Labour has pledged to create temporary so-called “Nightingale courts” to speed up asylum decisions as the Opposition party sets out its stall on immigration ahead of a general election.
Sir Keir Starmer this week used a visit to The Hague in the Netherlands to push his party’s proposed solution to the small boats crisis as a way of “taking control” of the situation.
The Labour leader’s proposals have faced criticism from both the left and the right, with Home Secretary Suella Braverman accusing him of looking “to hand Brussels the keys to our immigration system”.
Sir Keir indicated he could be prepared to do a deal with Brussels which would involve the UK taking a quota of asylum seekers who arrive in the bloc in exchange for the ability to return people who cross the English Channel.
But he has insisted that his focus would be on ensuring that an anti-terrorism-style international crackdown could smash the gangs behind the “vile” trade, preventing people leaving in small boats from France in the first place.
With Sir Keir headed to Canada to meet centre-left leaders this weekend, his party announced on Friday that hotels, barges and former military sites would no longer be used to house asylum seekers under a Labour government.
It also promised new staff to cut the current claims backlog.
The party said it would recruit 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.
Labour is also promising to fast-track decisions on applications from “safe” countries, namely Albania and India.
Expanding on the Government’s deployment of temporary so-called “Nightingale courts” to deal with the pandemic backlog of criminal cases, Labour said it would use a similar idea to create extra capacity to speed up asylum legal challenges.
A new returns unit, again backed by 1,000 staff, would also be created to triage and fast-track removals.
Ms Cooper said: “These plans will go hand in hand with our plans to stop the criminal smuggling gangs, put stronger powers in place and get a new security agreement including working with Europol so that we can tackle the problem at the source.
“Labour will take back control of our asylum system.”
The party said that once the current backlog is clear there will be no need for hotels, barges or former military bases, which Labour claims are costing taxpayers more than £2 billion a year.
It said the current proposals are time-limited to tackle the backlog, with new staff employed on two-year contracts.
Labour is looking to establish its position on small boats ahead of a likely general election next year, with Sir Keir’s outfit committed to binning the Tory Government’s Rwanda proposals.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s idea of deporting irregular asylum seekers back to their country of origin or to the east African country is currently held up in the courts.
As well as facing Tory attacks from the right, Labour’s immigration stance was criticised by a senior union chief.
Matt Wrack, the president of the Trade Union Congress, said Sir Keir was in “danger of pandering to right wing Tory rhetoric” on immigration.
Mr Wrack, who is also general secretary at 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 return deal with Brussels could result in 100,000 EU migrants coming to the UK every year, a claim rubbished by Labour.
In an article for the Daily Express, Mrs Braverman — who on her watch has seen more than 20,000 migrants arriving in Britain via small boats this year alone — said: “The price for Starmer’s dirty deal is that the UK will take ‘our fair share’ of the swathes of illegal migrants who pour into Europe — over a million last year.”
Senior Tory ministers have argued that, if a returns agreement with the EU had been in place last year, it would have forced the UK to take 124,614 so-called “illegal migrants” in 2022 as part of a “mandatory fair share” agreement.
According to the governing party’s workings, if Britain was part of Europe’s mandatory share agreement, its 67 million population would mean taking 12.9% of the 966,000 people who applied to the bloc for asylum last year.
The criticisms come despite Downing Street suggesting it would been keen to hold talks about a returns agreement with the EU.
Shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry said the 100,000 figure was “fantasy” and pointed out that the fair share arrangement only applies to countries inside the visa-free Schengen 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, so we would never have anything to do with it.
“We need to have our own agreement with the European Union and it needs to be part of a proper plan.”