The Conservatives have been promising to “take back control” of our borders for years.
Yet with record numbers of migrants making the perilous journey across the Channel in small boats – nearly 45,000 since January, including more than 500 this weekend – the prime minister has been under huge pressure to show that he has a plan to deal with the numbers.
He’s clearly determined to show the issue is a key priority.
Downing Street clarifies pledge to clear asylum backlog – politics live
That’s why Rishi Sunak He himself made the announcement in the Commons today, presenting this platform of policies as a break with the “obsolete” global asylum system of the past.
He insisted his government’s central pledge – to send all illegal migrants back home or to a safe third country – is “not cruel or unkind” but a question of “fairness”.
Labor argues his promises contained nothing new – Sir Keir Starmer told MPs the prime minister’s rhetoric is designed to “mask failure and distract from our broken asylum system”.
Mr Sunak says his package of measures – including the deal with Albania to expedite returning asylum seekers, doubling the number of caseworkers, hiring more staff to tackle the small boat crisis and raising the bar for modern slavery cases – will end the backlog of asylum cases by the end of next year.
Labor clearly doesn’t believe the government will be able to deliver on this promise, which is why Sir Keir was so determined to highlight the scale of the backlog – nearly 150,000 people waiting for a decision, with only 2% of cases being processed in the past year.
It’s quite a deadline to hit so close to the date of the likely next general election.
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There is outrage at this tough approach from many human rights groups.
The Liberal Democrats accused the government of weakening the protection for victims of human trafficking, and the Green MP Caroline Lucas was incandescent – accusing the government of a “sickening crackdown on those fleeing war and terror”.
But the Conservative backbenchers – some of whom have been critical of the government’s perceived “lack of grip” on the issue – welcomed the plan, cheering on the prime minister’s announcements and accusing the opposition of a lack of “specific proposals” of their own.
The plan to halve the daily £5.5m cost of accommodation for asylum seekers by expanding the use of disused holiday parks, university accommodation and military bases has gone down particularly well among some MPs angry at the use of hotel accommodation in their constituencies (even if the previous use of run-down army barracks – like Napier in Folkestone – ended up being mired in controversy).
And on a day of strikes bringing much of the country to a grinding halt, the government will clearly hope that announcing such a big policy will enable them to wrest back control of the headlines, at the very least.