People-smuggling should be treated “on a par” with terrorism, Sir Keir Starmer has said, as he promised new measures aimed at preventing small boat crossings if Labour wins the next general election.
Deepening intelligence ties with Europe as part of a new post-Brexit security pact and strengthening powers to restrict the movement of those suspected of organised immigration crime would form part of the plan.
The Labour leader said: “The first job of any government is national security – protecting the British people from threats that come from here and overseas.
“The government’s failure to tackle the criminal smuggling gangs orchestrating boat crossings is now so profound that I believe it needs to be considered on a par with the other three big security threats we face: climate change, hostile foreign powers and terrorism.”
As part of its plans, Labour says it would work to reach a new agreement to share real-time intelligence with the EU similar to the Schengen Information System II, a database of terror suspects and immigration offenders which the UK had automatic access to before Brexit.
The party has also vowed to strengthen powers to restrict the movement of people smugglers by making it quicker and easier to obtain civil orders, known as serious crime prevention orders, which are used to target offenders such as terrorists and drug traffickers.
More British officers would be stationed in Europe under the plans, with a “cross-border police force” focused solely on disrupting criminal gangs, Labour said.
In an interview with The Times newspaper, Sir Keir said he would also seek an EU-wide returns agreement for asylum seekers who arrive in Britain, which may involve a “quid pro quo” of accepting quotas of migrants from the bloc.
Funding for the measures would be redirected from the government’s Rwanda plan, which is currently held up in the courts following a series of legal challenges.
The plan is intended to deter Channel crossings by sending some asylum seekers arriving in Britain to the nation or another “safe third country”, but critics have branded it unworkable.
Sir Keir is seeking to emphasise his credentials as former director of public prosecutions during a visit to The Hague with shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper this week.
Taking a hard-line stance on immigration crime will be seen as important to convince swing voters that Labour can be trusted to stem the number of Channel crossings, which has passed 23,000 in 2023, in the run-up to a general election expected next year.
“My Labour government will be twice as ruthless, to smash the gangs and secure British borders,” Sir Keir said.
“These criminal smuggling gangs are growing fat on the government’s failures, while the Tories ramp up empty rhetoric around illegal immigration for cheap headlines.”
Sir Keir’s meeting with Europol officials at The Hague comes ahead of a trip to Montreal, Canada, for a summit of “progressive” politicians.
Reports suggest he is also set to be hosted by French president Emmanuel Macron in Paris next week.
The Labour leader has met several European leaders during his tenure, including German chancellor Olaf Scholz, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and then-Irish premier Micheal Martin.
He could also be eyeing a meeting in the White House with US president Joe Biden in the coming months, whose “Bidenomics” and landmark green subsidy push has attracted admiration from the Opposition.
A Tory spokesman said Sir Keir was “opening the door to voluntarily taking even more illegal migrants from the EU”.
“Sir Keir belongs to the same failed politics that won’t take the necessary long-term decisions to tackle this issue. He clearly doesn’t care about illegal immigration and is trying to take the easy way out. Fundamentally his ideas would do nothing but weaken our tough measures,” he said.
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 have crossed since the start of September, compared to around 2,600 for the first 10 days of the same month in 2022.