Stuart McDonald: The UK government's immigration curbs would be a disaster for Scotland

Posted On: 
30th January 2019

UK government policy success would mean shrinking Scotland’s working-age population. The case for our own devolved immigration system is becoming compelling, writes Stuart McDonald 

"Free movement has benefited the whole of the UK, but has been especially important for Scotland," McDonald writes

There is a hell of a lot wrong with the UK’s immigration system – expense, bureaucracy, poor decision-making, odious anti-family immigration rules, unlimited detention and the counterproductive and wicked hostile environment, for example. Yet the white paper offers virtually nothing to fix any of that.

Instead it sets out to end free movement of people – the one bit of the system that avoids the aforementioned flaws – and to extend all these terrible rules and procedures to EEA nationals.

Why on earth would anyone welcome this?

Business organisations, trade unions, public sector organisations and the third sector have all united in condemnation. Retaining the £30k threshold for Tier 2 means all sorts of important posts will not now be filled at all by non-UK workers, unless they qualify for the invidious so-called low-skilled visas that the Home Office intends to allow for a temporary period.

Imagine you’re recruiting a technician for a particular post at a university, health board or start-up company. How’s that job offer going to look when you tell them the Home Office won’t let them stay any longer than a year and they can’t bring their families with them?

Small and medium-sized enterprises will be particularly badly hit. Perhaps used to recruiting a couple of EU nationals from time to time, suddenly they will be required to cope with the full weight of Tier 2 bureaucracy as well as the increasingly outrageous visa fees, the skills charge, NHS charge, and almost certainly legal fees.

The SNP continues to advocate for the huge benefits free movement brings in terms of growth, productivity and our public finances, as well as for our families and communities. And, of course, while the white paper is about ending free movement for our EEA neighbours, the quid pro quo will be ending the right to live, work, study and start a family all across Europe for future generations of UK citizens. It also has potentially drastic implications for our future relationship with the EU.

Free movement has benefited the whole of the UK, but has been especially important for Scotland, helping turn the country from one of net outward migration to one of net inward migration. Looking ahead, all the projected growth in Scotland’s population over the next 25 years is due to net inward migration.

Like other parts of the UK, Scotland will see the number of older people increase significantly over the next 25 years. However, even prior to the white paper’s publication, our population of working-age adults was predicted to increase by only 1% – compared to 8% for the UK as a whole. We need working people! Yet the proposed £30k threshold would mean 85% of EU workers who would have come to Scotland will now fall below the bar the government wants to set. And if Theresa May were ever to achieve her ludicrous net migration target, Scotland’s working-age population is actually projected to decline by 4.5%, a reduction of 150,000 people between 2016 and 2041.

It is hard to emphasise how ludicrous that is – UK government policy success would mean shrinking Scotland’s working-age population.

Scotland is, and will remain, a very attractive place for people to come and live. We just need to design an immigration system that allows those we need to come to live and work here. Sadly, you could barely have designed proposals that were so far removed from what Scotland needs – the white paper’s implementation would represent a disaster.

If the Home Office presses ahead regardless, then the case for a differentiated or devolved immigration system for Scotland moves from being strong to utterly compelling.

There are many international examples we can learn from. It’s worth remembering that sub-state immigration policies and autonomy work perfectly well in countries such as Canada and Australia. An immigration policy for Scotland is an idea whose time has come – and failure to listen could have serious consequences for Scotland’s population, economy and public finances.  

Stuart C McDonald is MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, and SNP spokesperson for immigration