Rather than dealing with the serious problem of small boats crossings undermining our borders, encouraging criminal activity and putting lives at risk, this week the Prime Minister opted for more gimmicks and slogans. When Rishi Sunak stood in front of a lectern that read 'Stop The Boats', in my view this is a complete farce given he can’t even tell us when he will do this.
In the last decade, this government has introduced five plans to tackle illegal immigration and every single time they have made it worse.
Thanks to this Conservative Government, we are now at a point where small boat crossings are at record highs and asylum hotel bills have grown to £500m. Last year 18,000 asylum seekers were deemed ineligible. Just 21 were returned leaving thousands languishing in hotels not allowing anyone to move on.
Labour leader Keir Starmer was absolutely right this week at Prime Ministers Questions when he said that Rishi Sunak should be apologising rather than gloating.
Should the new Conservative Asylum Bill be brought forward and the Government continue to fail to negotiate return agreements, including with France and other neighbouring countries, it will mean tens of thousands more asylum seekers will end up staying in hotels indefinitely. The potential cost of this has been calculated as reaching as much as £25bn over the next five years.
The asylum system has been utterly broken by this Government. But there is a solution. Labour has a common-sense five-point plan:
1. Crackdown on criminal smuggler gangs, through new Cross-Border Police Unit
A Labour Government would redirect spending from the unworkable Rwanda scheme, which the government has admitted is subject to a very high risk of fraud, to set up a new cross-border police unit to crack down on smuggling gangs. This would include millions of pounds of new investment through the National Crime Agency. Officers would be based in the UK and throughout Europe to tackle the gangs upstream. This would be supported with an urgent review to identify the gaps in enforcement against smuggling gangs, with the findings used to lay out an Action Plan to be delivered by the NCA and Border Force, in collaboration with international allies and Europol.
2. Clear the backlog and end hotel use
The Home Office is taking 10,000 fewer asylum decisions a year than they were in 2015, leaving people waiting in limbo for much longer and pushing up accommodation costs. Fast tracking cases for Albania and other safe countries, introducing triage and restoring proper casework standards and targets will mean quicker support for those who are refugees, much quicker returns for those who are not, and stopping costly hotel use.
3. Reform resettlement schemes to stop people being exploited by criminal gangs
Labour would redesign the existing resettlement schemes which are not currently working properly to prevent people being exploited by criminal gangs or making dangerous crossings – for example sorting the problems with the Afghan Resettlement Scheme or providing for refugees with family connections in the UK to be able to apply to resettlement schemes.
4. New agreement with France and other European countries on returns and family reunion
Labour would negotiate a new agreement which includes return agreements and properly managed alternative arrangements such as family reunion.
5. Tackle humanitarian crises at source helping refugees in their region
Labour would work in partnership internationally to address some of the humanitarian crises that are leading people to flee their homes including restoring the 0.7% aid commitment when the fiscal situation allows and strengthening support for the people of Afghanistan.
Saving the 002 Bus Service
Diamond Buses recently announced that they were looking to scrap the 002 service. This is a well-used service that connects Weoley Castle, through to Bartley Green and on to Merry Hill. When I heard that this key service was under threat, I wrote to the CEO of Diamond Buses and Transport for West Midlands. Local residents also undertook a petition which garnered much support.
I was delighted this week to hear from Diamond Buses in a reply to my letter. In their response they explained how they have chosen to listen to residents and retain this bus route.
Bus services across the country are in disarray with financial gaps, driver shortages and pay freezes meaning more and more services are at risk. Next week on Thursday 16th March, strikes are due to take place on our bus services. National Express runs 93% of the West Midlands bus network and these will be where most bus routes will be affected. Do take care if you are travelling next week.
These strikes are now nothing new and simply represent yet another crumbling service. This week, Labour launched our plans for the biggest bus overhaul in 40 years with new powers over operators.
These plans would give local areas in England devolved powers to reinstate cancelled routes and set affordable fares and would be introduced within months of a Labour government taking power. It is part of Labour’s wider “take back control bill” that would give authorities powers to start their own publicly owned bus services.
Our bus services are relied upon by millions of people across the UK. In fact, twice as many people use buses as those who catch trains. That is why fixing this fundamentally system is so vital.
Standing up against violent threats and abuse
It has become increasingly common for MPs to receive abuse. More recently, I have been on the receiving end of these type of violent threats in the past.
More recently though I received a direct and brazen threat telling me to “watch my back”. It was brazen as it was sent from someone’s work email address, making no attempt to hide their identity. It’s a worry because I’m with my daughters in the constituency all the time. My family live here. It really puts into context the kind of job that you do.
I want to be clear though. These types of threats will never prevent me carrying out my duties as Birmingham Edgbaston MP. I will proudly continue to work on behalf of my residents.
If you’ve been to one of my advice surgeries recently you will have seen that I now always have a security officer with me. This is why. I don’t want to restrict my surgeries. I don’t want to go to an appointment-based system. I want to be able to be open and be in my community and make sure that people feel that they can have that access to myself. But I must do it while feeling safe and while protecting my staff.
Celebrating International Women’s Day
n Wednesday we marked International Women’s Day and sadly, this day remains as important as ever. Women accounted for 60% of the total rise in relative poverty in the first ten years of Conservative rule. Today they remain on average £574 poorer than 13 years ago.
Labour is proud to be the party of women’s equality. Previous Labour Governments always empowered women – the next will match that record and more. Our New Deal for Working People will introduce a raft of reforms to transform women’s working lives. This includes:
Permitting enabling equal pay comparisons across employers.
Introducing a day one right to flexible working.
Strengthening protections against redundancy for new mothers.
Reforming the failed parental leave system.
International Women’s Day is a moment to glimpse real, transformative change. But for that to happen, we need a UK Government ready to truly stand with women around the world.
It is important that Britain stands not just with women at home, but with women overseas as well. Investing in local women’s rights organisations and backing women’s activists is also highly cost-effective. They are often the first and best line of defence during humanitarian emergencies and are best placed to centre the needs of women and girls.
As Labour’s shadow cabinet minister for international development, I set out in The Times Redbox how using Britain’s aid budget wisely - by channelling resources directly to women’s organisations and treating them as equal partners – Labour will reconnect with the women and girls this government has left behind.
Preet Kaur Gill MP
Birmingham Edgbaston covering Bartley Green, Edgbaston, Harborne and Quinton