Scottish Ministers, employers and stakeholders have, over many years, warned the UK Government about the impact of recklessly pursuing a hard Brexit, particularly during the height of an unprecedented pandemic.
We – and many others –also warned the UK Government of the consequences of ending of freedom of movement, and the stark limitations of the current UK immigration system.
On petrol station forecourts and across our economy and society, we now see the results.
People queuing for hours in the search for petrol. Our world class food and drink industry struggling to export their produce. Our universities frozen out of international research collaboration. Our manufacturers and our service companies hit by the deplorable decision to press ahead with Brexit in the midst of the greatest public health crisis of our times.
In particular, the abrupt end of free movement of people has left Scotland, and the whole of the UK, with no flexibility to address the impacts of labour shortages in vital sectors of our economy, most clearly seen in the current disruption to fuel supplies caused by a lack of HGV drivers.
The UK Government’s proposal of a three month visa route for 5,000 additional hauliers and 5,500 poultry workers is inadequate.
Once we factor in the time needed to establish such a scheme and to recruit individuals it is likely to be mid-November before we see any additional hauliers, and it is difficult to see how attractive coming to the UK for a mere six to seven weeks of work is likely to be.
That is why we have called this week called for substantial change – for the UK Government to immediately introduce a new Temporary Worker Route to address the acute labour shortages being felt across the economy and our health and social services.
This should be implemented immediately, extended to 24 months, with the opportunity for workers to switch to other visa routes once they are in the country and have employment.
We have also called for the Scottish Government and Parliament to have a formal role in shaping the Scottish Shortage Occupation List.
And there must be a review of excessive visa fees - the UK Government’s immigration fees are among the most expensive in the world. The create an insurmountable barrier for too many workers and businesses and Scottish Ministers have repeatedly called for them to be reduced.
The UK Government’s refusal to introduce such schemes has resulted in high levels of vacancies in hospitality, in distribution, in social care, in construction, in food production, in agriculture, and in tourism.
We are realistic: even if the Temporary Worker Route was applied, it would alleviate but would not end that damage. It would not prevent the negative consequences for Scotland of being forced to give up the benefits of EU membership.
Will the UK Government listen to Scotland?
The Scottish Government has asked to speak to the UK Immigration Minister Kevin Foster no fewer than 19 times to talk about these and other matters.
On 19 occasions we were rebuffed. The UK Government’s unwillingness to hear and act on the advice of the Scottish Government is clear.
Mr Foster has finally agreed to meet me.
I will reiterate Scotland’s distinct immigration requirements – which are quite different from the rest of the UK’s – and the urgency of these changes to the Immigration Rules to ensure Scotland’s businesses and public services can access the skills they need. I will highlight the need for sustainable solutions rather than sticking plasters which will last mere weeks.
I will also make clear that Scotland should not be suffering in this way. Scotland did not vote for Brexit.
That vote has been ignored – instead the UK Government decided on a hard Brexit and a distant relationship with the EU at a time when collaboration and cooperation have never been more important.
Pursuing Brexit during the pandemic did not have to happen. Last year, the EU made it clear it was willing to offer the UK an extension to the Brexit transition period. The Scottish Government published detailed evidence setting out why, given the impact of the COVID crisis, that extension should be agreed. It was, again, ignored.
Brexit is at odds with the internationalist vision that we set out in the recent Programme for Government. It is damaging Scotland’s recovery from the COVID pandemic. It is a deplorable situation.
We believe Scotland’s future as a nation should not be damaged by a Brexit it did not vote for and a Brexit deal the Scottish Parliament did not consent to.
It should be decided by the people of Scotland in a referendum on independence, so Scotland can rejoin the European Union and begin to repair the damage and dislocation that we are seeing unfold day by day.
Angus Robertson MSP is Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture
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