Three reasons the new UK immigration package is bad news for Scotland

The two main UK parties are both committed to slashing immigration numbers. They don’t care if that means bad news for Scottish public services, Scottish universities, the Scottish economy – and the comfort and security of many New Scots.

Both Labour and the Conservatives are tailoring their message to what will bring them votes down in England, where the media is obsessed with a relatively small number of migrants arriving in small boats.

Neither of them is consulting with Scotland’s elected government about how these policies will impact Scotland.

Unlike devolved areas in other countries, such as Quebec in Canada, Scotland has no control over immigration and Scotland’s government does not even have the right to be consulted. 

Labour and Conservatives both plan to squeeze work and student visas

Labour leader Keir Starmer has promised a Labour government will bring down immigration significantly. To do that, they acknowledge they will have to tighten restrictions on worker salaries, students and family reunions. Those are very similar to the Conservative’s policies. 

PM Rishi Sunak’s government is already committed to raising salary thresholds so that people will have to be earning as much as £40,000 a year to have the right to live and work in Scotland – that is a very high bar in areas like the Highlands.

Sunak also plans to cut the number of student visas, which will be focused on the “Russell Group” – primarily in England and stop New Scots from bringing their families over. (This was part of a package of promises Sunak apparently made to Suella Braverman, the ex Home Secretary. Home Office Minister Robert Jenrick has indicated the government plans to implement similar restrictions.) 

Here are three reasons why this is bad for Scotland:  

  1. Scotland has different needs from the South of England

Why would the same salary thresholds be set for visas in London and the South of England and the Western Isles? The two economies are very different.

Scotland has an ageing population – two years older on average than England’s. It has many rural and island areas with fragile economies, at the periphery of Europe. 

Businesses there need professionals with specific skills to boost their growth. But how can they afford to pay the same salaries as London?

  1. Scotland urgently needs to replace the workforce it lost after Brexit

Freedom of movement worked well for Scotland. It meant businesses had access to a large pool of seasonal workers

People could easily come over for the summer to work in hospitality and agriculture, often living in onsite accommodation and would go back home in the winter when many places close down.  

There were also many Europeans who worked in public services like care, sometimes on a short-term basis. One of the reasons that non-EU immigration has spiked in the UK is that the government eventually responded to the crisis in the care sector and made it easier to recruit care workers from Asia and Africa and bring them to the UK. Given the geography, this is obviously going to be a permanent move for those workers, rather than the more flexible arrangement that freedom of movement allows. 

It is challenging to replace free movement through permanent immigration in areas where there is not much available housing but that is the best option Scotland has at the moment. Tightening up the care visa system again will just create a situation where care homes are forced to close. 

  1. Scotland’s world class higher education sector depends on visas

The UK Government wants to reduce the numbers coming to study at university, which will hit Scotland’s higher education sector very hard. They depend on foreign students' fees to help pay for free places for Scottish students. 

Scotland has four unis in the world top 200 – more per head of population than any other country. Student visas are vital to the success of higher education institutions across the country. The UK Government’s plans risk hampering this sector from recruiting students – in a very competitive global education sector. 

If Scotland were independent, it could set immigration rules that work for Scotland

The needs of Scotland’s economy, public services or agriculture get little attention in a UK debate that is focused on the South of England’s obsessions with relatively small numbers who arrived in boats across the English Channel. 

But most immigrants to the UK are legal – and reducing their numbers will hurt Scotland worse because smaller businesses can’t afford to pay high salaries. 

  • An independent Scotland could set immigration rules that work for Scotland. For example, the government could allow asylum seekers to work while waiting for their claims to be dealt with – many of them have useful qualifications and experience and want to contribute.
  • It could focus on supporting Scotland’s higher education sector – offering post-study work visas and the right to bring family members. That would help Scotland’s unis to continue attracting the very brightest students, whatever country they come from.
  • When it comes to professionals who want to come and take up vacancies in growing sectors that are vital to Scotland’s future – for example, in renewable energy, installing heat pumps, marine science, or the gaming industry – Scotland could set salary thresholds that take into account specific conditions. They could set a lower salary threshold for businesses in rural areas for example.