The looming coronavirus threat can be viewed as a natural phenomenon, but another threat is entirely man-made and that’s the UK Government’s changes to immigration policy. For the Secretary of State for Scotland, Alister Jack, totalk about “genuine difficulties” is as blasé as referring to coronavirus as a seasonal flu. It’s causing genuine fear and alarm across broad swathes of Scottish business and the effects will be felt by us all.
It’s for that reason that business leaders have spoken out with the care sector highly critical and a leading tourism body describing it as the “biggest threat” to the industry. But it’s not just the care sector or hospitality that’s threatened. I was recently meeting with a senior representative of the security industry who was at a loss to know how they’d cope.
The points-based system and salary cap are woefully inadequate for them. Who will do that work? Anyone attending a major event and seeing staff in yellow jackets will note that many are foreign, as are those standing watching in stores or building sites. “Look aboot ye” and you’ll see what I mean.
Who’ll replace them? Is it to be the same folk that are supposed to be coming tumbling out of our peripheral schemes to care for the elderly or pick the crops? Many can’t or won’t do it and others either wouldn’t be wanted or wouldn’t qualify. There is, to be fair, an issue to be addressed for some with a dependency culture but it’s complicated and requires education and support. But, for most, it’s simply impossible due to health or circumstances and they just can’t or won’t be there.
Alister Jack’s pejorative comments about “cheap migrant labour” may apply to some sectors but by no means to all. In any event, it’s his Government that presides over employment law and has the power to improve, not just mitigate working conditions, as well as wages.
Moreover, suggestions that it was all about ”access to our NHS and benefit system” was utter nonsense. For these are the people working long hours, doing multiple jobs and eager to improve themselves. Most are young and fit and it’s work and a future that they want, not a lifetime on social security. All the statistics confirm what he caustically rejects which is that they contribute far more in tax, even on their limited earnings, than they ever draw down in benefits.
Crops to be left to rot?
That was brought home to me when visiting an agricultural business in my constituency. Skilled workers who had been here for many years had departed. A loss to them and the wider community. Others who remained were primarily from the EU and earned reasonable wages though doubtless they worked hard for it. But the figures of £21,000 to £23,000 still fell short of the salary cap.
Where is labour to be sourced from? It’s decades since “tattie howking“ or “the berries” passed from our vocabulary. The agricultural work, as with the care and security sectors, has long since become a migrant fiefdom. Are the crops to be left to rot, the infirm to fend for themselves and sites to guard themselves?
Scotland needs a Secretary of State who speaks up for the country’s interests. Being both lackadaisical and pandering to prejudice just doesn’t cut it. For there are options. As my colleague Stuart MacDonald MP confirmed last week from a report he had commissioned from a highly reputable consultancy, other countries manage to provide for specific geographical or regional needs with dispensation and variation on the standard immigration policy.
Demographic time bomb
It’s not just in Australia and Canada – where provision is made for the requirements of South Australia and Quebec, which are distinct from the bigger draws of New South Wales and Victoria or Ontario and British Columbia respectively – that this is carried out.
Even smaller and less populated countries such as Switzerland and New Zealand allow for regional flexibility. So, it’s the lack of political will rather than a lack of a political way. Yet it’s potentially catastrophic for business sectors and communities.
As I reminisced with my agricultural hosts, I can still remember the “tattie holidays” but just as those days have passed, so have many of my schoolmates left their native land. Most Scots can tell a similar tale. The consequence is not just in loss and ennui but in a demographic time bomb. We just don’t have the labour pool to provide for our needs. We need people and those who were coming, whether from the EU or Africa, were doing a grand job and making our communities more vibrant. That’s why we need a Scottish immigration system – with or without independence.
Kenny MacAskill is SNP MP for East Lothian