The new coalition government has announced a temporary cap on the number of skilled non-EU immigrants entering Britain, ahead of permanent restrictions due to be introduced in April of next year.
Immigration was a big issue with many voters south of the Border, even though it was not until after the election that senior Labour figures such as Ed Balls recognised the potency of popular concern. There can be little doubt that areas of high immigrant concentration in English cities have created stresses on housing and welfare departments and bred resentment.
But in Scotland the incidence of such concentration has been rare, while employers have appreciated the greater access and availability of overseas workers in recent years. What such workers from Eastern Europe in particular may lack initially in command of English has been more than made good by their enthusiasm for work, their desire to earn and by a level of application that is not always found among indigenous workers here. Migrant workers have also shown a willingness to take on jobs that many in the domestic labour force regard as inferior or unacceptable. The lack of incentive for indigenous workers has been made worse by a welfare system that can undermine the motivation to take paid employment.
So while controls on immigration might prove popular in some of the English inner cities, here in Scotland, with immigration reckoned at little more than 2 per cent of the population overall, the issue has not had the same resonance.
Little wonder, then, that the cap on numbers has been attacked by Scottish Government and opposition politicians, with a business leader urging that it should be made easier for "highly-skilled" people from outside the EU to get work permits. David Lonsdale, CBI Scotland's assistant director, points out that while introducing a cap for work permits may be a valid way of balancing the need for skilled workers with the social pressures caused by immigration, it is important that sufficient flexibility is built in so that highly-skilled people who are essential to work being done in Scotland can get a work permit more readily. Flexibility is the watchword here. In addition to setting any cap at the right level, business in Scotland would like the system to be adjustable to meet changing economic circumstances. The Federation of Small Businesses has also expressed concern, describing the cap as "the economics of the sixth form" that could stop businesses from filling vacancies during times of high demand. Where there is not a problem of social concentration as in Scotland, the government must recognise that where there are employment opportunities and workers from Eastern Europe and other countries outside the EU with the skills and enterprise to meet them, some flexibility must be allowed. Imposing a blanket cap would be inappropriate here, and counter-productive.