Labour leader vows to go after ‘terrorist’ gang leaders behind people-smuggling boats

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper arriving at Europol in The Hague on Thursday  (PA)
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper arriving at Europol in The Hague on Thursday (PA)

Sir Keir Starmer on Thursday said his plan for closer collaboration with the EU on migrants would break “vile” people-smuggling gangs in contrast to what he called Tory “gimmicks”.

On a visit to The Hague, the Labour leader denied he was plotting to reverse Brexit, and insisted that any returns agreement with the EU to redistribute asylum claimants would be secondary to action on law enforcement.

Brexit halted British membership of Europol and Eurojust, the European Union’s criminal justice agency. Sir Keir he would restore the sharing of real-time intelligence, deploy more UK officers to Europe as part of a new police unit, and treat people-smugglers like “terrorists”.

“The reason that the operation here works so well is because they deal with terrorist cases,” he told ITV’s Good Morning Britain from the Europol headquarters.

“I think we need to put this vile trade - putting people into boats - in the same sort of category, so it’s dealt with as seriously.

“So that rather than having gimmicks from the government about what we do when people are already in the UK, that we actually smash this and stop people getting into the water in the first place.”

Sir Keir added: “The question of whether people can then be returned only applies if people are still getting across the Channel, and what I want to do is to stop the trade.”

Labour wants to scrap the Prime Minister’s plan to send asylum claimants to Rwanda and redirect the money to the National Crime Agency to go after gang leaders. It leaves open the prospect of joining a contentious scheme by Brussels to distribute claimants across EU member states.

The Government itself has been negotiating such a returns agreement with Brussels - but insisted it would stop short of accepting a quota of migrants, as ministers lashed out at Sir Keir.

Rishi Sunak told reporters: “Keir Starmer spent all of this year voting against our stop the boats Bill, the toughest legislation that any government has passed to tackle illegal migration.

“I think he spent most of last year voting against a previous Bill which has since then led to almost 700 arrests related to organised immigration crime, so I don’t think it’s credible that he really wants to grip this problem.

“And his plans today seem to amount to saying that we might one day accept 100,000 EU migrants every year. That doesn’t seem like a credible plan to me to stop the boats.”

Home Secretary Suella Braverman said: “Finally we see Sir Keir Starmer’s migration plan. He’ll let Brussels decide who comes to the UK.

“He’ll agree to make Britain the dumping ground for many of the millions of illegal migrants that Europe doesn’t want. And none of this will stop the boats.”

Conservative sources claimed that based on the Brussels scheme for burden-sharing among EU members, Britain would have been compelled to take 120,000 of the one million irregular migrants who arrived in the EU last year.

But Sir Keir said the response was “typical from a Government that’s completely lost control of the situation”.

“It’s embarrassing that the Government is pumping out this nonsense,” he told reporters. “I can only assume it’s because they’ve got nothing sensible to say on the issue.”

The provisional total of Channel crossings for the year so far is still lower than this time last year, when around 27,000 had already been recorded.

But more than 3,000 people have crossed on dinghies since the start of September, compared to around 2,600 for the first 10 days of the same month in 2022.

And Ms Braverman has hit trouble with her plan to relocate claimants out of hotels and into barges, after one vessel off Dorset had to be evacuated on health grounds.

The migrants issue promises to be a leading one at the next election and Sir Keir has been planting Labour’s flag more firmly on Tory ground - as well as burnishing his international credentials.

After The Hague, Sir Keir heads to Canada for a summit of “progressive” politicians in Montreal, before a meeting in Paris with President Emmanuel Macron next Tuesday - the day before King Charles starts a state visit to France.

“Their meeting is part of the dialogue that the President of the Republic maintains with European political players,” the French presidency said of the talks, which will follow a meeting between Sir Keir and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz last year.