John Erskine, Vice Chair of Inverness and Nairn CLP, says that Scotland – and our rural economy in particular – needs to be able to pursue a different immigration strategy from the rest of the UK, and it’s time for the powers to do so to be devolved.
This year marks 20 years since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. We have had two decades of devolved Scottish government. Scottish Labour are the party of devolution, and should be at the forefront of the next chapter of this process, delivering bold ideas and policies for the people of Scotland.
Labour must be the party that unashamedly says that immigration is good for Scotland and the U.K. and migrant workers are welcome here. That is why it is now time for Scottish Labour to embrace the devolution of immigration powers to the Scottish Parliament – to boost our economy and communities and to secure economic growth.
A new regional immigration system that devolves decisions to a more local level is now necessary as the Scottish Parliament moves into its next 20 years of legislating.
Under Jack McConnell in government, Scottish Labour led the way on devolved immigration through the Fresh Talent Scheme, which was launched to deal with problems of population decline and skill shortages in Scotland and was widely hailed as a success.
In today’s hostile environment created by the Conservatives in Westminster there is an ever-increasing divide, as the U.K. immigration system fails to take into account Scotland’s demographic, economic and labour market needs.
A post-Brexit proposal to allow EU immigration to continue only through a Tier 2 visa system, with a proposed minimum salary threshold of £30,000, would hurt Scotland hard. Significant areas like textiles, social care, leisure, tourism and retail, alongside vital roles like teachers, nurses and civil servants, would all be impacted.
Without the devolution of immigration powers to Scotland, it has been estimated that migration may fall by up to 50 percent and the effect of this would be to further jeopardise the Scottish economy, our public services and future population growth.
As campaigners and activists we hear stories every single day, in Parliament or whilst out knocking doors. There is a staffing crisis in our NHS and social care sector. There is shortage of teachers. There is a shortage of hospitality and farm workers. In addition, all economic indicators forecast this is a situation that will only be made worse by Brexit and the loss of labour from Europe.
At Scottish Labour Party conference in 2018 in Dundee, I said that there is no such thing as a good Brexit. I still believe that. With the clock ticking and Brexit negotiations coming down to the wire I still hope we can secure a final say for the public, putting May’s deal or remaining in the European Union to a public vote.
However, leave or remain, deal or no deal, it is time for the Scottish Parliament to play a more significant part in delivering a secure economic future, by taking on greater responsibility over our immigration policy.
Areas like the Highlands and Islands in particular will be adversely affected by the loss of free movement of people, and the current UK system fails to recognise the importance of key employers in rural areas including the tourism, agriculture and forestry sectors to Scotland’s economy.
For years population decline has been a significant issue in the Highlands and Islands, and last year Highlands and Islands Enterprise published its latest survey of young people’s aspirations and attitudes, which showed more young people than ever want to live and work in the area.
Delivering continued economic growth through more investment in mobile and internet connectivity, affordable homes and decent paid jobs are key to our economic future not only in the Highlands and Islands but also across Scotland.
Ensuring there are well-staffed and well-resourced public services, schools, GPs and hospitals will keep our economy growing and help stop the seeping away of people and talent to the major cities.
Devolved immigration combined with Scottish Labour’s commitment to deliver billions of pounds in additional investment and the establishment of a National Investment Bank and National Transformation Fund could help to rebuild the Scottish economy and provide the change our communities need.
The choice for the Highlands and Islands, and for Scotland, is clear – economic investment with Labour, or austerity with the Conservatives and SNP. It must now be time that Scottish Labour backs a devolved immigration system for Scotland that works for the many, not the few.