Keir Starmer unveils plan to use anti-terror powers to tackle small boats

Sir Keir Starmer
Sir Keir Starmer said he would "smash" smuggling gangs if he wins power [Reuters]

Keir Starmer has announced plans to use counter-terror powers to "smash" people smuggling gangs, if he wins power.

The Labour leader said he will establish a new Border Security Command with specialist officers to tackle small boats crossing the Channel.

Sir Keir announced the plans in Dover alongside local MP Natalie Elphicke, who dramatically defected from the Conservatives to Labour on Wednesday.

The Conservatives called the plans a "re-brand" of government schemes.

Speaking ahead of Labour's policy launch in Dover, Ms Elphicke took a shot at her former boss, claiming "nowhere is Rishi Sunak's lack of delivery clearer than on the issue of small boats".

Her constituency is the arrival point for many people who make the dangerous journey across the English Channel.

"A fresh approach is needed - an approach that puts at its heart a commitment to border security," she said.

Sir Keir has already pledged to cancel the government's plan to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda, which was passed into law last month.

The government says the scheme will act as a deterrent to people smugglers and people attempting to cross the Channel illegally.

No deportation flights have taken off yet as the scheme has been delayed by legal challenges, but the government is now hoping for the first flights to be in July.

Sir Keir acknowledged that the government might get flights to Rwanda going, but said the policy would not work as he insisted "our asylum system must be rebuilt".

"We need to dramatically reduce the numbers," of people coming into the UK illegally, he added.

Small boat crossing the Channel
[Getty Images]

When pushed on how large a reduction in small boat crossings he would like to see, the Labour leader said: "I'd like it to come down completely."

"We will restore serious government to our borders, tackle this problem at source and replace the Rwanda policy permanently," he added.

Sir Keir said Labour would spend £75m of the money earmarked for the Rwanda scheme in the first year to set up the new Border Security Command.

This would be modelled on the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism set up by the last Labour government and would bring together the National Crime Agency, Immigration Enforcement, the CPS and MI5.

Counter-terror powers would also be extended to cover organised immigration crime, including the power to search people suspected of being involved in people smuggling, close bank accounts, restrict their travel and trace their movements before an offence has taken place, under the Labour plans.

More than 8,826 people have crossed the English Channel in small boats so far this year, provisional Home Office figures show.

The plans were praised by former counter-terror chief Neil Basu.

Writing in The Telegraph newspaper, Mr Basu said he was "heartened to see Sir Keir Starmer putting forward practical policy proposals to turbocharge the work of the multiple agencies working on this most challenging of issues".

"I am surprised it has not been considered before", he added.

Mr Basu also criticised Rwanda scheme which he says has "no evidence whatsoever" it will work despite being "a grossly expensive project costing over £500m".

But Peter Walsh, from Oxford University's Migration Observatory, said Labour's scheme was "unlikely to be a game changer".

The plan "appears on the face of it to be pretty similar" to the current Small Boats Operational Command - the new military-led force which monitors and intercepts vessels attempting unauthorised entry into the UK via the Channel, he told BBC News.

"The devil will be in the detail," he added.

Both the Conservatives and Labour have accused each other of creating an "amnesty" - generally understood to mean allowing all those entering the country illegally to stay with a full legal pardon.

Labour's plans, which the Conservatives have dubbed an "amnesty for illegal immigrants", will allow those arriving in the UK on small boats to apply for asylum - which is currently banned under the Illegal Migration Act.

Labour have repeatedly denied they have plans for an amnesty on those entering the country illegally.

Sir Keir accused the Conservatives of "a Travelodge amnesty" by not processing asylum claims and housing people in hotels instead - though the plans do not amount an amnesty either as they involve deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda.

Nearly 9,000 people have crossed the English Channel in small boats so far this year, provisional Home Office figures show. This is up almost a third (32%) on the same period last year, when 6,691 people made the crossing, and a 14% rise compared with the same period in 2022 when the number of people was 7,750.

The Border Security Command will hire hundreds more specialist investigators and cross-border police, Labour said.

It would be led by a former police, military or intelligence chief who would report directly to the home secretary.

Home Secretary James Cleverly accused the plans of failing to act as a "deterrent" to illegal migrants.

A source close to Mr Cleverly told the BBC: "Labour talk about sending people home, with returns agreements but can't name a single country they would do them with.

"Starmer's 'new plan' is his old plan, which is no plan."