making millions out of small boat crossings, undermining our border security and putting lives at risk".

She told broadcasters the recruitment of a new border security commander as well as new cross-border police represented a "major upgrade in law enforcement".

Asked when small boat crossings would start going down, Ms Cooper repeatedly avoided giving any specific date, saying instead she wanted to make progress "as rapidly as possible".

In addition to beginning recruitment for someone to lead the command, the home secretary said she would be commissioning an investigation into the routes, methods and tactics used by people smuggling gangs to help inform her approach.

Former Labour Prime Minister Sir Tony Blair had argued that introducing digital ID cards would help control immigration but Ms Cooper said that would not be her approach.

Pressed on whether she would be asking Rwanda to repay money it had been given to accept people from the UK, Ms Cooper said she would be "auditing" the details and setting out next steps to Parliament.

The number of immigrants and asylum seekers trying to come to the UK by crossing the English Channel in small boats has been increasing rapidly since 2018.

In 2023, more than 29,000 people made the dangerous journey. As of 26 June, 13,195 people had come to the UK via small boat crossing in the Channel in 2024 - above the numbers for the same period in the previous four years.

The numbers coming to the UK illegally are smaller than legal migration figures.

Last year, net migration - the number of people coming to the UK minus the number leaving - was 685,000. That represented a fall of 10% on the previous year.