Keir Starmer – 2022 Speech on Illegal Immigration

The speech made by Sir Keir Starmer, the Leader of the Opposition, in the House of Commons on 13 December 2022.

I thank the Prime Minister for advance sight of his statement. I also echo his comments about the tragic loss of life in Solihull, which is unimaginably unbearable for the families, the friends, and the whole community.

Channel crossings are a serious problem requiring serious solutions. We need leadership at home and abroad, we need a Home Office that functions effectively, and we need to defeat the criminal gangs operating on the coast. Time and again, however, this Government have not provided serious solutions. The Prime Minister sat around the Cabinet table the whole time. Where there should have been solutions, we have had unworkable gimmicks.

As I listened to the Prime Minister’s statement, I thought, “All of that has been said before, almost word for word.” It was said the last time we had measures—the last time we had legislation. There have been plenty of newspaper headlines about wave machines, prison ships and fantasy islands, but there has been no effective action. It is all designed to mask failure, to distract from a broken asylum system that cannot process claims, cannot return those with no right to be here, and cannot protect our borders.

Over 40,000 people have crossed the channel this year—that is a record—but only 2% have had their asylum claim processed. What happens to the other 98%? They are placed in hotels, costing around £7 million a day. That is bad for refugees who want to rebuild their lives and bad for taxpayers. And 2022 is not just a one-off bad year; it has been bad under the Tories for years. Last year, the percentage of channel crossing asylum claims processed was just 4%. Let those figures sink in, because that is the root of the problem. Something has to be done to clear the backlog.

I welcome the commitment to fast-track clearly unfounded claims. That is what we have been calling for, and Britain is two years behind so many of our neighbours and allies, who have been fast-tracking for years. Can the Prime Minister confirm—I want to have an answer on this—that he will clear the backlog by the end of next year? That is 150,000 cases in the backlog—[Interruption.] I know he has said it, but there are 150,000 cases, including the 100,000 that have been there for over six months. We need clarity about that.

I also welcome more staff for processing. It is appalling that the Government let the backlog get this big. Nearly 100,000 cases have been waiting more than six months for a decision. That is the root cause. But processing is only part of the answer. Criminal gangs are sending these people to risk their lives, and they thrive because of a total failure of any co-ordinated response or effective deterrent to their criminal activity. For months, we have been calling for action to tackle this root cause: a specialist cell in the National Crime Agency to catch, prosecute and disband criminal gangs. We need to be working internationally to end this cross-border crime. Again, new staff are welcome, but can the Prime Minister guarantee that that will result in prosecutions of those who put lives and national security at risk?

Money is being wasted on the unworkable, unethical plan to deport people to Rwanda: £140 million has been wasted already, with not a single deportation. The most senior civil servant in the Home Office is the only one in Government to tell the truth: it does not even work as a deterrent. The Prime Minister has promised more legislation, but the last time the Government legislated to tackle the broken asylum system, they made it worse. Since the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 came into force, crossings and delays have increased, and 18,000 cases have been put through the new process, adding a further six months, with only 21 returns. That is slow track, not fast track. How can the Prime Minister have any credibility to say that new legislation is going to be the answer? The unworkable gimmicks go on, and so do the crossings. We need to bring this to an end, and that means a proper plan to crack down on the gangs, quick processing, return agreements: serious solutions to a serious problem. That is what Labour will offer.

The Prime Minister

That speaks for itself, quite frankly. We are not going to take any lectures from the Labour party on tackling immigration. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has consistently tried to block steps to strengthen Britain’s approach to illegal migration throughout his career. Since he was elected, he has failed on 36 occasions to vote for stronger laws and we heard that again today. He talks about processing and about the hotels, but the only way to stop that problem is to stop the boats. We are the only party that has a plan to tackle these issues, with a new small boats operational command in the channel, deals with Albania and France, cheaper accommodation, tougher immigration enforcement, and new legislation making it clear in law for the first time that, if you come here illegally, you cannot stay. Labour now has a choice: will it show that it is on the side of the British people and back our plans to stop illegal migration? The right hon. Gentleman may want to stand in our way. He may want to block laws. We are going to block the boats.