RISHI Sunak resorted to the language of Boris Johnson as he defended his plan to stop small boats crossing the Channel yesterday, accusing Sir Keir Starmer of being “just another lefty lawyer standing in our way”.

The Prime Minister threw the jibe at the UK labour leader as the pair sparred at PMQs over the forthcoming Illegal Immigration Bill.

The Bill, which the UK Government admits may break the European Convention on Human Rights and so fail in the courts, is key to Mr Sunak’s plans to tackle illegal migration.

Under it, people who enter the country illegally would be removed from the UK within 28 days and blocked from returning or claiming British citizenship in future.

Those who arrive in small boats would either be sent to their home country, or another "safe third country", such as Rwanda.

The Bill also “disqualifies illegal entrants from using modern slavery rules” to stay in the UK.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman told MPs on Tuesday that when the Modern Slavery Act was passed in 2015, there were expected to be 3,500 referrals under it per year. 

Last year, there were 17,000 referrals taking an average of 543 days to consider.

“Modern slavery laws are being abused to block removals. They’re why we granted more than 50 per cent of asylum requests from citizens of a safe European country and NATO ally, Albania,” she told the Commons.

She said the British people “have had enough” of migrants arriving in small boats.

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Last year more than 89,000 people requested asylum in the UK, the highest number since 2002, when people fled conflict in Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan.

Around 47,750, or 45 per cent, were made by people who crossed the Channel in small boats, the highest number since the data was first collected in 2018.

At PMQs, Sir Keir branded the UK Government’s latest plan a “gimmick” and accused the Tories of delivering only “utter failure” on asylum and immigration policy.

He said that if Mr Sunak was serious, he would “steal” Labour's plan and "smash" the people smuggling gangs.

Mr Sunak was "deluded" to think the new legislation would reduce the number of small boats crossing the Channel, as no returns to other countries had yet been agreed, he said.

He said: “They can’t say when they’ll fix the mess because it’s more talk, more gimmicks, more promises to be broken.

“On his watch, processing of those boat cases has gone from unacceptable to almost non-existent," he said, saying less than 1% of boat arrival applications had been processed.

He also said the Bill would drive a “coach and horses” through the country’s modern slavery framework that protected women from exploitation.

Mr Sunak claimed Labour was in favour of “open door immigration and unlimited asylum”.

He said: “Whilst he may be on the side of the people-smugglers, we are on the side of the British people.”

The PM claimed Sir Keir has been on the “wrong side” of the issue “his entire career”.

He said: “He described all immigration law as racist. He said it was a mistake to control immigration. And he has never, ever voted for tougher asylum laws. “It is clear while he is in hock to the open-border activists, we’re on the side of the British people.”

The PM also highlighted return agreements with India, Pakistan, Serbia, Nigeria and Albania.

He said: “Our position on this is clear, if you arrive here illegally you will not be able to claim asylum here, you will not be able to access the modern slavery system and you will not be able to make spurious human rights claims. That is the right thing to do. But he’s going on and on about process, hiding behind process because he doesn’t want to confront the substance. We are the party of fairness and he represents the party of free movement.”

Sir Keir said: “After 13 years small boat crossings higher than ever, claims unprocessed, the taxpayer paying for hotel rooms, criminal gangs running all the way laughing to the bank and an asylum system utterly broken on his watch.

“This is their fifth prime minister, their sixth immigration plan, their seventh home secretary and after all this time all they offer is the same old gimmicks and empty promises.

“I don’t agree with the Home Secretary (Suella Braverman) on very much, but when she says that the Tories are all talk and no action she’s spot on, isn’t she?”

Mr Sunak told Sir Keir: “We’re doing what’s right, we’re acting with compassion, we’re acting with fairness and we’re acting to respect the laws and borders of our country.

“We’re delivering what we said and it’s crystal clear listening to this that it’s going to be the Conservatives and only the Conservatives that stop the boats.”

Sir Keir, a former head of the Crown Prosecution Service, said only 21 people out of 18,000 were returned after being ineligible for asylum last year.

“And what happens to the rest? They sit in hotels and digs for months on end at taxpayers’ expense,” he said.

Echoing Mr Johnson’s frequent name-calling against Sir Keir, and his pejorative use of “lawyer”, Mr Sunak said: “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 – on this matter he talks about his legal background, he’s just another leftie lawyer standing in our way.”

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SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn asked Mr Sunak to confirm the Bill’s precedence over modern slavery law meant sex-trafficked women could be deported under it.

He said: “On International Women’s Day, can I ask the Prime Minister to reconfirm that under his proposed new asylum laws women who are sex-trafficked to the UK on a small boat by a criminal gang will not be afforded protection under our modern slavery laws?”

Mr Sunak did not deny it, but replied: “It’s precisely because we want to target our resources and our compassion on the world’s most vulnerable people that we need to get a grip of this system, make sure that we have control over our borders, make sure our system and resources are not overwhelmed, so that we can help the people most in need.

“There is nothing fair, there is nothing compassionate, about sustaining a system where, as we saw recently, people are dying on these crossings. That is not right. And our plans will stop that from happening.”

Mr Flynn replied: “I’ll take that as a yes from the Prime Minister that women who are the victims of sex trafficking will not be protected under our modern slavery laws. What a complete and utter disgrace. May I ask the Prime Minister from whom are his Government taking inspiration, Nigel Farage or Enoch Powell?”

The PM said the question had been “a load of nonsense” and warned that without action the numbers seeking asylum would grow uncontrollably.

“They have more than quadrupled in just two years. It’s a sign of what is to come and our system will continue to be overwhelmed. If that happens, we will not be able to help the people who are most in need of our support, our generosity and our compassion,” he said.