Sir Keir Starmer said a Labour government would reverse the Conservatives’ Rwanda policy even if sending asylum seekers to central Africa is judged legal by the Supreme Court.
The Home Office is bringing a challenge this week after the Court of Appeal ruled in June that the multimillion-pound deal – which would see asylum seekers deported to the east African nation – was unlawful.
In a three-day hearing starting on Monday, five justices at the UK’s highest court will hear arguments over whether two appeal judges were right to find there was a “real risk” asylum seekers could be returned to their home country and face persecution when they may have a good asylum claim.
While Sir Geoffrey Vos and Lord Justice Underhill concluded there were “deficiencies” in the Rwandan asylum system and ruled the policy was unlawful, former lord chief justice Lord Burnett disagreed and said he would dismiss the challenge.
As well as the Home Office’s bid to overturn the decision, several individual asylum seekers are set to challenge aspects of the ruling.
Immigration featured heavily at the recent Conservative Party conference, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak saying he “will do whatever is necessary to stop the boats”.
But in a significant development, Sir Keir Starmer said he will reverse the policy if he gets into government at the next election, even if it is declared legal.
Grilled on the small boats crisis on the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg programme, Sir Keir was asked if he would stop Rwanda flights if they had already started up and Channel crossings had been reduced.
“Yes – I think it’s the wrong policy,” said the Labour. “It’s hugely expensive. It’s a tiny number, a tiny number of individuals who go to Rwanda. And the real problem is at source.”
Pressed again about reversing Rishi Sunak and home secretary Suella Braverman’s plan, even if everyone can see it’s working, if fewer people were getting in small boats, Sir Keir said: “You’re putting this to me on the basis it’s working.”
He added: “We’ve been told by the government time and again that what they’re saying, even seeing, that they have got a Rwanda scheme that will reduce numbers. That hasn’t happened.”
“Nobody wants to see these crossings across the Channel,” said the Labour leader. “They will only stop if we smash the criminal gangs who are running this vile trade.”