PMQs: Rishi Sunak says Keir Starmer is 'just another lefty lawyer standing in our way'

Words by Lewis Denison, ITV News Westminster Producer

Rishi Sunak has said Sir Keir Starmer is "just another lefty lawyer" standing in his way of stopping illegal immigration, as a row erupted at PMQs over a controversial new law to block asylum applications made by those who cross the English Channel.

The pair clashed in the House of Commons over the new Illegal Immigration Bill, which will also see almost everyone who enters the UK be detained, then deported and blocked from ever returning.

Campaigners have claimed the plan is in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the Labour leader said it drives a “coach and horses” through the country’s modern slavery framework.

Mr Sunak insists the new Bill will stay within the ECHR but said he is "up for the fight" in the law courts if it is challenged, as previous policies such as the Rwanda deportation scheme which was blocked by judges.

Speaking to POLITICO, EU Commissioner Ylva Johansson says she told the home secretary that her asylum plans break international law.

The EU intervention comes just before Rishi Sunak’s summit with Emmanuel Macron this Friday.

Sir Keir added: “The prime minister says they will detain people who aren’t eligible to claim asylum here and then return them. Well, they already tried that under the last legislation. Last year 18,000 people were deemed ineligible to apply for asylum, that’s the easy bit, the talk, but as for the action, prime minister, how many of them have actually been returned?”

The PM said his government has "doubled the number of people returned this year", adding: “Stopping the boats is not just my priority, it is the people’s priority, but his position on this is clear.

"He wanted to, in his words, scrap the Rwanda deal, he voted against measures to deport foreign criminals and he even argued against deportation flights.

"We know why, because on this matter he talked about his legal background, he’s just another leftie lawyer standing in our way.”

Home Secretary Braverman sparked fury in the civil service with similar comments made in a letter to Conservative members on Tuesday night, in which she said “an activist blob of left-wing lawyers, civil servants and the Labour Party blocked us” from dealing with the small boats crisis in the Channel.

The head of a union representing senior civil servants said she may have may have broken the ministerial code after launching an “attack on the integrity and impartiality” of civil servants.

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union, wrote a letter to the prime minister, saying it was an "extraordinary statement from a serving home secretary".

“Not only is this statement factually incorrect, but the tone of that paragraph and the brigading of civil servants with the Labour Party and ‘left-wing lawyers’ is a direct attack on the integrity and impartiality of the thousands of civil servants who loyally serve the Home Secretary.”

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He added: “I am sure I do not need to remind you that paragraph 5.1 of the ministerial code states that ‘ministers must uphold the political impartiality of the civil service’.

“I cannot see how the home secretary’s statement to Conservative Party members can be reconciled with her obligations under the code.”

Downing Street later denied Ms Braverman sent the letter, blaming it on operation issues at Conservative Campaign Headquarters.

The Prime Minister’s press secretary told reporters: “The Home Secretary did not see that email before it went out.

“She did not see, sign off or sanction that email being sent out.”

Mr Sunak was also asked at PMQs whether his policy to deport most people who enter the UK illegally would have seen Sir Mo Farah removed, after the athlete revealed last year that he was trafficked to the UK as a child removed - but he did not directly answer.

Labour MP Imran Hussain (Bradford East) said: “Under this government’s new dystopian, far-right appeasing, anti-refugee Bill, those who are trafficked to the UK would still face deportation.

“Can the prime minister therefore clear up whether Sir Mo Farah, who last year bravely revealed that he was trafficked to the UK as a child, would have been removed under this Bill?”

Mr Sunak said: “It is precisely because we do want to help the world’s most vulnerable people that we’ve got to stop our system being exploited and overwhelmed by illegal migrants who are being trafficked here by criminal gangs.

“There is nothing compassionate, there is nothing fair, about supporting that system continuing, and that’s why our new laws are the right way to deal with this.”