Labour government would halt Rwanda deportations from day one, Starmer says

Labour will not allow any deportation flights to take off for Rwanda from the moment it wins an election, Keir Starmer has said.

After a speech in which he announced his plans to tackle illegal immigration, Starmer committed to scrapping the Rwanda scheme “absolutely, flights and all”.

Starmer told Sky News: “There will be no flights scheduled or taking off after the general election if Labour wins that general election.”

The Labour leader made the commitments in Deal, part of the constituency represented by Natalie Elphicke who defected to Labour this week from the Conservatives.

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Elphicke introduced Starmer before his speech and said that under his leadership Labour “occupies the centre ground and looks to the future”. She added: “Nowhere is Rishi Sunak’s lack of delivery clearer than on the issue of small boats.”

James Cleverly, the home secretary, claimed it was “comic” for Labour to scrap the scheme when it was “demonstrably” working – despite no flights departing for Rwanda yet.

Starmer described it as a “gimmick” and a “waste of money”, and said he would replace it with a border security command.

He added: “Of course that means we won’t operate the scheme at all … I’m not going to flog a dead horse or waste my time with gimmicks.”

Starmer declined to promise to “stop the boats”, a catchphrase used by Sunak, or to set a target on reducing the number of people crossing the Channel, saying instead that it needed to be reduced “materially”.

He said he would “like it to come down completely” but would not put a “false number” on his plans.

Cleverly told LBC that the government’s plans were “still in early stages”. He acknowledged the initial numbers would be low but it was an “uncapped scheme”.

“To take that off the table just as we are starting to see an positive effect is a ridiculous notion by the Labour party,” Cleverly said.

Pressed on the more than 3,500 people identified for the first flights to Rwanda with whom contact has been lost by the authorities, Cleverly said some people “abscond, we find, them, we remove them … When people fail to report, the immigration enforcement do their work.”

On Thursday, 211 people were detected crossing the Channel, according to provisional figures from the Home Office. The provisional total of arrivals by small boats in 2024 is 9,037. This is 35% higher than the total at this time last year, which was 6,691.

Asked whether safe and legal routes for asylum seekers would play a role in stopping Channel crossings, Starmer said: “The most effective way to stop the crossings is to break gangs”. He said there were already safe and legal routes for asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Hong Kong.

In his speech, Starmer announced a plan to divert £75m to fund hundreds of specialist officer roles to tackle people-smuggling with new counter-terrorism powers.

He said the policy, which will appear in the Labour manifesto, would bring “an end to the fragmentation between policing, the border force and our intelligence agencies” and create a new “elite force” for border protection.

Starmer said he believed Sunak’s government would succeed in sending flights to Rwanda before the election, but that this would only result in a few hundred asylum seekers being deported when thousands had crossed the Channel already this year.

“£600m for a few hundred removed – that is gesture politics,” he said. “We will end this farce. We will restore serious government to our borders, tackle this problem at source, and replace the Rwanda policy – permanently.”

“Stopping the gangs getting people in boats is the most effective deterrent because you can’t actually make the crossing to get here,” he said. He blamed the government’s “botched Brexit deal” for hampering cooperation with European agencies on border security and illegal migration.

Starmer also promised to rebuild the “broken asylum system” and said Britain was seen as a “soft touch”. He said the current system, which removes less than 1% of arrivals from small boat crossings a year, was “like Hotel California, there is no prospect of ever leaving and no prospect of a decision for or against”.

He argued that rebuilding that system had “become a test of political strength” and “a trial of leadership”, which Sunak had failed.

Speaking more broadly, the Labour leader pledged to “turn the page on Westminster’s talk tough, do nothing culture”.

He said there was a problem with “our politics as a whole, a culture that is part of the water in Westminster that rewards the grand gesture, the big talk, while disregarding the detailed practical action that, over time, moves a nation forward, step by step”.

He said that since taking over the Labour leadership from Jeremy Corbyn he had “dragged my party away from the allure of gesture politics and I will do exactly the same to Westminster”.