How Labour plans to deal with the Channel crossings
Keir Starmer said at Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday that if Rishi Sunak were “serious about stopping the boats, he’d steal our plan for stopping the boats”. But what is Labour’s plan? We don’t hear about it much, because most of the attention has been
focused on the controversial elements of the government’s policy. However, Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, did set out the opposition’s plan last July.
In classic New Labour fashion, Cooper’s is a five-point plan. Gordon Brown used to favour the rule of five, devising the five tests for whether Britain should adopt the euro; and Tony Blair’s five promises on the pledge card were such a success during the 1997 election campaign that Sunak has now set out his five promises, while Starmer has set out Labour’s five missions.
Cooper reiterated her plan on Tuesday, when she responded to Suella Braverman’s statement on the government’s Illegal Migration Bill. The five points are as follows:
1. A crackdown on criminal smuggler gangs, through a new crossborder police unit. This would use the money from scrapping the “unworkable” Rwanda scheme to employ new Border Force staff.
2. Clear the backlog and end hotel use. The government, rather belatedly, hopes to do the same thing.
3. Reform legal routes for refugees to stop people being exploited by gangs. This is where Labour’s plan starts to sound woolly. “Reform” rather than “increase” legal routes does not seem to mean anything, and there is no clue as to how this would prevent people being exploited by criminal gangs. Even if new legal routes to apply for asylum were opened, there would still be potential refugees who would not qualify to use them, and these people might still try to make the dangerous Channel crossing.
4. A new agreement with France and other countries on returns and family reunion. This is another point that echoes the government’s policy. Sunak’s hope was that Emmanuel Macron, the French president, would be more amenable, now, to an agreement that France would accept returned migrants – mainly because he, Sunak, is technocratic, reasonable, and not Boris Johnson. So far, however, that hope has been disappointed.
The brutal reality is that France has no real interest in helping the UK with its Channel problem, and there is no reason to think that this would be different under a Labour government. Maybe Starmer and Cooper hope that Macron would be more likely to do a deal with them than with Sunak, because they did not insult the EU ideal by supporting Brexit, but that seems rather like Sunak thinking he could do a deal because Macron would be so relieved to see the back of bumptious Johnson.
5. Tackle humanitarian crises at source, helping refugees in their reǀon. Again, this has long been government policy: it sounds good, while implying that the problem can be kept a long way from the UK’s coasts. It is not a solution for as long as there are 100 million displaced people in the world – a figure from the UN refugee agency that was cited by Braverman with the unfounded additional claim that “they are coming here”.
It is all very well Labour expressing its distaste for the home secretary’s inflammatory language, but the opinion polls show that people want action. At the moment, Labour may be able to rely on public disaffection with a government that is failing to demonstrate basic competence. The asylum backlog has increased by far more than the number of people arriving by small boat, which itself has increased year on year since the pandemic.
By the time of the election, Sunak must hope to have started to make a dent in the backlog, by hiring more staff and pushing them to make faster asylum decisions, but the fundamental problem of small boats will remain. People will continue to make the dangerous crossing as long as they know that they are overwhelmingly likely to be allowed to remain in the UK if they get here. Without an agreement with the French government to take migrants back immediately, neither party has a convincing solution to that problem.
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