Labor has pledged to set up temporary so-called “Nightingale courts” to speed up asylum decisions as the opposition party sets out its position on immigration ahead of a general election.
Sir Keir Starmer used a visit to The Hague in the Netherlands this week to promote his party’s proposed solution to the small boat crisis as a way to “take control of the situation”.
The Labor leader’s proposals drew criticism from both the left and the right. Interior Minister Suella Braverman accused him of wanting to “hand over the keys to our immigration system to Brussels.”
Sir Keir hinted he could be open to a deal with Brussels that would see the UK accept a quota of asylum seekers arriving in the bloc in exchange for the ability to transport people crossing the English Channel.
But he has insisted his focus would be on ensuring an international counterterrorism-style crackdown could dismantle the gangs behind the “vile” trade and stop people leaving France in small boats in the first place.
As Sir Keir traveled to Canada this weekend to meet with center-left leaders, his party announced on Friday that hotels, barges and former military sites would no longer be used to house asylum seekers under a Labor government.
It also promised new staff to address the current backlog of claims.
The party said it would hire more than 1,000 Home Office caseworkers – a 50% increase on current staffing levels – to end the asylum backlog, which Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper said would end the use of hotels and other sites.
Labor also promises to speed up decisions on applications from “safe” countries, namely Albania and India.
Labor addressed the government’s use of temporary so-called “Nightingale courts” to deal with the pandemic-related backlog of criminal cases, saying it would use a similar idea to create additional capacity to handle legal challenges in the asylum process to accelerate.
In addition, a new repatriation unit would be created with another 1,000 employees to select and accelerate deportations.
Ms Cooper said: “These plans go hand in hand with our plans to stop the criminal smuggling gangs, introduce stronger powers and secure a new security agreement, including working with Europol, so we can tackle the problem at the source.”
“Labour will take back control of our asylum system.”
The party said once the current backlog is cleared there will be no need for hotels, barges or former military bases, which Labor says cost the taxpayer more than £2bn a year.
It said the current proposals would be time-limited to clear the backlog and new staff would be hired on two-year contracts.
Labor is seeking to establish its position on small boats ahead of a likely general election next year, with Sir Keir’s party committed to rejecting the Tory government’s Rwanda proposals.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s idea of deporting irregular asylum seekers back to their country of origin or the East African country is currently being heard in court.
As well as facing Tory attacks from the right, Labor was also criticized by a senior union leader over Labour’s stance on immigration.
Matt Wrack, leader of the Trade Union Congress, said Sir Keir was “at risk of joining right-wing Tory rhetoric on immigration”.
Mr Wrack, who is also general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, told The Guardian: “Labour must offer a sensible alternative to the inflammatory approach of Tory ministers.”
The Tories have suggested Sir Keir’s plans for a repatriation deal with Brussels could result in 100,000 EU migrants arriving in the UK every year, a claim rejected by Labor.
Writing for the Daily Express, Ms Braverman – who under her watch has seen more than 20,000 migrants enter the UK in small boats this year alone – said: “The price of Starmer’s dirty deal is that the UK gets ‘our fair share’ ‘ the swarms of illegal migrants streaming into Europe – over a million last year.”
Senior Tory ministers have argued that if there had been a repatriation deal with the EU last year, the UK would have been forced to take in 124,614 so-called “illegal migrants” in 2022 under a “mandatory fair share” agreement.
According to the ruling party, Britain, with its 67 million inhabitants, would accept 12.9% of the 966,000 people who applied for asylum in the bloc last year if it were part of Europe’s binding partition agreement.
The criticism comes despite Downing Street indicating it would like to hold talks on a repatriation agreement with the EU.
Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry said the 100,000 figure was “fantasy” and pointed out that the Fair Share Agreement only applied to countries within the Schengen visa-free area.
She told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme: “We were in the EU but we were never in Schengen so we wouldn’t be part of that agreement, clearly we wouldn’t do that so we would never have anything to do with it .”
“We need our own agreement with the European Union and it must be part of a real plan.”