When you speak to businesses about the challenges of Brexit, their biggest concern is not usually about access to markets for goods or services, or difficulties with importing or exporting, but rather access to talent.
With low unemployment across the UK, and record levels of employment, businesses looking to expand need talented people, and often these talented people will come from outside our own borders. With Brexit meaning an end to free movement within the EU, they wonder where this talent will come from.
The UK Government’s White Paper on Immigration Policy post-Brexit does recognise the need for a flexible immigration policy, proposing the issue of visas for those coming to the UK, from all parts of the world, to fulfil specific economic needs.
But one proposal has caused particular concern, the suggestion that there should be a £30,000 salary threshold for skilled workers. For agriculture, food production, fish processing, and hospitality, amongst others, this would present a significant challenge. Average salaries in these sectors are well below that level, and given their historic dependence upon migrant labour, it is difficult to see how they could operate at current levels if such a measure were introduced.
Fruit farmers in Perthshire and hoteliers in the Highlands are already facing difficulties in recruiting Eastern European workers, even before we have left the EU. This has more to do with the recovery of economies in countries like Poland, and the attractiveness of jobs elsewhere such as in Mediterranean countries, than it is to do with immigration policy. But any additional restriction on these migrant workers coming to Scotland would clearly be unwelcome, and exacerbate an already difficult situation.
Unsurprisingly, the SNP’s response has been to demand the devolution of immigration. But such an approach is fraught with difficulty. I can think of no international precedent for a relatively small, highly-populated country like the United Kingdom having a differentiated immigration policy within its borders. Inevitably this would require some control of population movement within the United Kingdom, and present real difficulties for UK-wide employers moving staff from one part of the country to another. It would present a disruption to the smooth working of the UK internal market. A better approach is to find a flexible immigration system that works for every part of the UK.
The needs of Scottish business in this regard are no different. Perthshire farmers face the same issues as those in East Anglia, and those in hospitality in the Highlands have the same challenges as their counterparts in North Wales or Devon.
Specifically, the £30,000 salary threshold for skilled workers has to be addressed, either removed altogether, or made flexible to take account of the needs of different economic sectors. The currently proposed mandatory requirement for migrant workers to wait for a year, the so-called “cooling off period”, before they return to the UK, should be removed.
While the seasonal agricultural work route pilot scheme is welcome, capping the numbers at 2500 per year is simply too restrictive to meet the needs of the sector, and a permanent scheme needs to be put in place as soon as possible, with an expanded quota. Current proposals for the leave to remain under student visas to last for just three years needs to be extended to at least four years to prevent Scottish students being unfairly treated.
The reality is that, with an aging population and a relatively lower birth rate than the rest of the UK, Scotland does need immigration. Conservatives should not be afraid of highlighting the real benefits that migrant workers can bring, both economically and socially.
Go back far enough, and we are all immigrants. The Frasers were a Norman-French family offered lands around Inverness by a Scottish king. Subsequent waves of immigration – from Ireland, from Italy, from Pakistan, and from Eastern Europe, have benefitted us economically, and enriched our society. Catholic churches and schools across the county have seen their numbers swelled by the most recent influx of Polish immigrants over the last two decades. We are, and should be, a welcoming society.
Despite this, Scotland has been relatively unsuccessful in attracting immigrants compared to other parts of the United Kingdom. There will be both economic and social reasons behind this trend – the pull of London and the South-East of England will always be significant. But we do need to look at the policy levers we have here to attract more to settle north of the Border, and indeed to offer Scotland as a home for those from England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Whatever we do with immigration policy, we need to accept our responsibility to develop skills within our own population. The NHS needs more trained staff, but the suggestion that we can fill vacancies by taking workers from other, poorer, countries is a morally questionable one. It was, after all, Nicola Sturgeon when she was Health Secretary who cut the number of training places for nurse and midwives, and we are still living with the consequences.
The post-Brexit world is going to need not just a flexible approach to immigration across the UK, but a greater focus on utilising the skill base within our own workforce. Scottish Conservatives look forward to working with business and our public services to ensure that we have the right people in place in future to ensure our economic success.