Labour has confirmed it would seek to negotiate a returns agreement for migrants with the EU if it wins power, as it accused the government of having “lost control of our borders”.
Shadow Cabinet Office minister Nick Thomas-Symonds said the “objective” was to secure a returns agreement to establish “management and control of the system”.
Mr Thomas-Symonds spoke to Sky News while Sir Keir Starmer and shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper meet European officials in The Hague – and as the party unveils proposals to treat smuggling gangs “on a par” with terrorists.
Labour want to have more UK police officers posted with the organisation for joint investigations – aiming to disrupt the gangs before they reach the coast – and work with EU partners on data and intelligence sharing, replacing access the UK lost to certain programmes after Brexit.
But the plan that has attracted the most controversy so far has been the admission from the Labour leader that he would seek an EU-wide returns agreement for migrants who come to Britain – and that accepting a quota of migrants from the EU in return would be part of any discussions and negotiations with Europe.
Conservative Party chairman Greg Hands immediately hit out at what he called Labour’s “shocking open door policy on immigration”.
“Labour won’t take the long-term decisions to stop the boats and tackle illegal immigration,” he posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.
“Instead deciding to open the doors to 100,000 extra illegal migrants, second-hand from the EU, every year.”
The EU is currently working on a new returns agreement that would mean each member state takes a minimum annual quota of 30,000 migrants, or pay €20,000 (£17,200) for each person they do not accept.
Speaking to Sky News, Mr Thomas-Symonds confirmed the party’s plans and said: “What we are looking to do as an objective is a returns agreement.
“At the moment the government is in a position to return people already to particular countries. They are not fast tracking that situation. They’re not doing that competently.
“What we would be looking for is management and control of the system, which is absolutely vital and not there at the moment under this government.”
When it was put to him on Sky News that the UK is 13% of Europe’s population and therefore could have to accept the same percentage of migrants under an agreement – equating to around 182,000 people per year – Mr Thomas-Symonds said he did not accept the figure.
He said the exact details would be for a potential future Labour government to negotiate with the EU.
“Our position is that net migration has been too high in the UK and we want to see that coming down. That’s our overall position and that’s something we’d obviously take into any negotiation with the EU,” he said.
Will Labour regret taking the fight to the Tories on small boats?
Territory usually seen as belonging to the Conservatives, Sir Keir Starmer is talking tough on immigration.
In The Netherlands with his shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper, the Labour leader has announced Labour’s plans for a new security partnership with Europe to smash the business model of the people smuggling gangs bringing migrants in boats across the Channel.
Labour’s plans include giving more powers to the National Crime Agency, real-time intelligence sharing with European partners and setting up a new cross border policing unit – paid for by scrapping the Rwanda scheme.
Sir Keir also wants to make it possible to restrict the movement of and freeze the assets of those suspected of people smuggling, treating suspected smugglers more like terrorists or drug traffickers.
But it’s a potential returns agreement with the EU that is causing an almighty row.
In an interview with The Times newspaper, the leader of the opposition said accepting quotas of migrants from the EU in exchange for a returns agreement would be reserved for future negotiations with Brussels.
This has alarmed Tories who believe this to be confirmation that Labour would open up the UK’s doors to higher numbers of refugees than we currently already receive.
Shadow minister Nick Thomas-Symonds told Sky News: “A wider returns agreement with the EU – that’s of course subject to negotiation.”
He went on to say that any returns agreement would be “under new arrangements” and that the objective for his party was to reduce net migration.
But government ministers beg to differ.
Home Office minister Robert Jenrick posted on X: “Not content with voting against every one of our measures to stop the boats, Keir Starmer is now opening the door to taking over 100,000 illegal migrants from the safety of the EU. His ‘plan’ is a recipe for even more illegal migration.”
Labour insists their plans will allow the UK to take back control of its immigration system.
But government sources tell Sky News that Sir Keir has made it easier for them to argue that Labour would be soft on immigration.
Small boat crossings will be a critical topic at the next general election but it appears that both parties believe this is one fight they can win.
In his interview with The Times, the Labour leader said he would treat people smugglers like terrorists by freezing their assets and restricting their movements.
Sir Keir said UK borders and the immigration system were “being run by a hostile and growing foreign power – criminal smuggling gangs on the continent”.
But he promised his party would be “twice as ruthless to smash the gangs and secure British borders”.
Other elements of the party’s security plan include strengthening civil orders to restrict the movements of smuggling and trafficking suspects, and beefing up cooperation on surveillance of known offenders.
“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 added.
“The prime minister and home secretary swing wildly from gimmick to gimmick, each one designed to grab headlines rather than sort the problem.
“My Labour government will roll up our sleeves and go after these criminals, with a proper plan for a new security agreement with Europe to support better cross-border police operations and stronger powers for our enforcement agencies in the UK.”
More than 23,000 people have made the dangerous journey across the Channel in the year so far – with more than 3,000 making the crossing in September alone.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has made tackling the issue one of his five priorities for the year, promising to “stop the boats” with measures such as deporting some migrants to Rwanda and housing people on barges.
But both schemes have hit barriers, with Rwanda flights caught up in the courts and an outbreak of Legionella disease on the Bibby Stockholm vessel.
Mr Sunak has repeatedly defended the government’s progress, saying: “We’ve already reduced the legacy backlog by over 28,000 – nearly a third – since the start of December and we remain on track to meet our target.”